It's a 1931 screwball comedy that was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor at the Oscars. It's based on a hit Broadway stage play that's been adapted many times by Hollywood, TV, radio and more. The Library of Congress chose it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2010 as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
I disliked it. I found it distasteful.
That said, it's honest. What I'm objecting to is real life. It's about tabloid journalists and it was written by two ex-reporters from Chicago, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Its newspapers are based on the City News Bureau of Chicago, Chicago Daily News and Chicago's American. Similarly all the individual journalists are based on the authors' ex-colleagues, most of whom had indeed worked alongside them at the courthouse (where the play is set) and even their names are only slightly changed. Hildebrand Johnson becomes Hildy Johnson, Buddy McHugh becomes Mac McCue, etc. Walter Burns (the role which got Menjou that Oscar nomination) is a caricature of Hearst editor Walter Howey.
The story involves cynical hacks hanging out in Chicago's Criminal Courts Building, playing poker and waiting for a man (George E. Stone) to be hanged. So far, so unpleasant. What makes it worse, though, is that there's an election coming up and the mayor and sheriff are trying to make political capital out of this execution. Their slogan: "Reform the Reds with a rope." Meanwhile star reporter Pat O'Brien has promised Mary Brian that he'll marry her and quit the newspaper business, but his sleazy editor (Adolphe Menjou) wants to keep him.
(a) We're supposed to think Stone was unjustly sentenced because he's a white man who killed a black cop. It's implied that it's freakish for such an act to be taken so seriously. The crooked mayor and sheriff are angling for his execution in an attempt to woo black voters. "Bad luck to kill a coloured policeman in a town where the coloured vote's important."
(b) "Piccaninny in a patrol wagon!"
(c) "You're a white man" is high praise, meaning "you're a generous man who's giving me money and saving my neck".
(d) none of the journalists even listens to a policeman talking about Stone's claims of innocence and what this suggests (in his opinion) about the man's split personality.
(e) "You're going to miss a sweet hanging."
(f) Sheriff Hartman (Clarence Wilson) buttering up the journalists by giving them free tickets to the execution.
(g) The way no one on-screen turns a hair when the mayor and the sheriff are trying to murder an innocent man. The film gives it as much weight as telling a white lie to your wife.
(h) Menjou being a bastard.
(i) Pat O'Brien also being a bastard. Admittedly he's not actually chilling, unlike Menjou, but he'll still try to lie to his wife about a telephone conversation when she was standing behind him as he made it. At times he hardly seems to know the difference between truth and lies. Nevertheless he's the handsome protagonist. I get the impression that we're supposed to care when he's getting himself into trouble. I didn't. I wanted Mary Brian to force-feed him his wedding ring and insert a stiletto heel where the sun doesn't shine.
(j) When a crying woman shows up, the only person who cares about Stone, they shove her outside and slam the door on her. Later she ends up going through a window. It's not the ground floor.
(k) a journalist thinks it's hilarious that a lady was shot accidentally in the leg by one of the sheriff's special deputies.
(l) "Tell her nothing. She's a woman, you fool."
(m) Trying to get Stone hanged at 5am instead of 7am in order to be in time for the morning edition.
(n) Journalists' response to a man being about to be shot in front of them is to get ready on the phone to report the scoop.
All this is loathsome, but there's also an idiot plot point that had me gaping. It's a movie-killer. It pushed me out of the fiction. It's so absurd that I imagine it's probably based on real life, but that's less of an excuse than it sounds. Authority figures give a loaded gun to a man who's due to be executed in a few hours, then ask him to act out the scene where he killed that policeman. "Shoot me," he says. The characters are surprised by what happens next, although the audience isn't.
In the Stupid Plot Point Hall of Fame, that deserves a plinth of its own, with gold stars.
Now, in fairness, these characters clearly aren't meant to be admirable. They're bastards. That's the whole point of the play. We're watching appalling, callous bastards in jobs that we're theoretically supposed to respect (politicians, policemen, press). It's a merrily scathing attack on pretty much everyone and everything. It's a bit like a Joe Orton play in that, but unfortunately the tone didn't work for me. It would also be possible to claim that the racism and sexism is deliberate characterisation of racist, sexist characters... but my personal reaction was basically to hate everyone.
No, I tell a lie. I like the condemned man, Stone. He's sweet. It's also only fair to point out that there are some good performances here, with Menjou having lots of fun and Clarence Wilson dialling his sheriff up to eleven. However at the same time, I think much of the film's failure is down to Pat O'Brien. He's being lively and extrovert and he's delivering dialogue with the best of them, but I ended up hating him even though he's the protagonist.
Incidentally, the electric chair replaced hanging as the official method of execution in Illinois in 1927, before even the original stage play. It's anachronistic. However that doesn't really matter.
There are technical things to like. It's witty and full of life. The press room banter is rich and snappy. There's some deft writing in the characterisation of O'Brien's impending marriage, tipping us off that he's not head over heels. There's also a wonderful hypochondriac, who's silly and funny. "She oughtn't to be allowed in here. Yesterday I caught her using a drinking cup!" It's very possible that if I forced myself to watch this a second time, I might come to appreciate this as the savage attack on society, politicians and the press that it unquestionably is. It's showing us people who regard the death of innocents as a professional opportunity and have the moral integrity of guttersnipes. Most people seem to have liked this film far more than I did. However for me, it didn't work at all. I'm now trying to work out why.
Was I simply missing the joke? Was I taking it too much at face value? The racism might well have been more self-aware than it looks, even if one's uncomfortably aware that in 1930s America it would have been often playing to the gallery. However on reflection, I think it's simply that I hated the entire cast equally, with even the protagonist saying offensively racist things and treating his fiancee like dirt.
I can believe that my views might change completely on a second viewing... but life's too short. No, I didn't take to this one at all.