One of three versions (all worthy) of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s madcap newspaper comedy from a period when reporters probably did call their city rooms and say, “Hello, sweetheart, get rewrite.”
We are all interested in newspapers and what newspapermen write about their calling. The business of supplying us with our daily scandal, if we are to believe these chroniclers turned novelists and playwrights, is in itself full of scandal. Moreover, it has its thrills which, as they are pictured in books and plays, can stand comparison with the most exciting experiences of the world of crime. We are reminded of all this by that extraordinarily vivid picture of newspaper life The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which has now emerged as a film (Rivoli). Granting it its trenchant dialogue and the sculpturesque sureness of its characterization, the only question it stirs in my mind is whether it gives a true picture of the newspaper world. It is the glamor, the romantic halo, surrounding the characters of The Front Page that arouses one’s suspicions about the authenticity of the men portrayed. Aren’t they a trifle too hard-boiled to be wholly credible? And if the authors are right in their characterization, aren’t they guilty of a certain lack of honesty in treating this hard-boiled cynicism as standing for some superior knowledge and understanding of life, instead of being merely what it is, a protective mechanism of inferior intelligence against the demands of life? Perhaps if we had been allowed a glimpse under the callous masks worn by these reporters we might have found their owners more human. On the other hand, so clearly do they stand out as individuals under the vitalizing treatment of Messrs. Hecht and MacArthur that one is inclined to forego further probing and to accept them for what they appear to be—racketeers of publicity, whose habitual sitting in judgment on other people gives them the prestige of superior intelligence.
The film, one of the most satisfying during the current season, again shows us Mr. Lewis Milestone, who directed All Quiet on the Western Front, as one of the most sensitive and intelligent directors in Hollywood. His treatment is distinguished not by any striking contrasts of light and shade, by any emphasis of action, but by an atmospheric unity in which all characters and all action flow in a constant stream as parts of a single whole. One is brought to realize this dramatic unity when the flow is suddenly arrested by a lyrical interlude between the condemned man, Williams, and his street-walker friend, a scene that both emotionally and dramatically belongs to a different world. Neither this episode, however, nor the conventional scenes—they are fortunately few—of the romance of the star reporter, Johnson, nor the romantic embellishment of the newspaperman and his profession are sufficient to destroy the air of verisimilitude which pervades the picture, and which is sustained largely by its effortless and expert acting. By far the highest honors in this go to Mr. Menjou, who gives as polished a performance of a gruff and unscrupulous editor as he used to give of a man about town. Mr. Pat O’Brien in the role of the reporter Johnson is rather colorless, but his confreres in the court pressroom are as bright and glittering a group of characters as has ever appeared on the screen.
Tabu (Central) adds little to the artistic reputation of F. W. Murnau, who died within a few days of the opening of his film in New York. Murnau’s greatest achievement was The Last Laugh, produced in cooperation with Karl Freund and Emil Jannings. None of his other pictures, including the heavy-footed Faust and all of his American efforts, comes anywhere within a measurable distance of that early masterpiece. Tabu is deliberate and forced in its playfulness, cheaply melodramatic in its tragedy, and unconscionably long-winded. It has neither the charm of Flaherty’s Moana nor the pictorial and dramatic force of The Last Laugh.