In the old days, journalism and movies made perfect bedfellows. Many screenwriters, after all, had at one time been newspaper men, and the early films about the profession are filled with a raffish love of deadlines, fast patter, conniving but good-hearted news hounds sniffing out perfidy in high places or low, all told with a breezy look-ma-no-hands kind of elan.
And now . . . they still make perfect bedfellows. Both have changed, but into the same thing. Newspapers, like movie studios, are part of a larger corporate picture, in which their contribution is but one tiny part of a mega-media pie that also involves cable television, book publishing, mall ownership, magazines, an entire culture of huckstering. Marketing departments have a lot to do with the final shape of "the product." Demographics rule: Everybody is wooing "the young."
You see it most of all in the newsroom. Something left newspapering as a way of life when old men stopped spitting on the floor and young men and women started getting graduate degrees in journalism. We're professional now: The film critic isn't the drunken and otherwise unemployable son of the publisher's sister (he's a thinking, caring kind of '90s guy and a consummate knight of the Fourth Estate), and the reporters aren't fleeing creditors and coppers while stealing nips from their hip flasks. Journalism has gone corporate. A newspaper office looks like an insurance office. It's so . . . buttoned-down it makes your teeth ache.
What brings these musings to mind is the odd congruence of "I Love Trouble," the recently opened newspaper film with Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte, and "Extra! Extra!" a film series the Baltimore Film Forum has on tap that recapitulates the early days of the minor but vivid newspaper-movie genre with a series of 8 p.m. Thursday screenings at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August.
So there you have it: new newspaper films vs. old newspaper films. What can it all possibly mean? Well, what any survey of the films suggests is how divided the public vision of the newspaper has been over the years; quite early in the American film industry, filmmakers were looking at the deeper meanings of journalism with regard to society. It's a troubling subject.
One thing that becomes almost immediately clear is a dichotomy running through the genre. One half of it might be called newspaper sentimentality, in which the newspaper as an institution and reporting as a profession are seen in romantic terms. The forms vary: Sometimes it's played for comedy and sometimes as sanctimony.
"The Front Page" (which will conclude the BFF series Aug. 18) and "His Girl Friday" (which will be shown July 14) are prime examples of the sentimental approach to journalism. They represent the glory days of American journalism, Chicago in the 1920s, when five dailies thrived and competed for the news and for readership. Written by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (two very clever ex-reporters), the stories chronicle the war of wits between a tough city editor and his star reporter to get a big story about an escaped criminal in the Chicago courthouse. "His Girl Friday" was a remake (Charles Lederer rewrote the script with Hecht), with a clever casting trope, using Rosalind Russell in the reporter role, setting up a sexual tension between her and her editor, Cary Grant. Howard Hawks directed at breakneck pace.
The key value in each film is confidence: The stories took off from an assumption of central position that the newspaper enjoyed at that stage in American culture, when what newspapers said was thunderously important to the municipal, if not the national, psyche. Like the movies, the newspapers of the era essentially enjoyed a monopoly: There was no television (enemy to both movies and newspapers), no CNN, certainly no USA Today. The two sets of newspaper professionals who skitter through the two films were like young lords at play in the fields of the Lord: They had a sublime sense of self-importance.
As it turns out, "I Love Trouble" fits neatly into this tradition, with Nolte and Roberts attempting to re-create the sublimated sexual tension and verbal fireworks that underlay "His Girl Friday," with the older Nolte in the Cary Grant role and the younger Roberts standing in for Roz Russell. In that sense, the film is a success: Its best thing is the verbal byplay that is a submerged version of foreplay. The erotic tension is both interesting and amusing.
It's as a thriller that "I Love Trouble" fizzles. In the original "Front Page" and "His Girl Friday," there was no need to kill so many people (or anybody), or to portray the universe as so universally menacing, with hit men popping out of the shadows and spraying the place with automatic weapons.
Why was this done? Well, here's my conspiracy theory of what's behind the strange doubleness of "I Love Trouble." Of course it's that villain of the '90s, marketing. To be commercially viable, the filmmakers had to be able to sell the film to both young women and young men. In other words, there had to be material that could sustain two separate advertising campaigns, divided by gender. "I Love Trouble" is being sold to women as a romantic comedy, with TV ads featuring the romantic by-play, the sexiness of the players, the chemistry between them. In a parallel ad campaign, it's being sold to young men as a pure thriller, with machine guns, shootings, violent deaths, a sleet of shattered glass and a massive train wreck. In other words, the ad campaign was more important than the movie, and it shows.
