The newspaper movie
Resourceful reporters, hard-bitten editors, scandalous exposés and office pandemonium - these are some of the ingredients of a fascinating Hollywood genre
'News is anything that makes a reader say "Gee whizz",' opined Arthur MacEwan, the first editor of Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. Before Hollywood ever existed, the American press was dominated by a sensationalistic attitude to news.
This is the first and most enduring link between Hollywood and the press - sensation. The voracity with which popular newspapers and popular movies are devoured by the public is easily understood. Daniel J. Boorstin's comment, in his book The Image, though made about newspapers, is as valid for the screen:
'... demanding more than the world can give us, we require that something be fabricated to make up for the world's deficiency.'
Yet although both industries owe their existence to the profit motive, both purport to present their audience with 'reality'. In their more serious, less sensationalized incarnations, there is the avowed aim of telling us 'the truth'. Newspapermen and film-makers alike bend and shape the world they see around them. They are caught in a basic conflict between what sells and what is true.
The Twenties saw an enormous boom in newspapers and magazines, probably as a result of a growth in literacy combined with an increase in leisure time (caused by the introduction of the eight-hour day). New-style tabloid newspapers now provided their own brand of sensations. The New York Daily News set the pattern in 1919 - Hearst's New York Daily Mirror followed, then the Evening Graphic - which rapidly earned itself the nickname 'The Pornographic'.
The margin between truth and salesmanship became greater than ever. The 'tabs' helped boost newspaper circulation from an estimated 25 million at the start of the Twenties to nearly 40 million by the decade's end, serving up murder, corruption sex and scandals to an eager public.
Throughout the silent period of American cinema, there was little on screen that reflected the power of the press. Though a reporter was often the hero of movies, he was simply 'a reporter' whose function was to catch the bad guys and win the heroine's hand. For the movies of this period inhabit a world of their own which has little to do with the complexities of the real world. The best of them are heightened and exquisite fables that discuss and confront only emotional truth.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression forced people to adopt a far more questioning attitude to reality. With the introduction of sound the movies, too, awoke as if from a dream. However beautiful the dream had been, the coming of the talkies meant that real life had to be faced.
The press - quality papers and tabloids alike - had a vital new role to play. And Hollywood, turning to the stage for source material and to writers and actors who could handle the new requirements of spoken dialogue, discovered in the press an exciting range of dramatic possibilities.
The Front Page (1931) had been a hit Broadway play, written by ex-newsmen Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; so too had Five Star Final (1931), penned by one-time editor of 'The Pornographic', Louis Weitzenkorn. The film versions of these plays showed how words, recognizably human (as opposed to idealized) characters, the press and the real world could spell box-office success.
The despotic editor in The Front Page, Walter Burns, was modelled on Walter Howie, the Chicago editor whom Hecht claimed he would not work for 'being incapable of such treachery as he proposed'. Edward G Robinson, fresh from his success in Little Caesar (1930), helped symbolize the link between the gangster film and the burgeoning newspaper genre. Robinson made his anti-hero editor (based on Emile Gauvrau of Evening Graphic) into another kind of Little Caesar - one who washes his hands after each lurid story is printed (as Cauvrau did in real life).
Working for such despotic editors were the heroes of the newspaper movies - the reporters. Very much 'ordinary Joes', blessed with native intelligence and a way with words. They are representatives of the audience in their struggle to get ahead in a chaotic world; 'success' is symbolized by the scoop - that Holy Grail of the city desk. Even so, the integrity of the reporter is frequently compromised by the system and his editor's power. Nothing must stand in the way of selling papers; the truth, if it can be tracked down is fine. Otherwise, 'lies like the truth', in Shakespeare's phrase, will do quite as well.
Just as real-life editors served as models for the characters of The Front Page and Five Star Final, so too was the reporter based on a real-life model. The rise of Walter Winchell from unsuccessful vaudevillian to star reporter on the Evening Graphic served as the basis for at least four newspaper movies in 1932 - Blessed Event, Is My Face Red?, Love Is a Racket, and Okay America. Lee Tracy, Ricardo Cortez, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Lew Ayres are the respective reporters in this quartet, sleuthing (like the private detectives they prefigure), probing, exposing, lying and cheating when necessary, disregarding conventional notions of morality with snap-brimmed humour as smart as their hats.
Roy Del Ruth's Blessed Event - astonishingly fast, consistently funny (in various tones of black humour), amazingly inventive and brilliantly played by Tracy (who was to go from the archetype here to the stereotype in a myriad of other newspaper movies) - may well be the best of all the early movies in the genre. William Wellman's Love Is a Racket is perhaps the most personal and unusual, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr playing a cool reporter who covers up the facts of a murder to protect his girlfriend, played by Frances Dee.
Scandal Sheet (1931) shows an editor (George Bancroft) whose slogan is 'print the news', printing scandalous facts about his wife. Picture Snatcher (1933) stars James Cagney as an ex-jailbird trying to go straight by becoming a press photographer. The film was based on the New York Daily News scandal over the secret photographing of the electrocution of murderess Ruth Snyder. Front Page Woman (1935) has Bette Davis as one of a growing breed of female newshounds competing with George Brent to be first with the news.
