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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.”
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
On Amazon.com: Back Page [DVD]