Tuesday, February 10, 2004

”Adventure wanted. Will go anywhere, do anything…”

In 1948, motion picture actor Alan Ladd teamed up with an old business associate, Bernie Joslin, to form a radio syndication outfit in Mayfair Productions—so named because the two partners had previously operated a chain of restaurants with the same moniker. Their company’s contribution to radio was Box 13, an adventure series that starred Ladd (he also co-wrote a script or two) that must have felt like old home week for the popular star, since he began his acting career in 1935 on the Warner Brothers Studio-owned KFWB. (Ladd worked as many as 20 shows a week during his KFWB stint, including a role as “the Richfield Reporter.”)

Alan played Dan Holiday, a retired newspaper reporter who was now an author of mystery fiction. He apparently suffered from frequent bouts of writer’s block, because he obtained material for his stories by the novel concept of inserting an ad in his local paper—the Star-Times—that read: “Adventure wanted. Will go anywhere, do anything. Box 13.” As a result, he often crossed paths with a color assortment of characters, most of whom needed his assistance in one way or another. His correspondence was attended to by a gal Friday named Suzy (apparently she couldn’t afford a last name), played by actress Sylvia Picker. Suzy was a slightly scatterbrained ditz that a reviewer—according to Jim Cox’s Radio Crime Fighters—described as “just a little too well-baked and the show’s weakest link.”

Though Box 13 was produced specifically for syndication, it received a network run on the West Coast Mutual network from March 15, 1948-March 7, 1949, and then was heard on the East Coast over New York’s WOR from August 22, 1948-August 14, 1949. Mayfair produced a total of 52 episodes—all of which are extant today—mostly scripted by Russell Hughes, the individual at KFWB responsible for hiring Ladd back in 1935 at the princely sum of $19 a week. Ladd, it would seem, looked out for his old friends, since actress Picker, too,  was also an old colleague at the station.

I have a handful of Box 13’s in my collection, but I must confess that I’ve never really gotten around to listening to any of them. I rectified that situation last night, and was very impressed with the first entry, “The Perfect Crime” (WOR broadcast date: 7/24/49). Criminologist John Dobbs (Joseph Kearns) is obsessed with pulling off the title feat, and challenges a skeptical Holiday to solve a murder he’s committed. It’s an intriguing episode with a satisfying wrap-up and a slight echo of the Suspense classic “The Earth is Made of Glass” which also showcased Kearns. The second show, “Archimedes and the Roman” (7/31/49), is a bit of a letdown; Holiday comes to the aid of a young boy who suspects foul play at a nearby observatory. It’s fairly standard stuff, although the presence of Frank Lovejoy as the villain makes it a pleasant listen.

In Leonard Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast, veteran radio character actor Frank Nelson relates an interesting anecdote about Alan Ladd that would have a most profound impact on the actor’s future career:

I had a friend who did just bits with me in radio shows, and one day he said, “Frank, I have a chance to do some pictures; what do you think I ought to do? Do you think I should stay in radio or do you think I ought to do the picture thing?” And I was thinking, “Boy, he reads in a monotone; if he can do anything in pictures”—and I didn’t think he could—“he sure ought to take that.” Well, fortunately he did, and he did very well for himself; his name was Alan Ladd.

As Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know…the rest of the story…” The diminutive Ladd carved out a successful niche for himself on the silver screen with classics like This Gun For Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Shane (1953). I’m particularly fond of a little-known film noir entry from 1951, Appointment With Danger, in which Ladd plays a postal inspector (?) who’s trying to track down the nun (Phyllis Calvert) who witnessed the murder of a fellow postal officer. That’s not the part that intrigues me, however; it’s the presence of bad guys Jack Webb and Harry Morgan, years away from their successful partnership in the 1967-70 revival of Dragnet.

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