Movies like THREE ON A MATCH (1932), THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1935), and even the misguided SATAN MET A LADY (1936) are all eminently watchable, even if they lack the prestige of the later, more challenging assignments the actress fought for (both in-person and in court). Though the brothers Warner often tried to shoehorn her into dewy-eyed ingénue roles, Davis’s essential ferocity shines through even the most standard-issue scripts. And that transcendence is clearly on display in my new favorite flick from Bette’s Peroxide Period — Michael Curtiz’s FRONT PAGE WOMAN (1935), now on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.
In a magical version of New York City where palm trees line the streets, demure Daily Star reporter Ellen Garfield (Davis) seeks to make a name for herself amongst a motley crew of smirking male competitors. And the smirkiest of all is Curt Devlin (George Brent) of The Daily Express, a particularly wretched ink-stainer who believes “women make rotten newspapermen” and belong in the home. And the home Curt wants Ellen in is, you guessed it, his own.
And thereby hangs a tale.
When not expectorating angrily, Ellen occasionally canoodles with Curt in courtroom corridors. The extent of their romantic relationship is never fully revealed, though it’s clear they’ve read the morning papers together more than once. (Or perhaps that’s just me engaging in some Pre-Code-style wishful thinking.)
What Ellen sees in Curt is unclear. He demeans her talents at every turn, feeds her fabricated evidence so she’ll write factually incorrect stories, and actually deserts her while she’s held at gunpoint. And these are just a few of the acts of bad boyfriending perpetrated by Mr. Devlin, who calls our heroine “Tidbit,” in a fashion that would likely earn him a slap across the kisser from later, more liberated Bette Davis characters.
In HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), a better, battle-of-the-sexes farce, there’s no doubt that the hero is a manipulative, self-serving ass. But he’s an ass with Cary Grant’s charm and good looks, so you go with it. With apologies to George Brent fans, he’s no Cary Grant. Honestly, I’ve always found the Irish-born actor’s success and longevity a bit baffling. Generically handsome leading men who don’t distract attention from the female star were a Pre-Code hallmark, but those days were long gone by the time FRONT PAGE WOMAN premiered in July of 1935. Yet Brent thrived at Warner Bros for 14 years, in a tenure bookended by appearances in the Barbara Stanwyck movies SO BIG (1932) and MY REPUTATION (1946). FRONT PAGE WOMAN is the fourth of the eleven films Davis and Brent appeared in together between 1932 and ‘42, and they were apparently an item off-screen, as well (as were Brent and Ruth Chatterton, who were married from 1932 until ’34). So apparently there’s something to Mr. Brent, both in front of the camera and behind it, that I am missing.
Casting frustrations aside, this is still one of the more enjoyable newsroom rom-coms I’ve seen from the classic era. Based on the short story Women Are Bum Newspapermen by Richard Macauley, which originally appeared in the September 1, 1934 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, FRONT PAGE WOMAN opens at a maximum security penitentiary where a female inmate is about to “to join in death the lover she murdered,” as Devlin reports in his typically purple prose. Ellen has volunteered to cover the execution; Curt does not approve.
“An electrocution is no place for you,” he chastises. “And it’s worse when they burn a woman.”
Ellen makes it through the execution, but faints like a dainty lady before she can file her story. Devlin offers to help, but Ellen’s paper ends up publishing Curt’s story instead, almost costing Ellen her job. Soon after, a philandering Broadway producer is murdered, and the two competitors make a bet: if Devlin can crack the case first, Garfield will hang up her typewriter and marry him.
Along the way, both Curt and Ellen engage in the illegal (and unethical) behavior that was de rigueur for the press in classic films: breaking and entering; illegal wiretapping; evidence tampering; bribing an official; and interfering in due process. (It’s not mentioned if a young Rupert Murdoch owns either of their papers, though it seems likely.) As usual, they out-wit the police, who seem perfectly content to have reporters do their jobs for them. And everything ends happily, except for the killer and anyone who believes that women should aspire to be more than Mrs. George Brent.
But I kid because I love, and I do love FRONT PAGE WOMAN. Despite my misgivings about Brent, he and Davis do have a playful, genuine chemistry. And he’s ably supported by the hilarious Roscoe Karns as Toots O’Grady, the lazy photographer who gets most of the funniest (and dirtiest) lines. The supporting cast also includes Wini Shaw as an ill-fated showgirl, J. Carrol Naish as her mobster-ish brother, Gordon Wescott in his usual feckless playboy role, and Grace Hayle as butch female reporter.
“She makes me feel effeminate,” Devlin says dismissively, suggesting that that’s what will happen to Ellen if she keeps working like a man!
The Warner Archive DVD looks great and sounds even better with remastered picture and audio and a graphic menu featuring poster art. There’s also an original theatrical trailer, a delightfully meta piece of comedy wherein Davis and Brent, as themselves, look like they’re about to crack up, or jump into bed with each other, or both.
But FRONT PAGE WOMAN is really all about Bette Davis. Although squelched by the script, the studio, and society, she still flashes a don’t fuck with me attitude that was truly a harbinger of bumpy cinematic nights to come.