Chris Hicks: Newspaper movies have provided a rich genre

Published: Thursday, Sept. 13 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

From left, newspaper editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) demands answers from reporters Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) and Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe) in "State of Play."

Universal Studios

Enlarge photo»

In the future, will blogging be a ripe setting for movies about single-minded news gatherers? Will a blogger stumble across the big story and investigate it at his peril, risking his job and perhaps even his life as he tries to uncover the truth, while exchanging snarky quips via chat rooms and Skype with other lone bloggers isolated in their homes?

Can the cloistered online writer, sitting alone in a room, quietly tapping the computer keys and surfing online sites to gather information ever be as cinematically exciting as a newsroom full of unkempt reporters hunched over their cluttered desks, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, drinking cold coffee spiked with gin and yelling into the phone amid the clickety-clack of typewriters and the din of loud, aggressive one-upmanship from wisecracking newshounds?

In “State of Play,” way back in 2009, Russell Crowe played what may well prove to be the last old-school, disheveled, contemporary newspaperman in a major movie, as he seemed to hand things off to the blogosphere by virtue of his uncomfortable pairing with an online writer, played by Rachel McAdams.

I didn’t really think about it at the time, but now “State of Play” seems to be the last big gasp of this stalwart movie genre. The other big newspaper movie of the 2000s was “Zodiac” (2007), and that one was built around a real-life serial-killing spree and was set back in the 1970s.

A couple of weeks ago, National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” program did a segment on newspaper movies, or more correctly, news movies, since movies about TV news were also included.

But newspaper movies dominated the discussion, opening with Kirk Douglas as one of the most hard-headed and unscrupulous reporters in all of cinema, in Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” (1951), and ending with what I have always felt is one of the best movies ever made about the newspaper industry, “Deadline, U.S.A.” (1952), with Humphrey Bogart as an editor trying to keep his major metropolitan daily afloat to appease his publisher while adamantly maintaining the quality and integrity of the news pages for the benefit of his readers.

While recently scanning some titles on the free online streaming site Hulu, I found among its TV-series selections a show I hadn’t seen in decades, and which has never been on home video — the great 1970s newspaper series “Lou Grant,” starring Edward Asner (a dramatic hour-long spinoff of the half-hour sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”).

And after watching the pilot, it hit me just how much “Lou Grant” owes to “Deadline, U.S.A.,” especially in the relationship between the widowed, sophisticated female publisher who is all business and the ink-stained editor, with his daily struggle to satisfy both advertisers and journalistic ethics.

The newspaper-movie genre kicked off in earnest during the 1930s with dozens of lighthearted programmers about footloose-and-fancy-free reporters who’ll stop at nothing to beat the competition — and especially with the hilarious adaptation of the classic play “The Front Page” (1931), which unquestionably provided the template for reporters as self-centered, scoop-minded, heartless vulgarians, with a bottle of booze in a desk drawer and phone numbers of every busybody in town memorized.

But most post-1952 films on the subject also owe something to Bogart in “Deadline, U.S.A.,” as he set the smart, ethical standard for the crusading newspaperman determined to uncover the truth, wherever that might take him.

One thing that “Talk of the Nation” host Neal Conan and movie expert Murray Horwitz did not point out is that, sadly, “Deadline, U.S.A.” is not and has never been available on home video. Although, now that 20th Century Fox has finally created its own manufacture-on-demand DVD label, perhaps that oversight will be corrected. (My VHS copy, taped from TV more than 20 years ago, is wearing thin.)

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere