sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2019-03-31 11:57 pm
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They're printing the funny papers

I must warn you in advance that -30- (1959) has some of the worst scoring it has ever been my misfortune to encounter stuck to a film. Despite the presence of a composer's name in the credits, it sounds like a recycled collage of wackier, sappier library music and old TV cues: it's cartoonish where the film is sardonic, motivational where the film is matter-of-fact, and does its best to flood real emotion off the screen on a wave of syrup; in sum, it's like someone constantly elbowing you in the ribs to make sure you know this is the sad part and this is the funny part and this is the tense part and it's a shame, because the movie is otherwise a small gem in no need of assistance with its suspense, its humor, or its heartstrings.

Produced and directed by Jack Webb from an original screenplay by one-time reporter William Bowers, -30- is another kind of procedural, less crime-minded than Dragnet; it's an eight-hour slice of life on the evening shift of a city paper modeled so closely on the Los Angeles Examiner that the set with its water coolers and hanging fluorescents and pigeons milling about on the ledges outside was recreated from the real-life paper's offices. There's a big story and a lot of small ones and they are all satisfactorily, somewhat thematically resolved by the time the presses roll for the morning edition, but it's much more a portrait of a workplace and the people in it than any singular protagonist's progress from A to B. The danger of this ensemble approach is that a narrative can feel diffuse or abstract, all individuality subsumed into an equal-opportunity collective which is great for socialist realism but fatal where a profession as traditionally fast-paced and highly colored as the newspaper business is concerned. Even on a slow news night that begins with nothing but girlie pictures, a betting pool on an actress' pregnancy, and a likely front-page story about whooping cranes, -30- is humming like linotype with personality, tangily conveyed by one of the funniest scripts for a non-comedy I have run into since The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). So we get the forty-year rewrite veteran whose grandson is making a high-speed test flight from Honolulu to New York and the cigar-clipping city editor whose default register of interaction with everyone from the terrorized copy boys to the amused managing editor is an aria of sarcasm ("Oh, we're going to have a newspaper all right. Lots of pages with print on it, folded together just right, headlines in the right place—") and the beneficiary of nepotism champing at the bit for a real assignment and the press agent always trying to boost his latest property and the staff artist still morose over working his butt off at art school just to redraw maps of storm drains and the double-duty editor willing to wedge a third desk into his office for the chance to report on the weather ("Why, I'll bet I've known a cumulonimbus cloud from a cirrus since I was four years old!"–"And that's good?"–"It's just an indication") and the senior copyreader whose green eyeshade is just about as bilious as his view of human nature, his own included, and they don't feel like types or cogs, they feel like intelligent, hard-worked, cooped-up people being cranky and rhetorical and stack-blowing and supportive at one another and generally sounding like champions while they do it. I think it may have done these characters no favors in the '50's that when they talk about the important things, they do so with self-protective understatement or hyperliterate irony, but it's actually a style that ages very well. It is understood that they feel deeply, but rarely do they leave even a serious conversation without returning it wryly to earth. The plot can then encompass lost children and media frenzy and fears of commitment and futility and failure without feeling melodramatically heavy; for starters, no matter how down everyone gets, the daily paper still has to go out on time. I like when the ME finishes comforting one of his staff by noting, "Besides, what would be so tough about being a power that's greater than we are?" but I really love the copyreader steering a rapidly-revealing exchange back to safe expostulation with "Well, thanks! Getting a little gassed up on occasion's the only vice I've got left. Now you've gone and loused that up for me!"

-30-'s cast is mostly drawn from radio and TV and they are impeccable, from William Conrad as the Los Angeles Banner's answer to Orson Welles to Richard Deacon as the inexhaustibly unimpressed artist, James Bell as the seen-it-all copyreader, Joe Flynn as the newcomer wire editor, and various turns of eagerness, hard-sell, dreaminess, and frustration from actors like Richard Bakalyan, Dick Whittinghill, Jonathan Hole, and David Nelson, with Webb himself anchoring—but not crowding—the ensemble as the managing editor who comes to work every Thursday night from laying flowers on a grave. Knowing him mostly as stonefaced Sergeant Joe Friday, I really enjoyed seeing how warm, wry, and springy he is as Sam Gatlin, brushing off the PR flack with the folder full of glamour shots, "No, my wife gets real psychotic if I show any interest in naked female children," and then seriously to the suggestion that he just not tell his wife, "That isn't the answer, Fred." His wife is played by Whitney Blake and when she makes a rare visit to his office, they nuzzle and flirt so endearingly that we understand her picture on his desk is not a rote gesture. The glamour shots turn out to be of "Miss Arkansas of 1959" Donna Sue Needham, whose undoing of an overcoat in the newsroom occasions the only appropriate musical cue in the picture—a sudden whammy from the brass section—and a series of Tashlin-esque oomph gags, why not? On the other hand, this movie gives the traditional bonding of veteran and rookie to two women without a hint of gawking: Louise Lorimer's "Lady" Wilson has been the backbone of the Banner since 1917 and Nancy Valentine's Jan Price is just filing her first copy tonight, but they're damn good newspaperwomen and there are no exceptions about them. We see other women on staff, just as see all sorts of action in the background that the script does not concentrate on, typewriters clattering, proofs being checked, endless cups of coffee being carried back and forth. A newsroom is a busy place. And we get a good sense of it, as an ecosystem as well as an architectural space, with Edward Colman's cleanly lit cinematography ranging across open-plan desks and through glass doors and even around corners to the restrooms, where Conrad's Jim Bathgate is suspiciously trying to track down the incongruous sound of bongos. (The copy boys are lamenting their lot. The hungry i is in no danger of hearing from their agent any time soon.) The rain drips off the cranked-open jalousie windows in Sam's office, beaded with neon reflecting from the all-night diner across the street. The same rain is filling up the storm drains beneath the city, where a three-year-old girl went missing hours ago with her dog. That's the big story and none of these professionally hardboiled, scoop-chasing people wants to see it end badly, but it's their job to print the headlines either way. Even an overexcited squiggle of strings can't ruin the moment the crucial call comes in.

At the end of his paean to the newspaper—fish-wrap, dropcloth, puppy-training aid—Bathgate concludes, "It only costs ten cents, that's all. But if you only read the comic section or the want ads, it's still the best buy for your money in the world." I don't know if I would go so far as to make the same claim for -30-, but I watched it without expectations and was then very sorry to hear it was the last of only three feature films directed by Webb. He has a nice ear for the rhythms of breezy or difficult conversation and a nice eye for details that imply entire histories, like the pair of side-by-side swivel chairs with "HARVEY" and "JOE" respectively swiped across their backs in white paint. Every now and then the dialogue tilts expository or the plot turns too-precise and then it always catches itself. I truly wish to excise all non-diegetic music in this movie from my memory as well as from the film stock, but the good news is that most of it was sufficiently generic that I remember only how much it annoyed me. The title is the traditional journalist's sign-off and the film appropriately ends with it. I reviewed this movie by request of [personal profile] spatch, who likes newspaper stories; I hope I have done justice to its small but not insubstantial charms. It isn't noir at all. This edition brought to you by my literate backers at Patreon.
thawrecka: (newsmedia)

[personal profile] thawrecka 2019-04-01 07:15 am (UTC)(link)
On the upside, even with a bad musical score, in this review it sounds utterly delightful, so I'm very glad you watched it.
asakiyume: created by the ninja girl (Default)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2019-04-01 05:39 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow, that sounds really good, and if I check out your other offering for the copper pit, I'l have to check this one out for a 1950s newsroom (still haven't had a chance to go back to your round-up post that contained the copper-pit film--but eventually!)
asakiyume: created by the ninja girl (Default)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2019-04-02 03:08 am (UTC)(link)
There's a very brief Japanese Netflix show (I think six episodes in all) that we're watching that does similar for a local TV news station--tells you all the different roles, shows how the thing comes together (with a story woven in around it--a somewhat fun, but also mildly irritating and slightly sentimental, in moments, story ... though also sometimes genuinely funny and touching)
spatch: (Default)

[personal profile] spatch 2019-04-02 06:03 am (UTC)(link)
I wonder what contemporary newspaper workers thought of the film. The only thing I could find was the NYT review which thought the dialogue was too wisecracky, though I bet that reviewer had just been asked "So your office is just like The Front Page every day, huh?" too many times.