In the interest of full journalistic disclosure—a high-minded modern construct for which Hecht and MacArthur’s freewheeling newspapermen might call me a fairy or worse—I come to The Front Page as a longtime fan of its offspring, the rapid-fire 1940 film adaptation His Girl Friday, with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. Front Page, from 1928, is a stark comic portrait of the press room at the Cook County Courthouse on the night before the county’s final execution by hanging; in the rollicking “golden” age of Chicago journalism, eight print organizations are represented, though none of them very honorably.
Hecht and MacArthur, former Chicago reporters themselves, hold the city’s journalistic tradition in equal parts admiration and disdain, depicting the press corps as lazy, opportunistic, colluding liars and whole-cloth salesmen who occasionally have hearts of gold. The focus is on the Examiner’s Hildy Johnson (PJ Powers, too soft-nosed for a hard-nosed reporter), who’s come by to say his farewells before getting married but gets roped back into reporting—much to his fiancée’s chagrin—when the death-row inmate escapes.
Friday’s screenwriter, frequent Hecht associate Charles Lederer, and director Howard Hawks upped the stakes by turning Hildy from male to female and making her not just publisher Walter Burns’s star reporter, but also his ex-wife. Burns shows up in Front Page (engagingly played by Terry Hamilton), but not until the play’s two-thirds gone. We’re left to focus on the reporters’ racist, misogynistic, dubiously ethical shit-shooting—and in Bowling’s slow-paced, high-volume production, that shit may be historically accurate, but it doesn’t merit above-the-fold placement.