Cagney Turns Yellow (Journalist) as the Picture Snatcher

PICTURE SNATCHER 1There’s good, classic journalism, there’s hard-hitting journalism, and then there is that old favorite of the masses, yellow journalism. Dating back to the late 19th century and a feud between the Hearst and Pulitzer New York newspapers, yellow journalism generally is defined by a sleazy and sensationalized approach to its topic– a perfect theme for a Warner Brothers quickie starring that pre-Code prince of amorality, James Cagney.

In the 1933 goodie Picture Snatcher, Jimmy plays Danny Kean, a gangster (naturally) who harbors a secret desire to be a newspaper reporter. Once he completes the obligatory detention in the clink, Danny turns over the “business” to Jerry the Mug (the dirty dog who set him up) and decides to go,  if not straight, at least not quite so crooked.

 He calls on old pal Al McLean, the editor of the bright yellow Graphic News. Now, Al is a broken down has-been who once offered Danny a job, never thinking the kid would ever take him up on it. But here’s Danny, ready and eager like a pit bull puppy. Al is played by Ralph Bellamy, who does a wonderful job as the alcoholic newsman who has fallen about as low as he can go. Danny proves his spunk by using unethical means to get a prized photo of a fireman who, having found his wife and lover dead from a fire, was refusing to come out of his smoldering home.

Danny, with his questionable ethics, fits right in at the Graphic News. When a group of journalism students shows up for a tour, Danny imparts all of his journalistic wisdom while making goo-goo eyes at one of the academic cuties (Patricia Ellis as Pat). He describes his job as tracking down the saps who don’t want their pictures in the papers. When asked which was his toughest subject, he answered “the Governor.” Why? He had to ask his pardon.

Shouldn’t someone have fired the teacher that sent those kids to the Graphic News rather than the New York Times? Just askin’…

 PICTURE SNATCHER 3Naturally, Danny falls for the classy Pat, and naturally her father is the police officer who sent Danny to the slammer in the first place. Danny fixes that little dilemma by getting another newspaper to run a glowing story about the protective pop. In fact, the story is so influential, the officer is promoted and grateful to Danny. There’s also a nice little side story with snazzy Alice White as Allison, a copy writer who romances Al and runs after Danny.

Things come to a head when a big story erupts; a woman is to be executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing , and the Graphic News staff–because of the paper’s low reputation–is not invited. Danny goes so far as to steal an invitation from another reporter which proves to be useless. But, surprise! Pat’s dad is in charge of invited guests! He sneaks Danny in and all who view the execution are reminded that no photos are allowed. Danny, who never met a rule he couldn’t bend or break, has secretly strapped a camera to his leg and snaps a picture of the fatal moment.

Danny becomes the scourge of journalism and is chased by a hoard of angry and outraged pressmen. Handing Al the prize photo, the Graphic News lives down to its reputation as the sleaziest tabloid in town. The publication of the photo leads to Pat’s dad’s demotion, so naturally Pat gives Danny the heave-ho.

Danny, who has been drowning his sorrow with some hooch, also ticks off fellow alcoholic Al when he sees faithless Allison making the moves on Danny (who is not interested). But Al soon catches on to Allison’s faithless ways and quits her, the booze and the Graphic News. All’s well that ends well, though. Danny and Al get the scoop on Danny’s old partner, Jerry the Mug. This leads to their employment at a real, legitimate newspaper, the Daily Record. Just to make things sweeter, good old dopey dad gets reinstated and Pat and Danny are reunited. Yay!

All this in 77 minutes (and filmed in 15 days)! This neat and snappy little film is a true example of the Warners “ripped-from-the headlines” school of film and is based upon a real-life picture snatcher who smuggled a camera strapped to his leg into the execution of  1920s murderess Ruth Snyder. The resulting photo was subsequently and sensationally published on the front page of the New York Daily News. For anyone who lives in New York, they can attest that the Daily News has much, still, in common with the Graphic News!

  • Movie Fan

    There’s no guarantee that making a movie on a short schedule, with limited funds, will create a masterpiece, but it often seems to help. James Cagney may have been typecast as the mob guy, but he did it very well, see?

  • Wayne P.

    A greatly underrated and classic film. Makes it easy to understand the context in which Orson Welles would get the idea for the storyline adapted from the king of yellow journalism himself, William Randolph Hearst, when it came time for Citizen Kane to make its mark on movie history. The Front Page, a much different but original precusor to His Girl Friday, also came out to some fanfare in the pre-code era. The newspaper, radio and theatre (both live and celluloid) were all Americans had for both news and entertainment, but they would get each at all three venues!