Release Date: 1959
Writer: William Bowers
Director: Jack Webb
Jack Webb: Sam Gatlin
William Conrad: Jim Bathgate
David Nelson: Earl Collins
Whitney Blake: Peggy Gatlin
Louise Lorimer: Lady Wilson
James Bell: Ben Quinn
Nancy Valentine: Jan Price
Joe Flynn : Hymie Shapiro
Richard Bakalyan: Carl Thompson
Dick Whittinghill: Fred Kendall
John Nolan: Ron Danton
Howard McNear: Editor
Jonathan Hole: Pettifog
Richard Deacon: Chapman
Ronnie Dapo: Billy
Run-Time: 96 mins.
Studio: Mark VII Limited
Full disclosure: I’m a newspaper guy. I’ve been one for 20 years. And if I’m lucky, I’ll never have another kind of job in my adult working life.
So when it comes to movies about my chosen profession, I tend to pay attention. This is because Hollywood so seldom tends to get it right.
I can think of a handful of films — “The Front Page,” “All The President’s Men,” and “The Paper,” that have managed to capture the chaotic alchemy required to take a random assortment of facts and convert it into the readable and useful product that lands on people’s doorsteps (or, these days, their computers) the next day (or, now, 15 minutes later).
The rest of the pack of movies about the newspaper business, or the news business in general, seem content to dust off tired cliches about the business (Hey, look! It’s the cranky editor and the reporter with the drinking problem!) and slap a fresh coat of paint on them. Even the movies I mentioned above aren’t totally immune to this temptation.
So “-30-” falls somewhere between these two camps. There’s a soupcon of melodrama — there has to be to keep the action moving. But there’s also a documentary-style reality to the movie that lends it the credibility required to convince newspaper hands like me not to change the channel.
The first hint is the title, which comes from the bit of old-school code that wire service reporters used to slap on the bottom of their copy to let editors know they’d reached the end of a news story. The code is long since extinct. It’s only trotted out these days by reporters who are writing farewell letters to their colleagues.
But trust Jack Webb, the dry as dust TV Golden Age actor and writer behind other bits of cinema-verite programming such as “Dragnet,” “Emergency,” and “Adam 12,” to give the news biz the kind of on-screen treatment it deserves.
The movie, which covers a night in the life of a nameless Los Angeles daily newspaper, follows a number of different subplots, each affecting a different character.
For Webb, who plays managing editor Sam Gatlin, that’s arguing with his wife, Peggy, over whether to adopt a child. William Conrad, who plays the archetypically crank night editor Jim Bathgate, spends most of the film terrorizing a young copy boy (David Nelson) until the latter considers quitting.
Still another thread finds a veteran female reporter (Lorimer) coming to terms with the death of her grandson, who’s killed when his military plane crashes on its way from Hawaii to Los Angeles. Her character, Lady Wilson, was a rarity for the time — a hard-boiled female reporter who worked in the news pages, not the Society section, which was still often the case in those days.
Serving as the glue for all these disparate threads is the evening’s big story: The fate of a young girl who falls down a storm sewer. Viewers follow it from beginning to end: from when it’s first reported, through moments of desolation when it appears she’s died to the lucky happy ending just before the paper is put to bed for the night.
Anyone who’s ever worked in a newsroom will recognize the buzz that can fire a news staff when a big story breaks. For the uninitiated, it’s a realistic education in the mad scramble to turn a trickle of facts (some accurate, some less so) into a news story.
One of the things that so surprising about “-30-” is how immediately recognizable it is for a working reporter. Though more than 50 years have elapsed since its release and much about the news business has changed (copy boys are long, long gone), there’s still much about the newspaper business that has not changed.
As they do in the film, reporters still phone in stories from the field (though we more often e-mail them). And editors still labor in meetings to figure out the layout for the next day’s paper. There’s a great scene where Webb, whose Gatlin is nursing some private pain, comes up with the double-decker headline for the big story: “Children! Stay Out of These!”
Throughout, the dialogue has Webb’s trademark terseness and, as was the case with “Dragnet,” the plot is moved propulsively forward at all times — even at the expense of characterization.
Conrad’s Bathgate is almost cartoonishly cranky. But he also provides one of the film’s most sublime moments: an impassioned speech about newspapers and their role in society that almost seems like Webb’s love-letter to the industry.
Though it’s tough to find and rarely remembered (it also happens to be one of a handful that Webb produced that he also starred in), “-30” is worth tracking down both for the journalist looking for a window into our business’s bygone time and for filmgoers looking for a more believable education in how a newspaper is created