A Risky Resolution to Start a Big Town New Year

Begin with a murderous hood named “Silky,” add a stripper named “Bubbles,” and introduce crusading newspaper editor trying to help a cleaning woman’s son, and you have just a few of the cliches in this “Big Town” story, “The Dangerous Resolution.” There’s not a lot of journalism going on, but it’s still fun.

The 1949 new year’s resolution in the title comes from a character named Van, a World War II vet who learned to drive heavy-duty trucks in the Army. He promises to quit driving for the bad guy and marry his waitress girlfriend — after New Year’s Eve and a predictably ill-fated “one last job.”

Fortunately, Van’s mother scrubs floors at the Big Town Illustrated Press, so she can enlist its editor’s aid without even taking out a classified ad like the floor-scrubbing mother in “Call Northside 777.”

Steve Wilson is the editor — the one who loudly declares his journalistic creed in the opening sequence of each broadcast:

“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.”

Wilson’s weekly affirmation was one of radio’s strongest endorsements of newspaper journalism, probably still remembered by more than one young listener who eventually started carrying a press card. (You know who you are.)

But other than the series’ opening slogan, there’s precious little journalism practiced in episodes like this one. It’s one of many where someone comes looking for help, leading Big Town’s newspaper editor to track down a criminal and bring him to justice — without touching pencil, pen or typewriter.

If nothing else “Big Town” assured listeners that newspapers, or their two-fisted editors, were there to help the little guy. And perhaps the fictional plots did alert some to real rackets or social needs, in this case schemes to exploit returning veterans, or their difficulties settling down to a normal civilian life.

The series “Big Town” had started in 1937 with Hollywood star Edward Robinson playing editor Wilson as a reformed tabloid hack turned into a crusading community do-gooder, exposing unsafe coal mines and corrupt reform schools, and crusaded against drunk and reckless driving enough to win the show real-life transportation safety awards. (Wilson also went to Europe to help his foreign correspondents early in World War II.)

By December 1948, when this episode was broadcast, Edward Pawley had played Wilson longer than the role’s creator. The plots were often routine crime dramas relying heavily on the established characters — the editor, his star reporter Lorelei, cab driver Harry the Hack, and one or two others. Lorelei had evolved from society editor to sob-sister to crime reporter.

Even a villain like Silky could sum up the editor in a line:

“A newspaper guy? You’re not that racket-busting rat of the ‘Illustrated Press,’ Steve Wilson?!”

Even juvenile series like “The Adventures of Superman” and “The Green Hornet” actually gave their newspaper characters more realistic reporting tasks — tracking down sources, following leads, interviewing, taking notes, and looking for news angles. Other series used their reporter characters as narrators, but “Big Town” was more about getting the crook than getting the story. The episodes still involved some social crusading — for safe driving, against drugs, etc. — but in the show’s later years, more often than not Wilson and Lorelei just tracked down an evil doer, put one or both of themselves in jeopardy in the process, outwitted and disarmed the bad guy, then called the police.

Wilson didn’t carry a gun, but he did throw a few punches. His cab driver pal offered backup with a trusty monkey wrench. Mostly, Pawley’s Wilson was tough, brave and smarter than any crook — not entirely a journalistic job description, but not bad for any pop-culture hero. The scripts had some film-noir rhetorical flourishes, even if they often sounded like comic-strip word balloons more than news writing.

“Come on, Wilson, save your big talk for the crabs in the river…” — Silky

This episode has Wilson delivering memorable lines like these:

  • “I’m the ‘counter cowboy’ who followed your girl from the Sunshine Diner…”
  • “I’m going to talk that gun right out of your hand…”
  • “We’re going to show Silky that the mind can be quicker than the trigger finger…”
  • “It’s all a triumph of mind over murder-madness…”

While earlier stories sometimes spanned episodes, these later tales by writer-producer Jerry McGill fit into a single half-hour, sandwiched between Lifeboy and Rinso commercials.

Despite the predictable plot patterns, the show stayed high in the ratings, spawning a series of films, a comic book and even an early TV series. On radio, it ran from 1937 to 1952 with a brief break and change of networks when Robinson left.

Where’s the journalism?

Wilson finally gets in one positive statement for responsible journalism after he has rounded up Silky and Bubbles. He tells Harry the Hack that as soon as the police take charge of the prisoners, reporter Lorelei will be able to get the whole story into the next day’s early edition.

“Holy moly, boss! Ain’t you gettin’ out an extra?” — Harry the Hack.

“No, no, Harry. The capture of one vicious killer doesn’t roll the pressses any more than it stops crime. The real story here is Van’s resolve to get out of the rackets.” — Steve Wilson

Well, the story also will have to include a hijacking, one murder and five more attempted murders. There could be another journalism drama here. I wish we got to hear how Lorelei would weave her report to make the truck driver the real hero — so that he can dodge a jail sentence, marry his girlfriend, and save his mother from a life of floor-scrubbing at the Illustrated Press.

For more about Big Town:

  • JHeroes Big Town page, with numerous links and references.
  • Big Town page at Jim Ramsburg’s GOldTime Radio, including details on ratings, sponsors, cast and networks. (Ramsburg is also the author of Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953: A History of Prime Time Programs Through The Ratings of Hooper, Crossley and Nielsen.)
  • IMDB on the Big Town TV Series

Updated June 14, 2014, removing a reference to Pawley as sounding like Robinson, which a reader convinced me was unfair and inaccurate.

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, crime, editors, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

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