Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Famous Ferguson Case

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

The Famous Ferguson Case (WB, 1932) – Director: Lloyd Bacon. Writers: Harvey F. Thew, Courtney Terrett, & Granville Moore (adaptation & dialogue). Courtney Terrett (story). Stars: Joan Blondell, Grant Mitchell, Vivienne Osborne, Adrienne Dore, Tom Brown, Kenneth Thomson, Leslie Fenton, Oscar Apfel, Clarence Wilson, Walter Miller, Purnell Pratt, Willard Robertson, George Meeker, Russell Hopton, J. Carrol Naish, Russell Simpson, George “Spanky” McFarland, Miriam Seegar, & Leon Ames. B&W, 74 minutes.

In keeping with its policy of basing its films on the headlines of the day, Warner Bros takes on the problem of “yellow journalism” in The Famous Ferguson Case, a film that starts strong, but despite some nice flourishes along the way, loses its focus. That, combined with some less than inspired direction from Lloyd Bacon, turns it into another dull programmer. Worse, it wastes a fine performance by its star, Joan Blondell, by attempting to turn from a star vehicle to an ensemble piece.

As with other films about social issues, such as their gangster pictures, Warner Bros. decided the subject matter to be important enough to rate an official foreword. Also, the studio didn’t want to risk offending the press at large, considering how important a friendly press was for business. The film leads off with this disclaimer:

This story deals with a certain phase of newspaper work. The STANDARD DICTIONARY defines news as: "Fresh information concerning something that has recently taken place." 

But quite frequently events occur which by their nature are so sensational – from the angle of sex, violence, the standing of the parties involved, or what not – that they are reported in some newspapers long after there is any "fresh information" and when nothing at all "has recently taken place.” 

Legitimate newspapers recognize this fact. They report real developments, and stop there. But others, pandering to the lowest tastes of the public, prolong such cases to the last degree. When news fails, they try to make news. As long as a shred of carcass remains, they feast upon it. Naturally, such journalistic scavenger work attracts only the lowest type of newspaper man – tipsters, stool pigeons, the base and the irresponsible. "THE FAMOUS FERGUSON CASE" is built upon the contrast between legitimate journalism and unprincipled scandal-mongering.

Now that the studio has taken itself off the hook, so to speak, the film begins. We open in Cornwall, New York, a small town somewhere upstate. Driving about in an old car is Bruce Foster (Brown), the editor and star reporter of the Cornwall Courier, the town’s newspaper. 

He arrives at the train station to check on an incoming train when two onlookers turn his attention to a fancy car containing one Marcia Ferguson (Osborne), the wife of Wall Street financier George M. Ferguson (Pratt). Foster sees the town’s banker, Judd Brooks (Ames), exit the car, and the verbal byplay between the two hints of an affair. When the incoming train arrives, who should disembark but George himself, home at midday and mildly surprised to find his wife waiting for him.

Later that night, there’s an altercation at the Ferguson home. The police find George has been murdered and Marcia tied up. Marcia’s story is that two men broke into their home and robbed them, but the police are skeptical as there’s a lack of evidence to that fact, and arrest Marsha for murder.

Foster writes a story about the murder that finds its way to the New York City papers, triggering a virtual invasion of reporters from the big city’s dailies. The film portrays them as an invading army, as they commandeer the local hotel and make it their headquarters. We soon learn the reporters are divided into two groups: the serious papers, led by Martin Collins (Mitchell), and the tabloid reporters, led by Bob Parks (Thomson) and Perrin (Fenton). Maizie Dickson (Blondell) is with the latter group and functions as a sob sister and Parks’ girlfriend.

While the serious reporters are chasing the facts in the chase, the tabloid reporters are manufacturing their own story, which revolves around banker Brooks murdering Ferguson at the behest of his lover, Marsha. The film now divides itself, showing the war between the two groups. While the serious reporters are busy writing, the tabloid group is partying and womanizing, especially Parks, who has set his roving eye on Toni Martin (Dore), Foster’s co-worker and fiancée. 

Toni falls for Parks’ lines about his wife being an invalid and his promise of an entrée into a reporter’s job in New York. Maizie tries to set her straight, but Toni is hooked, accusing Maizie of jealousy, and dumps young Bruce straightaway.

