Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Front Page (1974) - Funny, Clever, Colorful, Obvious and Corny

The Front Page Poster
"The Front Page (1974).

Billy Wilder, who directed "The Front Page" (1974), never was as widely known among the American public as, say, Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. When you look at his amazing career, which spanned much of the 20th Century, you begin to appreciate the man's brilliance.  There are so many classic films that you probably don't even know are his, either as director or screenwriter: "Some Like it Hot," "Double Indemnity," "Ninotchka," "Sunset Boulevard," "The Lost Weekend," "Stalag 17," "The Seven Year Itch," "Ocean's Eleven," "Sabrina," "Witness for the Prosecution," "The Apartment," the list just goes on and on.  And he didn't even start his career in Hollywood, there are a bunch of German films from the 1930s that also bear his stamp.

Here, Wilder (who also wrote the screenplay with I.A.L. Diamond) is directing two of his favorite actors, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, in a classic tale. Wilder could direct comedy as well as anyone, and Lemon and Matthau were born comedians in the acting sense. This is one of ten pairings of Lemmon and Matthau, and they already have been working together on projects for a full decades now. Their timing together is superb. As you can probably tell from the title, this tale is about newspapermen, but not in the way you probably think.  This looks more at their private lives and the comic escapades that can arise from ... an escaped killer.

The Front Page Jack Lemmon
Jack Lemmon plays a variation on the hyperactive character that he perfected in "The Odd Couple."

In a nutshell, the plot involves reporter Hildy Johnson (Lemmon) telling his boss Walter Burns (Matthau) that he intends to marry widow concert pianist Peggy Grant (Susan Sarandon) and move to Philadelphia. Burns, however, is determined to keep Hildy on the job in order to cover a story about a murderer's execution scheduled for the next day, and he goes to elaborate lengths to make this happen. I am not going to compare this to earlier versions of the story because I think that can be unfair. If you are not going to watch the earlier versions, who cares how good they are in comparison? So, let me just say that this is a fine, almost slapstick comedy that will satisfy anyone looking for a series of one-liners and totally hammy performances by a cast of old pros.

The Front Page Walter Matthau
Walter Matthau plays his usual gruff sharpie with an agenda which he established in "The Fortune Cookie."

This is a gorgeous film to watch and hear. The theme is instantly recognizable, and the cinematography is crystal clear and full of vivid colors. Never underestimate these points in judging a film, they can raise a mediocre film to well above average - not that this was a mediocre film to begin with, because that is not the case.

The Front Page Walter Matthau Susan Sarandon
Susan Sarandon played Hildy's betrothed who is left waiting in a cab throughout the play.

Jack Lemmon takes top billing, but the supporting characters really make this film go. David Wayne as a prissy reporter, Vincent Gardenia as a blustering sheriff, Harold Gould as the sleazy mayor, Martin Gabel who has some of the funniest lines as prison psychiatrist Dr. Eggelhofer, and the boys in the press room come out with the best lines in the whole show. Austin Pendleton as the killer is a bit of let-down, playing it as a poor-man's Woody Allen (who must not have been available), but everybody around him is so busy hamming it up unmercifully that his understatement works well.

The Front Page Carol Burnett Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder directing Carol Burnett, who apparently was a huge fan of Wilder and was determined to work with him.

I'm not so enamored of Carol Burnett's performance. Burnett was able to talk her way into a supporting role because she was a huge television star at the time. Burnett, however, goes way over the top playing a stereotypical floozy and manages to bring the comic proceedings to a screeching halt. In a sense, she takes over the picture for a spell, to its detriment. Carol must have been trying to change her image here, and is badly miscast. Susan Sarandon has an early role as Hildy's fiance, but she quickly fades into the background. Both Sarandon and Burnett have so impact on the course of the proceedings and the outcome that it is easy to overlook them. Putting it charitably, Sarandon and Burnett really are there to provide complications for the two leads as they chew the scenery.

The Front Page Walther Matthau Jack Lemmon
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon make "The Front Page" work.

There are all sorts of in-jokes and topical humor. I noticed some anachronisms - for instance, at one point Jack Lemmon does a James Cagney impression, but Cagney did not make his first movie until a year after "The Front Page" is set. However, "The Front Page" is not the kind of movie such where details make a lot of difference. The Cagney reference may have been added as a homage because, right after James Cagney completed a previous film with Wilder ("One, Two, Three"), he was slated to appear in a stage production of "The Front Page." Unfortunately, that never happened, but maybe the Cagney reference creeped into the script as a result and Lemmon did such a good job with it that they kept it in.

The Front Page Vincent Gardenia Harold Gould
Vincent Gardenia and Harold Gould add some gravitas in their roles of the Mayor and Sheriff, respectively. Gould was getting his fill of period pieces around this time, having been in "The Sting" a year previously.

I am a big Walter Matthau fan, and he does the usual superlative job as the frantic editor. Lemmon is the real problem I have with this version of "The Front Page." At times he seems to be sleepwalking through his role, and he has surprisingly few funny lines. He basically plays Jack Lemmon in awkward situations, alternately moaning and hyperventilating, and the situations aren't awkward enough most of the time for that to really work. One could say that he plays Jack Lemmon, and that he does to perfection, but Hildy Johnson is another matter.

I very much like "The Front Page," even with the quibbles noted above, but there is a lot of totally unnecessary swearing and at times the action slows to a crawl. It is a very good effort that I put just below classic status, one of a series of stylish films of the early 1970s set in the elegant 1920s and 1930s (such as, for example, "The Sting"). See "The Front Page" for the agile teaming of Lemmon and Matthau, the brilliant supporting cast and some very witty dialogue. The soundtrack (Billy May) isn't bad, either. However, don't expect to be bowled over by this version of "The Front Page" the way you might expect, because it just won't happen.


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