The Front Page must be one of the most-told fictional stories in American popular culture. The tale of two newspapermen and a convicted murderer, it is fast-paced, cynical, and in most productions very funny. It first took the form of a stage play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, but was quickly snapped up by Hollywood. Since then, as well as numerous direct remakes, it has been adapted by varying the gender of the protagonist and by moving the setting from print to television; in addition to films there have been new stage versions and even a musical. Its many cinematic retellings have starred leading figures of American cinema such as Pat O'Brien, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, and Kathleen Turner. Below is a list of major manifestations.

The Front Page - the play (1928)

Set in the press room of the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago, the main characters are cynical editor Walter Burns who'll do anything to get a story or to get his own way, and Hildebrand "Hildy" Johnson, a reporter with slightly more moral scruples. Johnson is engaged to Peggy Grant and hopes to quit the paper and move to an advertising job in New York. While covering the imminent execution of convicted cop-killer Earl Williams, they discover the incompetence of Sheriff Peter B. Hartman and get a good picture of the corruption and opportunism of the police, the mayor and the newspaper industry. The anarchist murderer Williams, whose execution is arranged according to political expediency and timed to make the first editions of the papers, emerges as one of the more sympathetic characters along with his friend Molly Molloy who begs for his life.

Both writers worked as journalists in Chicago, and Walter Burns was based on real-life editor Walter Howey. The play was their first collaboration, and they decided whose name should come first by tossing a coin. Ben Hecht (1894 - 1964) wrote for a downmarket morning paper; he went on to become a very successful screenwriter (Hawks's Scarface, Hitchcock's Spellbound, Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends, Charles Vidor's A Farewell to Arms, and many more) as well as a novelist, director, playwright and script doctor. Charles MacArthur (1895 - 1956) was a dandyish figure who wrote for a sophisticated evening paper and was the inspiration for a number of film characters including William Powell's role in Double Wedding; after The Front Page he did some screenwriting (including work on William Wyler's Wuthering Heights) as well as writing more plays.

The first production was directed by George S. Kaufman, also a playwright (The Cocoanuts for the Marx Brothers), a theater producer and drama editor of the New York Times. He forced an extensive re-write of the play, and may have come up with the title, though the extent of his involvement is hotly disputed. The result was a huge Broadway hit. It premiered at Broadway’s Times Square Theater on August 14, 1928, and ran for 276 performances (when 100 was a good number); soon it was also produced in Chicago and Los Angeles. The script was quickly published in hardback and became a big seller; it was the first theatrical script to sell so well.

At the time it was controversial for its bad language and references to prostitution, peeping Toms, and other disreputable topics, as well as its portrayal of the newspaper industry. Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, tried to have the play suppressed - despite a good initial review from the paper's critic J. Brooks Atkinson. 11 days later, Atkinson wrote a savage attack on the play, probably under Ochs's orders, and the paper's attorney George Gordon Battle] penned an article complaining that the play risked damaging the public esteem of the newspaper industry. Coincidentally, the Times is mocked in the play when a character comments of writing for the paper, "You might as well work in a bank".

Although it's not a literary classic, it helped set the vogue for a more realistic theater, and was appreciated by Tennessee Williams, who said "'The Front Page' took the corsets off the American theater, and made it possible for me to write my kind of play."

Revivals include in London in 1998 directed by Sam Mendes and with Griff Rhys Jones and Alun Armstrong as Johnson and Burns.

The Front Page - film (1931)

Walter Burns: Adolphe Menjou
Hildy Johnson: Pat O'Brien
Peggy Grant: Mary Brian
Director: Lewis Milestone
Adapted by: Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer

The first version on film was directed by Lewis Milestone, probably best known for bringing to the screen All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Of Mice and Men (1939), and who here shows a surprising talent for comedy. It is a very early sound film, technically somewhat creaky but still enjoyable. However, it is very dated in its use of racist, sexist and anti-gay humour and language.

In-jokes added for the film version include characters called George Kid Cukor (a reference to George Cukor) and Judge Mankiewicz (screenwriters Herman J. Mankiewicz and Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

Gunga Din - film (1939)

Starring: Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol.

Based on Rudyard Kipling's poem set in British imperial India, this adventure-comedy is about three soldiers, one of whom is keen to leave the military in favour of married life. Despite its very different setting to The Front Page, it lifts chunks of plot from Hecht and MacArthur, who are credited with the film's story.

His Girl Friday - film (1940)

Walter Burns: Cary Grant
Hildy Johnson: Rosalind Russell
Bruce Baldwin (the Peggy Grant character): Ralph Bellamy
Director: Howard Hawks
Adapted by: Charles Lederer

This is generally reckoned the best version, and in fact one of the best ever film comedies. In a clever move attributed to director Howard Hawks, it makes Hildy Johnson not just a woman but Burns's ex-wife for added sexual tension and comedy. This sets it in the early-1940s genre of "divorce comedy" alongside The Philadelphia Story (1940) and The Palm Beach Story (1942).

Hawks as a director was equally skilled with fast-paced comedies like Bringing Up Baby and with intelligent, tense thrillers like The Big Sleep, and he brings both excitement and brilliantly quick-talking humour to this film. Its star Rosalind Russell is otherwise known for screeching, over-the-top performances, and the film marks her single claim to celluloid immortality.