But by the middle of the decade, the Hays Office censorship code restrained the kind of raucous, amoral honesty that best characterized these pictures. Their genuine plurality of attitude was watered down again into the old-fashioned black and white issues of silent cinema. Thus William Wellman's Nothing Sacred (1937) - also scripted by Hecht - for all its oddball felicities, is a rather obvious satire on the tabloid press and its readership. Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) cleverly inverts the stereotype of the hard-boiled male reporter by casting Jean Arthur in the role, but in other respects, her slow realization of the inhuman nature of her work - and the harmful effects it has on her character - through the example of Gary Cooper's impossibly innocent bumpkin, is a way of extolling pure American values which the earlier newspaper films had quite clearly exposed as fantasy.
Capra's Mr Deeds is in many ways the other side of the coin he flipped in It Happened One Night (1934), where man-of-the-people Peter Warne (Clark Gable) comes to realize that the rich are people too, especially if they're Claudette Colbert. These films are flabby, whatever their individual niceties, and it takes The Front Page again, now reincarnated as His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940), to bring Hollywood temporarily back to its senses. The previously male role of reporter Hildy Johnson went to Rosalind Russell, brilliantly focusing attention on the relationship between her and the editor Walter Burns (played by Cary Grant). The film brings the decade full circle; its amorality and black humour help to make it a true celebration of the human spirit just because the venality is allowed to show.
Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940) follows Joel McCrea, in the title role, on the trail of a spy ring, and brings the war crashing onto the screen in the climax. 'The lights are going out all over Europe. Ring yourself round with steel, America', is his final report. Claudette Colbert is the female counterpart of McCrea in Mitchell Liesen's Arise My Love (1940). She covers the Spanish Civil War and then carries her typwriter into the global conflict at the end.
But with the war itself bigger than any other story, the newspaper genre was dwarfed by real events. A notable exception was William Wellman's The Story of GI Joe (1945) which paid tribute to reporter Ernie Pyle (played by Burgess Meredith) and his work in telling America what the war was like for the ordinary soldier.
When the war ended, the newspaper movie was never to recapture its former glory. Citizen Kane (1940) is of course much more than a 'mere' newspaper movie, but its scope, size and analysis of the power wielded by the press sounded the death-knell for the old-style journalist film. What was there left to say?
Even so, when a story was seen to be 'sensational' enough, Hollywood had not forgotten how to get a scoop. Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951) is regarded by many as the epitome of the newspaper film, cramming most of the ideas and attitudes of the Thirties' movies into its 111-minute running time. Kirk Douglas paints a superb portrait of the once mighty journalist who exploits the trapped victim of a rock-fall to scoop himself back to the big time. While there is nothing new in the film's attack on a myriad of institutions, its cumulative power is undeniable.
Richard Brooks' Deadline USA (1952) has Humphrey Bogart fighting the Mafia and his own publisher to keep his paper alive. The film is a throwback to the crime-versus-the-press movies of the Thirties; it has the sting of integrity of Brooks' moral fervour.
However, two of the finest newspaper films owe nothing to topicality, existing a loving homage to the very idea of the press as an institution. Park Row (1952) is Samuel Fuller's tribute to his professional heritage, a historical re-creation of the birth of newspaper journalism in the 1880s. Jack Webb's oddly titled -30- (1959), details one night in a newspaper office following the stories entirely from the point of view of the staff in the building. Both films are idealistic and sentimental (Fuller's packing a remarkably personal charge), providing a new perspective on the genre.
A major factor in the decline of the newspaper film in the Sixties and Seventies was, of course, the rise of television. Where once Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas in The China Syndrome (1979) would have been armed with notebook, typewriter and flash camera, they have been transformed into an on-camera reporter and her film cameraman. Only on TV in the Seventies does the essence of the crusading reporter continue to thrive - embodied in the stall of the Lou Grant series. But when a big story breaks, Hollywood and the press can still enjoy their old love-affair, as shown by the phenomenon of All the President's Men (1976). With Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in star roles to guarantee appeal, Allan Pakula's skilful re-creation of the exposé of the Watergate cover-up had all the zeal and crusading fervour of the past, and was itself a positive inversion of the director's earlier The Parallax View (1974) in which the reporter-hero is murdered by the political-assassination group he seeks to expose.
Elsewhere, Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) and Joan Micklin Silver's Between the Lines (1977) have creatively used the idea of the reporter and the underground newspaper respectively, to explore contemporary characters and themes. However, the third version of The Front Page (1974) only served to illustrate how dead and dated the newspaper film is as a genre for the Seventies, and how out of touch Hollywood's old guard (here, Billy Wilder) could be.
The newspaper films of the Thirties thus remain in almost splendid isolation for their technical, moral and emotional qualities. They carry a charge which still works on a modern audience when so many films from the period seem risible, crude or false. Absolute products of their time, they also manage to transcend it, while the similarity of their concerns to those which trouble us today is a tacit comment on both the film and the newspaper industries.