Monday, April 29, 2024

The Famous Ferguson Case (1932)

The Famous Ferguson Case is a pre-code movie from First National Pictures that is both a murder mystery and a newspaper story.

It begins in the sleepy American town of Cornwall. Marcia Ferguson (Vivienne Osborne) is perhaps getting a bit too friendly with bank cashier Judd Brooks. They’re both married, but not to each other. Marcia Ferguson’s husband arrives back in town unexpectedly. 

That night Mr Ferguson is murdered. Mrs Ferguson is found bound and gagged. She tells the sheriff that two men broke in and killed her husband. The sheriff has a few doubts about her story but there is absolutely no solid evidence against either Mrs Ferguson or Judd Brooks.

Bruce Foster (Tom Brown) is a wet behind the ears cub reporter on the town’s newspaper, The Cornwall Courier. He does know enough to know this is a big story and he sends it off to a major New York paper. By the next day Cornwall is overrun with New York reporters.

They’re not a very inspiring lot. They’re out for a sensational story and being reporters they don’t care if the story has any truth to it as long as it will sell newspapers. If they don’t look like getting a sufficiently sensational story they’ll manufacture one. They decide that the story they want is that Mrs Ferguson and Judd Brook were the murderers. It’s a sensational story, combining sensationalism and salaciousness. They manipulate the county attorney into charging Mrs Ferguson with murder. They don’t care if she’s innocent or guilty as long as they get the story.

There’s certainly a murder mystery plot here but the main focus is on the appalling behaviour of the press. These reporters give the word cynicism a whole new meaning.

There are romantic dramas being played out as well. The most unscrupulous and unethical of the reporters is sleazy alcoholic Bob Parks (Kenneth Thomson). He’s set his sights on young Bruce’s girlfriend Toni (Adrienne Dore) who is also a reporter on The Cornwall Courier. Bob Parks already has a girlfriend, fellow reporter Maizie Dickson (Joan Blondell). That doesn’t stop him from chasing anything in a skirt. Maizie is getting fed up not just with Bob but with herself and the newspaper game. She’s jealous, but mostly she’s disgusted - especially given the fact that Toni is so na├»ve and is inevitably going to get hurt the way Maizie herself has been hurt.

The gentlemen of the press continue their campaign to railroad Mrs Ferguson straight to Death Row.

Joan Blondell gets top billing and she is of course very good but her character is not really the main focus of the movie. Kenneth Thomson makes a great drunken sleazebag gutter journalist. Leslie Fenton is excellent as Jim Perrin, a reporter who is even sleazier more loathsome than Bob Parks. The other cast members are all very good.

Lloyd Bacon was a more than competent director who doesn’t receive much attention from critics but he was reliable and really keeps things moving in this picture.

There’s not a huge amount of pre-code content but the story has a nicely sordid sleazy cynical edge to it. It’s also quite open about the ways in which public officials allow themselves to become the willing tools of dishonest journalists. The criminal justice system doesn’t come off too well.

Unfortunately there’s some speechifying, mostly intended to try to convince us that most reporters are ethical.

The resolution of the murder mystery is a bit too obvious but then the murder mystery is not what this movie is primarily about.

The ending is a bit of a letdown - the movie pulls its punches a bit here.

On the whole a pretty decent examination of the awfulness and cynicism of the press. Highly recommended.

The Warner Archive DVD provides a very pleasing transfer.

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