This July we will examine films that give insight into the media, the way they can shape society and the people involved. Today Adam and Samantha assess -30- from 1959.
SAMANTHA: This is the story of a newspaper and the many different people who work there. William Conrad is an authoritative editor who delights in tormenting the copy boys. One young man (David Nelson) is directed not to speak to him for a week but then is bossed around indirectly to run unnecessary errands including placing bets on the gender of the illegitimate child of an Italian actress. (This subplot reminded me of Ingrid Bergman’s scandalous out-of-wedlock pregnancy earlier in the decade.) The copy boy isn’t really a boy though he looks like he is barely out of high school. We find out he served in the military and has a pregnant wife at home. Louise Lorimer is very good as the reporter who has worked on the paper the longest. She is excited to cover an aerial race because her military grandson is involved. Nancy Valentine plays a socialite waiting for her big break to prove her mettle as a reporter and gets it. Jack Webb is an appealing every-man who runs the paper.
ADAM: David Nelson is, of course, the elder son of Ozzie and Harriet. His casting is aimed squarely at the youth market. As if Ricky’s less-desirable brother wasn’t enough teen appeal, there was also the “hit” single released as a 45, “Boy” by The Nortones with the Big Sound of Don Ralke. Ralke is responsible for some fine bongo-heavy exotica, but this particular single is as appealing as a soggy newspaper and just as likely to leave a stain. These concessions to teens as well as comic relief by William Conrad (best known for Cannon), Joe Flynn (who found his greatest success on McHale’s Navy), and Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show) all lead one to believe that an effort was underway to sand down the rough Joe Friday exterior that Jack Webb had developed in the decade since Dragnet launched on the radio. Just because this is a cuddlier Jack Webb doesn’t mean all the drama is stripped away. If this were an episode of Dragnet, it would be called "The Big Storm Drain."
S: Yes, the main news story that the paper works on throughout is about a little girl stuck in a sewer drain. Periodically, we get updates on how close the fire department is to finding her and how the weather is affecting their search. The final reveal closes the film, but the treatment of it in the paper seems disproportionately large if you look at it from the prospective of the reader. This was before the days of constant updates through the internet. The general public isn’t following the play by play that the newsroom is, or is it? Are the TV and radio outlets giving people the play-by-play? And if so, wouldn’t they have broken the final news before the paper? The news is important but doesn’t justify the headline of the century treatment the paper gives it.
A: Because its rigid style is so imitable, the parodies of Dragnet are probably more well known than the show itself. This does not negatively reflect on the quality of the source material—especially in its early radio days, Dragnet’s dramatically understated tone is grim and compelling. Sergeant Joe Friday is enigmatic; he seems to only exist for a job that has eroded his personality. Only rarely do we get glimpses of his home life. On the contrary, -30- provides Webb with a backstory and character arc that if charted out would resemble a rollercoaster.
S: Webb’s family drama feels ridiculous. This subplot is the weakest of the whole film. It takes us away from the newsroom and gets a more melodramatic treatment in comparison to the rest of the action. Was adoption really so easy? Could potential parents back out at the last minute and leave an orphan heartbroken waiting for the parents that would never come?
A: Just as 1957’s Zero Hour! spawned Airplane!, the Zucker brothers could have had a field day with the script for -30-.
It’s a fun movie to goof on, from the misfired jokes to misfired attempts at profundity, but there is an undeniable quality to the film. It moves at a fast clip, and it creates a strong sense of place. Watching several newspaper films in a short period of time has been a good opportunity to compare the ways filmmakers map out a newsroom to immerse the viewer in the cramped, cluttered, and cacophonous workplace. In this respect, -30- is a great success. Because it takes place entirely in the newsroom—and with a boost from William Conrad’s bellicose performance—this movie has an aggressively confining atmosphere. By the end, the viewer needs a breath of fresh air away from the wisecracks, fluorescent lights, and typewriter clatter.
On the heels of the film’s release, American Cinematographer published an article about Edward Colman’s photographic tricks to make the single-set film visually dynamic. The ingredients include an array of wide-angle and zoom lenses, low angle perspectives (complicated by the fluorescent tubes lining the ceiling), a simple lighting setup favoring natural light sources, and a crab dolly. Incidentally, this last item, which allows the camera to maneuver tight spaces and smoothly turn on a dime, is often said to have been invented by Vincente Minnelli—the director did use the device as an integral part of the choreography of his films—but the truth is it was patented in 1954 by one Steve Krilanovich. The most interesting detail in the article is how Colman achieved the single glimpse of the outside world in the otherwise interior film. Jack Webb looks out the venetian blinds in his office and sees his wife across the street. This clever process shot is achieved by the actor peering at a projected scene (photographed by the second unit from the Los Angeles Examiner building) behind a windowpane being pelted by a rain machine. It occupies just a moment, but this deceptively simple sequence establishes the time and the increasingly threatening downpour. Taken out of context it’s almost, dare I say, Edward Hopper-esque in its moodiness.
S: Overall the way the film focuses on the variety of people in the newsroom makes it feel more like a succession of television episodes, and considering Webb’s association with TV, it wouldn’t be shocking if this was being considered as a pilot for its own series. If I discovered there was a series that came after this story, I'd certainly watch it. It serves as a slice of life in the late 50s when women’s roles were changing, the old guard was still in power but not long from being usurped by the generation that served in the war, and people still relied on the newspaper for their news.
A: We viewed this film on 16mm in what I hope becomes a semi-regular shindig.
S: Me too! There's nothing better than watching movies (and on film too) with people who appreciate them the way you do. That's why I started a little film convention. You may have heard of it...
A: Pardon the technical gobbledygook but this is an instance where the open matte film at a 1.33:1 ratio is preferable to the matted presentation on DVD at 1.78:1. See the comparison image I put together which reveals the film has a far more pleasing composition than the widescreen presentation.
Even if you can’t see it on celluloid, this is essential for Jack Webb fans. For all the others, it’s far from crucial viewing, but still a three-star curio.
Join us next month when we explore movies based on Old Time Radio shows.