Hollywood’s Messy Tradition of Newspaper Yarns

Based on New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s account of their harpooning of the powerhouse producer and loathsome sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, Maria Schrader’s She Said had a lot going for it: two congenial performers (Carey Mulligan as Twohey and Zoe Kazan as Kantor); a narrative fixation on the target of opportunity; and the cathartic satisfactions of justice served, eventually.

Yet She Said was also — not to bury the lede — a bit pedantic and procedural. Journalism here is serious business — akin to a sacred vocation, actually — and its practitioners are straitlaced and earnest.

This is not the way Hollywood traditionally portrayed members of the Fourth Estate. The ink-stained progenitors of today’s digital crusaders were crude, irreverent, and often inebriated. They didn’t want to change the world or give voice to the voiceless; they wanted to crush the competition by any sneaky, underhanded, and conniving means necessary. Also, they were fun to watch.

1931’s ‘Front Page’

Unlike westerns or musicals, there seems to be no good name for the genre (if that’s what it is) of motion pictures set in newsrooms and built around news gathering. The mundane signifier “journalism film” may have to make do for the full range of newsworthy films (for example, the magazine-centric Shattered Glass [2003] and the TV news-centric The China Syndrome [1979]), but the term coined by the trade papers when the first editions hit the streets better captures the speed, style, and pizzazz of the original iterations: “newspaper yarns.”

The newspaper yarns were born in the early sound era, thrived in the pre-Code era, and learned better manners after the Production Code Administration unsheathed its scissors in 1934. They presumed a media world in which newsprint was the dominant transmission belt for information and cold hard type carried cultural authority. In the 1930s, nine dailies were published in New York City; the New York Daily News alone boasted a circulation of one million. With the exception of the snooty New York Times, all were ruthlessly competitive, all published multiple editions each day, and, when a hot story broke, an extra edition rolled off the presses for newsboys to hawk on street corners: “Extra! G-Men Kill Dillinger in Chicago! Extra!”  

What sparked Hollywood’s interest in the newspaper game was the introduction of talk to the cinema in 1927.  Logically enough, the studios figured newspapermen, already trained in churning out snappy prose and hitting deadlines, could put words into the mouths on screen. Underpaid bylines like Herman Mankiewicz, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Gene Fowler, Adela Rogers St. Johns, Jo Swerling, and scores more needed little nudging to go Hollywood. By 1930, the entire writing staff at Columbia Pictures was comprised of nothing but former newsmen. A statistically significant percentage of the raw recruits was second-generation Jews and Irishman, fast-talking wiseguys-and-gals bred on the city streets, prone to wit, wordplay, irony, and malice.

A well-timed stage play inspired Hollywood to feature the writers on the other side of the screen: The Front Page, written by Ben Hecht, a seasoned beat reporter and columnist for the Chicago Daily News, and the slightly more urbane playwright Charles MacArthur. (Hecht’s endlessly entertaining and occasionally reliable memoir A Child of the Century, published in 1954, recounts the true-life backstory for the play.) 

Premiering on Broadway on August 14, 1928, The Front Page was an instant smash.  Howard Hughes scooped up the film rights for $125,000, at which point almost every studio in Hollywood rushed a newspaper yarn into production to beat him out of the gate. In 1929, Variety was already detecting an “epidemic of film newspaper yarns” (also known as “city desk stuff”) and numbering among them Paramount’s Gentlemen of the Press, Warner Bros.’s In the Headlines, and Pathe’s Big News.

1931’s ‘Five Star Final’

The newspaper yarn hit its stride with a pair of foundational blueprints, the motion picture version of The Front Page (April 1931), directed by Lewis Milestone, and Warner Bros.’s Five Star Final (September 1931), directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Together, the films reflected the two predominate attitudes to the mainstream media of the day: affection and contempt.

The Front Page opens in the press room of a prison, where a group of reporters are sitting vigil on an execution, a routine enough assignment (Hecht said he witnessed seventeen hangings). The boys pass the time wisecracking and playing 10-cent ante poker. The moral tone is set when a reporter pleads with the sheriff to advance the time of the hanging from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., so the story can make the morning edition. (This sort of thing really happened.) “Coarse humor and granite skepticism,” explained the Billboard, was a coping mechanism for the stenographers of life’s tragedies. 

The plot concerns the efforts of unscrupulous editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou playing against upper crust type and nailing it) to keep his ace reporter Hildy Johnson (newcomer Pat O’Brien) on the job and away from a bleak future with a wife and a square job. Fortunately, Hildy’s reportorial adrenaline kicks in and he succumbs to the thrill of the scoop. Of course, it is the human-interest story — the humans being the reporters — that is emotionally above the fold. Hecht and MacArthur made the boys in the press room seem more romantic than the Knights of the Round Table.  On stage, the final line of the play always brought down the house: “That son of a bitch stole my watch!”  In the film version, the noise of a carriage return on a typewriter covers the curse word.

Watching The Front Page, newspapermen naturally fell in love with their dashing screen selves. “A wow! One great laugh after another,” raved the New York Daily News. “This is better entertainment than the play.” Media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who would himself inspire a newspaper film of some note in 1941, screened The Front Page at his San Simeon digs, and said he could see nothing to which the Fourth Estate might object.  

Like The Front Page, Five Star Final was originally a play, written by Louis Weitzenkorn, who like Ben Hecht knew the beat first hand: he was a former editor of the New York Evening Graphic, a lurid tabloid known around town as the “porno-Graphic.” Unlike The Front Page, it was not an affectionate look at a cynical but admirable press corps; it was a harsh indictment of a tabloid mentality that would literally kill for a story.    

