FilmJuice have my review of Samuel Fuller’s classic film Park Row.
Set in 19th Century New York where dozens of newspapers are competing for dominance, Park Row tells the story of Phineas Mitchell… a reporter whose nose for a story and willingness to rattle cages results in him being sacked from one paper only to be given the editorship of another. The scene in which this professional transition takes place is telling as Mitchell is appointed as editor not because of his politics or his experience but because of the manifest greatness of his journalistic talent. What makes this film so interesting is that while most films about journalism invoke the concept of journalistic greatness, many choose to define that concept in strictly moral terms: Did this journalist speak the truth? Did they change the world? Park Row, on the other hand, defines journalistic greatness in terms that are entirely amoral:
Unlike many odes to journalistic greatness, Fuller eschews both sentiment and morality in order to celebrate Mitchell’s ability to strike a chord and continue to play a tune regardless of how many people get crushed on the dance floor. Drawing freely from the press room cynicism of Citizen Kane’s opening act and pre-empting the vision of 19th Century New York as a bubbling cauldron of tribal violence in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Fuller praises a form of journalistic greatness that the newspaper business is now only too eager to forget. Mitchell’s greatness is not that of Bernstein and Woodward in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men or that of Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, this is the greatness of Orson Welles’s Kane, Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. A form of greatness measured not in moral victories but in blood and gold… the type of greatness that builds industries and nations at the expense of individuals… the type of greatness that built America.
Made entirely with Fuller’s own money, Park Row is not just a love letter to journalism, it is a love letter to a sharp-edged and chaotic form of life that has now been excluded from the middle-class existential vocabulary. Mitchell is neither a sharp-elbowed careerist or a shabby paladin, he is a brutal and energetic man who prowls through life with all the malignant pugnacity of a tiger with tooth-ache. This is a man who demands ‘Truth’ and ‘Liberty’ in much the same way as he might turn on you in order to demand ‘Did you just spill my pint?’. When Mitchell feels professionally marginalised, he starts his own newspaper. When Mitchell needs a story, he throws someone in jail in order to mount a campaign to secure their liberation. When Mitchell feels hard-done by, he takes to the streets and begins rioting. It is hardly surprising that many people have pointed out that Phineas Mitchell bears a striking resemblance to the cigar-chewing Fuller himself.