News about a real-life judge sentenced to jail for taking kickbacks from a for-profit jail reminded me of this Big Town episode, with its crusading newspaper editor sending a 17-year-old copyboy undercover to expose a corrupt and barbaric reformatory.
“A hell-hole under the control of a political grafter,” is how editor Steve Wilson describes the reform school.
The Reform School recording, stored at the Old Time Radio Researchers’ site OTRRlibrary.org, is apparently a rehearsal for a 1939 broadcast, with Hollywood stars Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor as editor and star reporter.
Along with the investigative reporting plot, there’s a sexism subplot: Prison officials open doors for Trevor’s reporter Lorelei Kilbourne simply because of her good looks… and underestimate her journalistic abilities in the process. Trevor, playing a social worker turned reform-minded journalist, delivers great sarcastic dialog with the sleazy warden and fine angry speeches to her editor, including the crusader’s line, “If that’s true something ought to be done about it!”
Result: Editor Wilson gets a 30-day contempt-of-court sentence for a crusading editorial.
Wilson eventually gets full cooperation from the prosecutor and judge; he even has himself deputized to go undercover at the school, posing as an official bringing back a runaway inmate — and apparently is empowered to sock the corrupt school superintendent on the jaw.
Especially during its early years, “Big Town” was a great example of an effective, reform-minded newspaper — while its star reporter helped the editor reform himself from his sensational tabloid past. In this case, after the presses roll, the result is better public funding for the juvenile detention system. The judge not only drops Wilson’s contempt charge, but gets the alderman to double funding for a gentler orphanage-type facility.
And Wilson announces that he’s taking all the paroled kids to the Illustrated Press’s own summer camp, in a speech that hints this was to be the last broadcast of the season before its summer vacation. With Claire Trevor as the co-star, that places the episode around July 4, 1939, even though the opening commercial touts a “new 1940 Rinso.” Ona Munson replaced Trevor when the program resumed in September 1939, according to news clippings unearthed by the Digital Deli radio research blog.
I wish the radio collectors’ website had some history on this recording, possibly from Robinson’s own archives. An announcer jokes, “This is the Edward G. Robinson broadcasting system,” instead of “Columbia…” at the end, and there is one “retake” for the star to correct his reading in a courtroom scene.
Few recordings of Robinson’s actual live broadcasts exist. He played Steve Wilson for the first six seasons of “Big Town,” then left the show — which ran another nine years with Ed Pauley as its star. There were comic book, movie and TV spin-offs from the radio hit. For more about the series, see the links on the JHeroes Big Town page.
Note: Thanks, as always, to Jim Beshires, the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and other collectors for organizing and uploading the MP3 files of classic radio series where they can be heard, downloaded or embedded in this podcast.