A Supporting Role for Print in Movies, TV Shows and Commercials
There's a little movie and television buff in all of us. And, nothing compares to the momentary thrill of personally and intimately connecting with a character, plot or scene, when something familiar to us appears on-screen.
For graphic arts industry professionals, that moment is the ultimate rush of seeing the image of a printing press forever captured, not on paper, but on film. And, images of Gutenberg's baby—no matter the circa or model—can be powerful and compelling, especially for the masters of the craft.
While Hollywood may not actually have a soft spot for printing presses, what it does have is the desire to mimic and relive history (past, present and sci-fi future) through films. Since the printing press has been an important part of history, countless storylines and scripts have included it in some capacity or other.
Printing presses first appeared in silent films in the 1920s ("The Printer's Devil"). Many movies in the '30s and '40s focused on current events and headline news, so movies about newspaper operations (big and small) became popular at the time. Some of the classics of this era are "Citizen Kane," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and a pair of Bogart films, "Passage to Marseille" and "Deadline USA."
TV Portrays Desire for Local News
When TV first debuted in the 1950s, fans of the popular soap opera "Peyton Place" would see the newspaper presses rolling, printing the little town's "scandal sheet." Fan favorite John Boy printed his own newspaper in an episode of "The Waltons," and Mr. Drucker printed Hooterville's local publication on "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres."
Counterfeiting is another genre of film where viewers will usually see a printing press. Since a counterfeiter can't operate without his trusty reproduction machine, audiences are pretty much guaranteed to see a press or two in counterfeiting movies. Interestingly, movies about counterfeiters transcend age. The idea of printing money (albeit fake) seems to appeal to audiences young and old.
Adult audiences can experience the escapades of counterfeiters in films like "Robin and the 7 Hoods" (featuring Rat Packers Sinatra, Martin, Crosby and Sammy Davis Jr.), where a soup kitchen is used for a counterfeit operation. There's also "Mr. 880," which is based on the true story about an elderly man who printed dollar bills for decades without getting caught. And, remember Leonardo DiCaprio operating a Heidelberg in the role of real-life counterfeiter Frank Abagnale in the 2002 hit "Catch Me If You Can?"
Perhaps, the granddaddy of all counterfeit movies is the 1967 classic, "Who's Minding the Mint?" Walter Brennan portrays a U.S. Mint worker who accidentally destroys some money, then gets his cronies to help him break into the mint to print replacement cash.
Even kids get a kick out of counterfeiters, who are usually bumbling bad guys, in hit movies like "The Goonies." (A young group of friends stumbles onto a press used for counterfeiting in an abandoned lodge, which is now being used as a hideaway by a bungling mob family.) Fans also get a glimpse of counterfeit presses in Disney's "The Newsies," cartoons like "Scooby-Doo" ("The Backstage Rage" episode), and family favorites like "The Andy Griffith Show."
Fans may expect to see printing presses in certain movies, like those involving newspapers and counterfeiters. However, surprise "guest appearances" of printing presses in major motion pictures can be the most memorable.
For example, presses can help set the tone of a movie. Such is the case in the opening credits of "Mr. Magorium's Magic Emporium," which shows a crazy, imagination-modified press of some kind that seems to foretell the fantastical things to come. Audiences sense a hint of the mysteries ahead, when a small, tabletop press is seen tucked in a wine cellar, during an early scene in "Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows."
Presses can also help develop the plot, like in the action-packed chase through a media mogel's newspaper plant in the James Bond flick, "Tomorrow Never Dies." In a scene from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a visit to Mr. Lovegood's residence shows an alternative newspaper being published in the background.
Printing presses have also played key roles in creating climactic endings, such as "State of Play," where newspaper presses are rolling, and the movie's finale is revealed in the headlines. In "The Book of Eli," Denzel Washington is charged with protecting a treasured book in a post-apocalyptic world. The film ends with the book being reproduced on a surviving letterpress.
Printing presses, which can be incorporated into a multitude of movie scenarios, cut across film genres. For example, they can be seen in classic Westerns like "Cimarron," which depicts a frontier newspaper in the Oklahoma Territory. In "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," Jimmy Stewart's character is a printer, and a press appears in several scenes. As Clint Eastwood walks through an old Western town in "For a Few Dollars More," one of the businesses is a newspaper office, where a press operator is working away at the press inside.
