Friday, March 2, 2018

Park Row (1952)

“In most countries, there is no freedom of the press. In the United States, there is. This freedom was born in 1734 in the libel trial of John Peter Zenger, printer and publisher of the New York Weekly Journal. He was acquitted by jury.
When anyone threatens your freedom to print the truth, think of Zenger, Franklin, Bennett and Greeley. Think of them. Fight for what they fought for and died for. Don’t let anyone ever tell you what to print. Don’t take advantage of your free press. Use it judiciously for your profession and your country.”
Sam Fuller is a favorite of mine and looking through his filmography, I stumbled on Park Row by accident. It is one of his least-known films, a boisterous tale about New York’s newspaper row and the pioneering days of American journalism at the end of the 19th century. It is Fuller’s love letter to his roots, deeply and honestly felt and evident in every word. And he’s not shy about shouting his love from the rooftops.

Park Row is always neglected when praising Fuller’s films, simply because it’s a one-off. In general his sensibilities didn’t run to the sentimental. Park Row is an utterly charming feel-good movie. This is Fuller does Capra and that’s not what we’ve come to expect from the director who gave us such hard-hitting movies as Shock Corridor or Underworld USA. But that is what makes Park Row so intriguing. 
Fuller was an American patriot, but his love for his country was mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism and social criticism. In most his films, he liked his protagonists to challenge authority and accepted notions of honor and patriotism. Not so here.

Park Row is likely Fuller’s most personal film and the one closest to his heart. Starting at age 12 as a little copyboy, Fuller grew up in the newspaper business and worked as a fully-fledged crime reporter at age 17 for a tabloid. In the newsroom he sharpened his no-nonsense, unsentimental and hard-boiled style, and developed that feel for pulp and grit that would never leave him throughout his career. Not surprisingly, he also became a pulp novelist. 

In the early 50s, Fuller was working for Fox and had given the studio a few successful movies. Fuller put the idea for Park Row to Darryl Zanuck. Zanuck loved it—but envisioned it as a splashy Technicolor musical titled In Old New York. Fuller, like his hero Phineas Mitchell, was obstinate as a mule. He wanted full artistic control over his picture. “I wouldn’t compromise on this project because it was just too important to me. Goddamnit, Park Row was me!” he wrote in his biography A Third Face. So he made the movie on his own terms. 
He wrote, directed and produced himself. He sank every penny of his own money -  $200,000 -  into the production and was very proud of his faithful recreation of “Park Row”, which included a specially built four-block stage. He lost all his money too when the picture, though a critical success, was a box-office flop.

Budget-wise Park Row is a little picture. This must be the cheapest epic ever made. Occasionally the sets look slightly small-scale, artificial and flimsy. When Steve Brodie makes his famous jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, we don’t get to see real thing, only a backdrop. And when Mitchell gives a thug a good whopping against the statue of Ben Franklin (how’s that for overwrought symbolism?), it shakes a bit. Never mind.
Fuller could pack more dynamite into a cheap B movie than most other directors with money to burn into prestigious A productions. Fuller was the undisputed champion of low-budget greatness.
What the movie lacks in budget, it makes up for with ingenuity, enthusiastic direction, great dialogue and brilliant cinematography that turns it into a small masterpiece.
Numerous films have celebrated the profession of journalism, but none other has done so with more adoration than Park Row.

It’s a movie that seems to polarize the viewers. Love it or hate it. Some found it overly sentimental. To me it’s Americana at its best, a glowing tribute to the American Spirit in the face of seemingly unsurmountable adversity. And to the underdog who never gives up.

The picture’s opening shot is beautiful: a scroll listing the names of all 1,722 newspaper in the country. Park Row is dedicated to each and every one of them. Then we see a little placard reading: “Samuel Fuller Productions” in Gutenberg’s hand. A cheeky little touch.

There’s no slack time in the movie. Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans) is fired from the successful but unprincipled rag The Star by its owner and publisher, the ironically named Charity Hackett (Mary Welch) for criticizing her work ethics. Her trial by media (sound familiar?) cost a man his life. Nursing his sorrows over a glass of beer, Mitchell dreams of starting his own paper. He’s overheard by printer Charles Leach (Forrest Taylor) who’s willing to front the operation for him. With the help of other unemployed drinkers and thinkers Mitchell sets to work. Publishing the first issue of the newly-minted Globe - just four pages on a short deadline - the new kids on the block become an overnight sensation. Mitchell’s publishing ethos is truth and serious news, not sensationalism and circulation numbers. This doesn’t sit well with Charity who won’t take her rival’s success laying down. The news world is cutthroat and highly competitive and so she starts a guerrilla war. But you can’t keep a good man down. 

The stars of the movie are relative unknowns. But do they deliver! 
Gene Evans, who Fuller had used to great success in The Steel Helmet, plays streetwise newshound Mitchell. It’s a two-fisted, gruff and virile performance. Usually a supporting player, Evans carries the film effortlessly. Idealistic, pugnacious and bursting with barely contained energy, the man is a mover and shaker. A larger-than-life hero with with a vision and integrity. He is the conscience of the newspaper profession.
He never loses sight of his mission.  He prints on butcher paper when he can't get newsprint. He comes up with new inventions, like wooden newsstands and a new faster-working printing press. He also starts a campaign to raise funds for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. And he has one thing that his competitor Charity is missing: a sense of right and wrong. 
Clearly Mitchell is Fuller’s thinly-veiled alter-ego.

