Directed by Frank R. Capra
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Clem Rogers), Jobyna Ralston (Jane Atwill), Mildred Harris (Marie), Wheeler Oakman (Van), Philo McCullough (Robert Blake), Robert Edeson (city editor), Edwards Davis (Mr. Atwill), Del Henderson (Johnson), Charles Clary (District Attorney)
Clem Rogers is a cub reporter on the Times newspaper relegated to writing weather reports and death notices. He begs the city editor to give him a "chance," but is brushed off by the overly busy and grouchy boss. Suddenly, a call comes in. The District Attorney has been murdered. There are no reporters around. Reluctantly, he tells Clem, "Here's the chance you been waiting for!" and sends him on his way. When he gets to the house, he is forbidden to enter by two uniformed policeman because he has lost his press pass. Wandering around the yard behind the house, he sees a young girl climb from a window and run. She speeds away in a car, so he asks a man in a nearby car if he will chase the vehicle. The stranger refuses, but casually confides that the girl is the daughter of Atwill, one of the mayoral candidates. He adds, "The District Attorney was sweet on her . . . maybe she got peeved and bumped him off."
Clem returns to the office with the purse the girl dropped and the story. The Times scoops the other papers, the editor is delighted, and Clem is promoted to reporter. As he is reveling in his promotion the next day, the girl - Jane Atwill - comes to the office and asks to speak to him alone. When she begins to cry at her reputation being ruined by Clem's story, as well as her father's chances of winning the mayoral race, he promises a retraction. When he confronts the editor about the retraction, he is refused. Clem threatens to quit if the retraction is not printed, so the editor fires him.
Sitting in the park feeding the pigeons, he notices the stranger who was at the DA's house the night of the murder. He follows him, and the stranger goes to Robert Blake's office. Blake is Atwill's opponent in the mayor's race.
Clem goes to Jane and tells her he believes Blake may somehow be connected to the murder. Knowing that Clem is trying to help her, she confides to him that she did not tell the police everything. Before the DA died, he gave Jane a folder of photos and told her these would assure her father's election. Clem devises an plan to figure out the significance of the photos.
Acting as if he is drunk, he finds the stranger, Van, in a nightclub and shows him the photos saying he is working on another story that will keep Blake from being elected. Later, Jane and Clem compare the folder of photos with duplicates they made and find that Van apparently removed a photo of a girl. They locate the girl in a run-down house outside town that is being guarded by one of Blake's gang.
The excitement builds as Clem tricks the girl into telling him who really committed the murder, and as she is writing a statement implicating Blake, Van walks in with a gun. Nevertheless, Clem's resourcefulness saves the day, Jane's reputation, and her father's election, and returns him as a hero to his job.
With film classics like "It Happened One Night" (1934), "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936), "Lost Horizon" (1937), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), "Meet John Doe" (1941), and "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) to his credit, it's no wonder that Frank Capra's earliest directorial efforts during the silent era receive little notice. He dabbled in movies beginning around 1920. In 1924, he was hired as a gag writer by Hal Roach for the Our Gang comedies, but, after a short period, went to Mack Sennett where he began working on the Harry Langdon films. When Langdon left Sennett to go with First National, Capra followed and got his first directorial job on Langdon's superb "The Strong Man" (1926). Whenever Langdon's career is recounted, Capra will undoubtedly be mentioned. It is, however, a disservice to silent film aficionados that Capra's directorial efforts at Columbia - where he went in 1928 after leaving Langdon - are either given a very brief acknowledgement or ignored entirely. However, with the silents Capra directed at Columbia, he not only honed his craft, he proved himself to be a very capable director - particularly when one considers the limited resources he had at this poverty row studio and the resulting entertainment he was able to produce. A good example is the very enjoyable "The Power of the Press."
"The Power of the Press" predates the crime drama that would be so much a staple of the 1930's and 1940's. It's done with style and belies the fact that it must have been produced on an incredibly small budget. According to Capra (in his autobiography Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title, The Macmillan Company, 1971), his early Columbias averaged a budget of about $20,000 each - a sum he said did not equal Mack Sennett's budget for a two-reeler at that time. It is curious that Capra fails to mention this film in his autobiography, though, since he mentions at least five other early Columbia productions. Considering the cast - Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Jobyna Ralston, Robert Edeson, Mildred Harris, Philo McCullough and Wheeler Oakman (not stars of the first echelon but not unknowns either) - one would think the film would have deserved a passing mention.
