Walter Huston … Wickland Snell
Kay Francis … Myra May (as Katherine Francis)
Charles Ruggles … Charlie Haven
Betty Lawford … Dorothy Snell
Norman Foster … Ted Hanley
Duncan Penwarden … Mr. Higgenbottom
Lawrence Leslie … Red
Harry Lee … Copy-desk editor
Directed by Millard Webb.
Produced by Monta Bell.
Based on the play by Ward Morehouse.
Screenplay by Bartlett Cormack.
Cinematography by George J. Folsey.
Film Editing by Mort Blumenstock.
A Paramount Picture.
Released May 11, 1929.
“So, we all immediately went to Tony’s,” Ward Morehouse, writer of Gentlemen of the Press, reminisced years later about the casting of Myra May in the film version of his stage play. “And in the haze of that famous backroom we found Kay Francis. She was resting comfortably behind a Tom Collins. She was tall, dark, and interesting-looking but had made far more appearances at Tony’s than she had on the Broadway stage…Her career began that very day.”
Actually, there are a few stories about how Kay Francis received her film debut. The Morehouse version is one. Another states that Kay, involved with the director, Millard Webb, just asked for it. Another states that Walter Huston, Kay’s “Elmer the Great” costar, got it for her. Whatever the case, Gentlemen of the Press was Kay Francis’ movie debut, and what a strong impact she had on moviegoers of the time.
Kay’s stage career had been legit. Though she clearly was no Ruth Chatterton or Ethel Barrymore, her pre-Hollywood stage career was actually busier than that of Bette Davis, and hits like “Crime” and “Elmer the Great” had made her popular enough with reviewers and audiences to draw attention from Hollywood.
But make no mistake. Katherine Francis was by no means a star.
Her affair with the director of the movie had a lot to do with her impact in the production. Kay was given a great deal of camera time, second billing, and great scenes with Walter Huston and her other costars. The “office vamp” had made such an impact with a reviewer for Photoplay, the magazine credited her with one of the greatest film debuts in the history of the movies.
Strangely enough, Kay wanted no part of the movies from the very beginning. She was convinced her screen test was hideous, and that her voice was too rugged and harsh. What she didn’t understand was that her intense looks and personality made her the perfect candidate for the “vamp of talking pictures.” Silent screen legends Theda Bara and Pola Negri (Kay’s favorite movie star) had triumphed by destroying the lives of hundreds of men. With both ladies a thing of the past, Kay Francis—with Myrna Loy and Greta Garbo—became one of the stars who turned the silent vamp into something different in talking films. Now they were out of the exotic locations and into the heart of every-day American life.
For one reason or another, audiences loved this stuff at the time. It was typecasting from there-on for Kay Francis.
Gentlemen of the Press was produced by Monta Bell, the same director at Metro Goldwyn Mayer who had made a major star out of Norma Shearer in films like The Snob (1924), Lady of the Night (1925), and Upstage (1926). The film, a minor production, scored well with critics, though most agreed that it lacked a real climax. The Huston-Francis teaming worked so well, though, that they were teamed again in three more movies: The Virtuous Sin (1930), Storm At Daybreak (1933), and Always in My Heart (1942).
As for Millard Webb, his affair with Kay ended soon after the film’s completion, and he directed five more movies before his death on April 21, 1935 of an intestinal ailment.
Wickland Snell is a newspaper reporter who allows his work to overrun his personal life. As a result of chasing stories around, he hasn’t seen his daughter in eight years. She’s just graduated, and is now coming to New York to finally build the relationship with her father that she was denied her entire life.
Working late one night, California native Myra May storms into the office, demanding to see the editor. Snell informs her that he isn’t here, and she says she is suing the paper for—well, first $50,000, with the amount going up to $150,000 before Snell can finally calm her down. Her and Snell make eyes with one another, and he asks about her profession. She tells him that she’s a secretary, and asks Snell to call on her for services some time.
“I’m not an ordinary secretary,” she seductively whispers to him.
Snell has accepted a job working for the National Mausoleum Society, and decides to take Myra on board with him.
Dorothy Snell, Wick’s daughter, walks into the office with her husband, Ted Hanley, who is also in the newspaper business. Just as they make plans to do something, a story comes in that a Bishop has just died, and it’s right back to the typewriter for old Snell.
Mr. Higgenbottom, Snell’s new boss, decides to throw a press conference. Snell assigns Myra as the hostess of the party, and when Dorothy and Ted show up, Myra pulls Ted aside into another room, where she beings to come onto him. Just as Dorothy goes to get him so they can go apartment hunting, she sees them, and acts as if nothing has happened.
Wick’s work with the Mausoleum Society turns sour, and he quits, returning to his typewriter and newspaper life. When his daughter becomes pregnant, he decides that he needs to give up Myra, becoming even more enraged when he catches Ted kissing her.
