Wednesday 27 January 2021

Scandal Sheet (1952)

Director: Phil Karlson
Writers: Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling & James Poe, from the novel The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller
Stars: Broderick Crawford, Donna Reed and John Derek

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Any opportunity to review a Sam Fuller picture, I will happily take without hesitation, and, while Scandal Sheet isn’t either directed or written by Fuller, it is based on his novel, The Dark Page, published in 1944. It’s also a story about newspapers, something that he knew very well, having been part of the news industry since the age of twelve. He became a crime reporter at the New York Evening Graphic at seventeen and his film set in that world, Park Row, is possibly my favourite of all his movies; it was certainly his. Oddly, it was also released in 1952, though that was coincidental; he’d sold the rights to The Dark Page to Howard Hawks during the war and had even written a treatment of it as it wound its way slowly towards the screen. A young John Derek on the ascendant played the lead initially aimed at John Payne, playing a reporter who’s very sharp but not very principled, mostly due to his being mentored by his editor, in the form not of Orson Welles, as planned, but Broderick Crawford, Derek’s screen father in All the King’s Men.

The relationship arc between these two is one good reason to watch this movie, as it’s the only one that allows me to look past such an observant character as Steve McCleary, ace newshound for the New York Express, having a notable blindspot when it comes to his mentor, Mark Chapman. However, I’m watching in January 2021 not for Derek or Crawford but for Donna Reed, the other star who got prominent billing on the poster, because the 27th would have been her one hundredth birthday. This isn’t her best role or her best known, let alone her best regarded, but it is an appropriate one, given that Julie Allison is both McCleary’s love interest and his (and our) moral compass through this film, as well as an accomplished journalist in her own right. That sort of combo worked well for the future Golden Globe-winning star of The Donna Reed Show, which, only six years on, would become the first family-oriented sitcom to revolve around a capable woman instead of a capable man.

I should let those of you who raised eyebrows at the name of Mark Chapman know that it turns out to be an appropriate choice, an example of the same sort of eerie foreshadowing that saw a reference to President Donald Trump on an episode of The Simpsons in the year 2000. We meet him as the new and controversial editor of the Express, a brash soul tasked with turning the fortunes of the paper around but who immediately comes in for criticism because of how he chooses to go about it. There’s a fantastic scene early in the picture featuring Mrs. Rawley and her united force of stockholders railing at Chapman turning their “once distinguished and respected newspaper” into a “cheap and deraved publication”, “a disgusting tabloid pandering to the passions of the base morons.” Chapman comes in partway through to explain how he’s increased subscribers and provided Mrs. Rawley and the others with their first dividend cheque in twelve years. He threatens them with his resignation and storms out to do his job, knowing that he’s won.

So he’s a tough guy editor, the latest in a long line of tough guy editors in the movies who are both willing and able to bend or even break the rules to get stories onto the press, issues onto the street and paying eyes onto the front page. However, unlike Edward G. Robinson in Five Star Final or Humphrey Bogart in Deadline—U.S.A., who were up against the same problems, he’s not a nice guy, and we soon find out how much he’s not a nice guy when he adds a whole new problem to his list, one that changes this into something a little different. One of his ideas was to create the Express’s Lonely Hearts Club, which means that he kind of has to show his face at the Lonely Hearts Club Dance. One of the ladies working it, Charlotte Grant, recognises him as her husband, George Grant, who ran out on her a couple of decades earlier. The argument back at her place gets physical. She slaps him. He hits her. And the back of her head hits something hard and she falls to the floor, dead. Yes, a Mark Chapman kills a Lonely Hearts Club worker in New York, though Sgt. Pepper was nowhere to be found.

Now, to be fair, the actual death was accidental, but Chapman compounds his culpability by interfering with the scene. He takes her Lonely Hearts Club badge and wedding ring, throwing both down the drain outside. We don’t see the rest, but he also strips her and stages her in her own bathtub, and takes a number of personal possessions, like photos, that might help the police identify him. We weren’t on his side anyway, given that he ran out on his wife when she wouldn’t divorce him and changed his name so she couldn’t find him. He attempts to pay her off and she tells him that it wouldn’t pay the doctor’s bill, the slices on her wrists highlighting her attempts to escape “the agony and the heartbreak and the fear”. He insults her with venom. “I made all of my mistakes when I was young,” he tells her, “and you were the biggest one.” Well, he’s about to make a bigger one yet. He gets violent when she threatens him with exposure and tries to leave the room and, ten seconds later, she’s dead.

What follows is an unusual murder mystery because, of course, there’s technically no murder and no mystery. An accidental death might go unnoticed, but not by Chapman’s pet journalist, Steve McCleary, who really is as good as he says he is. He locates the first clue, recognising the remnants of Charlotte’s Lonely Hearts Club badge, then having his photographer check her image against the hundreds of pictures he took the night before. If Chapman is a villain, stalking around Charlotte’s tiny room like he’s a wild animal, then McCleary is a strange sort of anti-hero. He’s sharp as a tack but he’s utterly amoral, eerily cheerful at this death scene, joking with Lt. Davis and the other reporters who show up, naturally as he’s ready to leave. He’s a charmer too, albeit less with his actual girlfriend and more with Nellie, the secretary at the morgue, who’s a gateway to information. As unlikeable as he is because of his actions—we first meet him getting information out of a hatchet murder victim’s sister who thinks he’s a cop—he’s good at his job.

