Classic Movies · Television

Buried Treasures: Big Town (1947)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack in April, I did a write-up for Big Town After Dark (1947) as one of the blog’s “Overlooked Films on Tuesdays”—After Dark being the third film in a B-picture franchise lensed by independent producers William Pine and William C. Thomas (a.k.a. “The Two Dollar Bills”) and released through Paramount.  The film series was inspired by the popular radio program Big Town, which originally starred Edward G. Robinson from 1937 to 1942, and resurrected after a season’s hiatus in the fall of 1943 with Edward Pawley in the Eddie G. role.

dvdI caught Big Town After Dark as one of the entries in the “Vault” section of Epix’s On Demand offerings on a “freeview” occasion…the path to seeing the first film in the franchise, Big Town (1947), was a different one.  I splurged on some Alpha Video DVDs from Oldies.com some time back, and one of the discs was Big Town Collection—which not only featured the inaugural film but a pair of “lost” episodes of the TV version of Big Town, viewed over CBS and then NBC between 1950 and 1956.  (Reruns from the CBS run also aired on the DuMont network from February-Jul 1953 under the title City Assignment.)  Since placing that order, Oldies.com has “bundled” Collection with two other DVDs, one with Big Town After Dark and the other Big Town Scandal (1948; though it’s billed by its alternate title, Underworld Scandal).  I should have waited to place my order until this bundle became available from Alpha (it was released in May); I could have purchased this set in lieu of that collection of Bela Lugosi silents that featured the terrible Daughter of the Night (1920).  (As my Facebook compadre Christopher Snowden remarked: “Ah, the price we pay for free shipping…”)

Since Big Town kicks off the four-movie franchise, it functions as sort of an “origin” tale of how Steve Wilson (Philip Terry) came to assume the managing editorship of The Illustrated Press.  Hired by owner Amos Peabody (Charles Arnt) to revive the flagging periodical, Wilson adopts a sensationalistic tone with regards to the Press to boost circulation, taking advantage of such “hot” stories as a shootout at a local theatre (the culprit is a female sharpshooter, played by Veda Ann Borg) and a tragic roller coaster accident at a shoddily-run amusement park.  (The amusement park expose is later “spiked” to appease the park’s owner, a major advertiser—things haven’t changed a great deal in seventy years, as you can see.)  Wilson constantly finds himself at odds with reporter Lorelei Kilbourne (Hillary Brooke), whose idealism envisions a newspaper that crusades on behalf of the public good; she’s furious at Steve when he kills the amusement park story, and an earlier occasion in which he goes behind her back and assigns a story to fellow reporter Pete Ryan (Robert Lowery) because she’s too close to the folks involved (a woman is found dead in a state senator’s hotel room, and Wilson insists on smearing the victim to sell papers).  Finally, a series of “vampire” murders prompts Lorelei and Pete to part ways with the Press when they’re convinced the suspect in the killings (Byron S. Barr) is innocent…and Wilson insists he’s guilty.

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Phillip Reed, Hillary Brooke, and Robert Lowery in Big Town (1947)

A movie that packs a good deal of crime action with a small dollop of social commentary, Big Town was every bit as enjoyable as the previously-viewed Big Town After Dark.  I’m not a fan of actor Robert Lowery (even though I’ve seen him in too many venues to count—the latest was a repeat of Tales of Wells Fargo, in which he was older and heavier…and still not resembling Clark Gable in any way possible) but I thought he was pretty damn good as Ryan, a cynic who rises to the occasion and follows Lorelei out the door when he, too, is fed up with Wilson’s handling of the paper. Hillary Brooke is, of course, always welcome in the House of Yesteryear (I particularly like how Lorelei’s no longer having to be the Press’ society columnist), and as for Reed…well, I liked him much more in this movie than Big Town than After Dark only because he wasn’t afraid to play a guy who’s a little on the wankerish side.  Producer Thomas directed this one himself, from a screenplay by Geoffrey Holmes (a.k.a. Daniel Mainwaring), who co-wrote the story with Maxwell Shane (Fear in the Night).  It’s a shame these films weren’t better taken care of—the Alpha Video version (under its TV title, Guilty Assignment) looks as if it were rode hard and put up wet.  That’s why this screen capture…

dehner

…of MISTER John Dehner (who has a small role as the friend of Wilson’s on the train in the first few minutes of the film) isn’t as pristine as it should be…and why it’s hard at first to make out who this other old-time radio veteran is…

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…it’s Will Wright, who has a few lines as a sardonic train employee observing Wilson’s attempts to contact his newspaper.  (Future Pink Panther director Blake Edwards also has a bit in this movie as a reporter named “Nixon.”)

