Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Here as promised is a side-by-side (well, top-by-bottom) comparison of clips from different versions of Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page. Here's the escape of Earl Williams and its aftermath from the first film version of the play, Lewis Milestone's 1931 version with Pat O'Brien (Hildy) and Adolphe Menjou (Walter). Forgive the less-than-optimal picture quality of the clip:

Next, here's the same scene from the 1940 gender-bending remake, Howard Hawks's classic His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell (Hildy) and Cary Grant (Walter). You'll see immediately that Hawks and his editor were heavily influenced by the staging and cutting of Milestone's film, though obviously both versions were influenced by the staging of the original play, and indeed a lot of what both Hawks and Milestone get credit for inventing -- the speed, the overlapping dialogue -- is just carried over from the Broadway original.

If Hawks's movie is better than Milestone's, and I think it is a better movie overall, it's because Hawks's version is more laugh-out-loud funny than the 1931 version; maybe that has to do with the casting of Grant and Russell, who are more natural comedians than Menjou and O'Brien. But you can't underestimate Milestone's work on the 1931 version; at a time when movies were static and stagey, he took a stage play, mostly taking place on one set, and made it move and flow (with fluid camera moves that most 1931 movies wouldn't try to pull off).

Finally, here's the first part of the escape scene as it plays out in Billy Wilder's disappointing 1974 version, with Jack Lemmon as Hildy and Walter Matthau as, well, Walter. There's a lot wrong with Wilder's version -- Lemmon is miscast, and there's a nasty condescending edge to the whole thing -- but the biggest problem is just that Wilder and Izzy Diamond wrote a lot of new dialogue for the movie and most of it isn't very good (a joke about a guy wetting his pants?).

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