Tabloid Journalism, ’30s Style

picturesnatchersmall.jpgThe Warner Bros. comedy Picture Snatcher (1933), with Jimmy Cagney, now out on a extras-filled DVD from Warner Home Video, is as fresh and breezy as the day it came out—full of cocksure posturing, rat-a-tat slangy dialogue and plenty of healthy sexual bantering. The story of a hoodlum named Danny (Cagney) who wants to go straight because he’s always dreamed of working for a newspaper (!) seems to have especial relevance, because the paper he wants to work for is a tabloid called The Graphic News.

As one media-savvy gang member tells the reformed Danny, The Graphic News “is a 10th-rate rag that makes its living off dirty pictures. It gives journalism a black eye.” The paper is presided over by city editor Ralph Bellamy, who seems like a decent sort. (When a reporter says he was shot at, Bellamy barks, “Forget the pic. Lay up in a private hospital, and we’ll stand the expense.” That kind of liberal approach to employer-paid health care seems like a distant dream.)

In the film’s best scene, four members of the “university class in journalism” show up to take a tour of the paper. One of them is perennial character actor Sterling Holloway (he ended up doing many voices for Disney cartoons), a gangly, goose-necked nerd in owlish glasses. Disdaining the work of The Graphic News, he opines, “It is a filthy blot on the escutcheon of American writing.” Later, Holloway gets a great speech that could be applied today to People, Us, The Star and scores of other scandal sheets. Standing amid the rolls of newsprint at the presses, he takes off on a reverie:

“White wood pulp … plain white. Why, today it’s raw; tonight, it’s cooked with printer’s ink, photographic art, sweat, creative effort. Tomorrow, it goes out and hundreds of thousands of men and woman will feed their starving, mediocre souls on the indiscretions and adventures of others. And then, a little while later—what is it?”

Cagney, grinning sardonically, pauses, then pokes Holloway, winks and gives the answer newspeople have dreaded for centuries: “Don’t you know? They use it to wrap herring!”

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