Thursday, April 2, 2009

1931: How “The Front Page” invented the talkies


My favourite book of last year was The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age, a lavish, huge slab of a book, shiny and sumptuous and unputdownable.

It's an anthology of an almost forgotten imitation of The New Yorker that ran from 1926-35. Clearly, Chicago had every bit as much right to consider itself epicentral to the roaring twenties ethos as New York, yet this beautiful publication never quite took wing at newsstands and was more or less forgotten until the historian Neil Harris, editor of the anthology, came across some bound back issues in a dusty corner of the University of Chicago Library.
Through his book, the magazine comes alive again, in all its ephemeral glory, delighting the reader afresh with its casually masterful illustrations and spiky writing. There are some wonderfully vivid capsule film reviews, bringing alive in an instant the actual experience of going to see these movies when nostalgia or period charm were no part of their appeal whatever ("Pola Negri in Barbed Wire, Lon Chaney in The Unknown and Lewis Stone in The Prince of Headwaiters are pictures well worth the time it takes to see them.")
One reference that made me sit up was this, which appeared in October 1928:
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Chicagoans who may find themselves seized with the urge immediately to acquaint themselves with the text of the current Hecht-MacArthur contribution to the New York stage, The Front Page, are to be accommodated by Mr Pascal Covici, the publisher, now banished to New York from his former headquarters in Chicago.
We do not know at the moment whether the United States Mails will be willing to convey this publication, but we have reason for believing that the Post Office authorities will show no great desire to serve.
Doubtlessly, however, some means will be arrived at to get the book about, thereby making it easy for any person, determined to know more, to spend an unpleasant evening.
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A strange attitude, one might have thought, to take towards a play that not only went off like gunpowder on Broadway, but made Chicago the talk of the town in so doing.
Ah, but there's the rub. This was about Chicago, not from Chicago, and there's more than a dose of resentment here at the inevitable exaggerations and stereotyping that inevitably ensued.
A longer review in the September issue, in which it is described as "Chicago's latest ordeal by drama", made the position plainer:
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It is a play about Chicago journalism by two men, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who hated Chicago journalism and got out of it. It is bawdy and bitter and cynical and blatant...
Staged by Jed Harris, another man who thanks no one for what he's got, and directed by George Kaufman, a gentleman keen enough to see the thing's fierce irony and nimble enough to force it to a disarming pace, The Front Page struck the hedonists of Manhattan as some of the best entertainment they had seen in years. It was so fast and furious, they said, that it must be true. That's the way everything goes in Chicago, that terrific town, they said. Their theatre reporters, some of them Chicago "graduates," told them it was an Exact Reproduction.
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And so on. It is amusing to observe that the Chicagoan adopts roughly the same attitude towards the New York scene as the New Yorkers did to Hollywood; a la-la land that the writer of integrity must sell a portion of his soul in order to embrace, and where authenticity is sacrificed at the altar of material reward.
There may also have been a degree of chivalric loyalty in the magazine's stance: its original editor had been none other than Marie Armstrong Hecht, ex-wife of Front Page creator Ben Hecht, left behind when they divorced and he swapped the newsrooms of Chicago for the bright lights of Broadway.
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A film version was inevitable, but its truest influence on cinema was felt earlier: long before it was actually made, it was the film that invented the talkies. Via the army of New York writers brought in to give the new movies a voice, Hecht and MacArthur's script is the prototypical essence of the snappy, New York style of dialogue and situation that were used as the model for talking pictures.
From this play, and very often in the words of Hecht or MacArthur themselves, who stayed on in Hollywood, comes every subsequent sophisticated comedy and romantic drama, and comes too the rhythms of Capra and Sturges and screwball comedy.
More tangibly, it gave the movies an abiding interest in the activities of newspaper reporters as surrogates for the audience, mediating between the higher and lower strata of society and standing up for unpretentiousness and common sense. In thrillers and horror films, the journalist tracking down clues along with the cops, often breaking the case, usually a smart aleck, and just as often female as male, became standard: Lee Tracy (from the Broadway cast of Front Page) and Glenda Farrell made careers of it. The Front Page is responsible for the savvy reporters and dumb cops in Monogram horrors of the forties as much as for the brittle society comedies with Carole Lombard or the frank boy-girl banter of It Happened One Night.
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The virtues it bequeathed American cinema are all literary virtues, narrative virtues; none of them is cinematic. Making the movie of the play itself seemed almost symbolic, a necessary formality, since by 1931 its influence on the talkies was omnipresent and long-absorbed. I think Lewis Milestone got the director’s job fresh from All Quiet on the Western Front because he was one of those directors who had acquired a reputation for specifically cinematic panache, and therefore might find something new and surprising in the property. (He didn’t much, in the event; Rouben Mamoulian would have been the best bet, I think.)
Still, in script and performance it remains a terrific movie, as energetic and melodic as it ever was, and it is the definitive version of the play. His Girl Friday is a great movie, don't get me wrong, but it's not The Front Page. It's an amusing riff on The Front Page and a film that ingeniously adapts its plot, dialogue and rhythms to those of the screwball genre it inspired: it's a film from the nineteen-forties.
But the 1931 Front Page is The Front Page complete and intact, even allowing for the clever use of sound effects to obscure the offending language of the play's sensational closing line. (And which would not travel intact to the screen until Billy Wilder's likeable remake of 1974.)
Watch the pressroom scenes here; watch this incomparably impressive ensemble cast, each exactly the right man for the part: George E. Stone, Walter Catlett, Edward Everett Horton, Pat O'Brien, and Frank McHugh (as Mac McCue!), just embarking on a career that would basically be a series of variations on the same role, so indivisible from the character did he seem.
Then, of course, there is Adolphe Menjou, an actor for whom précis history seems to have prepared the niche of romantic smoothie-cum-red baiter, but who was in truth one of the most talented actors who ever lived, with a compulsively naturalistic style of delivery and a rare gift for playing unprincipled men of great external sophistication. (Leslie Halliwell, with customary astuteness, calls him "the Walter Matthau of his place and time.") Cary Grant is his usual charming and funny self in Friday - rarely, in fact, will you find him funnier or more charming - but he's not Walter Burns. This is Walter Burns, right here.

To watch this fizzing, rattling, pirouetting film, its dialogue an endless string of bounces and rebounds in which the ball is never allowed to drop for a moment, is to be in at the birth of something, and only occasionally would the subsequent generations get it as effortlessly right as here.