Last night, as my Twitter feed filled with items about today’s final print edition of Daily Variety, I got nostalgic. Not so much for the good ol’ days of Daily Variety — I was a nerd as a kid, but I wasn’t that big of a nerd — but for the entire era of great print journalism that seems to slip further and further away with each passing day and newspaper closure (Variety will continue on as a website and glossy weekly). So with all that on my mind, I finally watched “Park Row,” Samuel Fuller’s hugely entertaining tribute to great, muckraking journalism. It made for perfect viewing under the circumstances. Even in a world with “Citizen Kane” and “All the President’s Men,” it might be the greatest movie ever made about newspapers.
At the very least, it’s one of the most affectionate. The film opens with a scroll of newspaper logos, the mastheads of the 1,772 daily newspapers in the United States at the time of “Park Row”‘s 1952 production, according to an onscreen title card. “One of them,” the next card states, “is the paper you read.” The next card: “All of them are the stars of this story.”
That story is set in the mid-1880s on Manhattan’s Park Row, which was then the newspaper capital of the city, if not the world. An idealistic newspaper man named Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans) is fired from his position at a powerful daily named The Star by its unscrupulous baroness, Charity Hackett (Mary Welch). Drowning his sorrows at a Park Row watering hole, a printer overhears Mitchell’s rambling dreams of running his own newspaper “the right way” and offers up his presses. Literally overnight, a new crusading newspaper, The Globe, is born.
Welcome to the glory days of newspapers, when a couple of enterprising journalists could band together out of their pure love of truth and a dedication to higher principles to create a newspaper from scratch. Mitchell and his ramshackle staff print their first edition on scrounged-up butcher paper — they can’t afford real newsprint — but their combination of hard-hitting news and eye-catching front page cartoons are an immediate hit with readers, and their popularity quickly escalates into a full-scale circulation war with The Star and Charity Hackett, who despises Mitchell’s unbreakable ethical code and his clever marketing tactics (Fuller works real 1880s newspaper innovations like newsstands and lineotype machines into “Park Row”‘s fictional storyline).
The battle between The Star and The Globe soon turns violent. In the ensuing mayhem, one of The Globe‘s staff dies — but not before he writes his own obituary and leaves it for Mitchell, who reads it, in full, to his staff. At their darkest hour, it inspires them to carry on. These are his words:
“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, and 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. The press is good or evil according to the character of those who direct it. And The Globe is a good newspaper.”
Fuller, whose specialties as a director were dark war pictures and lurid crime thrillers, was a journalist before he became a filmmaker. He bled ink, as the expression goes, and so does “Park Row.” It’s at once a compelling drama (and even a romance) between two bitter business rivals, and a great ode to the importance of a free press, and it’s full of all sorts of fascinating tidbits about the newspaper business of the 1880s — the origin of the phrase “off the cuff,” the necessity of a “hellbox,” and the delicate nature of typesetting by hand.
In typical Fuller fashion, there’s also humor, drama, fist fights, and plenty of crackling dialogue. It’s beautiful, inspiring stuff. Even if it’s all gone now.
“Park Row” is available from the MGM Limited Edition Collection. It is highly recommended.