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Journalism July: The Power of the Press (1928)

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

This July we will examine films that give insight into the media, the way they can shape society and the people involved. Today Rodney and Samantha assess The Power of the Press from 1928.

SAMANTHA: The Power of the Press is a silent film from the late silent era, so it features the polish of an industry comfortable in their medium. The camera offers an opulent view of this routine story executed by a group of talented people. Unfortunately for the pacing, there is some footage missing near the end, but I am grateful this film survives. Not all of Frank Capra’s silents do.

RODNEY: Yeah, apparently this film was quite difficult to see for a long time, so to have access to it at all is a pretty big deal, even with the couple of minutes of missing footage. Fortunately, the missing footage doesn’t make THAT big of a difference, and it’s easy to follow along with this brisk little picture anyway.

SG: The story concerns the murder of a district attorney just before a tense election. An up-and-coming reporter (who usually covers the weather in the most floral manner) lucks into a shot at this breaking news. When he rushes to the scene he discovers one of the candidates’ daughters sneaking away and gets a scoop that could make a name for himself as a journalist.

Douglas Fairbanks is usually posh and aristocratic but here he plays the arrogant but naive cub reporter to the hilt. This is his first starring role, but you’d never know it by his ease on screen. In his book The Salad Days he wrote, “I did not have much confidence in this picture at first. It was to be made by Columbia, then a scrawny Poverty Row company, whose pictures were produced by a man known to be coarse, vulgar, egocentric and brutal— Harry Cohn.” He called Capra one of the very best and nicest directors and credited the success of this film with the success of his career. After The Power of the Press he was offered a contract at MGM.

RB: Fairbanks already has a good amount of charisma here and while he is arrogant, you definitely find yourself rooting for him. There are hints of what is to come in the future, even though he is playing against type here. He exhibits quite a flair for light comedy, and apparently an opinion of Harry Cohn that’s shared by pretty much everyone else that had ever met him. Did anyone EVER have anything good to say about Cohn? That would be noteworthy in itself.

SG: Capra found success at Columbia, but he had to endure Cohn's brusqueness and a plethora of racial slurs during his years there. Capra’s background as a gag writer for Hal Roach and experience with comedy comes through in this film. The gum-chewing scene is expertly timed. He finds ways to make mundane moments feel special by adding comedy flourishes. The story has elements that Capra developed over time: suspicion of the political machine and the press and inexperienced and well-meaning protagonist who gets duped but ultimately triumphs.

There are two other big comedy connections here. Jobyna Ralston, the girl, was a favorite leading lady of Harold Lloyd. Mildred Harris, the gangster's moll, was Chaplin’s first wife.

RB: I wouldn’t call this an out and out comedy, but it’s definitely light and moves along at a good clip. Capra was already well experienced with this sort of film, and while this is a minor picture in his oeuvre, it’s fun. While everyone involved knew what they were doing on this film, there are shades of things to come with everyone. Their best work was well ahead of them.

SG: When I went to journalism school, this is the kind of newsroom I imagined, desks adorned with those dangerous-looking metal spikes that writers drove their story ideas through and mostly good-natured competition between journalists, ringing phones, lots of movement. It turns out this is a romantic depiction of an era long gone, and it is too bad because it certainly looks like a lot of fun. These days digital media rules, good or bad. The media still have the ability to shape society and their hold on us is possibly greater than ever. The ease of publication has given voice to an abundance of opinions; without it we wouldn't be doing this blog. But it has also created distance between the people gathering the news from their coworkers and from their readers. The ease of access to global news and information has obliterated strong community ties because instead we are citizens of the world. Sometimes it is nice to look back on these old movies to get a taste of what it might have been like in the "good old days." (I use this term facetiously. Yellow Journalism was alive when The Power of the Press was made.)

I award this film three stars.

RB: I was struck by the images of the printing presses documenting how newspapers were made in the late 20’s and reminded of just how powerful the printed word can be. It’s something that we take for granted today, like how we may take for granted the best work of stars of the past like Capra and Fairbanks. This film is a solid reminder of how good those things can be. Three and a half stars for me.

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