Monday, January 5, 2004

”…Wildroot brings to the air the greatest private detective of them all…”

Announcer Dick Joy sounds a little hyperbolic, but I’m convinced he speaks the truth: The Adventures of Sam Spade was the greatest private-eye series of Radio’s Golden Age. The show was as ritualized as a Kabuki play; Joy would briefly tout the merits of Wildroot Cream Oil, followed by an orchestral fanfare…and a ringing phone:

EFFIE: Sam Spade Detective Agency…
SAM: Me, sweetheart…
EFFIE: Oh, Sam! I’m glad you’re back in town!
SAM: So am I, Effie…so am I…confidentially, I didn’t think I’d make it…uh…confidentially, that is…
EFFIE: Was it dangerous, Sam?
SAM: I should say it was! Why, for the past twenty-four hours I’ve been at it hammer and tongs, over hill and dale, through shot and shell…it was enough to turn any ordinary man’s blood to ice…and his hair pure white…
EFFIE: Oh! That sounds terrifying, Sam!
SAM: I wish it had been only terrifying, Effie…it was bloodcurdling, spine-chilling, hair-raising…I was bored. It was also rural and countrified…
EFFIE: Well, what happened, Sam? Tell me!
SAM: You’ve heard of the Martin and the Coys?
SAM: And the Boston Massacre?
SAM: Custer’s Last Stand?
EFFIE: No…!!!
SAM: Well, put them all together and they spell…uh…what I’ll shortly be in to dictate a report which I call in the first of clever literary plagiarisms “The Farmer’s Daughter Caper”…

Then the orchestra would strike up again, and Joy would let us know that “America’s leading detective-fiction writer” Dashiell Hammett and “radio’s outstanding producer-director of mystery and crime drama” William Spier had joined forces to present another weekly episode of The Adventures of Sam Spade.

Actually, “joined forces” is stretching it a tad. Hammett did create Sam, in the classic 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon, and seven of the first 13 shows of Spade’s initial ABC 1946 summer run were based on some of Hammett’s short stories. But his actual participation was minimal at best; mostly involving him tooling out to the mailbox and fishing out a check issued to him for allowing his name to be associated with the radio series. (Encountering Hammett's "friend" Lillian Hellman at a party on one occasion, Duff asked Hellman what Hammett thought of the show, and she replied "Dash? Oh, I don't think he's even heard it.")

The job was left up to Spier (producer-director of Suspense) and Spade’s high-class team of writers—Jo Eisinger, Bob Tallman, Gil Doud, John Michael Hayes and E. Jack Neumann, to name a few—to make the show tick; blending hard-boiled attitude and action with a pixyish sense of street whimsy that made the series sparkle and set it far apart from the more familiar 1941 film interpretation. Spier, in fact, had originally planned to cast a Bogart-like actor in the role of Sam Spade—but Howard Duff, who ultimately landed the part, was as un-Bogart as an actor could be. Duff’s Spade was a cut-up, possessing a breezy insouciance that charmed the listening audience and soon made the dour and straitlaced Bogart Spade a mere mist in the memory.

Sam’s loyal, dedicated secretary Effie Perrine was played by actress Lurene Tuttle, who infused the character with a sweetly daffy naivete that provided the perfect counterpoint to Duff’s sarcastic Spade. You just knew deep down that Effie was in love with Sam, and their dialogue exchanges (many times ad-libbed) at the beginning and end of each show were, as James Thurber once commented about Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, “somehow akin to The Sweetheart Duet from Maytime.” (In fact, “Goodnight, Sweetheart” was the program’s memorable closing theme.) Effie would take down the dictation of Sam’s latest “caper,” to be signed and delivered to the client (with Sam’s license number—137596), as each episode shifted back and forth between the two of them in the office and the dramatization of Sam’s working the case. Spade always clued Effie that the case had come to its conclusion with “Period. End of report.”

After its 13-week stint on ABC Radio, The Adventures of Sam Spade moved to CBS on September 29, 1946, where it was a hugely popular Sunday night smash for three years. It switched over to NBC at the beginning of the 1949-50 season, but by that time ominous, dark clouds had begun to loom on the horizon: Hammett became a target of the House Committee on Un-American Activties, and actor Duff found himself listed in Red Channels (Duff commented to Chuck Schaden in a 1975 interview: “I wasn’t even a good liberal.”). The show’s sponsor started getting cold feet and issued an ultimatum that they would not continue with the series unless Hammett’s name was removed from the credits. (They weren’t particularly wild about Duff, either.)

NBC yanked the show, but after receiving nearly 250,000 letters of protest continued the series a month or two later, replacing Duff with actor Steve Dunne. Not a particularly smart move; Dunne was a good actor but he was certainly no Spade—John Dunning commented in Tune in Yesterday that he “sounded like Sam in knee pants.” The show came to a halt April 27, 1951—but the character of Effie (not Lurene Tuttle, though) soon found work (her unemployment benefits ran out pretty quickly, I'm guessing) on Charlie Wild, Private Detective—a 1950-51 series that Wildroot put its money in after leaving Spade. (Duff was even good enough to contribute a cameo as Spade in the show's premiere broadcast of September 24, 1950, wishing the new hero mazeltov and good luck.)

Last night, in-between Suspense breaks, I listened to a pair of Sam Spade broadcasts, kicking things off with the September 26, 1948 episode “The Dick Foley Caper.” An atypically somber Sam is hired by private-eye pal Dick Foley (Frank Lovejoy) to protect him from an ex-con (Paul Frees) who murdered Foley’s partner in a jewel heist gone bad. There’s an interesting reference to Sam’s sending up Brigid O’Shaugnessey for the murder of his former partner, Miles Archer, in this episode. After that, “The Farmer’s Daughter Caper,” a very entertaining outing from September 3, 1950 involving a strange tourist court, a man buried alive—and of course, a beautiful woman. (Gunsmoke's William Conrad plays a hick sheriff in this episode, and during a dialogue exchange with Spade the detective asks him if he knows a Lt. Dundee in San Francisco, an amusing in-joke reference since Conrad also played the part of Dundee.)

Of the 245 episodes broadcast during the 1946-51 run of The Adventures of Sam Spade, only 64 of them are still around for us to listen to today (which is a pity, especially since 23 of them are from the 1950-51 Steve Dunne period). It’s a crime that a series with so much wit and charm should be in short supply, but there’s always hope—Ed Carr reported recently on the Old-Time Radio Digest that he's come across a previously uncirculated Spade episode from September 25, 1949 with the tongue-twisting title “The Chargogagogmanchogagogchabunamungamog Caper.” In the meantime, we should be thankful for what we have. Period. End of post.

No comments:

Post a Comment