The Newspaper Picture
April 9-May 6 at Film Forum
It may seem as though the new Film Forum series of 1930s-50s newspaper movies is only repackaging/re-genre-izing Golden Era films the die-hard retro house has already shown in scads of other contexts. Let’s face it, programmer Bruce Goldstein and his team simply do not balk at any new opportunity to showcase noirs and pre-noirs and Lee Tracy movies. But the essential invention of this subgenre—which are really comedies or mysteries, nitromethane-fueled by hot-brained, motormouth reporters in the classic urban-American style—might just be a masterstroke. Is there a class of film, besides the history-specific emergence of noir, that says as much about American life? Westerns, musicals and romantic comedies were their own brands of fantasy, but the newspaper movie, with its boundless cynicism and keep-it-moving pace and narrative need to know what happened, captures a sense of our national character that’s unique and that hasn’t faded a pixel since. In fact, if anything, today’s ascendency of neverending cable news and instant local website reporting and yowling up-to-the-minute punditry has manifested the soul of the amoral, blabbering Tracy newshound into a cultural status quo, coming at us from every direction every microsecond of the day.
The series dawdles with the prime noir period, the ’50s, with grim-visage muscularities like Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), but in that context the newspaperman is merely another embittered pawn crisscrossing the genre’s endlessly expressive alleys and hallways and night streets alongside the luckless war vets, petty crooks and slapped-around femmes. The American reporter isn’t an axiom of noir, just one of its many victims, and his fact-finding compulsion will soon enough end up in at a dead end or in a shallow grave. These can be great films, but they’re noirs, and in the country of noir we’re all equal and equally privileged by darkness.
No, what we mean by “newspaper movie” happened during the Depression, and with the advent of talkies. Reporters had driven stories before, but in the sound era they drove them with their mouths, adopting a kind of comic, slang-clotted tough-guy delivery originated on the stage but borrowed equally from the city streets, which teemed with the first generation of Americans born of millions of European immigrants. Whatever kind of discourse we had before, now we had throngs of Irish, Italian and Eastern European urchins and workers, relentlessly reinventing the universal lingo and defining the dog-eat-dog American city as a distinct chunk of space-time, where wealth and success awaited the quick and merciless, and speed was the name of the game.
What better milieu in which to make talkies? You watch Tracy, who has pride of place in the subgenre and at the Film Forum, execute a patch of scripted dialogue, and it’s like watching a spider web-spin in fast-motion. How did audiences keep up? They did, that’s all, and therein lurks the real wonderment to be had before the spectacle of Hollywood product like The Front Page (1931), Blessed Event (1932) or The Power of the Press (1943)—these were mass-produced narrative entertainments comprised almost entirely of dialogue, cataracts of human discourse, stories told densely with tongues and lungs. Today, an exchange of dialogue that surpasses one lone minute and features more than four swapped lines is an aberration—a taxing irritant amid the swooshing tides of digital noise and body-fluid pratfall and silent brooding. Back in the day, dialogue would stretch our for four, eight, even 12 minutes at a stretch, the movie’s actors yammering away like pet-shop macaws and fleshing out their characters by way of what is said, what isn’t said, how fast they talk, how comfortable they feel speaking in their particular situation, how they react at length with their co-characters, all of it arising from the texture of the scene organically, without “emphasis” and visual cues. (Long, mute closeups were unheard of—unless you were Garbo or Dietrich.) Movies then did not strive to keep half of your brain dozy and numb, and so audiences of all ages brought an attention and acumen to moviewatching that verged on the capacities that we all bring—or should bring—to bear on conversations with real, live people.
There was the electric sense in the ’30s films of talking itself being an outrageous novelty, to be indulged in like whiskey by teenagers—and Tracy, always on the balls of his feet, was the form’s Christiano Ronaldo, feted in the retro with no less than ten starring vehicles. (His one Oscar nomination was an autumnal supporting perf as an ex-president in 1964’s The Best Man, included but only marginally a “newspaper picture.”) Tracy was a slight, rubber-faced squirt of a man, but his mouth was the size of the great outdoors, and his inimitable way with streaming banter favored such raw velocity over nuance that there’s almost something Ramones-ish about him, an amused, deliberately plebeian dedication to youthful chaos. Except Tracy wasn’t young—just a few years older than the century, he had the manic drive of a self-destructive alcoholic. In fact, his brief stardom in the ’30s stalled irrevocably once, during the making of Viva Villa! in 1934, he drunkenly peed off his Mexican hotel balcony onto the heads of military cadets. Few Hollywood scandal stories match their subject’s persona so beautifully, and while director Howard Hawks saw nothing particularly amiss with this episode, apparently, mogul Louis Mayer had Tracy kicked off the film anyway, and downward the chatterbox dynamo’s career stock slumped.
The newspaper picture in general requires throats like Tracy’s because it is uniquely contingent on language and information, even as far along as Alan J. All the President’s Men (1976), which is really no more than a series of (riveting) Q & As. With all this gab flowing (and it flows perhaps most colorfully in 1956’s Sweet Smell of Success, a blackened septic tank of oral intercourse), the Film Forum camp meter will be on high alert. But I can’t help suspecting that ticket-buyers under, say, 30 will be chuckling out of breathless shock, unprepared as they may be for the deluge.