And that makes this story one part Chapman continuing to increase circulation with stories about a death that he caused and every other part McCleary gradually closing in on him, while never suspecting the killer is the very person that he gives his copy to. The irony is palpable in both aspects. Chapman knows that he’ll get a bonus when the paper reaches 750,000 subscribers and this story he inadvertently created may be what gets it there, but there’s only one end to it and that’s his exposure as its villain. McCleary has the bit between his teeth mostly because Chapman taught him to never give up a story and to always go with his gut. Even down in the little details, irony continues to play a part, so strongly that it’s almost the fourth character in the film. Really, that’s the always reliable character actor Henry O’Neill as a former Pulitzer Prize-winner, Charlie Barnes, seriously down on his luck for being a little too fond of the bottle. He wants Chapman to hire him and finally stumbles onto a story to do it, only the story is Chapman himself.

There’s a lot that’s right with this movie, starting with that source novel by Sam Fuller. It isn’t the archetypal story of the business that Park Row was, which is the main reason why this suffers by comparison, but it’s a decent story about principles and the lack of them, phrased as a sort of film noir. Crawford is excellent as Chapman, a bristling mass of subdued motion. As his wife points out to him, he’s always in a hurry, “the fellow who always ran and never walked.” The catch is that he has no poker face; every time that it seems over, Crawford looks so guilty that we wonder why none of his journalists can see it written all over him. Maybe McCleary worships him too much, but John Derek does a good job with the role otherwise. He never saw himself as an actor, but it’s easy for us to see why he was kept so busy at this point in his career. He’s good on the eyes and he just flows. O’Neill is magnificent, a great actor playing a great journalist with a great weakness. Whenever this script falters, which does happen, he elevates it again.

He also provides another angle for Donna Reed. Being digusted with Chapman’s direction and her boyfriend McCleary’s adherence to his immoral guidance, she serves as the moral compass for the film. She’s also the capable past of the paper, just as Charlie is her darker equivalent, as a serious journalist writing serious features on monuments rather than the yellow journalism her boyfriend is slapping all over the front page. She’s the sort of writer that the overly principled stockholders from the start would be proud of, if they could countenance a woman doing a man’s job. To be fair, the angles her character represents come out the same in the wash: she’s capable, serious and upright, so it’s hardly the most nuanced role she ever played, but it’s a natural for her. Even though she’s probably most remembered for comedy like The Donna Reed Show or at least light hearted drama like It’s a Wonderful Life, she always played best as an example to others, even though, ironically, her Oscar came for playing a hooker in From Here to Eternity.

She was born Donna Belle Mullenger a hundred years ago today, on a farm outside Denison, Iowa, the eldest of five children. Never planning to become an actor, nonetheless she performed on stage in college and was talked into doing screen tests. She was signed by MGM while still at college, though she made sure to complete her degree before signing with an agent. She soon became Donna Reed, a name she didn’t like, because of anti-German feeling during wartime. “I hear ‘Donna Reed’ and I think of a tall, chic, austere blonde that isn’t me,” she said. “‘Donna Reed’—it has a cold forbidding sound.” I suddenly find I’ve seen her in more movies than I thought, as she was kept busy in the early forties, often in episodes of series: Shadow of the Thin Man, The Courtship of Andy Hardy and Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case. While those were often surprisingly good and well received films, she also made quality standalones like Eyes in the Night, The Man from Down Under and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Arguably her most famous role, as Mary Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life came at RKO, to which she was lent out by MGM, as indeed she was often in the late forties, making two films at Paramount with Alan Ladd. Even though Green Dolphin Street was a big success, she wanted away from what she called “sweet, simple, negative roles” and jumped ship to Columbia. This was her second picture there, after Saturday’s Hero, a sports romance in which she was also paired with John Derek, but her new studio continued to lend her out to others too, making another John Wayne movie, Trouble Along the Way, for Warner Bros.—she’d made They Were Expendable with him at MGM—a swashbuckler, Raiders of the Seven Seas, for United Artists, and multiple titles for Universal. While her Oscar-winner, From Here to Eternity, was made at Columbia and she got to make films in Kenya and England, she relished her shift to television for The Donna Reed Show in 1958. It ran for eight seasons, earning her four Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe Award.

The next phase of her career wasn’t in acting. After The Donna Reed Show ended in 1966, she shifted from being the mother of a TV family to being the mother of her own. She also became an anti-war activist, even though she was a registered Republican, worried that her eldest son Tony might be drafted for service in Vietnam. Oddly, her third marriage, in 1974, was to a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, Grover W. Asmus. Her four children, two of them adopted, were raised with her second husband, Tony Owen, who was a film producer who developed a number of potential series for his wife, one of which became The Donna Reed Show. Before him, she was married to make-up artist William J. Tuttle, whose work you’ve undoubtedly seen; he was responsible for make-up in pictures like Forbidden Planet, The Time Machine and Young Frankenstein, not to forget 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, for which he won a special Oscar. She never went back to the big screen, her last feature being Pepe in 1960, a Cantinflas picture in which she played herself.

She did go back to television though, appearing in a couple of TV movies, including a 1983 girls’ school slasher flick for ABC called Deadly Lessons, of which I suddenly have memories; a guest appearance on The Love Boat; and, most famously of all, a whole season of Dallas, on which she temporarily replaced Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie, even though she didn’t expect it to be temporary at the time. The show ran for fourteen seasons, making it one of the longest running American prime time dramas of all time, but Bel Geddes left after season seven, so Reed stepped in, signing a three year contract, only to discover after one season that Bel Geddes was asked back. She sued and the out of court settlement was reputedly a cool million dollars. Sadly, she died unexpectedly only a few months later of pancreatic cancer. Her name lives on, of course, not just in our hearts and memories but in Denison, Iowa where the Donna Reed Foundation operates a Donna Reed Center for the Performing Arts and the city hosts an annual Donna Reed Festival.

No comments: