Sunday, September 22, 2013

Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon: Deadline – U.S.A. (1952)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, currently underway this weekend (September 21-22) and hosted by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings.  For a full list of the participating blogs and the classic “read all about it” movies covered, click here.  (Warning: this review has spoilers.)

In the bustling newsroom offices of The Day, a major metropolitan newspaper, managing editor Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) is sandbagged by an AP wire report announcing that the paper is going to be sold to a competing tabloid by the heirs of The Day’s founder, John Garrison.  Hutcheson attends a meeting in an upstairs conference room and finds the story confirmed by Garrison’s widow Margaret (Ethel Barrymore) and her daughters Alice (Fay Baker) and Katherine (Joyce Mackenzie).  Despite the news, Ed still has a paper to get out; investigative reporter George Burrows (Warren Stevens) wants to continue probing the affairs of racketeer Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel), who’s been on the hot seat of late testifying before a state senate committee.  Ed is positive that if the committee hasn’t uncovered anything, neither will The Day; Burrows assures him he’s got a hot lead, and is given an extra three days on the story.

I don't know the actor playing the man tending bar but Deadline - U.S.A. shows off its acting talent in this photo with (l-r) Jim Backus, Paul Stewart, Bogie, Dabbs Greer and Barton Yarborough.
The newspaper’s staff holds a “wake” at a local watering hole that evening in observance of the paper’s demise, and afterwards a drunken Hutcheson finds his way to the apartment of his ex-wife Nora (Kim Hunter).  Ed tells her about the paper’s impending sale and promises her that if they get back together things will be different between the two of them.  The next morning, Ed gets a call from the paper—Burrows has suffered a beating at the hands of some of Rienzi’s goons, and will have to be hospitalized…possibly even losing an eye.  This prompts Hutcheson to step up the paper’s investigation into the gangster’s activities, pulling out all the stops with a hard-hitting Page One editorial and cartoons to accompany it.  Ed’s gamble is that with the spotlight shining on Rienzi, it might just be the solution to keep the paper from being sold.

When the Rienzi story is published, the subject of the article is naturally none too pleased and informs his lawyer that he wants pressure put to bear on Hutcheson.  Ed has problems of his own, however; his attempts to reconcile with Nora are not going as well as he’d like (she announces that she’s engaged to be remarried), and a breaking story about a dead woman found drowned and wearing nothing but a mink is spiked by Fenway (Thomas Browne Henry), the advertising manager.  Questioning Fenway, Hutcheson and city desk editor Frank Allen (Ed Begley) learn that the story has been scotched because Andrew Wharton (Tom Powers), one of the paper’s major advertisers, is concerned about the gossip that will get out when readers learn that the dead woman, one Sally Gardner (real name: Bessie Schmidt), was once his mistress.

Wharton helpfully informs Hutcheson that Sally was blackmailing him…but stopped when she hooked up with none other than Tomas Rienzi.  Jim Cleary (Jim Backus) and sports editor Harry Thompson (Paul Stewart) are assigned to dig up the dirt; Cleary finds the evidence that connects Sally to the gangster, but Thompson locates her brother Herman (Joe De Santis) in a dingy apartment and convinces him to talk to The Day before Rienzi gets to him.  Meanwhile, at a court hearing that will approve the sale of The Day, Margaret has second thoughts about signing off on the deal, much to her daughters’ disgust.  Outnumbered two to one, Margaret’s only course of action is to offer to purchase the paper herself…and the judge decrees that he’ll need time to consider her request.

Outside the courthouse, Ed is taken for a “ride” in Rienzi’s car for a little chat; Rienzi makes every attempt to persuade Hutcheson to drop his crusade, but Ed holds firm, and the editor is deposited at the front steps of The Day just in time for Rienzi to see Herman walking in with Thompson.  A Q-and-A session with Ed and Frank reveals that brother Herman was the one who fingered where his sister was hiding and was also with Rienzi when the mobster’s thugs rubbed her out.  Schmidt, promised $1,000 for his story, is encouraged to take it on the lam…but a group of “cops” show up to collect the stoolie before he’s finished signing a statement as to what he witnessed.  The policemen are the same Rienzi goons who killed his sister, and after a scuffle, Herman meets a violent end when he falls into one of the paper’s printing presses. 

With no statement from the dead man and a libel suit threatened by Rienzi, the judge’s decision comes down: the contract is valid and the sale of The Day will continue, despite Hutcheson’s last-ditch attempt to convince the presiding judge of the paper’s importance and how “without competition, there can be no freedom of the press.”  Reporting back to Allen that the paper has been officially sold, Ed learns that the mother (Kasia Orzazewski) of the dead girl wants to speak to him—she has in her possession $200,000 of Renzi’s money and a diary kept by her daughter that will convict the mobster of complicity in her death.

