‘Park Row’ Is a Rhapsody on American Journalism—With Fists

[13 June 2011]

By Michael Barrett

“These are the names of the 1,772 daily newspapers in the United States. One of them is the paper you read. All of them are the stars of this story. Dedicated to AMERICAN JOURNALISM.” Thus the opening of Park Row tells you about the time it was made (do you read a daily paper?) and the passion of producer-director-writer Samuel Fuller, here making the first film of his independent company.

The rhapsody doesn’t stop there. Then we open on the large set of the title street, where all the action of the film takes place. A narrator tells us about it, showing us statues of Gutenberg, Benjamin Franklin and Horace Greeley, and we’ll repeatedly visit these figures for the unabashed tear in the eye, the unashamed lump in the throat as Fuller glories in his full-blooded paean to the profession of his youth.

Fuller knocks you over the head with his love, and it’s entirely sincere. When a shoeshine boy pops up from the floor and asks if he can work for the paper because he’s got ink in his veins too, and holds up his dirty little hands like showing the stigmata, it’s a moment few filmmakers could get away with. Since Fuller became a copyboy at twelve, we can sense he’s injecting part of himself into that boy.

In a rare calm scene during this loud, frantic, busy movie, aged codger Josiah Davenport (Herbert Hayes) delivers an authoritative soliloquy on the origin of Edmund Burke’s term “the fourth estate” and goes on: “Some men are born editors. Some are born reporters. But a fighting editor is a voice this world needs. A man with ideals. And the joy of working for an ideal is the joy of living.” Everyone please re-read that.

Davenport’s final words later in the picture include another history lesson, the acquittal by jury of John Peter Zenger in 1734, which is usually cited as the origin of the precedent of a free press. This is another thing the audience needs to hear, and Fuller’s script continues: “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.”

This recalls a WWII B-picture scripted by Fuller, Power of the Press, available in a box called The Samuel Fuller Collection. It keeps repeating that “freedom of the press means freedom to tell the truth, not freedom to twist the truth.” Although written as wartime propaganda, it’s unfortunately and eerily timely, about “traitors” hijacking the press by exploiting people’s emotions and not telling “both sides of the story”. There’s a discussion of the meaning of constructive criticism. It’s all kind of heady, despite creaky melodramatics. Also in that box is a terrific thriller called Scandal Sheet, about a great editor who’s lost his way and undone himself in a murder plot.

Returning to Park Row, the most remarkable technical aspect is John Russell’s camerawork, which almost never stays in one spot except for intimate conversations now and then in a moment of quiet breath. That camera roves restlessly all around the cramped newspaper offices, the saloon, and the 1886 street of offices and shopfronts, pedestrians and wagons, sandwich-board salesmen and hard-drinking newshawks. Many a shot is a tour de force, and one especially violent rampage in and out of doorways during a near-riot seems nearly to knock the camera over.

The story focuses on Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans), fired from his job at The Star because he’s disgusted that glamorous publisher Charity Hackett (Mary Welch) exploited a murder story that Mitchell believes got the wrong man executed. He starts a rival paper, the Globe, and things snowball into a violent war, although Phineas and Charity have great sexual attraction to each other. Charity is a remarkable creation for the era of the film and the era within the film: a totally self-possessed, determined, intelligent equal to the men around her. Too bad she’s on the wrong side.

Is she? The closer one examines the plot, the less we can be sure. First, the movie never confirms Mitchell’s certainty that the wrong man was convicted of murder; that whole point is dropped. And even though everyone on Park Row keeps declaring that Mitchell is a by-god real newspaperman in the tradition of Greeley, as opposed to the blight on the profession of Hackett’s Star, we never see Mitchell report anything besides circulation stunts and manufactured events—a man jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, a drive to raise money for the Statue of Liberty. He’s certainly no crusading muckraker exposing corruption at city hall, so what’s everybody talking about? He seems to be running a cheap tabloid, but Fuller had affection for that, too.

So the story tries to allegorize different concepts of “the press” into a man and a woman who can barely keep their hands off each other, and the desire to best each other professionally can smack of one gender’s resentment and pride as much as physical desire. No wonder the boundaries of journalistic ethics seem blurred.

All this tension of plot and the momentum it creates is little more than a dramatic excuse for what’s really important to Fuller: the style, the passion, and the swirl of historical mythology embracing everything from the invention of linotype and newsstands and screaming headlines to, yes, the Statue of Liberty. As the music stirs and we look at the lady in the harbour, the narrator lays the final words on us: “We want you to know that we have a Statue of Liberty because of a newspaper.” The lump in the throat, the tear in the eye, amen.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/142605-park-row/