Wednesday, January 28, 2004

”If trouble is around, yours truly will most likely get a chunk of it.”

Laura, a friend of mine who is as passionate about classic movies as I am, was engaged in a discussion with me one night about Dick Powell. She began chanting in a sing-song fashion: “Philip Marlowe is a high tenor…Philip Marlowe is a high tenor…” She was referring to Powell’s role in the 1944 film noir Murder, My Sweet. I remember recommending to her at the time that she would really enjoy listening to Richard Diamond, Private Detective if she wanted the experience the adventures of “the singing detective.”

Powell appeared in a slew of Hollywood musicals for both Warner Brothers (42nd Street, Footlight Parade) and 20th Century-Fox (Thanks a Million, On the Avenue) during the 1930s, but by the end of the decade had become frustrated with his career, weary of doing—in his words—“the same stupid story” over and over again. His move to Paramount in the 1940s (Christmas in July) didn’t help matters any; he had begged for the meaty role of sleazy insurance man Walter Neff in the studio’s release Double Indemnity (1944), but lost out to Fred MacMurray. He then fled to RKO, and with one film (Murder, My Sweet) managed to transform his image from apple-cheeked chorus boy to hard-boiled tough guy.

Of all the screen incarnations of Raymond Chandler’s famous detective (with the exception of George Montgomery, whose The Brasher Doubloon [1947] I have not seen), I think Powell’s portrayal is the best. His baby-faced “eternal juvenile” of those ‘30s musicals gives Chandler’s hero a vulnerability that allows the actor to outshine the more celebrated Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. Murder, My Sweet provided Powell a stepping stone to playing the radio gumshoe known as Richard Rogue in the short-lived detective series Rogue’s Gallery from 1945-46.

Powell also played another hard-boiled character in a 1948 radio series based on the hit stage play/film The Front Page (he played Hildy Johnson to William Conrad’s Walter Burns), which was on the receiving end of many a critical brickbat. It was about that time that a young screenwriter named Blake Edwards (later the successful director of Operation Petticoat [1959] and the Pink Panther film series) was assigned to create a new show for Powell, which he did by inventing the personage of Richard Diamond, originally a former OSS agent with a talent for fast flippancy and quips. By the time the series debuted over NBC Radio on April 24, 1949, Diamond had morphed into an ex-cop who had decided to hang out his own shingle and become…Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

I think one reason why I’m so fond of this show is that it shares many similarities with another favorite of mine, The Adventures of Sam Spade. Both detectives had a breezy insouciance that added much needed levity to the normally poker-faced private-eye show. In addition, Diamond had—as did Spade with Lt. Dundy—a sort of love-hate relationship with homicide lieutenant Walt Levinson (Ed Begley, then Arthur Q. Bryan) and often engaged in sarcastic badinage with the easily agitated cop. Diamond saved most of his suffer-no-fools disdain for desk sergeant Otis Ludlum (Wilms Herbert), a dimwit who had to have a relative at City Hall protecting his job.

The lighthearted tone of Richard Diamond was evident in the program’s weekly opening, which featured Powell whistling a jaunty “Leave It to Love.” Powell even reached back to his crooner origins and closed out each program with a song, serenading his character’s love interest, Helen Asher (played by radio stalwart Virginia Gregg, and later Francis Robinson). Helen was a wealthy redhead who resided in a Park Avenue penthouse apartment, and was catered to by a butler named Francis (also played by Herbert), who had an uncanny knack for killing the mood by walking in as the pair were just getting down to business, if you get my drift.

Sponsored at first by Rexall Drugs and later, Camel cigarettes and Prince Albert tobacco, Richard Diamond left NBC’s schedule in December 1950, resurfacing a month later on ABC in January 1951, and finally bowing out June 27, 1952. The show returned for a brief summer run in 1953 over ABC, although these shows consisted of repeat broadcasts from 1950. I had the opportunity to listen to a pair of episodes from 1949 last night at work—in “The Gibson Murder Case” (10/08/49), a blonde schoolteacher contacts Diamond for help after she stumbles across a corpse left there by a pail of blackmailers. The second show is from the following week (October 15), and finds our hero going after a counterfeiter after he passes a phony five-dollar bill to Diamond’s paperboy pal.

Dick Powell’s movie career included work behind the camera; the actor directed such films as Split Second (1953, a particular B-movie fave of mine) and The Enemy Below (1957). He also dabbled in television, creating a company known as Four Star Productions, which brought forth such TV favorites as Four Star Playhouse (1952-56) and Zane Grey Theater (1956-61). Powell brought Richard Diamond, Private Detective to the tube, in a 1957-60 series that bore no resemblance at all to its radio namesake (David Janssen played the title role). During its sporadic run, Diamond started out as a New York shamus but by February 1959 he relocated to Hollywood—and the change in climate apparently did him some good, since he acquired a girlfriend in Karen Wells (played by future Mission: Impossible star Barbara Bain) and an answering service operator in “Sam,” a sultry-voiced, leggy gal (her face was never shown) who was played by an at-that-time-unknown Mary Tyler Moore. I have one of the early Diamond TV shows from 1957; a ho-hummer called “Picture of Fear” (which sounds like a Barnaby Jones episode, doesn’t it?). Perhaps I'm being a bit too hasty after sampling only one episode, but all I know is after seeing it I now know why Janssen became a fugitive.

No comments:

Post a Comment