The Front Page - TV movie (1945)

Walter Burns: Matt Crowley
Hildy Johnson: Vinton Hayworth
Director: Ed Sobol

An early television production by WNBT New York City. Vinton Hayworth went on to play Gen. Winfield Schaeffer in later episodes of I Dream of Jeannie; there isn't much else to say about this.

The Front Page - TV movie (1948)

Walter Burns: Henry Gilbert
Hildy Johnson: Sid James (billed as Sidney James)
Peggy Grant: Maxine Cooper

A British version of the play made for the BBC and starring the great comic actor Sid James.

The Front Page - television series (1949-1950)

Walter Burns: Richard Boone, John Daly
Hildy Johnson: Mark Roberts

Hecht and MacArthur's play was the inspiration for this CBS television series, a run of half-hour episodes mixing comedy and drama. It includes an early role for long-serving character actor Richard Boone (Rio Conchos, The Robe).

The Front Page - TV movie (1970)

Walter Burns: Robert Ryan
Hildy Johnson: George Grizzard
Peggy Grant: Susan Watson

This ABC television movie is based on a Broadway production with many of the same cast, and is narrated by MacArthur's widow Helen Hayes. It is not highly-rated by those who saw it: Robert Ryan was a great actor, but his brutality and world-weariness did not make him a talented comedian. The cast also included Estelle Parsons as Earl Williams's friend Molly Malloy. It was soon superceded by Billy Wilder's 1974 version...

The Front Page - film (1974)

Walter Burns: Walter Matthau
Hildy Johnson: Jack Lemmon
Peggy Grant: Susan Sarandon
Director: Billy Wilder
Adapted by: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond

Billy Wilder was a director skilled at mixing comedy with dark material, responsible for films such as Double Indemnity, Ace In the Hole, and Some Like It Hot. Also, Wilder had worked as a reporter in Vienna and Berlin before coming to the USA. It's no surprise that the result is crude, cynical and great fun. If the film doesn't quite match up to His Girl Friday, this is perhaps because Wilder, Lemmon and Matthau are slightly past their prime, and a certain lack of energy comes from the leads' lugubriousness, but it's still a very entertaining piece of cinema.

The film marks the point where filmmakers were allowed the same freedom as Hecht and MacArthur enjoyed writing for the stage: at last the actors were able to use the same obscenities as the original play. However they weren't entirely faithful to the play; Wilder and his regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond added a number of details. For example, there's a Nixonian quality to the sheriff.

The Windy City - stage musical (1982)

This adaptation of The Front Page comes with music by Tony Macaulay and book and lyrics by Dick Vosburgh. Its world premiere was in London at the Victoria Palace Theatre, with Dennis Waterman and Anton Rodgers, on July 20, 1982, and it closed February 26, 1983. The US premiere came in Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre, Chicago in 1984. It was then staged at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in 1985, starring Gary Sandy, Ron Holgate, and Judy Kaye, a possible try-out for Broadway that never made the transition.

Songs include "Wait Till I Get You On Your Own" sung by Hildy's fiancee, "Long Night Again Tonight" the night before the hanging, Walter Burns's "No One Walks Over Me", and the finale "Windy City". Critical opinion was that the songs were pretty enough, but they didn't add anything to the play and slowed down the narrative thrust.

Switching Channels - film (1988)

John L. Sullivan IV (the boss): Burt Reynolds
Christy Colleran (the reporter): Kathleen Turner
Blaine Bingham (the prospective spouse): Christopher Reeve
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Adapted by: Jonathan Reynolds

Here the story is moved from the newspaper industry to a television newsroom, and following His Girl Friday it's a female star reporter (Kathleen Turner) who wants to leave behind her ex-husband boss (Burt Reynolds) and take up with a hunky millionaire (Christopher Reeve). The result is fast-moving and fun, though not the classic it could have been (Burt Reynolds is no Cary Grant).

His Girl Friday - stage play (2003)

The Howard Hawks film based on Hecht and MacArthur's play was returned to the stage by John Guare, a writer most famous for the play Six Degrees of Separation and his screenplay for Atlantic City. It opened June 5, 2003 at the Olivier Theatre, London, starring Zoe Wanamaker and Alex Jennings and directed by Jack O'Brien, and closed November 22, 2003.

Reviews were good for a fast-paced and funny play.

Other adaptations and uncredited copies

His Girl Friday helped inspire a raft of films and TV programs. The Bruce Willis/Cybill Shepherd television show Moonlighting owed a considerable debt to Hollywood screwball comedy, and on occasion with Shepherd desperate to quit her job paid direct tribute to the film. Julia Roberts/Nick Nolte newspaper comedy I Love Trouble (1994) also drew heavily on 1930s and 1940s newspaper comedies, and the reporter played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) was heavily based on Rosalind Russell's Hildy Johnson.


Main sources:

  • IMDb. http://www.imdb.com/
  • "The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur". Book Rags. http://www.bookrags.com/guides/frontpage/
  • Robert Schmuhl. "The Front Page at 75". Poynter Online. http://www.poynter.org/dg.lts/id.43784/content.content_view.htm
  • Ken Mandelbaum. "The Insider". Broadway.com. April 19, 2004. http://www.broadway.com/print_this_story.asp?CT=8&CI=36900

If you know any other versions, please /msg me.

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