Old Ass Oscars: The Front Page (1931)

By  · Published on February 13th, 2011

Every Sunday in February, Film School Rejects presents a nominee for Best Picture that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Movies presents the movie behind the movie that everyone else knows in an attempt to prove that remakes aren’t necessarily all bad.

Also to prove that the Academy doesn’t always know what they’re doing even when they know what they’re doing.

The Front Page (1931)

Directed by: Lewis Milestone

Starring: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, Mary Brian, and Edward Everett Horton

The Front Page didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture the year it was up for it (the 4th annual). In fact, it didn’t win for Best Actor or Best Director either. By all accounts, it didn’t deserve to win. The expansive Cimarron (which was based off an Edna Ferber novel, just like last week’s Old Ass Oscar entry) won that year, and it’s certainly stood the test of time better.

That’s partially because there was never a better version of Cimarron dedicated to screen. Even the most fervent fans of The Front Page (if you can find one), would probably admit that less than a decade later, a much better version was released.

That version was called His Girl Friday. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

The 1931 version is the same story – a newspaper man (Pat O’Brien) is planning to get married (to Mary Brian) and head for New York City when a man meant to hang (George E. Stone) escapes jail, and said newspaper reporter has to hide him out until he can get the scoop.

Sadly, there are not many great-looking prints left of The Front Page, but the comedy is all still there even if some of it is a bit too quick to catch (or too fuzzy to see). Pat O’Brien plays Hildy Johnson, the reporter who has just violently told his boss where to stick it, thinking he’s on the way out. His situation is sit-com level bad (all that’s missing is the wacky neighbor), but O’Brien plays the character with only one emotional motivation: to talk faster than everyone else and throw mop buckets out windows.

Mary Brian does a fine job of being huffy and impatient, and Edward Everett Horton does his usual act of being foppish and haughty for unnamed reasons. Probably because he can’t tell what Hildy is saying because he’s speaking so fast.

Unlike most entries in this column, there is no ringing endorsement for this movie. There is no call to action, asking movie fans out there to (literally) watch it instantly. The question at this point (80 years in the future) is why to watch the movie at all, especially when there is a better version lurking around out there. It’s a good question.

Here is where things in the remake world get a little tricky. Our modern cynicism makes it easy to dismiss every remake that gets announced while a select few start shouting about The Thing, and how not all remakes have to be atrocious. While that’s true, The Front Page is one of those rare examples of a film that was nominated for Best Picture (out of an admittedly smaller pool considering the Oscars were 4 years old at the time) that was remade with far more skill. The much better remake, ironically, was never nominated for an Academy Award of any kind.

It’s confusing. Is The Front Page proof that the Academy gets it wrong (because it’s an average movie up for Best Picture) or proof that the Academy gets it right (because it lost to a superior film)? Is it proof that not all remakes are bad or is it proof that remakes are inherently less worthy of Oscar love?

Does True Grit negate all of that?

Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe it’s just a fun screwball comedy where every character is essentially too dumb to do their jobs, but none of it really matters. At the end of the day The Front Page is a perfectly funny movie with some interesting performances and a heavy dosage of nostalgia for the style of the 1930s.

The mark of the Academy Award can carry a lot of water. Even though the awards are completely immaterial (you can love what you love without it getting accolades), we still look to them as a litmus test for quality. It raises the question of what might have happened if The Front Page had never been nominated and gotten the attention (and the albatross of recognition). It’s unclear why Howard Hawks chose to remake (or re-adapt the play) the movie years after the play had finished its hit run on Broadway. It’s also unclear whether The Front Page would be better known if it didn’t disappoint on the Oscar scale.

Whatever the case, it’s a good movie and a fascinating piece of historical art. It’s a completely forgettable movie recognized by the Academy that was followed by an unforgettable movie that wasn’t. It’s an early look into some of the first films that were celebrated by the Oscars and a last look at the style of the 20s that was fading out to an onslaught of new technology.

But who cares about all that? It’s funny, and that’s what matters.

Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.