“All I’ve got to do is look at Ted Hanley and I’ve got him,” she announces. Snell apologizes, and says he’s just jealous because he wants Myra only for himself. She forgives him, and the two carry on.
Dorothy has a baby boy, and Wick gets the call from Ted, also learning that the doctors are worried about Dorothy’s health. Like always, the typewriter and newspaper headlines distract Wick, and as a hot story comes in, and he ignores the phone call from his daughter.
She dies before Wick can get to her, and his advice for an aspiring Gentlemen of the Press is to get out of the trade as soon as possible. “Do anything, get out of it quick before it poisons you.”
This film reminds me of that Harry Chapin song. You know, “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” It’s different than the other early talking films. A lot of them were musicals produced in two-strip Technicolor, but this is meant to be a serious melodrama about one of the most popular trades of the time.
Though there isn’t a lot of action here, I like this one. First of all, it’s Kay’s big movie debut, and she does a real great job with her “Office Vamp” role. There’s no sympathy, either, and it’s so obvious why she was so welcomed by the critics when she first started making movies. There are no signs that she is an amateur.
Either this can be a credit to her talent, or a sign that there is a major difference between the acting for silent pictures and sound. She performs just as well as Garbo, Shearer, and Crawford did in their first talking films, and maybe we can credit this to her five years as a stage actress before she was cast in this movie.
On top of a capable performance as the sex object, she’s costumed in fine flapper-wear. Unlike the other vamps of her time, Kay managed to link the flapper fashions into her character’s lives, which is why she became so popular so quickly. She was a sex object of her time in real life, acting in modern dramas; she wasn’t cast as Cleopatra or Salome.
Walter Huston, an actor, not a leading man, does well with playing a man addicted to his job. Even as his daughter is on the phone with him, dying and mumbling her final words, he is so distracted by the press that he hardly pays attention.
Most of the actors speak well, especially Kay, considering she could be difficult to hear in a lot of her first sound movies. Her soft voice can seldom be heard in a lot of her early movies, but in this one she is pretty clear.
My print of this has a light blue-tint to the black and white photography, and it was in pretty good condition. Although these early sound movies can be difficult to sit through, as I had written above I like this one, and think that Millard Webb did a fine job of directing. Yes, some scenes run a little long. Yes, there is some unnecessary camera time for unimportant players, but for the most part it is one of the better of the early talking films, because it talks a different approach by focusing on real people in every-day life.
Filmed at the Paramount Astoria Studio in New York, you won’t catch any of the Hollywood glam here. It has an authentic, East Coast Metropolitan feel to it.
I know, I was born and raised in New Jersey, not even fifteen minutes from the city.
A generally amusing and creditable piece of talking film fiction has been produced from Ward Morehouse’s play, “Gentlemen of the Press,” in which the rôle of the inevitable dyed-in-the-wool rewrite man, Wickland Snell, played on the stage by John Cromwell, is acted by Walter Huston. It is a dialogue effusion in which the players appear frequently to be waiting for a signal before they speak their lines. These hushed interludes, brief though they may be, cause some discomfort, for it is quite evident that the characters are not thinking of what they are going to say.
The setting of the city room is more reminiscent of that of a very small country paper rather than that of a metropolitan daily. The reporters and others are an improvident lot, sneering at life, greedy and eager for food and alcohol. Of course, no newspaper man by any chance ever refers to a “death watch” without cracking jokes about the dying individual, and once a reporter is intoxicated he stays intoxicated, this being an expedient that permits one of the culprits in this talking version of the romantic sketch to forget on which paper he is working. It is an incident that recalls Richard Harding Davis’s story, “The Derelict,”
This film generated laughter in the Paramount Theatre, particularly when one of the reporters gathers in enough sandwiches to last him for three or four meals.
Wickland Snell staggers his colleagues with the big news that he has been offered a publicity job at $15,000 a year. One can readily imagine how the writers who have been passing a $5 bill from one to another feel on hearing that the speedy Mr. Snell is coming into his own.
Mr. Higginbottom, the real estate operator with ulterior motives, is impersonated by Duncan Penwarden, who also played the part before the footlights. Here he is working frightfully hard to get the public interested in having mausoleums instead of cemetaries. He doesn’t quite trust his “big story” to his publicity promoter and the idea is a flop. Mr. Snell gives Mr. Higginbottom a piece of his mind and then the rewrite man decides to return to his old job.
Mr. Penwarden gives a clever performance. Mr. Huston also does well in the major part. His voice registers naturally and he lends enthusiasm to the rôle. Betty Lawford is attractive and competent as Snell’s daughter. Katherine Francis overacts the conspiring Myra May.
Rudy Vallee and his band are seen in the surrounding program in Jack Partington’s stage offering, “Fifth Avenue.”
A Newspaper Play.
Published in the New York Times, May 13, 1929.