The Day, though still being sold, scores a pyrrhic victory at the film’s end when Rienzi telephones Ed and, against the advice of his attorney, once again threatens him not to print the story in the paper’s final edition.  The printing presses start up, drowning out the conversation between the two men.  “That’s the press, baby…the press,” gloats Hutcheson to Rienzi.  “And there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Esquire political blogger Charles P. Pierce composed a post back in August of 2012 naming his three favorite “newspaper” movies—and encouraged his readership faithful to do the same.  We differ on our choices for number one (Charlie went with His Girl Friday, I personally prefer Ace in the Hole) but our number-two choice was Deadline – U.S.A. (1952).  The movie, released to theaters in March of 1952, has since ended up on a lot of favorites lists…truth be told, I myself might move it up to the top spot depending on what day of the week you ask.

I’m a big fan of Deadline because it approaches the subject of journalism and newspapers with a healthy mix of both idealism and cynicism.  The cynical portion of the film rings true today: viewers will have no problem identifying with the central plot, in which a once-great newspaper is on its deathbed, scheduled to be sacrificed to its tabloid-like competitor.  A certain Australian media mogul (Okay, it’s Rupert Murdoch—just don’t say his name three times in succession in front of a mirror in a darkened room) has done that with several established publications in the United Kingdom (The Sun, The Times) and United States (The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal).  The idealism resides in the fact that we’d like to believe that newspaper editors like Humphrey Bogart’s Ed Hutcheson are still around today: an individual who understands that the job of a paper is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” (a phrase made famous by humorist Finley Peter Dunne, though others—including W.E. “Ned” Chilton III, the legendary editor of The Charleston Gazette—have used that phrase a lot as well).

The idea for Deadline seems to have come to writer-director Richard Brooks from two separate newspapers.  In Tough as Nails, a biography on Brooks written by Douglass K. Daniel, the author claims that Brooks based the decision to sell the paper by the heirs of The Day on real-life events involving The New York World, which closed in 1931 after the sons of Joseph Pulitzer wanted to sell the paper rather than see it continue.  The New York Sun, which stopped its presses in 1950, also provided inspiration for Brooks’ screenplay (originally called “The Night the World Folded” and “The Newspaper Story”); its longtime editor Benjamin Day, would see his last name borrowed for the film’s fictional publication (and not the New London, Connecticut paper that shares the same name).  To prepare for his role as Hutcheson, Bogie began hanging out with reporters at the The New York Daily News…who lent its printing plant and newsroom for some of the movie’s location shooting.  All of this lends an authentic feel to the over atmosphere of the film, and the opening scene—with the mobster Rienzi assuring his inquisitors “I’m in the cement and contracting business”—echoes the recent events of the Kefauver hearings into organized crime (which turns up in several movies of that era, including The Captive City and The Turning Point).

There is endlessly quotable dialogue in Deadline, and much of it rings true today.  My favorite scene in the film is the “wake” held by The Day staff upon learning of the sale, as each reporter stands up (as if at a revival meeting) and “testifies”:

ALLEN: I see the light, Brother…
(The crowd breaks out in a chorus of huzzahs and hallelujahs)
THOMPSON: Purify your soul, sinner!
ALLEN (holding up a copy of The Standard): Save your tears…this is what the readers want…
CLEARY (as the others drown Allen out with catcalls): Throw the atheist out!
ALLEN: Don’t sell it short—it’s got twice our circulation and three times our advertising lineup…
(Hutcheson takes the paper from Allen and stares at it)

THOMPSON: Well, it’s yellow…but it’s not exactly a newspaper…
CLEARY: It keeps its people working
(More choruses of “Hallelujah”)
HUTCHESON: Well, maybe if I’d given you this kind of paper you’d still have jobs…there’s a place for this kind of sheet…
CLEARY: Where, Daddy?
HUTCHESON: All right, so it’s not your kind of paper…who are we putting out papers for?  You?  (Pointing to others off-camera) You?  You?  (Laughs) It’s not enough anymore to give them just news…they want comics, contests, puzzles…they want to know how to bake a cake, win friends and influence the future…ergo, horoscopes…tips on the horses…interpretation of dreams so they can win on the numbers lotteries…and if they accidentally stumble onto the first page… (Slamming the paper on the bar) News!

