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Saturday, July 13, 2013

'Front Page Woman:' Bette Davis Girl Reporter

Front Page Woman
Warner Archive's recent DVD release of the 1935 Bette  Davis comedy "Front Page Woman" provides an entertaining look at Davis' early career before she fully reached her stride as one of Hollywood's "thoroughly modern" classic tough broads with a soft center.

"Woman" is a nice blend of a battle-of-the-sexes screwball comedy and B-movie murder mystery involving a love triangle among the rich and famous. Comparisons to the classic "The Front Page" are highly justified.

Davis' character Ellen Garfield is a cub reporter for a New York newspaper who is dating the aptly named rival newspaperman Curt Devlin. George Brent, who later co-starred with Davis in the awesome classic melodrama "Dark Victory," plays Devlin.

The primary conflict between Garfield and Devlin is that he shares the seemingly unanimous sentiment among male members of their profession that dames essentially do not have any business being reporters. A possible exception is the hard-drinking cross-dressing Nell Bonnett who is as at least as tough as any man.

Garfield and Devlin agree early in the film that she will marry him if he admits that she is as good a reporter as any man. The test turns out to be coverage of an apartment-house fire that leads to a brief search for a missing resident of that building, followed by a murder investigation and coverage of the subsequent trial. Not much screen time is devoted to whether all is fair in love, but much of the terrific humor revolves around the concept that anything goes regarding circulation wars.

Devlin's wonderfully entertaining antics in pursuit of a scoop extend beyond his efforts to trip up Garfield. A typical ploy has him use his sidekick, and comic relief, Toots the photographer to distract the gatekeeper of the moment so that Devlin can snoop. One of Toots' best scenes comes early in the film when police officers confront him while he is sitting in Devlin's car soon after Devlin recklessly drove to cover a story.

Aside from Davis' good performance and the overall virtues of the film, "Woman" is an awesome example of the fast-pace and good-natured cynicism of classic '30s cinema.

Seeing reporters in a mad rush to literally phone in their stories before their many competitors in an era in which large cities has far more than two newspapers is highly entertaining. Further, Davis has a few great scenes that involve witty fast-paced banter with her editor, who seems to accept most of her gaffes as a by-product of the need for speed in the great newspaper wars of  '35.

A memorable example of the jaded attitudes of reporters who have seen it all and lived to write the tale include a remark that fires such as the one that sets the action in motion reveal the truth behind men telling their wives that they are in Chicago on business.

The ultimate scoop regarding "Woman" is that it offers an entertaining look at the fascinating world of big-city newspapers in the '30s and tells its stories well. It also provides Davis' fans a good chance to see her in a role for which she is well suited.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Woman" is welcome to email me. Also, as a good 21st century journalist, I participate in Twitter under @tvdvdguy.