Monday, February 23, 2004

“Somewhere along the line a murderer makes a mistake—it’s my job to find that mistake.”

Author S.S. Van Dine introduced detective Philo Vance to the fraternity of literary sleuths with the 1926 novel The Benson Murder Case. Vance was described in this and subsequent novels as a wealthy connoisseur of the arts who dabbled in amateur detection, often assisting the district attorney in investigating crimes. The Vance novels (a total of nine in all) were later adapted successfully for the silver screen, with a number of actors offering their interpretation of the famed sleuth including William Powell (who made the most Vance features, including the 1933 film classic The Kennel Murder Case), Basil Rathbone, Warren William, and Edmund Lowe. Of particular interest to old-time radio fans is the 1939 release The Gracie Allen Murder Case, an amusing comedy-mystery (Gracie refers to the detective as “Fido”) based on a novel Van Dine released a year earlier. (The real Gracie co-stars in the movie version with Warren William as Vance, though it’s a shame that the film couldn’t find room for George—after all, he’s in the novel as well.)

It saddens me to report that the subsequent radio series based on Philo Vance just can’t measure up to the movies. There were three separate runs, the first lasting a brief summer stint on NBC from July 5-September 27, 1945, sponsored by Lifebuoy-Lever Brothers and starring Jose Ferrer as Philo. Frances Robinson played Ellen Deering, Vance’s secretary-love interest—but to avoid a possible messy sexual harassment suit it was strictly “Miss Deering” and “Mr. Vance” around the office. (I’ll refrain from revealing the nicknames they used for one another after working hours—this is a family blog, after all.)

Philo Vance resurfaced again July 23, 1946 for a brief ABC West Coast series, the details as to the length of its run and its cast/crew unfortunately remain unknown. Finally, the third time proved to be the charm as Frederic W. Ziv and the Ziv Corporation produced a 1948-50 syndicated series with Jackson Beck as Vance, Joan Alexander as Miss Deering, George Petrie as D.A. Frank Markham, and Humphrey Davis as Vance’s police force adversary, Sgt. Ernest Heath.

Jackson Beck was a veteran radio actor-announcer-narrator whose lengthy resume included shows like Grand Central Station, Life Can Be Beautiful, Easy Aces, The March of Time, and Hop Harrigan (as Tank Tinker). Philo Vance was not his only starring series; he also essayed the title role of The Cisco Kid on Mutual from 1942-45. But Beck is best remembered among OTR fans as the announcer-narrator of Mark Trail, Man Behind the Gun, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet…and The Adventures of Superman. “I’m still often asked to recreate the famous opening today,” he once commented regarding Superman. “It’s nice to be part of a legend.” His Vance co-star Joan Alexander also worked alongside him on Superman, and the two of them—along with star Bud Collyer—even provided the voices for a 1960s animated version of the show. Possessing one of the most distinctive voices around, Beck stretched beyond radio to animated cartoons (he voiced the spinach-eating sailor man’s nemesis Bluto in 300 Popeye TV cartoons), films (he’s the narrator of Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run), and television commercials (among the products for which he’s provided voiceovers: Thompson’s Water Seal, Brawny Paper Towels, and Little Caesar’s Pizza).

In listening to some Philo Vance episodes last night at work, I confronted the unpleasant but nevertheless immutable truth that not all the programs broadcast during the Golden Age of Radio were…well, gold, I guess. Philo Vance is one of those shows. It’s not that the acting is bad, it’s just that it has this going-through-the-motions-to-pick-up-the-check feel to it; there is very little characterization, and the participants are often distant and emotionless. (For example, Vance often refers to the D.A. as “my friend,” but always calls him “Markham”—you’d think two buddies would use their respective first names.) The writing (by Kenny Lyons and Robert J. Shaw) is incredibly stiff and pedestrian, and desperately cries out for a smidge of humor. One gets the impression after sampling a couple of shows that the only person who had fun on this series was the organist.

In “The Flying Murder Case” (2/8/49), pilot Gregory Allen is murdered, and both his co-pilot Johnny Taylor and passenger Millard Crane are on the list of suspects since Allen was apparently cavorting with their women. The solution to this mystery is pretty obvious—even a meter maid would have picked out the guilty party in the time allowed. The second show, “The Butler Murder Case” (2/15/49), isn’t much of an improvement—Philo investigates the murder of a prominent dentist who was being blackmailed by an extortion specialist. This is definitely one series you can take a pass on—after spending an hour with Vance, Boston Blackie looks better and better all the time.

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