A copyboy at 12 and a crime reporter at 17, Sam Fuller already had a considerable career as a journalist—to say nothing of his time as an author or soldier—before he started directing movies. But when the chance arose, he returned to his first love with the self-financed 1952 film Park Row, set in the bustling, competitive, sometimes dangerous world of New York journalism in the 1880s. It’s a detailed—though wildly exaggerated—depiction of a time when reporters’ blood mixed with printers’ ink, and a bruised valentine to the noble ideals that are supposed to drive the Fourth Estate. Which makes perfect sense in the context of Fuller’s career. He never fully abandoned journalism anyway; he frequently used his films to deliver frontline messages from the Korean War and to take on homefront social ills.
Fuller’s unabashed love for journalism’s noble principles occasionally gets in Park Row’s way. Its characters express themselves in declamatory speeches and gaze starry-eyed at the statues of Horace Greeley and Ben Franklin that keep watch on the eponymous newspaper-lined streets. But the sincerity of it all, coupled with Fuller’s unerring gift for pulp direction, puts it over. The appealing gruffness of its central idealist, played by Fuller favorite Gene Evans, doesn’t hurt, either. Evans plays a disillusioned reporter tired of working for a profit-obsessed heiress (Mary Welch) who’s perfectly willing to help send an innocent man to his death for the sake of a hot story. Dismissed when he protests, Evans decides to start his own paper with the help of the unemployed reporters and production staff hanging around the bar he frequents. They scrape together four pages on a short deadline, and their Globe becomes a literal overnight success. But their less-idealistic competition proves more than willing to use dirty tactics to put the upstart rag out of business, in spite of a growing attraction between Evans and Welch.
Fuller loves this world so much, he rebuilt it. Investing his own money (and losing it when the film didn’t connect with audiences), he constructed an elaborate set recreating Park Row and allowing him to follow his actors from one corner to the next—occasionally in long tracking shots, and in one chaotic scene, using a handheld camera. He invested in the small details, too, showing the tedium of sorting movable type. That obvious love for the world and what it stands for helps make it easy to overlook Park Row’s lumpier elements, like the love story and some of the speeches. So does Fuller’s usual two-fisted approach, which keeps the action moving along even during a subplot about the invention of Linotype printing. Park Row also provides a neat miniature for its creator’s career in its central newspaper’s first issue, which features an eye-catching illustration of a man jumping off the Brooklyn bridge accompanied by an urgent, crusading story on the same topic: Catch their attention with something sensational, then make them think.
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