The Power of the Pre-Code Press


Originally published on FilmStruck

Of all the institutions that govern our society, none forges a relationship with the public quite like the news media, which furnishes our understanding of the world’s varied goings-on even as it meretriciously peddles a more sordid influence. For the goal of every press outlet is to optimize circulation, and so the specter of sensationalism comes to haunt even the most objectively reported stories. The slope from journalistic pedigree to tabloid tawdriness is a slippery one, indeed, and it is every reporter’s prerogative not to lose his or her footing.

At least, this is the paradigm of the press that 1930’s Hollywood most gainfully exploited for the purposes of screen drama, and FilmStruck has done the redoubtable duty of including three exceptional pre-Code productions in its recent slate of cinema with a journalistic edge. Each of these brilliant studio concoctions involves the opportunistic savvy of newsmen on the prowl, capturing the electric charge of the obstreperous pressroom and the ethical risks that are run in the covetous hunt for the newsworthy morsel. One man’s ruined reputation is the grist for another man’s Sunday column.

THE FRONT PAGE (’31) is the first screen adaptation of the hit Broadway comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur that would later serve as the inspiration for Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY (’40). Where the Hawks version turns the relationship between managing editor Walter Burns and his star reporter Hildy Johnson into a screwball romance between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, the original is a boys’ club through and through. And for Lewis Milestone’s screen adaptation, it is Pat O’Brien who plays the Hildy to Adolphe Menjou’s Burns. The conflict is whether Hildy will choose love and marriage over the more primal thrill of clamping down on a juicy story involving a recently escaped convict who has narrowly avoided a hanging.

The play proved to be something of a blueprint for the screwball press sagas that so dominated in the 1930s, cementing the manic mode of the newsroom milieu. Amidst the din of galloping typewriters crackles the most rarefied streetwise dialogue; the plotting, meanwhile, is at once fleet-footed and supremely intricate. In helming the 1931 screen production, Milestone brought an added innovation to bear on the proceedings – his customary mobile camera, which darts and swivels in lockstep with the frenzied reporters.

For all of the sterling qualities that THE FRONT PAGE has to recommend it, the more unsung FIVE STAR FINAL (’31) and BLESSED EVENT (’32) both tap into the more disturbing implications of what was then known as the gutter press, and are ultimately more scabrous meditations on journalistic ethics. It is no surprise that Warner Bros, then in its most fruitful period of sustained social critique, was responsible for both films.

FIVE STAR FINAL concerns a newspaper in a slump whose city editor, played by Edward G. Robinson, begrudgingly agrees to embark upon a sensationalistic retrospective series on a twenty-year-old murder scandal. It does not seem to cross Robinson’s mind that the ‘murderess’ of the story, played by Frances Starr, is now a respectable member of society who has worked hard to put the past behind her. The film goes to great pains to depict the psychic anguish that is unleashed on Starr’s character, eventually reaching a crescendo of violence and outrage whose exhortative tone is mollified by the all too human emotions of its characters. Among these are Robinson’s secretary, played by Aline MacMahon, who, with a serrated edge of cynicism, delivers the immortal line, “I think you can always get people interested in the crucifixion of a woman.”

BLESSED EVENT (’32) is a film of similar rhetorical excess, happily subsumed to the animated performance of Lee Tracy in the role of a gossip-monger allegedly based on Walter Winchell. Temporarily stationed at the society column of a failing newspaper while its usual custodian is on vacation, Tracy pumps his reportage full of the seediest innuendo – usually of the sort that surrounds ensuing pregnancies, or ‘blessed events’ – and wears every pending libel suit like a badge of honor. The plot charts the various complications of Tracy’s ascent, including pressures from the mob and a feud with a radio crooner played by Dick Powell in his debut film performance. In this freewheeling cascade of sleaze are a number of jokes that could never have possibly flown in the age of the Production Code. And Tracy is absolutely magnetic in his artful scrambling, in the unconscionable lengths he will go to in order to secure a story.

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