Being a motion picture actor in Hollywood during the 1930s/1940s was a demanding job…but can you imagine committing yourself to the rigors of a live weekly radio show as well? It wouldn’t be an easy task (which is why most of the big-name stars limited themselves to guest appearances on dramatic anthologies like The Lux Radio Theatre and the like), but actor Edward G. Robinson was willing to give it the old college try. Beginning on October 19, 1937, Eddie G. headlined CBS Radio’s Big Town—a series produced and written by ex-newspaperman Jerry McGill…and that’s just what the show was about: the fourth estate. Robinson played Steve Wilson, crusading city editor of The Illustrated Press—the major paper in a mythical metropolis actually named Big Town. The pretend city was supposed to be an amalgam of all America’s “Big Towns” …and any resemblance to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. was purely coincidental. (The memorable radio opening featured a voice from an echo chamber intoning: “The power and 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…”)
Accompanied by his girlfriend and Illustrated Press society editor Lorelei Kilbourne (first played on the show by Robinson’s co-star in The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse  and Key Largo , Claire Trevor), the high-minded Wilson took on all comers seeking to destroy Big Town’s way of life: crooked politicians and bidnessmen, racketeers, murderers—Wilson tangled with them all. The program became a huge hit for CBS, but by the end of 1941-42 season Eddie G wanted to bail on the program; according to Hal Erickson’s From Radio to the Big Screen, the actor explained in his biography “the series had become irrelevant in the light of the real-life drama then unfolding in Europe and the Pacific.” The network was inclined to agree with him…but a year later, decided to resurrect the program in New York and cast Broadway’s Edward Pawley and daytime drama fixture Fran Carlon in the roles originally played by Eddie G. and Claire. The series continued to be a ratings show horse until June 25, 1952 (by this time, Walter Greaza had replaced Pawley).
From Erickson’s book:
Inasmuch as Big Town had devolved from an ‘A’ to a ‘B’ production during its New York run, it makes sense that the long-overdue movie adaptation of the property would be entrusted to the Paramount B-picture division headed by William Pine and William C. Thomas, aka the “Two Dollar Bills.” Though by 1947 the Pine-Thomas unit had become more ambitious and expansive with A-grade pictures like Albuquerque, they would continue supplying Paramount with cheap but popular six-reelers until switching over entirely to more elaborate endeavors in 1949. Among the last of Pine-Thomas’ B productions was the unit’s only continuing series: a quartet of modestly mounted features inspired by the still-popular radio weekly Big Town.
Those programmers were: Big Town (1947—a.k.a. Guilty Assignment), I Cover Big Town (1947—a.k.a. I Cover the Underworld), Big Town After Dark (1947—a.k.a. Underworld After Dark), and Big Town Scandal (1948—a.k.a. Underworld Scandal). After Dark (directed by Thomas from a script by Whitman Chambers, who wrote for the radio series) was available among the offerings on Epix Vault on Demand during our “freeview,” and so I sat down with a punchy little B-pic that begins with Big Trouble in Little China Big Town: Lorelei Kilbourne (Hillary Brooke) has decided to quit The Illustrated Press after her novel proves a success, and that leaves her on-again, off-again boyfriend Wilson (played by Pine-Thomas contractee Philip Reed) in the lurch as far as the paper’s court reporter goes. (No more of that society slop for Lorelei—girlfriend got a promotion in the movie series.) The Press’ owner, Amos Peabody (Charles Arnt), specifically asks Steve not to hire his niece Susan (Ann Gillis) for the position.
But Susan is a sweet talker, and before you can say “Joseph Pulitzer” she’s got Wilson twisted around her finger…and Lorelei fuming that she’s been saddled with showing young Susan the ropes. (Steve’s trying to make Lorelei jealous so she’ll stay. If you’re concerned that she’s really going to leave—worry ye not. She’s got a weekly radio show to do, after all.) Once assured of getting an Illustrated Press paycheck, Susan reveals to Steve that she has an agenda: she wants to close all the gambling joints in the nearby town of Linbury (they’re a bad influence on the college population, keeping them from sex and pot smoking, I’m guessing), beginning with the exclusive Winners Club—owned and operated by racketeer Chuck LaRue (Richard Travis—yes, I can’t seem to get away from this guy). Steve accompanies Susan to the Club…where he receives a beatdown from LaRue’s goons (Joe Sawyer, Douglas Blackley). That’s all he needs to get on board with an Illustrated Press crusade to smash the gambling dens (especially LaRue’s) …but as you may have already guessed—things are not quite what they seem.
Big Town After Dark is available at your friendly neighborhood YouTube, and I found it most enjoyable for a programmer…though Hal rates the first two movies in the franchise a little higher, citing Film Bulletin’s review of After Dark as “a weak, empty little action melodrama.” (They say that like it’s a bad thing. I haven’t seen any of the remaining films, though I noticed the last one, Big Town Scandal, is also available at YouTube under its Underworld Scandal title.) The After Dark performance from Ann Gillis is a major plus (Gillis was a one-time child actress, and was the original “Judy Foster” on the radio sitcom A Date with Judy)—though I won’t give too much away about the motivations of her character in the movie. It’s always nice to see Vince Barnett (a.k.a. “Elmo” on Mayberry R.F.D.) in any movie; Barnett joined the short-lived series in the second picture as a courthouse tout named “Louie,” and he brings a lot of welcome comedy relief.
My love for Hillary Brooke is almost as palpable as my devotion to Adele Jergens (someone should have written a movie in which those two constantly lure unsuspecting patsies to their death), and I think she’s solid as Lorelei. I can’t be quite as charitable about her co-star, Philip Reed…though I was more tolerant of him than the reviewer at the Film Noir of the Week blog, who observed that in the first Big Town film, Reed “packs about the same amount of emotion into his portrayal of Wilson as Moe Howard would playing Hamlet.” (I’m surprised Stoogephile Hal, in quoting this observation in his book, let the obvious joke go by that Moe once remarked whenever he played Hamlet it was more like “omelet.” As you can see, I have no such standards.)
From the (always reliable) IMDb: “The failure of the original copyright holder to renew the film’s copyright resulted in it falling into public domain, meaning that virtually anyone could duplicate and sell a VHS/DVD copy of the film. Therefore, many of the versions of this film available on the market are either severely (and usually badly) edited and/or of extremely poor quality, having been duped from second- or third-generation (or more) copies of the film.” The visual quality of Big Town After Dark is certainly not pristine (the YouTube copy is identical to the one I downloaded from Epix) but it’s intact for the most part, and it’s whetted my appetite to check out the remaining titles in the series.