Ever since movies started to talk in the 1920s, newspapers have been a favorite film subject or background -- as two soon-to-be released movies, "Message in a Bottle" (scheduled to open Feb. 12) and "True Crime" (scheduled to open March 19), may prove once again.
Clint Eastwood-directed thriller with Clint as an alcoholic journalist trying to spring an innocent man from execution -- much more than to "Message in a Bottle," even though it was supposedly partly shot right here at the Chicago Tribune. (Actually what we'll see is the Tribune re-created on soundstages: Most of the movie follows a romance in North Carolina between message-sender Kevin Costner and Hollywood's idea of a Tribune staff researcher Robin Wright Penn.)
Eastwood over Costner seems a good bet. But, to tell the truth, the idea of a newspaper movie lacks the old sure thrill it had when I was young: The crackle, the energy, the "stop the presses" excitement and romance that once were a hallmark of movies about journalism seem to have vanished.
With few exceptions, the great newspaper movies are decades in the past. (See accompanying list.) "Citizen Kane" (which is scheduled to screen Feb. 13 as part of LaSalle Bank's ongoing Classic Film Series) and "His Girl Friday" (Howard Hawks' sex-change version of Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur's "The Front Page"), the two movies that, for me, have long defined the way I see newspaper movies, were made in 1941 and 1940, respectively. And the only news movie in recent years that gave me a similar buzz -- which had some of that old liveliness, brains and insider savvy translated to today -- was Oliver Stone's war reporting movie "Salvador," back in 1986.
Since then, and throughout the 1980s and '90s, there have been too many unimaginative movies, too many overcontrived message pictures like 1981's "Absence of Malice" (with its phony moral conflict, preachiness and surprisingly tolerant attitude toward a Miami crime boss). And too many strained throwbacks like 1994's "The Paper," which tried to re-create some of the old sizzle with a modern-day symbolic battle between New York papers, one vaguely resembling the lowbrow tabloid Daily News, the other the staid, upper-class Times. (And, to stretch the genre to TV news, too much soap operatic nonsense like 1996's "Up Close & Personal," a movie in which the sordid Jessica Savitch story was turned into "A Star Is Born.")
Though newspaper movies may look right these days -- may even be shot at actual newspaper offices -- they rarely feel right. Once upon a time, the Chicago Tribune was incarnated in the movies by the fictitious Roy Bensinger in all three versions of "The Front Page": an overly neat and effete fuss-budget Tribune crime reporter who drove his colleagues crazy with his obsessive tidying up in the Criminal Courts Building press room.
Now we're represented on screen by actress Wright Penn as a glamorous, love-starved researcher -- somebody who could probably drive her colleagues crazy for different reasons.
A big change? Unfortunately, yes. And not just because Edward Everett Horton, Ernest Truex and David Wayne, three actors who played Bensinger in the movies, are so much less sexy than Wright Penn. "The Front Page" represents the peak of the old romance of journalism: with its tale of double-dealing editor Walter Burns, his exasperated and now about-to-retire star reporter Hildy Johnson, and how they come together while chasing news on the eve of Hildy's wedding and the night before the execution of hapless Radical killer Earl Williams.
This is the one play and movie that, when I was a kid, made me want to be a reporter. It was a feast of great dialogue and wonderful sarcasm, breakneck fast, whiplash smart and totally irreverent -- about everything. Its gaggle of crime reporters, at their eternal poker game, joshed each other with deadly wit.
That script, by ex-Chicago newspaper reporters Hecht and MacArthur, not only entertained you to the max. It also made you hunger to enter the world it described so shrewdly and knowingly, with its corrupt politicians, inept police and wiseacre reporters.
Director Howard Hawks once claimed that "The Front Page" had the funniest modern dialogue of its day. And he was right. But we don't see newspapers the way we once did. And we definitely don't show them with the same bracing and magical irreverence. In real life as well: Turn on the TV and you'll see a gaggle of contemporary reporters trying to be witty, glamorous and shrewd -- and mostly failing miserably.
Once movie reporters were masters of the unruly wisecrack, the devastating jibe. Now the fictional ones perch before their computer screens waiting for The Big Story (or The Big Romance) to break. One longs sometimes for a Walter Burns to show up and fire them all.
So, what about the conditions that helped produce "Citizen Kane" and "His Girl Friday"? They're over half a century in the past -- part of an era when ex-reporters like Hecht and MacArthur (and ex-newspaper critics like the Dorothy Parker Algonquin Round Table crowd) regularly wrote for the movies. Even at their best, and even when they're written by ex-reporters (like "Absence of Malice's" Kurt Luedtke), the newspaper movies of recent years lack both irreverence and authority.
Maybe it's because we can't accept the old myths. And maybe it's because no similarly enticing new myths have arisen to replace them. And maybe it's because newspapers and their workplaces have changed so much they can't possibly recapture the thrill of the '20s and '30s.
How can one match the furious tempo and nerve-rattling pace of an old '30s movie newsroom from even a second-rate picture like "Five Star Final" (1931) or "Blessed Event" (1932): cheerful madhouses with typewriters clattering, editors barking orders and everything blending into the seductive din.
Not with anything resembling the quieter (computer keyboards vs. the old clattering typewriters), more consciously corporate offices of today's papers. (Places a Roy Bensinger would have loved.)
Nowadays, in fact, it's the movies about broadcast or film journalism -- like 1997's "Welcome to Sarajevo" (about international TV crews covering the Bosnian War) -- that seem to capture some of old energy.
When Hecht and MacArthur originally wrote "The Front Page," they thought they were writing an expose in acid of a world they were glad to leave. Instead, they later realized, just like Hildy Johnson did, that they hated to leave and that their muckraking play was really a sort of valentine to the spikey, racy, high-pressure, wildly romantic newsrooms that now are no more. Movie audiences -- and especially some of us who work at newspapers -- only wish they were.