The Front Page ('31)
The opening credits are done in the form of a newspaper with pictures of the cast to coincide, which is fairly obvious, but still pretty sweet. It would be a cool prop to have. My biggest problem with this film is that, at least with the Instant View version, the dialogue is nearly impossible to understand. I know the film is funny because I hear a lot of punchlines and throwaway lines, but they all come out of context so they don't have as much impact. I don't know if it's because they were still having trouble recording dialogue that early in sound production or if the master simply had bad sound (I tend to think the latter). Basically, watching this version of the film made me want to watch the play (a feeling that never went away). I can't be too hard on the film, especially after watching the two remakes because I know the source material is good and that the acting was fine. And really, can you get too rough on a film from 1931 that has a character flip off a judge? This film also has one of the greatest final lines ever, which is repeated in the '74 remake and no less funny.
His Girl Friday ('40)
This is a weird trailer.
His Girl Friday is easily the best of these three versions of The Front Page. It was very astute of director Howard Hawkes to realize that it wasn't a great leap to make Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns former lovers. They already have that sort of antogonistic/admiring relationship. The change of Hildy from a male to a female gives the material another level of conflict and unpredictability. And if there's one thing the material already did well, it was conflict and unpredictability. I've never seen so many roadblocks thrown up so fast that prevent people from getting what they want. The script, and all credit must go to the original by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, is a marvel. I suppose giving Charles Lederer (who did additional dialogue on the '31 version and wrote The Thing from Another World), some credit is also due.
Whereas the original starts with an opening title stating that the film takes place in a "Mythical Kingdom," His Girl Friday pours on the snark telling us that surely there are no newspaper men like the ones depicted. Because Hildy and Walter are now exes, more time is spent with them and on their relationship, which is great because Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell play off of each other so well. Also, Walter Burns may be one of the greatest characters ever created. He's conniving and dastardly and charismatic in all versions and it's incredibly fun just to watch him lie to people. Watching him put Hildy's fiance, Bruce, into awkward situation after awkward situation and Bruce having no idea what is going on is endlessly rewarding. Ralph Bellamy does great work being the nice guy caught in the middle of something much bigger than him that he can't understand.
Due to the refiguring of Hildy and the relationship with Walter, adjustments to the original needed to be made and it's fun to see how they incorporated stuff that could have otherwise been left out. The stolen watch gag gets put in the middle of the film (and pretty much any time Bruce gets arrested is a version of the watch gag). In both this and the '79 remake, whenever there are lists of things or locations and jobs mentioned, basically any time a joke isn't driving the plot (like when Walter is telling Duffy what to move around to fit the new story in the paper), it feels like the screenwriter viewed it as his time to shine and came up with new, funny stuff to say ("Take Hitler and stick him in the funny pages!"). There's really almost not enough time to laugh for fear of missing something else entirely since the it's so dialogue heavy. In fact, all three films feature virtually no score. I'd imagine it's because they want to keep the focus on the dialogue.
The Front Page ('74)
I like Billy Wilder, but like many directors, the older he got, the more his work suffered. His version of The Front Page isn't bad because it's hard to screw up the source material (*ahem*), but his film is pretty listless stylistically. Most of the scenes just sit there and there's nothing filmically that matches the pace of the dialogue. The 1931 version is more interesting visually than this film. The framing, camera moves, and editing are all lethargic. It almost feels like Wilder had given up. I also hoped that it would be updated for the '70s and tackle some of the politics of the time (*cough*), but I understand why they didn't since newspapers weren't quite as important as they used to be.
The biggest change to the other films is that there is quite a bit of cursing. Now, I'm all for cursing. There is a lot of humor to be mined from strategically placed swears, but the way the original and His Girl Friday handle cursing is so much funnier. Instead of having characters blatant spout out swears, they react to unheard filth on the phone among other things. For example:
Oh, good evening madam. Now listen, you ten-cent glamour girl. You can't keep Butch away from his duty!... What's that?... You say that again, I'll come over there and kick you in the teeth!... Say, what kind of language is that? Now look here youThe other major difference is that Wilder tried to "open up" the film a bit more. Instead of spending most of the time in small rooms, we venture out into the halls of the building, into a theater, jail, and to a train station. I've never understood the need to try to make a play expansive (I fall under the Sidney Lumet school of thought on the subject). The material should dictate the camera and locations. It's not a
detriment to the film, but feels like it's hiding the like of interesting direction. It also results in a loss of the panic and claustrophobia once things really amp up.
Some other things it does worse that the other films (and again, it's still quite entertaining) are the casting of Molly and the portrayal of "murderer" Earl Williams. Carol Burnett plays Molly screamingly over-the-top and it's very distracting. Apparently, she wasn't very happy with her performance, either. Earl, on the other hand, is supposed to be meek and weak, but is played almost like Woody Allen here. He's got zingers and one-liners and a general apathy towards his situation. It doesn't really fit a character who's going to be hanged on trumped up charges.
So yeah, no surprised that the classic is the best of the bunch, but it was a lot of fun to watch the films in succession. It's a testament to the material that it never once got boring watching basically the same story unfold three times in a row. I can only dream about writing dialogue as quick and witty as Hecht, MacArthur, and all the others. Probably the biggest lesson I've taken from this experience is that I wish Walter Matthau was in every movie.