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Some directors fortunate enough to have a big hit with their first film, sell out right away for a studio contract with all the trimmings. Samuel Fuller struck gold with a brutal new kind of combat film, The Steel Helmet and eagerly accepted a picture-making deal with Darryl Zanuck over at Fox. But the highly individualistic Fuller also launched his dream project, a saga about New York newspapermen designed to honor journalism and express the excitement and vitality of the profession that formed his personality as a teenager and young man. Sam Fuller can be loud and abrasive, but he's genuine: he asserts his honest opinions in his movies and is never pretentious or pompous. His leading men do tend to smoke a lot of cigars, however.
1952's Park Row may be the least expensive epic ever made, but it has the basic qualities an epic requires -- an inspirational theme and a hero with a vision. Sam Fuller's characters are never understated or subtle, but when his editor-hero Phineas Mitchell orates on the beauty of our Constitutional freedoms, his words move anybody who knows what really distinguished America from Europe: "America may be the only country with a truly free press." "The press is good or evil according to the character of those who direct it." Fuller opens his film with a long scroll of newspaper letterheads, a sight that should give viewers pause -- whether good, bad or indifferent almost all those papers are either extinct, reduced to gutless advertising supplements or controlled by a few corporate media syndicates. That's a fundamental American institution lost, right there.
Sam Fuller poured everything he had into Park Row and was very proud of the set he built to represent the New York street of tabloids in the 1880s. It looks slightly under-scaled and cut-rate, and the statue of Benjamin Franklin wiggles when Mitchell defends the free press by thrashing a bad guy against its base. Fuller sells his no-star cast as great performers, giving the leading role to his Steel Helmet star Gene Evans and the female lead to Mary Welch, a capable player who sometimes looks as if she could be the mother of Liv Tyler. Both acquit themselves well.
Fuller packs his story with real incidents, apocryphal lore and a lot of publishing name-dropping from the days of great newsmen like Horace Greeley and Pulitzer. Phineas Mitchell (Evans) is fired from the successful but unprincipled The Star by its publisher, Charity Hackett (Mary Welch). Nursing his pride in a bar with other canned or unemployed newsmen, Phineas is approached by printer Charles Leach (Forrest Taylor) to start up a new daily tabloid. Mitchell calls it the Globe and hires a skeleton crew of adventurous pros. Their first story is about the daring jump by Steve Brodie (George O'Hanlon of Kronos) from the Brooklyn Bridge, a stunt encouraged by Mitchell to build circulation. When the cops let Brodie out of jail, the Globe does a follow-up. Using butcher paper when he can't get newsprint, Mitchell builds his paper by improvising new ideas, like wooden newsstands, and starting a campaign to raise funds to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France which is still packed in crates. But his love/hate relationship with Charity Hackett starts a newspaper war that Mitchell can't win -- Hackett's cronies hire thugs to attack the Globe's facilities and staff. Hackett also seizes an opportunity to tar Mitchell as a crook, claiming that he has pocketed money donated for the Statue.
Old-fashioned newspaper stories always feature enormous press rooms with dozens of engineers and printers tending monstrous machines that turn out thousands of daily papers an hour. Park Row steps way back to the beginning, to show us manually-set type and teaches us what a Printer's Devil is -- Fuller has Mitchell hire a shoeshine boy who wants to become a newspaperman, which almost his own personal story. A major subplot is the development of Ottmar Mergenthaler's Linotype, which Fuller moves from the New York Tribune to the Globe as a matter of narrative convenience (read: benign falsehood). When vandals destroy the paper's typesetting apparatus, Mergenthaler (Bela Kovacs) get his revolutionary machine on-line and turns out an entire edition as fast as it can be typed into his revolutionary machine.
The Brooklyn Bridge jump story is an exploitative gambit, no argument, but Mitchell's commitment to his serious news is complete. As we see how the other veterans admire and follow him, we believe that Phineas is the conscience of the newspaper profession. As an education Park Row can't be beat -- the dialogue even explains the meaning of the Fourth Estate, and why it is the bastion of democracy. This is the free speech / free press glory that makes our country exceptional. Sam Fuller felt emotions like these in his gut, and put his energy and resources directly behind his gut feelings. Even if we aren't in accord with his every political idea, this quality makes Fuller an artist to be cherished. It's enough to make one believe in two-fisted sure-shot Americanism.
Fuller evidently had his cast and crew just as enthused as the characters in the story, for he pulls off some grand camera moves and handsome master shots, including a kissing scene that very neatly circles the kissers involved. More shots may have been extended masters, if they weren't broken up by optical repositions (repo's) to turn a wide shot into a tighter angle. This happens several times in an early scene in a bar. Fuller probably found that when he needed to mix and match separate takes in the cutting room, he had nothing to cut away to. He would do this often in his career, cutting to optical repo's that mar the look of the film when the grain structure jumps and the sharpness falls. But he compensates with vitality and inspiration. All Gene Evans had to do in Steel Helmet was grumble and grimace and affect the correct hangdog mannerisms of an exhausted soldier in the field. Here Evans, previously the kind of supporting actor given maybe one or two lines per picture, carries the whole thing. He's great and even subtle in his performance. When Mitchell stalks about puffed up with pride and happiness over his new baby, a real daily paper of his own, Gene Evans' performance is a Welles-Charles Foster Kane portrait in miniature.
Of course, Sam Fullerisms always come to the surface. In Steel Helmet Evans' Sgt. Zack yells out something like "If you die I'll kill you!" Phineas Mitchell finds out that his ace typesetter Mr. Angelo (Don Orlando), the fastest on Park Row, can't read or write. Impressed, he tells Angelo, "Don't ever change. If you learn to read or write, I'll fire you!"
Park Row needs to be screened in schools. Like All the President's Men, it's a needed reminder of something very important that's being taken away from us.
The MGM Limited Edition DVD-R of Park Row is an excellent encoding of Sam Fuller's personal favorite film. The transfer shows off the expressive camerawork by Jack Russell, and the soundtrack is clear and clean. Also included is an original trailer, where independent Fuller touts the importance of his pet project and proposes that Gene Evans and Mary Welch should be considered dynamic new stars ... romantic stars, even! Optimism like that needs to be encouraged.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Park Row rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.