Employing my usual lopsided sense of urgency, I announce my transformation from weekly to monthly columnist with a timely (ha!) review of my favorite film. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to find it at your local cinema, because “Johnny Come Lately” came out in 1943.
It was produced by and stars one of the best: James Cagney.
Why review that particular movie? Why now? Why today?
Because it is about newspapers, newspapermen (one of whom was a woman), small towns, corruption, courage, integrity, poetry, and the freedom of the press.
And because I am in a sentimental mood about the newspaper you are holding in your hands (or reading on a computer) right this minute – The Evening Sun.
Here’s the story.
The year is 1906. Times are tough, money is scarce, and James Cagney, an ex-newspaper man, has dropped out of society. He rides the rails, a carefree, literate hobo who has recently arrived in town.
The literate part is important because, just as he is laughing over a passage in The Pickwick Papers, Vinnie McLeod, the old lady who publishes The Shield and Banner, comes upon him lolling in the town square. First, she tells Cagney that she met Charles Dickens fifty years ago; then she warns him that if he doesn’t leave quickly, he will be arrested for vagrancy.
Fast-forward a few hours. Vinnie is in court, gathering news on the day’s arrests when, as she had anticipated, Cagney is brought before the bench. She can only save him from being sentenced to a road gang by persuading the judge that, far from being a vagrant, she has just hired Cagney to work at her newspaper.
Meanwhile, Vinnie McLeod has been selling off heirlooms and valuables in a desperate attempt to save The Shield and Banner from insolvency because Dougherty, the town boss who owns a rival newspaper, is pressuring the bank to call in her mortgage and bankrupt her.
Then, all sorts of things happen at once. Dougherty tells Vinnie that if she doesn’t print his version of the truth (retch ... gag) on her paper’s front page, he will drive her out of business; the local (and loveable) town madam is forced to pay Dougherty protection money; revenues are stolen from the town coffers, and so on. All of which is complicated by Dougherty’s son being in love with Vinnie’s niece; the madam’s ex-boyfriend being a powerful politician; Vinnie’s loyal maid giving Cagney Vinnie’s autobiography; Willie, an inebriated reporter, befriending a renegade mouse; and Cagney not really wanting to stay in town and fight Vinnie’s battle.
But,of course, he does. Because he is James Cagney. Because he is rough, tough, scruffy, pugnacious, and indomitable.
There is a wonderful scene in the movie when Cagney, invited to stay in Vinnie’s old Victorian mansion, walks into the living room and sees the portrait of a beautiful young woman over the mantel. He looks up at the painting; he looks down at the feisty woman standing at his side.
“You?” He asks.
She nods. “Fifty years ago.”
And that is the beginning of an exhilarating partnership between James Cagney, the new managing editor of The Shield and Banner, and Vinnie McLeod his valiant boss. Together, they remake the newspaper, enflame resistance, organize protests, dodge bullets, break out of jail, and ultimately destroy Dougherty and his gang,
Superman. Zorro. The Lone Ranger. After helping good to triumph over evil, they always leave town. As, of course, Cagney must do as well. He is a man who hears the call of the road and the siren song of the rails. But before he leaves, he glances at the painting of Vinnie over the mantle. The look in his eyes tells us that in the beautiful young woman of long ago, he sees the beautiful old lady with whom he has just won the day. And somehow, we know that, but for the fifty-year gap, he would have stayed.
I love that movie! I love newspapers. I love crusading journalists. I love the idea of independent publishers and intrepid editors.
I love the freedom of the press.
Speaking of which, the newspaper you are reading right now is just about as close to the fictional Shield and Banner as you are ever going to get. It is rare, exuberant, remarkable. It is able to fight for what it believes while giving expression to all reasonable ideas. It has variety, humor, intelligence, and community spirit.
And above all, on the first Thursday of each month (write this down in your calendar), it also has … me!
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2009, Shelly Reuben