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Park Row

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
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Directed by: 
Samuel Fuller
Gene Evans
Mary Welch
Bela Kovacs
Herbert Heyes
Don Orlando
Bottom Line: 
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Samuel Fuller’s 1952 tribute to the spirit and vibrancy of American print Journalism during the late 1880s is, on one level, a mischievous riposte to the challenges which, at the time, were being posed to the very concept of free speech in the 1950s by the spectre of McCarthyism. The film channels its patriotic trumpet call into a celebration of the Fourth Estate, championing the freedom and variety of the popular press – and situates itself defiantly under the shadow cast by the statue of Benjamin Franklyn, displayed proudly (alongside the image of Johannes Guttenberg, inventor of mass produced movable type) in the opening scenes, after the on-screen listing of every American newspaper then currently in circulation in 1952, and a misty-eyed dedication to their invaluable work.  Patriot, natural philosopher, statesman, and, of course, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, who happened to have also enjoyed a successful early career as a printer and a newspaper editor among his many other great achievements in public life, Franklyn acts as a protective, talismanic figure who allows the film to position itself both as upholder of the questing spirit of free enquiry, and as dedicated fount of personal patriotic duty – while heading off any accusations of un-American anti-business bias at the pass, presumably. The statue, by the German-born sculptor Ernst Plassman, stands at an intersection between the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan’s Park Row -- for decades the hub of America’s printing and publishing industries – in a corner known as Printing House Square, tethering the great American statesman forever to the core values of free journalism, and also to the fraught hurly-burly business of actually producing print for the masses on a daily basis, an activity documented here with such vigour and much love by Fuller.

For Fuller -- a screenwriter turned writer-director-producer, who himself started out in tabloid journalism at the age of seventeen – this deeply personal, low budget, self-produced picture, named after the bustling city street centre of the trade he adored ,was made primarily as a love letter to the newspaper industry, but the disconcerting ardour of the film’s sentimentality, and the proud rambunctiousness with which this sentimentality is asserted, might seem problematic to a contemporary audience, living through an moment in which the freedom of the press has come to signify giant media corporations and their moguls using their ‘freedom’ to project their power in the game of influencing opinion to protect conglomerate business interests, rather than the schemes of the rebellious, independently minded rabble of idealistic journo free thinkers and go-getters who otherwise populate this enjoyably quirky and energetic drama-romance. This film is aware of the dialectic going on, even in print journalism’s beginnings, between the desire to galvanise public opinion on the one hand and to massage it through entertainment and propaganda in pursuit of circulation on the other, but it remains naively optimistic about the outcome of these battles. The film does also feel autobiographical in other, more obvious ways though; the plot mirroring, through its hyper-condensed portrayal of the struggles of its cigar-chomping, self-styled hero-editor, Phineas Mitchell (a feisty powerhouse performance from Fuller regular, Gene Evans), something of the director’s own struggle for mastery of his destiny within the Hollywood system, and for tighter control of his work. “Park Row” (‘street of rogues … reporters … and romance!’ runs the tag line), for instance, could have ended up as a Technicolor musical, if prospective producer Darryl Zanuck had got his way! Certainly, Evans’ portrayal of the idealistic but practical, pugilistic but romantic Mitchell, seems to have been modelled by the actor on Fuller himself, who financed the film with his own money in order to preserve his vision, despite having his pick of projects after the unexpected blockbuster success he’d recently enjoyed with the Robert Lippert produced “The Steel Helmet”.

“Park Row” bristles with Fuller’s filmmaking energy and vim: shot on one busy interior set, on which the whole of the city street is constructed and filmed in a series of lengthy and elaborate takes, employing complicated tracking and dolly shots in sequences crammed with bustle and activity, the film is a technical wonder; at the same time it’s a study in the craft and stripped down economy of Fuller’s script writing. Fuller’s screenplay makes the activities of Park Row central to the American perception of itself as a new country that worships freedom, hard work and unites its immigrant population under the banner of liberty and fairness for all. But he also creates a narrative tension around the threat which the encroachment of big business might pose to these ideals. The screenplay broaches these issues and themes by finding ways to enfold whole diverse chunks of history into a concertinaed version of the development of print journalism by way of a fast-tracked plot, which follows in rapid detail the founding of a completely fictional paper by the film’s idealistic ‘hero’.

The manner in which this paper, The Globe, come into being demonstrates Fuller’s knack for narrative abbreviation: all the main players are lined up in a rowdy Irish-American street corner bar after the film’s opening -- where a collection of assembled journalists and print workers bemoan the latest politically motivated publicity campaign by The Star (one of the biggest newspapers in the country) to get a criminal hanged for murder (‘First Hanging in Three Years!’ jeers its latest headline: ‘he deserved the fate he got!’) Disgusted by such tactics, Phineas Mitchell, one of the Star’s own reporters, nails a note to the executed man’s gravestone: ‘Murdered by The Star’ -- and is sacked, along with a small group of colleagues who support his actions, by the newspapers glamorous but ruthless editor, Miss Charity Hackett (a name that demonstrates the film’s Dickensian methods when it comes to christening its villains). In a matter of minutes we’ve been introduced to the entire cast, who have all been located in a single crowded room. But the energetic camera moves and Fuller’s witty, snappy dialogue manages to establish both the setting and the tone without drawing attention to the convenience of this preamble. The fact that this is a journalist’s bar is entertainingly established by means of having the proprietor’s barmaid daughter list its beverages, which have all been given names likely to appeal to such a clientele (‘Printer’s Ink’, ‘Sheep’s Dip’). The multitude of nationalities and classes Mitchell draws on to create The Globe – an Italian typesetter (Don Orlando), a German print engineer and inventor (Bela Kovaks) and the ragamuffin street urchin Rusty (Dee Pollock) who becomes a ‘printer’s devil’ on the factory floor – is the film’s shorthand for lauding America’s diversity and welcoming nature; and one of the Globe’s first campaigns, intended to grip the public imagination and get its circulation established, is a charity drive to pay for a pedestal for the newly arrived Statue of Liberty, a gift to the people of America from France.

