Writer, director, and producer Fuller is very committed to the bit with Park Row. He almost pulls the film out of its spiraling third act with an audacious epilogue, which ties back into the opening, with its (uncredited) narration setting the scene. The year is 1886, the place is New York City, and there live the finest men in the world—the American Newspaperman. Emphasis on man. Row’s going to have some very interesting misogyny, but it always comes with enough to qualify it down to class commentary. Fuller never lets the film be too mean to leading lady Mary Welch because she’s the love interest too.
Plus, imagine if a dynamic, self-made man competed with Welch in business and ideology and eventually won her over to his side. Fuller gets away with a lot in Park Row and it’s always because he’s got the right lead—Gene Evans. Fuller takes almost twenty minutes to give Evans his first close-up, even though the movie’s narration hands the action over to him. He’s just a newspaperman, after all, he’s not the one making the story, just the one telling it. Except he disagrees with his paper swaying a murder trial against the defendant, putting Evans in paper owner Welch’s sights. The film doesn’t precisely explain Welch’s backstory, but it plays like she’s inherited the paper from a dead father and has been smartly trying to make money with the paper instead of reporting the news like an American Newspaperman.
There’s one scene where kindly old reporter Herbert Heyes gives Welch a startling dressing down, weaponizing the cultural misogyny against her. It’s intense and, like one of the love scenes, impressive what Fuller can accomplish given the constraints. He’s doing a costume drama about a newspaper, only he’s doing it as an action buddy picture. It’s not a Western; it’s a North-Eastern. Or something.
At one point, Evans drags a guy through the streets and beats the shit out of him against a Ben Franklin statue because Evans is righteous. He’s surrounded by an entourage who eagerly acknowledge he’s the next great American Newspaperman. But Fuller never lets Evans grandstand; instead, he focuses on Evans’s quiet idealism. Given Evans spends the first ten minutes of the film mostly just mulling over the chatter around him, the quiet bit works. Much better than when Evans starts talking to his newspaper.
The film would actually have been able to get away with some of that nonsense if the third act weren’t such a mess. Fuller douses all his goodwill in gasoline and lights a match in a few seconds. It’s an impressive capitulation; turns out Park Row didn’t have a third act, after all. The first act had Evans setting up the paper with his gang of newspaper and journalism enthusiasts, second act is the rivalry between Evans and Welch (with a great, Statue of Liberty-related subplot), third act is the rushed wrap-up then the film’s Brobdingnagian flexing finale.
Row’s obviously on a budget. They didn’t even have matte painters; instead, the backgrounds down the blocks are barely three-dimensional models. Beautifully made, not particularly realistic. The block and a half set is otherwise exceptional. Fuller and cinematographer John L. Russell frequently weave around the set, into buildings, out of buildings, and they’re having a ball with it. Initially, it plays to the costume picture angle, showcasing the sets and costumes (production design by Theobold Holsopple), then it distinguishes Row from that genre, then it goes all out action when Evans starts kicking ass.
Evans has some incredible dialogue to pass, and he manages it successfully; his performance is spectacular. Shame the part doesn’t keep up. Welch is uneven but rather good at playing sincere and thoughtful, which works to make up for it. She and Evans also have chemistry, even though they really shouldn’t.
In addition to Heyes, Evans’s gang includes Forrest Taylor as his financier, Neyle Morrow as his cartoonist, Dick Elliot as the newsroom editor, Don Orlando as the Italian typesetter who doesn’t read or write English, and Dee Pollock as the swell kid who wants to be an American Newspaperman. They’re delightful together. Oh, and Bela Kovacs. Kovacs is an inventor. Park Row isn’t about a newspaperman striking out on his own and struggling to find the right idea; it’s about the messiah of American Journalism just needing a blank check. The movie and Fuller are rabidly optimistic.
Park Row comes crashing down at the end, but Fuller builds something really impressive right up until then.