By Alison Kerr

AS critics are observing, there couldn’t be a more appropriate time for Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post. The story of how the Washington Post defied President Nixon by publishing classified papers about the Vietnam war, it is particularly relevant in these troubling, Trumpian times. But it’s more than that. It is also a throwback to a genre which is routinely overlooked but is as quintessentially American as the gangster movie and the western – the newspaper movie.

The banter of the newsroom spawned snappy dialogue in screwball comedies in the 1930s, while the investigative nature of journalism has produced such cracking based-on-a-true story films as the benchmark newspaper movie of the modern age, All the President’s Men (1976), which was, of course, about the Watergate scandal – the Washington Post’s scoop of the century (and the film to which The Post is essentially a prequel).

The newspaper is an obvious setting for a Hollywood movie. In its heyday all human life could be found there, and the pace – leisurely and laidback at the beginning of the day, frantic and frenetic as deadlines approach – is quite unlike the pace of most other workplaces.

Many of the best have been based on true stories: after all, this was – like the gangster movie – a genre born out of topicality. Take, for example, the recent nail-biter Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic church’s cover-up of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests. Or go right back to the 1933 James Cagney comedy Picture Snatcher which was based on the scandal surrounding the New York Daily News's secretly snatched photograph of murderess Ruth Snyder in the electric chair.

Equally, some of the most memorable characters were inspired by real people, proof that newspaper people are not only excellent sniffers-out of stories, but great material in themselves. It took only a handful of tyrannical editors to furnish Hollywood with enough material to create the standard kick-ass editor we see in everything from His Girl Friday (1940) to Superman (1978).

Indeed, one of the very first newspaper movies, Five Star Final (1931), was written by the former editor of one of New York's most salacious rags, The Evening Graphic (fondly known as the Pornographic), and the writers of the most famous newspaper comedy The Front Page/His Girl Friday – Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur – had been newspapermen.

The genre came about as a result of coincidence. The 1920s had been a boom time for the newspaper and magazine industry in America. A new style of tabloid emerged in the 1920s: the sensationalistic rag which shied away from no topic and which would publish pictures of murder victims, suicides, illicit lovers caught offguard – anything to titillate the readership. There was no level to which these papers wouldn't stoop for a scoop. And the truth was rarely newsworthy.

Against this backdrop came the talking picture, and Hollywood suddenly found itself in need of snappy, realistic dialogue. Audiences, reeling from the Depression, demanded films which tackled the problems facing society. Prohibition and gangsters quickly became favoured topics, and movies set in newspapers were seen as the perfect vehicles for discussions about corruption, crime, and poverty. The role of newspapers themselves could be dealt with in this new genre, and there was plenty of comic material in the crazy stunts pulled off by some of the tabloids to increase circulation.

Who could forget the moment in His Girl Friday when Walter and Hildy reminisce about the time they stole old Aggie Haggerty's stomach off the coroner's table. "We proved she'd been poisoned, didn't we, Walter?''

By the era in which The Post is set, the journalistic standards may have been much higher but the excitement of the chase, the race to the deadline, the camaraderie and the thrill of the scoop remained the same. Or, as Tom Hanks – playing Post editor Ben Bradlee – puts it, “My God, the fun!”.


While the central female in The Post is the publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who doesn’t venture much into the newsroom, the newspaper movie is one of the few genres which showed women as men's equals in the workplace from day one.

In 1931, the year in which the genre broke through, Fay Wray starred as a hotshot reporter battling corruption in The Finger Points. Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis and Joan Blondell followed her in a run of 1930s newspaper movies.

The most popular film version of the hit Broadway play The Front Page was the second one, His Girl Friday, in which ace reporter Hildy Johnson was rewritten as a woman and played with great panache by Rosalind Russell. These roles were among the best that Hollywood had to offer women in the first decade of talkies, since the characters were – by necessity, since they were operating in a male-dominated environment – feisty and street-smart.