Seattle Courant

Of Newsprint and Typewriters: The Front Page Recalls a Bygone Era

Front Page (1974) Starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau
By Jason McBride
May 31, 2009 09:05PM

A few days ago, I happened upon “The Front Page,” a newspaper farce directed by the late, great Billy Wilder. Not only is it relevant, but it's pretty close to brilliant.

Released in 1974, “The Front Page” stars Jack Lemmon and Walther Matthau in their third collaboration, six years after their onscreen bicker-fest, “The Odd Couple.” Set in 1920s Chicago, “The Front Page” shows newspaper journalism at its dirtiest and funniest.

Lemmon plays Hildy Johnson, a star reporter who’s decided to hang up his press card, tie the knot, move to Philly and join the dark forces of advertising (a temptation that preys on reporters to this day). But Hildy’s editor, the tough, crotchety, etc., etc., Walter Burns (Matthau), has other plans for him. After Burns fails to trick Hildy’s fiancée Peggy (Susan Sarandon) into believing that her future husband is a sex offender, he allows the excitement of a hanging/political scandal to sabotage the marriage. Hildy can’t stay away from the story, even though he and his girl have a train to catch.

There’s a roomful of seasoned reporters in the courthouse pressroom, but Hildy keeps catching the breaks. A hapless cop killer (Austin Pendleton) is set to hang in the morning. He slips through the fingers of an incompetent sheriff, only to end up hiding in a rolltop desk in the pressroom. Only Hildy, Burns and the killer’s trampy girlfriend, Molly Malloy (Carol Burnett), know he’s in there, and Burns wants to keep it that way, at least until he can get Hildy to turn this unlikely chain of events into the exclusive of a lifetime.

So you have a criminal hiding in a desk. The press corps and the police keep coming within a hair’s breadth of lifting the lid before, say, someone jumps out a window, or some other distracting thing happens. It’s good stuff. Lemmon’s comic timing is impeccable, and the banter sizzles and pops, as banter spoken in a twenties urban setting should.

But “The Front Page” isn’t about all that. It’s about the cutthroat newspaper business of the twenties. It’s about an editor attempting to steal a desk with a criminal inside to ensure his paper gets the story. It’s about a bunch of boozy, ne’er-do-well reporters playing cards when they should be working and listening in on each other’s phone calls instead of collecting their own information. It’s about journalists who trash-talk the police and sneak cameras into executions.

When Hildy starts banging out a helluva yarn on an old manual typewriter, cigarette dangling from his lips, the impatient Burns looking over his shoulder, I think of Twitter.

It’s just not the same.

But hey, I would tear my hair out without a delete key. When I type, I might as well be wearing mittens.

If any part of “The Front Page” jerks your tear ducts, it’s the opening credits. It’s a beautiful montage of the printing process. You see fingers sliding individual letters to make a headline, Linotype operators, men sliding monster rolls of newsprint across the floor and the supersonic whir of the printing press, all set to ragtime.

“Hot off the Web” – it’s just not the same.

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Walter Matthau
Jack Lemmon
Susan Sarandon
Billy Wilder

1974