The sentimental approach
Other films that take the sentimental approach to journalism include "Call Northside 777," where reporter Jimmy Stewart saves an unjustly jailed man; "30," the old Jack Webb newspaper movie; and, in modern times, "All the President's Men" and even "The Paper," which treats modern news gathering as an unruly, desperate but ultimately creative process. My one disappointment in the BFF series is that it's somehow neglected Richard Brooks' "Deadline, U.S.A." (1952), which gets my vote as, even today, the best newspaper movie ever made.
Brooks, a former reporter himself, looked at the last day of a major daily that was being bought and closed down by a larger corporate competitor; managing editor Humphrey Bogart was on the track of a big story that quite predictably turned on municipal malfeasance and organized crime, while dozens of other minor subplots played out their little stories. But the key moment came when the immigrant mother of a murder victim had to decide whether to turn evidence over to the corrupt police or the newspaper, and she chose the newspaper because "When I come to this country, who teach me to speak American? Newspaper. And when my daughter is killed, who try to find her killer? Police? No. Newspaper." Would that we meant so much to even a single reader today!
The second approach to journalism is far darker and sees in the tracking of public opinion the bleaker possibility of controlling it. These films are not so much anti-press tracts as cautionary tales warning of dangers the framers of the First Amendment were unable to imagine. Filmmakers, as well as many others, worry about the press having too much power, but the surprise to some may be that this isn't a recent, post-Watergate development; it's actually quite ancient. It figures pre-eminently in "Citizen Kane," which leads off the BFF series Thursday.
"Citizen Kane" (1940) does a number of things as well as they've ever been done. It was the first major American film to break down narrative into a complex scheme of flashbacks and reiterations (it may be the first formal postmodernist film) and to exploit fully the possibilities of overlapping dialogue and other forms of naturalistic sound. For those two reasons alone, it is as watchable today as it was in 1940, which can be said of almost no other 1940 movies.
But those are artistic values; in terms of social policy (its nominal content, not its form), it is a critique of the old corporate sin, which was journalism by mogul: What happens to public discourse when a press baron controls 200 newspapers, and those papers, rather than reflecting the chaotic babble of democratic discourse, hew exactly to his line? Kane, of course, is based on William Randolph Hearst, a bogyman to the liberals of the early 20th century, whose hundreds of jingoistic newspapers hawked his line of America-firstism and populist rabble-rousing, while their proprietor lived an opulent life with a movie star paramour.
Of course, part of the genius of "Citizen Kane" is that unlike many liberal screeds, it paused to be a work of profound art, too, in that it saw Kane as a profoundly alienated, tragically unhappy man, locked in patterns of self-destructive behavior that made him seem as much a victim as a villain.
Another film in the series that plays with the idea of the corruption of journalistic power is "The Big Clock," derived from Kenneth Fearing's brilliant little novel. (Incidentally, when the movie was remade in the early '80s, the big journalism milieu was exchanged for a big government one, and it was called "No Way Out," with Kevin Costner.) But in its original, it's about a press lord who murders his mistress and is stunned to find the crime being investigated by the ace reporter for his Time-like newsmag.
Here, the version of another press lord, Henry R. Luce, is unmistakable. Unlike "Kane," the drama is more interior than exterior, but the implication is the same: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In this 1948 film noir, the press lord is played by Charles Laughton, and Ray Milland, much underestimated common man of the '40s, is the reporter.
Journalism's dark potential
Another variant of the same idea is "Scandal Sheet," which the BFF shows Aug. 11. A melodrama directed by tough guy Phil Karlson from a novel by tough guy Samuel Fuller (who later himself became a tough guy director), it follows a similar scenario to "The Big Clock," with a corrupt managing editor being investigated by his own ace reporter.
Those films clearly locate the dark potential of journalism in the corruption of important figures. "Absence of Malice," not included in the series, which was directed in 1981 by Sydney Pollack from a screenplay by former managing editor of the Detroit Free Press Kurt Ludtke, examines a more pernicious yet banal press possibility: the manipulation of a gullible reporter by an ambitious district attorney. Trial by press, in other words: It could have been ripped from today's headlines. It's enough to make you spit on the floor.
The Baltimore Film Forum returns to the early days of newspaper movies with the series "Extra! Extra!". The films will be shown Thursdays through Aug. 18 at 8 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive, near Charles and 31st streets. Tickets are $5, general admission, $4 for film forum and museum members, seniors and students. For more information, call (410) 889-1993.
* "Citizen Kane," July 7
* "His Girl Friday," July 14
* "It Happened One Night," July 21
* "The Big Clock," July 28
* "The Philadelphia Story," Aug. 4
* "Scandal Sheet," Aug. 11
+ * "The Front Page," Aug. 18