In my heedless youth, with my slovenly wannabe-hippie attitude and all, I was never much of a Jack Webb fan, so I wasn't even aware of his film -30- until I read this evocative writeup of it in Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, published in 1983 (the year I turned 24): "Another Thursday night shift at the Los Angeles Banner. Jack Webb arrives late from his weekly visit to the graves of his wife and son to settle in with city editor William Conrad for eight hours of cigarettes and stale coffee. David Nelson and friends relax with 'Copy Boy' for voice and bongos, while assorted newsroom types await progress reports on a 5-year-old girl lost in the city's storm-drain system. Cannon and Friday's backups include Richard Bakalayan, Joe Flynn of McHale's Navy, and Hazel's Whitney Blake." (The writeup itself was not by Weldon but by his collaborator Charles Beesley, a very cool and taciturn customer—he looked a bit like DeNiro's Johnny Boy, without the stupid hats—who was sometimes seen in the company of Hoboken's most enigmatic musical luminaries, and who appears to have disappeared from the face of the earth. But that's another story.)
The film sounded like a little slice of heaven to a guy who still hadn't much of a clue as to what life after the college paper was going to hold for him. Cigarettes and stale coffee was my idea of some kind of breakfast of champions. Of course the film, like so many in Weldon's book at the time, seemed almost impossible to see at the time, and even when I became friendly with Weldon shortly after the book appeared, I never asked him if he had a copy I could borrow (Psychotronic pictures were often passed around like VHS or Beta samizdat by like-minded cinephiles). Maybe I was afraid the reality of the picture would disappoint me. Having now finally seen the movie via a recent DVD from the Warner Archive, I can report the film does not disappoint at all, although Beesley's writeup makes it sound a little more impressionistic and aimless than it actually is.
For this IS a Jack Webb picture, after all, and Jack Webb pictures—not to generalize overmuch, but still—are about regular Joes doing really important things. And getting the morning paper out is an important thing, in spite of it all. The "it all" part does involve tedium and flim-flammers and editors heading up nonexistent departments, but -30- hardly takes as cynical a view of the old-school news-gathering process as does, say, The Front Page, or Front Page co-author Ben Hecht's account of his early days in newspapering in his autobiography A Child Of The Century, which it so happens I'm reading now. (See here.) Hecht's faux-pokerfaced recountings of his exploits as a "picture-chaser," going to almost any lengths (including simulating a house fire to make a family flee, the better for Hecht to break in and ransack the photo albums) to acquire pertinent photographs of victims of crime and natural disasters and such, are enough to make any contemporary ombudsman's blood run cold. In -30-, with respect to the photo of the aforementioned 5-year-old-girl stuck in the city's storm-drain system, well, at one conference an anonymous editor allows that the picture the Banner is going to run was "hustled off a next-door neighbor." Well, all right then.
While maintaining an admirable unity of space of the sort that some critics like to cite in support of a claim of "formal rigor"—that is, the camera never leaves the newsroom during the entirety of its nearly 97-minute running time—the picture juggles multiple storylines and what they now call character arcs. The will-the-5-year-old-girl-make-it? question is of course paramount, but there's also the dilemma of the lovely female obit writer who wants a crack at a real story, but is afraid of getting it because she's the daughter of the paper's owner; the pride and anticipation of another female staffer, a longtime reporter, whose son grandson the rest of the staff never even knew she had is making a daring cross-country flight; the frustration of the copy runner stuck in a go-nowhere job, or so he thinks; and other such stuff. All of which is both driven and punctuated by lots of newspapering nuts-and-bolts jargon, as witness this exchange between Webb's M.E. Sam Gatlin and Conrad's Jim Bathgate:
Gatlin: Jim—this shot of the catch basin, let's run it same size...across pages two and three.
Bathgate: Across both pages, 16 columns?
Gatlin: That's right.
Bathgate: No can do.
Gatlin: Oh, can do. We'll run two eight column cuts with a gutter down the middle. Now run a type overlay, white on black, across both pages. Use 72-point Bodoni caps..."Danger, Kids: Stay Out Of These." Exclaimer. Then in lower case: "One little girl didn't."
Yeah, this Gatlin fella's got it all—the sizzle, the steak, and a great big heart that's been broken bad once and doesn't wanna get broken again. Which leads to his mule-headed resistance to his new wife's scheme to adopt a little tyke. You can likely see where all this is going, right?
Which hardly detracts from the pleasure of it all; in fact I dare say it adds to it. In any event, when Conrad's had enough of the griping from those damn copy runners and launches into his grand, "Why sure, it's just a newspaper" speech, you may well be harumphing right along with him. -30- is as affectionate as Fuller's great Park Row, while being infinitely more mushy, and mushy-headed. But if you're one of the increasingly rare breed who still has a bit of printer's ink in his or her blood, it may well be just your preferred variety of mush. Now where's a DVD of Webb's next collaboration with screenwriter William Bowers, the ineffable The Last Time I Saw Archie?