Item No. 1: Vienna-born writer-director Billy Wilder made his name co-writing delightful screwball comedies such as 1941’s Ball of Fire. Item No. 2: Adapted from the 1928 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage play The Front Page, Howard Hawks’ 1940 film His Girl Friday is one of the unassailable classics of the screwball-comedy era. Item No. 3: If anyone had the qualifications to remake His Girl Friday, it was Wilder.
Well, qualified or not, Wilder botched the job.
One of the key elements of His Girl Friday (and great screwball comedies in general) was the clever use of euphemisms to slip outré material past censors. Wilder’s remake of The Front Page dumps the subtle approach in favor of tiresome vulgarity. Worse, Wilder’s remake ditches the best contrivance of His Girl Friday—Hawks’ movie flipped the gender of one of the play’s leading characters, transforming the original Hecht-MacArthur story about feuding frenemies into a crackling love story. Sure, Wilder had at his disposal two leading men with whom he’d achieved great results before, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, but dropping the battle-of-the-sexes angle was a bad call.
As in the original play (Wilder’s movie retains the Hecht-MacArthur setting of the late ’20s), the story concerns gruff newspaper editor Walter Burns (Matthau), who wants his star reporter, Hildy Johnson (Lemmon), to cover the impending execution of a political revolutionary. Alas, Hildy has picked this day to quit the journalism business and get married, so Walter unscrupulously manipulates events to keep Hildy working. Meanwhile, the revolutionary escapes and seeks refuge in the courthouse newsroom, so Hildy shifts from covering a story to hiding a fugitive.
In any incarnation, the Hecht-MacArthur script is filled with wonderful zingers, but Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond dilute their adaptation with pointlessly crude additions. For instance, journalists remind a hooker (Carol Burnett, miscast and terrible) that if she hits the streets for money, doing so will cause “a lotta wear and tear on your ass.” She replies with equal sophistication, calling them “shitheels.” Elsewhere, Hildy excoriates Walter by saying, “The only time you get it up is when you put the paper to bed,” and Walter says that if Hildy takes a job writing ad copy, he’ll be a “faggot.”
One cannot impugn the film’s technical execution, since Wilder uses limited sets effectively and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth gives the picture a fine polish; similarly, the Lemmon/Matthau bickering-buddies routine was among the smoothest in the business. But so what? All of this good effort was put in the service of a poorly conceived and totally unnecessary retread of material that, in at least two previous incarnations (the original stage play and the Hawks film), was already considered classic.
The Front Page: FUNKY