It makes sense director Lorenze never made any other films after Back Page because there’s no easy way to describe the disinterested direction. Well, outside Lorenze and cinematographer James S. Brown Jr. using the same exact camera composition for what seems like ninety percent of the film. When there’s an actual reaction close-up of someone (besides lead Peggy Shannon, who gets them occasionally), it feels like a momentous occasion, like Lorenze is finally going to take an interest.
He does not.
And it’s fine. Back Page is only sixty-five minutes, which is how long lead Shannon has to carry the thing on her charm alone.
Shannon is a big time New York newspaper reporter who gets canned for doing a story about a rich guy (Richard Tucker) writing to his mistress she should kill herself and then she kills herself. Shannon just refuses to learn the first rule of newspapering—rich white men are not accountable.
Her work buddy Russell Hopton sets her up with a job out in nowheresville California running a tiny newspaper. Hopton knows the newspaper owner (Claude Gillingwater) and knows he won’t hire a woman, so it’s good Shannon’s name is “Jerry” so everyone assumes she’s a dude.
Shannon does have to talk Gillingwater into a trial run before it becomes really obvious she knows more about how to run a newspaper than Gillingwater ever did, plus she isn’t going to kowtow to the local businessmen just because.
Pretty soon—like after a terrible scene introducing Shannon to the office staff (Sterling Holloway is profoundly, exponentially bad to the point Fred Bain’s editing can be described as misanthropic for subjecting the audience to more Holloway)—Shannon discovers there might be something hinky going on with local Scrooge Edwin Maxwell and the oil well he suspiciously encouraged the town to invest in.
Also it turns out Gillingwater’s got some arrangements with Maxwell he hasn’t told Shannon about and then Hopton shows up to throw an addition spanner in the works.
Outside Holloway none of the acting is particularly bad. Not even David Callis, who starts as a buffoonish business owner but ends up being one of the better characters. A better director would’ve helped Callis (and probably Holloway) but the script is fairly tepid too.
Shannon’s reasonably engaging and always sympathetic throughout. And she and Gillingwater are genuinely cute. Shame the same can’t be said about her and Hopton. Though Hopton’s definitely the weakest performance outside Holloway.
Luckily, it’s only sixty-five minutes and only tedious for ten of them.