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Headline Shooter (1933) Review, with William Gargan and Frances Dee

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Bill
William Gargan
Jane
Frances Dee
Hal
Ralph Bellamy
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Mike
Wallace Ford
Hermie
Gregory Ratoff
Ricci
Jack La Rue
Released by RKO | Directed by
Run time: 61 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • Opens with a shot of a man’s hat on a bedpost and a woman telling him she can’t go through with it. Of course, it’s only a photo shoot with the beauty queen munching on some crackers. “Take that pillow look out of your eyes!” he barks.

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  • We get a good long sequence of admiring the female form.
  • One sequence has them recording a woman leaving for jail who screams about being separated by her beloved pet. The newsmen note wryly, “Carves all those boyfriends and then makes all this ruckus about cats.”
  • A movie that suggests that women get a thrill from working too? What?

Headline Shooter: His Girl Frances

“I think you’re one of the grandest guys who ever might have been.”

“Might have been? Now is that nice?”

“I’m going to put you in my first novel.”

“What is it? An animal story?”

“No. It’s about this racket that gets nice young kids into it. It gets them so head up about selling other people’s emotions to the public that they forget they have any of their own.”

“… I’ve got a couple of emotions I haven’t forgot.”

When the title card popped up for Headline Shooter, I smiled; I could tell you the plot just from the list of actors there. All of these actors, as well as the deep roster of character actors (Frank Pangborn! Robert Benchley! Hobart Cavanaugh! Dorothy Burgess!) assure you of exactly the kind of zippy journo pic you’d expect.

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William Gargan plays the the titular newsreel man. His response to an earthquake is running out of the room and yelling, “Whoa, what a break!” While he’s an immoral bastard in some regards, he’s not craven like some of the other pre-Code examples. He makes sure the kid is saved from a collapsing building first before he shoots his footage.

It’s during this earthquake that he runs into girl reporter Dee. The romance between the leads is sweet. Gargan keeps popping a cigarette into Dee’s mouth– certainly nothing suggestive there– and they argue not just about their emotions but how they relate to their jobs. Dee is trying to pull back, fearing that she’s becoming too insensitive to the world; she’s gotten engaged to good ol’ Ralph Bellamy, and you can already guess the results of that.

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One of the pleasures is that Dee has that same itch as Gargan. They both love crafting stories and fighting the evils of the world. That the film is centered on a question of dubious ethics is kind of fun, especially since it doesn’t make its condemnation either way.

The turning point in the movie comes during a flood down south. A collapsed dam is to blame, and the townsfolk beg Gargan and Dee not to report about the faulty construction. The guy who was in charge of the construction was sick at the time and his corrupt son-in-law built the dam. The son-in-law has since absconded with the money, and if the truth comes out, his business will be destroyed and his family destitute. First they ask politely, then they threaten. Dee capitulates out of a sense of kindness, but Gargan destroys some unused footage. The real shots play on screens across the country; the older man kills himself. Gargan shrugs it off– the public has the right to know.

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Spoilers.

What’s interesting about the climax is how it plays off this situation but puts Gargan and Bellamy on the other end of it. Dee elicits a confession out of a gangster’s moll and delivers the story to her paper, but is subsequently kidnapped. If the newspaper runs the story, she’ll be killed. And if they don’t publish the story, a gangster can continue his reign of murder unrestrained. The newspaper is going to publish– after all, it serves the public good much more than one person’s life. Now can Gargan and Bellamy save her in time?

Gargan uses his ability to manipulate the truth through his lens to manipulate a fame-hungry brute to tell him about the hideout. (Jack LaRue, I should note, has adopted a rather silly accent, making his character seem like a mobbed up Desi Arnaz.) There’s another excellent moment where it’s revealed that Dee, held by a horde of gangsters just waiting for the word to kill her, is kicking their ass at gin-rummy. There’s a fight on a fire escape and some gunplay, and, of course, the newsreels get it all.

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Hilariously, it’s impossible not to see the influence Headline Shooter would have on a slightly different film a few years down the line– 1940’s His Girl Friday. Both feature journalists who fall in love despite the fact that they can’t stand each other. They both have a poor, bumpkin sap who gets in the way of the lovers– and they’re both Ralph Bellamy! There’s also the way this film echoes another Howard Hawks film from a year earlier– The Crowd Roars. The Wallace Ford character here feels identical to the Frank McHugh character there, right down to the unfortunate… unfortunateness.

End spoilers.

Headline Shooter is really zippy, barely over an hour, and the cast is well and fun. Though it’s an RKO production, it tussles between journalism mores and the frenetic street-level worries like an accomplished Warner Bros social justice picture. While it may not be at the top of the heap, there’s little not to enjoy here.

Gallery

Click to enlarge. All of my images are taken by me– please feel free to reuse with credit!

Trivia & Links

  • Acidemic, which admittedly misidentifies Wallace Ford as Lee Tracy, has no time for William Gargan, but loves Frances Dee. An excerpt:

It’s startling how at ease the actors are around these real-time calamities, with reporter Dee offering comfort to shaken witnesses as she makes sure to get the signature on the release statement, showing that solid mix of sexy warmth and maternal compassion that would one day make zombies walk with her through whispering cane fields of admiration.

  • There’s a ton of fantastic lobby cards for this at Doctor Macro.
  • Uses actual newsreel footage for many scenes.
  • TCMDB quotes Thomas Doherty and talks about how big the newsreel business used to be:

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.”

  • Picture Play magazine rated it as ‘tolerable’, but found Dee’s character unrealistic.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

  • This film is an obscure one; I’m honestly amazed it never found its way into a Forbidden Hollywood set. I wish you luck in finding it!

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