Park Row (MGM LE Collection) Review

Few films drip with as much genuine passion as Samuel Fuller's Park Row. Self-financed for $200,000 in 1952 after a short string of box office successes, Fuller's film is a true love letter to American newspapers and the men who fought for the concept of freedom of the press. It's delicious, ink-stained propaganda as only Fuller, a proud newspaperman himself, could have made it. It was also a disappointing flop commercially, becoming the one and only effort from Samuel Fuller Productions and reinforcing what 20th Century Fox head Daryl Zanuck had warned Fuller of, that the title and lead Gene Evans were liabilities in trying to attract the moviegoing public. Zanuck, according to Fuller's autobiography, suggested color, CinemaScope (which, in actuality, didn't debut until 1953), Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward and...songs! Fuller refused to compromise and made the movie he wanted to, in black and white and absent all of Zanuck's ideas. There would be no movie stars for Park Row but the dedication was so strong that even today you can almost smell the newsprint emanating from the picture.

It begins in June of 1886, roughly 125 years ago to the day. The newspaper capital of the United States is New York City, where the famous street Park Row contains the headquarters of several papers, including the mighty The Star, and statues of newspapermen past Horace Greeley and Benjamin Franklin. Our protagonist Phineas Mitchell (Evans) reveres the likes of Greeley and Franklin. He's, presently, a Star employee who's deeply unhappy with what he perceives as the paper's salaciousness and lack of ethics. Publisher Charity Hackett (Mary Welch) enters the bar where Mitchell and a collection of his co-workers are drinking and soon enough relieves them of their positions of employment. Mitchell has long dreamed of starting his own newspaper and, with the stars aligned just so, his firing turns into the opportunity to begin The Globe, which will operate with many of the now-former Star employees. This motley crew of dedicated men also includes veteran newspaperman Josiah Davenport (Herbert Heyes) and typesetter Angelo (Don Orlando), who can neither read nor write but is the fastest at his job on Park Row. Another dedicated Globe employee was borrowed from real life by Fuller. The German inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler (Bela Kovacs) is shown here doggedly perfecting his linotype machine, a breakthrough in the printing industry. Political cartoonist and Star refugee Thomas Guest (Neyle Morrow), perhaps a tribute in name to Thomas Nast, quickly becomes a valuable part of the team as well.

Even with The Globe and its staff now in place, the paper desperately needs a big story. Fuller supplies Steve Brodie (played by George O'Hanlon, portrayer of Joe McDoakes and voice of George Jetson). Brodie (in July 1886, not June) supposedly and famously jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived. The character in the film is so desperate to get in the newspaper that he impulsively performs the feat, at the encouragement of Mitchell who's already thinking about a good lead for the Globe's first edition. Fuller escalates his story from here, pitting the upstart Globe against the more established Star in a battle of wills and journalistic philosophy. The director paints the Globe as scrappy and virtuous, exhibiting all he believes to be right about the newspaper business. By contrast, The Star is a greedy monolith unwelcoming to competition and not above acts of sabotage when it doesn't get its way, namely a merger. As he writes in his autobiography, Fuller is concerned here with the "violence of competing ideas."

The actual violence Park Row uses is almost shocking, even for Fuller. It's entirely effective, with some scenes so heightened and visceral that they bring to mind the battles lived through in Fuller's war films, but there's still a wonderful sense of sensationalism at play here. This is not a modest little newspaper picture after all. It's a daring, dynamic, grit and sweat movie about the early stages of a vital industry that has now, sadly, become endangered. Fuller shows it all - struggles from the business side to make ends meet, practical concerns of getting the paper out there in a dependable manner, the tough decision as to what constitutes news, the realization that the paper is a product being sold, and the constant need to be ahead of the curve. Despite the relative leanness of the film, it's tough to imagine a better movie about the inner workings of newspapers that maintains such a singular focus. Park Row may not be as good overall as, say, All the President's Men or His Girl Friday, but its ambitions are far different. Fuller's wants are more specific in comparison. He cares here about newspapers, period.

