Directed by Samuel Fuller
Expectations: Extremely high. I’ve built this one up in my mind to be one of the greatest and most anticipated films I haven’t seen yet.
In Sam Fuller’s awesome auto-biography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking, he relates the story of how he tried to sell Daryl Zanuck on the idea of making Park Row (Fuller was contracted with Zanuck at the time with a multi-picture deal). Zanuck always shot it down, and in the final plea, Zanuck suggested that it would be a better movie as a big CinemaScope musical. Sam Fuller wanted the film to reflect the reality of the newspaper industry and singing newsman doesn’t really fit that bill. Fuller then states, “I decided that the only way to make Park Row was to put up my own dough and produce it myself. Two hundred grand, to be exact. To hell with Zanuck and Fox! Fuck the entire studio system! My film was going to be a gift to American journalism.” This shows just how personal and important the film was to him, and boy does it ever show in the finished product.
Park Row is set in the 1880s on the titular street that the newspapers of New York call home. Our lead is the hard-nosed newsman Phineas Mitchell played by Gene Evans, truly one of the greatest unsung actors of his generation. At the outset of the film he is employed by The Star, the oldest paper in New York and run by Charity Hackett (Mary Welch). She inherited the job and therefore doesn’t know or care to know about true journalistic integrity. Fueled by the recent hanging of a man, Evans uses the power of words to start a shitstorm with Hackett. This gets him fired but it leads to the greatest opportunity of his career, starting up his own paper, The Globe.
What’s great about Park Row is Fuller’s confidence behind the camera, bringing the world of the 1880s to stunning life with wonderful moving camera and some of the best tracking shots and long takes you’re ever likely to see in 1950s cinema. For an independent movie of this era to exhibit this much style and grace, you can’t help but be in awe of Fuller’s control over the artistry of filmmaking. Fuller exhibits the youthful, idealistic qualities of the film’s main character as well, refusing to take no for an answer and charging full steam ahead into any obstacle ahead of him. The goal is telling a truthful story and by God, he’ll get there no matter what stands in his way! Park Row is the down-and-dirty, ink-stained version of Welles’s Citizen Kane, but where Kane is ultimately a story about the heart of a man with a journalistic backdrop, journalism is the heart in Park Row.
In no way does the film look like the B-picture it is, in fact it looks remarkably well done. The entire film was filmed on one street-sized set and this fact is evident most memorably in what is easily the best shot of the film, the tracking shot where Gene Evans runs through the streets, in and out of buildings as strong arms do their best to break up The Globe’s newsstands. This is decades before the invention of Steadicam, so Fuller strapped the camera to the back of the operator and had him run down the street with Evans, tracking his every movement. This gives the shot a handheld, free-flowing quality that any traditional method could never have achieved. The shot opens in the bar as Evans is told the bad news, the camera deftly moving backwards out of the establishment’s swinging doors and then across the street to capture the violence and the excitement of the moment. It later follows Evans as he enters the office of The Star and defiantly says that “…bustin’ up my newsstands isn’t gonna stop me from sellin’ papers!” It’s an incredibly well choreographed shot in a film full of inventive and visually exciting shots. In reference to the shooting style of Park Row and this shot in particular, Fuller wrote the following in his autobiography: “Park Row was a turning point for me. I was more confident than ever after having made that picture, ready to broach any material, even the most controversial. I was better able to write with my camera, inventing techniques to capture the atmosphere I wanted on film.”
Park Row is Sam Fuller’s favorite of his films, and it’s definitely one of his most personal and impressive works. For me, it falls just a bit short of some of his other stuff, but given the circumstances of the production, Park Row should be commended and remembered as one of the best films of the 50s. His previous film Fixed Bayonets! may be a wonderful, impressively produced, entertaining studio film, but Park Row was made as a labor of love with Fuller’s own money. In a time when independent cinema has been taken over by subdivisions of the big studios and journalism is ruled by biased, loud-mouthed pundits with a distinct agenda, Park Row is a reminder how it ought to be done. Sam Fuller is criminally underappreciated for his craft and Park Row is one of the most unique films of his career. Long unavailable on home video, MGM’s MOD (Manufacture On Demand) program has recently made this fine film available on DVD. Definitely give it a shot if you’re interested in journalistic integrity or the foundations of independent cinema.