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Mark Stevens and Trudy Wroe in the TV series Big Town

While Big Town was still drawing huge radio audiences every week, the decision was made to transition the show to TV screens, and in October of 1950, folks who had invested in those newfangled sets could watch a visual version of Big Town starring Patrick McVey in the Steve Wilson role.  The TV Big Town went through actresses portraying Lorelei like a box of tissues, however; from 1950 to 1954, Mary K. Wells, Julie Stevens, Jane Nigh, and Beverly Tyler all took turns playing Wilson’s girl Friday.  Big Town was telecast live from New York in its first two seasons (1950-52) but a move to Hollywood in April of 1952 prompted a switch to film.  The show moved to NBC in the fall of 1954 with Mark Stevens inheriting the part of Steve from McVey and a new Lorelei in Trudy Wroe; Stevens would play Wilson for two seasons but Wroe’s Lorelei vanished after a year on NBC and was replaced by a new love interest for Steve, a commercial artist named Diane Walker (played by Doe Avedon).  Other regulars on the show at one time included city editor Charlie Anderson (Barry Kelley) and Lt. Tom Gregory (John Doucette).

bigtowntvStevens, Wroe, and Kelley are in the two episodes that accompany the 1947 film in Big Town Collection (though Wroe is only glimpsed briefly in the first); the first one on the disc, “The Lovers” (02/14/55), has an old high school friend of Steve’s murdered by an intruder in her home…and suspicion pointing to her husband (Willard Sage).  The only item of interest in this flaccid effort is that the episode was directed by Busby Berkeley (yes—that Busby Berkeley), whose trademark overhead musical shots find no purchase in a TV series that by that time was content to imitate the no-nonsense cinematography style of Dragnet.  The close-ups in these two episodes are off the rails, and the overall “true stories” tone of Big Town seems more suited to the radio/TV series The Big Story, with star Stevens intoning at the end of each show: “The story you have just seen is based on factual account…only the names of the people and cities have been changed to protect the right of privacy.”  (This episode was penned by the prolific Alvin Boretz and Wolf Man director george waGGner.)

The second show on the Collection DVD is actually the show from the previous week (02/07/55)—“The Sniper.”  This one is a good little effort (written and directed by waGGner), in which a cop is brought down by a sniper who apparently went after his target from the roof of The Illustrated Press building…and the clues to the culprit’s identity include a broken pair of sunglasses belonging to a commercial artist.  This one is really first-rate because it’s packed to the rafters with TDOY character favorites:

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Dabbs Greer as the cop on the case…

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Ann Doran as the cop’s widow (she does some outstanding work here)…

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Jean Byron as the artist…

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…and Keye Luke as an elevator operator.  (You thought I was kidding about the close-ups, didn’t you?)  There’s also this bit of hilarity that, admittedly, I’m probably the only person who’d laugh at it—Wilson pokes through an industrialist’s (Chick Chandler) locker at his golf club…

lux

…and seeing the glass, announces it will be of interest to cop Greer.  (And that bar of Lux soap will be of major interest to the show’s sponsor.)  Lever Brothers continued their radio sponsorship on the TV version (the two shows feature original commercials for Rinso Blue and Good Luck Margarine) with a tag team by AC Spark Plugs (the ads for which feature character veteran Frank Albertson as the Press’ automotive reporter, “Jim Roberts”).  The TV Big Town is certainly nothing to race to the DVR to grab and keep, but I found it an amusing way to kill an hour (though the Steve Wilson character seems more like a cop than a managing editor—that was strange).

bigtownlogoBig Town must have had problems with its creditors because in addition to being retitled City Assignment for its DuMont run (the series was still running new shows on CBS at that same time) the show also went by Heart of the City (the McVey episodes), Headline (the 1954-55 Stevens episodes), and Byline Steve Wilson (the 1955-56 Stevens episodes).  When you compound this with the multiple aliases used when the Pine-Thomas movies aired on TV (Big Town went by Guilty Assignment; I Cover Big Town [1947] as I Cover the Underworld; Big Town After Dark as Underworld After Dark, and Big Town Scandal as Underworld Scandal) it makes you a little hesitant to lend any of the Illustrated Press reporters any money till payday (I suspect the titles of the movies were changed to avoid confusion with the still-airing TV series).

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