Monday, July 4, 2011

Park Row (Samuel Fuller, 1952)

Sam Fuller's Park Row is his most optimistic feature. Contrary to his cynical depiction of sleazy tabloid muckraking in such pictures as Shock Corridor, Park Row is an unabashed love letter to the newspaper. It opens with a scroll over the names of the 1,772 daily papers in circulation at the time (that number is now down below 1,422) and a title reading "All of them are the stars of this story." For good measure, Fuller dedicates the film to AMERICAN JOURNALISM in all caps. Even in his acknowledgments, the man hated subtlety.

Numerous films exalt the profession of journalism; it's a byproduct of so many classic screenwriters getting their starts in papers. Even Charles Foster Kane, megalomaniac and bender of truth, finished his exhausted friend's scathing review of his mistress' dismal opera performance for the sake of the story. But I can't think of any film that believes in and so powerfully adores the very idea of journalism as this. Though it climaxes in grandiose, almost comically violent fashion, Park Row's idealistic mood suggests that Fuller would arrive at the same celebratory conclusion if the most important story covered in the film were a dog show.

Fuller advertises his idealism from the first proper shot, pulling back from his production credit to show it in the bronze hand of a statue of Johannes Gutenberg erected in Park Row, the street near City Hall lined with newspaper publishers. Then, he goes for the blunt realism, moving immediately into the nearest bar to find the newsmen. Chief among these drinkers and thinkers is Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans, who played the gruff sergeant in Fuller's The Steel Helmet), who stares disgustedly at the newspaper he works for, looking at an editorializing headline that triumphs in the execution of a criminal we learn faced trial primarily because of the Star's public smear campaign. When the publisher, a wealthy heiress ironically named Charity (Mary Welch), arrives, Mitchell drunkenly castigates her for this dishonesty, prompting her to casually fire him.

Phineas dreams of starting his own paper, and his prayers are answered with an eavesdropping benefactor offers to finance this new rag. It is telling that Fuller, who never met a moment he didn't oversell, plays the old man's idealistic speech about his love of journalism over complete silence. Fuller's unabashed enthusiasm for the artform—for that is how he presents the profession—is readily apparent without any swelling music, though that too comes later. Soon, Phineas' 1¢ daily paper is the toast of the town, as if the average citizen is drawn to the passion and verve that radiates from its ink, igniting a paper-war between Mitchell's globe and Miss Hackett's Star, a war that becomes absurdly literal.

Yes, as idealistic as Fuller is with this picture, he's still Fuller, and soon the picture turns violent as the director shows rapid escalation of physical and intellectual combat between the two papers. Using his aggressive but inventive direction to great effect, Fuller always finds a way to tie the pandemonium back into journalism: Phineas enacts revenge upon an attacker by beating him against a statue of Benjamin Franklin. Both sides fight over the first Linotype machine, the first great mechanical revolution in typesetting since Gutenberg's pres, as if it were a secret weapon to turn the tide of a war, the ability to go to print faster as vital as a new bomb or machine gun.

A war veteran and tabloid hack, Fuller always made his characters sound both like soldiers and copy writers, and those two threads never converged so openly in his other films. The rough-and-tumble, committed newsmen already have a determination to them, but when punches (and even bombs) get thrown, the broad characters almost resemble soldier stereotypes. There's the old codger looking for one last cause before hanging it up and the German inventor who almost seems a political prisoner, trapped between two powers that wish to exploit him. There's also the immigrant whose illiteracy and innocence belies the fact that he's the hardest worker of the bunch—Angelo is so good and fast at typesetting despite his illiteracy that Phineas warns him, "The day you learn to read, you're fired." Phineas corrals them all, his conviction only hardening with every broken truce and every betrayed feeling for the beautiful Charity, who allures him despite their conflict.

Crucially, Fuller juxtaposes Mitchell and Hackett as people both pursuing selfish, self-centered goals. Charity, who grew up in privilege, defends the power structure, goading the police into executing that troublemaker and railing about taxes in protest of the state raising money for the pedestal for the incoming Statue of Liberty. On the other hand, Phineas, the streetwise writer who's lived among the people, pursues a more populist approach, albeit one also designed to sell papers. He rallies around the Statue of Liberty as much for its commercial appeal as his ideological beliefs.

Nevertheless, that idealism ultimately defines the film even with its dip into guerrilla warfare. The conflation of the newspaper, the representation of Constitutional free speech and (of course) free press, with the symbolic importance of America—visualized by the Statue of Liberty—makes for a pulpy, in-your-face yet utterly romantic ode to journalism as the purest expression and defense of American ideals. Seen today, the love-hate relationship between Phineas and Charity subtly points toward the incestuous relationship between papers and a wry visualization of the pack journalism mentality. Yet the point Fuller clearly makes here is that, regardless of ideological slant and good ol' profit motive, journalists understand and respect each other, and their passion is infectious. Like America itself, Park Row is brutish, violent and self-mythologizing, but it is also representative of the uniquely loft heights of our national potential, a paean to a revolutionary set of beliefs as beautiful and inviting as they are contradictory. Fuller's films have always struck me as quintessentially American, and that's never more apparent than here.


  1. Fuller is a great director and this is one is very much in the vein of a Citizen Kane type of film, but infused with all of his journalism background. He definitely loves to play up the pulpy melodrama. It's great stuff though.

  2. Yeah, it's one of my favorites of his, maybe second only to The Big Red One.