Journalism July: Park Row (1952)
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 Rodney discuss Samuel Fuller’s Park Row from 1952.
ADAM WILLIAMS: In a 1982 interview, Samuel Fuller spoke—like a sailor, mind you—of Park Row. “It was about people who lived a hundred years before I was born, but it’s also about a street which I grew up in. I love newspapers and, until I was thirteen, fifteen, that was my dream [job]. When I was seventeen, I was a crime reporter. By the time I was twenty-two, twenty-three, I found out it was all a lot of bullshit and so I lost my goddamn interest in being a newspaperman. You have to die poor when you’re a newspaperman. But I still love the history of journalism, and Park Row is my favorite picture.” This film follows the meteoric rise of The Globe led by its bullheaded editor Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans) as he battles against the established respectable rag The Star led by the equally unwavering Charity Hackett (Mary Welch). Along the way, several historical tidbits are weaved in, namely Steve Brodie’s legendary plunge from the Brooklyn Bridge, the proto-Kickstarter effort to raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, and Ottmar Mergenthaler’s invention of the linotype machine.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: I hadn’t really thought about it until you mentioned it, but this movie packs a lot different things into less than an hour and a half. There’s a lot to be said for the way it effortlessly weaves actual history into the fiction of the film itself. Not that it’s terribly unusual, but this film does it well, which is rarely the case.
AW: On paper, this might sound like the typical Hollywood film that ham-handedly intends to teach history. The marketing department did attempt to pitch it this way; see if you can answer the five-question quiz as part of the Corpus Christi Caller-Time’s promotional contest. In actuality, the film’s greatest attribute and the reason it’s revered among modern critics is its style and energy. It’s filmed entirely on a sprawling set of the titular street, streetcar included. The shots are remarkably long while the blocking of the scenes is often crowded to the extreme. At times it’s reminiscent of early live television with several faces crowded together in one shot delivering dialogue back-and-forth. At other times, the camera goes wild such as the scene of Phineas storming out of the bar to clobber a cadre of agitators hired to bust up The Globe’s newsstands. The bumpiness of the elaborately staged tracking shot only adds to the excitement.
RB: In many ways, the set is a costar in the film itself, supposedly costing half of the film’s budget. It’s really impressive and the cinematography really plays this up to the hilt. I was often reminded of the (admittedly later, but more famous) opening shot in Touch of Evil, with the way the camera sweeps over the streets. One of my favorite things about the film, honestly.
AW: It should come as no surprise that this film, with its dynamic camerawork and violent subject matter, is championed by both Scorsese and Tarantino. This film was helmed by one of the great iconoclasts of cinema. In the pre-credit sequence, he makes his presence known in the most assured way: “Samuel Fuller Productions” is on the type-block in the hand of the Johannes Gutenberg statue on Park Row. This is a perfect summation of Fuller’s cinema: blunt, impressive, egotistical, and a little dirty, as anyone who has witnessed the opening scene of The Naked Kiss can attest. Park Row is quintessential Fuller.
RB: My first thought when I saw that pre-credit sequence was “Lest anyone forget who they’re watching…” It’s not all ego though. Fuller’s reputation is largely deserved. He knew what he was doing and wasn’t afraid to take credit for it.
AW: Let me relay a joke. An old codger saddles up to the bar and asks the barmaid, “Whatta ya got?”
As if flipping a switch, the barmaid rattles off the menu all the while pouring shots: “Gin fizz, rainbow, egg nog, alabazam, gin rickey, royal fizz, mint julep, shandygaff, Tom and Jerry, Tom Collins, pousse-café, brain-duster, claret punch, whiskey sour, brandy toddy, happy moment, whiskey sling, port sangaree, blue blazer, Catawba punch, sherry cobbler, absinthe frappé, Hannibal Hamlin, and Sitting Bull fizz. Manhattan cooler, New Orleans punch, Manhattan cocktail, Bowery cocktail, printer’s ink, Sheep Dip. What’ll you have?”
“Beer,” the man grumbles.
OK, it’s not a joke, just a throwaway scene penned by Fuller and captured by cinematographer John L. Russell’s roving camera in a single shot. The show-stopping, Gatling-gun-mouth, cocktail-slinging, Jenny O’Rourke, is played by a Brooklynite born with a most Brooklynite name, Gloria DiMaggio. A 1950 profile in The Brooklyn Eagle outlines how DiMaggio reinvented herself over the years. Her first persona was a Lena Horne-esque night club singer under the stage name Gloria King. After that she became an actress, Tina Rome, determined to make it on the Broadway stage. A fortuitous run-in with Sam Fuller and his then-wife Marta at a party led to three small roles in his films. Besides an uncredited bit in the Warren Beatty/Jean Seberg film Lilith, she never got any further screen roles. By no means did Tina Rome recede into the shadows of anonymity—she just reinvented herself again as Tina Pine—and, along with her husband Lester, wrote the screenplays for the Sammy Davis, Jr. vehicle A Man Called Adam, the 1969 Alan Arkin-starring Popi, and the recently-restored James Earl Jones movie Claudine. After watching her virtuoso performance in Park Row, I can’t help but feel like we’ve been robbed of some great performances. In a cast rife with forceful personalities, she tears through her scenes like a tornado.
RB: You’re so right. That scene was great and so was Gloria DiMaggio. I was also taken by the performance of another wonderful actress that we were robbed of seeing more of, Mary Welch, in what is her only theatrical performance. She was no stranger to the stage, and did a few TV roles. Sadly, she passed away during childbirth in 1958. A potentially great career cut short.
AW: Mary Welch is incredible, and her character’s abject hatred is quite sexy! I was riveted to this movie. Gene Evans’ gruff determinism, Fuller’s lightning-quick screenplay, and the complexity of the camerawork make this a must-see. This is a four-star movie, in big, bold 120-point type. And if you’re taking my drink order, I’ll steal a line of dialogue from the script and take a keg-drainer, stick of straight, schooner chaser.
RB: An immensely likable and impressive movie that deserves more exposure than it has gotten in the past. I had not really known much of anything about it before watching it and was really blown away by it. Highly, highly recommended. Four stars from me as well.