A 1928 Stage Play Still Rings of Truth

Unflattering depictions of journalists and politicians are timely and topical.

Posted Aug 10, 2018

“Journalists?  Peeking through keyholes!  Chasing after fire engines like a pack of coach dogs!  Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them what they think of Mussolini.  Stealing pictures off old ladies to illustrate stories about their daughters who have been raped in Oak Park…. lousy buttinskis…. a newspaperman is a cross between a bootlegger and a whore.”

The reference to Mussolini should indicate that those damning descriptions predate more current characterizations of the media: predate 2018 disparagements by 90 years.

The Front Page was first produced in New York City at the Times Square Theatre in August of 1928.  The Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play struck a chord with audiences – and with theater critics whose newspaper colleagues covered police and other municipal matters.

Over the years, the play has consistently been described as a cynical send-up – a farce.

Yes, true, but there was (and likely still is) considerable truth in the frolic:  Hecht and MacArthur had done time as newspapermen.  They knew the territory, the fodder, and knew that audiences of 1928 might well take to their mockery of scandalmongers and applaud their play’s impertinence as to corrupt city officials.

The Sensational sells – giving readers what they’ll read

In three acts, the play depicts a single evening at the dingy Press Room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building where wisecracking and sarcastic news-hounds wait for the hanging of an anarchist.  He’s a pathetic fellow who these days would be sentenced for involuntary manslaughter. 

The news-hounds’ boredom is broken by irreverence, disdain, derision, and sneering.  They have no qualms about making up stories that will make for headlines, for receptive and mostly gullible readers.  

Some of their skewering, however, would seem wholly warranted:  bumbling police bungle; local politicians are exemplars of malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance – and very pliable morals, along with self-serving electoral ethics. Reporting on the inept and the corrupt, the play’s 1928 news-hounds practice a kind of “gonzo journalism” decades before that genre actually made its mark.

Forward to 2018: The play’s misogyny and pronounced racial disparagements and derogatory terms, along with its ethnic slurs, make the original text so politically incorrect that the many subsequent enactments have altered some dialogue – and would have us enjoy more recent (rightly scrubbed and sanitized) incarnations. 

Still, in those more recent versions and revivals the plot and character interactions of The Front Page have been preserved, along with the playwrights’ skewering of newspaper scandalmongers and political hacks.  The mockery and send-ups are well-worth the preserving – and seem as timely and topical as ever.

But first –

The Play, as debuted in August 1928

The theater critic for the Chicago Daily Tribune found the play to be “an unholy joy.”

The review noted that each of Chicago’s then seven daily newspapers were represented in the play by “the enticing array of newspapermen characters whose analogues are, or have been, within easy memory, part of the daily life and excitement in the mean and depressing Criminal Courts Building.”  Gingerly, the reviewer suggested that the play’s depictions of Chicago’s sheriff and mayor also spoke verisimilitude.

Though taken aback by some of the play’s language, the reviewer acknowledged the “voracious realism of the dialogue.”

The critic for the New York World warned that some of the dialogue might offend sensibilities but added that “the lines spring with absolute vitality from the scene.”

In its August 15, 1928 review, the New York Herald Tribune critic celebrated the playwrights’ “assembling their news-gathering adventures into a swift and rowdy satire.” 

He, too, noted that “the more finicky among the first-nighters were troubled by the prevalence of bad language in the dialogue” – by the epithets, swearing, and “wicked phrases.”  The compensating virtue, he explained, was that the dialogue’s “fidelity” provided “a complete glossary of profanity, useful to those who wish to learn the art.”

In its August 19, 1928 review, another New York Herald Tribune critic opened with this: “The air fairly reeked and crackled with wisdom and inside knowledge at the first night of The Front Page.”  The play delivered “sparks and whiffs of truth” with the “sentimental and sardonic in the same breath.”

The play’s “flavor and bite came across the stage footlights” to provide “amusing and satisfying, contagious, moods only occasionally the product of Broadway theater.”

Despite that audience appeal, the reviewer expressed his reservations about the authors’ “sardonic derision toward the newspaper business.”  Perhaps in defense of his newspaper colleagues, the reviewer took exception to “the implication that all normal human values are thrown overboard when it comes to getting a good story.”  And, by implication, getting the story first, thus making the early edition – regardless of exaggerations and inaccuracies.

Two kinds of “romance”

Ace reporter Hildy Johnson is giving up journalism for marriage to a sweet gal (and a kind of betrothal to her uncle’s advertising business).  His news-hound rivals are skeptical about his impending marital harness, and his being yoked to a desk: “You’ll be like a fire horse tied to a milk wagon.” They tease him, “You’re gonna miss a swell hanging.”

