Bright Lights Film Journal

Uncle Sam’s Love Letter: Samuel Fuller’s <em>Park Row</em> on DVD

“If you can get past all these potentially off-putting deviations, Park Row offers Samuel Fuller at his most free, exuberant, and even experimental. As unfocused as the narrative is, it is essentially a realist fable, or collection of fables, condensing an entire rough-and-tumble era into a coincidence-riddled pill.”

Park Row may be the only film where Samuel Fuller’s heart got the better of his brains. Fuller consistently cited the punchy 1952 newspaper picture as his absolute favorite of all his films, but even those of us who share his romantic vision of the press and count Park Row among our favorites cannot rightly rank it alongside masterpieces like The Naked Kiss, White Dog, or Pickup on South Street. As with Fritz Lang’s profound and profoundly silly The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, there is a slight twinge of embarrassment for any Fuller fan trying to reconcile the film’s many virtues and Fuller’s intellectual stature with its shamelessly simplistic didacticism and nostalgia. It would be a bit risible if it weren’t so sincere, and Fuller — who was nothing if not totally sincere — surrenders himself completely to the vision of Park Row and our usual easy conceptions of his work fail. Fuller the Muckraker, Fuller the Warrior, the Humanist, the Trouble-Maker, the Jewish John Ford, the Indie Howard Hawks: all these paper dolls crumple in the shadow of Park Row, a humble and rowdy melodrama that perhaps most fully demonstrates just how impossible it is to pigeonhole Fuller’s enormous personality. Thankfully, after decades of scant screenings as a niche curio at film festivals, the film is now available on high-quality DVD, both in MGM’s Limited Edition Collection and Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection (the superior Masters of Cinema disc has extensive extras and that collection’s usual attention to detail, while the MGM disc has neither subtitles nor chapter selections, but both offer comparable image transfers).

Fuller’s work is often reductively described as “tabloid,” a misleading term that usually refers to the ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter of a handful of his most controversial and popular films (such as Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, and White Dog) and implicitly denies the significance of the more straightforward genre efforts and Hollywood films that make up the bulk of his output. However, Park Row is a tabloid film in the purest sense: the story of a newspaper editor (Gene Evans) starting a tabloid-sized daily in the 1880s, written and directed by a former tabloid reporter, and financed entirely out of Fuller’s own pocket. The film’s aspect ratio even roughly conforms to the above-the-fold dimensions of a New York City tabloid, with Fuller’s studio work in CinemaScope looking like cinematic broadsheets by comparison.

The “tabloid” descriptor often goes hand in hand with Fuller’s current reputation as a hip independent who influenced the likes of Scorsese, Jarmusch, and Tarantino, but Park Row, as Fuller’s only independently produced film of the 1950s (the most prolific decade of his directorial career), is the exception rather than the rule. Despite the outsider status of his late career, Fuller was a major Hollywood player for years, working alongside Ford, Hawks, Ray, Lang, Wilder, and Walsh and directing big-budget hits for RKO and 20th Century-Fox. Park Row was only made on Fuller’s dime after Darryl F. Zanuck, one of Fuller’s main collaborators, predicted (correctly) that it wouldn’t be a hit. Oddly enough, the “outsider” cynicism, pull-no-punches action, and dark honesty that give Fuller much of his current cachet were more prevalent in his big studio hits and quite popular with audiences at the time — Pickup on South Street, for instance, or House of Bamboo. Even so, Fuller’s reputation was so substantial that Park Row, the most fully independent film of one of American cinema’s most independent minds, held its premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and was favorably reviewed by nearly every prominent critic in the country.

None of this belittles the film’s independent pedigree, but Fuller’s Hollywood roots are key to understanding just how bizarre a film Park Row really is. Through Fuller’s friendships with major Hollywood directors and reporters turned screenwriters, Park Row is joined at the hip to other classic newspaper movies like Ace in the Hole, Citizen Kane, and the multiple versions of The Front Page (including His Girl Friday), yet, beyond the bare bones of setting and subject, it has little in common with them. Fuller’s hero, Phineas Mitchell, is, like Fuller himself, a true ink-blooded newspaperman, one who hates war but loves to fight, an all-American truth-seeker and little-D democrat who thinks in headlines and can’t be bothered to wait for those around him to keep up with his no-nonsense pace. He rallies his staff like a rifle squad and raises hell: Conflict! Controversy! Conviction! The film bends over backwards several times to unambiguously identify Mitchell as a journalistic paragon, but Fuller’s own infatuation with the profession bungles our sense of him. Though you can easily imagine Mitchell as a noble muckraker taking on a corrupt foe to exemplify the democratic power of the free press, most of the film meanders among loosely related subplots where he starts a circulation war with his former paper, popularizes new newspaper formats, and raises money to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.

Much of this is based on true events, and Mitchell himself is a sort of anachronistic hodgepodge of Joseph Pulitzer, Horace Greeley, Whitelaw Reid, and several others. One of the minor characters is Ottmar Mergenthaler, the real-life inventor of the Linotype, a revolutionary device that Fuller treats with more awe and reverence than most science fiction directors treat their time machines and spaceships, and even more of Mitchell’s potential story is ignored so that a brief squabble over ownership of the device can wedge its way into the mix. From a man jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and becoming a folk hero to Mitchell inventing the newsstand by cobbling together wood he tore off the wall in his office, the narrative is too bogged down by these anecdotes to ever pick up much steam, and there’s never any real sense of what is at stake if Mitchell doesn’t pull through with his Statue of Liberty pedestal fund. There is only a fleeting mention of a typical newspaper movie subject matter — a wrongfully convicted man libeled by a newspaper — but it’s over and done with within the first ten minutes to make way for Fuller’s endless footnotes. You get the distinct feeling that Fuller was terribly afraid that he’d never get the chance to make the movie again and couldn’t restrain himself from including everything, not out of narcissistic self-indulgence but servile devotion and a sense of duty. The opening title crawl says that the film is “Dedicated to American Journalism,” and Fuller means it in the deepest, most patriotic sense (though, as he made clear many times, he would never want you to call him a patriot, even when the red, white, and blue is bleeding through his monochrome in arterial pulses).