The actor playing Bellamy, the journalism student, would make a few more movies before deciding to work on the other side of the camera.  William Self would become the man in charge of 20th Century-Fox television in the 1960s, overseeing such hit shows as 12 O'Clock High, Lost in Space, Batman, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Peyton Place and Daniel Boone.
After the “wake” winds down, Hutcheson is approached by a journalism student (William Self) who presents a letter of introduction from his professor and informs the editor that he wants to be a reporter.  In his typically cynical style, Bogie-as-editor peppers the greenhorn with questions—particularly when Johnny Journalism announces his intention to become a foreign correspondent—but after giving the kid his baptism by fire, tells him to come around and see him in the morning (he eventually is assigned to “rewrite desk, lobster shift”—Bogie’s secretary [Barton Yarborough] explains to the kid that they call it that because “after midnight, we serve lobsters—thermidor, naturally”)…and delivers the one line that stays with you after the picture is finished: “…about this wanting to be a reporter—don't ever change your mind.  It may not be the oldest profession, but it's the best.”

The man who wants to take Hutcheson's ex-wife with him to Albany.  Ed sees a picture of him in Nora's apartment and cracks: "I don't like him...I'll think of a reason later."
In a way, I can understand why His Girl Friday and Deadline – U.S.A. were Mr. Pierce’s choices for greatest and second-greatest newspaper movies; Deadline is really a more somber version of Friday.  Like Walter Burns pulling all the stops out to get ex-spouse Hildy Johnson back, Ed Hutcheson attempts to win back his estranged wife Nora even though it’s been The Day who’s acted as co-respondent throughout their marriage.  (As Barrymore’s Garrison says to Ed at one point in the film: “You wouldn’t have had a wife if that newspaper had beautiful legs.”)  Ed has even got his own Bruce Baldwin in the form of Lewis Schafer (played by Philip Terry, Ray Milland’s “good” brother in The Lost Weekend), whom Nora plans to marry (he’s her boss at the advertising firm where she works).  Ed gets a visit from Schafer (and like the Cary Grant-Ralph Bellamy scene in Friday, Bogie keeps holding Terry off at arms-length because of the office hustle-and-bustle), which allows him to give him the once-over…and when Lewis explains to Hutcheson that he’s there on behalf of protecting Nora he’s verbally cut off at the knees by Ed: “Well, that’s not only ridiculous, that’s insulting—you’re not that much of a prize.”  (Later, Ed asks the paper’s top researcher, Miss Barndollar [Florence Shirley], to go digging into Schafer’s background…and is disappointed when the investigation reveals his wife’s fiancé to be squeaky-clean.)

Like His Girl Friday, politics and corruption plays a huge role in Deadline – U.S.A.; the Rienzi storyline gives the movie sort of a noir feel but there’s also a suggestion that both elected officials and the police aren’t entirely on the up-and-up—Begley’s Allen is asked by a plainclothes detective investigating Herman Schmidt’s death: “Can’t you tell the difference between a hoodlum and a cop?”

The actress' name (Kasia Orzazewski) does not come trippingly off the tongue...but it's the same lady who plays the scrubwoman trying to free her son in Call Northside 777 (1948), another newspaper favorite here at TDOY.
“In this town?” Allen hesitatingly asks before deciding discretion is the better part of valor by replying “Yes, sir.”  The film’s admittedly deux ex machina ending also seems borrowed from His Girl Friday (the part where editor Burns muses that newspapers are protected by a “higher power”), in which an innocent babe-in-the-wood brings down the villain simply by being honest.  Deadline even has a hard-boiled female reporter in the Hildy Johnson mold; as played by Audrey Christie, she goes only by “Willabrandt”—but it’s her tenacious, patent-shoe-leather investigating that sparks the discovery of the connection between the dead Bessie Schmidt and gangster Rienzi.  She also has one of the loveliest moments in the movie, when she gets up to “testify” at the paper’s wake:

WILLABRANDT (looking at a copy of The Day, adorned with candles): It’s a lovely corpse…alas, poor dear—I knew it well…and why not?  I gave it the best fourteen years of my life…and what have I got to show for it, huh?  Eighty-one dollars in the bank…two dead husbands and… (Her voice softens) Two or three kids I always wanted, but never had… (Her voice rises) I’ve covered everything from electrocutions to love nest brawls…I’ve got fallen arches, unfixed teeth and…you wanna know something?  I…I never saw Paris…but I wouldn’t change those years… (Now choked with emotion) Not for anything in this world…

Christie is just one of the incredible cast of character performers in this film: there are tons of familiar TV faces and scads of recognizable voices for us old-time radio fans in the audience.  Barton Yarborough, who played the best damn partner Dragnet’s Joe Friday ever had made this movie his cinematic swan song, and you’ll also be able to pick out Parley Baer (as the headwaiter at the restaurant Bogie takes Kim Hunter), Willis Bouchey, Lawrence Dobkin (as the Rienzi lawyer), Dabbs Greer, Norman “Mr. Fenton” Leavitt, Tudor Owen and Frank Wilcox…plus so many others.  Ed Begley, Jim Backus (in a nice serious role with moments of levity), Paul Stewart and Joe De Santis are also first-rate…and I’m always tickled by Martin Gabel’s performance as the racketeer Rienzi because he looks more like an accountant (which was probably why he was cast; a man in his position would want to keep a low-profile)

