In 1920s Chicago, Walter Burns (Matthau), editor of the Chicago Examiner, wants Intrepid Reporter Hildebrand "Hildy" Johnson (Lemmon) to cover the execution of convicted murderer Earl Williams—but Hildy announces that he's quitting the newspaper business, getting married, and moving to Philadelphia. Burns promptly sets out to lure Hildy back, mainly by sabotaging his engagement to the sweet but bland Peggy. Then, when Hildy goes to the courthouse to say goodbye to the other reporters, Williams escapes, and Hildy gets drawn back into the game as he senses a lead and starts uncovering the political machinations behind Williams's arrest and pending execution.
This film is one of four cinematic adaptations of a popular stage play titled The Front Page. In 1931 it was made into a hit movie of the same name. In 1940 it was remade as His Girl Friday, which did a Gender Flip, casting Rosalind Russell as a female Hildy Johnson, and making Walter (Cary Grant) her ex-husband as well as her old boss. It was remade yet again as Switching Channels in 1988, which updated the story from newspapers to TV and starred Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner.
This movie contains examples of:
- All Psychology Is Freudian: Dr. Eggelhofer has a patently absurd Oedipus Complex theory explaining Williams's crime. Justified; the movie's set in 1929.
- Batman Gambit: Burns assigns an inept cub reporter to replace Hildy, knowing that Hildy won't be able to stand by and let the kid mess up.
- Blatant Lies: The reporters phoning their editors about Williams's capture — an event they are currently watching — describing it as a blood-filled firefight.
- Bring My Brown Pants: The new Examiner reporter "did a bad thing in [his] pants" when the guards start shooting during Williams' breakout. This spoils a key photograph of Earl Williams due to wet film.
- Disposable Fiancé: Peggy, as revealed at the end of the 1974 film. In the 1931 film Hildy does dump her, but feels bad about it, and they get back together at the end, although Walter is clearly going to keep meddling.
- Groin Attack: When Dr. Eggelhofer gets Williams to re-enact the shooting, Williams winds up shooting him in the groin. After operating on himself at the hospital (he doesn't trust American doctors), Dr. Eggelhofer publishes The Joy of Impotence.
- Idiot Ball: Sheriff Hartman and the psychiatrist electing to give Earl Williams a loaded gun to "re-enact" his crime.
- Impersonating an Officer: Walter poses as probation officer Otto Fishbein in an attempt to dissuade Peggy from marrying Hildy. Using a silver star taken from a movie poster as his badge, he tries to convince Peggy that Hildy is a serial flasher, most recently arrested for exposing himself to a group of school girls at an art museum.
- Last-Minute Reprieve: A messenger arrives with a reprieve for Earl Williams hours before he's scheduled to be executed (but after he escapes). The Mayor explains he can't accept a reprieve for someone not in their custody and offers the messenger a night at a brothel on his dime. The Sheriff then raids that same brothel ("for the family vote") and the reprieve winds up in the cell next to Walter and Hildy, who are more than happy to see it used.
- Manipulative Bastard: There is nothing Walter Burns will not stoop to in order to get Hildy back on the Examiner and covering the Williams hanging, from lying to Hildy's fiancee, lying to Hildy, hiring a reporter solely to get possession of his desk (and sacking him as soon as he turns in his copy), lying to the authorities, and finally having Hildy arrested for "stealing" a watch supposedly given as a wedding present.
- Or My Name Isn't...: After failing to convince Peggy that Hildy is a serial flasher, Walter warns her off of marrying a newspaper man. He has this to say on his way out: "I wish you both all the luck in the world. And I mean it, or my name isn't Otto Fishbein."
- Self-Surgery: As he's being wheeled away, Dr. Eggelhofer demands a scalpel and a mirror to operate on his wound.
- Sleazy Politician: The Mayor and Sheriff "Honest Pete" Hartman, who are generally suspected to be using the execution as a political gesture, bribe a messenger with a night at a brothel, and dispensing patronage to large numbers of "special deputies."
- Train-Station Goodbye: Walter sends off Hildy and Peggy at the station, giving Hildy his watch as a wedding gift. Then he wires ahead to have Hildy arrested for stealing it.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: This is how we learn that Hildy left Peggy and ended up as Managing Editor of the Examiner.
- You Got Murder: During his interview with Dr. Eggelhofer, it comes out that Earl Williams once sent a mail bomb to a famous industrialist but it was returned due to insufficient postage and blew the roof off his boarding house, leading to his arrest for illegal possession of explosives.