America Has Room at the Inn — in Big Town

“The power and the freedom of the press is a flaming sword; that it may be a faithful servant of all the people, use it justly. Hold it high. Guard it well!”

Writer Jerry McGill, a former newspaperman, and the cast of Big Town, pulled out all the emotional stops on Prelude to Christmas, a December 1948 melodrama about the arrival in America of a Polish refugee newspaper editor and his war-traumatized daughter. The girl winds up lost in the city on a cold winter night, fearful of police and even of the mysterious newspaper office where her father has gone to tell his story.

Edward Pawley, as “fighting managing editor” Steve Wilson, heads the cast as usual, joined by experienced Broadway child actress Jimsey Somers as Greta, the scared little girl, and Stefan Schnabel, as her heroic editor father.

Donald McDonald’s recurring character “Willie the Weep,” moocher and panhandler, plays a larger part than usual, becoming an appropriately sentimental Skid Row Santa. Between his sobs and tears, Willie befriends the girl while out collecting spare change for Wilson’s Illustrated Press Christmas charity fund. Count the charity drive as a radio reminder of things newspapers did for the community — when their editors weren’t out on the street fighting crime. At least that’s what Steve Wilson did in most other weeks of the series.

Echoing the usual “flaming sword” motto from the start of the program, Wilson offers to write the profile of editor Gregory Vilna himself, focusing on his imprisonment by the Nazis and his work in the Polish underground. The refugee says he is honored.

Wilson: “I am the one who is honored, in being able to publish the story of a newspaper editor who sacrificed everything to defend the freedom of the press.”
Vilna: “There were many of us, Mr. Wilson. We did what we could to stem the tide of tyranny, but tragically it marches on. Tyranny does not die in battles, so long as it lives in the hearts of men…”

With tyranny comes fear, and Vilna explains that his daughter is still afraid of everything — strangers, police, even the newspaper office.

“Poor little Greta. For so long as she can remember she has lived in the shadow of fear. She has suffered hunger, witnessed horror. She walked with death. Only joy she does not know. I have never heard her laugh… and yet she has faith in God.”

After her father leaves for his interview, Greta runs off in search of him and gets lost in the big city, giving the episode a dramatic theme, about faith conquering fear.

Memories of his daughter praying in the rubble of a ruined cathedral inspire the father to tell Wilson to search houses of worship for her. “Any church — any house of God,” he says. “It would make no difference to a child seeking solace.”  “Or to any of us,” Wilson adds. 

A waterfront mission preacher continues the ecumenical message, invoking “God, Jehovah, Allah or some other name of faith…” in his call to prayer. Wilson and his searchers also visit a synagogue and a Catholic church, complete with Hebrew and Latin singing.

The tale is far from the usual crime-and-corruption Big Town storyline. Wilson never gets slugged on the head, never disarms a gangster, never throws a punch. And he never has to call on cab driver, “Harry the Hack,” to bring along his monkey wrench for protection. Instead, the two get to reflect on the holiday, human nature, and the negative image that is too often in the news. Christmas hymns play in the background:

Wilson: I’m worried too, Harry. But everything is being done that can be done.

Harry: A lot can happen to a kid in this hard-boiled town.

Wilson: We deal too much with the seamy side, Harry. Actually, people over Big Town are no worse than other people the world over.

Harry: Yeah more good than bad, even in the seamy ones. I guess we kinda forget that.

Wilson: We forget a lot of things, Harry, that we only remember this time of year.

Historical footnote

At the time of this 1948 broadcast, the “displaced persons” issue was topical. Within a week, ten international religious and relief organizations issued a “New Year appeal from Geneva calling on all nations to help the growing number of homeless refugees.  Earlier that year, President Truman had complained that Congress’s efforts at a Displaced Persons Act fell well short of what America should do, especially in its treatment of Jews and Catholics.

The Polish editor in the “Big Town” episode makes no reference to such controversies, but tells his daughter that she should forget her fears from the old country. Even though they are not Americans yet, they will be someday:

“Here in America the officials of the government are the servants of the people, not the people slaves of the officials… We are guests of the people of America. Through their Congress they have invited us here to live and work and pursue happiness.”

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1940s, cold war, editors, ethics, international, newspapers, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

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