Front Page Woman

by Bob Stepno

Front Page Woman (1935, trailer)

Historical, fictional and contemporary journalists all had a part to play when Lux Radio Theater brought Front Page Woman to the air in 1939. Introduced by producer Cecil B. Demille, the Lux production of Front Page Woman was based on the film by the same name, which had starred Bette Davis and George Brent. Only character actor Roscoe Karns made it from the film cast to the radio production, playing a photographer nicknamed “Toots.” The two leads went to Fred MacMurray and Paulette Goddard.

DeMille introduced the romantic sparring match between male and female reporters with anecdotes about previous “front page women,” including “that fabulous creature” Anne Royall and “the front-page woman of my boyhood” Nellie Bly. Coincidentally, both were the subjects of radio biographies a few years later on DuPont’s Cavalcade of America.

The introduction is entertaining, but not entirely accurate. DeMille repeats an amusing but apparently apocryphal story of early 19th century publisher Anne Royall:

“Finding John Quincy Adams bathing in the Potomac,” DeMille said, “she sat on his clothes, which he left on the bank, until the embarrassed Mr. Adams gave her the most extraordinary interview ever granted by a president of the United States.”

Invoking Nellie Bly, DeMille says her 1889 race around the world not only set a record, but also spread her name through the popular culture of the day: “Songs games and a race horse were quickly named after her.” If he was referring to the jaunty Stephen Foster tune, “Nelly Bly,” he was in error. It came years before the Pittsburgh Dispatch bestowed that name on adventurous reporter Elizabeth Cochrane.

From the realm of real-world journalism, there is also a long-distance guest appearance by fast-talking reporter Floyd Gibbons. Spinning anecdotes about the importance of eye-witness reporting, he talks about interviewing Pancho Villa and describes being on an ocean liner when it was torpedoed and sunk, an event that led an editor to run his obituary prematurely.

Coincidentally, Gibbons died of a heart attack less than nine months after this broadcast. Years later, the reporter himself made it into the fictional-portrayals-of-journalists department, inserted into an episode of a TV crime drama about the Roaring Twenties, The Untouchables: Floyd Gibbons Story. For more about him, see Floyd Gibbons: a Journalistic Force of Nature, a master’s thesis by Andrew Nelson.

For a case of popular culture citing popular culture in “Front Page Woman,” early in the story the infuriating leading man, Curt Devlin, tells the heroine she’s not really a reporter.

“No you’re not. You’re just a sweet little kid who’s family let her read too many newspaper novels.”

As for his own journalistic skill, Devlin manages to use the too-memorable words boniface and expiate in the same news lead for two newspapers.

For all of that, Devlin may come out a little better on radio than his film counterpart, or maybe it’s just that after all his Disney movies, Fred MacMurray’s familiar voice makes him more sympathetic, despite sexist remarks to his co-star like “You don’t have to work” and “You’re just another dame getting in the way around a newspaper office.” He also sweet-talks a nurse so that he can investigate a dead man’s room, promises a pair of showgirls some free publicity in exchange for news tips, and proposes a toast, “To women, who are what goiters are to science, a pain in the neck.”

For some reason, the heroine still finds him attractive enough to marry — as soon as she proves she’s his superior as a reporter. The two go back and forth in that regard, both reporters playing detective and getting a jump on the story for one edition or two through their people skills and their knowledge of such esoterica as memorable perfumes, dry cleaners, laundry marks, the double doors on a court house broom closet, and women’s fashionable gloves.

For today’s student journalists, the lessons of persistence, curiosity and eclectic knowledge still hold, while we like to believe the sexism and dirty tricks are part of history — or fiction.

For a modern perspective on the film, see the critical analysis at She Blogged By Night.

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