|Released by Warner Bros. | Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Run time: 74 minutes
Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film
- There’s a murder set off by a pair of adulterers… adultering.
- “That’s not your business!”
“No, that’s monkey business!”
- “He can make a martini out of cockroach paste and turpentine!”
- “I’m what’s laughingly known as a chronic alcoholic.”
- One of the newspaper man makes it a habit to seduce and sleep with small town girl reporters, take them back to New York, and string them along.
The Famous Ferguson Case: Fire Sale at the Fourth Estate
“But others, pandering to the lowest tastes of the public, prolong such cases to the last degree. When news fails, they try to make news. As long as a shred of carcass remains, they feast upon it.”
By train, by car, by air, the newspapermen descend– it’s amazing that someone doesn’t row up a creek in a canoe. There’s been a murder in the sleepy upstate New York town of Cornwall. Three gunshots on a cold weekday night have left one of the most famous bankers in the world dead. His wife is found tied up next to him, and it’s discovered that her lover wasn’t at home with his family at the time of the murder. It’s not hard to put the pieces together, but do they actually fit?
Strange as it may seem, The Famous Ferguson Case isn’t about the Ferguson Case so much as it is about the infamy of it. The movie is another member of the crooked journo cycle after The Front Page, Five Star Final, Picture Snatcher and a handful of others that looked at just how journalists can and will manipulate the system to drive up their subscriber base.
The Famous Ferguson Case isn’t exactly subtle in the dichotomy between the good and the bad journalists. On one hand there’s the typical “small town boy who wants to make good” named Bruce (Tom Brown), big town reporter Maizie (Joan Blondell), and an experienced city writer (Grant Mitchell) who is pretty quick with the lectures on ethics. On the other side is the usually drunk Bob Parks (Kenneth Thompson), his toady Perrin (Leslie Fenton), and a host of others determined to make headlines even where there are none. The former group diligently follows leads, the latter bullies the district attorney into pressing charges against the murdered man’s wife.
At the heart of the conflict is that rather simple question we always debated in journalism ethics classes back in the day (when such things still existed)– at what point are you finding the truth and at what point are you creating it? There’s not always a clear cut line– the movie here carefully needles the viewer so they’re not quite sure where the guilt lies– but it’s easy to see that the journalists here pushing for prosecution and humiliation of the man’s wife and lover are more interested in sensational headlines over more quiet, accurate reporting. If anything, these crooks could take a lesson from today’s politicos– it’s more about insinuation and pledging that you’re trustworthy than actually being fair or balanced.
But that’s one of the more unconvincing things about the pictures. The film’s villains, who may or may not actively incite a woman’s death, still have souls. In a world of Buzzfeed, Gawker and the Huffington Post, that seems rather quaint. Even though the villains are derided at the end of the movie for their nastiness, nowadays we see too many examples of the manipulators reassigning blame. Do you really think someone like Bob Parks would lower his head in shame rather than shrugging and saying it was Mrs. Ferguson’s fault anyway since she was having an affair and that made her life fair game? The movie ends on an optimistic note for journalism, but not a realistic one.
Fans of pre-Code films will probably be a little let down by the movie, which feels more like an undergraduate seminar in some ways than a complete dramatic picture. The opening scrawl, usually a classic pre-Code maneuver to defuse terse accusations of a movie wallowing in its own sin instead spells the movie’s central issue in first-grade level terms.
Especially egregious is Joan Blondell’s role as “the hardest female reporter on the beat” who has too big of a heart– though it’s all about her ex-lover, Parks, and has nothing to do with the trial. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie where the star with the highest billing has the most worthless part in the entire production. Especially in a film filled with speeches defending and needling the worthiness of honesty, hers is about the raw deal men give women they whisk off their feet rather than anything to do with the print business. It’s not exactly Absence of Malice is what I’m saying.
That noted, there is a lot to enjoy here. The movie being set out in the boonies is a nice treat, and director Lloyd Bacon and the handful of script writers make the town feel alive and equally charming and seedy. There’s also the dialogue, which is snappy in that Warner Bros. way that they’re so well known for. The visual wit, too, is a bit sublime– a pile of bobby pins on the desk and a quick skirt adjustment are some delightfully wicked non-verbal work, while the film’s final rack-focus shot perfectly encapsulates a man whose worldview has shifted significantly and not for the better.
Tom Brown, who is ostensibly the lead of the picture, gets to do some splendid work, toeing that line between squeaky innocent and a real journalist, putting the pieces together and solving things his own way. The cast– which is massive, by the way– all get moments to shine as the story before them becomes a chaotic mess of moralizing punishment and eager deception.
To the makers of the movie, writing is the constant search for fresh meat. Whether those words found are used for good or evil rest entirely within the imagination of the writer, and the act of writing, simply a way to put food on the table and drink in the bottle. It’s heartless but optimistic, a nice jolt of a reminder that words always matter.
Click to enlarge. All of my images are taken by me– please feel free to reuse with due credit!
Trivia & Links
- Today’s entry is brought to you thanks to the latest blogathon from the Classic Movie Blog Association, “Words! Words! Words!”. Check out the other entries here! You can also get this entry as well as others in the new CMBA eBook, with all profits going to the National Film Preservation Fund:
- Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times only has one line of actual opinion in his piece:
Granted that there is more truth than poetry in this script, it is an unedifying affair that cannot lay claim to much in the way of drama.
- Hall does note in the review above similarities to two real life cases at the time:
- The Hall-Mills case from 1922 involved a sensational double murder with loads of issues with multiple conflicting witnesses, two lovers both with spouses believed connected with the killings, a sensational trial, and a character called The Pig Lady. Read more about it here.
- The second one that Hall mentions is the case of Albert Snyder; we’ve talked that around here before as the photo of co-murderess Ruth Snyder being executed in the electric chair inspired a fair share of pre-Code dramas. You can read more about it here.
- Everson’s Film Notes explain that this one got overlooked and run over at the time of its release, and also notes that it’s easily the lowest key performance Joan Blondell gives out of her 12 pictures for the year.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film isn’t available on DVD yet, but it shows occasionally on Turner Classic Movies!