(DVD) I love adaptations. Give me an adaptation of a work I’ve previously seen or read, and I’ll always glean something interesting from it. Consequently, I was curious about Billy Wilder’s THE FRONT PAGE, which has its roots in the 1928 stage play of the same name about a Chicago newspaper writer trying to escape the business and get married and the boss who tries to thwart him, all under the umbrella of a hanging. THE FRONT PAGE became a reasonably successful film in 1931, but then Howard Hawks and Charles Lederer gender-swapped newspaper writer Hildy Johnson, threw away half of the script and let the cast riff, and created the classic screwball rom-com HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

Wilder’s FRONT PAGE is a glossier, overtly bluer, more expansive Cinemascope version of the original 1931 film — as you can immediately tell from the gorgeously crafted title sequence — and that is not a compliment. The tightly-wound anarchic feeling of both the original FRONT PAGE and HIS GIRL FRIDAY is what made them feel vibrant, and that’s missing from this production due to its over-produced adherence to the initial film.

While there are a few grander comedic moments and set-pieces, Wilder’s version often feels hum-drum and sluggish, completely antithetical to what one should expect from a FRONT PAGE adaptation. However, it includes one notable bit of interplay between boss Walter Matheu and writer/Wilder regular Jack Lemmon: Lemmon says ‘Cigarette me!’ and Matthau obliges by popping a cigarette into his own mouth and lighting it for his favored employee. He then slips it into Lemmon’s mouth, all while Susan Sarandon — Lemmon’s fiancée — watches. It’s is a cute Hays Code callback back to when swapping cigarettes was shorthand for fucking, but it doesn’t resonate nearly as much as Wilder thinks it does.

While I wish Wilder had extended himself further, he’s never wasted my time. Sure, it’s the lesser of the three major versions, but it has its moments and worth a watch if you’re into scrutinizing the machinations of adaptations.

THE FRONT PAGE’s (1931) opening scene:


THE FRONT PAGE (1974) trailer: