The Front Page

Front Page DVDThe Front Page by Billy Wilder

Madman Entertainment

In a recent talk with Milos Forman on American radio, the interviewer asked the director how it was that a Czech émigré could create films thought of as quintessentially American—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in this case. Forman responded without irony or guile, “that was a Czech film”. It is perhaps a sign of America’s cultural arrogance that it swallows, in all sincerity, every one else’s cultures without seeing the acquisition as anything but an expression of itself. Seeing it from a more optimistic perspective, it perhaps illustrates how the American identity is intrinsically linked to its resident diasporas. Milos Forman has indeed made some “great American films” but, on this front, his legacy palls in comparison to that of Billy Wilder.

Born Samuel Wilder in Sucha Beskidzka, Austria-Hungary (now Poland), Billy Wilder began his film career in the heady Weimar years of Berlin. His Jewish heritage gave him good reason to get the hell out of Germany when Hitler and his goons came to town. Eventually finding his way to Hollywood, Wilder learnt English in a hurry and, judging by his screenwriting, learnt to write American English better than most Americans. In the same way that a polyglot like Vladimir Nabokov acquired and used languages in a perversely prodigious manner, Wilder’s writing is vernacular and complex, rhythmically sublime and studded with more double entendres than a Freudian could throw a phallic symbol at. Our contemporary society is obsessed with our youth’s capacity to absorb imagery at breakneck speed, but contemporary actors’ mouths are practically comatose compared to the fast-talking riffs that Wilder characters spit out—only rappers talk that fast these days.

And what of his legacy? In Double Indemnity he defined the American film noir movement, in Sunset Boulevard he provided the ultimate elegy to early Hollywood, in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot he gave Marilyn Monroe signature roles, and in The Apartment he crafted one of the smartest romcoms cinema has ever seen. These are all hallmarks of American cinema.

In The Front Page, Wilder’s third-last film, he pairs the yin-yang of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the cut-throat business of early 20th century newspaper journalism—when “the early edition” really meant something. A screwball comedy of set-pieces and stock characters, the film harks back to His Girl Friday and the kind of in-and-out-doors mayhem that the Marx Brothers are synonymous with. While some of the jokes are more clever than hilarious, I can think of few films that can so fluently engage simultaneously in inanity, caustic satire and world-weary cynicism without skipping a beat in the plot. A thoroughly enjoyable American classic from the most American Austro-Hungarian Jew I know of.