Saturday, September 21, 2013

-30- (1959)

-30- (1959) is a story of the gritty newspaper game played out entirely in the newsroom.  Unlike the spirited hijinks of The Front Page where a fugitive is hidden in a roll top desk and the smart aleck newshounds will do just about anything for a story, this movie is more mature, more world-weary, more soul-searching, and presents the journalists in a much more human light of both idealism and self-doubt.
This is our entry in the Breaking News blogathon  hosted by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay's Movie Musings. Have a look at these two great blogs for a list of the other swell blogs taking part.
Jack Webb, who directed and produced the movie, stars as the editor-in-chief, who, refreshingly, is not the usual barking kind of editor we see in movies about newspapermen.  He’s tough, cunning, but quiet, with a sense of humor and a wellspring of tenderness that is borne of daily reporting on an often unpleasant world, and from being haunted by his own past personal tragedy. 

The barking in this film is left to William Conrad, an editor whose war cry of, “Boy!” refers to the gang of 20-something copyboys on staff always looking for their big break as journalists, but always reduced to menial gofers. 
His chief irritant is David Nelson, who just can’t seem to please his boss.  Much of the film’s wry humor comes from the clashing in this newsroom full of oddball personalities: Richard Deacon, the frustrated staff artist whose talent and art education is wasted on retouching photos.  Another editor who is assigned to both real estate and religion, wishes he could cover the weather, and Jack Webb decides to let him do all three, proclaiming him editor of heaven and earth. 
Howard McNear aka Floyd the Barber shows up, too, as an editor, and it's neat the Mr. Webb has casted so many movie lesser knowns and bit players for featured roles in this film.

We have Louise Lorimer at the rewrite desk, an old vet of the paper, who follows on teletype the news of her grandson’s Air Force test flight, and Nancy Valentine, stuck doing obits, who wants her big chance at a story.

We see there are no restrictions on the ladies in this newsroom, as career opportunities in journalism have been a gateway to women since the days Nellie Bly was working as an investigative reporter in 19th century.  Jack Webb is supportive of the gals, and helps Nancy Valentine to get her big break when a big story happens.

They work the evening shift, preparing the morning paper.  The newsroom never closes in these days of big-city dailies that had both morning and afternoon papers, and any number of “extras” as the events permitted.  In 1959, print journalism was at a crossroads, and we see it here.  When the big story happens, they are competing with the new television media, and William Conrad jokingly laments, “Oh, why didn’t we all get together and stamp out TV when there was still time?”

Towards the end of the movie, when the paper goes to press, we can hear the hum of the huge presses rolling on a floor below.  We are past the days of Linotype in the composing room, but on the desks and light tables in the newsroom we see this is still an era of paste-up and layout, literally.  (This era continued, for me at least, into the 1980s, and it is a kick to see them work with blue pencil and rulers and rubber cement, and to crop photos, literally, by drawing margins, where figuring out column inches and percentages was done with math.)


There are other, less technical touches to this film that endear the viewer to this world of second-shift newspapermen and women.  The way William Conrad uses a piece of typing paper to wipe yesterday’s grounds out his small electric coffee percolator at the beginning of his shift, berating David Nelson, who stands before him with a tray of paper cups of water so Conrad can refill his pot.  I like the sweater vests, and the editor wearing the green eyeshade he probably put on with pride in his youth and never took it off. 

I like the back of the swivel desk chair we see behind Conrad with somebody’s name written on it, as if the owner was tired of having it swiped.

There is also the omnipresent rain, like the Day of Judgment.  We see it out the window over Jack Webb’s shoulder as he looks toward the neon sign of the diner across the street.  We hear it, and everybody who comes into the office is drenched.  The rain also plays an ominous role in the big story for this evening.
A little girl has crawled into an open storm drain.  She is lost somewhere in the sewer tunnels below the street, and the sewers are filling rapidly with the unrelenting rain.  It had been a slow news night, but nobody on staff is jumping for joy over this one.  They all approach the story with knots in their stomachs, but with a steely resolve to be emotionless.

In a sense, the same kind of “procedural” style Jack Webb used in his Dragnet series is employed here, as the movie shows us the nuts and bolts of what it takes to put out a newspaper edition, and here and there reminds us that there are people involved.  Their stories are subordinate to the Big Story, and this is the deal they entered into when they signed on to this kind of work.  So subordinate to the news are their personal lives that often when they engage in serious personal conversations with each other, their backs are to us, as if they cannot admit to us they have feelings.
But we do get a peek at a few of their personal stories.

