In 1928, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page opened on Broadway. Hecht and MacArthur had been Chicago reporters, and the play, set in the press room in the criminal courts building, was a loving reminiscence of that experience, with the curse words left in. The play centers around Hildy Johnson, a star reporter for the Herald-Examiner, the Chicago Hearst paper, and his editor, Walter Burns. The play was filmed in 1931 with Pat O’Brien as Hildy and Adolphe Menjou as Burns.
In 1938, director Howard Hawks wanted to remake the movie with Cary Grant as Hildy. Hawks said in an interview, “I was going to prove to somebody one night that The Front Page had some of the finest modern dialog that had ever been written, and I asked a girl to read Hildy’s part and I read the editor. After a while I stopped and said, ‘Hell, it’s even better between a girl and a man than between two men.’” When he pitched the idea of switching Hildy’s gender (and casting Grant as Walter Burns) to Harry Cohn, Columbia’s studio head, Cohn was against it to start, but soon agreed to the idea. It was the writer, Charles Lederer, who came up with the idea of Hildy and Burns having been in love, married and divorced.
Hawks tried to get a number of different actresses to play Hildy. Jean Arthur had originally been announced for the lead, but she declined the role, as did Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, and Irene Dunne. Two weeks before production was to begin, Cohn borrowed Rosalind Russell from MGM. Filming took place from September to November, 1939, which accounts for the several references to the war in Europe, which had just begun.
The 1931 film was said to have had some of the fastest dialogue ever recorded in pictures. Hawks decided to play it even faster. Someone has measured the actors’ rate of speaking as up to 240 words per minute. The average speaking rate in everyday talk is 100 to 150 words per minute. Hawks said, “I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another, especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialog in a way that made the beginnings and ends of the sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping. When any new actor came in, it took him a few days to get oriented, but everyone put up with that, and then it worked beautifully. It has a natural quality and yet, oddly enough, it becomes rather dramatic.”
The film was released in January, 1940. Charles Lederer’s idea of making Burns and Hildy divorced made this film, based on one of the classic American plays, into a comedy of remarriage, like The Awful Truth. Much of the play’s dialogue survives, as does most of its action in the criminal court press room, though it is preceded by scenes that establish the previous history (and the divorce) of the principal characters. Rosalind Russell one-upped the usual pattern of actors ad-libbing lines in Hawks’ movies by hiring a writer to think up her lines for her. Grant figured it out, and would greet her on the set by asking, “What have you got today?” The feminist critic Molly Haskell has praised Russell’s Hildy as one of the most positive and uncompromised female screen characters of the day, but Hawks’ biographer Robin Woods has called her choice between her ex and her fiancée to be a narrow and unacceptable one. It was named to the National Film Registry as a film worthy of preservation in 1993, and it is, really, a great deal of fun. I hope it gives you some pleasure this evening.