Chicago Examiner reporter Hildebrand "Hildy" Johnson (Jack Lemmon) has just quit his job in order to marry Peggy Grant (Susan Sarandon) and start a new career, when convict Earl Williams (Austin Pendleton) escapes from death row just prior to his execution. Earl is an impoverished, bumbling leftist whose only offense is stuffing fortune cookies with messages demanding the release of Sacco and Vanzetti, but the yellow press of Chicago has painted him as a dangerous threat from Moscow. As a result, the citizenry are anxious to see him put to death.
Earl has not left the jail, and enters the prison pressroom while Hildy is alone there. Hildy cannot resist the lure of what could be the biggest scoop of his soon-to-be-over career. Ruthless, egomaniacal managing editor Walter Burns (Walter Matthau), desperate to keep Hildy on the job, encourages him to cover the story, frustrating Peggy, who is eager to catch their train. When Earl is in danger of being discovered, Mollie Malloy (Carol Burnett), a self-described "$2 whore from Division Street" who befriended Earl, creates a distraction by leaping from the third-floor window.
When Earl is caught, Hildy and Walter are arrested for aiding and abetting a fugitive, but are released when they discover that the mayor and sheriff colluded to conceal Earl's last-minute reprieve by the governor. Walter grudgingly accepts that he is losing his ace reporter and presents him with a watch as a token of his appreciation. Hildy and Peggy set off to get married, and Walter telegraphs the next railway station to alert them that the man who stole his watch is on the inbound train and should be apprehended by the police.Jack Lemmon as Hildebrand 'Hildy' Johnson
Walter Matthau as Walter Burns
Susan Sarandon as Peggy Grant
Vincent Gardenia as Sheriff "Honest Pete" Hartman
David Wayne as Roy Bensinger
Allen Garfield as Kruger
Charles Durning as Murphy
Herb Edelman as Schwartz
Austin Pendleton as Earl Williams
Carol Burnett as Mollie Malloy
Martin Gabel as Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer
Harold Gould as The Mayor/Herbie/Green Hornet
John Furlong as Duffy
Jon Korkes as Rudy Keppler
Cliff Osmond as Officer Jacobi
Lou Frizzell as Endicott
Paul Benedict as Plunkett
Dick O'Neill as McHugh
Biff Elliot as Police Dispatcher
Barbara Davis as Myrtle
The original play had been adapted for the screen in 1931 and as His Girl Friday in 1940. Billy Wilder was quoted by his biographer Charlotte Chandler as saying, "I'm against remakes in general ... because if a picture is good, you shouldn't remake it, and if it's lousy, why remake it? ... It was not one of my pictures I was particularly proud of."
After years of producing his films, he passed producing chores to Paul Monash and concentrate on screenwriting and directing when Jennings Lang suggested he film a new adaptation of The Front Page for Universal Pictures. The idea appealed to Wilder, a newspaperman in his younger days, who recalled, "A reporter was a glamorous fellow in those days, the way he wore a hat, and a raincoat, and a swagger, and had his camaraderie with fellow reporters, with local police, always hot on the tail of tips from them and from the fringes of the underworld." Whereas the two earlier screen adaptations of the play were set in their contemporary times, Wilder decided his would be a period piece set in 1929, primarily because the daily newspaper was no longer the dominant news medium in 1974.
Wilder hired Henry Bumstead as production designer. For exterior shots, Bumstead suggested Wilder film in San Francisco, where the buildings were a better match for 1920s Chicago than was Los Angeles. The final scene on the train was filmed in San Francisco, where a railroad enthusiast provided a vintage railway car for the setting. The interior shot of the theater in an earlier scene was done at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. The opening credits scenes were filmed at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
Wilder and Diamond insisted their dialogue be delivered exactly as written and clearly enough to be understood easily. Jack Lemmon, who portrayed Hildy Johnson, later said, "I had one regret about the film. Billy would not let us overlap our lines more. I think that would have made it better ... I feel it's a piece in which you must overlap. But Billy, the writer, wanted to hear all of the words clearly, and he wanted the audience to hear the words. I would have liked to overlap to the point where you lost some of the dialogue."
Because of Wilder's tendency to "cut in the camera", a form of spontaneous editing that results in a minimal footage being shot, editor Ralph E. Winters was able to assemble a rough cut of the film four days after principal photography was completed.
While the film was Wilder's first to show a profit since Irma la Douce (1963), the director regretted not sticking to his instincts over remakes.
The film earned North American theatrical rentals of $7,460,000.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times thought the story was "a natural" for Wilder and Diamond, who "have a special (and, to my mind, very appealing) appreciation for vulgar, brilliant con artists of monumental tackiness." He continued, "Even though the mechanics and demands of movie-making slow what should be the furious tempo, this Front Page displays a giddy bitterness that is rare in any films except those of Mr. Wilder. It is also, much of the time, extremely funny." He described Walter Matthau and Austin Pendleton as "marvelous" and added, "Mr. Lemmon is comparatively reserved as the flamboyant Hildy, never quite letting go of his familiar comic personality to become dominated by the lunacies of the farce. He always remains a little outside it, acting. Carol Burnett has an even tougher time as Molly Malloy . . . This role may well be impossible, however, since it requires the actress to play for straight melodrama while everyone around her is going for laughs . . . Mr. Wilder has great fun with the period newspaper detail . . . and admires his various supporting actors to such an extent that he allows them to play as broadly as they could possibly desire." He concluded, "The hysteria is not as consistent as one might wish, nor, indeed, as epic as in Mr. Wilder's own One, Two, Three. The cohesive force is, instead, the director's fondness for frauds, which, I suspect, is really an admiration for people who barrel on through life completely intimidating those who should know better."
The British television network Channel 4 called it the "least satisfying screen adaptation of Hecht and MacArthur's play," saying it "adds little to the mix other than a bit of choice language. The direction is depressingly flat and stagy, Wilder running on empty. While it is easy to see why he was attracted to this material . . . he just does not seem to have the energy here to do it justice. Matthau and Lemmon put in their usual faultless turns, but cannot lift a pervading air of pointlessness."
TV Guide rated the film 2½ out of four stars and noted, "This slick remake of the ebullient original falls short of being the film it could have been, despite the presence of master filmmaker Wilder and his engaging costars . . . Despite the obvious charismatic interaction between Lemmon and Matthau, the film is oddly stilted. In an overly emphatic turn, the miscast Burnett easily gives the most awful performance of her career. She projects only one emotion - a gratingly annoying hysteria. One never enjoys the film so much as when her character throws herself out of a window."
Burnett said in This Time Together that she was so displeased with her performance that when she was on an airplane where the film was shown, she apologized on the plane's intercom.
The film was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy but lost to The Longest Yard, and Lemmon and Matthau, competing with each other for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, lost to Art Carney in Harry and Tonto.
Wilder and Diamond were nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium but lost to Lionel Chetwynd and Mordecai Richler for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
Wilder won the David di Donatello Award for Best Director of a Foreign Film, and Lemmon and Matthau shared Best Foreign Actor honors with Burt Lancaster for Conversation Piece.
GoodTimes Entertainment released the Region 1 DVD on June 17, 1998. The film is in fullscreen format with an audio track in English and subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. On May 31, 2005 it was re-released in a widescreen edition DVD by Universal Home Video.