Listening to more of Mickey Rooney’s unsuccessful “Shorty Bell” series from 1948 — after reading obituaries and tributes to him this week — I can’t help wondering what the audience wanted from his radio newspaper-journalism vehicle: A lighter family-friendly “Andy Hardy Goes to Press,” or a 44-years-early version of “Newsies“?
With only a handful of examples of the three-month run of the show, it’s obvious the producers and writers were struggling to find out what would please sponsors and audiences.
The Shorty Bell episode that old-time radio collectors have named “Crooked Hero,” one of the last four episodes from June 1948, shows a series still trying to be somewhat serious — perhaps something like the later TV series “Lou Grant.” In this half-hour story, the young reporter played by Rooney faces a hard lesson about whether a reporter can or should protect a friend from much more than bad publicity.
(Note: Rooney’s first line of the episode is, “With me and the newspaper business, it was a case of love at first sight. On my part, anyway…” If the audio-player gives you something else, see the technical note at the bottom of this page for some of the amusing confusion that is old-time-radio collecting.)
As the story opens, Shorty Bell’s gruff editor sends his scrappy protege off to cover what he calls a June “graduation,” even though the lad’s idea of a spring feature assignment is a day at an amusement park, not on a college campus. Actor John Hoyt plays the “tough editor/boss” stereotype even harder than Ed Asner did Lou Grant on television.
Editor Robard: “Mr. Bell, the day reporters on this paper choose their own assignments, we will run an eight-column head announcing that I am Queen of the May.”
Robard’s sense of humor is newsroom-coarse, and it takes Shorty a while to get the joke — that the “graduation” is a prison inmate’s funeral. Listeners get a lesson in appropriate contexts for humor when Shorty tries the same joke with a couple on the train, not realizing he’s talking to the dead man’s sister. A tough old boxer sets him straight.
Although the show was on its last legs, it was still gradually introducing Shorty’s character — in this episode we find out that before going into the service, Shorty had been a runner-up in a boxing tournament.
The “Hero” in the story’s title fits the other two main characters: a boxing legend the reporter meets on the train, and the editor, Don Robard, his idol and mentor. The plot turns on difficult decisions reporters sometimes must make between personal friendships and journalistic responsibility.
Robard, it turns out, was the man who sent the recently deceased former political boss to prison — although they had once been close friends. The dialogue may looks more purple on paper than it sounded coming out of radio speakers. When Shorty finds out the truth, he tells the story to his boss:
Shorty: “It’s about two fellows who were friends. One was a political boss and the other was a newspaper reporter. The reporter broke a big bribery story and sent his friend the politician to jail for 199 years. Do you think it’s a good story, Mr. Robard?”
Robard: “Not very, but then I never cared for cheap melodrama. However… for all I know, you may have the plot for the next Great American Novel, or even better, next year’s Academy Award movie. But I doubt it. It sounds like soap opera to me.”
Shorty: “Augie Davis was your friend.”
Robard: “Augie Davis was a corruptor of civil servants…
Keep your distance, Mr. Bell.”
Shorty: “What kind of business am I in anyway?”
Robard: “It’s not a business as far as you’re concerned; it’s a profession. Leave the ‘business’ aspect to the accountants and advertising boys. You’re very young, Mr. Bell, younger than I thought. Grow up. That’s all for today.”
I like some of the portrayal of Robard. Shorty’s not the only one he’s brusque with. He interrupts a sportswriter’s story pitch with lines like.
“Delete the grace-notes… and the build-up.”
This evening’s half-hour Shorty Bell melodrama has plenty of build-up and a few grace-notes. By the end, it’s no surprise that Shorty faces a moral dilemma similar to the one Robard faced years before.
The editor is wise enough to see why Shorty, having uncovered a racetrack scandal, refuses to reveal the name of a wrong-doer:
“Why this reticence, Mr. Bell? Are you involved in some way with your Mr. X? A friend of yours, perhaps. It sometime does happen that a reporter covering a story foresees the possibility of damage to a friend if he goes to the root of a matter. I’m sure I’ve heard of cases like that.”
The last 10 minutes of the program would be be a good discussion-starter in a journalism ethics class, if the modern students have patience for old-time radio. If they stick with it to the end, they’ll even hear a reference to the even more dramatic real-life case of Jake Lingle — a Chicago reporter who was murdered after developing a too-cozy relationship with organized crime.
Will Shorty’s conscience, or Robard’s experience, convince the lad to avoid Lingle’s fate? I wonder whether 1948 radio listeners knew the complexities of Lingle’s story from the brief reference in the program’s dialogue — or if they just took it as a reference to a reporter who was killed over an expose.
For the details, see Chicago magazine’s November 2009 retrospective on the Lingle murder case, Prince of the City: The mysterious mob hit on 1920s Tribune reporter Jake Lingle.
Cast note: The boxing champ’s gravelly voice may be familiar. The actor is William Conrad, one of the hardest-working and most recognizable voices in 1940s and 1950s radio. He was also the original “Matt Dillon” on radio’s Gunsmoke, the portly detective “Frank Cannon” on television, and the city editor in the cryptically named 1959 newsroom melodrama “–30–” with Jack Webb. Conrad’s “It’s a newspaper, that’s all… the best buy for your money in the world” newspaper eulogy from that film still appears on YouTube and is in at least one popular introductory reporting textbook.
Technical note: At this writing, several collections of “Shorty Bell” episodes on the Internet have swapped the names of two programs, “Crooked Hero” and “Movie Script.” I’ve alerted the keepers of the sites; if they correct the filenames without my realizing it, my links to the individual episodes may not function any more. In that case, a visit to the Internet Archive’s Shorty Bell collection page may sort out the confusion.
The collectors also disagree on when this particular episode was broadcast (June 6, 13 or 20), and what to call it. “Crooked Hero” is also known as “State Prison Funeral” and “Growing Pains,” all supported by the plot and dialogue. Collectors may have estimated dates and composed their own names for episodes, then copied each other — sometimes adding typographical errors, or trusting newspapers’ printed program listings. Alas, I don’t have labelled transcription discs, a formal network broadcast log or library collection of titled scripts to refer to; perhaps they exist somewhere.
Using newspaper listings, the DigitalDeli research site moves the “Crooked Hero” (“Growing Pains”) episode up to June 6 (other collectors say 13 or 20) and lists a missing episode on June 20, while the others say the June 6 show is the missing one. They all agree the final episode was the last week in June. It is variously titled “Shorty Scoops Photographer,” “Rival Girl Photographer” or “Winnie Lane, Ace Photographer” and listed as being broadcast on June 26 in the Internet Archive (which would be a change in the broadcast’s day of the week) or on the 27th, which Digital Deli says is supported by published newspaper listings.
For now, the link at the top of this page should play the “Crooked Hero” episode from a file named “Movie Script.” If it actually plays a farce about Shorty writing a movie script, the file-name error has been corrected by the Internet Archive.
The intended (Crooked Hero) episode’s opening line: “With me and the newspaper business, it was a case of love at first sight. On my part, anyway…”
The wrong (Movie Script) episode’s opening line: “When I first got into the newspaper business, I didn’t know a comma from an apostrophe. Don Robard, my managing editor said he was hiring me for my curiosity and my brass, not for my writing ability…”