Sam Fuller and the New York Tabloid
This week’s films share a theme, a year of release and an inspiration. Tabloid journalism, 1952, and Sam Fuller.
Fuller worked as a New York copyboy from the age of 12 and a crime reporter from 17. By the nineteen thirties he was also writing screen plays and pulp novels. One of them ‘The Dark Page’ was filmed as 1952’s ‘Scandal Sheet’ by Noir specialist Phil Karlson. The same year Fuller, by now a successful low budget director of war movies sunk his own money into ‘Park Row’ a dramatisation of the birth of the New York Tabloid culture. This hands on approach was necessary after studios had looked at his script and suggested a musical version.
Given Fuller’s reputation for blunt almost luridly macho movie making this might seem incredibly incongruous but Park Row is in fact a very straight historical movie.
Fuller works in anecdotes handed down from the old timers he had worked with in the ‘20s and there is a vibrant edge to the movies setting but he is also genuinely excited about the importance of the shift to cheaper paper and populist campaigns. This is a director, and writer, who simply loved newspapers unironically and expected you to fall for Gene Evans’ straight talking newsman the way Mary Welch’s society girl competitor does.
Evans’ plays a newsman, thrown off Welch’s market leading Star for criticising its methods. He starts up a competitor, the Globe, cutting every corner he can to get an edition out every day he rides all of Welch’s underhand attacks to win the market and her love. It’s a film that paints the newspaper world and dangerous and ruthless but intoxicating and bigger even than the self mythologizing people whose legends it buys into whole heartedly. In truth there’s not much more depth to the movie than that and the actors don’t really bring all that much to the table. Welch although an effective femme fatale is also something of a cipher, if you were being unkind she is really just there to show that all the ladies loved the crusading newsmen just as much as the young Fuller clearly did. But that doesn’t really matter because by that point you are swept up in the romance of it all too and Fuller knows how to sell a story.
In the end it’s that sincere love that makes the film, it’s a personal movie, written, directed even financed by Fuller and if not drawn from his own life at least from the hand me down stories of his youth. A genuinely auteurist piece that tells a solid story and a bunch of cool anecdotes that clearly matter so much to the director. It is stylish and rattles along and does what it sets out to do, makes you nostalgic for an era you didn’t know and a newspaper you wouldn’t buy.
Karlson’s ‘Scandal Sheet’ is probably the better movie. It’s nastier, better structured and with a beadier eye on the prize. This isn’t 40 year old Fuller reminiscing from Hollywood about the good old days, this is the younger Fuller mining the world he knew for a lurid page turner to make his mark.
Broderick Crawford plays Editor Mark Chapman, making a huge splash at the New York Express as he takes it aggressively down market. John Derek’s star reporter is in awe of his methods, lying to the family of murder victims to get a quote and set for big things under his tutelage. This doesn’t do much for his standing with Donna Reed, the one genuinely wholesome thing in a fairly seedy movie.
One of the many populist ideas driving sales is a lonelyhearts ball and there Crawford comes across the wife he had deserted years earlier before changing his name and starting his rise in the news business. Going back with her to her rented room he sees the possibility of his new life and the respectable wealth a promise of shares in the paper holds shattering in front of him and murders her.
The fatalistic, greek tragedy, feel of this scene, of someone who can’t escape his past whatever lengths he goes to try is pure noir and sets the tone of the rest of the film perfectly. Crawford gets panicky and still needs more sales to get his shares. The prospect of a lonely heart being murdered after attending the paper’s ball is just too much and the paper piles on the readers selling the story. The rest of the movie is predictable in the way all the best noir’s are. Crime follows crime, lie is built upon lie, murder necessitates murder.
It’s an excellent noir and in its own way as much of a love letter to papers as ‘Park Row’. It shares Fuller’s movies’ pleasure in the company of the drunken old timers who remember when a paper was really a paper and its heroes are prepared to fight dirty to get a story. Everyone, well everyone except Donna Reed, is compromised but they all still hold journalism itself up as an ideal and in that, if nothing else, they are sincere.
Derek’s supposed lead character doesn’t give you much to grab hold of, there is nominally a romantic thread going on with Reed, but he deserts her, and more importantly, his own nose for a story at the crucial point. Reed however is shown to be just as much of a journalistic true believer and it is is actually her eye for a story that wins out and drives the story on. She’s the one who doesn’t give up, she’s the one who still sees value in the old timers, she rather than Crawford’s editor or Derek’s hotshot is the real newshound. And in that she joins the likes of Jean Arthur or Rosalind Russell as that other classic of the Hollywood imagination, the girl reporter.
Two very enjoyable, largely forgotten movies. Fuller’s own movie is probably the tamer of the two, Scandal Sheet is a really seedy noir in the style of ‘Ace in the Hole’ but they make a nice pair. Park Row has recently been released on the excellent ‘Masters of Cinema’ imprint. Scandal Sheet is available on a Sam Fuller box set or an Italian region 2 release.