“The son of a bitch stole my watch!”
With that bold and beautiful lie, the curtain falls on the last act of “The Front Page.”
Managing editor Walter Burns is hell-bent on seeing his ace reporter, Hildy Johnson, stay in journalism, so he concocts a criminal charge to bring Hildy back to Chicago. Immediately, the audience realizes the ruse of a trumped-up theft will return the reporter to the city — and newspaper — that in his ink-stained heart of hearts, he doesn’t want to leave. The duo’s adventures of bedeviling politicians, revealing love nests, and selling newspapers will continue, edition after edition.
“The Front Page” is the play that never ends.
Journalism: Love It or Leave It?
For 75 years, since its Broadway-opening sensation on August 14, 1928, stage and screen productions of “The Front Page” have dramatized journalistic behavior and misbehavior as the life of an accused (albeit pathetic) killer hangs in the balance.
The play has been called the Rosetta stone of journalism, the key to figuring out the hieroglyphics and high jinks of a strange craft. It’s also in many ways a theatrical Rorschach test. While most journalists and kindred spirits applaud the anarchic antics and comic cynicism involved in covering a big story, others find the irresponsibility and devotion to sensationalism an affirmation of their complaints about the press. To love or to loathe — that is the question.
Though simple in structure and staging, the portrayal of journalists pursuing a life-or-death story is deceptively complex. Burns and Johnson save a condemned man from the gallows, but amid the hilarity, questions arise:The play has been called the Rosetta Stone of journalism.
Is this really how news gets made?
Does competition drive coverage to the exclusion of scruples?
How seriously should anyone take the final product of work so laughably rendered?
Although Walter Burns seems incapable of personal or professional doubt, Hildy Johnson harbors reservations. Strolling into the play intending to leave his newspaper job to get married and join a New York advertising firm, he lectures his Press Room sidekicks:
Journalists! Peeking through keyholes! Running after fire engines like a lot of coach dogs! Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them what they think of Mussolini. Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park. A lot of lousy, daffy buttinskis, swelling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys! And for what? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ll know what’s going on.
Hildy’s fulminations are funny and typical of the top-of-the-lung dialogue throughout “The Front Page.” They also help establish the play’s dramatic tension. Try as he might to free himself from his all-consuming work for the seeming bliss of married life as an ad exec, journalism keeps luring him back. It’s a business he both hates and loves, with the ambivalence animating all three acts.
Grumblings from the Times
In his theater critic days at The New York Times, Frank Rich referred to “The Front Page” as “one play that will never receive a negative review in a newspaper.”
How The New York Times — which one of the Chicago reporters in the play quit because “You might as well work in a bank” — handled the new Broadway hit became a mini-drama in itself. Lead reviewer J. Brooks Atkinson extolled the “loud, rapid, coarse, and unfailing entertainment” of “a racy story with all the tang of front-page journalism” in his immediate response for next-morning readers.
But 11 days later in a centerpiece essay for the Sunday drama and music section, Atkinson calls the “grossness of the dialogue distasteful.” He has also changed his mind about the verisimilitude of the reporters’ lingo: “‘The Front Page’ smites the ears roundly with the argot of the gutter. Quite apart from its authenticity, which may be disputed, it adds a fresh peril to casual playgoing for purposes of entertainment.”
Why the high-decibel criticism and sudden change of opinion? Did Atkinson have second thoughts of his own, or were they suggested to him? What’s known is that Adolph Ochs, the publisher of the Times, hated the portrayal of the press in “The Front Page” and sought to have it suppressed. Unsuccessful at that, he had the paper’s attorney, George Gordon Battle, write a lengthy signed editorial, “Stage Profanity Again Under Fire,” which appeared two Sundays after Atkinson’s revisionist assault.
In his theater critic days at The New York Times, Frank Rich referred to “The Front Page” as “one play that will never receive a negative review in a newspaper.”In the piece, Battle worried that “the newspaper profession” was in jeopardy of losing public esteem: “If these attacks upon the press in the guise of dramatic representation are allowed to continue unanswered, and even approved, by the representatives of the press, inevitably the public will believe them to be true. The result will be increased distrust in the truthfulness and reliability of the press in general.”
The Ochs-Battle effort to kill interest in “The Front Page” failed. Even before Battle’s editorial appeared, the play’s producer, Jed Harris, was featured on the cover of Time, trumpeting the “new season’s first hit. . . full of sound and flurry.” Success on Broadway — 276 performances at a time when 100 shows were considered respectable — quickly resulted in productions elsewhere, including Chicago and Los Angeles.
Ironically, one Times staffer took particular delight in the laughter coming from Times Square Theatre during the play’s initial run of eight months.
Playwright and wit George S. Kaufman also served as the paper’s drama editor throughout the 1920s. Harris asked Kaufman to try his hand at directing, “The Front Page” being Kaufman’s first of many triumphs. If Ochs and Battle were worried about “the newspaper profession” and how it was perceived, their concern, it would seem, didn’t extend to potential conflicts of interest.
