Monday, January 26, 2004

”…ever ready to roar to the rescue of a friend or the search of an enemy…”

Last night, I watched a DVD of The Desperate Hours, a 1955 Humphrey Bogart film that I had not seen in quite a long while. (To give you an idea of the time frame, I watched it on TBS—and you know how long it’s been since they’ve shown anything in black-and-white.) Viewing the movie inspired me to dig up a couple of Bogie broadcasts and make him the focus of today’s trip back to those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

For many years, Bogart had been approached by both producers and the networks to appear in a weekly radio series—but Bogie usually refused, not wanting to commit himself to a live microphone every week for fear that it would conflict with shooting schedules and family vacations. The revolution of audio tape in the late 1940s and early 1950s changed all that, however—writers Morton Fine and David Friedkin presented the actor with a proposal for a syndicated series, allowing him to pre-record the dialogue with the music and sound effects dubbed in later. Under this arrangement, he could do three to four shows a week, stockpiling a season’s worth of programs in a relatively short period of time. Bogart was amenable to this deal (“People don’t have to look at my ugly puss,” he commented wryly), and with the participation of his actress wife Lauren Bacall—Bold Venture was born.

Bogie and “Baby” had met on the set of their feature film together—To Have and Have Not—in 1944, and they shared an off-screen as well as on-screen chemistry, prompting the two to marry in 1945. Bold Venture was, in a sense, loosely based on that memorable film: Bogart was Slate Shannon, a Havana hotel owner who also skipped his own yacht, the Bold Venture, while Bacall essayed the role of Sailor Duval, Shannon’s sultry, sexy sidekick—described on the show as his “ward,” she had been “willed” to Shannon by her father for her own “protection.” (Show of hands…who among you here honestly believe that Bacall would have trouble taking care of herself? That’s what I thought.) Set against “the sultry setting of tropical Havana and the mysterious islands of the Caribbean,” it was a very entertaining series, particularly for “Bogie-and-Baby” fans, providing “adventure, intrigue, mystery and romance.”

Bold Venture was unique in that Calypso music was used for the musical bridges between scene changes, because, according to Bogart, “we don’t use any of that narrative stuff.” The Calypso singing was provided by a character named King Moses, portrayed by Jester Hairston, a gifted composer and choral director who conducted the choral music for Frank Capra’s 1937 film classic Lost Horizon. In addition to being a frequent performer on Amos ‘n’ Andy (he usually played the part of Leroy, the Kingfish’s brother-in-law), he also provided the singing voice for Sidney Poitier in the actor’s Oscar-winning role in Lillies of the Field (1963). Modern-day audiences might recognize Hairston in reruns playing the role of Rollie Forbes on the hit TV sitcom Amen (1986-91).

Bold Venture was produced by Humphrey Bogart’s Santana Productions (Santana was the name of the actor’s yacht), but was distributed by the Ziv Company (a successful radio program syndicator whose other hits included The Cisco Kid and Boston Blackie), who sold the series to 423 stations by the time of the show’s debut broadcast, March 26, 1951. A year later, it was broadcast in 600 markets. Bold Venture was a cut above the usual syndicated fare, since Ziv ponied up $12,000 per episode (the Bogarts pocketed $4,000 of that) to ensure that the writing and production would be top-notch. Ultimately, Bogie and Bacall netted close to half a million dollars for their efforts, thanks to a lucrative fee-plus-percentage deal with the Ziv people.

Of the 78 episodes broadcast between 1951-53, some 28 episodes still survive to be listened to today, which is precisely what I did last evening. Not all 28, of course, but a pair of good entries; in the first, “Matt Jeffries Dies,” Slate and Sailor find themselves in hot water when a fisherman who dies on their boat is discovered to have been poisoned. “Welcome Back to Civilization, Dead Man” also features the pair in trouble; a man named George Carson is promptly murdered after returning from a treasure hunt—and his killers threaten Slate and Sailor when they come looking for his gold. Both shows have that notorious syndicated “canned” quality, but the dialogue is pretty snappy and the plots better than average. Bold Venture may have been one of radio’s most expensive dramatic series, but it paid off in rich dividends—and Ziv even revisited the show again in 1959 for a television version, starring Dane Clark (the poor man’s Bogart) and Joan Marshall.

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