I think I first fell in love with the idea of being a newspaperman after watching “The Adventures of Superman” as a kid. Reruns of the 1950s George Reeves series aired every afternoon on WGN-Channel 9 in the ’60s, and I remember watching all of them with unbounded fascination.
Call it fate, but I always found myself drawn more to Clark Kent, the “mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper,” than to the Man of Steel.‚ Clark was always so cool, so intelligent and so dashing in those horn-rimmed glasses and fedora. Years later I came to wonder why you hardly ever saw an actual copy of The Daily Planet, or why Clark and Lois and Jimmy never seemed to have any deadlines. But if being a reporter meant getting paid to go out on exciting adventures and finding things out before anybody else, I knew that was for me!
As I got older, movies began to play a bigger role in defining my image of a newspaperman. They also provided a richer understanding of the power of journalism to do good as well as its power to corrupt. At countless points during my career, I witnessed instances of real life imitating cinema art. Practically every editor I ever worked for reminded me of some character I’d seen in the movies.
With deference to my esteemed colleagues Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper, I would never presume to declare the best movies in any category. But I do feel qualified to list the movies I enjoy most about the newspaper business. (If my list leans toward film noir, I suppose it’s because I’ve always been partial to that genre.) In no special order, here are my 10 all-time favorite films about the Fourth Estate:
- Citizen Kane (1941) Orson Welles’ tour de force, inspired by the life of publishing giant William Randolph Hearst, is the grandest of all newspaper movies. Yet it remains as fresh and entertaining as ever. Early on, the young Charles Foster Kane writes to his guardian: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper!” Fun indeed. Buy or rent the DVD with Roger Ebert’s splendid audio commentary track.
- Ace in the Hole (1951) It’s the great Billy Wilder at his most cynical, with Kirk Douglas at his most ferocious. As a down-on-his-luck reporter, Douglas exploits a man trapped in a collapsed cave to boost his own career. Every subsequent media circus that springs up around a person supposedly in peril (right up to last fall’s Balloon Boy hoax) was foreshadowed here.
- Deadline USA (1952) Humphrey Bogart plays the screen’s greatest crusading newspaper editor, trying desperately to fight the mob and keep The Day from being liquidated by its founder’s heirs. Ethel Barrymore is the regal model for publishing matriarchs from the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham to Nancy Marchand’s fictional Mrs. Pynchon on “Lou Grant.” This movie should be mandatory viewing in every journalism class and every newsroom in the country.
- His Girl Friday (1940) Howard Hawks’ brilliant remake of the Chicago newspaper classic “The Front Page” changes the role of hard-boiled reporter Hildy Johnson from male to female, and casts Rosalind Russell opposite Cary Grant, who’s Russell’s editor and ex-husband, Walter Burns. The hilarious rapid-fire dialogue and breakneck pace will leave you breathless.
- Call Northside 777 (1948) Shot in documentary style on location in Chicago, it’s a virtual time capsule of the city in glorious black and white. James Stewart plays a composite of real-life Chicago Times reporters Jack McPhaul and James McGuire, who helped free a man wrongly convicted of murdering a police officer. Click here to read Tribune uber-blogger Eric Zorn’s recent followup with the exonerated man’s son.
- Sweet Smell of Success (1957) Burt Lancaster is so utterly evil and sadistic as powerful New York gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker that it makes you believe every sordid tale ever told about Walter Winchell and his ilk.
- All the President’s Men (1976) The Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman movie about Watergate (and the book it was based on) made investigative reporting sexy and made superstar heroes out of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Largely because of them, enrollment in journalism schools across the country swelled.
- Scandal Sheet (1952) Broderick Crawford plays a magnificently surly editor on a mission to raise circulation (and make his bonus) even if it means transforming a once-respected newspaper into “a disgusting tabloid pandering to the passions of the base moron.” John Derek is his young protégé who stops at nothing to get to the bottom of a sensational murder.
- Continental Divide (1981) I never bought John Belushi as a Mike Roykoesque columnist — or as a romantic leading man — for one second. But all of the movie’s newsroom interiors were shot at the old Chicago Sun-Times Building on Wabash Avenue. For a fraction of a second, I’m visible as an extra in the background.
- North by Northwest (1959) OK, this Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece isn’t a newspaper movie by any stretch of the imagination. But it is my No. 1 favorite movie ever. And there’s one brief moment that always gives me a thrill: Just after his run-in with a menacing crop duster in an Indiana cornfield, Cary Grant returns to the Ambassador East Hotel to find a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times with the headline: “Two Die As Crop-Duster Plane Crashes And Burns.” Product placement doesn’t get any better than that.
See you back here on Monday with a review of the 10 biggest Chicago media stories of the decade. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!