Hildy Johnson (O'Brien) is an investigative reporter for The Morning Post. He is engaged to be married, and is quitting the newspaper business to work for his fiancée Peggy's family's advertising business. Hildy drops by the press room by the prison to say goodbye to all of his fellow reporters on the crime beat. The reporters are all at the prison because of the impending execution of one Earl Williams, a mentally addled anarchist who shot a cop. All of the reporters think that the cynical mayor is greasing the skids for Williams' execution in order to get re-elected—the election is in two days.
Enter into this Hildy's editor, Walter Burns (Menjou). Walter serves his newspaper with a monomaniacal devotion, and is determined to save Earl Williams, not because he cares about Earl Williams (he doesn't really), but to embarrass the mayor and his toady, Sheriff "Pinky" Hartman. He also wants the story for his newspaper and he wants Hildy to write it. Walter, who does not want his best reporter to quit, sets about to undermine Hildy's relationship with Peggy. The situation grows more chaotic when Earl Williams escapes from prison.
The Front Page was the first of several screen adaptations of the hit 1928 stage play of the same name (written by former real-life Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur). It was remade in 1974 by Billy Wilder, and again in 1988 as Switching Channels, which updated the setting to the cable TV news era. However, the most famous remake was Howard Hawks' 1940 film His Girl Friday. That version, while being very faithful to the story of the play and the 1931 film, pulled a Gender Flip in which "Hildy Johnson" became a woman (played by Rosalind Russell) and her editor Walter Burns (played by Cary Grant) became her ex-husband as well as her boss.
- Alliterative Name: Molly Malloy
- Ambiguously Gay: Bensinger, the vaguely prissy reporter who writes poetry. (He's played by Edward Everett Horton, who more or less specialized in this type of role.) It's his desk that Earl Williams hides inside.
- Audience Murmurs: Lampshaded. After Hildy insists to his fiancée that he's in the press room saying goodbye to his friends, he says "Can't you fellas say something?" They respond with sarcastic nonverbal murmurs.
- Blatant Lies: Newspapermen don't let the truth get in the way of a good story, as they all give to their copy desks different and much more exciting accounts of how Earl Williams was caught. (One claims the cops followed a trail of blood.)
- Chekhov's Gunman: The courier who arrives bearing the commutation of Earl Williams' sentence. The mayor and the sheriff appear to successfully get rid of him, but he shows back up at the end, pardon in hand, getting Hildy and Walter off the hook.
- City with No Name: While the original play was set in Chicago, this film announces (via an opening title card) that "This story is laid in a Mythical Kingdom". The change was made by the producers in response to criticisms that the original play was defamatory to the Windy City and its cops, politicians, and journalists.
- Creative Closing Credits: Well, opening credits. The opening credits have the title as the headline on the front page of a newspaper. Then all the cast members are introduced with their picture as pages flip by on the paper.
- Da Editor: Burns, who's going to get that story, and won't let a little thing like his star reporter quitting and getting married interfere with that.
- Dirty Cop: Sherriff Hartman is perfectly willing to conceal a commutation message and send a man to the gallows.
- Disposable Fiancé: Averted in this version, as Hildy and Peggy get back together, although it's clear Walter is going to keep meddling. This is different from both the 1974 version and His Girl Friday, in which Hildy and the object of his/her affection break up.
- Flipping the Bird: One of the reporters does this to the mayor, whom all of them loathe. (In The Pre-Code Era the movies could get away with a lot more.)
- Hall of Mirrors: A throwaway gag when the entrance to Hildy's apartment is shown to be one of these.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Molly Malloy, the prostitute who is clearly the only one who gives a rat's ass about Earl Williams.
- Hypocritical Humor: The reports who relentlessly slut-shame poor Molly have pictures of naked women on the wall.
- Idiot Ball: Sheriff Hartman and the psychiatrist electing to give Earl Williams a loaded gun to "re-enact" his crime.
- Intrepid Reporter: As in all versions of this story, Hildy is determined to save Earl Williams and get the big scoop.
- Ironic Juxtaposition: Opens with a large bag of flour that is labeled "Sunshine Flower—Insures Domestic Happiness." The camera zooms out to reveal that the bag of flour is being used as a weight to test a gallows.
- Last-Minute Reprieve: One arrives for Earl Williams, and the mayor tries to hide it because he wants Williams hanged to help his re-election bid.
- Manipulative Bastard: Walter, who does all sorts of crazy things to get the story and keep Hildy from leaving, going so far as to kidnap Peggy's mom when she finds out where Earl Williams is. At the end, Walter wishes Hildy and Peggy well, gives Hildy his watch for a wedding present, and then calls ahead to have Hildy arrested for stealing his watch.
- Married to the Job: Hildy's problem. Walter is too, but he likes being married to the job.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: "Woodenshoes", the cop who posits to the reporters that Earl Williams has a Split Personality.
- Product Placement: In-Universe. Bensinger has taken a payoff from the restaurant that provided Earl Williams' last meal, which requires him to name the restaurant in his story.
- Round Table Shot: Has a variation on this in which, instead of the camera spinning around to capture the people at the table, it follows Hildy and Walter as they walk around the table. They circle the table at least twice as Walter puts on the hard sell and gets Hildy to forget about his impending marriage as they get excited about bringing the mayor and the sheriff down.
- Sleazy Politician: The mayor tries to hide Earl Williams' reprieve.
- Streetwalker: Molly Malloy, Earl Williams' only friend, identifies herself as this.
- Title Drop: Many references to what is going to go on the front page of the newspaper.