Back Page (1934)

US / 63 minutes / bw / Pyramid Dir: Anton Lorenze Scr: F. McGrew Willis Story: Harry E. Chandlee, Douglas W. Churchill Cine: James S. Brown Jr. Cast: Peggy Shannon, Russell Hopton, Claude Gillingwater, Edwin Maxwell, Sterling Holloway, Rockliffe Fellowes, Richard Tucker, Bryant Washburn, David Callis, Sidney Bracey, Tola Nesmith, Harvey Clark, Maude Truax, Hayden Stevenson, Otto Hoffman.

Back Page 0 opener

New York City reporter Jerry Hampton (Shannon) has a hot story about the mistress of chain-store supremo John H. Smith (Tucker) killing herself when he dumped her, but Smith puts pressure on her paper’s proprietor, Ed Barman (Washburn), to kill the story, and Jerry’s editor, Barrows (Stevenson), fails to back her up. So she walks out.

Back Page 1 Jerry phones in the suicide story

Jerry (Peggy Shannon) phones in the suicide story.

Fellow-reporter Brice Regal (Hopton) fixes up for her to go as editor to the Apex Advocate, a small-town newspaper on the far side of the country, in California. Brice’s uncle, Martin Blake (Maxwell), President of the Apex National Bank, has an interest in the Advocate, so everything should be all right. On arrival in Apex, pop. ~8,000, however, Jerry is first of all dismayed by the rundown state of the paper—

Jerry: “Is this the Advocate office?”
Cabby: “Sure. Don’t you see the sign?
Jerry: “Well, I’d hoped it was a typographical error.”

—and then by the reaction of its owner, stuffy old stick Samuel “Sam” Webster (Gillingwater), to the fact that the Jerry he assumed was a man is in fact a woman. But Jerry uses a combination of charm and assertiveness to overrule his hidebound objections, and he agrees to give her a month’s trial.

Back Page 2 Sam is reluctant to take her on

Sam (Claude Gillingwater) is reluctant to take Jerry on, because she’s — gasp! — female.

The staff members he bequeaths to her—aside from compositor Luke Collins (Clark)—have made idleness a cultivated art. Ad manager Edgar Ashe (Bracey) whiles away the hours playing solitaire. The main preoccupation of Society Editor Gertrude Mellon (Nesmith) is getting her fingernails just right. Sports Editor Bill Giddings (Holloway) wimps around in a sort of wistful, limpwristed way—his own sport is croquet—and is extraordinarily proud of his sideline, the Over the Transom gossip column, which cryptically alludes to matters of the utmost mundanity. The Holloway passages of the movie are hardest to take and the Ashe ones are not much better; fortunately the moviemakers largely forgot about both characters maybe halfway through, thereby removing the blockages that had been stopping the movie from bubbling merrily along.

Back Page 3 Jerry pumps Nate for local info

Jerry (Peggy Shannon) pumps an adoring Nate (David Callis) for local info.

The big news in Apex is that a company is drilling for oil nearby and, with the encouragement of banker Blake, many of the locals have invested their life savings in the project. So Jerry realizes just how devastating the news is for the community when project head John Levings (Fellowes) calls in at the Advocate office one day with a statement to the effect that the test drilling has been a failure: there’s no oil there.

Jerry’s suspicious: she reckons the supposed failure is a lie, an attempt to scam the locals. She and Apex store owner Nathan “Nate” Young (Callis), whom she charmed into quadrupling his advertising with the Advocate and who adores her even in the sure knowledge that his love will never be requited, were out at the well site earlier in the day and everything seemed to be going fine. When Martin Blake tells her that, purely out of the generosity of his heart, he’s planning to find a way to buy out the local investors’ stock for at least a fraction of its cost so they won’t be entirely ruined, Jerry’s suspicions escalate yet further. She publishes an edition of the Advocate that blows the whole scam wide open.

Back Page 5 Blake preparing to shenaniganize

Blake (Edwin Maxwell) prepares to shenaniganize.

Blake’s response is to call in Sam Webster’s debt on the Advocate, planning to take it over himself. The management of the paper he intends to put into the hands of his nephew Brice, who’s by now traveled from NYC to Apex because he’s can’t bear to be without Jerry. Jerry herself, Blake deems, can stay on as editor.

He doesn’t reckon with the fact that Jerry has other ideas. When John H. Smith—he of the suicided mistress—arrives in town threatening to open up a store that will destroy Nate Young’s family business, Jerry realizes it’s time for drastic action . . .

Back Page 6 Blake puts the screws on Sam

Blake (Edwin Maxwell) puts the screws on Sam (Claude Gillingwater).

