Saturday, August 25, 2007

Scandal Sheet and journalism movies

The newspaper world is shuddering and creaking. Stalwart journalists are either being laid off or bought out, or forced to reinvent their job descriptions — instead of diligently going after quality scoops for print, they're now commissioned with blogging or shooting video for the web. It's all meant to retain the attention of readers who want their news NOW and in SMALL BITES.

Blah blah. I hear these apocalypsisms weekly. Journalism is doomed! I got news for you: It's been doomed for a while. Scandal Sheet said as much 55 years ago, but not in the way you think.

I stumbled upon this 1952 journa-thriller on TCM earlier today, stuck with it and really enjoyed it. Scandal Sheet stars Broderick Crawford as an editor with a shady past, John Derek as an interpid muckraker and Donna Reed as a principled feature writer. All of them work at The New York Express, which Crawford has guided away from text-heavy stories to bold-headlined exposés about murders, cuckolding and other titillating fare. Consequently, circulation for the Express is going up, up, up. Crawford has even installed a giant wheel in the newsroom, with an arrow pointing to the latest numbers; if he brings circulation to 750,000, he gets a big fat bonus.

Scandal Sheet's central conflict is a terrific example of situational irony, and it makes the movie a swift-moving confection. Eugene Ling's screenplay (based on the Samuel Fuller novel "The Dark Page") has a nice ear for dialogue and newsroom dynamics. Being a crime or investigative reporter is just like being a detective. It's sleuth work. It's putting pieces together and gathering evidence and conducting interviews. Reporters routinely win Pulitzer Prizes for "solving" cases the police couldn't/wouldn't touch.

Crawford, Derek (below, center) and Reed are perfectly matched as co-workers with varying degrees of integrity who represent the dueling sides of journalism: tabloid sensationalism vs. prudent reportage. Derek (in his youth, a striking and handsome film presence) plays a guy who gets a "schoolboy bang" from seeing his name over a sensational yarn. Reed, on the other hand, says at one point, "I like my feature writing. Smart people like it too, even though many of them aren't buying the Express anymore." They eventually have to team up to work on a murder story that may or may not have to do with their editor...talk about conflict of interest.

The preeminent films about journalism are His Girl Friday (1940) and All the President's Men (1976), which occupy the opposite ends of the spectrum, tone- and content-wise. The first is a screwball comedy, the second is a serious illumination of the HOWs of reporting. In different degrees, both movies get at the WHY of journalism. The WHY speech in Friday is delivered by Rosalind Russell:

A journalist? Hell, what does that mean? Peeking through keyholes? Chasing after fire engines? Waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if Hitler's gonna start another war? Stealing pictures off old ladies? I know all about reporters, Walter. A lot of daffy buttinskis running around without a nickel in their pockets and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen's wives'll know what's going on.

And the WHY bit in the otherwise sweepingly subtle ATPM is delivered by Jason Robards as Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee:

You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up... 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We're under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I'm going to get mad. Goodnight.

The WHY moment in Scandal Sheet, which falls somewhere in between HGF and ATPM on the journalism movie spectrum, comes at the very end, when the newspaper cracks 750,000 circulation by running a story that is both sensational and purposeful. Scandal Sheet is a zippy drama above all else, but it has some meaningful things to say about the business, especially the "business" side of the business. Journalists are beholden to the truth, but the bottom line often rears its ugly head. It's a fine line to walk, and Scandal Sheet illustrates that walk in an entertaining fashion.

Alas, Scandal Sheet does not appear to be available on DVD or VHS. Does anyone know differently? On Netflix, you can find a 1985 TV movie called Scandal Sheet starring Burt Lancaster and Lauren Hutton, but it's not the same thing. So keep an eye out for the 1952 movie on TCM, or on PBS. What's your favorite journalism movie?

Postscript: A retired journalist named Paul E. Schindler Jr. has a neat page dedicated to journalism movies. He hits on a point that's been on my mind lately: the extinct archetype of the hard-drinking journalist. In his essay on Scandal Sheet, Schindler writes:

One of the biggest changes in journalism over the years has been in drinking and smoking. When I started my first newspaper job in 1973, there were alcohol-fueled lunches, cigarettes galore and a bottle of liquor in every third desk—just as there were in the 1920s. By the time I left journalism in 2001, there wasn’t a major newsroom in America that wasn’t non-smoking, and liquor in your desk was a firing offense at many newspapers.
It's true and lamentable. Donna Reed lights up in every scene of Scandal Sheet; supporting player Henry O'Neill plays a Pulitzer-winner who can still get a big scoop while in the haze of alcoholism. Russell, Cary Grant, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman do their share of smoking in His Girl Friday and ATPM. A newsroom these days is a sterile place: devoid of smoke, the clacking of typewriters and the mavericks who stumbled in with a buzz and left after filing a snappy, weighty story. In short, the "cinema-ness" of real-life newsrooms has faded (and with it much of the adventure and bravery).

Maybe I'll bring in a bottle of bourbon on Monday.

3 comments:

cattleworks said...

Yo, stud.
Back from two glorious weeks of vacation and resolving to, among other things, be more diligent with commenting to my favorite blogs.
But, THAT'S not why I'm pounding away on the keyboard to you today...

I was trying to think of other journalism movies. Other than other versions of The Front Page (I think I've only seen Billy Wilder's version with Lemmon and Matthau), the two films you mention are about it that I can think of. Oh, except...

ABSENCE OF MALICE, which I've never seen all the way through, but I think local Buffalo News columnist Alan Pergament has cited this film as his favorite film about newspapers.

SHATTERED GLASS (holy crap, did that movie come out 4 years ago?? Cripes, time freaking flies, dammit!), which I haven't seen, along with A MIGHTY HEART, although I don't know how much the latter deals with Daniel Pearl's experience or if it focuses on his wife and the aftermath of his kidnapping and murder.

THE PAPER, the ensemble film Ron Howard directed before APOLLO 13.
Also didn't see.
Man, I suck!

GOODBYE AND GOODNIGHT I also didn't see, but I know all the smoking in the movie was talked about because it's such a thing of the past.

BROADCAST NEWS Hey! I've actually seen this one! Okay, it's also about televison news instead of newspapers, but it's pretty damn good, deals with similar issues as SCANDAL SHEET and I think William Hurt does a great job as really a dual personality: playing his character, Tom Grunick, and then his performance as Grunick when he's on the air, where he comes across as completely confident, authoritative, knowledgeable and totally believable as a news anchor.
Of course, Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks are great, too.

Oh, and I just thought of SCANDAL (SHUBUN), a 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa where he dealt with tabloid magazines of the time. I've never seen it, but he talks about it in his autobiography. He really hated the tabloids of that period in Japan and did the movie as a response to it. At the time he wrote his autobiography in the early 80s, he felt that the current
tabloids 30 years later were far worse than anything he could imagine.

Regarding bringing bourbon in on Monday, you may want to ask the Dr. to tell you about her time as a student at UB and drinking Vodka and Pepsi Clear from a water bottle in class...

And TCM is awesome.

J.J. said...

Good to have you back, T-Dog.

I was seriously disappointed by The Front Page. Just didn't work for me. And I hated Absence of Malice, though I'm not surprised that someone at The Buffalo News thinks it's great. I'm mixed on Broadcast News -- haven't seen it in years. Same goes for The Paper. I need to see it again. I actually have that on laserdisc, for some reason. Plunder from my days at EW, I guess. I'll have to check out the Kurosawa.

Shattered Glass is great. I'd forgotten about that.

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