In the beginning was the word, and in the beginning of the talkies, words were needed in great supply. Reporters were already providing them on the printed page as newspapers were flying off the shelves in every city and town. It’s therefore no surprise that with the advent of sound film, they also became the central focus of a large number of films set in the urban jungle. Actors could talk, so now there were courtroom dramas, musicals, and criminal underworld action films with tommy guns that you could hear piercing the sides of getaway cars. Of course, the milieu that could bring all these situations and more together was the genre of newspaper films.
Stories that are set in newsrooms mean that characters can hit the streets and can enter a number of different worlds, and the journey to find the truth can be almost as exciting as the cases they are researching. Getting a good story, of course, can also bring the dedicated journalist a great deal of glory and career longevity, and while the profession is governed by rules of integrity, the writer’s ethics are sometimes up for sale like everything else when the prize for a good scoop is impressive enough. In the Criterion Channel’s Read All About It! collection, the threat of this dangerous compromise is at the heart of a surprising number of films.
Some brief research into the history of journalism reveals that a form of serialized news-briefing has existed as far back as the Ming Dynasty in the sixteenth century. The earliest in Europe was found in Strasbourg in the early seventeenth. By the beginning of the twentieth century, with literacy greatly increased, printed information became a major form of information and entertainment and, before long, the streets of city centres are strewn with newspapers and the offices that publish them.
In the movies, the manner of representing the world of news has shifted over time, much of it having to do with changing attitudes about the profession itself. In movies from the twenties and thirties, journalists are there to lay bare upper class snobbery, the reporter may not be old money but he is educated and his nosing in on the private lives of the wealthy reveals their corruption (to satisfy the Depression-era audiences in the crowd)…unless there’s a chance for someone to marry above their station, in which case they’re there to help that happen (or, as in the case of Platinum Blonde, to flirt with doing it themselves).
By the seventies, post-Watergate and Vietnam, journalists are heroes uncovering the crimes of governments abusing their privileges, Woodward and Bernstein get their own underplayed, quietly dramatic film (All the President’s Men, not in this collection) that reveals that sticking to the ethics of the trade will always get you the right results. By the eighties, commerce is key, and whether it’s about print journalism or television (Broadcast News, also not featured here), the focus isn’t just on getting the story but getting it first and, if you have to, tweak the details so that it sells better. The years to follow won’t improve things much, and by the time you reach the George W. Bush administration (in which countless reporters are fired for not saying the right things about the Iraq War or the President himself), the idea of journalistic integrity, already worn down so much by the internet and political pressure, has never been more endangered. Along comes the era of now ex-president Trump’s openly expressed hostility to the press (particularly those who don’t reflect him favourably enough, which for him was most of the press), and the profession finds itself in something of a quagmire, both having to prove its value while having to compromise it in order to survive in a now digital, completely oversaturated market.
Read All About It is most astonishing for how many films in the collection reveal that the compromises that we see as very modern are actually decades old, and that this dream of a world of pure journalistic integrity has been shaky for a long time. The birth of tabloid reporting finds itself at the centre of Scandal Sheet, followed by the crushing of political activist ideals in the seventies (Between The Lines), the exoticism of reporting from foreign lands (The Year of Living Dangerously) and the power of a home-made press fighting the competition from outside (Newsfront). There are reporters as heroes (Park Row) and as villains (Ace in the Hole), lovers (It Happened One Night) and liars (His Girl Friday), fighting good fights (Gentleman’s Agreement) and ones that are really not that great (Five Star Final). What most of them have in common, though, is the struggle between the character’s work and their humanity, how important is a great story if it means selling your soul? Watch and find out.
Reviews are by Bil Antoniou, Marko Djurdjić and Rachel Ho, where indicated.
It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)
Bil Antoniou: Classic road comedy has lovestruck heiress Claudette Colbert board a chartered bus to head across the country in the hopes of eloping with her pilot boyfriend against her father’s wishes. Unemployed reporter Clark Gable teams up with her, offering assistance in exchange for an exclusive on the story, but spending this much time with a man who doesn’t wear an undershirt (sales of the clothing item plummeted that year, true story) doesn’t do wonders for Colbert’s marital resolve. The structure has been copied many times since, but nothing has managed to match the freshness of the antics that these two come up with in trying to survive each other. This was the first of three films to win all five major categories at the Academy Awards (the only other two being One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs).
