No one familiar with classic movies can watch Otto Brower's film and not think of Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday -- which is odd, because when you watch His Girl Friday you're supposed to think of The Front Page, the play and film Hawks famously adapted with a pioneering instance of gender-flipping. Watching Headline Shooter is like peeking into some alternate reality where Hawks and his writers looked at it first and said, "This story would work better if William Gargan were Frances Dee's boss." Dee is a hardboiled, often ruthless newspaper reporter who often works alongside Gargan's hardboiled, often more ruthless newsreel photographer. Gargan's Bill Allen is the sort of opportunist who makes his own opportunities. We first see him taking pictures of his girlfriend in bed eating crackers. The girl is a beauty pageant contestant. Bill goes to the pageant sponsor (Franklin Pangborn), who happens to own the cracker company, and convinces him to throw the contest to his girl, since he already has a perfect advertising photo of her. Meanwhile, he has instant newsreels of the pageant winner as a big scoop for his employer. Bill isn't the most exuberantly ruthless newsreel man in movies -- that would Clark Gable's character in Too Hot to Handle, from the era of Code Enforcement -- but he'll do for this picture. He meets his match in Jane Mallory (Dee), who matches him stride for stride as they cover an earthquake. This film is one of Merian C. Cooper's RKO productions so the special effects, combined with actual newsreel footage of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, is top-notch for its time. The reporters invade a damaged hospital where doctors continue to perform an operation by candlelight while an outside wall collapses behind them. Later, Jane proves her journalistic moxie by stealing Bill's car to deliver her scoops.
So apart from a tough fast-talking girl reporter, what has all this to do with His Girl Friday? Well, it turns out that Jane has a boyfriend back down South, where she and Bill are headed to cover a major flood caused by a burst dam. The boyfriend, as film buffs must have guessed already, is poor Ralph Bellamy in total "Ralph Bellamy" mode. When did this happen to Bellamy? He's in a movie from the same year, Below the Sea, where he's a rough and tumble deep-sea diver and perfectly plausible as such. This is the earliest I've seen him in a "Ralph Bellamy" performance, as a hopeless stick in the mud who can never hold on to his girl. His best known work in this mode, of course, is in His Girl Friday, if only because the film is in the public domain as well as the canon of classic comedies. For a while here it looks like Bellamy will keep the girl, if only because Jane is repulsed by Bill's conduct during the flood. The reporters have learned that the dam was built with sub-par materials in a public ripoff with terrible consequences. A local judge asks them to suppress the story because the contractor was a relative of his and he'd be ruined politically even though he wasn't personally responsible. Bill appears to comply out of courtesy but passes off unexposed film as the damning footage, which promptly makes it into a national newsreel that promptly provokes the judge into killing himself. Jane is suddenly horrified by the news business and wants to go back home with Bellamy. But just as she submits her resignation her editor learns that a notorious gangster's moll is in the hospital. The regular beat reporter is unavailable and Jane knows that no one else but her has a chance of getting a newsworthy story out of the moll. When the gangster kidnaps Jane it's Bill, not Bellamy, to the rescue.
In an interesting early commentary on the manipulative power of the media, Bill extracts information from Ricci, a firebug fan of his (Jack La Rue with an Italian accent). Ricci has been eager to see some footage Bill took of him at a fireworks show. Bill suspects Ricci of having set a fire he filmed, in which his alcoholic buddy (Wallace Ford) was killed. Playing a hunch, he precociously blends the fireworks and fire footage together -- the filmmakers most likely filmed La Rue at the other location -- so that it looks like a guilty Ricci leaving the arson scene. In a guilty panic Ricci tells Bill where he can find the gangster who kidnapped Jane. In true hard-boiled manner, Jane is beating the gangsters at rummy when Bill charges in, setting up a final action scene running down fire escapes and into the street. There's no way your typical Ralph Bellamy and his down-home ways can compete with thrills like these. In Bill Jane gets a real man and keeps her career, announcing her marriage in an interview while a surprised Bill cranks his camera. The final clinch is cut short when fresh news breaks out and our heroes race off to their next adventure.
Headline Shooter lasts barely an hour yet seems overstuffed, if not padded. I've barely touched on the subplot with Wallace Ford's dipso cameraman, or on Robert Benchley's totally gratuitous, and not especially funny, cameo as a bumbling radio announcer covering the beauty pageant. But apart from the Benchley business the picture races along and is often spectacular in its disaster scenes. Shooter may get your attention for its resemblances to His Girl Friday, but it deserves some credit as a fine Pre-Code action comedy in its own right.