Louise Lorimer’s grandson’s test flight turns to tragedy.  She keeps working through her shift to avoid going home alone to her empty apartment.  Eventually, we see she does not go home alone—Nancy Valentine takes her home to her apartment; the bonding of the sorority of young and old “girl reporters.”

Jack Webb, especially torn by the Big Story, ponders, “What those parents must be going through.  At least with me, it was all over before they told me.”  Here is his past tragedy.  His wife and son were killed some years previously, and he is not through grieving.  This night will bring his single greatest challenge.  His new wife of three years, played by Whitney Blake, wants to adopt a little boy.  At first Webb agreed, and the two-year process of adoption and the search for a child is over.  She’s found a little boy, but now Jack has cold feet.  He’s afraid to commit his heart to another child.
“The Speech” is given to William Conrad, as he bawls out David Nelson and another copyboy for wanting to quit.  His soliloquy, as he brandishes a rolled up sample of their life’s blood, is capped with, “It only cost ten cents, but if you only read the comic section or the want ads, it’s still the best buy for your money in the world.”

Despite the wisecracks and the cynicism, these are closet idealists who dream big and hurt deeply.

These were the days when the newspaper was the window to the world, something the whole family read, when people had personal loyalties to certain papers, and when a newspaper could be so much the conscience of a community that in later days when they began to close down, the community mourned.  When Jack Webb tears out the planned front page and inserts a new lead story, 72-point heading, with a huge photo of the storm drain, its open jaws threatening to eat us all, he warns the children readers to stay away from this awful thing.  The newspaper is for the whole family to read and discuss.
Nancy Valentine pulls off a coup by talking to the family and getting photos.  She has earned their trust.  Richard Deacon puts his art skills to work, finally, by drawing an illustration of the sewer system that is not only informative for the readers, but helpful to the news staff.  These people don’t just want to report on another dead body, they want to find that kid, and flesh out where and when and why and how.

Then through the night we get reports of injured rescue workers and it does not look good for the missing little girl.

Spoilers here.  Go to the water cooler for a minute if you don’t want to know.
The reporter on scene calls in, and it goes to Louise Lorimer, wearing her headphones to type, hunt-and-peck style, the rewrite.  (In these days, you didn’t automatically get a byline; you had to earn it.  Reporters with bylines were rock stars.)  She listens and types, and Jack Webb listens on the other line.  The staff looks up from their work, apprehensively.

The girl is saved.  The newsroom is quiet, only a sigh of relief and big smiles, and a few tears as one fellow mops his face with his handkerchief. 
Whitney Blake brings the little boy she wants to adopt to the newsroom to meet Jack. He’s still reticent to go through with it, but when the boy wanders into his office and asks what the noise is—he hears the loud presses running—Jack Webb is faced with his greatest nightmare: the prospect of loving another child.

In a sweet finale, Jack’s emotions are, again, subjugated to the newsroom.  It is his point of reference for everything.  He asks the boy, “Don’t you know what that is?”
The boy, a little scared, shakes his head.

“They’re printing the funny papers,” he says reassuringly. 
The little boy has wondered into the magical land where the funny papers come from!  Webb reduces the magnitude of the work and sorrow, tragedy-dwelling and corruption-sniffing of his profession to the simple, but profound level of a small boy who will grow from funny papers to sports page, to editorials and politics. 

Oh, the joy and bliss and magic of the funny papers.

We may wonder if the Big Story didn’t work out with a happy ending, would he still take this child in his arms?  Or would he head for the nearest bar?
As the movie ends, David Nelson passes out the copies of the newspaper they’ve been working on all night.  Very few of us get to see the results of our day’s work so immediately. 

The credits roll, the actors get their bylines.

“-30-” as we are told in the final title card means “the end.”  It comes from the old Western Union telegraph codes established in 1859, one hundred years before this movie was made, when the news was first transmitted over long distances.  The number 30 was telegraphed to mean there was no more news coming across the wire.  Kind of like “over and out.”  It was used by reporters and rewrite staff, and pressmen in the composing room for generations, long after the use became obsolete.  I don’t know if it’s used anymore to signal the end of an article, probably not.

But, with great fondness for the history of journalism and my own very small participation in it over the last few decades, and with a nod to my high school journalism teacher, to this day when I finish a first draft of anything I write—the draft nobody else sees—I end it with…





Caftan Woman said...

