Films, newspapers and newspaper films go corporate

July 03, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In the old days, journalism and movies made perfect bedfellows. Many screenwriters, after all, had at one time been newspaper men, and the early films about the profession are filled with a raffish love of deadlines, fast patter, conniving but good-hearted news hounds sniffing out perfidy in high places or low, all told with a breezy look-ma-no-hands kind of elan.

And now . . . they still make perfect bedfellows. Both have changed, but into the same thing. Newspapers, like movie studios, are part of a larger corporate picture, in which their contribution is but one tiny part of a mega-media pie that also involves cable television, book publishing, mall ownership, magazines, an entire culture of huckstering. Marketing departments have a lot to do with the final shape of "the product." Demographics rule: Everybody is wooing "the young."

You see it most of all in the newsroom. Something left newspapering as a way of life when old men stopped spitting on the floor and young men and women started getting graduate degrees in journalism. We're professional now: The film critic isn't the drunken and otherwise unemployable son of the publisher's sister (he's a thinking, caring kind of '90s guy and a consummate knight of the Fourth Estate), and the reporters aren't fleeing creditors and coppers while stealing nips from their hip flasks. Journalism has gone corporate. A newspaper office looks like an insurance office. It's so . . . buttoned-down it makes your teeth ache.

What brings these musings to mind is the odd congruence of "I Love Trouble," the recently opened newspaper film with Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte, and "Extra! Extra!" a film series the Baltimore Film Forum has on tap that recapitulates the early days of the minor but vivid newspaper-movie genre with a series of 8 p.m. Thursday screenings at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August.

So there you have it: new newspaper films vs. old newspaper films. What can it all possibly mean? Well, what any survey of the films suggests is how divided the public vision of the newspaper has been over the years; quite early in the American film industry, filmmakers were looking at the deeper meanings of journalism with regard to society. It's a troubling subject.

One thing that becomes almost immediately clear is a dichotomy running through the genre. One half of it might be called newspaper sentimentality, in which the newspaper as an institution and reporting as a profession are seen in romantic terms. The forms vary: Sometimes it's played for comedy and sometimes as sanctimony.

"The Front Page" (which will conclude the BFF series Aug. 18) and "His Girl Friday" (which will be shown July 14) are prime examples of the sentimental approach to journalism. They represent the glory days of American journalism, Chicago in the 1920s, when five dailies thrived and competed for the news and for readership. Written by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (two very clever ex-reporters), the stories chronicle the war of wits between a tough city editor and his star reporter to get a big story about an escaped criminal in the Chicago courthouse. "His Girl Friday" was a remake (Charles Lederer rewrote the script with Hecht), with a clever casting trope, using Rosalind Russell in the reporter role, setting up a sexual tension between her and her editor, Cary Grant. Howard Hawks directed at breakneck pace.

The key value in each film is confidence: The stories took off from an assumption of central position that the newspaper enjoyed at that stage in American culture, when what newspapers said was thunderously important to the municipal, if not the national, psyche. Like the movies, the newspapers of the era essentially enjoyed a monopoly: There was no television (enemy to both movies and newspapers), no CNN, certainly no USA Today. The two sets of newspaper professionals who skitter through the two films were like young lords at play in the fields of the Lord: They had a sublime sense of self-importance.

As it turns out, "I Love Trouble" fits neatly into this tradition, with Nolte and Roberts attempting to re-create the sublimated sexual tension and verbal fireworks that underlay "His Girl Friday," with the older Nolte in the Cary Grant role and the younger Roberts standing in for Roz Russell. In that sense, the film is a success: Its best thing is the verbal byplay that is a submerged version of foreplay. The erotic tension is both interesting and amusing.

It's as a thriller that "I Love Trouble" fizzles. In the original "Front Page" and "His Girl Friday," there was no need to kill so many people (or anybody), or to portray the universe as so universally menacing, with hit men popping out of the shadows and spraying the place with automatic weapons.

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