Today: February 22, 2024

Park Row

Faced with the imminent collapse of the traditional newspaper industry, a growing number of films and TV series have attempted to rekindle our love affair with print journalism by stressing the morality and farsightedness of a professional known to be anything but.

Faced with the imminent collapse of the traditional newspaper industry,
a growing number of films and TV series have attempted to rekindle our love
affair with print journalism by stressing the morality and farsightedness of a
professional known to be anything but.
Serving as a welcome change of pace
to the special pleading of Andrew Rossi’s
Page One: Inside the New York Times
and the sentimental hubris of Aaron
‘Internet Girl’ Sorkin
’s The
Newsroom, Samuel Fuller
’s Park Row
serves as a timely reminder that journalists were scoundrels and thugs long
before they proclaimed themselves the nation’s moral watchdogs.

Made entirely with Fuller’s own
money, Park Row follows Phineas Mitchell (Gene
Evans
) as he launches a newspaper into the crowded marketplace of 1880s New
York. Showing both admirable resourcefulness and a shameless willingness to stoke
the fires of public outrage in order to sell copy, Mitchell builds his paper
The Globe into a publication capable of challenging the dominance of more
established papers such as Charity Hackett’s (Mary Welch) The Star. Initially, Mitchell and Hackett’s rivalry is quite
good-natured as the aristocratic Hackett comes to admire Mitchell’s skill as a
two-fisted rabble-rousing hack. However, the more the pair flirt, the more they
compete and the more they compete, the more the status of their respective
newspapers come to serve as symbols of their publisher’s sexual desires. Eventually,
this bizarre psychodrama spills out into the streets as Hackett’s need to
dominate Mitchell results in a horrifying spiral of violence culminating in both
riots and fire bombings.

Only eighty four-minutes long, Park
Row races along and packs an extraordinary amount of material into its short
running time. Aside from the pitch-perfect love story between Mitchell and
Hackett, there is also an intelligent commentary on the newspaper business, a
compelling glimpse of 1880s New York and a surprisingly detailed examination of
the technological changes occurring in publishing at the time.

Unlike many odes to journalistic
greatness, Fuller eschews both sentiment and morality in order to celebrate
Mitchell’s ability to strike a chord and continue to play a tune regardless of
how many people get crushed on the dance floor. Drawing freely from the press room
cynicism of Citizen Kane’s opening
act and pre-empting the vision of 19th Century New York as a
bubbling cauldron of tribal violence in Martin
Scorsese
’s Gangs of New York,
Fuller praises a form of journalistic greatness that the newspaper business is
now only too eager to forget. Mitchell’s greatness is not that of Bernstein and
Woodward in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men or that of
Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s
Good Night, and Good Luck, this is
the greatness of Orson Welles’s Kane,
Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. A form of greatness measured not in moral
victories but in blood and gold… the type of greatness that builds industries
and nations at the expense of individuals… the type of greatness that built
America.

Once you accept that Fuller’s
concept of journalistic greatness is utterly at odds with the way that we are
encouraged to think about good journalism today, Park Row reveals itself to be
an absolute joy. Filled with beautiful character moments, sparkling dialogue
and one particularly brilliant single-take riot sequence, the film’s ceaseless
energy perfectly captures what it must have been like to be a newspaperman in
the days before you had to worry about boring stuff like professional
responsibility. Part of what makes this film so much fun is the fact that
Fuller at no point shies away from the morally dubious nature of his
characters. Mitchell is a cigar-chewing rogue who works with gang leaders and
scatters words like ‘liberty’ about the place like confetti and yet because
neither Mitchell nor Fuller apologise for this villainy, it is absolutely
compelling to watch.

Released by Masters of Cinema in
its original aspect ratio, the film comes with a booklet as well as two
fascinating pieces telling both the story of how the film was made and how it
fits into the broader canvass of American cinematic history.

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