Predictably, events have his reportorial and competitive juices surging.  Instead of leaving the fray behind, for domesticity and tranquility in the staid company of his fiancé and her mother, he is drawn to the drama of the convicted man’s escape and the guns-drawn manhunt.  He is at pains to tell his gal, “Listen, for God’s sake, have a heart, will you?  Something terrific has happened! …. this is the biggest thing that has ever happened…. Good Lord!  Don’t you realize….”

After a flurry of key strikes and a few more whiz-bangs of the upright typewriter’s roll-bar carriage, Hildy again tries to pacify and placate his fiancé: “Now don’t get sore and fly off the handle, darling…. Something terrific’s happened…. it’s the biggest chance of my life.”

The 1931 Film

Faithful to the play’s stage directions, the press room walls need painting, light-bulbs are exposed; the long-stem table telephones are there; the phone connections are made by naming an exchange followed by only four numbers – “operator get me….”

Good hunks of the play’s dialogue and the entire plot line were adopted.  While a number of the racial slurs and ethnic epithets were eliminated, the screenwriters coarsened the treatment of women with contemptuous references and offensive manhandling.

Prior to his succumbing to the temptation of a scoop, Hildy Johnson delivers one of the film’s better lines to Walter Burns, his demanding and unscrupulous editor: “I wouldn’t cover Washington crossing the Delaware for you, even if he did it all over again.”

Guile and Manipulation – seeding doubt and guilt

The suave, wily, unprincipled Walter Burns (played by Adolphe Menjou in an impeccably-tailored three-piece double-breasted suit; with a carnation in the lapel) is intent on bringing Hildy Johnson back into the seedy realm.

To lure him away from his fiancé, the editor pulls a fire alarm – to “smoke” Hildy out of the hotel room his fiancé shares with her mother.  The fire-engine sirens are too tempting, and Johnson gushes: “It’s the movie house.  If only I had a camera with me…. What a chance!”  The reporter races off to cover the tragedy, imaging – savoring – the prospect of reporting on the deaths of hundreds.  When he learns of the hoax, he threatens the editor, who in turn, with a policeman friend at the ready, threatens to have the reporter arrested for turning in the false alarm.  So much for journalism ethics.

Ever unscrupulous, the editor pulls the furious reporter into what may have been a speakeasy where, with follow-on shots of whiskey, the editor recalls his many marital misfortunes.  He contrasts the tethers, confines, and banality of home-life, with the free-wheeling excitement of the lurid and public scandal.

The editor plays on the reporter’s wavering resolve by recalling the fascinations available to those who, “at all hours, have to be on the inside of all the crazy excitement in this town.”

In the play, the editor tries to shame the matrimony-bound-but-conflicted reporter by referring to him as "a puking college boy” and “a drooling saphead.”  The editor goes on to threaten the deserting reporter by declaring that “In a time of war, you would be shot for fleeing your duty.”

Devious to the very end, the various incarnations of editor Walter Burns bid the lovebirds farewell but not before again playing the nostalgia card.  The editor inveigles: “What jams we’ve been in.  What excitement we’ve had.”

The 1940 transformation – a sex change

The lures and inveigling, the good-old-times recountings, are very much a part of His Girl Friday, which is a far more entertaining and witty version of 1928 The Front Page and the 1931 film adaptation of the play.

The ace-reporter Hildy (Hildegarde, instead of Hildebrand) Johnson is played by Rosalind Russell.  The editor intent on keeping his ace on the job is played by the dapper Cary Grant.  His Walter Burns is trying to win her back personally, as well as professionally.  She’s his ex-wife.  She’s engaged to a decent, reputable fellow who is the opposite of Cary Grant’s glib and devious (Svengali-like) Walter Burns.

In its January 12, 1940 review, the New York Herald Tribune observed, “It may be called His Girl Friday… but it’s still The Front Page.  That is just as well, too, for the new screen version of the lusty Hecht-MacArthur newspaper farce is still a staccato and highly-entertaining show.”  Even with the female Hildy, the reviewer found that the new rendition “remains an antic and exciting romanticization of that calling sometimes known as journalism.”

“Invariably hilarious” was the tribute paid to the banter and wrangling between the double-crossing editor, who is a suitor for this Hildy’s hand in marriage (but first the insistent suitor for her fingers at the upright typewriter) and his ex-wife (and ex-star reporter) who is trying to exit “the reporting racket.”

