The United States of America
“Every newspaperman is a potential filmmaker. All he or she has to do is transfer real emotion to reel emotion and sprinkle with imagination.” - Samuel Fuller
In a smoky, sticky pub off Park Row, New York City, close-up on Phineas Mitchell as he nurses a drink and pours over a newspaper. Tracking shot across the crowded bar where exhausted newspapermen squeeze side-by-side for a tall mugs of beer. Back to Mitchell. Close-up on newspaper: CHARLES MOTT EXECUTED: FIRST HANGING IN NEW-YORK IN THREE YEARS: DESERVES FATE HE GOT. Close-up on Mitchell and another newspaperman. “The story really bothers you, doesn’t it?” “Yeah.” “What are you gonna do about it?”
Scene change to later that night. Medium shot of Mitchell, Davenport, and two other newspapermen. Gotta squeeze them together so they all fit in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. “It’s no good writing anything if you haven’t got a paper to put it in.” “Know what I’d do if I had a paper?” Slowly zoom in on Mitchell. “First thing I’d do is christen it. I’d call it the Globe. I’d make it the best newspaper on Park Row, that’s what I’d do.” Tracking shot across the bar to all of the newspaper men staring at Mitchell in awe. Close-up on Mitchell and the elderly Charles A. Leach. “Mr. Mitchell, for three years every night I’ve been listening to what you’d do if you had a newspaper...I like it very much...All my life I’ve wanted to be what you are: a newspaperman. What you can do, I can’t. What you need, I’ve got...I’ve got a good steam press...I want to go into partnership, Mr. Mitchell. You’d be editor and publisher of the newspaper...I’ll handle the business end.” “You mean a paper of my own?” “You run the paper the way you want to run it and answer to no one...Is it a deal?” “Yup.” “You’ve got yourself a newspaper.”
Scene change to medium long-shot as Mitchell leaves the bar. Tracking shot as he walks along a 4 story replica of Park Row, dodging horse-and-carriage, ending on statue of Benjamin Franklin in right foreground, Mitchell in left background. Medium-close up on another nearby statue. Vertical pan down to plaque at base of statue: HORACE GREELEY: FOUNDER OF THE NEW YORK TRIBUNE. Cut to medium long-shot with Greeley in foreground, Mitchell in background. To the statue, “We’re in business.”
These scenes from the first fifteen minutes of Park Row set the tone of what would be director Samuel Fuller’s most personal film. A love letter to the birth of modern American journalism at the turn of the nineteenth century, Park Row is perhaps the purest crystallization of Fuller’s bombastic, hard-boiled style. The film, shot in only sixteen days, was produced, written, directed, and totally self-financed by Fuller. Though destined to be a complete flop, Park Row demonstrated Fuller at the height of his skill and irrepressible energy. Fuller would later comment, “Goddamnit, Park Row was me!”
Before becoming a director, Fuller had been a newspaperman similar to the ones he immortalized in Park Row. He went from selling newspapers on sidewalks to working the beat as a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic. It was during these years that Fuller’s skills as a storyteller began to take shape and form. He developed a knack for exaggerating scenes and moments to display earth-shattering emotions while not going over the deep-end into self-parody. He learned to keep a story lean, mean, and simple while not totally abandoning its crucial human element. When he began to write screenplays, he wanted “to use the screen as a newspaper.” And so arose Fuller’s ultra-kinetic, to-the-point visual style.
Take, for instance, a phenomenal scene later on in Park Row. Having set up his newspaper, The Globe, Mitchell was quickly gaining new readers and powerful enemies. One such enemy was Charity Hackett, the rich, beautiful, and unscrupulous publisher of a rival newspaper that Mitchell used to work for. After several attempts at subtly sabotaging Mitchell’s newspaper, she finally instructs one of her henchmen to close him down.
Charity Hackett in right foreground.
And so, late one night, Mitchell is called from his office by employees claiming that men are tearing apart their newsstands. In one long, expert tracking shot, Mitchell runs down the street and savagely attacks the goons tearing them apart. The use of the tracking shot highlights and intensifies the emotion and human drama of the scene.
Another part of Fuller’s use of “creative exaggeration” involves interweaving different, seemingly unrelated historical moments into his narrative. One of Mitchell’s employees invents a steam-powered printing press. The erection of the Statue of Liberty becomes The Globe’s cause célèbre. All of these are mixed with smaller scenes detailing various aspects of the newspaper production process. This involves a scene with a lightning-fast illiterate type-setter which produces one of the film’s best lines, “The day you learn how to read, you’re fired.” Fuller turns The Globe into a living, breathing microcosm.
Park Row may not be the most historically accurate or streamlined film, but like a great newspaper story, it’s engaging, entertaining, and even informative. It’s an ode to the tireless search for journalistic truth. But Fuller is wary of yellow journalism. One of the film’s maxims is “the press is good or evil according to the character of those who direct it.” A year before Park Row was released, Billy Wilder directed another drama about journalism entitled Ace in the Hole. The film was about a vicious reporter who turns a mining accident into a media circus for his benefit. It is a cynical look into the dark side of American journalism. In the past few decades, Ace in the Hole has become a classic. After all, in this age of 24-hour news cycles and punditry it is easy to identify with pessimistic outlooks concerning the press. But perhaps critics and audiences should take another look at Park Row. Perhaps we should remember that not all journalists and news editors are jackals or political puppets. After all, the freedom of the press is one of the cornerstones of America. We should glorify stories about the people who defend it with their lives, not the ones who pervert it.