26 April 2009
Extra! Extra! Newspapers and Their Reporters as Depicted on the Big Screen
One of the saddest consequences of the recent economic downturn in this country is the demise of so many daily newspapers. Many of those still publishing are on life support. For those of us who love to be able to fold, write on, and carry to the bathroom, our news, these are troubling times. Fortunately there can be some solace found in the usual place. Movies.
Films have a long been successful at capturing the atmosphere of the newsroom. They've also seen the heroic and immoral inherent in so many newspaper people. So while it may not be the same as toting our news, sports, comics and movie listings around, at least we can vicariously experience the excitement of breaking news and investigative reporting. I now provide my readers (both of us) with 10 movies featuring a newspaper reporter. I do not claim this to be a definitive list but I guarantee its a good one. I believe I qualify for this assignment as I am not only a film buff but my first career was as a newspaper reporter.
Edward G. Robinson as Joseph G. Randall in Five Star Final (1931). As powerful a movie on newspapers as was ever made. It's a film that movingly demonstrates that all reporters are not heroes or even nice guys. In this case Robinson is the editor of a scandal sheet plumbing the depth for juicy headlines. When the result of their sleazy tactics is a suicide, the editor's pre existing conscience emerges and he rails at the money mad publishers. Boris Karloff appears as something scarier than Frankenstein. He's a reporter who'll masquerade as a preacher in pursuit of sensational story destroying a happy family in the bargain. Robinson is wonderful as the editor. The great shame of the film is that is currently not available on DVD.
Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford as Bob Woodward in All the Presidents Men (1976). You've heard about them and their story right? Something about Watergate and the ultimate fall of a president. One of the best aspects of the film is the re-creation of the newsroom atmosphere. That sure looks like it must be the actual Washington Post they’re working in. While Redford and Hoffman have earned much deserved praise for their performances, tips of the cap are also in order for Jason Robards, Martin Balsam and Jack Warden as various Post editors. This is a film that somehow managed to be exciting despite the facts that a) we knew how it turned out and b) a lot of what we watch is the daily grind of digging for a story.
Cary Grant as Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940). There is a previous incarnation of the story called The Front Page (1931) and a later The Front Page (1974) with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. They're good but this film is something special. Having Grant and Russell in the leads with Howard Hawks directing is tough to beat, if not impossible. Yes, His Girl Friday was a screwball comedy with a delightful romance mixed in, but it was also a look at a the newspaper biz. With Grant as the uber dedicated editor and Russell the ideal reporter (i.e. someone skilled at writing, interviewing and tracking down a story) we get insight into the thrill of coming up with "the story." Sometimes the story is a fresh angle on a known incident or set of events and sometimes its something the public was totally unaware of. So His Girl Friday is both one helluva lot of fun and an entertaining look at the 4th estate.
Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell in Meet John Doe (1940). A newspaper is acquired by new bosses who comes in and and starts firing people left and right. Among the sacked is female reporter Ann Mitchell. Well, by god she's going out in a blaze of glory by concocting the story of a John Doe fed up with society who's going to speak his peace before dramatically taking his life on New Year's Eve. The story is a hit and the paper has to keep her on board for more installments. Okay so she's deceived the public -- how naughty. But a series of stories comes out of it and a "real" John Doe is found (Gary Cooper, no less). Then a whole political movement is born. Stanwyck is great (when was she ever not?) as was James Gleason as the prototypical editor with ulcers. Doesn't necessarily put newspapers in the best light but then they don't always deserve to be.
Spencer Tracy as Haggerty in Libeled Lady (1936). How far would you go to get a story? How about marrying off your fiance to another guy? Sound weird? It's all part of the one more delightful films of the 1930's or any other time period. It also boasts an all star cast, in addition to Tracy there's Myrna Loy, William Powell and Jean Harlow. Tracy's Haggerty is one of those reporters who'll go to any lengths for a story, as we've seen, and no he doesn't really lose his intended to another man. But does he lose the story? Watch it and find out.
Robert Williams as Stew Smith in Platinum Blonde (1931). He went in search of the big story and came back with a wife. Not only that he married into wealth. Lots of wealth. But like any good reporter Stew Smith isn't beholden to the mighty dollar or the high society it can spawn. He wants to keep working and lead a relatively simple life. Can this marriage last? Will Smith leave the paper for a tux? Whattyou think?
Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane and Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland in Citizen Kane (1941). Many of you may be aware of this obscure film that's earned some critical praise over the years. Of course there's newspaper work splattered all over this film. Watch Kane buy up the best newsmen in town. Watch Kane break the big stories even if he has to create them first. Watch Leland write a scathing review of Kane's beloved, getting drunk to supply the courage. Watch Kane finish the review but fire Leland in the bargain. See the excitement of the newsroom. See how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and the part newspapers can play in the games of power and corruption.
Joel McCrea as John Jones in Foreign Correspondent (1940). Talk about a dedicated professional! War in Europe appears imminent and our hero is sent from the relative safety of New York across the pond in search of the big scoop. Fair enough but he could still just sit in a bar like Robert Benchley (the film's comic relief). Not our intrepid reporter who dashes about chasing Nazis and the story. Along the way Jones nearly gets pushed off a high observatory, pursues assassins through the Dutch countryside and survives a plane crash into the Atlantic. Does he learn anything? Does he get and report and the story? Hey, this is a spoiler free zone. Find out for yourself. Alfred Hitchcock directed. One of my favorite all time movies.
Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Some gossip columnists are lower than wharf rats. Nonetheless these power brokers who deal in pure grade slime have legions of readers and are bowed before like sultans. Lancaster portrayed one such king making, scribe in this classic film. I grew up reading a great but morally commendable columnist, Herb Caen. Others in newspaper history have been scandal mongers. Hunsecker is a great example.
Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery in Zodiac (2007). Many reporters are portrayed as drunks. This may be because they are. Or at least were. During my newspaper days I wasn't shy about taking a drink or 12. Avery was a real life reporter who pursued the story of the Zodiac killer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He had what is euphemistically referred to as a substance abuse problem. Even so he was a fine reporter. Zodiac not only shows us Avery but the paper at which he worked during the 60’s and 70’s -- in historic detail. Of course the real hero of the story is an editorial cartoonist, Robert Graymsith played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and no I'll not be doing a separate post on great cartoonists in films.