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RKO Radio Pictures did their best to emulate the pace and style of the up-to-the-minute dramas being turned out by Warner Bros. in the early 1930s for Headline Shooter (1933), a rough-and-tumble melodrama set in the world of newsreel reporters. Vintage newsreels are seldom revived today, and almost never with any sort of context, so the importance that these shorts held for Depression-era audiences is now mostly forgotten. In almost all medium-sized to large cities in the 1930s, Headline Shooter and other feature films probably would have been seen on a bill along with various shorts, a cartoon, and a newsreel. Although the tone of the film is breezy and often comedic, it skillfully incorporates a number of actual newsreel clips (some of them quite harrowing) and manages a fairly realistic portrait of a long-obsolete segment of the motion picture industry.
In a bawdy Pre-Code opening scene, the film fades in on a shot of a bedside, with a man's hat on a bedpost and a woman's clothes draped on the side. A woman is heard saying, "No. Please. I just can't go through with it." A man's voice replies, "Well this is a fine time to tell me." The camera pulls back and Betty Kane (June Brewster) is in bed wearing black lingerie and eating crackers while Phototone newsreel photographer Bill Allen (William Gargan) is taking still photos of her. Allen intends to scoop his competition the next day by getting exclusive footage of a beauty contest winner in advance - by rigging the contest which is being judged by the owner (Franklin Pangborn) of Crocker's Crackers. Allen, along with his friend and competitor Mike (Wallace Ford) will do almost anything to get a scoop; as he says, "it takes more than a cheesebox full of film to make a newsreel." At the site of earthquake damage, Allen is faking some footage of a baby rescue when he meets up with print reporter Jane Mallory (Frances Dee). Mallory is intending to quit the reporting game to settle down in Mississippi and marry her dull fianc, banker Hal Caldwell (Ralph Bellamy). When Allen is sent to Mississippi to cover a flood, Mallory can't resist joining him in exposing the political corruption that led to poor construction on the levees which failed the community.
In his book Pre-code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934 (Columbia University Press, 1999), Thomas Patrick Doherty writes that the newsreels, turned out twice a week by five different studios, were very profitable during the Depression years. In 1933, the year that Headline Shooter was made, for example, "...the estimated cost for 104 issues of a newsreel, a complete year's run, was a little in excess of $1.4 million, or about the price of a single expensive A feature. The total costs for the five newsreels was estimated at a little under $10 million, with box office revenues yearly at $19.5 million." Yet despite the prestige factor and the relative freedom from censorship that the newsreel companies enjoyed, "...the newsreels tended to tremble before authority and turn a blind eye to the urgent issues of the day. At times, the deference to politicians was abject, the avoidance of the Great Depression stupefying."
According to Doherty, "...government officials pushed the newsreels around with a high-handedness they would never have ventured to show the print press. They denied access, restricted photography, confiscated cameras, and destroyed footage." He brings up Headline Shooter, remarking that it "offers a glimpse into the off screen pressures on the newsreel," and describes a sequence from the film, set in Mississippi, as Allen gets footage of the flooding and the shoddy concrete work that led to the failure of the levees. Local authorities confront Allen, Mallory, and Caldwell and use a variety of methods to persuade him to destroy the film. First they appeal to his humanity, saying the local judge was himself a victim. When that ploy fails, they threaten force. Allen pretends to comply, taking film footage and throwing it in a fire - the nitrate film is instantly engulfed, but Allen has only destroyed unexposed film and he later brags to his friends that his footage is "playing in theaters now." As Doherty writes, "He has done the right thing, his colleagues agree. 'That's the trouble with this country - there's too much covering up of things that ought to come out in the open. News is news and belongs to the public.' That sentiment, however, was Hollywood pretense, not newsreel policy."
Headline Shooter benefits from a wildly appealing cast. Nearly forgotten today, William Gargan was an inescapable leading man or second lead in over 50 films in the 1930s. The Brooklyn-born actor often played tough guys with an Irish bent; cops, soldiers, gangsters, etc. His output slowed in the 1940s, but he appeared as sleuth Ellery Queen in a series for Columbia Pictures and turned in a sensitive performance in Leo McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's (1945). In the 1950s, Gargan found fame on television, starring in two separate series as Martin Kane, Private Investigator.
Frances Dee would score other important lead parts in the same year she appeared in Headline Shooter, in Little Women (as Meg) and in the shockingly violent Pre-Code crime drama Blood Money. Ralph Bellamy is on hand to personally play the "Ralph Bellamy role" - that of the other man in the life of the heroine. Fresh from his brutal turn as "Trigger" in The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Jack La Rue was borrowed from Paramount Pictures for a more gullible gangster in Headline Shooter. The film is also peppered with other recognizable players such as Wallace Ford, Gregory Ratoff, Betty Furness, the always-welcome Franklin Pangborn, and, in an amusing cameo as a radio announcer doing the play-by-play of a beauty contest, Robert Benchley.
Executive Producer: Merian C. Cooper
Director: Otto Brower
Screenplay: Agnes Christine Johnston, Allen Rivkin (writers); Wallace West (story "Muddy Waters"); Arthur Kober (additional dialogue)
Cinematography: Nick Musuraca
Se Decoration: Albert S. D'Agostino, Van Nest Polglase
Musical Director: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Frederic Knudtson
Cast: William Gargan (Bill Allen), Frances Dee (Jane Mallory), Ralph Bellamy (Hal Caldwell), Jack La Rue (Ricci), Gregory Ratoff (Gottlieb), Wallace Ford (Mike), Robert Benchley (Radio Announcer), Betty Furness (Miss Saunders, secretary), Hobart Cavanaugh (Happy), June Brewster (Betty Kane)
by John M. Miller