The film is certainly one of which he could be equally proud with his other early Columbia efforts. Two readily available for the home market are "The Matinee Idol" with Johnny Walker and Bessie Love (1928) and "That Certain Thing (1928) with Ralph Graves and Viola Dana - and "The Power of the Press" is, without a doubt, a more substantial story than either of these, as well as boasting a stronger cast.
Whatever the reason for Capra's bypassing of this film in his autobiography, it is not because of its quality. It ranks more than passing marks in all areas - cinematography, acting, direction, story and more.
Of course, the film wouldn't be the same without the charismatic Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He ably conveys the inexperience, yet self-assurance - and, later, athleticism - required for Clem Rogers, cub reporter. Admittedly, Fairbanks had appeared in over a dozen films prior to "The Power of the Press," yet it is still a credit to his talent that he conveys a maturity beyond his actual age at the time - 18 years old. His costar, Jobyna Ralston, was 25 when they made this film, yet the age difference is moot as the two light up the screen as a perfect romantic match that would have worked well in further pairings.
From the start, Fairbanks charms us with his enthusiasm and self-confidence as the young writer of weather reports and obituaries who aspires to become a full-fledged reporter. The city newspaper office in which he works is right out of "The Front Page" with the experienced, cocky, gum-popping reporters looking down their noses at the young cub and the grouchy, overwrought and exasperated editor hardly noticing his existence. Del Henderson, who is best known for his roles in 1930's comedies as a foil for everyone from Our Gang to the Three Stooges, is the annoying reporter who delights in harassing Clem - for example, sticking out his leg to trip the newbie as he walks through the sea of desks. Clem takes it well though, even giving a little back when he pushes the brim of Henderson's hat down over his eyes and jerks his tie loose. Robert Edeson, who gave a bravura performance in "Chicago" the year before with Phyllis Haver, is the perfect personification of the harried city editor, brushing off Clem's attempts at embellishing the weather reports with flowery prose and grouchily ignoring his requests for a "chance" at a real reporting job.
That all changes, though, when a call comes in that the District Attorney has been murdered. Our introductory portion of the film - which did an exacting job of establishing characters through entertaining interplay - is over, and the real fun begins. With no reporter in sight, the editor is forced to send Clem out for the story. After a few inept missteps such as neglecting to get the address and losing his press card, Clem - by accident, of course - stumbles onto a juicy story when he sees the daughter of the front-running mayoral candidate slipping out a back window of the DA's house while the investigation is still underway. He tries to catch her, but she jerks away from his grip, drops her purse, runs to her car and drives away. A shady character (played by Wheeler Oakman) is standing beside his car at the curb. He tells Clem the girl is Jane Atwill, daughter of the mayoral candidate. He plants a seed in the cub reporer's mind by suggesting,"The District Attorney's been sweet on her. Maybe she got peeved and bumped him off.".
Capra's staging of characters at the beginning of the film reaps its rewards at this point, for Clem returns to the office, hammers out the story as quickly as possible (copy boys waiting anxiously to grab each page as it's finished) and makes front page with his very first story. Now he is the hero and rightfully gloats and struts among the same reporters who had previously used him as a source of their amusement - all the while puffing on a cigar, much to their annoyance.
The next day, Jane comes to the office to confront him for ruining her reputation and her father's chances of election. As he continues to puff on his cigar with an air of aloofness, he matter-of-factly comments, "We newspapermen must print the news no matter who it hurts." However, when she begins to cry, Clem has a sudden change of heart and promises to have the story retracted. Unfortunately, his demands to the editor to do this only result in his firing.