The claustrophobic lack of long shots and signature use of tight, evocative close-ups is the filmmaker at his purest, most wildly thrilling. Again, as with the moments of violence, these stylistic touches often greatly exceed expectations and provide a real surge to the audience. Some modest knowledge of forties and fifties American cinema is needed to really appreciate the kind of gutsy and idiosyncratic filmmaking at which Fuller excelled. A tracking shot later in the film, when Mitchell rushes out of a saloon after learning that The Globe's supplies are being compromised, becomes an explosive moment in the movie. It positions the viewer into a new, more nervous and edgy mindset. The comparison to how a war movie might be filmed is again appropriate here. A rat-a-tat-tat style of theatrical-sounding dialogue deliveries tends to ratchet up the tension while also further obscuring the reality that Park Row is technically a period piece.

The film's ultimate denouement plays like a peace offering where Fuller reasserts his commitment to the newspaper and journalism. After all of the events that have occurred, things that threatened to pull The Globe completely apart and done as a result of actions by Star employees, the ideal is achieved. Fuller wills a compromise that can best benefit the industry, maintaining the steadfast view that newspapers are bigger than any single entity. A romance, sort of the elephant in the room throughout, is also proposed, between Mitchell and Hackett. Mary Welch, the actress who plays Charity Hackett, made only this film, as well as a few television appearances, prior to tragically dying in childbirth at the age of 35 in 1958. She was also a noted stage veteran who was married to the actor David White, probably best known to television viewers from his work on Bewitched but equally effective on screen in Sweet Smell of Success. Her performance in Park Row is wrought with conflict. The character must deal with what she's done and the consequences that follow. It's a complex role in need of an actress who could be simultaneously strong and delicate, depending on what the situation required. Welch nails it, as does Evans playing a man who thinks only in terms of the paper. On more than one occasion Mitchell uses a newspaper as a point of comparison in a situation when hardly anyone else would.

Even if Park Row was not a financial success, Fuller remained deeply and deservedly proud of his film. He thought of it as a turning point in his career, and something that boosted his confidence as a filmmaker. Certainly many of the strengths associated with Fuller - including his boldness and ideological commitment - are on display with characteristic enthusiasm. Subtlety was not on the menu. Part of what endears me so much about the films of Sam Fuller is that he clearly loved what he was doing, and that obvious passion proves infectious more often than not. In Park Row, Fuller is displaying his love for newspapers and the men who did things with a certain dedication to the required ethics and unwritten rules needed for the good of the industry. He has a point of a view, an agenda even, but he's trying to reveal all to his audience. He's not necessarily wanting to convert anyone. The goal is exposure. The intent, in this instance, is to celebrate and provide a reminder of a system that represents an essential freedom of its great country. In that regard, Park Row is a great, unheralded display of patriotism by a director whose next film would include an iconic, defiant line barked by Richard Widmark when an FBI agent tries to pull a little Red Scare on him.


The Disc

Park Row is given the ignoble fate of being released, finally and for the first time anywhere in the world on DVD, as part of MGM's Limited Edition Collection of DVD-R editions. Reports around the internet indicate that some early purchasers received discs marked as containing Park Row but actually having another film instead. For the record, I experienced no such problems with my review copy.

The fullscreen presentation puts the aspect ratio at roughly 1.31:1, with some unused black area being found on the left side of the frame. The black and white MGM LE Collection releases I've seen thus far have tended to have a greenish tinge to them but that's happily not the case with Park Row. Contrast is very good, including reasonably strong black levels that prove vital in enjoying Fuller's fondness for shadows and dark spaces. It's also been progressively transferred. Something worth noting is the frequently changing levels of grain and softness. Most often, things are quite settled down and probably better than anything I've yet seen from this MGM line of made-on-demand titles. On occasion, though, it almost seems like different sources were being used in creating the transfer because a sudden influx of grain or a similar deviation appears. This is only a mild distraction and certainly not a deal breaker. The flicker and instability seen during Fuller's opening dedication are probably inherent to the production.

The English mono audio exhibits no prevailing hiss or similar problems. Dialogue is easy to understand and flows clearly through the front channels. The sound, it must be emphasized, is weak to modest but not unreasonably so, and there are no struggles to be had with the track. As with all MOD releases, there are no subtitles offered.

A trailer (2:01), which characteristically tries to grab the viewer and emphasize elements you might not expect from the likes of a newspaper drama, is included.


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