The review delivers a dig at “the reporting fraternity.” With lines that “crackle with comic insult,” it is not just crooked politicians who are made fun of but also the unsuspecting public who are cold-called on wild pretexts or preposterous accusations.

Pauline Kael, The New Yorker’s estimable and preeminent film critic from 1968 to 1991, approvingly noted the film’s pace – its “spastic explosion of dialogue…. the overlapping dialogue carries the movie along at breakneck speed.”

Kael was especially pleased with Cary Grant’s Walter Burns: “Grant raises mugging to a joyful art.  Burns’ callousness and unscrupulousness are expressed in some of the best farce lines ever written…. Grant hits those lines with a smack.”  She credits him with playing for “all-out unsubtle farce… with snorts and whoops.”

A half-way normal, respectable, life

Rosalind Russell’s Hildy has a wary fondness for her ex-husband and soon-to-be ex-editor: “Walter, you are wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way.  I like you.  I just wish you weren’t such a stinker.”

Life with her staid fiancé promises a full retreat to “a half-way normal sort of life.”  She tells her brash fast-talking ex, “You wouldn’t know what it means to be a human being.”

To her decorous fiancé who, initially, finds the editor to be charming, this Hildy rebuts, “Well, he does have charm.  Comes by it naturally.  His grandfather was a snake.”

She’s set on escaping that wily charm, via a conventional marriage.  To delay their departure, again and again, Cary Grant’s Burns manages to have the hapless fiancé arrested on sham charges.  The editor has a sense that a big story might just rival and overtake Hildy’s bend toward domesticity.

In response to the editor’s sabotaging, Hildy delivers this squashing rebuke: “I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just now lighting it up.”

Feminism from 1940: Women’s worth celebrated

The film’s title might be viewed as derogatory these days – given some traits of Robinson Crusoe’s native companion and some dated references to “Our Man Friday.”  But to their credit, the screenwriters for His Girl Friday demonstrate Hildy’s talent for turning a phrase.  She can write compelling stuff, which is rightly admired by her all-male Press Room counterparts.

She knows how to get a scoop – she’s resourceful and clever.  The screenwriters have her resort to astute, purposeful, chicanery.  They have her bribe her way into the accused’s jail cell: She lets a twenty-dollar-bill slip from her purse.  It falls to the jailhouse floor.  Feigning surprise, she then says to the guard, “Oh, that must be yours.  You must have dropped it."

She conducts her interview with leading questions, and puts words in the condemned man’s mouth.  She suggests analogies and metaphors that replace his bewildered fumblings.  Haltingly and then with some enthusiasm, he recites her suggested explanations and storylines back to her.  The picture she helps him paint is certainly far more interesting and profound than his vague notions.

Journalism ethics aside, her means seem justified by what she is able to turnaround for publication.  She works at getting a good story and then bangs out far better copy – more telling copy – than the exaggerations and fabrications the poker-playing slugs come up, with between hands, back at the Press Room.

The 1974 reincarnation

Pauline Kael was not favorably impressed with this version of The Front Page.  In her opinion, “the greatest newspaper comedy of them all” – “something singular and marvelous” – had been turned into “a harsh, scrambling-for-laughs gag comedy.”  She wrote, “the dialogue had been converted into noise.”

Amid what she found to be a “loud production,” Kael liked Austin Pendleton’s portrayal of the anarchist-escapee – with his words “tumbling together in a slight and affecting stammer.”

I, too, enjoyed Pendleton’s performance.  I enjoyed the film’s incarnation of Chicago’s sheriff (Vincent Gardenia), Chicago’s mayor, the messenger from the governor (the reprieve servers in all three film versions), and this film's Press Room slugs.  Walter Matthau’s Walter Burns is appealing in a bulldozing rat-a-tat-tat way.

Hard to imagine this Hildy Johnson (Jack Lemmon) pounding an upright typewriter in journalistic frenzy instead of dashing off with his intended (Susan Sarandon).  But such is the mania the playwrights Hecht and MacArthur conjured up for audiences back in 1928.

That mania took over the 1988 Switching Channels which transports the journalists to the hyped frenzy of cable channel news – but that noisy film left behind all the wit, clever dialogue, apt skewering and charm of the 1928 play.  PG-rated, as in positively gauche.

“All you guys care about are your stinkin’ headlines”

The woman-of-the-night (Molly Malloy, the “tart”) who takes pity on and befriends the accused – to her mortal detriment – rails against the reporters who have misrepresented her in print and who ridicule her in person when she calls them out in the courthouse Press Room.

