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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Ink Stained Heroes (originally published 3/99)

Only a fool would question the ability of Clint Eastwood to read the tastes of movie audiences, so I won't. Nevertheless, I was taken aback just a bit to learn that in his newest release, "True Crime," he would be playing a reporter. Given his history of playing characters for whom audiences could cheer, it seemed an odd choice in a time when journalists seem to be ranked somewhere between politicians and child molesters in terms of public esteem.

It wasn't always that way, however. There was a time when the ink-stained wretches of the press were routinely portrayed as heroic figures, fighting crime right alongside the police. The golden age of crusading reporter movies, hands down, was the decade of the Thirties. You could hardly go to the movies without seeing a reporter as a supporting character, and well over a hundred films during that remarkable decade featured reporters in lead roles. If Eastwood has managed to pique your interest in reporters as action heroes, here are some Thirties titles to look for on home video.

"Dance, Fools, Dance" (1931). Joan Crawford plays the daughter of a wealthy family who is forced to go to work when the family's fortune is wiped out by the 1929 stock market crash. The profession she takes up is that of newspaper reporting. She takes to the work like a duck to water, and before long she finds herself assigned by her editor to infiltrate the gang of a local mobster (played by Clark Gable) to try and get the goods on him.

"I Cover the Waterfront" (1933). Based on the autobiographical book of the same title by Max Miller, this gritty drama features Ben Lyon as reporter Joseph Miller. Having spent five years covering the San Diego waterfront, Miller is ready to do whatever it takes to land a cushy job on a big paper back East. His ticket out is going to be the story he plans to break about Chinese immigrants being smuggled into the country on a fishing boat. What he didn't count on was falling in love with the smuggler's daughter.

"The Speed Reporter" (1936). With the city in the grip of gangster terrorism, it appears that the head mobster has the situation well sewn up. The head of the reform league charged with fighting the crime wave is on his payroll, as is the editor of one of the city's two papers. The other paper, however, remains independent. Undaunted by threats and intimidation, they assign the story to a fiery young reporter, played by Richard Talmadge, whose resourcefulness and courage more than makes up for what he lacks in experience.

"A Face in the Fog" (1936). June Collyer and Lloyd Hughes play Jean Monroe and Frank Gordon, both reporters for the same paper. In addition to being co-workers, Jean and Frank are also engaged to be married. Jean becomes involved in a dangerous murder mystery when two actors from the same theatrical company are killed by an unknown assailant. When Jean claims in print to have seen the murderer, she too becomes a target. This is vintage murder mystery stuff. There's even a scene where the lights go out just as the killer's name is about to be revealed.

"Nancy Drew, Reporter" (1939). In the late Thirties, Warner Brothers made a series of four films based on the popular series of juvenile detective novels featuring Nancy Drew, starring Bonita Granville in the lead role. In this film, the second of the series, Nancy vies for an award offered by the local paper for the best story written by a high school journalist. Disdaining the trivial stories assigned by the paper, Nancy instead covers a local murder trial. As she listens to the testimony, she becomes increasingly convinced that the young woman being accused is not guilty. Putting on her sleuth's hat, she sets out to prove the defendant's innocence.

It's not so hard to understand, by the way, why so many American films of this period portray reporters in heroic ways. It just so happens that many of the top scriptwriters in Hollywood during the Thirties, like Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, were writers who had cut their teeth as journalists. Charged with the task of turning out scripts quickly, they drew on what they knew best, with a little wishful embellishment thrown in for good measure.

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