There’s absolutely no subtlety in Evans’ performance but then, there’s absolutely no subtlety in this film. Neither Fuller nor his characters are understated. Fuller paints his characters with broad strokes. He could be heavy-handed at times, he wielded a fist with a mighty sledgehammer in it. But at least he knew how to use the sledgehammer and hit his mark without fail every time.

Mary Welch is perfectly cast as severe, aristocratic and occasionally saucy Charity Hackett. When Victorian heroines get saucy, they get saucy! She's a high-born beauty who likes to take the low road. As long as a story promises to be lucrative enough to sell papers, she’ll print it, truth be damned. She’s a great antagonist for Mitchell. Initially always clad in funereal black, she seems to be frigid in every way. Over time she begins to thaw though and feel ashamed of the dirty tactics she - or mostly her underlings - use to boost circulation. Over the course of the film her clothes lighten up and so does she…There is a heart beating under that icy veneer.
From the beginning there’s a simmering attraction between the Mitchell and her, though they barely touch. Their love/hate relationship sizzles but it’s twisted as they practically plot to destroy each other. Their romance is dark and adult and decidedly not disneyfied. If you like your romances wishy-washy, look elsewhere. Some found it clunky, I found it sexy.
Welch was a well-known theater actress and this was unfortunately her only movie role. She died at the young age of 36 in childbed.

There’s also a first-rate cast of wonderful supporting actors. A typesetter who can’t read; a little shoeshine boy who wants to be a newspaper man; a world-weary aged reporter who feels he’s outlived his time and usefulness, but gets a second chance at life. These people become Mitchell’s family, a tight-knit group who stand by each other. One for all and all for one.

There is just something incredibly romantic about old-fashioned newspaper stories. Fuller immerses us the in the milieu: we see the enormous roaring printing press and the frenetic rush to deadline; we pick up a little newspaper lingo; we learn technical details about sorting movable type and the invention of Ottmar Mergenthaler's revolutionary Linotype, a new and faster typesetting machine which was the first mechanical revolution in typesetting since Gutenberg's press. The real Mergenthaler worked for the New York Tribune but Fuller simply moves him and his invention to the fictional Globe as a matter of narrative convenience. And - as this is a story - of course the machine ear-piercingly comes to life just when it is needed most.

Interestingly enough, for someone so concerned with the truth, Fuller took a great deal of artistic license here. He did extensive research into the real life pioneers of modern print, but the picture is history mixed with folklore and fiction plus a lot of journalistic name-dropping. In reality there was no Mitchell, no Globe, and the fundraising for the Statue of Liberty was organized by Pulitzer.
Despite Fuller’s claims to the contrary, the film works best if we don’t take it as gospel. There’s truth behind the story, if not in it. The rest is simply great storytelling.

Other pictures about the newspaper business showed journalism to be a dirty and deeply cynical racket (Ace in the Hole, Sweet Smell of Success). There’s none of that Park Row. Idealism and exuberant optimism define the film. It’s a nostalgia piece which wears its sentimentality proudly on its sleeve, though the picture stays just this side of maudlin and evades the pitfalls of sappiness. The sentimentality is undercut frequently by the depiction of the extremely violent and dirty newspaper wars. Smear campaigns, ugly beatings and explosions that maim children were daily occurrences.

Park Row is a film full of noble ideals and starry-eyed reverence for its subject. It could all be laughable, but it is not.
When Mitchell waxes poetically about the beauty of Constitutional freedoms and the importance of a free press as guardian of Democracy - see quote above -  there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Yes, the speeches are BIG, but then it’s about BIG issues. Everything about this movie is BIG, except for the budget. Fuller likes to spell things out in caps! In the opening credits he dedicates his film to AMERICAN JOURNALISM (in all caps!). 

Is it bombastic? Undoubtedly. Is the hamminess poured on rather thick? Occasionally. The movie no doubt has its flaws: flowery dialogue filled with hyperbole, obvious attempts at symbolism, protagonists that are a little too one-note… but every criticism that could be hurled at the movie Fuller just bulldozes right over with sheer enthusiasm.
It is testament to Fuller's storytelling ability that it all works. It may be unapologetically sentimental, but it’s also unapologetically sincere.

In general I give a wide berth to anything that could even remotely be called inspirational or uplifting. It always smacks of Hallmark card schmaltz to me and that makes me run for the hills. But Fuller’s passion is so infectious that it makes the movie virtually bullet-proof.
So there, you got me. I’m a sucker.

- 30 - (sorry, couldn't resist)

4 comments:

  1. Park Row is Fuller's "print the legend", and it is wonderful. Surprisingly, it is the first Fuller picture I showed my daughter. She remembers it fondly, but it certainly didn't prepare her for what was to come.

    I compliment you on your review and insights into the movie, and for your ending as well.

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  2. Thanks. :) I actually shed some tears while watching. I'm such a pushover.
    I thought about using the "print the legend" phrase, but then decided against it. Well, maybe I'll fit it in somehow.

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  3. Replies
    1. I didn't think it would be quite your thing, Joe. :)

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