In search of anything to back their theory of conspiracy, Parks and Perrin visit the home of Judd Brooks and talk to his wife (Seegar), who is in the late stages of pregnancy. They hurl insinuations and charges at the distraught woman, who knows nothing of what is going on. After they leave she faints and is taken to the hospital.

Not satisfied, Parks and Perrin, along with some of the other tabloid reporters, descend on the county attorney (Wilson), flattering his ego while convincing him to play along with them. One of the reporters, Rusty Callahan (Hopton) even writes his closing statement while Parks coaches him on how to deliver it.

While this is going on, Foster has quietly looked into the case. Believing Marsha’s account of the break-in, he writes to other police departments in the area to see if they have any reports of similar crimes using the same m.o. Just before the county attorney is about to put the case to the jury and put Judd Brooks on trial as a co-conspirator if the jury convicts Mrs. Ferguson, Foster and the Cornwall Courier break the story about how the real perpetrators were arrested in another city. Found in their possession was a ring from the Ferguson home that linked them with Ferguson’s murder.

Foster offers his story free of charge to the New York papers. Just after the story breaks, the reporters learn that Mrs. Brooks has died in childbirth. The distraught Brooks shows up at the hotel, and holding his hand in his coat pocket to make everyone believe he has a gun, forces Parks out into the alley, where he beats him up. We also learn that Marcia Ferguson is suing for false imprisonment and impeachment charges have been filed against the county attorney. 

Foster, the hero of the hour, is besieged with job offers in New York, but turns them down to remain in Cornwall. As the train departs for the city, it’s missing a passenger – Maizie. Thoroughly disenchanted with the ethics of her co-workers, she decides to remain in town. But Toni takes her place, just catching the train, and leaving Cornwall and Bruce Foster behind. As the train departs, and as the film fades out, Maizie reminds Bruce that Toni’s departure has left a vacancy on the Courier’s staff and we are left with the distinct impression that she will fill the vacancy in both the paper and Bruce’s life.

Beyond the headlines mentioned in the film, the subtext of The Famous Ferguson Case is the contrast between the honest, hard-working people upstate and the jaded, cynical people from the Big City. While Foster is at first in awe of the reporters from the Big Apple, he catches on rapidly as they use him to do most of their legwork. Brown portrays Foster as the kid reporter who also owns the paper, driving around in a battered old car on whose spare-tire cover is written: “Cornwall Courier. ‘Covers Cornwall County Like the Dew.’ 2117 paid circulation.” His fiancée, Toni, is played by Dore as a hick itching to get out of this burg and experience the bright lights of the big city.

When Foster disagrees with the conclusion to the case reached by the tabloid reporters, they simply write him off and discard him by the wayside. But while they play, Foster keeps digging; the theory of a lovers’ conspiracy holds no attraction for him. He knows the county inside and out, including the Fergusons, and finds Marsha’s story credible and worth checking out. His honest work eventually pays off in the capture of the real culprits while the tabloid reporters’ efforts leave them with egg on their face, but not for long, as they beat a hasty retreat on the train to search for their next story – and victim.

The most puzzling thing about the movie is the treatment of its star, Joan Blondell. Although she’s billed right below the title, we don’t see her until after about 15 to 20 minutes have elapsed. And despite the star treatment, her character seems to be just another supporting player in what is really an ensemble film. She does manage to acquit herself well in the little time given her, getting off a few snappy lines. 

If not for her billing, one might get the impression that Kenneth Thomson (Bob Parks) is the star based on screen time allotted. The other outstanding performance is that of Leon Ames as Judd Brooks. Billed in the film as “Leon Waycoff” (he changed his last name to “Ames” in 1936), he treads a fine line in the scene where, distraught, he crashes the reporters’ party at the hotel, playing the scene with just the right tone of emotion rather than reverting to the familiar tack of chewing the scenery. 

Despite its intentions, The Famous Ferguson Case falls prey to pedestrian direction from Lloyd Bacon, which keeps it from being a first-rate melodrama along the lines of Five-Star Final. We just aren’t expecting a film with this subject and coming from this studio to be so dull, despite the presence of Blondell.

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