The only flaw in the film is that outside of Christie's Willabrandt and Ethel Barrymore’s marvelous character, there aren’t too many strong female personages in the film; Kim Hunter is sadly wasted, though she does bring whatever she can to a thankless role…and it’s interesting to note that despite Nora’s weariness at having had to play second fiddle to The Day all those years she’s never wavered in her support of her ex-husband (she encourages him fiercely to pursue the Rienzi story with everything he’s got).  Nora informs her ex that she’s backed out of marrying Schafer, but whether or not there’ll be happy ending in their future is speculation by the audience. 

The movie is pretty much Bogie’s all the way (he was Brooks’ only choice even though the studio wanted Gregory Peck or Richard Widmark) though the experience of working with the actor wasn’t quite as pleasant for Brooks as it had been previously (Brooks co-wrote the screenplay for Key Largo).  The director later attributed Bogie’s difficulties and snappish behavior to Bogart’s gradual decline in health; an oft-told story has the actor throwing a star tantrum during the filming of a scene with Barrymore, with Bogart resisting the way Brooks wanted to stage the sequence.  Barrymore finally yelled at him “Humphrey, will you for Christ’s sake do it!”

“Why should I?” he snapped at her.  “Because Humphrey,” she replied, “the Swiss have no navy.”  Bogart broke up at this, and finally agreed to do the scene the director’s way.  Later, when Brooks confronted his friend in his dressing room, Bogie admitted that he’d been making rather merry with some friends the night before and hadn’t learned the speech in that scene.  He had been too embarrassed to admit it in front of the other cast members.

Despite the grief Bogart dished out on Deadline – U.S.A., it’s always been one of my favorites of his films (I know, it only seems that I say that about every Bogie movie); his weariness in the role (much of it left over from the demanding shoot that was The African Queen) helps to define his jaded character, a dedicated man who’s only got one more battle in him and he has to make it the best.  It’s interesting that this is the rare film where the chain-smoking actor never lights a cigarette (though he does reach for a pack in one scene before he’s interrupted), but Bogart demonstrates that one doesn’t need to smoke or carry a gun to be a tough guy; his character’s steeliness comes from the fact that he buys his ink by the barrel, and that he truly believes in the nobility of his profession.  As he tells the journalism student: “A profession is a performance for the public good…that’s why newspaper work is a profession.”


Caftan Woman said...

"Deadline USA" is a dandy. That was my late father's highest praise and his opinion of this movie that he first made me watch when I was a teen. I liked it then, but I love it now. Great article.

ClassicBecky said...

This is one of the greats, no doubt, no argument. It struck me that Ed's description of the type of paper people seemed to want, one that hardly included actual news: "...they want comics, contests, puzzles…they want to know how to bake a cake, win friends and influence the future…ergo, horoscopes…tips on the horses…interpretation of dreams so they can win on the numbers lotteries ..." sounds uncomfortably like Facebook and many other "news" sites on the internet! Well, the background colors aren't yellow, but a rose by any other color....

You mentioned two other great journalism movies that are in my never-forget great category, Call Northside 777 and Ace In The Hole (which I always knew as The Big Carnival). Fabulous stuff. Your research and insights about Deadline were prime, Ivan, and your article the same.

Silver Screenings said...

I've never seen this one, and it looks like I'm really missing out!

Thanks for a comprehensive and thoughtful review.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't always a fan of Richard Brooks' films, as I think he could sometimes get heavy-handed, but DEADLINE U.S.A. is one of his best, and it's one of Bogart's best as well. And I never thought of it as the flip side to HIS GIRL FRIDAY, but that's a good point. Nice write-up.

Vienna said...

Great review. Must see this again.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Splendid review of this great film. I love the quotes you've chosen. I agree, it's one of the very best movies for newspaper stories.

Philip Schweier said...

As a mild-mannered newspaperman myself, I can attest to the film's verisimilitude. Every character rings true.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

This Journalism in Classic Film blogathon is introducing us to alot of great films we never heard of before. I was familiar with the Deadline USA title but not its plot. Sorry Ivan, I didn't read your entire post in order to avoid spoiling the thrill f the first watch, but what I did read was great!

FlickChick said...

Hmmm.... Forsome reason I've avoided this one, but your excellent article makes me need to rectify this. Sounds juicy!!