This rattling, angry Warner Brothers/First National exposé of the yellow press circa 1931 was part of a mini-cycle of cynical newspaper pictures initiated by the stage and screen success of The Front Page. Also based on a play (by Louis Weitzenkorn), this is as vicious in its depiction of the circulation-chasing staff of a big-city tabloid as the more famous film – but a lot less indulgent, playing for shocking melodrama rather than nasty laughs.
Joseph Randall (Edward G. Robinson), editor of the struggling New York Gazette, is pressured by his smarmily hypocritical proprietor Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel) and a strong-arm circulation man to cut out coverage of the League of Nations and play up ‘shopgirls in trouble’ on the front page. In this spirit, Randall rakes up a twenty-year-old scandal about Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr), who was exonerated by a jury after shooting her caddish lover – upending the new life Nancy has made for herself with loving, respectable husband (H.B. Warner). Jenny (Marian Marsh), Nancy’s innocent daughter (who didn’t know her own backstory until the presses rolled), is engaged to a well-connected young man (Anthony Bushell, later director of Terror of the Tongs and a co-star in the TV Quatermass and the Pit). Though he has a wisecracking voice of conscience in his wry, lovelorn secretary (Warners fixture Aileen Pringle), Randall unleashes his dogs – who include predatory blonde newshen Kitty Carmody (Ona Munsen) and sordid bogus reverend T. Vernon Isopod (Boris Karloff!).
Naturally, blaring headlines cause Nancy to crack up and, after her prospective in-laws huffily try to squelch the wedding and she’s spent an unproductive afternoon trying to get the publisher or the editor on the telephone, she and her husband commit suicide. As luck would have it, the bodies are discovered by Kitty and Isopod and Jenny learns her parents are dead by seeing their corpses on the front page of the Gazette. After that, even Randall knows he’s gone too far. The powerful if hokey finish finds Jenny (‘why did you kill my parents?’) and Randall delivering impassioned j’accuse speeches to the pompous bastard proprietor. It comes from the late prohibition, pre-code era, and is full of smart, cynical dialogue – when a cub reporter tells the secretary he’s thinking of changing his name, she advises against it because ‘New York is too full of Christians as it is’ – and illegal but tolerated tippling in speakeasies.
Karloff has one of his rare credible roles outside horror, as a leering lech expelled from divinity school for sexual impropriety who uses a dog-collar to worm his way into Nancy’s household and is reputed to be a dangerous man for a woman to share a taxi-ride with. Marsh, the very lovely Trilby of Svengali that year, has a role which could seem bland or shrill, and runs with it – more than holding the screen against Robinson (not easy) in their big confrontation. Like a sad number of 1930s ‘social issue’ films, it depressingly seems as relevant now as it did on its first release. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, reunited with Robinson after Little Caesar.