Sunday, November 9, 2003

"Get this and get it straight--crime is a sucker's road, and those who travel it end up in the gutter, the prison, or an early grave..."

I'm listening to a Round Robin set of CDs that I purchased recently from an OTR dealer. Round Robins are kind of hit-and-miss affairs: for every show I really want in my collection there's usually 2 or 3 that I'll never have any use for. Among the broadcasts in this Round Robin set were several episodes of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe.

I'm sort of lukewarm when it comes to Marlowe--it's not a bad series, but then again, it's nothing to get too excited about. I have a handful of shows that I have obtained from various sources; usually Round Robins or some of the radio detective compilations I've purchased from Radio Spirits. In the hierarchy of radio sleuths, I would place the Marlowe series as better than, say, Philo Vance or Boston Blackie--but nowhere near the quality of Sam Spade...or Richard Diamond, for that matter.

Philip Marlowe is, of course, the legendary fictional shamus created by author Raymond Chandler--introduced in Chandler's memorable first novel, The Big Sleep, in 1939. The Marlowe character made his radio debut on a June 11, 1945 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of "Murder, My Sweet"--a radio adaptation of the 1944 RKO film (adapted from Chandler's second Marlowe novel Farewell, My Lovely). For star Dick Powell (who reprised his role on the Lux broadcast), the movie was an attempt to establish a tough-guy persona and shed the song-and-dance image he had developed from appearing in a spate of Warner Brothers/20th Century-Fox musicals during the 1930's. Of all the silver screen incarnations of Chandler's detective, I prefer Powell's the most--he manages to project this teensy hint of vulnerability in his performance that makes him more human than the other screen Marlowes. Many others--including Chandler himself--claim that Humphrey Bogart's turn in The Big Sleep (1946) is the ultimate portrayal of "Chandler's white knight in a trenchcoat." I admire both the movie and Bogart immensely, but when I watch the film I feel that Bogie is just channeling Sam Spade (the detective he played brilliantly in the 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon).

During the summer of 1947 the Marlowe character finally got the opportunity at appearing in a weekly radio series as a summer replacement for The Bob Hope Show on NBC. The Marlowe behind the mike was actor Van Heflin, and though I realize this is heresy among both Chandler buffs and OTR fans, I think Heflin was clearly the superior radio Marlowe. Sadly, of the nine shows broadcast (including the audition show) only three exist today; the debut episode, "Red Wind" (based on Chandler's 1938 novelette) is available and is particularly well-done. Chandler didn't care much for the Heflin series, and said as much in a letter to colleague Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of Perry Mason), stating "It was thoroughly flat."

Chandler's sleuth back returned to the airwaves a year later as The (New) Adventures of Philip Marlowe debuted over CBS Radio on September 26, 1948 (running about two-and-a-half seasons until its cancellation in 1951). This series has a better batting average of available broadcasts (approximately 98 of the 114 episodes are still with us today) and Chandler was considerably more pleased with this incarnation, remarking that the voice of series star Gerald Mohr "at least packed personality." While Mohr most assuredly possessed one of the most distinctive voices on radio, there wasn't a great deal of nuance or depth to his portrayal of Marlowe--which might explain I'm not a more enthusiastic fan of the show. (To me, Mohr seemed to excel more in supporting roles, like on Escape and Suspense.) Considering the budgetary limitations, the show was very well-made, with good scripts, fine supporting performances, and the professional touch of veterans like producer-director Norman Macdonnell and music conductor Dick Aurandt.

Still, if I think hard about it, one good thing did result from The Adventures of Philip Marlowe series: CBS president William Paley was a huge fan of the show, and pressed both Macdonnell and CBS director of programming Harry Ackerman to develop a "Philip Marlowe in the Old West." After numerous fits and starts, that series made its debut over CBS Radio in 1952--and its title was...Gunsmoke.

1 comment:

  1. If you don't like Marlowe, then go listen to Easy Aces or Big John and Sparky.