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Behind the Headlines

Behind the Headlines(1937)

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teaser Behind the Headlines (1937)

Although he's little remembered today and was not even a major star in his time, Lee Tracy is something of an icon of the 1930s. His nasal, rapid-fire delivery practically defines the era and was a perfect fit for the roles in which he was most frequently cast: publicists, agents, or, as here, reporters. Tracy cut his teeth on newsman parts with his great success as Hildy Johnson in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's hit play The Front Page. When the play was brought to film in 1931, Tracy's part went to Pat O'Brien, and it seemed he tried to make up for the loss for the rest of the decade, continually playing the machine gun-voiced (and often unscrupulous) type for which he is best known.

In Behind the Headlines Tracy plays fast-talking (what else?) radio reporter Eddie Haines, whose position with station KBC always gets him the scoop on the infuriated, jealous newsies at the New York Star, including ex-girlfriend Mary Bradley. But when Mary is kidnapped, Eddie and his colleagues in the print media join forces, combining their methods to rescue her.

The antagonism between print and broadcast media was a very real thing in the 1930s. The first national commercial radio broadcast was, in fact, a news story, a report on the 1920 presidential election. At first, there was cooperation between the two, and radio announcers limited themselves to reading newspaper headlines and briefs over the air. When the Associated Press began selling stories to the networks in 1932, newspapers objected, saying it would cause their demise, especially when the practice of interrupting programs with news bulletins became more widespread. CBS President William Paley called a meeting of publishers, network executives, and wire service representatives in 1933 to end the dispute with an agreement (called the Biltmore Agreement, after the hotel in which they met) that would limit network news broadcasts and curtail bulletins. In the end, however, this press-radio war failed to curb the growth of on-air news, and by the mid-30s, its success had become a given.

This film, then, slight as it is, is considered something of a milestone, credited as the first to feature radio as a major news broadcaster and reflecting the "war" between the two formats. The ease with which radio could get breaking stories on the air long before newspapers had even begun to set their type is evident in the film's working title, "Tomorrow's Headlines."

According to some sources, this was also the first film to use Fort Knox as a setting. And here's another bit of trivia: The radio truck used in the filming was borrowed from RKO cinematographer J. Roy Hunt, who built one for himself as a hobby.

Other than perennial (and aptly named) supporting player Donald Meek, you probably won't recognize much of the cast. The name of the cinematographer, however, should be familiar. Russell Metty began his career just a few years earlier, but by the 1940s he was working with some of Hollywood's top directors and building a reputation for sharp black-and-white contrast and night shooting, amply evident in his work for Orson Welles on The Stranger (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958). He was also praised for his color cinematography, receiving Academy Award nominations for Spartacus (1960) and Flower Drum Song (1961). He also did some stunning color work for director Douglas Sirk on Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Imitation of Life (1959).

Director: Richard Rosson
Producer: Cliff Reid
Screenplay: Edmund L. Hartmann, J. Robert Bren; story by Thomas Ahearn
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Editing: Harry Marker
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Cast: Lee Tracy (Eddie Haines), Diana Gibson (Mary Bradley), Phillip Huston (Alan Bennett), Paul Guilfoyle (Art Martin), Donald Meek (Potter)

By Rob Nixon

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