His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
Bil Antoniou: Howard Hawks remakes The Front Page with a marvelous twist: Hildy Johnson, the star reporter that Walter Burns wants to keep from getting married and, by that token, getting out of the newspaper business, is now a woman. Not just any woman, but Rosalind Russell, the ex-wife of Walter (Cary Grant) who is getting married to plain, conservative but kind Ralph Bellamy and moving to Albany to get away from her work. Walter won’t hear of it and does everything in his power to stop her from going, throwing Hildy in the way of a big story when a convicted murderer is set to be executed but escapes from death row. Of course, Walter also has an ulterior motive: the divorce was not his idea and he has every intention of reversing it. Rapid-fire dialogue and a curious twist of comedy and drama, the former quite manic and the latter shockingly dark, make for a Howard Hawks classic that is sharper and more enjoyable than its predecessor or the versions that would follow.
Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947)
Rachel Ho: A controversial-in-its-time movie from a controversial-in-his-time director, Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement is an acclaimed gem that earned him his first Best Director Oscar. Gregory Peck stars as Philip Schuyler Green, a journalist in New York City who goes undercover as a Jewish person to write an article about antisemitism, a plot with which Kazan tackles racial, religious, and even gender injustice unapologetically. By using journalism as the film’s tentpole, Kazan offers a layered approach to uncovering, and challenging, the behaviours and opinions of the day. An interesting peek into the evolving attitudes of society in the ‘40s, Gentleman’s Agreement was daring and forced audiences to confront their prejudices and biases.
Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)
Marko Djurdjic: The brightest noir you’ll ever see, it tells the story of Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a transient newspaper man whose ruthless, opportunistic meddling in search of the ultimate human interest story causes him to go to unforgivable lengths to keep the copy coming. Douglas gives a career-best performance as the slimy, devious Tatum, a charlatan of the highest order, who uses his column to weave a dramatized narrative that he himself is manipulating into place (and one which he takes perverse pleasure in). Wilder’s acerbic script skewers America’s treatment of its various underrepresented and under-covered populations—including Indigenous peoples, blue collar workers, and veterans—all of whom are shown, much like the land itself, as exploitable resources. In Wilder’s nihilist indictment of capitalist America, the public is shown to be insatiable, their fanatical need to experience something—anything!—in the post-War landscape turning a tragedy into a literal carnivalesque sideshow. Much like America itself, Tatum is a self-absorbed, manipulative behemoth, reliant on sensationalism and mistreatment; next to Sunset Blvd., this is Wilder at his most cynical. Beyond essential viewing.
The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir, 1982)
Bil Antoniou: One of the finer political thrillers of the early eighties, this Peter Weir drama stars Mel Gibson as an Australian journalist who arrives in mid-sixties Jakarta to cover President Sukarno and has trouble making inroads until a mysteriously connected photojournalist (Linda Hunt winning an Oscar in the role of a half-Asian man) puts him in touch with high profile interview subjects. While romancing a British diplomat’s assistant (Sigourney Weaver) he begins to get wind of an upcoming coup attempted by the Communist PKI which would end up being the 30 September Movement. Gibson has the usual high-stakes conundrum to ponder, whether getting a big story is more important than his humanity, and there are times when the plot feels like it’s soaking in atmosphere without really moving anywhere, but said atmosphere is textured and deep and the performances (especially Gibson, who never allowed himself to be this vulnerable again) are electric.
The Front Page (Lewis Milestone, 1931)
Bil Antoniou: The first of many filmed adaptations of the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, this zippy comedy has aged a little but isn’t far behind in quality of its superior remake, His Girl Friday. Adolphe Menjou is terrific as the scheming editor who doesn’t want his star reporter Pat O’Brien to make good on his plans to give up the news business for marriage. As a group of gum-chewing, trash-talking reporters fill the courthouse press room in anticipation of a high-profile execution, Menjou does everything he can to lure O’Brien back into the fold, even if it means letting a dangerous murderer hide in the room with them. Milestone throws in a few creative shots to shake up the otherwise stagy adaptation set mostly in the one room (Billy Wilder’s 1974 version is actually even more confined than this one), while members of the press are once again exposed to the accusation that they will do anything to sell a story. In 1988, the setting was moved to television as the comedy Switching Channels.
