June 29, 2011
Along with The Big Red One (1980), Park Row (1952) may be Sam Fuller’s most autobiographical film. It was a labor of love for the scrappy director who made it as a tribute to the journalists he knew as a newsboy in the 1920’s. By the time he was 17, Fuller became a crime reporter in New York City working for the New York Evening Graphic. He attempted to get Park Row made at 20th Century Fox but when studio head Darryl Zanuck wanted to turn it into a musical, Fuller refused and started his own production company, which allowed him to make it without any creative compromises.
Dedicated to American journalism, Park Row takes us back to the early days of newspapers and depicts the bitter rivalry between Charity Hackett (Welch), owner of The Star, and one of her employees Phinneas Mitchell (Evans). He resents her tactics, which include condemning the wrong man in a crime to death. As he says at one point, “The day The Star reports the facts Judas Escariot will be sainted.” He dreams of running his own newspaper, free of political influence and that would answer to no one. As luck would have it, a wealthy businessman offers to bankroll Mitchell’s dream.
Mitchell is ambitious and quickly assembles a staff that is equally hungry, chief among them veteran reporter Josiah Davenport (Heyes) who gets to deliver one of Fuller’s trademark impassioned speeches about journalism: “But a fighting editor is a voice the world needs. A man with ideals.” Mitchell’s The Globe gets off to a strong start with its attention-grabbing headlines which doesn’t sit well with Hackett over at The Star.
Frequent collaborator Gene Evans breaths life into Fuller’s pulpy prose and with an omnipresent cigar and no-nonsense attitude, he is the director’s cinematic alter ego, a blue collar Charles Foster Kane. Evans plays Mitchell as a passionate man, a two-fisted defender of the truth and freedom of speech.
Fuller does an excellent job recreating period details on an extremely low budget right down to the tools of the trade, the clothes that people wore and how they spoke. Park Row takes an authentic look at how newspapers were run in the 1880’s, from copyboys to the editor-in-chief. He shows how an issue of a newspaper is put together in a way that hasn’t been done in many years, making this film a valuable historical document. In many respects, Fuller’s film is Citizen Kane (1941) on a much lower budget and scale with Evans playing a Kane-esque newspaperman that influences and sometimes creates the news his paper reports on in typical tabloid journalism fashion. However, where Orson Welles’ film attacked the worst aspects of tabloid journalism, Fuller also celebrates its best aspects – call him a cynical idealist. He spends more time showing the actual process of putting together a newspaper and the hard work involved as well as the cutthroat competition that arises among rival papers.