Sunday, September 25, 2011

Honor of the Press (Fanchon Royer/Mayfair, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Honor of the Press, a 1932 Mayfair production that seems to have had roots in the MGM film The Secret Six the year before but otherwise contained a lot of plot gimmicks and devices we’d seen in later films, including the Meet John Doe premise of a millionaire outsider suddenly taking over a failing newspaper, pouring money into it and apparently building it up for some sinister purpose; as well as the “surprise” twist of the 1937 Monogram film The Thirteenth Man in which the publisher himself is the secret boss of the racket the honest people at the newspaper are trying to expose. Honor of the Press is set in the usual carefully unnamed big city, in which the Clarion and the more established Herald are locked in a circulation war which the Clarion is winning because they’re continually scooping the Herald on the crimes committed by the so-called “Gold Baron” and the robbery ring he’s masterminding. They’re also targeting police commissioner Drake (John Ince) and alleging he’s got corrupt ties with the gang and the Herald masterminded his appointment. The plot kicks into gear when Dan Greely (Edward J. Nugent — later in the film the spelling of his name changes to the more familiar “Greeley”) comes in with a letter of recommendation from his former boss at the Wattlesfield Echo, a small-town paper, and city editor Dan Perkins (Russell Simpson) hires him as a new reporter.

The advice columnist, Daisy Tellem (Rita LeRoy) — I presume we’re supposed to think her outrageously phony character name is supposed to be a pseudonym — makes a play for Greely even though she’s already dating the paper’s star reporter, Larry Grayson (Reginald Simpson), who’s responsible for the Gold Baron scoops, while Greely only has eyes for his girlfriend, aspiring actress/singer/dancer June Bonner (Dorothy Gulliver), who’s working as a hat-check girl at a local hotel and waiting for the Big Break. Greely is suspicious of how Grayson is getting the big stories — he thinks Grayson is either part of the Gold Baron’s gang or is getting tips from a member which he responsibly should be passing on to the police to prevent the crimes instead of using them to write about them — and his suspicions are confirmed when Greely attends a big fundraiser being given at the hotel where June works, the Gold Baron’s minions hold it up and steal the attendees’ ultra-valuable jewels, and he sneaks his way to the phone in the hat-check booth and uses it to call in to his paper, only to find that Grayson has already phoned in the story — something he couldn’t have done without advance knowledge of the crime.

There’s a nice subplot in which Greely suggests to the paper’s photographer, “Sorry” Simpson (Franklin Parker), that he use June for a glamour layout in hopes of getting her image out there and helping boost her showbiz career (“You want to lose her that bad?” says “Sorry,” well aware of what happens — at least in the movies — when the person you’re dating suddenly becomes a star), and a final gimmick in which June reads every fifth word of Daisy’s latest column, discovers a hidden love message from Daisy to June’s boyfriend — and Greeley (as he’s spelling his name by then) realizes that the paper has been used as an instrument by the crooks, and publisher Roger Bradley (Wheeler Oakman) is the Gold Baron and has been using a column he writes personally, “Nuggets of Wisdom,” to communicate messages to the gang of where to strike next and where and how to divide the loot after a successful job. Bradley and Grayson are arrested and the Clarion continues its work, with Perkins still as editor and aware of the massive job he’s going to have to do to rehabilitate the reputation of the Clarion.

Honor of the Press has some intriguing aspects — notably a long speech about what the “honor of the press” actually consists of and the need for responsible journalism as a public service — and though it’s otherwise not much of a movie, it’s a quite good one for an early-1930’s indie and it puts some fresh spins on newspaper-movie clichés that hadn’t quite hardened into clichés yet, notably the novelty of having the newspaper itself being used as a conduit for secret messages between an incognito criminal boss and his staff. It’s quite nicely directed by action specialist B. Reaves “Breezy” Eason, who co-directed The Phantom Empire three years later (and again used Wheeler Oakman as a clandestine villain!) from a story by M. L. Simmons and J. K. Foster with “dialogue and scenario” by John T. Neville, and though Eddie Nugent’s naïveté gets annoying after a while, the two women are quite good and so is Russell Simpson — playing perhaps the only city editor in movie history who smoked a pipe!