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In this age of the Internet, e-mail and cable news, it's delightfully entertaining to take in the story of the 19th century's most famous innovator in the field of relaying information. The name "Paul Julius Reuter" may not be much talked about today, but his last name is still the basis for the world's biggest news agency and financial services business, Reuters.
A Dispatch from Reuters (1940) tells the story of this man, a German-born British immigrant who wanted to "make the world a little smaller." He started his business in 1850, using carrier pigeons to fly stock prices between Aachen and Brussels. Two years later he had opened an office in London to transmit stock quotations between London and Paris via a new underwater cable. Eventually he was gathering information by means of a large telegraph network and feeding news to the London papers. All the while he built a reputation for speed and accuracy. It was an astounding achievement to relay a major speech by French Emperor Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) as it was being delivered. Later, he scooped Europe with news of Lincoln's assassination.
The movie covers all these events in typically breezy Warner Bros. fashion, with action spanning 32 years (1833-1865) and jumping among Aachen, Brussels, Paris, London, New York and Washington, D.C. The drama comes not just from Reuter's achievements but from the ridicule and public persecution he received from those who doubted his ideas could work.
Starring as Reuter is Edward G. Robinson, who had recently done another, more famous Warner biopic, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940). That film, Robinson wrote in his memoir, was his favorite of his own work, but A Dispatch from Reuters ran a close second. Playing in Warner biographies was a notable advancement in Robinson's career. These were the prestige roles, after all, which in the 1930s had been the specialties of George Arliss and Paul Muni. A few more names also returned from Ehrlich, including the fine actors Albert Bassermann, Otto Kruger and Montagu Love, cinematographer James Wong Howe, and director William Dieterle.
Much research went into A Dispatch from Reuters, and art director Anton Grot and set dresser George Hopkins in particular deserving credit. They carefully recreated the first telegraph machine, the mid-19th century interior of the London stock market, and Lincoln's box in Ford's Theater, Washington, D.C., as it looked the night he was assassinated. During the assassination scene, actors speak the exact lines from the play Our American Cousin that were being uttered as John Wilkes Booth fired on the President.
According to the film's original pressbook (held in the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), the carrier pigeons used in filming "were the best birds available in southern California." They came from the lofts of Dick Sanders, a noted breeder whose pigeons had won cross-country races. Because such birds know only to fly one way - toward home - scenes of arriving pigeons had to be filmed at Sanders's Calabasas, Calif., ranch, where sets were built duplicating the ones at Warners' Burbank studio.
Cinematographer James Wong Howe was one of most celebrated in Hollywood history. While A Dispatch from Reuters is very well shot, it is not one of his signature films. Howe was shooting six movies a year at this point. After this one, the pace slackened and he was able to make roughly three a year instead. The extra time would result in especially striking, quality work in pictures like Kings Row (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Passage to Marseille (1944).
Producer: Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: Valentine Williams (story), Wolfgang Wilhelm (story), Milton Krims
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Film Editing: Warren Low
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Paul Julius Reuter), Edna Best (Ida Magnus Reuter), Eddie Albert (Max Wagner), Albert Bassermann (Franz Geller), Gene Lockhart (Otto Bauer), Otto Kruger (Dr. Magnus).
BW-90m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold