A phone call, shoe-leather and compassion turn a story into a crusade

Call Northside 777

“Well, it made a pretty good yarn, I guess. Y’know — ‘Mother slaves to save $5,000, offers it to clear her son.’
I told myself it was all in a day’s work…”
Reporter Mac McNeal


About the film: IMDB page for “Call Northside 777”

It all starts with a classified ad in the newspaper, a scrub-woman, and a reporter’s search for the truth — and proof.

Based on a real newspaper investigation that led to the freeing of a convict, the film starred Jimmy Stewart as an at-first-reluctant reporter who gradually becomes an advocate for a man whose mother scrubbed floors to offer a reward for new evidence in his case.

Decades before “All the President’s Men,” this story is another realistic “newspaper reporter procedural,” with Stewart’s character skeptical at first, then building the story gradually, chasing down leads, employing shoe-leather, compassion and insight.

The almost-documentary film’s conclusion uses a photographic clue to solve the case — not the easiest way to make a point in the later radio broadcast. The use of wirephoto and a dramatically enlarged image were not really “high tech” for the 1948 film, but may have seemed so to a non-technical audience.

The extra bonus, when it comes to radio drama’s record of the importance of newspapers in American life, is in how the reporter spots the key piece of evidence — a bundle of papers under a newsboy’s arm in a newspaper photograph: Newspapers-in-a-newspaper-photo-in-a-newspaper-drama!

The radio version is by Screen Guild Theater, one of radio’s “anthology” series that specialized in radio adaptations of hit films. James Stewart and Richard Conte re-create their film roles as the reporter and the prisoner. Pat O’Brien (the original film Hildy Johnson in 1931’s “The Front Page”) is  added to the cast as Stewart’s editor, a part played by Lee J. Cobb in the film. O’Brien puts a great touch of Irish blarney into his speech convincing the reporter to dig deeper.

Compressing the film into a 25-minute radio drama meant cutting details, and corners. Is it still effective? Give a listen.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1940s, adaptations, editors, journalism, movies, newspaper crusades, radio, reporters, reporting. Bookmark the permalink.

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