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At age 12, long before he began the career that would make him one of the most discussed maverick film directors in American pictures, Samuel Fuller got his first job as a copyboy on the New York Journal. At 17, he was a crime reporter for the San Diego Sun. This early background may partially explain why Fuller's films have always had a certain tabloid feel to them. But Park Row (1952) was the movie that really expressed his great affection and respect for the newspaper business. And in lovingly recreating every detail of the street in Lower Manhattan where he worked as a kid, a turbulent neighborhood between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Bowery, Fuller created a historically rich tribute to the New York of the late 19th century.
Park Row could have turned out to be nothing like Fuller's plans, if he hadn't taken the reins himself. Fuller had been under contract for a few years to 20th Century Fox and recently completed two very successful war stories for the studio, The Steel Helmet (1951) and Fixed Bayonets (1951). Studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck wanted Fuller to overhaul his script from the top down, starting with the title. The studio once had a major hit with a period adventure/romance about the Great Fire In Old Chicago (1937) and wanted Fuller to call his picture "In Old New York." And to the young director's horror, Zanuck was demanding it be turned into a musical with Dan Dailey and Mitzi Gaynor. Determined to do it his own way, Fuller sunk every penny he had - a considerable amount earned from the war flicks - into an independent production so he could call all the shots. Most of the money went for the set, which Fuller insisted show the street exactly as it was in 1886. Against the protests of his designers, he called for reproductions of the buildings on Park Row to be four stories high, even though the top floors would likely never even be seen on camera. "But I had to see it all," Fuller said. "I had to know everything was there, exact in every detail."
Fuller's passionate attention extended to the plot, the story of a dedicated journalist who manages to set up his own paper, one that will be free of corruption and report the truth. The venture is an instant success but attracts increasing opposition from one of the bigger papers and its heiress owner. Although he fancies the young woman, the newsman resists her attempts to either drive him out of business or have his paper merge with her company. He perseveres in his mission and holds onto his ideals; eventually, she comes to see it his way. Besides showing the daily details of running a paper, Fuller also filled the film with wider historical interest, such as the groundbreaking invention of the Linotype machine and the erection of the Statue of Liberty. For a Fuller film, the story and its lead character, newsman Phineas Mitchell, are remarkably noble and idealistic, showing little of the filmmaker's typical dark cynicism and moral ambiguity, opting instead for an utterly reverent view of the profession. But it is clearly a Fuller film, not only in the passion he brings to the material but in his frenetically physical directorial style.
Fuller did his best to make his gamble pay off. He opened Park Row in a big way at Graumann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, and it was a critical success. But he lost everything except the "cigar money" he put aside. Without any known stars to lure audiences, the public stayed away. As the heiress, Mary Welch appeared for the first and only time on film. She died six years later at the age of 36. The best-known cast member, in the role of Mitchell, was Gene Evans, with five-years of bit parts and a couple of featured roles in Fuller's war films to his credit. Evans, who spent most of his later career on television, made two more films with Fuller, and later stated that the director made a number of technical innovations on Park Row (which was shot in only a couple of weeks), including his use of the crab dolly, an elaborate, hydraulically operated wheeled platform that allows a combination of camera movements in any direction.
Fuller liked long takes, and his actors sometimes had to learn ten pages of dialogue for one shot. "He would lay out these long scenes, and move the camera around and move in and move back and move all around you, and just go on shooting until he ran out of film," Evans told Lee Server for the book Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground (McFarland & Co., 1995). The actor also said Park Row was the hardest picture he ever worked on. He related a story about Fuller talking him through a fight scene the director wanted to film in one long take from beginning to end. At one point Fuller told Evans to "roll underneath the wagon and fight over to the other side." What wagon, Evans wondered; the wagon that's going to be coming down the street, Fuller replied. "That Sammy, you had to be careful with him or you could get hurt," Evans said.
Producer/Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: John L. Russell
Editing: Philip Cahn
Production Design: Theobold Holsopple
Original Music: Paul Dunlap
Cast: Gene Evans (Phineas Mitchell), Mary Welch (Charity Hackett), Bela Kovacs (Ottmar Mergenthaler), Herbert Heyes (Josiah Davenport), Tina Pine (Jenny O'Rourke), George O'Hanlon (Steve Brodie).
by Rob Nixon
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