When keyboards were keyboards: James Stewart on the story in "Call Northside 777."

We loves us our newspaper movies for obvious reasons, with Steven Spielberg's current and sublimely timed "The Post" the latest addition to a limited but mostly honorable genre.

Those of us with a deep sentimental streak for old-school, ink-stained print journalism usually veer to the work of the most informed playwright and Hollywood scribe of them all: Ben Hecht, who famously covered the Chicago underbelly for the Chicago Journal and the Chicago Daily News from his teens into his young manhood.

You can do no better to acquaint yourself with this stretch of Hecht's life than via his deep-dish 1954 memoir, "A Child of the Century," which last saw print in a 1985 reissue (still out there if you're willing to pay for the privilege).

Hecht's career calling card, 1928's stage hit "The Front Page," co-authored with Charles MacArthur, was committed to film twice within 12 years of its Broadway success: as a straight-up, early-talkie transcription in 1931 and as a brilliantly gender-tweaked re-do from director Howard Hawks in 1940, "His Girl Friday" with Cary Grant as editor Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as his sex-changed star reporter, Hildy Johnson.

We never tire of revisiting Hecht-MacArthur's madcap Chicago-set play in either form, though, predictably, the law of diminishing returns began to take hold with two more unnecessary times out: Billy Wilder's shrill 1974 Lemmon-Matthau retread of "The Front Page," followed in 1988 by the deflatable Burt Reynolds-Kathleen Turner redo of "His Girl Friday," as "Switching Channels" (yes, uprooted, unwisely, from print to airwaves).

For a laughs-free, purely nuts-and-bolts look at the world of print journalism in its most committed mode (elected "fake news" screamers be damned), our go-to newspaper movie remains another Chicago-set gem. 

Where all four film versions of "The Front Page" were dialogue-driven, studio-shot affairs, 1947's "Call Northside 777" was the first movie, newspaper or otherwise, to finally get the Windy City up on the screen in all its gritty, ethnic glory.

More than 70 years later, it remains one of the two or three finest films about the art of investigative reporting ever made, and an unsung classic in the canon of its leading man, James Stewart, in his follow-up film to "It's a Wonderful Life."

Once again, the darker, post-war Jimmy finds it's not always such a wonderful life where everyone is concerned.

Inspired by the success of location-shot, post-war Italian imports such as "The Bicycle Thieves" and "Open City," Hollywood decided to abandon the studio back lots and move out into the streets of American cities to film true-life stories in their actual locations.

The first of these films, 1945's "The House on 92nd Street," an espionage docudrama directed by Henry Hathaway entirely in New York City, was a major critical and popular success.

Hathaway followed up the film two years later with another factual thriller, "Call Northside 777," drawn from the work of Chicago Times reporter James P. McGuire, whose reportage helped free two imprisoned men falsely accused and convicted in a Chicago policeman's slaying 11 years earlier.

Stewart is perfect as the cynical journalist, at first skeptical as he follows up on a classified ad placed by an old scrubber woman, who is offering a reward to anyone who can prove the innocence of her son (Richard Conte), currently serving a life term.

Urged on by his editor (Lee J. Cobb), Stewart takes to the streets of Chicago, trying to ferret out the murky details in the 11-year-old case, to the point where it starts consuming his every waking hour.

Engrossing and endlessly atmospheric in the stark late-1940s film noir style, "Call Northside 777" was the first film to get the native feel of Chicago down on film with a tangible, unvarnished realism ... particularly the city's Polish stockyard sector, as Stewart's reporter ferrets out witnesses and information from a succession of tawdry saloons, grubby tenements and police precinct stations, all filmed on location.

Adding to the film's authenticity are scenes shot closer to home here, including the Stateville prison in Joliet.

In addition, there are several script references to Springfield and other downstate locales, all of which serves to suggest that, for once, Illinois, as an entity existing outside the confines of Los Angeles, was done right by Hollywood.

Once a nearly annual programming staple on Chicago's WGN, "Call Northside 777's" availability these days is largely courtesy its 2004 DVD release as part of Fox Home Video's Fox Film Noir line (we'll take a Blu-ray release anytime you're ready, Fox). 

'Post'-it note: From the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's Facebook page comes the news — new to us — that the cast of "The Post" contains not one, but two, ISF veterans: Pat Healy (an alum of the 1992 season) who plays the role of Washington Post editorial page editor Philip Geyelin, and B-N native David Aaron Baker (part of the 1982 and 1983 seasons), cast as law professor and Constitution scholar Alexander Bickel. Both men are also Illinois State University alums.

Dan Craft is Pantagraph entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-829-9000, Ext. 259 or via email at



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