Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in one of his breakout hits– directed by none other than Frank Capra! Doug plays a cub reporter who is desperate for a scoop. He gets it when he manages to implicate a young lady (Jobyna Ralston) in a scandalous murder. Seeing the damage he has done to innocent Jobyna, Doug sets out to catch the real killer.
Stop the presses!
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has always been a particular favorite of mine so I was rather pleased to be reviewing one of his early starring roles. The fact that it is directed by Frank Capra is the icing on the cake.
What I like most about Fairbanks is that, like his father, he was able to inject a sparkling friendliness into his screen persona. Whether playing the hero or the villain (and the junior Fairbanks was a terrific villain), he always came cloaked in boy-next-door charm.
Fairbanks was only eighteen when he made The Power of the Press. In the film, he is as green as can be and his acting skills are as raw as all get-out. However, the Fairbanks charisma saves the day! But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk a bit about the plot and the director.
Frank Capra is best known for his films about The Little Guy and his struggles against corruption and greed. Frequently, these films also included journalists in a moral crisis. How far would they go for a scoop? What makes someone a public figure and what are the moral implications of thrusting them into the spotlight? The public has a right to know but what about individual privacy? I am pleased to say that these moral thorns are quite in evidence in this film.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. plays Clem Rogers, a cub reporter who is tired of writing anonymous weather reports. He is a writer, an artist! He wants the be covering the big stories, to see his name in print. His editor (Robert Edeson) sees him as an over-eager puppy and plans to keep Clem right where he is until he grows up a little.
Clem’s chance arrives when the district attorney is murdered in his own home and no reporter is around to dispatch to the crime scene. Clem was in the office working late and receives his very first assignment. Of course, in his frantic rush to reach the scene of the crime, he neglects to get the address and then loses his press card!
The district attorney was shot in his living room and there are no witnesses to the crime. Or are there? You see, hiding in the dead man’s closet is Jane Atwill (Jobyna Ralston, of Wings and Harold Lloyd fame), the daughter of one of the candidates for mayor.
Lacking credentials, Clem is denied entrance to the murder scene. That proves to be a blessing in disguise when he spots Jane climbing out of the window. She bolts but an all-too-helpful passerby informs Clem of her identity. Clem races back to the newspaper office with his scoop: daughter of mayoral candidate implicated in D.A.’s murder!
Oh, and that overly helpful passerby? He is Van (Wheeler Oakman) and he works for Robert Blake (Philo McCullough), another candidate for mayor. Van takes care of Blake’s dirty work. And Blake has a lot of dirty work that needs taking care of.
You see, Blake has a problem called Marie (Mildred Harris, former Mrs. Charlie Chaplin). Marie knows where too many bodies are buried and Blake needs to keep her from talking until the election is settled. He has Van lock Marie away in a shabby country house outside of town.
What bodies does Marie know about? Well, she knows exactly who killed the district attorney: Van, acting under Blake’s orders.
Meanwhile, Clem is enjoying his new status in the newsroom. He is a published journalist who sniffed out the scoop of the year. His confidence dims, however, when Jane comes to see him. She makes is clear that a) she wants to punch him in the nose, b) he ruined her family, and c) she is going to cry. Clem is just a kid and he melts. He promises to get a retraction printed.
Of course, that goes over about as well as you would expect and Clem is fired. However, you can’t keep a good reporter down and Clem joins forces with Jane to solve the murder and save the election prospects of Jane’s father.
Will the young couple crack the case? Or will corruption win the day? See The Power of the Press to find out!
I have seen other silent films recently that are probably more artistic and sophisticated than this one. But I will tell you this: I have not enjoyed a silent movie this much in ages!
The plot speeds along at a breakneck clip but it never loses its way or becomes overly tangled. Capra was a veteran of the Hal Roach lot and made the jump to First National along with Harry Langdon. In spite of his young age, he had plenty of directing experience and gone a long way toward mastering the nuts and bolts of the craft. Everything– from the bustling newsroom to the impressive printery to the truly thrilling climactic car chase– looks great!
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. holds the whole thing together with his enthusiasm and charm. He and Capra got along well (Fairbanks described him as the nicest director in Hollywood) but one of the biggest contributors to the successful performance was probably the parallels between Clem’s life and that of Fairbanks.
Both were young and green but eager. Both were hungry for a chance to prove themselves in their chosen profession. These similarities between character and actor almost certainly helped Fairbanks accomplish a neat bit of acting that would become one of the building blocks of his successful career.
The rest of the cast is very good. Jobyna Ralston is charming as the heroine who can’t stay mad at poor Clem. Mildred Harris hams things up a bit, as does Wheeler Oakman. Dell Henderson chews on a bit of scenery as Clem’s bullying office rival but comes off better.
I would also like to note that the film manages to sidestep a cliche that still plagues movie folk. How often have you seen this little scenario:
Hero: I’m going in after the villain! Take the evidence to the police and don’t go in after me.
Friend: Sure thing!
Friend: He’s not back. I’m going in too!
Invariably, this results in the friend being taken hostage or messing up the hero’s plan or some such inconvenience.
Well, in The Power of the Press, Clem is planning to break out Marie. It’s risky and he tells Jane to take all their evidence and wait for him at the newspaper office. She is not to follow him for any reason. Jane agrees, they kiss and Clem leaves on his dangerous mission.
And guess what? Jane goes to the newspaper office and waits! I wanted to kiss the screen. I was fully expecting her to get a case of the galloping dumdums and was delighted that she managed to avoid one of the oldest cliches in the book.
This film is also notable for the extended sequence showing the process of printing newspapers circa 1928. I find printing to be fascinating and thought that the sequence added a lot of authenticity and flavor to the movie. It was obviously filmed in a real location with real employees.
The Power of the Press is a light and nimble adventure. I found it utterly delightful. My only caveat is that the only version available is missing a few minutes of footage near the end. It’s nothing that interferes with the plot but it is noticeable. However, don’t let that stop you from enjoying one of the best of the later silent crowdpleasers.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The Power of the Press has been released on DVD-R by Grapevine Video.