Sunday, January 25, 2004

”Look out, Jerry—he’s got a gun!”

Author Richard Lockridge introduced the couple known as Mr. and Mrs. North in a series of short stories published in The New Yorker during the 1930s. But in 1940, Pam and Jerry’s lighthearted domestic misadventures took a serious detour like something out a noir film: Lockridge’s wife Francis joined forces with her hubby to write The Norths Meet Murder, and the twenty-five novels that followed transformed the Norths into a husband-and-wife crimefighting couple, quite possibly the most successful of their day.

The origins of radio’s Mr. and Mrs. North can be traced back to 1941—that year, movie audiences could watch the couple in an MGM motion picture with the same title, which was based on the stage play and starred Gracie Allen (as the scatterbrained Pam) and William Post, Jr. An audition record for a potential radio series was transcribed that same year, starring Peggy Conklin and Carl Eastman—but the radio version reverted back to the original New Yorker stories, the emphasis being on humorous romantic comedy. That audition was shelved, but a year later the Norths returned in their new mystery regalia on an NBC series that premiered December 30, 1942 for Jergens Lotion and Woodbury Cold Cream. Alice Frost and Joseph Curtin stepped into the parts of Mr. and Mrs. North and would continue in those roles until 1954.

One might be tempted to compare the Norths with that other famous literary sleuthing couple, Nick and Nora Charles—introduced by Dashiell Hammett in the 1934 novel The Thin Man. But Nick Charles was a retired detective, and knew a little about the science of detection—Jerry North, on the other hand, was strictly an amateur; a run-of-the-mill book publisher aided and abetted in his investigations by his irrepressible wife Pam. This could explain why their adventures had such a tremendous appeal for audiences—the Norths were an average couple who just happened to have a knack for stumbling onto murders. Nick and Nora were also featured on radio (1941-50), but their popularity paled to that of Mr. and Mrs. North—the program averaged a weekly audience of 25 million listeners a week, seriously threatening the mystery show forerunner, Mr. District Attorney.

Pam and Jerry’s pal on the force was Lieutenant Bill Wigand (initially played by Frank Lovejoy, then Staats Cotsworth and Francis De Sales)—a first-rate cop who was a bit shy around the opposite sex (Pam was always trying to play matchmaker for the bashful detective). Wigand grudgingly got used to the inescapable conclusion that people simply had a bad habit of kicking off whenever the Norths went anywhere. Wigand’s aide-de-camp was Sergeant Aloysius Mullins (Walter Kinsella), a bumbling cop in the Barney Fife tradition who often bewildered his superior due to the fact that the easily exasperated Mullins was married with a family of eight children. The strong characterizations of Mr. and Mrs. North contributed to the show’s success; other individuals who populated the colorful cast included the loquacious cabbie Mahatma McGloin (Mandel Kramer) and problem child Susan, Pam and Jerry’s 14-year-old niece (Betty Jane Tyler).

Mr. and Mrs. North left NBC Radio on December 18, 1946, but soon resurfaced over CBS in July 1947 as a Tuesday night staple for Colgate-Palmolive for seven seasons. Barbara Britton and Richard Denning (Lucille Ball’s better-half on My Favorite Husband) replaced Frost and Curtin at the beginning of the 1954-55 radio season; the two stars had played the roles of Pam and Jerry in a TV version from 1952-54. In April 1955, CBS unceremoniously removed Mr. and Mrs. North from their schedule—in fact, the radio network cleaned house of two other long-running, popular detective shows at the same time as well: Casey, Crime Photographer and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.

For a program of such longevity and popularity during the Golden Age of Radio, it is a curious fact that barely three dozen episodes of Mr. and Mrs. North have survived, according to Jim Cox in Radio Crime Fighters. Last night, I listened to two of them; they’re AFRS rebroadcasts and unfortunately have no date, but since both star Britton and Denning I’m guesstimating they originated from the 1954-55 season. First out of the box, “Cry Foul”: a boxer friend of Jerry and Pam’s finds himself the number one suspect in the murder of his ex-wife’s husband, while “Collector’s Item” finds the Norths on the search of the murderer of an art critic who has proven that an “original” painting is a complete fake. I’ve never particularly cared for Denning—he’s about as exciting as vanilla pudding—but I have to admit he’s pretty good here, and I've fallen head-over-heels for Britton; she’s a more youthful-sounding Pam, a different take on the character than that provided by series stalwart Alice Frost. (I also took a half-hour to watch a TV episode of Mr. and Mrs. North from February 2, 1954 called “Target,” in which Jerry is being hunted down by a mysterious killer; in the beginning of the show the Norths are enjoying a day at the beach and when I saw Denning in his bathing trunks I kept expecting the “Creature From the Black Lagoon” to come lumbering into view.) These two shows featured such radio stalwarts as William Conrad, Paul Frees and Gerald Mohr, and though I prefer network broadcasts to the AFRS versions, it’s still a delightful show—“mystery liberally sprinkled with laughs,” as the CBS radio promotion informed the listening audience.

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