Thursday, July 06, 2006

Lemmon, Matthau catch 'Front Page' disease

“I’m beginning to think all newspapermen have a disease,” a character says toward the end of “The Front Page,” the 1974 Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau classic.

And so they do – especially managing editor Walter Burns (Matthau). Burns wears badly fitting clothes. He yells a lot. He sleeps on a couch in his office five nights a week. He eats food out of a carton.

Hildy (Lemmon) is his star reporter. Burns wants him to cover the biggest story of the year – the hanging of Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton), a political activist accused of shooting and killing a police officer. Nobody can cover the story like Hildy. He’s a pro. He’s the best of the best.

But Hildy has had it. He’s ready to marry Peggy (Susan Sarandon), take an advertising job in Philadelphia and leave the deadlines behind.

As fate would have it, Hildy stumbles into the biggest story of his career. He’s literally sitting on it. Burns sets to work coaxing Hildy into covering one last story – the big one – before he leaves.

“The Front Page” has been around a long time. It was first a play written by Ben Hect and Charles MacArthur. It became a successful motion picture in 1931 and has been remade countless times, both well (“His Gal Friday”) and poorly (“Switching Channels.”)

What makes Billy Wilder’s remake so much fun is obvious. Matthau and Lemmon were simply made for each other. Both had successful solo work, but nothing matches the chemistry when they are on screen together.

The film doesn’t take itself too seriously and that plays well here. It captures the nostalgia of a pre-Depression newspaper office perfectly, complete with the suits, the bad hats, the Tin Pan Alley tunes, and, yes, all that cigarette smoke.

The 1974 “Front Page” also boasts a great supporting class, including veteran character actors Carol Burnett, Vincent Gardenia, David Wayne, Harold Gould, Dick O’Neill and Paul Benedict. Wayne in particular shines as the “poetic” reporter who does everything with a flourish.

If you enjoyed Lemmon and Matthau in “The Odd Couple” or the “Grumpy Old Men” series, you’ll love them here. This may be their best work post “Odd Couple.”

And as for that disease? Turns out Hildy’s got it, too.

You should see him when he’s banging away on that typewriter trying to make his deadline. His eyes light up. He cannot be disturbed – not even by his love Peggy.

“Marry an undertaker,” Peggy is told. “Marry a blackjack dealer, marry a pickpocket, but never marry a newspaperman!”

Guess it has something to do with that disease.

“The Front Page” is available on home video and DVD. It is rated PG, but contains adult language and situations.

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