2 June 2009

'The Front Page'

An evocative opening montage to Billy Wilder’s film of ‘The Front Page’, the great play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Under the opening credits, a newspaper of 1929 is composed, set, printed and distributed. Men arrange lead type on scales, engravers engrave, compositors composit, enormous spools of paper are unloaded from trucks and set on huge industrial machinery that lurches into life.

As so many of the newspapers of the world breath their last and expire, I’m filled with nostalgia.

The production design is also spectacular, an evocation of a lost world, down to the candlestick telephones, desk spikes, industrial typewriters, dusty ceiling fans and heavy oak filing cabinets.

I will gladly spend a couple of hours, anyplace, anytime, in Wilderland.

Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer, a noted psychiatrist from Vienna (of course), is examining the putative cop-killer and communist Earl Williams, watched by Sherriff Hartman:

Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer: Tell me, Mr. Williams, were you unhappy as a child?
Earl Williams: Not really. I had a perfectly normal childhood.
Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer: I see. You wanted to kill your father and sleep with your mother…
Earl Williams: [to Sheriff Hartman] If he's gonna talk dirty...
Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer: When you were in grammar school, did you practice self-abuse?
Earl Williams: No, sir. I don't believe in it. I would never abuse myself or anybody else. I love people. I love all people.
'Honest Pete' Hartman Sheriff of Clark County: I suppose that cop committed suicide!
Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer: Let us get back to masturbation. Did your father ever catch you in the act?
Earl Williams: Oh, my father was - was never home. He was a conductor on the Chicago-Northwestern.
Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer: Very significant. Your father wore a uniform, just like that policeman. And when he pulled out that gun, an obvious phallic symbol, you thought he was your father, and he was going to use it to hurt your mother.
Earl Williams: [to Sheriff Hartman] He's crazy!

Ben Hecht, for whom the word ‘legendary’ seems barely adequate, worked as a Chicago newspaperman in the early century. His reminiscences were published in ‘Gaily, Gaily: Memoirs of a cub reporter in the world’s wildest city’, which is a pretty good description of the contents. I believe it’s out of print, but I found my battered paperback copy at a church fete.

Together with Charles MacArthur, he wrote a play set in this world called ‘The Front Page’, which was wildly successful on Broadway in 1928. It was made into a screwball comedy in 1931 with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien, and again in 1940, when it was transformed into ‘His Girl Friday’ with Cary Grant and the original male character’s part taken by Rosalind Russell.

Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond went back to Hecht and MacArthur’s play and made the film of ‘The Front Page’ and set it back in 1929, when the newspaper was arguably at the height of its influence.

When dialogue between Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon actually name-drops Ben Hecht, we are in an intertextual forest:

Walter Burns: Kid, I woulda thrown you a little farewell party...
Hildy Johnson: Oh, no, no, no! I know your farewell parties! When Ben Hecht was leaving for Hollywood, you slipped a micky in his gin fizz. It took four of us to get him on the California Limited.

More Billy Wilder posts.

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