Call Northside 777

“Well, it made a pretty good yarn, I guess. Y’know — ‘Mother slaves to save $5,000, offers it to clear her son.’
I told myself it was all in a day’s work…”
Reporter Mac McNeal

By Bob Stepno

About the film: IMDB page for “Call Northside 777”

The story’s tough-talking reporter hero, played by Jimmy Stewart, begins this radio adaptation by mangling today’s journalism terminology. The story, he says, is “off the record” — but he means it’s all from public records. That is, it’s a true story. It starts with a classified ad in the newspaper, a scrub-woman, and a reporter’s search for the truth — and proof.

Based on a real newspaper investigation that led to the freeing of a convict, the film starred Stewart as an at-first-reluctant reporter who gradually becomes an advocate for a man whose mother scrubbed floors to offer a reward for new evidence in his case.

Decades before “All the President’s Men,” this story is a realistic “newspaper reporter procedural,” with Stewart’s character skeptical at first, then building the story gradually, chasing down leads, employing shoe-leather, compassion and insight.

Film historians will tell you where the makers employed their dramatic license. For a movie audience, the almost-documentary-style film’s conclusion uses a photographic clue to solve the case — not the easiest way to make a point in the later radio broadcast. The use of wirephoto and a dramatically enlarged image were not really “high tech” for the 1948 film, but may have seemed so to a non-technical audience.

The extra bonus, when it comes to radio drama’s record of the importance of newspapers in American life, is in how the reporter spots the key piece of evidence — a bundle of papers under a newsboy’s arm in a newspaper photograph: Newspapers-in-a-newspaper-photo-in-a-newspaper-drama!

The first radio version was by Screen Guild Theater, one of radio’s “anthology” series that specialized in radio adaptations of hit films. James Stewart and Richard Conte re-created their film roles as the reporter and the prisoner.

Pat O’Brien (the original film Hildy Johnson in 1931’s “The Front Page”) is added to the cast as Stewart’s editor, a part played by Lee J. Cobb in the film. O’Brien puts a great touch of Irish blarney into his speech convincing the reporter to dig deeper.

Compressing the film into a 25-minute radio drama meant cutting details, and corners. Is it still effective? Give a listen.

Screen Guild Theater was the first of at least three drama-anthology series to present Call Northside 777 to a radio audience in a half hour format. Jimmy Stewart recreated his screen role twice, and Dana Andrews — no stranger to journalist roles — played McNeal for Hollywood Sound Stage in 1951, with Thomas Gomez as the convict. William Conrad, one of the most familiar voices in radio drama (including journalist roles on NightBeat and other series) played McNeal’s editor in the Screen Director’s Playhouse production. All three versions are available in Internet Archive collections at the links below.

Screen Guild Theater, 1948

Screen Director’s Playhouse, 1949

Hollywood Sound Stage, 1951

Hollywood Sound Stage was a later version of the Screen Guild Theater series, which — under several names, sponsors and networks from 1939 to 1952 — supported a Motion Picture Relief Fund country home and hospital for needy former movie industry artists. For more of its history, see the archives of the radio collector site Digital Deli. (Digital Deli)

Someone might get a book or academic dissertation out of comparing the actual Majczeck case newspaper stories, court records, the film, its radio adaptations, and two versions of an earlier radioplay, eventually broadcast as an episode of “The Big Story.”

Some resource links:

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