TV Westerns have their share of "press coverage," too. Consider some of the circa 1950s-70s shows, like the "Adventures of Jim Bowie," "Little House on the Prairie," "The Wild, Wild West," and the TV mini-series "Silverado," all of which had episodes with printing presses playing supporting roles. Ditto goes for more recent Westerns like "Deadwood" and "Hell on Wheels."
Several hit comedies have featured printers and their presses, such as golden oldie "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," starring Don Knots as a print shop typesetter and reporter-want-to-be, who spends the night in a "haunted" mansion to get the scoop. In "Without a Clue," Michael Caine portrays a comedic Sherlock Holmes, who stumbles across a forgery plot and the press involved in the crime. Jim Carrey fans are treated to a scene in "The Mask," where his character is almost thrown into a printing press, when he doesn't give up his mask to the bad guys.
Who would think printing presses could make people laugh—or, stranger yet, make them cry?
Serious dramatic productions, such as "Schindler's List," "The Pianist," and "Seven Pounds," (subtly or boldly) incorporate the use of presses to elicit powerful audience emotions/reactions.
Sells His Soul to the 'Printer's' Devil
There's even something for the scary picture/show lover. In an episode of the "Twilight Zone," titled "Printer's Devil," a failing newspaper man sells his soul to save his business. After which, a demon-possessed linotype machine prints history ahead of time.
Bam! Super Heroes have gotten into the action, too! The opening of the 2011 movie the "Green Hornet" was shot against the backdrop of a newspaper printing plant and, in a 1960s episode of the hit show "Batman," the Gotham hero stops the presses by breaking up the Joker's counterfeit ring .
Foreign film fans looking for presses should watch the French features, "Paris, je t'aime," and "The Counterfeiters of Paris," where printing presses are seen throughout the films. The German movie "The Counterfeiters" (original German title: Die Fälscher) is based on the true story about Nazi prisoners who were forced to run counterfeit presses in German POW camps during World War II. Italy also has a contribution to the foreign film niche, with "La Ragazza di Bube," about a woman print shop worker in postwar Italy.
For animated fans, there's a short feature about printer and founding father Ben Franklin. In Disney's "Ben & Me" (1953), a mouse reports the town news to Franklin, and helps Ben typeset and print a daily newspaper.
A visit to Franklin's print shop in Philadelphia is also the focus of a 1960s episode of "Daniel Boone," titled "The Printing Press." As America's "first printer," Franklin's printing inventions and endeavors have been the subject of numerous TV shows, made-for-TV movies and mini-series, airing on networks like PBS, the History Channel, the TVGuide channel and the Biography Channel.
Television has always been in on the printing action. Presses can be found on reruns of everything from the "Gil-more Girls," "Little House on the Prairie" and "Then Came Bronson," to "The Rockford Files," "The A Team" "and "Lou Grant." In recent years, shows like "White Collar," "Revolution" and "Legend of the Seeker" treat viewers to shots of printing presses.
You can't have TV shows without commercials, and a few sponsors have chosen to spotlight printing presses. Aleve had a Christmas spot a few years back, in which Santa, who is running some kind of whimsical, press-like device, develops a headache that requires pain relief. And, country music, a letterpress and Tennessee bourbon are blended together in a recent Jack Daniels spot.
Two commercials even put printing presses center stage in their ads. In one, the sponsor is selling a popular ED medication via a print shop executive, whose virility has improved now that he's taking the prescription drug. And, in an Australian ad from Sportsbet.com, the first scene takes place in a busy pressroom.
Finally, this salute to Hollywood presses wouldn't be complete without a nod to the music venue, including music videos like Justin Bieber's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (where Santa and his magical press are in the background), and the Ray Stevens video of him singing and printing counterfeit money.
Even Broadway is getting a piece of the printing action in Disney's production of "Newsies—The Musical."
From musicals and music videos to blockbuster movies and hit TV shows, printing presses will continue to be a part of modern media history. Somewhere at this very moment, a printer is feeling a brief wave of excitement and a yank of the heartstrings, as he/she sees that beloved printing press grace the silver screen. PI
(Editor's Note: Special thanks to www.briarpress.org, www.poltroonpress.com and pressonfilm.tumblr.com—important feeds that were used for background information in this article. Many people contributed to these sites, providing their sightings of presses in movies and TV shows.)