This actually did happen, but (like so many events portrayed in the film) not in the way it’s shown to have come about here. In reality the campaign was initiated by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. “Park Row” is filled with such true but modified real events and journalistic developments, but they’re all condensed and intricately packed into a single eighty-minute fictionalised narrative that manages to have Gene Evans’ hero editor oversee everything from the development of automated ‘linotype’ typesetting, when he sponsors the work of its real-life inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler, to the innovation of a series of brand new, never-seen-before ideas, such as front page woodcut cartoons, by-lines, columns, the publication of several editions a day, and newsstands -- all in seemingly a matter of mere weeks! Nevertheless, the film is at its heartiest and most charming when Fuller lovingly depicts the enterprise and enthusiasm and crusading spirit of this rabble of newsmen who have printers’ ink running in their veins, making a stand for the rugged individualism of American business in the face of the big money behind its politically motivated rival, The Star.

Mitchell gets his financial backing and a tiny, cramped factory space, full of noise and steam, from a failed publisher and entrepreneur with some inherited wealth to throw around on personal projects, and he and his hand-selected team, headed-up by veteran reporter Josiah Davenport (Herbert Heyes) -- who styles himself after the values of the real-life reforming editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley -- set about organising the publication of their first four-pager … initially printed on butcher’s paper, although the team progresses to wrapping paper, bought in bulk from a shoe shop for the publication’s second edition! Phineas Mitchell may stand in opposition to the cynical tactics of Hackett and her disreputable assistant Mr Wiley (Hal K. Dawson), but he’s not averse to concocting populist campaigns to bring recognition to his new-born paper, either: the first issue sees the launch of a campaign to free a publicity seeker who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge (The Star has a rival campaign to have the same man prosecuted) then organises a pageant to celebrate its success – but it was Mitchell who manipulated events by first handing the guilty party to the Brooklyn Police in the first place when they raided O’Rourke’s bar (where the miscreant regularly hung out with the news men, looking for ideas to get his name in their papers) just so he could then use his newspaper to petition for the man’s immediate exoneration!  

This tension between journalistic integrity and a showman’s need for an audience goes to the heart of the film’s dialectic, and also informs Fuller’s own work as a filmmaker, which often seems to vacillate between a desire for gritty idiosyncratic authenticity and bombastic populism. The second half of the movie concentrates on the ramifications of both the rivalry and the attraction which is shown to exist between Mitchell and his greatest rival, Charity Hackett. Mary Welch is not a name many of us remember – she died prematurely soon after the making of this film and never became the big star her captivating performance here, as the beautiful but ruthless representative of moneyed vested interests, seems to suggest she might have been had circumstances played out differently. There’s a clear attraction between the two characters -- and just as Mitchell harbours populist tendencies behind his reforming zeal and idealistic values, so Hackett is as thoroughly absorbed in the world of journalism as Mitchell is, despite having inherited her editorship through family connections. In her jet-black, bustled Victorian garb, and twirling her parasol as she perambulates haughtily yet gracefully along the teeming Park Row, Hackett summons to mind the image of the Evil Queen from Snow White (‘you remind me of the obituary column,’ teases Mitchell, at one point; ‘you’re always in black!’). Hackett exercises all her habitual charm and poise, as well as the promise of placing unlimited resources at his disposal, in order to lure the inventor Mergenthaler away from Mitchell’s staff when she realises (unlike the rest of her editorial team) the potential importance of his currently-under-development, automated typesetting machine – but turns nasty when her attempt to headhunt him fails because Mergenthaler hates the cynicism animating the editorial policy of her paper (she tries to get him onside by conversing with him fluently in his native German language, but the inventor curtly informs her that  he’d rather speak in English now he’s in America.) Hackett proposes to her rival that their publications join forces in a merger at one stage, but this gimmick gets no farther than a passionate kiss shared between them before the two are at loggerheads again and Hackett commissions Wiley to shut down The Globe for good by cutting off Mitchell’s sources of supply for paper, type and 

The final act sees the film plunge into the tumultuous waters of heady melodrama, but is also perhaps where Fuller’s abbreviated style of condensed storytelling weakens the picture overall, as characters we’ve previously liked and followed are disposed of off screen and never mentioned again and major events occur almost in parenthesis: tossed away in a single throwaway line of dialogue. Mitchell and Hackett are charismatic, supremely watchable characters, but the inevitable manner in which their rivalries and attractions are made to play out in the dreamy realm of popular Hollywood romance becomes the least convincing aspect of an otherwise engaging and dramatic piece of work, optimistically suggesting, against all available evidence up till then, the possibility of a level of rapprochement and self-sacrifice that seems even more unlikely to a modern audience than it would have done at the time. This DVD from the Masters of Cinema range offers everything but the high definition transfer we usually get with their dual-format releases. The materials were apparently not good enough to strike a HD master, but the print here looks fine in its standard form. The disc comes with a theatrical trailer, a 23 minute introduction by film critic Bill Krohn, and a three minute interview with Fuller’s surviving wife, Christa Lang Fuller. You can also watch the film with an isolated music and effects track, and clear sub-titles for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included. The DVD comes with another fine booklet in the Masters if Cinema range, featuring writings on the film by Fuller and others, and the package constitutes another excellent addition to its catalogue, of a film previously rarely seen but as deserving of equal attention as Fuller’s better known works, like “The Naked Kiss” and Shock Corridor”. Recommended.

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