The objects of her wholly-warranted scorn are the reporters (leg men) from the Chicago daily newspapers who think nothing of phoning in embellishments, gross exaggerations, and complete fabrications.  There are no qualms, no compunction, no misgivings as they spin tales of embarrassment and sin; each caustically and callously doing their wry best to out-sensationalize the others.  They strive for humiliation.

Molly Malloy may be delivering the playwrights’ own “charges” against the newshounds and their unconscionable insinuations and concoctions.  Molly is justifiably offended by their fabrications as to her moments with the accused; intimated intimacies, political and otherwise.

In her initial diatribe, she calls the newspapermen “punks,” and “heels,” and “bastards,” and “greasy souls.”  They are sleazy souls.

To one of the newshounds, in particular, she spews, “If you was worth breaking my fingernails on, I’d tear your puss wide open.”

To them, one and all, she refutes their lies as to the accused and as to her behavior, which was quite decent, humane, even noble:  As to the salacious, she flares, “You made that up! …. Just because you want to fill your lying papers with a lot of dirty scandal, you got to crucify him and make a bum out of me!”

Provoked, Molly Malloy seethes, “It’s a wonder a bolt of lightning don’t come through the ceiling and strike you all dead!”  Sobbing, she intones, “Shame on you!  Shame on you!”

To me, Carol Burnett’s 1974 Molly Malloy seems a bit shrill, and less sympathetic than other portrayals.  (Reportedly, she was not pleased with her performance.)

And, her casting was sadly prophetic: A 1976 gossip item published in the National Enquirer had her express a Molly Malloy kind of wholly-warranted outrage and ire.  In a restrained but moving fashion, she took on the role of libel plaintiff, for real.

Words can wound and hurt

Burnett won at trial, prevailed on the facts and the law at several appeals courts, and eventually agreed to an out-of-court settlement. 

Burnett (whose parents were alcoholics) was able to show that the National Enquirer’s descriptions of her as drunk and disorderly (at a famous restaurant) were false; hurtful and reputation-damaging. 

Her testimony convinced jurors and judges that the aspersions caused her reputation as a spokesperson against alcohol abuse to be damaged; that the false descriptions caused her humiliation, mortification, and shameful emotional and physical distress.

When asked about her reaction to the gossip-column descriptions, she testified that she was “absolutely stunned.”

“I felt very, very angry. I started to cry. I started to shake.”

Asked why she suffered such a reaction, she replied –  

“The article portrays me as being drunk.  It portrays me as being rude.  It portrays me as being uncaring.  It portrays me as being physically abusive.  It is disgusting, and it is a pack of lies.  It hurts.  It hurts, because words, once they are printed, they’ve got a life of their own.  Words, once spoken, have a life of their own. How was I going to explain to my kids, my family, the people I care about?  How am I going to go talk, to do things ... against alcoholism?”

She added, "Most people believe what they read." 

The Sensational sells - giving readers what they want

The stage directions, and the cues to the play’s directors and producers are quite expressive as to the Walter Burns character:

“Beneath a dapper and very citizen-like exterior lurks a hobgoblin, perhaps the Devil himself.”  We are told that he is ruthless, a most ingenious devil, “the product of unmorality.”

To sharpen the point, the playwrights expanded so as to leave no doubt that Walter Burns was to be played as the exemplar of “the licensed eavesdropper, trouble-maker, bombinator, and town snitch, misnamed The Press…. his mind open to such troubles as he can find or create.”

Indeed, Burns wants Hildy to expose manifest, palpable, graft and corruption, with unrestrained verve: “Lam into ’em, Hildy!  Below the belt!  Every punch!”

Yeah, Burns wants the damning painted so vividly that the sheriff and the mayor and all their cronies will be thrown out of office.

But he also knows the reading public, has a sense of what will get their attention.  By courthouse phone, he shouts to his second-in-command back at the newspaper office, hold the presses –

“Listen, I want you to tear out the whole front page…. That’s what I said – the whole front page…. To hell with the Chinese earthquake!.... I don’t care if there’s a million dead…. To hell with the League of Nations!  Spike it!....  No!  Leave the rooster story alone – that’s human interest!”


Much appreciation for the research staff of the Chicago Public Library, its Information Services, and the Library’s newspaper archives and databases.

Special thanks to Janet Valeski of Quinnipiac University’s Arnold Bernhard Library and Amy Bush of the Peter J. Shields Library at the University of California - Davis.

“5001 Nights at the Movies” © Pauline Kael