Manhattan’s indispensable non-profit movie house, Film Forum, launched another of its great revival festivals last weekend — “The Newspaper Picture” — which is set to run through May 6.
With the very concept of “the newspaper” in peril, the four-week series is doubly nostalgic.
The history of the movies runs parallel to that of the American newspaper industry — which both nourished and attacked Hollywood — so it’s no surprise that some of the best pictures ever made are about reporters and editors.
The film that many people cite as Hollywood’s best — “Citizen Kane” (1941) — is a quintessential newspaper picture and so is one of the best romantic comedies of the screwball era, “His Girl Friday” (1940).
A lot of the credit for the durable genre must be laid at the feet of the great Chicago newspaperman-turned-dramatist Ben Hecht, who with his partner Charles MacArthur, created the almost foolproof 1920s stage classic, “The Front Page,” which became a movie in 1931, and inspired almost countless remakes and imitations.
The Film Forum season spans five decades and demonstrates the flexibility of the genre and the potent cynical comedy that is almost always a hallmark of movies about the business.
On April 25 and 26, you can see a dynamite double feature consisting of the dark comedies, “Nothing Sacred” (1937) and “Roxie Hart” (1942), both of which are about the unholy marriage of the media and the hustlers who exploit it.
The first picture — written by Ben Hecht — is about a young woman (Carole Lombard) who uses a “human interest” reporter (Fredric March) to pitch the phony story that she is dying of radium poisoning in order to get a free trip to Manhattan. The second movie is about a vaudevillian accused of murder who gets a big PR boost from her criminal charges (the material was turned into the long-running Broadway hit, “Chicago”).
Hollywood personalities were able to work off their resentment of newspaper people they believed were too powerful with classic results — Orson Welles’ thinly disguised William Randolph Hearst in “Citizen Kane” and screenwriters Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets’ brilliant hatchet job on columnist Walter Winchell in “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957).
“Sweet Smell of Success” (below) was out of step with the prevailing mood of the 1950s — post-war optimism — and died a dismal death at the box office. In the subsequent half-century, however, the movie has become a certified classic with some of the most-quoted oddball lines in Hollywood history (i.e. “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”).
The Film Forum series will end May 6 with screenings of the last great newspaper movie, “All the President’s Men” (1976), which remains one of the best nuts-and-bolts views of daily reporting. With its busy newsroom filled with powerful journalists and noisy typewriters, the Alan Pakula film (above) has much more in common with the first version of “The Front Page” than it would have with any newspaper picture set in 2010.
(Check out the Film Forum bookmark on this page for a complete schedule of “The Newspaper Picture.”)