Wednesday, February 18, 2004

“America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator…”

In On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, John Dunning makes a right-on-the-money observation of radio’s Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar by commenting that the show “had more lives than a cat.” To be certain, this crime drama—critically lambasted upon its premiere on February 11, 1949—was a genuine Energizer Bunny; it kept going and going and going until it became the last network drama show to leave the airwaves on September 30, 1962, ringing down the curtain on the Golden Age of Radio.

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar’s origins begin with actor Dick Powell, who portrayed “the man with the action-packed expense account” in an audition record prepared December 8, 1948. Though the show had an impressive pedigree in director Anton M. Leader (Suspense, Murder at Midnight) and writers Gil Doud and Paul Dudley, Powell opted out of this series and became Richard Diamond, Private Detective instead. A second audition with Charles Russell was recorded January 14, 1949, and the actor was tapped for the series’ debut less than a month later.

In the series’ early run, Johnny Dollar worked for the Universal Adjustment Bureau, which acted as sort of an umbrella for various client companies, his superior being Pat McCracken. His assignments varied from investigating cases of arson to following up on stolen goods (diamonds, furs, etc.) to serving as bodyguard to a heavily insured client whose life had been threatened. Inevitably, murder would often result in the course of his duties. He had a keen, analytical mind and enough brawn to take care of himself in a scrap, and was also a bit of a playboy. His surname, Dollar, no doubt stemmed from his habit of tipping individuals with silver dollars—a cutesy gimmick that was thankfully phased out as the series progressed.

Russell spent about a year in the role, and was then replaced for two-and-a-half years by actor Edmond O’Brien. Though fans of the show almost unanimously agree that the best Johnny Dollar was portrayed by Bob Bailey, I have to admit that I have a soft spot for O’Brien. He didn’t bring anything special to the role—Russell, O’Brien and later John Lund pretty much played the part interchangeably as your typical hard-boiled Philip Marlowe type—but he’s one of my favorite actors, particular in film noirs like The Killers (1946), The Web (1947), White Heat (1949) and the underrated classic D.O.A. (1950). Actor John Lund inherited the part from O’Brien in November of 1952 and stayed with it until September 1954—I think Lund was probably the weakest of the Dollars; I never cared much for him in films since he always seemed to be just taking up space. (Although he does get an exemption for 1951’s The Mating Season, courtesy of The Blind Squirrel Film Theory™.)

After an August 29, 1955 audition with Gerald Mohr (which never aired), Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar returned to CBS Radio as a 15-minute five-day-a-week series beginning October 3, 1955 with former Let George Do It star Bob Bailey in the role of Dollar. Fifty-five multi-chaptered stories were produced, and it is generally felt that this version of the series is where the program reached its pinnacle, under the supervision of veteran producer-director Jack Johnstone (whose radio resume includes The Adventures of Superman and Orson Welles’ Almanac). The multi-part format allowed Johnstone (who scripted a few entries under the nom de plume “Jonathan Bundy”) and the series’ other writers to concentrate more on character development, particularly in the case of Bailey (the part he "was born to play," asserts Dunning), who gave Dollar a lighter comedic touch (for example, his shameless padding of his expense account was often played for laughs). Johnny also got a steady girlfriend in Betty Lewis (Virginia Gregg), who waged a losing battle to march the confirmed bachelor up the aisle for the rice-and-old-shoes routine. Bailey continued as Dollar when the series returned to a weekly half-hour; the show was still supervised by Johnstone, but without the additional time afforded to the serialized episodes, many of the shows lacked the necessary punch.

Last night, I listened to a couple of AFRS rebroadcasts of the half-hour Bob Bailey Dollars—the first one originally broadcast over CBS June 14, 1958. In “The Delectable Damsel Matter,” Johnny investigates the theft of the Cape Star—a $300,000 emerald—from flirtatious socialite Hildegarde Ransom (Gregg). (You don’t suppose she had a cousin named Leila, do you? Oh well…) This episode, scripted by Johnstone, isn’t bad—it reminds me a lot of The Rockford Files, in that a lot of time is spent sketching out the characters, but then time runs out, necessitating a rush to get to the show's end. (Johnny's answering of the phone at the beginning of each show is similar to Rockford's standard message-on-the-answering-machine opening as well.) The supporting cast is comprised of Barney Phillips, Chet Stratton, Jack Moyles, and Frank Gerstle.

Gerstle is also in “The Virtuous Mobster Matter,” the second show I previewed, originally broadcast the week after (June 21). Also scripted by Johnstone, this time Dollar receives a call from an ex-con friend in Virgu (pronounced “virtue”), South Carolina who reports that a mutual pal of theirs has turned up missing and that foul play is suspected. A definite improvement over “Delectable Damsel,” though there’s a plot development that’s a tad on the far-fetched side, it features Jack Kruschen, Jean Tatum, Les Tremayne, Billy Halop, and Gil Stratton, Jr. in the cast.

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar headed East on November 27, 1960, and with its Hollywood-to-New-York move found Bob Readick in the role of the famed insurance investigator. Veteran actor Mandel Kramer took over for Readick on June 25, 1961, becoming the last Dollar until the show left the airwaves in 1962. Overall, the series is pretty much average, though the multi-parters do lift the show up from its suffocating sameness. The fact that both it and Suspense would be the last to leave on that fateful day, September 30, 1962, is more of a testament to its survival skills than its overall quality—but the 5-part, 15-minute shows are definitely "Must-Hear-OTR."

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