What gets lost in the shuffle is Fuller’s usual attention to character and story. Mitchell is well rounded and played to perfection by Gene Evans, but he is too indentured to the broader purposes of the film to ever emerge fully the way many of Fuller’s similarly gruff and cantankerous heroes do. Everyone around him treats him like a living legend of journalistic integrity, but all we ever get to see him do is make shrewd decisions about paper purchases and get riled up when some goons run over a kid with a wagon. Worse yet, the film’s villain, a rival newspaper owner and Mitchell’s former employer (Mary Welch), is just about the only female presence, giving the film an unpleasant aftertaste of misogyny unusual for Fuller, who was no misogynist. Welch, like Evans, does a fine job, but her character, another hodgepodge, has to meet the demands of not only Fuller’s historical curiosity but also his narrative devices. She transforms preposterously from coldhearted yellow journalist to sympathetic ne’er-do-well to elegant love interest as the needs of the story dictate, and she is ultimately little more than a cipher.

If you can get past all these potentially off-putting deviations, Park Row offers Samuel Fuller at his most free, exuberant, and even experimental. As unfocused as the narrative is, it is essentially a realist fable, or collection of fables, condensing an entire rough-and-tumble era into a coincidence-riddled pill. This approach to film storytelling as a series of tonally shifting sketches is something Fuller would explore more successfully almost thirty years later in The Big Red One, his semi-autobiographical World War II masterpiece, and it’s no coincidence that Fuller’s two most narratively disjointed and unconventional are also his most personal. While The Big Red One is painful and steeped in a deep hatred of warfare, Park Row is joyous and brimming with the oblivious passion of a man showcasing his most precious collectibles to a stranger. It calls to mind Farebrother’s exhibition of his insect collection in Middlemarch, and, like Eliot’s wise and humanist vicar, Fuller is both self-conscious enough to be aware that not everyone shares his passion and too consumed by it to care. As someone with formal education in journalism, I can hardly claim to be unbiased regarding the subject matter, but I find this boisterous enthusiasm more invigorating than the action in his more widely acclaimed war films.

Fuller’s greatest achievement in Park Row is his depiction of the street itself. Like an obsessively crafted model train set or ship in a bottle, Fuller’s Park Row is more powerful as an imaginative space in which stories might happen than one in which one specific story does or will happen, and much of the film’s pleasure is found in exploring Park Row and letting your mind wander the way young Fuller might have (though he was obviously much too young to have ever seen it in the time period depicted, which is itself another self-conscious element of fantasy). Mitchell’s tabloid is called The Globe, a conceit for how the film’s disparate subplots never leave a one-block area yet encapsulate such a variety of emotion and human interaction that they seem to be taking place all over the world. Fuller’s magnificent set is four stories tall and looks it, a loving replica of how it looked in the 1880s with a bit of poetic license taken with its imposing centerpiece, a bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin. Nearly the entire film takes place in a pub, Mitchell’s printing office, Hackett’s office, and the small stretch of street that connects all three within brief walking distance, but the photography by John L. Russell (who shot Orson Welles’ amazing Macbeth, as well as Edgar G. Ulmer’s underappreciated The Man from Planet X) maneuvers through the space in such unexpected and subtle ways that a familiar room may suddenly appear to be an altogether new and different place. The MGM DVD has a slight green tint to it, but otherwise both versions do justice to the film’s visuals and rival some of the Blu-ray transfers of Fuller’s films in Criterion’s Eclipse Collection. Fuller wouldn’t surpass this spatial freedom as a feat of mise en scène until the mental hospital in Shock Corridor, and, even then, that film’s schematic and bluntly poetic symbolism feels cold compared to the romanticism of Park Row.

For all its bowing at the altar of journalism, Park Row is never a naïve film, and if Fuller comes across as a hopeless romantic, he’s certainly no fool. It’s tempting to imagine the older, wiser Fuller of The Big Red One and White Dog handling the film with more restraint and subtlety, but Fuller was no spring chicken when he made Park Row (it was released on his fortieth birthday, making his centennial birthday this past August also the sixtieth anniversary of the film’s release). Furthermore, Fuller’s youthful and fiery love for journalism never waned, so while we may have gotten a more technically disciplined Park Row had Fuller been forced to wait thirty years to make it the way he was with The Big Red One, it would have most likely been just as sweetly exuberant. In any case, the film’s reputation as an uncritical ode to journalism’s halcyon days is overstated; the film targets unscrupulous members of the press as essentially un-American and despicable, and their attempts to destroy Mitchell’s up-and-coming paper are, in Fuller’s view, criminal violations of the very foundations of democracy. Also, Fuller made the film at a time when newspapers were beginning to die off rapidly, a fact too painful for him to deal with directly but that constitutes the real undercurrent of Park Row, a film more elegiac than it is nostalgic. Some of it may seem a bit quaint now that signing on to a newspaper staff is tantamount to boarding the Pequod, but as long as sycophantic and bloodless Oscar bait like All the President’s Men is still being screened for journalism students as a rouse to action, Fuller’s cigar-scented sloppy kiss of a movie is a priceless artifact of American spunk and romance.