“Here, take the gun; cover me…” — detective to journalist
That’s not a sentence most newspaper reporters ever hear from a police officer, but it’s part of the dialogue from the thrilling conclusion of this week’s episode of “The Big Story,” the true-journalism and true-crime radio series from the 1940s and 1950s that I wrote about last time.
The script writers did “improve” on reality at times, at least removing the names of the people in the stories, updating them a bit (some of the true stories dated back to horse-and-buggy days), and improvising characters and scenes to make the news story work as a radio drama. On that level — well-acted dialogue and a plot that moves along through several flashbacks — I’d call this episode a success.
As a textbook on journalistic practice or police practice, it certainly doesn’t describe a world most reporters would recognize. Maybe there have been times and places where newspapermen and local police were on such friendly terms, but I suspect some of the camaraderie was created by the script writer as a way to tell the murder-investigation story through radio dialogue.
The episode starts with a corpse at the dump, then flashes back to a scene of domestic conflict that sounds a lot like an episode of TV’s “The Honeymooners” gone terribly wrong. Coincidentally, actor Art Carney — the upstairs neighbor in that TV series — is the star of this Big Story episode, playing newspaper reporter Rolf K. Mills of Minneapolis, and doubling as the city grain inspector who finds the corpse.
Mills is quite the newspaperman, turning out several versions of the evolving story late at night and into the early morning, hence the episode title “The Deadline Murder.” This may sound like an update-schedule for the Internet age, but remember that a half-century or more ago, larger papers did keep the presses rolling with multiple editions and a “rewite” staff taking story updates over the phone. Unfortunately, Mills’ Minneapolis Morning Tribune does not appear to have been digitized by any of the state library or other online sources for the years from which The Big Story usually drew its plots, so we can’t easily go back and read his original stories.
In any case, Mills’ conversations with his editor and his shoe-leather reporting stamina — from the crime scene at a city dump to the morgue, a series of barroom interviews, and a final knock at the murderer’s door — all make a great example for today’s desk-bound and time-strapped reporters.
Mills also has a tough interview with a reluctant source — a landlord named Lopez, who insists on counting questions and giving sound-bite-brief answers.
Here’s the announcer’s summary at the half-way point:
“A fine thing. Covering police headquarters for the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, you, Rolf K. Mills have a blonde corpse turn up in time for the first edition — a person unknown murdered by person or persons unknown — and the city desk hopes for the who and the BY whom for the final edition. And you have just followed a false trail to the bitter end…”
The writer of the script turns a good phrase now and then, too, including some sharp dialogue in the radio-noir imagined scenes between the murder victim and her estranged husband, as well the conversations between the reporter and his editor:
Editor: So backtrack. Everybody makes mistakes.
Mills: Yeah, I know. That’s why they put erasers on lead pencils. And tonight my pencil is all eraser.
That last bit of dialogue should sound more familiar to reporters than the one about the policeman handing over his gun.
Technical note: It sounds to me like this Internet Archive mp3 recording was made from an old audio tape that had stretched, or a transcription disc played at slightly the wrong speed, making speakers’ voices a little lower than normal. (It also has had the Pall Mall cigarette commercials removed, possibly for non-commercial Armed Forces Radio broadcast.) If I find a better copy, I’ll replace it.
For old-time-radio fans, the archived script indicates that Joan Alexander played “the blonde,” the eventual murder victim who is described in the (not broadcast) director’s notes as “a nag and a bitch.” She was tough but a bit more pleasant in another “newspaper heroes” radio role — playing reporter Lois Lane in hundreds of Adventures of Superman radio episodes and 1940s cartoons. Finally, if you think the unpleasant blonde in this story has an authentic Minnesota accent, it may be because Alexander was born in St. Paul, according to her IMDB.com biography.
As mentioned previously, The Big Story scripts were preserved as part of the tobacco industry claims settlement, and are available at several archives online, including one by the Old Time Radio Researchers Group. “The Deadline Murder” is script 60.