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Monday, October 28, 2019

30's Cost of Fake News

The Finger Points (1931) at Reporters Turned Corrupt

Chicagoans Find Fun in Viewing Head-Shot Jake Lingle
Jake Lingle was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He started off clean, but ended up dirty. Gangland saw to that. Jake covered crime till criminals bribed him to cover it up, then when something (but what?) went wrong, they rubbed him out. That was June 9, 1930. Parts of Chicago, it seems, kept roaring well after the 20’s. A tall, blond guy came up behind Jake in a crowded railroad underpass, sprayed his brains amidst a moving crowd, then blended among them. Talk about brass. Why not wait for a next football game and do your killing there? $1400 was found in pockets of the victim who earned $65 per week, this after Jake got plaudits as dauntless champ for law-order. Chumps were those who believed in him. Al Capone was figured to be back of the deed. Seven months search found a suspect that few agreed on, but he served eight years anyway and kept mum doing it. So was Jake Lingle a bad apple, or par for the barrel? Crooked cops were a dime a hatful, so why not journalists too? Imagine temptation of $60K a year that Lingle was alleged to have got. Scribing did not confer sacred trust as did a badge, said rationalizing damned. A lot of them gloried in the rackets and slept peaceful in gravy bowls. What a topic for Hollywood in muckrake mode, and what a custom glove for Richard Barthelmess as decency corrupted by insidious forces intent on swallowing us all. If Dick could be bought, was anyone safe?

Forceful aspect of the gangster cycle was how easily decent folk got sucked in, bootleg liquor bought with more honest dollars than not. Had we but obeyed Volstead, crime might starve in its cradle, but no, drinking was harmless and the law an unfair one, so bottoms up, said millions of Jake Lingles among us. The numbers racket would thrive by as subtle means later on. Civilians hardly realized they were doing wrong. Higher profile gang movies saw crime on insular terms, an isolated culture apart from clean communities. We could look at Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface without fear of sink to their level. Filmmakers implicating a wider public got wrists slapped, The Wet Parade a dirty mirror the upright didn’t want to look into ($112K lost). Movies then, even precode ones, prevailed upon their audience to respect the law. Reporters could be cheeky, bend rules, even pal with mobsters, but only to expose them later and uphold a status quo. To sell out for private gain was a killing offence. Many celebrate precode for its free-and-easy, even amoral, stance, but it was never really that. Crime did sometimes pay, but not often. It needed papal dispensation to let wrongdoers off the hook, rules less unyielding than when strict enforcement got hold, but a bitsy eyehook all the same. We’d like Barthelmess to be spared in The Finger Points because he kills no one, took only from crooks, is true-blue to friends, and is, after all, Richard Barthelmess … but snatch goes rug from beneath him when machine guns speak their peace. Maybe it was suggested-by-facts that imposed the windup, Jake Lingle a likely-as-not right guy to co-working chums. He wasn’t picking their pockets, but died sudden all the same.

Dick starts at $35 a week for his fictitious paper. Average income in 1930 was $1,368, so him in the middle would have drawn $26 plus. “Breckinridge Lee” seems educated, can type and compose stories. Many on actual sheets never wrote a word, were “street reporters” in that they got yarns, phoned them in, left others to do text. Bet there were plenty on payrolls who neither read nor wrote, but had nose for news like bloodhounds. Jake Lingle was a street reporter. Most in the trade, not thought of then as a profession, had to learn on the fly, spelling they picked up “one lousy letter at a time,” as Clark Gable declared in Teacher’s Pet twenty-seven years later. In wild enough towns, like certainly Chicago, the papers were expected to crack crime same as thought-inept police. Crooks often surrendered to editors rather than cops. That got sticky where aroused populace, and certainly law enforcement, said media was glorifying, if not protecting, gangsters. Breckinridge Lee gets beat up for too vigorous reporting in The Finger Points, his editor refusal to cover doctor costs the impetus to join with mob-linked Clark Gable.

Two from The Finger Points cast stood for a past and future of talkie stardom, Fragile Barthelmess and Growling Gable, one roaring in, the other easing out. Barthelmess enjoyed momentum of considerable hit that was The Dawn Patrol of a year before, but limit for him as a sound attraction was piling up. Slight of stature, his height five foot nine if sources are to be believed (he doesn't seem it), saw male co-players in The Finger Points dwarf him. We fear for Dick because of how vulnerable he seems. How long can this man get by hustling the Mob? Barthelmess spoke ideally to silent viewership, as one exhibitor bluntly pointed out: “When pictures were silent, a Bathelmess picture was an event. Whenever I could get one, the wife knew there was a new dress coming to her for business always was good … any picture that had Dick in it was a good picture to me, but … the talkies made a difference. As I watched The Finger Points, I sighed for the old Dick, the old ingratiating boy with the tender smile, the expressive eyes, and the complete mastery of the art of silent acting. In this picture, he is just an actor telling us in words what he used to tell us a thousand times more intriguingly in looks and action” (The Hollywood Spectator, 6-20-31). Here was sum-up that unfortunately could be applied to many a silent-era player facing high hill that was talking screens.

Silent-Era Barthelmess As Many Preferred Him. Note Artist's Signature for Attractive Border Design

Careful, Dick --- Those Are Real Shots They Are Firing

In contrast was lately-arrived Clark Gable to spoken parts, his voice pitched low as to make every line a threat. That plus height advantage cruelly expose an uneven match between he and Barthelmess. Latter having gone corrupt means Breckinridge Lee must die, frightfully so in a hail of tommy gun bullets. We flinch for the actor’s sake, these shots being real, and aimed all round Barthelmess, who relied for his life upon aim of a WWI vet Warners hired to make the scene look real. James Cagney went similar dangerous route for Public Enemy, and still recalled cold fear of the moment in his 70’s memoir. So much for big stars spared hazard of filming, the Barthelmess death scene still uneasy from 88 year distance. What price authenticity, especially where telling stories ripped from headlines. Showmen ran with the relevance, Harry Martin of the Brown Theatre in Louisville, Ky., printing up a bogus newspaper “extra” describing “the murder of a well-known reporter,” newsboys sent throughout town to distribute the sheet. Martin’s bally “had all the earmarks of a genuine newspaper and created a lot of excitement,” the evening’s shower of fake gazettes culminating in a midnight premiere of The Finger Points that got the “biggest opening gross the Brown Theatre has known.”

Lobby-Constructed News Office An Attention-Getter in Jersey City

Multiple Fingers Point at Merchants Participating in the Palace Theatre's Co-Op Ad

Persuasive Ad Cheered By a 1931 Trade
Other campaigns were as bold. Enterprising management for the Stanley Theatre in Jersey City N.J. built a reduced scale press room for lobby display which seated three “reporters” (culled from house staff). The display stayed up a week, was constantly manned, and drew excited comment from patrons plus anticipation for The Finger Points, “A Gripping Tale of an Ace Reporter Who Killed Stories For Hush Money.” Co-op ads were a natural because … well, it was about a finger pointing, as one would to participating merchants, the Palace Theatre of Lorain, Ohio in bed with a pharmacy, jeweler, florist, the round robin of local businesses seeking to get word out on goods they offered. Mutual back-scratch was seldom better utilized. The Motion Picture Herald (8-1-31) spotted an ad by management of the Macomb Theatre in Mount Clemens, Michigan, “an excellent example of how one mat can be brought up to a degree where it hits the reader square in the eye.” Particulars included “the use of varied type … the use of the reverse negative in order to change the tone (of the display ad).” Newspaper promotion reached a new level of sophistication as printing/reproduction techniques improved, and exhibitors took advantage of them. The Finger Points saw success for such efforts, a profit-getter, if modest, in a year when many of Warner releases lost money. It can be had on DVD from Warner Archive.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

I don't care what that exhibitor said -- I'm always up for a Barthelmess talkie! Sincerity trumps art every time.

12:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear John:

Very interesting and detailed post. I always remember this one for the extended scene in which poor Barthelmess, having been beaten within an inch of his life by mob thugs, goes to his city editor for some help in paying his considerable hospital/medical bills. The editor (Robert Elliott) is completely obdurate on the subject. Barthelmess, completely broke, asks for a raise, an advance, anything... he practically begs the guy for a few bucks. Nothin' doing. It's a classic Warners scene of the day; an honest, hardworking guy on his uppers gets no relief from anyone. No security blanket for Dick at all.

It's no wonder he almost immediately makes a deal with Gable and turns to the dark side. The scene is practically an advertisement for workman's compensation, affordable health insurance, or perhaps even -- yikes! -- socialized medicine.

-- Griff

10:27 PM  

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