As intimated, some of the supposedly comic business with Holloway slows the movie up horrendously in places, but the sequences concerned use up altogether only a few minutes—it just feels like longer—and the rest of the piece has a tremendous zest to it that more than makes up for these longueurs. In greatest measure this is because of Peggy Shannon in the lead role; it’s mightily depressing to learn that just a few years later, in 1941, she died of an alcohol-induced heart attack aged only 34. Here, though, she’s tremendously vibrant, personable and of course startlingly lovely. It can’t have been too long after this that the drink started inexorably destroying her career. Her surviving (second) husband, cameraman Albert G. Roberts, committed suicide just a few weeks after her death, in order to “join her.”

Back Page 7 somewhere

The other stalwart in the cast is Gillingwater, as crusty old Sam Webster. By this stage in his career Gillingwater, who in 1927 had been a founding member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, was mainly reduced to character roles—which is what in essence his part is here, however central it might be to the story. In fact, in playing the curmudgeonly yet remediable Sam he was acting a few years older than his true age, 64. A couple of years after this movie, while filming Florida Special (1936), he suffered a serious accident from which he never fully recovered; he died in 1939.

Back Page 8 Luke grins because the presses are already rolling for the 2nd extra

Compositor Luke (Harvey Clark) grins as the presses roll for yet another special edition.

Jerry’s final resolution of all the corruption that’s been going down in Apex is perhaps clever, in a B-movie sort of a way, but, looked at from the perspective of the real world, it’s decidedly reprehensible. To stop Smith destroying Nate and Blake from tearing Sam’s life work away from him, she threatens the two plutocrats with an extra edition of the newspaper featuring Smith’s lovenest suicide scandal and Blake’s plot to defraud stockholders. If the former agrees not to open a store in Apex and latter signs the paper back to Sam, she’ll kill both stories. Of course, this is (a) extortion and (b) in open defiance of all journalistic integrity. But this is Poverty Row, and we look for any halfway sensible finale we can get . . .

Back Page 4 Brice and Jerry reunited

Brice (Russell Hopton) and Jerry (Peggy Shannon) reunited.

Back Page is amiable rather than exceptional, and could be criticized on any number of grounds, yet it’s well worth watching if for no other reason than the enchanting performance in the lead of an actress who could have achieved so much had it not been for her inner demons.

Back Page 9 closer

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This is a contribution toward Rich Westwood’s “Crimes of the Century” feature on his Past Offences blog. The year chosen for consideration in June 2015 is 1934.

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On Amazon.com: Back Page [DVD]

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17 thoughts on “Back Page (1934)

    • Four movies and three books. I, ah, got a bit carried away.

      Not sure how much I’ll be able to do for next month. I’ve a couple of deadlines to (try to) meet.

      • Will do, John. It may well be a few weeks before I get a chance to watch it. Work is a bit crazy right now as I’m working a few evenings (and Wimbledon has just started), but I’ll let you know. 🙂

        • and Wimbledon has just started

          I know, I know. And I have the added worry of the Ashes coming along. Getting any work AT ALL done around here is going to be difficult!

    • Golly — a depressing roster!

      it may have been even worse in the 1920s and 1930s

      I think you’re absolutely right. Of course, advances in medical science, vaccination, etc., have made a difference too.

      I can’t count the number of times, while watching older movies for this site, that I’ve thought, “That actor/actress is damn’ good, wonder why I’ve never heard of them?” only to discover they didn’t make it through their thirties.

  1. Such a tragic story about Peggy Shannon – and her husband.

    One thing I like about films from the early 30s, is the strong female character. Based on your review, Shannon’s character seems to be the smartest person in the room, and I don’t see that kind of female character in film today.

    • Shannon’s character seems to be the smartest person in the room

      She is by a long way — to the extent that the boyfriend seems an absolutely unnecessary character: he’s there only because, I guess, the scripters felt they had to have a leading man.

      I don’t see that kind of female character in film today

      I think they’re there. In many of Angelina Jolie’s movies, for example, there’s no doubt as to who’s the clever one. Let me come back to this later when I’m not so pressed for time.

        • Oh, golly, never seen The Avengers? I didn’t know that was possible! 🙂 You’re in for a big treat. Forget about the later New Avengers series: the ones to go for are the (middle-period) Diana Rigg ones. The earlier Honor Blackman series was perfectly fine as a fringe spy/thriller show, but when Rigg came on the scene everything became far more surreal and wonderful.

        • Oh, yes, and forget about the recentish movie, too: a desperate disappointment. One of those awful examples of Hollywood thinking that bigger and louder and more expensive is better. Macnee and Rigg triumphed in cheap sets that almost flaunted their cheapness because of a great chemistry and the obvious intelligence of both the actors and the scripts they were acting.

  2. Pingback: Paper Orchid (1949) | Noirish

  3. Pingback: Back Page (1934) Review, with Peggy Shannon – Pre-Code.Com

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