You have ink in your veins, Miss Lynch.

You have also given this moody and sympathetic, and obviously lovingly crafted film it's due in a thoroughly involving article.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, CW. I admit I have a soft spot for this genre. I'm looking forward to reading the other posts in this blogathon.

grandoldmovies said...

I love the affection you bring to this film and to a lost era of journalism. Thanks so much.

Vienna said...

What a great review of a film I've never heard of. Hope it becomes available.

Vienna's Classic Hollywood

Silver Screenings said...

This looks fantastic! Loved your thoughtful review, and your attention to the details that elevated this movie above other "newsroom" flicks.

Thanks for reviewing this. Otherwise, I don't think I would know to watch for it.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you all. I believe I saw this on TCM, so keep an eye out for it. I don't know if it's available on DVD. I hope you can all see it soon.

Judy said...

Jacqueline, what an evocative review. As a journalist who started out in the 1980s, I am another one who remembers the paste-up, and cropping pictures exactly as you describe! You've made me want to see this - I see that it is out from Warner Archive on DVD.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

We never heard of this film! You've painted a very favorable picture of it, and what a great supporting cast it boasts too. Whitney Blake in a feature film? Now that's interesting. She is quite forgotten these days but we think she was a lovely actress. Her look-alike daughter is actress Meredith Baxter.

ClassicBecky said...

I haven't seen this movie in a long time, Jacqueline, but I always loved it. I wanted to be a newspaper reporter when I was young, and this was just how I always pictured it growing up. It was a good, solid movie of which I have good memories. You have done it justice. You also brought a tear to my eye: "...when a newspaper could be so much the conscience of a community that in later days when they began to close down, the community mourned." I remember when this began to happen, and I did mourn.

FlickChick said...

Wow -William Conrad, David Nelson, Whitney Blake... I need to see this. Your excellent review has me very excited to find this!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Judy, and thanks for letting us know this movie is out on DVD. Nice to hear from someone who remembers the paste-up and layout. And halftones, I forgot to mention shooting halftones.

Metzinger gals, I had no idea Meredith Baxter was Whitney Blake's daughter. I love the supporting cast of this movie.

Becky, you and me both when the newspapers began to shut their doors and the mourning began.

Thanks, FlickChick, I hope you can catch it soon.

David said...

I liked this very much. And as a former reporter, I have to say that they can be, simultaneously, the most cynical and the most idealistic people in the world.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, David. I agree, as you say, simultaneously cynical and idealistic. Well put.

Unknown said...

  Good Review.I haven't seen yet before.But Now Of course I will see it.

Moira Finnie said...

This movie kills me every time I've seen it and your excellent account has me near tears with love for a lost world I'll never be a part of, but relish in this film. I have always felt that this valentine to newspapers was the best thing that Jack Webb ever did. Terrific to see so many familiar faces in the cast, particularly William Conrad, who gives this part such a spin in his swivel chair! You have made me want to see this again. Thanks

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Moira. So glad you like this film. I'm particularly taken by how many bit-part players and extras he used in feature roles. I think Louise Lorimer had a truckload of uncredited walk-ons. It's so nice he gave her a chance to show her chops in this one.

And I love William Conrad.

You are part of this world. Your blog is your beat. Every time you hit "publish" you go to press.

Citizen Screen said...

Fantastic post, Jacqueline! Your descriptions bring the presses to life. I've never seen this film, but it sounds great - right up my alley! Another added to my "must-see" list as a result of this blogathon.

Truly - wonderful read!


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you Mike, and Aurora. The blogathon has been a lot of fun.

Yvette said...

LOVED this review, Jacqueline. SO well done. I saw this movie in the theater when it first came out and I do remember enjoying it. It was actually thrilling to see how a newspaper was put together. Those were the days. I fooled with the idea of studying journalism back then. A year before I graduated high school.

P.S. I love Joe Flynn. Remember him in McHALE'S NAVY on TV?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Yvette. I can see you banging out a column on your Smith-Corona manual.

Joe Flynn's fun to watch.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jacqueline,

I think the thing I miss most about the journalism profession is the newsroom, and the camaraderie that is built there. I've never seen this film, but it sounds like a great example of this. What an interesting cast as well!
Thank you so much for participating in our blogathon!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Lindsay, and thanks for co-hosting the blogathon.

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