Hollywood's Golden Age of Fake News

From 'His Girl Friday' to 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'--Hollywood's love affair with fake news.

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If you’re watching Jeopardy! and you see this clue:

Actor from a classic movie named Grant

and your answer is "Who is Hugh?" instead of "Who is Cary?" then you are DEAD to me.

Okay, perhaps that’s too strong a reaction, but I will seriously consider snoozing you for 30 days on Facebook.

I love old black-and-white cinema. The women are beautiful, the men wear suits for every occasion and everybody speaks in that fast-paced, Mid-Atlantic accent.

And, if you catch an early 1930s talkie from the pre-Hays Code era, you're liable to see some pretty racy story lines. Apparently, people could have premarital sex back then. I wonder if my grandmother knew about this?

When I found myself home alone on a recent Saturday night, I poured a glass of Cabernet, hijacked my husband's lounge chair and watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on TCM.

This Jimmy Stewart gem is one of those films I've seen in bits and pieces, but never all the way through. In a scene toward the end, as Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith character filibusters on the Senate floor in an attempt to save his reputation, evil businessman Jim Taylor (played by Edward Arnold) plants a false story in the pages of the papers he controls.

Even though I was alone, I said out loud, "Fake news!"

In 2019, there are far too many people who refuse to admit "fake news" is a real problem. In 1939, director Frank Capra was all too aware of fake news.

Then I started thinking of other venerable flicks from the 30s and 40s that tackle the issue of fake news.

His Girl Friday immediately came to mind.

This 1939 adaptation of the 1928 Broadway smash The Front Page has, at its heart, a love story between ace reporter Hildy Johnson (played by Rosalind Russell in this iteration) and her editor and ex-husband, Walter Burns (played by Cary Grant).

For Hildy’s last assignment before remarrying, she agrees to cover the story of convicted murderer, Earl Williams. The movie’s action takes place the night before Williams’ execution.

The scenes of her fellow reporters phoning in their sensationalized version of the night’s events are hilarious yet sobering. Clearly, none of them are interested in the truth.

In Meet John Doe, the 1941 dark comedy starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, Frank Capra (again!) takes another swing at fake news.

Columnist Ann Mitchell (Stanwyck) fakes a letter from an unemployed man, “John Doe,” who threatens to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. When the public clamors for the identity of John Doe, Mitchell hires a homeless man (Cooper) to play the part.

A political movement sweeps the nation on the strength of the slogan “Be a better neighbor.” The case can be made that “Be a better neighbor” is the “Make America Great Again” of its day.

Yet another Capra classic, It Happened One Night, is more about what we now call “gonzo journalism” than fake news. But when Peter Warne (Clark Gable) meets runaway heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), he inserts himself into the story and forever alters the events. Peter Warne was Hunter Thompson before Hunter Thompson was cool.

Of course, the granddaddy of all fake news movies is 1941’s Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is a fictional character based on the real-life lives of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

Kane’s fictional New York Inquirer is the quintessential “yellow journalism” rag and Kane happily sets about manipulating public opinion.

The bridge between old journalism and new journalism is perfectly depicted in the 1958 romantic comedy Teacher’s Pet. Clark Gable plays James Gannon, an old-school editor/reporter with an eighth-grade education who falls for journalism professor Erica Stone played by Doris Day.

Stone believes reporters need a college education to properly do their job while Gannon thinks all good journalists should learn the craft while working their way up at the newspaper.

An underlying theme in this and other early films is how journalists will frequently gravitate towards “fake news” in order to sell papers. Erica Stone’s college education--with its Journalism Ethics courses--are ultimately pointless if selling newspapers and goosing circulation are the main motivating factors in reporting.

Of course, print journalism isn’t the only medium where “fake news” reigns supreme. Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd beautifully illustrates how radio and television can be used to exploit and mislead the masses.

Only when the American audience hears Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) calling them “idiots” and “trained seals” do they realize they’ve been duped by this charismatic figure.

For more than 80 years, Hollywood has made picture after picture showing the downside of fake news and yellow journalism. Today, however, we are treated to tweet after tweet from Hollywood stars who pretend “fake news” is a figment of President Trump’s imagination.

Without taking sides--or even getting remotely political--I can say that fake news, or anything resembling it, is a disservice to the American people.

Journalists have an obligation to report the facts without twisting them to conform to their ideology or the ideology of their outlet. We all are poorer when presenting the facts in an honest way is secondary to generating advertising dollars.

So the next time somebody on Facebook claims “fake news” doesn’t exist, tell them to pop some popcorn and watch an old movie.

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Comments
No. 1-2
Paul Hair
Paul Hair

Editor

AMC--back when it was American Movie Classics in the 1990s--led me to appreciate classic films. I had forgotten that I watched "His Girl Friday" and "It Happened One Night" until this post reminded me of them. Two good flicks. "Laura" with Gene Tierney was one of the first Golden Age, black and white movies that I can recall really enjoying.

Michael  Loftus
Michael Loftus

Editor

Wow! Great piece! Will share in the am. So happy you wrote this!