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Chris Hicks: Newspaper movies have provided a rich genre

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 8:32 a.m. MDT

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

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.)

The 1930s may have had more newspaper movies in sheer numbers, but the 1950s was perhaps the richest era for them: Not only with “Ace in the Hole” and “Deadline, U.S.A.,” but also another unavailable film, “Come Fill the Cup” (1951), with James Cagney as an alcoholic veteran newspaperman; as well as “Park Row” (1952), Samuel Fuller’s gritty look at newspapering in the 1880s; “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” (1956), with Glenn Ford framing himself for murder to report on the justice system; “While the City Sleeps” (1956), with reporters pitted against each other to break a story and earn a promotion, starring Dana Andrews; “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), with Burt Lancaster as a powerful New York columnist; “Top Secret Affair” (1957), a comedy with Susan Hayward as a newspaper publisher digging up the dirt on a new senator (Kirk Douglas); the comedy “Teacher’s Pet” (1958), with old-school Clark Gable going up against “modern” journalism teacher Doris Day; and “—30—,” Jack Webb’s chronicle of one night in a newsroom.

Other great newspaper movies include “I Cover the Waterfront” (1933) with a tough reporter (Ben Lyon) trying to crack a smuggling ring by romancing the daughter (Claudette Colbert) of his chief suspect; the gossip-laden comedy “Libeled Lady” (1936), with William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy; “His Girl Friday” (1940), the hysterical distaff remake of “The Front Page”; “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), Alfred Hitchcock’s classic spy thriller with Joel McCrea in the title role; “Citizen Kane” (1941), Orson Welles’ classic fictional biography of a William Randolph Hearst-type character; “Call Northside 777” (1948), with James Stewart trying to prove a convicted killer is innocent; “All the President’s Men” (1976), with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as real-life reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, exposing the Watergate scandal; “Absence of Malice” (1981), with Sally Field as a reporter manipulated by her sources, and whose reporting hurts innocent Paul Newman and Melinda Dillon; and “The Paper” (1994), with Michael Keaton leading an all-star cast in an ambitious look at a frantic 24 hours in the life of a New York City daily.

And lots of films use newspapers in a sort of peripheral, albeit important-to-the-plot way, including a couple of Frank Capra classics: “It Happened One Night” (1935), the first movie to win the top five Oscars, with reporter Clark Gable pursuing heiress Claudette Colbert for a story; and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), with Gary Cooper as a reluctant millionaire and Jean Arthur as the reporter who can’t believe he’s for real. The New York Times figures in the climax of the Robert Redford spy thriller “Three Days of the Condor” (1975). And, of course, the Superman and Spider-Man movies have newspapers providing employment for the superheroes’ alter egos.

But as newspapers retreat and the blogosphere takes over, and the genre gives way to films like “Julie & Julia” (2009), in which the modern-day half of the picture has a blogger (Amy Adams) writing about legendary chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep), movies about crusading journalists may indeed be a thing of the past.

Unless they are period pieces.

E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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