blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Big News (1929, Gregory La Cava)

Big News is a successful talking picture, meaning they do a good job recording the synchronized vocals. It’s not successful at really anything else, but the sound’s decent. Someone had the idea of keeping the number of actors low in most scenes, which helps with vocal clarity. Possibly too much because editor Doane Harrison and director La Cava hang on every spoken sentence. It’s peculiar—though not uncommon for the era—but News is early enough even the actors don’t know to mug around yet. They stand static, waiting for whatever’s supposed to happen next. It makes every conversation take twice as long as it should, and Big News is all conversation.

The film’s a stage adaptation—and a stagy one at that—about newspaper reporter Robert Armstrong going up against speakeasy owner and heroin peddler Sam Hardy. Despite not hiding the speakeasy part of his business from anyone, the advertising editor at the paper—Louis Payne—thinks Hardy is entirely aboveboard. Armstrong’s just an angry drunk out to persecute the American entrepreneur—Hardy’s speakeasy is run out of his… restaurant, which advertises in the newspaper. The long pauses in News would be perfect spots for the actors to turn to the cameras and ask the audience if they’re buying this shit.

But it’s Pre-Code, so you get to hear people say the word narcotics (and heroin, too; I’m nearly positive). Armstrong bickers with Hardy’s thugs about who’s got the more problematic profession, the newspaperman trying to report on thugs selling drugs to kids or the thug selling drugs to kids who has to be derided in the press. Though the cops aren’t happy with the newspapers either, since the newspapers don’t care about using any old surname for the Irish coppers.

Surely second-billed Carole Lombard, Armstrong’s estranged wife and professional competitor, will come in and offer some life to the movie.


Lombard’s just around to whine about Armstrong. She’s the better reporter, and she’s able to get home on time (even when they’re talking about her scooping Armstrong on an overnight story where she was reporting, and he was sleeping off another bender). There are shockingly honest scenes with Lombard and Armstrong’s news editor, Wade Boteler, about how she should divorce him because he’s a useless drunk. He just happens to be a worthless drunk who can get a great scoop now and again, making it up as he goes sometimes, so it’s lucky Hardy’s a hilariously bad Mr. Big. Not bad as in acting—Armstrong, Hardy, and maybe Boteler are the only ones who seem to get the acting bit of voice acting, though incredibly problematic (though potentially progressive) Ms. Lonely Hearts Helen Ainsworth is okay too. But Hardy’s an inept criminal mastermind who lets his ego destroy him.

The bad performances are Charles Sellon as the newspaper owner, who protects Armstrong but not too far, and Warner Richmond as the assistant district attorney, who seemingly learned he was expected to speak about a minute before La Cava called “action.”

La Cava’s direction’s a series of medium shots. I think only Armstrong and Hardy ever get close-ups. Lombard definitely doesn’t get any; the movie has no idea what to do with a lady in the picture, much less Lombard. I’m curious if the original play gave the character something to do.

Oh, and then there’s James Donlan as Armstrong’s drunk reporter pal. It’s unclear whether Donlan has a job other than being drunk all the time and a bad influence on Armstrong. It’s an early enough talkie they haven’t figured out Donlan ought to be a great supporting performance. He’s not.

Big News is only seventy-five minutes and somewhat worth the curiosity peek—Armstrong and Hardy would much more memorably team (for a scene) in King Kong; it’s an early misuse of Lombard, and there are some recognizable faces. Clarence Wilson plays the coroner; apparently, Lew Ayres is around somewhere. But it’s still really long for seventy-five minutes. That time can be better spent on the cast and crew’s other pictures.

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