Desperate for circulation, the publisher of a bottom-feeding daily (Oscar Apfel) forces his managing editor (Edward G. Robinson) to dredge up a sensational criminal case about a pregnant girl who killed the man who seduced and abandoned her. Twenty years later, she is living quietly with a loving husband and a beautiful daughter who will soon marry a high society lad. When the tabloid exposes the mother’s scandalous past, she goes bonkers and dies by suicide; her devastated husband follows her.  In the final scene, the daughter and her fiancé rip into the editors who ruin innocent lives for an uptick in circulation. Like The Front Page, the curtain line ends with a vulgarity drowned out by soundtrack noise.  When the editor quits his job, he tells the publisher “to shove it up his—“— and then the crash from a shattering window buries the word. (After 1934, the Breen office would censor even such unspoken fill-in-the-blanks.) 

Audiences reportedly broke into applause when the tabloid editors were excoriated in the last reel. The Hollywood Reporter praised Five Star Final as “a bitter vituperative exposé of the slimy methods employed by the `yellow’ tabloids in their lust for filth and circulation.” The film was also lauded for delivering a “searing portrait of a certain publisher in particular.”

The reference was probably to Robert McFadden, publisher of the New York Evening Graphic, but William Randolph Hearst took it personally, having helped invent yellow journalism at the turn of the century. Hearst instructed Ada Hanifin, the film reviewer for his San Francisco Chronicle, to trash Five Star Final. The depiction of newspapermen as “gangsters and unscrupulous drunkards,” Hanifin wrote, was “a vile misrepresentation [that] is not only an unwarranted insult to the American journalism but an insult to the intelligence of the American public.” In Boston, the Hearst papers forced exhibitors to preface Five Star Final with a disclaimer assuring moviegoers that most newspapers would never deploy the vile tactics portrayed in the photoplay.   

Spurred by the success of The Front Page and Five Star Final, newspaper yarns rolled off the studio assembly lines. The titles headlined their content: Scandal Sheet (1931), The Final Edition (1932), Ambition (original title: Hot News, 1932), The Honor of the Press (1932), and Clear All Wires (1933). Collectively, they bequeathed the enduring image of the big city newsroom as a madhouse of frantic reporters shouting into candlestick telephones over the racket of Underwood typewriters.

For the aspiring reporter, the films teach a set of job skills not included in the curriculum at the Columbia School of Journalism. Sob Sister (1931) took its title from the woman reporter whose task it was to coax tears from the mother of a killer awaiting execution, typically by pretending the conversation was just-between-us-girls. The Picture Snatcher (1933) described the guy who swiped a picture of the condemned killer while the grief-stricken mother was being diverted by the sob sister.

In lingo and plotlines, the newspaper yarns took full advantage of the relative freedoms the pre-Code era: the dialogue is awash in racial and ethnic slurs, sexual innuendo, Yiddishisms, and cursing. Politicians are corrupt, businessmen rapacious, and gangsters no better or worse than the politicians and businessmen. The women who sashay through the newsrooms show plenty of leg and spout lots of sass.

The yarns were not without their critics, particularly as overproduction turned the once-fresh conventions into stale cliches. “Hard shelled editors and clever reporters are a drag on the entertainment market,” griped a reviewer in 1932, wary of one too many newshounds reaching for a bottle of scotch in his desk drawer.

Real life newspapermen also began squawking about being portrayed as “drunken nitwits of questionable morals and foul tongue.” The reading public might get the wrong idea. “Just how much longer will the Fourth Estate permit cinema producers to caricature and libel newspapermen?” demanded Hollywood Reporter editor-publisher Billy Wilkerson, who considered himself one of the breed. (Wilkerson had the grace to concede: “There are reporters who do drink — that’s admitted.”)

1959’s ‘-30-

As usual, it was the enforcement of the Production Code in July 1934 that really broke up the party: smoothing out the rough edges, cleaning up the vulgarity, soft-pedaling the cynicism, and nixing the disrespect for authority. Yet the free-for-all exuberance of the Hechtian newsroom was never totally damped down, certainly not in His Girl Friday (1940), Howard Hawks’s distaff remake of The Front Page, or in the great newspaper yarns that were later produced both under and after the Code:  Ace in the Hole (1951), -30- (1959), All the President’s Men (1976), Absence of Malice (1981), The Paper (1994), and Spotlight (2015). Spotlight may have been the last of the true “newspaper” yarns, playing as a kind of valedictory for the late age of print journalism. Desktop computers have taken over the editorial offices but the loyalty of the Spotlight team is to the print edition of the Boston Sunday Globe, which lands on the front porches of Southie with a satisfying thud.  

Now that the actual ink has left the picture, and the newsprint version of the brand  exists mainly as an example of cultural lag, even the term “newspaper film” is a misnomer for a medium of pixels and viral circulation. The transition to an all-digital news world may explain why She Said lacked the stop-the-presses attractions of its analog forebearers. The obvious comparison case is Alan J. Pakula and William Goldman’s All the President’s Men. In both films, two intrepid reporters chase down a story whose outcome we already know, but the outlook of the reporters is as different as their communications technology. Woodward and Bernstein are “hungry” for the big story and a front-page byline; the whole saving democracy thing is an unexpected side benefit. Twohey and Kantor are journalists on a mission; they want to take down the main man.  

Tellingly, the ending of She Said provides the perfect punctuation mark for the journalistic transition from Guttenberg to Google. Gathering around a computer screen, the editors, the reporters, and the tech guy proofread the final copy-ready version of the Weinstein exposé. Then the curser floats onto the “send” icon, the mouse clicks, and the piece goes viral on the New York Times website. We never even see the front page.    

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