Covering the Waterfront


Two of my former Emerson College students have wound up with new jobs back in Massachusetts at the New Bedford Standard-Times on Buzzard’s Bay, which is a fine excuse to post this item about the radio and film stories titled “I Cover the Waterfront.”
The radio version of I Cover the Waterfront was a 1955 series pilot or audition, apparently never produced regularly, but circulated widely by old-time radio collectors. Like the 1933 film, it was loosely based on San Diego newspaperman Max Miller’s best-selling 1932 book.

The radioplay uses some of Miller’s writing verbatim, including the introduction about having stayed on the waterfront beat while other reporters moved on:

 “I have been here so long that even the sea gulls must recognize me. They must pass the word along about me from generation to generation, from egg to egg…”

The movie and the radio drama are entirely different stories, but both have salt-spray, seagulls, and a serious ethical dilemma for a reporter covering a gritty beat on a working-class waterfront. No yacht races or sport-fishing here.

The film has him juggling romance with a smuggling story — involving the same woman’s father. In the radio tale, the issues are friendship, loyalty, murder and keeping information from the police.

Their common theme is a frequent one in “newspaper movies”: Does “getting the story” come first? Can you be tough, curious and skeptical without getting cynical and depressed? What happens to personal relationships?

Here’s the IMDB page with more about the I Cover the Waterfront film (1933).

The instrumental theme used in both the film and the radio program became more famous than the book or movie, recorded 70 times of more as a jazz standard by everyone from Annette Hanshaw and Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra and Wynton Marsalis. (John Lee Hooker riffed on the title too, with different lyrics and melody, but a similar foggy mood.)

You’ll find no media ethics issues in the lonely song, which has nothing to do with newspapers. But it’s a fine meditative melody to hum while you walk by the water and sort out your next story idea. If you need cheering up, switch to tunes by another journalism-school grad, Jimmy Buffet, who as far as I can tell has never recorded “I Cover the Waterfront.”

(For a more upbeat radio story about covering the waterfront, see my earlier item about the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. Meanwhile, I hope the new reporters in New Bedford have found this collection of more recent short radio pieces about life on today’s working waterfront at their newspaper’s website.)


Footnote… Twenty years ago, I did cover several waterfronts, from Rhode Island to Maine, for Soundings and Trade Only.
Footnote on the movie… It just dawned on me that Claudette Colbert, object of the reporter’s affections in the film “I Cover the Waterfront,” was also the runaway bride who falls into reporter Clark Gable’s clutches in “It Happened One Night.” It begins with her jumping off her father’s yacht. This begins with her swimming in the nude (but with a bathing cap.) Fisherman’s daughter here, heiress there… Hollywood seems to be saying they all go for reporters, with a little bit of persuading. (The courtship involves something close to blackmail in “It Happened One Night” and a bit of bondage in “On the Waterfront.)

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 1930s, 1950s, Drama, reporters. Bookmark the permalink.

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