Shorty Bell

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by Bob Stepno
The short-lived 1948 series Shorty Bell featured Mickey Rooney as a young man in love with newspapers, a Linotype operator’s son who wants to be a reporter after returning from service in World War II.

(He got the job, but unfortunately that and some fine acting and writing didn’t keep the series on the air for more than a few months.)

According to the Buffalo Courier-Express for March 28, 1948, the program was conceived as a continuing “novel for radio,” to be written by two Hollywood writers who were former newspapermen, Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and Richard Carroll. Brennan had written Rooney’s film “Killer McCoy.”

In the first episode, Shorty has been driving a newspaper delivery truck just to be close to the business. He’s persistent about wanting a reporter job, and he’s tough about taking criticism. He gets a break from the editor.

Like any good reporter, he draws on past connections — which sometimes produce soul-searching and difficult ethical decisions. In “Crooked Hero,” it turns out he did some boxing before the war and knows a former champ. He also learns a lesson about unleashing the flip, cynical jargon of the newsroom on unsuspecting civilians: His boss jokes about sending him to cover a “graduation” from prison — a funeral. Later, Shorty uses the same quip with someone who cared about the person.

Even later, he learns that both he and his editor have had to make tough decisions about the line between friendship and deciding how to — or whether to — report a story. Ethical decisions about competition with another journalist come up in a later episode. If the series had continued, it might have filled a journalism textbook with chapters on the need for enthusiasm, curiosity, confidence, ethical decision-making, and good writing.

Shorty’s relationship with the editor is a (typical or stereotypical?) combination of abuse and mentoring, somewhat reminiscent of the young photographer Flashgun Casey’s scenes with his boss in the movie “Here’s Flash Casey.” (See my Crime Photographer page.)

It’s also a bit like radio-veteran William Conrad’s editor scene in the Jack Webb newspaper film “–30–“, preaching the value of the newspaper to an intern played by Ozzie & Harriet’s son David: see it here). Coincidentally, Conrad, one of the hardest-working actors in radio, also appears in some Shorty Bell episodes.

Separate JHeroes pages of notes on individual episodes:

Critics’ opinions were mixed. Seymour Peck of the New York tabloid “PM” was caustic, saying, “It was, in fact, a little shocking to have a highly touted radio show make its debut parading an utterly trite, uninteresting situation and a trite, lifeless set of characters. There wasn’t a surprise anywhere in the half hour…. Only Mickey, selling his own lively personality, giving vitality and warmth to a very deficient script, made the show tolerable.”

For more information:

  • Jerry Haendiges lists a Dec. 18, 1947 audition episode before the March 28, 1948 premiere, followed by 13 more shows, ending June 27, 1948.
  • J. David Goldin has cast lists with the same dates, calls the December episode the first of the series. He doesn’t give episodes titles, just dates and code numbers.
  • The Digital Deli Too Definitive Shorty Bell Radio Log with Mickey Rooney and William N. Robson features a similar episode list and some different dates, citing 1948 published program listings. It lists cast and staff, using newspaper program logs,and write-ups from radio trade magazines to document the shifts in plot, crew and format. Unlike Haendiges and Goldin, 

Below are the only Shorty Bell stories at the Internet Archive in April 2014. Click to download or play the MP3s. NOTE: The filenames of the “Movie Script” and “Crooked Hero” episodes were reversed in the archive at the time of this writing. They may have been corrected later.

  • Shorty Bell 48-03-28 audition w Mickey Rooney (elsewhere called “Newspaper Truck Driver” or “Chapter One”)
  • Shorty Bell 48-06-13 Crooked Hero (elsewhere “State Prison Funeral” or “Growing Pains” and dated 06-06 by DigitalDeli and 06-20 by Haendiges and Goldin)
  • Shorty Bell 48-06-20 Movie Script (“Poogie” says Haendiges; “Bobo Biltmore, Honorary Dog” says Digital Deli)
  • Shorty Bell 48-06-26 Shorty Scoops Photographer (Haendiges says “Rival Girl Photographer”; DigitalDeli says”Winnie Lane, Ace Photographer”; they and Goldin date it 06-27, not 26). As the episode ends, Shorty finally has a page one lead-story byline, and is sent on vacation. Rooney announces on-air that this is the last episode and that he will be launching a “brand new show” the next week, “Hollywood Showcase,” a 1948 equivalent of “American Idol.”

The Old Time Radio dealer OTRCat sells a CD of MP3 files of Shorty Bell, lists the December 1947 audition. However, its sample program shows that it, too, has the “Crooked Hero” and “Movie Script” files reversed, and the June 26 date instead of June 27. Like most OTR websites, OTRCAT does not say where the MP3 files came from.

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