'The Front Page', the famous stage comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, was based on their own experiences as reporters in the 1920s for two of Chicago's most cut-throat newspapers. Ben and Charlie worked for two different newspapers, but they weren't rivals: MacArthur wrote for an (upper-class) evening newspaper and Hecht wrote for a (working-class) morning tabloid, so their readerships didn't overlap. When they wrote 'The Front Page', the co-authors literally flipped a coin to see whose name would be listed first: Hecht won. After the play's success on Broadway (and as a film), they continued to recycle the plot for uncredited remakes: the adventure film 'Gunga Din' copies some of its plot and characterisation from 'The Front Page'.
This hardy perennial has been filmed and remade many times, most interestingly as 'His Girl Friday', in which the role of star newsman Hildy Johnson is rewritten as a woman. There's even been a musical version, 'Windy City', which I saw onstage in London. (I didn't much fancy it.)
Charles MacArthur was one of the great characters of Broadway and Hollywood, and quite a few screenwriters of Hollywood's golden era used Charlie as the inspiration for colourful male leads in screwball comedies (such as the character played by William Powell in 'Double Wedding'). Ben Hecht's films were banned in Britain during the 1950s, due to his controversial comments on the Palestine issue. The hilarious film 'Gaily Gaily' is inspired by Ben Hecht's early days as a Chicago newspaperman.
The 1970 television production of 'The Front Page' brings absolutely nothing new to the newsroom. Nowadays, when all of the other film versions are available on video, this low-budget 1970 production is totally unnecessary: in 1970, it at least had the merit of bringing this American stage classic to a pre-VCR audience. For modern viewers, the only unique aspect of this version is a brief prologue by Helen Hayes, who was Charles MacArthur's widow ... and she traded on that fact for at least three decades. (For my money, Charles MacArthur was the real talent in that family.)
In the lead role of editor Walter Burns (based on legendary Chicago editor Walter Howey), Robert Ryan is a disaster. Ryan was invariably inept in comedy roles, ahd here he's at the bottom of his form. George Grizzard is only marginally better (and slightly effeminate) as Hildy Johnson. Estelle Parsons plays her role on a rising note of hysteria: when her character falls out the window, my reaction was 'Good riddance!'. Throughout, the dialogue has been cleaned up slightly for television, which is a mistake for this particular subject matter. Also, I could have done without the presence of screech-voiced Doro Merande, who was one of the most annoying performers ever to appear in films.
The best performance in this production (which isn't saying much) is given by veteran character actor John McGiver as the corrupt mayor of Chicago (or is that phrase redundant?). McGiver is grossly miscast here. It's always a pleasure to see McGiver at work, but this is not one of his better performances.
I can't recommend this version of 'The Front Page' for any reason, especially as so many far superior versions are available on video. Even Billy Wilder's remake of 'The Front Page' (starring Lemmon and Matthau, much too late in their careers for these roles) is funnier than this tv version. I'll rate the 1970 'Front Page' one point out of 10. Skip this version and watch 'Gaily Gaily': it's hilarious, and it gives a much more accurate depiction of Chicago journalism.
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