Jobyna Ralston acted in Hal Roach comedy shorts before being selected by Harold Lloyd to replace his wife, Mildred Davis, in his feature comedies. Ralston was a perfect complement for Lloyd - lending the innocence needed for his leading lady but with more maturity and beauty than Davis was able to give, adding much to the romanticism Lloyd injected into his stories. Her last Lloyd feature was "The Kid Brother" in 1927; however, she had no shortage of work thereafter making 14 features in the next two years, one of which was "Wings" (1927).
"The Power of the Press" calls on her dramatic abilities far more than any of the Lloyd features had, and she proves herself a most capable actress who exhibits fear when she runs from the DA's house, anger when she confronts Clem, resolve as she assists Clem in his investigation, and charm and sex appeal when they first kiss.
The ever-stalwart Wheeler Oakman is the bad guy in this movie, and what a job he does! Sure, his acting is cliché, but he does it in a convincing way - not so menacing as sneaky, the kind of guy you wouldn't turn your back on. Variety's reviewer said, "A very suave and cold-blooded henchman of corruption is ably played by Wheeler Oakman."
Oakman's character, Van, is the "hit man" for Atwill's opponent in the mayoral race - Robert Blake (played by Philo McCullough). One evening after a show, Jane and the DA are having drinks at his house. Blake has Van murder the DA resulting in the implication that the dead man and Jane were lovers, which leads to accusations that she shot him.
Clem proves to be a capable detective as he follows Van to Blake's office one day and begins to wonder what the connection could be between this mysterious man who was outside the DA's house that night and the now favored candidate for mayor.
Finally convinced that Clem is on her side, Jane confides to him that the DA gave her a folder filled with photos before he died stating that it would win her father the race. Not knowing the significance of the contents, Clem suspects it may have something to do with Blake and proceeds to carry out a rather ingenious plan. Taking the photos to a night club where Van hangs out, he plays the drunk and, throwing the photos on the table, tells Van he "broke" one candidate, now he plans to break another. After being introduced to Happy Al, the bootlegger, and giving Van time to do whatever he may want to with the photos, Clem grabs up the folder and returns to Jane who is waiting outside. Upon comparing the photos with duplicates he made, they find a photo of a blonde named Marie Weston missing. Clem has another idea how they can locate Marie and calls Blake. Impersonating Happy Al, he says Marie wants "a case," but he has forgotten her address (a little "lame," but believable). Getting the address, he sends Jane back to the newspaper office and heads for a run-down house outside of town where Blake is keeping Marie so she can't "rat" on him. Marie is Blake's girlfriend and apparently knows all about the murder. Of course, the ruse is discovered, and Van shows up just as Marie is about to sign a confession.
Capra keeps the story moving with no dull moments, plenty of suspense, and just enough romance included to give the young cub all the incentive he needs to be heroic.
The print viewed from Grapevine - which is likely all that has survived - unfortunately is missing a key section of the height of the action. Van has Clem and Marie at gunpoint in the old house and explains his plan to have both of them found dead in a murder-suicide. Suddenly, the film skips and we see Van tied and gagged and Clem looking out the window as the rest of the gang arrive. Such a key sequence is truly an unfortunate loss; however, the story still has much action left as Clem and Marie attempt to escape the gang in a speedy car chase through the mountain roads with Van in the back seat (who, by the way, breaks loose from his bonds).
Harrison's Reports (December 1, 1928) called it "A good entertainment. The spectator is held in pretty tense suspense all the way through, and his sympathies are appealed to."
Variety (December 5, 1928) was no less enthusiastic calling it an "exciting and insistently engaging melodrama with a light touch that lifts it out of the stencil class." Variety went on to commend the film for its "authentic" portrayal of a newspaper. "Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., is a cub reporter a newspaperman might believe in. Robert Edeson, as a city editor, is more than a caricature of journalistic enterprise. It is a moving picture newspaper refreshingly plausible if not 100 percent authentic."
There is much more to recommend this film. The film quality
is well above average, and the original tints and tones are still
there. Jack Hardy, owner of Grapevine Video, scores most of his
releases himself using pre-recorded music - always ensuring that
the accompaniment suits the scene. His work on "The Power
of the Press" is one of the best he has done, and the viewer
will find it enjoyable and very appropriate for every scene in
Copyright 2010 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved
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