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Park Row (DVD Review)

20 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Gene Evans, Mary Welch, Bela Kovacs.

Even by Sam Fuller standards, this affectionate (and affection-engendering) labor of love by the distinctive writer-director is undeniably on the broad side — not that the world of cutthroat New York City journalism in the mid-1880s would be portrayed very accurately with a dainty approach. After a trio of opening career salvos at teensy Lippert Films and followed by a major-studio step-up with Fixed Bayonets! at 20th Century-Fox, Fuller reportedly sunk about everything he had into this United Artists-distributed period piece — and lost it all.

Like a widely liked Humphrey Bogart vehicle from the same year (Deadline U.S.A.), Row is the kind of paean to the press my old journalism school cohorts used to show at beer-buoyed 16mm movie parties way back when — though in this case we didn’t, most likely because we couldn’t find a print. With this new MGM/Fox “on-demand” version, there’s a disclaimer at the beginning noting that the copy was taken from the “best available” materials — yet the result turns out to be a lot better than what I was able to program a couple times at the American Film Institute Theater in the ’70s. This is a very clean rendering that shows off Fuller’s expressive re-creation of the outdoors Park Row milieu — on a set. Shot on a dime, the movie shows off Fuller’s impressive use of forced perspective when you gaze toward the end of this so-called neighborhood street. You already know that Fuller was an expert with this kind of thing (without benefit of a real budget) if you’ve ever eyeballed the seemingly endless hallway of the insane asylum in 1963’s Shock Corridor.

The lead here is Fuller familiar face Gene Evans — right after he played Sergeant Zack in the filmmaker’s Korean War drama The Steel Helmet, an iconic favorite of male boomers (and especially Steven Spielberg) thanks to its early TV sale and incessant airings in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. This time, Evans is cast as one of those old-time writer/editors who not only had printer’s ink in their veins but likely urinated it as well. Just fired and enjoying a beer or 27 one night in a saloon near most of the city’s rags, he’s given the opportunity to start his own paper by a backer — who, unlike most barroom sources of a capital, actually has a little (though not much).

The two call it the Globe and position it to take on the soulless but far more lucrative Star, which is published by a woman (Mary Welch) who at the time would have probably been called “handsome.” Evans and his aging financial angel are a little short on such production tangibles as, say, newsprint — which means at first they have to publish on paper they’ve purchased from a nearby butcher. So if their printing stock is now dripping a little less from sausages and steaks, there’s still about to be a lot of bleeding from busted heads before the Star-Globe circulation wars come to an end. Of course, this is a movie (and an old-school one at that), which means that the two rivals have to develop a yen for each other. When, that is, they’re not trying to kill each other professionally.

Fuller began his career at a very young age laboring in tabloid journalism, so he knew all the folklore and local color from this period. As a result, one of the barroom regulars here jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge and becomes a front-page story; there’s also a Globe-sponsored campaign to raise completion money for the Statue of Liberty (which the Star tries to sabotage); and the invention of the linotype machine. Through it all, we get a lot of florid dialogue and rah-rah speechifying about the press as a noble calling, which younger viewers may find quaint. It is — but I’ll still be surprised if there’s ever a time when a bona fide auteur will ever get that fire in the belly to fashion a movie about the spiritual history of blogging.

I’m sure this picture was murder to market; it’s a ‘B’ — but had too much on its mind to be paired very comfortably with other ‘B’-releases (I can’t imagine it playing with, say, Gene Autry in 1952’s Barbed Wire or Night Train to Galveston). More likely, its limited playdates were as a second feature to bolster some ‘A’ that had no commercial chance. In my hometown, the old Loew’s Broad paired it with the still underrated Laurence Olivier-Jennifer Jones-William Wyler Carrie (from Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie) — a double bill so beautifully simpatico in general epoch and geography that I regret to say it was probably an accident.

Stage actress Welch, whose only feature this was, looked a little like Jones. She’s a little stiff in the role, but it looks to me as if Fuller wasn’t giving her a whole lot of help at time when he was possibly too preoccupied with photographing printing presses with apposite lighting. In a footnote equally sad and strange, the actress died in 1958 giving birth to a son who was later killed in the famous 1988 Pan Am explosion over in Lockerbie, Scotland.

As for Fuller, the film’s box office failure means that he had to take work as a hired hand back at Fox, but here he lucked out. A few of his these big studio follow-ups were among the highlights of his career, and the very next one — Pickup on South Street — may even be his best, fully worthy of the treatment Criterion gave it a few years ago.

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