Thursday, May 7, 2009

EXTRA! Newspapers and the movies

Above a newspaper spread wide in the murderous hands of Joseph Cotten hides Mr. Cotten’s face from us as he intends to hide his crimes. But he is eventually revealed, at least to the trusting heart of his niece, Teresa Wright, through steadfast newspaper reporting that dogs him from town to town.

One of the most dramatic moments in this film, “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) is when Teresa Wright goes to the library to read a copy of the newspaper her uncle has destroyed at home, to discover this haunting headline, and then the camera scrolls down the entire column to the thunderous strains of “The Merry Widow Waltz.”

Splashing newspaper headlines were a common dramatic device used in the old movies, sometimes to forward the plot, to explain a twist in the story, or to add a little humor. And it wasn’t enough to show us headlines; we were invariably shown a shot of the running printing presses, to boot. Though newspaper men and women were seen to be a fast-talking, cynical, and sometimes cagy lot, they were often represented as the last defense in a world of lies, soldiers against injustice, and the keepers of democracy.

Even the innocuous and heartwarming comedy, “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), notes this aspect of gritty street journalism when the smarmy bully Mr. Sawyer, who as gotten Edmund Gwenn institutionalized, fears the power of the press. “We’re very anxious to avoid publicity of any kind.”

John Payne, Mr. Gwenn’s lawyer, realizes the power of the press is just the way to get his day in court, and we have the following parody of a newspaper headline in the days when editors had more puns up their sleeves than extra aces.

Other aspects to the old movie view of journalism, sidebars if you will, are guys like old Joe the linotype operator in “Meet John Doe” (1941), and this shouting newsboy who, flashing a newspaper full of that opposite pole of journalism we know as propaganda, storms into the crowd and brings an end to Gary Cooper’s crusade. The truth may set us free, but lies are mighty strong handcuffs.

Then there is the worst kind of free press, the kind that dies. We now live an age of many competing news sources, most wondrous and remarkable. No longer shackled to the printing press, we find ourselves in the curious position of losing the ability, or interest, in keeping a permanent record. The Internet is far-reaching, but hardly permanent. We may find ourselves irresistibly dawn, or pulled unwillingly, further into a world of up to the minute superficiality. Meanwhile, the solid bastions of democracy, the keepers of the record, morph into dinosaurs. The death toll continues.

Rocky Mountain News
Baltimore Examiner
Kentucky Post
Cincinnati Post
Albuquerque Tribune
South Idaho Press

These are only a few of the dinosaurs now extinct. For more on the state of the press, have a look at this website called Newspaper Death Watch. Morbid title, but in the tradition of splashy newspaper headlines in the movies, it gets your attention.


John Hayes said...

That is a moment in so many classic films-- headlines, presses, etc. In addition to the ones you mentioned, I always think of one my personal favorites, "Theodora Goes Wild," with the great Irene Dunne & Thomas Mitchell as the local newspaper editor.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, John. I admit, I love headlines. Besides moving the plot along, and occasionally providing shock or humor, they reflect a world where most small towns had at least a weekly, and most larger towns had a daily, and small cities had at least one morning and one afternoon paper. Newspapers created an historical record, while being a huge showcase of pop culture at the time.

Anuradha Khanna Pentapalli said...

I remember, the first scene in many of the old Hindi movies used to be of the running printing presses. You would know either of these is possible:

-someone died
-someone is missing
-a big business merger happened

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Anuradha, and thank you for joining us. That's funny, the first scene showing running printing presses to forewarn us of the plot. I guess we've become conditioned to these movie clues, and the directors of these old movies knew that.

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