Kaufman’s involvement in the “The Front Page” was critical to its success. When fledgling dramatists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur approached Harris with the draft of a play that drew on their experiences as Chicago reporters circa 1920, the producer saw many possibilities.
And several problems.
According to Harris in his memoir, “A Dance on the High Wire,” he angered Hecht and MacArthur when he told them: “We are going to have a really great show. All we have to do is throw out the second and third act, and start from the end of the first act.”
Despite threats that the duo would take their play to another producer, Harris explained the need for “a single line of action” to hold the scenes together, even proposing “some crooked device” to end Act III and the play — as it turned out, the putatively purloined watch. The theme, in his bold formulation, was “once you get caught in the lousy newspaper business you can never get out again.”
How extensively Kaufman personally revised the original script is unknown, but Broadway historians trace the fast pace and overlapping dialogue to techniques Kaufman used in earlier comedies he’d written, including “The Cocoanuts” for the Marx Brothers. Harris even credits the novice director with coming up with the play’s title, a matter of continuing dispute.
As might be expected, neither Hecht nor MacArthur conceded any authorship to Kaufman for “The Front Page.”
What became readily apparent, however, was the work’s dramatic impact on this country’s stagecraft. “‘The Front Page’ took the corsets off the American theatre, and made it possible for me to write my kind of play,” remarked Tennessee Williams.
From Stage to Page to Screen
The play’s first Broadway run set the stage for what turned out to be a multi-media future. A New York publisher rushed a hardback reader’s edition to bookstores across the country. Its popularity (three printings the first three months, with three more the first year) made it the first theatrical script to sell well as a book in America.
With its vivid characters and fast-paced wisecracking, “The Front Page” was a natural for Hollywood’s new innovation, “talking pictures.” The first of four major-studio adaptations of the play came out in 1931, featuring Pat O’Brien as Hildy and Adolphe Menjou as Walter. Nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture, the film’s popularity helped spark production of several other movies focusing on newspaper life lasting over a decade.
In 1940, noted director Howard Hawks took “The Front Page” and transformed it into “His Girl Friday.” Retaining the basic storyline of ace reporter and devilishly-creative editor trying to beat the competition by hiding an escaped criminal, Hawks made Hildy a woman (Rosalind Russell), who was recently divorced from Walter (Cary Grant). Hildy plans to remarry and leave journalism — but, of course, the big story intervenes.
In “Hawks on Hawks,” the director explains the celluloid sex change. Recalling that he told a dinner party “the finest modern dialogue in the world came from Hecht and MacArthur,” he took two copies of “The Front Page” and had a woman read Hildy’s lines, while he spoke Walter’s. Hawks found the exchange more lively and promising.
“See, ‘The Front Page’ was intended as a love affair between two men,” Hawks declared. “I mean, they loved each other. There’s no doubt about it.”
In either rendering, however, the true journalist’s love of a breaking story is really more indomitable than any interpersonal association. Hildy and Walter hear different voices of the same calling. How they respond to those individual voices keeps them together.
Even with the success of “His Girl Friday,” Hollywood wasn’t finished with “The Front Page” or “His Girl Friday.” In 1974, Billy Wilder, a reporter in Vienna and Berlin before emigrating to America to make films, paired Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as Burns and Johnson in a scenically stylish re-make of the original play. A new version of “His Girl Friday,” titled “Switching Channels” and featuring a television news setting, came out in 1988.
The various film versions still often appear on television, sometimes with two or three airing consecutively, showing the story’s adaptability. The small screen also made its own use of the original play. Back in 1949 and 1950, CBS created an entire series based on and called “The Front Page.” ABC took advantage of a triumphant Broadway revival of the play in 1969 and 1970 to air a 90-minute special, complete with several members of the New York cast. Helen Hayes, MacArthur’s widow who’d played a minor during six weeks of the revival, served as narrator.
The many uses of “The Front Page” after 1928 attest to its longevity and continuing appeal as a sometimes faithful, sometimes fun-house reflection of press performance. Indeed, the National Theatre in London currently features John Guare’s stage adaptation of “His Girl Friday.” Called “an unusual theatrical hybrid” by its producers, this rendition, which is a box-office success, derives from the original play and the 1940 film.
Like Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Scoop,” there’s something intrinsically telling, farcical, yet true about the portrayal of the press and its waywardness that emerges from the humor of “The Front Page.” The characters Hecht and MacArthur brought to life by using their personal experiences have in the past 75 years turned into enduring stereotypes of journalism. Different times and vastly different technologies notwithstanding, the drive of news competition, the excitement of a big story, and the sense of purposeful fun still animate how journalists think, talk, and act.
The curtain never really falls on “The Front Page.”
Robert Schmuhl is professor of American Studies and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. This article is adapted from a longer study of “The Front Page” in a forthcoming book about Ben Hecht and Chicago. The author can be reached at RSchmuhl@nd.edu.