Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 1931. First National Pictures. Screenplay by Byron Morgan, adaptation by Robert Lord, based on the play by Louis Weitzenkorn. Cinematography by Sol Polito. Produced by Hal B. Wallis. Production Design by Jack Okey Costume Design by Earl Luick. Film Editing by Frank Ware.
The owner of the New York Gazette wants to increase his paper’s readership and instructs his team to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Managing editor Edward G. Robinson has wanted to steer the paper towards loftier goals but complies to the request, coming up with the idea of drudging up an old scandal that is sold to the public as a matter of moral concern but is really just muckraking to pique people’s curiosity. The case in question happened twenty years earlier and involved a woman (Frances Starr) who shot her unfaithful husband for the sake of their innocent daughter. The daughter (played by Marian Marsh) is now grown and about to marry a society-page prince, having no idea that the man she thinks is her father actually married her mother after she was born, a secret her parents have kept hidden her whole life. When the first issue of the Gazette hits the stands, Starr is distraught and makes an effort to stop it going any further, terrified of risking her daughter’s future happiness, but the paper ignores her and provokes things in a very explosively dramatic direction. The entire fourth estate, from the heights of William Randolph Hearst all the way down to the lowliest copywriter, were up in arms about this venomous portrayal of the state of journalism when this film was released, presenting as it does reporters with no ethics and owners who don’t have any morality until it’s past too late. Today most of it feels silly, the script (based on the play by Louis Weitzenkorn) presents the human sin of exploitative greed and its aftermath like a simplistic moral lesson and has very little complication to it, with characters that are almost laughably straightforward in their villainy (the best of them Boris Karloff as a reporter who pretends to be a priest to get the family members to spill all their secrets). For all this foolishness, however, the film is incredibly watchable thanks to a series of spirited performances, including Robinson (just before Little Caesar made him a star), Karloff (Frankenstein came out later that year), a sincerely endearing Marsh and a debuting Aline MacMahon, the best in the film as Robinson’s lonelyhearts secretary.
Academy Award Nomination: Best Picture