Monday, December 10, 2012

The Famous Ferguson Case (Warner Bros. as “First National,” 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was one that showed great promise but failed badly in the execution: The Famous Ferguson Case, a 1932 production from Warner Bros. in “First National” drag (as a condition of being allowed to take over the First National studio and theatre chain four years before, Warners had been obliged to keep up at least the appearance of competition between the two, so movies went out either as “Warner Bros.” or “First National” almost at random — the 1934 film Wonder Bar was proclaimed a First National production on its credits and a Warner Bros. production in its trailer — and, according to Edward G. Robinson, sometimes his paychecks said “Warner Bros.” on them and sometimes “First National”). It was presented as a star vehicle for Joan Blondell — she’s billed below the title but at least on the same card — and also an exposé of yellow journalism, complete with a seemingly interminable foreword expressing the intent of writers Harvey Thew, Courtenay Terrett and Granville Moore to contrast legitimate reporting with yellow journalism:

This story deals with a certain phase of newspaper work.

The STANDARD DICTIONARY defines news as:

“Fresh information concerning something that has recently taken place.”

But quite frequently events occur which by their nature are so sensational — from the angle of sex, violence, the standing of the parties involved, or what not — — that they are reported in some newspapers long after there is any “fresh information” and when nothing at all “has recently taken place”.

Legitimate newspapers recognize this fact. They report real developments, and stop there. But others, pandering to the lowest tastes of the public, prolong such cases to the last degree. When news fails, they try to make news. As long as a shred of carcass remains, they feast upon it.

Naturally, such journalistic scavenger work attracts only the lowest type of newspaper man — tipsters, stool pigeons, the base and the irresponsible.

“THE FAMOUS FERGUSON CASE” is built upon the contrast between legitimate journalism and unprincipled scandal-mongering.

Actually what The Famous Ferguson Case really deals with is the age-old movie contrast between decent, hard-working, moral country folk and evil, slimy, unscrupulous Big City people. It opens with the credits shown over a film of an old-style hand press in operation, which led Charles briefly to wonder if this was going to be a period piece in the style of Sam Fuller’s Park Row 20 years later. Instead the hand press belongs to the Cornwall Courier, the local paper of the town of Cornwall in upstate New York where the entire film takes place. Its editor and star reporter, Bruce Foster (Tom Brown, who in a bizarre change from the norms of movie casting actually looks too young for his role!), drives around in an old car whose spare-tire cover reads, “Cornwall Courier. ‘Covers Cornwall County Like The Dew.’ 2117 Paid Circulation.” He’s there at the train station to check on an incoming train when two hangers-on at the station point out a fancy car containing Marcia Ferguson (the marvelous Vivienne Osborne, pretty much wasted here in a nothing role), wife of George M. Ferguson (Purnell Pratt). Foster sees the town’s banker, Judd Brooks (Leon Waycoff, later much better known as Leon Ames and, as I’ve pointed out before, the one degree of separation between Bela Lugosi and Judy Garland: as Waycoff he was the romantic lead in Murders in the Rue Morgue and as Ames he was Judy’s father in Meet Me in St. Louis), getting out of Marcia’s car — she tells him she really doesn’t care about money, which is hard to believe given the fancy car she’s driving — and broadly hinting that they’re having an affair. Then George M. Ferguson returns home from his job in New York City in midday and he gets into his wife’s car.

Later that night, Mr. Ferguson is murdered in his home and Mrs. Ferguson is tied up. She insists that she and her husband were the victims of what would now be called a home-invasion robbery by two thugs, but the cops instantly come to the conclusion that Judd Brooks killed Mr. Ferguson and bound his wife to make it look like outsiders committed the crime. So do all the big-name reporters from New York who descend on Cornwall to cover the sensational case, impressing both Bruce and his co-worker and fiancée, Tony Martin (Adrienne Dore, who looks enough like Joan Blondell that for a while I was wondering if one of Blondell’s actress sisters was playing the role). Among them are Maizie Dickson (Joan Blondell, who doesn’t appear until this film is 20 minutes old and has surprisingly little screen time for someone of her prominence) and Bob Parks (Kenneth Thomson), an alcoholic and a womanizer who immediately sets his cap for Tony — who’s impressed not only with his attentions (especially by comparison with that twerpy boyfriend of hers!) but also his promise that he can give her an entrée to the reportorial big-time in New York and help her land a job on a well-paying New York paper. Instead of the cliché about the unscrupulous reporters chasing after each other and walking over each other to get scoops, The Famous Ferguson Case gives us the cliché of the unscrupulous reporters holing up together in a room in Cornwall’s only hotel and trading drinks, songs (at one point a group of reporters — including Blondell’s character — is doing a group sing of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and pissing off their confreres in the next room who actually want to write).

The payoff is that while all the big-city hot-shots are getting drunk, harassing Brooks’s pregnant wife and playing up to the ego of the county attorney prosecuting the case (Clarence Wilson, the marvelous villain in W. C. Fields’ movies Tillie and Gus and The Old-Fashioned Way) — one of the reporters even writes the county attorney’s closing statement for him and coaches him in how to deliver it for maximum effect — Bruce Foster (ya remember Bruce Foster?) of the Cornwall Courier is pursuing the case as if Marcia Ferguson’s account of a home invasion by outside thugs is true, writing other police departments in the area to see if they’ve got reports of similar crimes with the same M.O. Just before the county attorney is about to take the case against Mrs. Ferguson to the jury — and to put Judd Brooks on trial as her co-conspirator if Mrs. Ferguson is convicted — the Cornwall Courier breaks the story of how the real burglars were arrested in another city, and among the items found on them were a ring from the Ferguson home that linked them to George Ferguson’s murder. Kind, virtuous, incorruptible little Bruce Foster gallantly offers his story to all the New York papers for free and turns down their job offers, preferring to remain in Cornwall; Tony Martin grabs the train to New York to run off with Bob Parks — who’s somewhat the worse for wear since, in the film’s one genuinely dramatic scene, he’s been confronted by Judd Brooks, whose wife has just died in hospital after miscarrying their baby; Judd is convinced that the New York reporters hounded his wife and thereby caused her and their child’s death, and he forces Parks out of the reporters’ redoubt by holding his hand in his coat pocket to make it look like he’s got a gun in it, though after their confrontation Parks emerges bloodied but still alive — and Maizie decides to remain in Cornwall, pointing out just before the fade-out that Tony’s departure has left a vacancy on the Cornwall Courier (and, we get the impression, she’s going to fill the vacancy in Bruce Foster’s love life as well).

 The Famous Ferguson Case — directed by Warners’ ultimate hack, Lloyd Bacon, with a few impressive visual flourishes (an almost noir shot of Vivienne Osborne in a jail cell and a well-structured suspense sequence between Kenneth Thomson and Leon Waycoff — who as the desperate husband shows off acting chops well beyond most of the people in this movie and indicated how well he’d do in his subsequent career) but mostly shot pretty plainly and a good deal more slowly paced than the Warners’ norm — is a sort of bastard hybrid of Five Star Final and The Front Page, nowhere near as good as either. It’s an odd sort of failure because one doesn’t expect a Warners film from 1932, especially one about the newspaper business and with Joan Blondell as the star, to be this dull — or that the male lead who’s supposed to be the voice of reason looks like he just graduated from high school. (One can readily imagine the part being remodeled for an older actor and played by, say, Pat O’Brien — especially if they’d made him a former New York reporter who got disgusted by the antics of his big-city colleagues and decided to move to the country and buy the Cornwall Courier.)