Five Star Final (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931)
Rachel Ho: A scathing, pre-Code-era indictment of tabloid journalism, LeRoy’s film follows New York Evening Gazette managing editor Joseph W. Randall’s (Edward G. Robinson) attempts at legitimate journalism among a sea of sensationalism. Faced with poor circulation numbers, Randall begrudgingly agrees to run a “where are they now” retrospective serial about the acquittal of a then-pregnant Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr) 20 years earlier, which threatens to upend the lives of many. As Randall dives deeper into the investigation, his desire for “legitimate journalism” gives way to ambition, and the story takes a rather dark turn. The parallels to contemporary clickbait, morbid, celebrity-obsessed culture aren’t hard to draw — add in social media and YouTube, and Five Star Final fits disturbingly well in today’s media landscape.
Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra, 1931)
Bil Antoniou: This comedy that helped establish Jean Harlow as a star is actually a vehicle for leading man Robert Williams, a talented actor who died of peritonitis just days before this film’s premiere (she was herself not much longer for this world). He’s a newspaper reporter who is trying to get a wealthy society-page family to give up their secrets about a breach-of-promise scandal that their irresponsible son is wrapped up in, and while doing so falls in love with the target’s sister (Harlow, improbably playing old money). They get married against her family’s wishes, breaking his co-worker Loretta Young’s heart, and immediately find themselves flummoxed with the uncomfortable realities of their various stations, she’s used to being waited on and he feels trapped in a tuxedo. This film doesn’t really belong in this collection, it’s about a journalist but it has little to do with journalism, but what makes it interesting is that, having been made pre-Code, it features an ending that would never be allowed in the coming years of morally-supervised comedies of remarriage.
Nothing Sacred (William A. Wellman, 1937)
Bil Antoniou: Journalists have already earned a bad reputation as disturbers of the peace by the time Ben Hecht writes this anti-Capra tale, best known for the scene of the stars duking it out with their fists in the bedroom (in place of what we know they’d rather be doing). Carole Lombard, in her only colour film, thought she was dying of radium poisoning but finds out from her doctor that it was all a mistake, but as a New York reporter (Fredric March) has already come to accompany her Last Hurrah trip to the Big Apple, she decides to maintain the charade and enjoy a few days of luxury. She’s given the key to the city and treated like a hero by a sympathetic public, and the budding romance with March doesn’t hurt, but eventually she’ll have to cop to the fact that it’s all a hoax. A more sincere storyteller would have placed the moral burden on the protagonist, but Hecht and his equally cynical director Wellman make sure we see how Manhattan society gives her standing ovations at fancy galas to please their own sense of moral comfort, and that all the companies naming their products and programs after the supposedly dying woman are doing so to make a buck off her misery. It leaves a bad taste, it’s a comfortless film, but that’s also why it should be seen.
Woman of the Year (George Stevens, 1942)
Marko Djurdjic: Rival newspaper people Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) and Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) trade jabs in the paper they both write for, meet IRL, go to a baseball game, fall in love, and quickly begin experiencing all the joys of marriage…before it all goes very badly. Dealing with women’s rights and male/female relations in the 1940s, the film builds much of its humour—and politics—out of Hepburn and Tracy’s undeniable chemistry. Tess is progressive, cosmopolitan, influential and experienced, while Sam is meek and beyond intimidated, a traditionalist extraordinaire, and this dynamic helps deliver the film’s themes in a tense yet always humorous way. Sam’s expectations of and for married life clash with Tess’s need for independence and vocational respect, a consistent thematic trope in the Spencer/Hepburn filmography. Here, journalism is more of a means to end: it’s not about writing or a writer’s life, but about what your writing can inspire, and how it can be used, both for you and against you, and much of the humour develops out of these contradictions and incompatibilities. Unfortunately, the film’s almost 2 hour run time doesn’t justify its somewhat thin plot, and several “pivotal” asides—including one involving a briefly adopted Greek refugee child—simply happen and disappear with little repercussion or narrative effect. The ending, which was reshot and implemented against Hepburn’s wishes, is particularly inane, even aggravating. I won’t ruin it here, but it’s easy to see why the star was unhappy with the way things turned out.
