Jack Lemmon: The Front Page (1974)

The Film and Performance:
Film remakes are often a risky endeavor, especially if the original material is beloved and respected. The Front Page originated as a comedy play in 1928 and was particularly admired for its street-smart dialogue and satirizing of the press. The play inspired numerous cinema adaptions, most notably the 1940 version His Girl Friday starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. By 1974, The Front Page was a play that wasn’t urgently in need of yet another remake. Billy Wilder’s interest in the project stemmed from him personally identifying with the content of the film. He grew up as newspaperman, citing it as a respectable stepping stone for his career. However, Wilder was famously known for having disdain for film remakes, once being quoted as saying, “I’m against remakes in general because if a picture is good, you shouldn’t remake it, and if it’s lousy, why remake it?” It is for the reason of going against his own ideology as to why The Front Page ought to be considered one of Wilder’s poorest films.

The film is simple enough in its storyline, which centers on Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) who decides he is done with the newspaper business and is quitting his job to be married to his fiancé (Susan Sarandon). This decision especially upsets newspaper editor Walter Burns (Walter Matthau), who believes he is losing his most valuable reporter. This decision is juxtaposed with a high-profile execution that all newspapermen are determined to cover. However, this high-tension evening is further complicated when the convict escapes from death row. Immediately Walter seeks to have Hildy cover the story-of-the-century as they both manipulate the circumstances of the evening to give themselves a story too big to ignore.

In order for a film like The Front Page to work, it must rely on physical comedy, as the play does on the stage. Satire often depends upon physical comedy, but its exaggeration fuels the dialogue. Therefore, when a film fails to provide that comedy style, it crafts the overall film as flat. That is one of the most glaring flaws of The Front Page: Billy Wilder’s refusal to give a satirical film the narrative style it so desperately needed. The film needed exaggeration in order to support its script, but Wilder chose to be too careful. While the film functions off lunacy, it becomes obvious to the viewer that this lunacy is carefully packaged and controlled. As a result, the film became a caricature of itself, losing the essence of what it was supposed to represent. The comedy of the film is then reduced to cheap laughs that takes its audience for granted by assuming they wouldn’t be aware of the film’s comedy unless it is bluntly spelled out to them where and when to laugh. When comedy is implemented in a film in this manner, it becomes forced, thereby becoming stale in its delivery. That is precisely why The Front Page lacks any genuine comedy.

A large problem with the comedy of this film is due to its poor framing. The film needed to be loud and obnoxious in order to create an environment where the lunacy of the film could function. Part of what makes a successful satire work narratively is when the film’s setting compliments the events of the film. The Front Page‘s main premise is about the press willing to do anything for a sensational cover story. This would presumably mean that the setting and demeanor ought to be both desperate and cutthroat, which could elicit tremendous dialogue delivery with such competing emotions. However it is evident with how the film is crafted that Billy Wilder was determined to have the audience hear every spoken word of dialogue in the film. The Front Page should be a film where dialogue is overlapping, conversations turn into shouting matches, and personalities clash. Instead, Wilder’s framing of the film is too nice. Characters speak in turn and there are no dialogue interruptions, which causes the film to fail in its representation. This becomes increasingly obvious as characters yell at each other, but only shout or retort after their adversary has finished saying their piece. Billy Wilder assumed that by interjecting harsher language into the dialogue, it would give the film a gritty, real portrayal of newspaper reporters, but he failed at adequately selling this image.

Furthermore, by controlling the comedy style Wilder inadvertently controlled the performances within the film. Typically a Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau film provides a film viewer with an expectation of personality clashes that result in comedy. The duo was known for this style of comedy and when it isn’t delivered in the film, it is actually a letdown. While Lemmon and Matthau’s scenes together are the better parts of the film, their actual chemistry is nonexistent. Rather than being antagonistic towards each other, their performances bounce off each other too smoothly, indicating a mutual respect for each other that contradicts the plot of the film. In regards to the film’s other characters, there needed to be some exposition added to the film to give them some dimension. Instead they, like all other characters within this film, were reduced to mere character-types who are cliché in their portrayals. These character-types are crafted within the film to provide obvious laughs and initiate equally obvious circumstances. This links back to the film desperately needing genuine physical comedy to compensate this.

However, the more glaring flaw of the film was the supporting role by Carol Burnett. Known for her exuberant comedy style, Burnett was given the film’s sole dramatic role. Her poor performance isn’t necessarily her fault, but more of Billy Wilder’s, whose framing of her character made her appear over-the-top and nearly hysterical in her dialogue delivery. Her character is supposed to be the film’s moral compass, which is framed in irony considering she is a prostitute. Burnett is horribly miscast in this film for the simple fact that she isn’t believable in the role. Her performance is devoid of any raw emotion that allows the character to convey the moral message of the film of seeing an individual beyond being a mere headline. Instead, she is loud and obnoxious in the wrong way, to which the audience is relieved when she finally exits the movie. Carol Burnett, herself, was so displeased with her performance that she famously apologized for it on a plane’s intercom after the airplane showed The Front Page during its flight. It’s not that Burnett’s acting was poor, but more like Billy Wilder failed to inject her role into the film effectively at all. He kept everything within the film too neat and nice except for her performance, which he clearly wanted to be represented as uncouth. This was a poor decision on the part of Wilder, not Burnett.

By Billy Wilder’s own admission, he regretted his decision to remake this film. The Front Page was Wilder’s first unprofitable film since 1963’s Irma la Douce. Wilder failed to recognize that in order for his films to have relevancy and to have impact, they needed to challenge audiences. That is what made Wilder’s earlier films impactful, because they challenged or defied societal norms. Wilder’s later films, especially The Front Page, lacked any daringness to compete with the gritty realism of film that was prevalent in the 1970s. His decision to make The Front Page a period film wasn’t a poor decision, but what was poor was his choice to frame everything nicely. It caused the film to appear horrendously dated and also was unfunny in all of its content. It is unfortunate to see a legendary director such as Billy Wilder stumble, but The Front Page had no discernible qualities that could lend a positive reception towards it. The film was a huge disappointment.

The Film:

The Performance:

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