Scandal Sheet (Phil Karlson, 1952)
Bil Antoniou: The modern day complaint about a lack of integrity in the media is actually something that Samuel Fuller predicted in his novel The Dark Page, upon which this noirish film is based. The shareholders of the New York Express are upset that their once-venerated bastion of journalism has become a gossip rag, until they see what the improved circulation has done to line their pockets. Editor Broderick Crawford is proud of this accomplishment until his own soulless tactics are visited upon himself, he runs into a secret figure from his past that causes him to get violent and, in the heat of the moment, commit murder. He tries to hide any evidence of his involvement in the crime but his two nosy ace reporters (John Derek, Donna Reed) insist on looking into the matter and not giving up until they find out the truth. A smart attitude towards its subject makes this one feel like a prestige B-movie, graced with a wonderful cast and smart touches like the alcoholic character played by Henry O’Neill, who is there not for laughs but to show the genuine wear and tear of the business.
Newsfront (Phillip Noyce, 1978)
Bil Antoniou: Australia’s newsreel organization gets into full gear during the second World War and thrives for years, until becoming obsolete with the advent of television news, and this warm and loving film captures the work and sacrifice of those days of glory. Through natural disasters, the pressure of the Red Scare and the competition of outside sources threatening the existence of a national news service, the varied characters who work behind the cameras or in the editing booth have to navigate their often volatile personal lives to bring footage of the latest events to the eager public, who line up at movie theatres to watch their work. Bill Hunter takes the lead as the reporter who starts out as part of a happy, thriving gang that is whittled down by circumstances both tragic and banal to just him on his own, deciding how to feel about the changing tides ahead of him. It’s a pleasant, intelligent, thoughtful film whose picaresque narrative will lack excitement for some, but which never insults the viewer by editorializing on its satisfying content.
FOR FANS ONLY
Blessed Event (Roy Del Ruth, 1932)
Bil Antoniou: Advertising copyrighter Lee Tracy rises to the top ranks of the newspaper game when his salacious gossip column makes him the most powerful man in New York City. Enjoying the rotten fruits of his labour, the Walter Winchell-esque reporter enjoys doing battle with a powerful mobster and becomes rivals with a popular crooner (Dick Powell in his film debut) before his screwing over a singer in his column makes his lady love realize that his lust for glory has replaced his heart with a typewriter. The film charmingly believes that appealing to the character’s humanity will eventually save his soul and stem the tide of tabloid journalism; in 1957, Burt Lancaster plays another reporter based on Winchell in Sweet Smell of Success who is presented as never having had a soul to begin with. This adorable gab fest, in which all the characters all talk out the sides of their mouths, is based on the stageplay of the same name (and it shows, but not poorly), a delightful caper full of spirited performances.
Park Row (Samuel Fuller, 1952)
Rachel Ho: It’s safe to say this was a passion project for former New York reporter Fuller, who wrote, directed, produced, and financed the film. A fictionalized period piece about the city’s newspaper scene in the 1880s, Fuller tells the story of competing papers — the old versus the new — and how far they’re willing to go to prevail. The accuracy of events has been called into question since its release, but there’s no escaping the frenetic energy and heart Fuller puts into the film. The pure love and respect Fuller had for his profession and its history is evident, making it a true delight to watch.
Between the Lines (Joan Micklin Silver, 1977)
Marko Djurdjic: An underseen, but definitely not underrated, look at the daily lives, loves, and assignments of a group of employees at Mainline, an alternative newspaper in Boston in the late 70s going through a commercial makeover. The film itself is organic and cool, framing the hipster intelligentsia of its time against some of the shabbiest looking apartments, work-spaces, and clubs this side of a Jim Jarmusch film. The performances are beyond top notch, with its stellar (and retrospectively star-studded) cast bringing a boisterous, exuberant realism to characters that would come across as clichés through lesser performers. While the film is funny, sincere, even carnal, it tends to fall into naïve optimism: about love and sex, about politics, and about journalism itself. A pessimistic take on baby boomer ennui, it’s a decent representation of the post-countercultural experience, but it’s also unsurprisingly a footnote, an easily digestible—and thus forgettable—ensemble piece. In comparison to the politicized 60s, there seems to be an existential nothingness to the 70s, a distinct blaséness (must be all the coke). And much like Mainline‘s new mainstream direction, Between the Lines just ain’t radical enough.