Wednesday, February 11, 2004

”Stories start in many different ways…”

Ever since I first began listening to old-time radio, there are some actors' voices that have become indelible to my ears, voices that are unmistakable and cause me to instantly react the way the family pet perks up when it hears the sound of food hitting its bowl. To illustrate this, one night I was watching an old Cary Grant movie, People Will Talk (1951), on AMC—except that I wasn’t technically watching it, I had it on in the background while performing some other task (reading or writing, I can’t remember which). Anyway, there’s a scene in the film where Grant’s character is purchasing a train set and as soon as the store’s salesman spoke to him, I immediately looked up and shouted “Parley Baer!” It was indeed Parley, and my enthusiasm at picking him out was somewhat tempered by the fact that there was no one else in the room to witness this, seriously calling my sanity into question.

William Conrad’s voice is another one I can recognize off the bat, although it’s pretty easy—Conrad often joked that he was “the man of a thousand voice.” But I think the most distinctive radio voice belongs to Frank Lovejoy; he’s always been one of my favorite radio actors despite the fact that I don’t recall him ever displaying the versatility of dialect one might expect from, say, Hans Conried. I emphasize Lovejoy’s radio acting because although he started show business on stage and later carved out a niche on the big and small screens as a well-known tough guy, radio was really Frank’s medium.

Lovejoy started out in radio at Cincinnati’s WLW in 1934, choosing that particular career path while he was waiting around to join a stock company in that city. He was featured in more than 4,000 radio shows during his long career, among them The Shadow, Mr. District Attorney, Inner Sanctum, and too many soap operas to list here. He co-starred as Lt. Bill Weigand on Mr. and Mrs. North, and starred in the 1940 radio serial The Blue Beetle and as “fiction’s most famous criminal lawyer” John J. Malone on Murder and Mr. Malone (1947-49). But the series for which he’s best-remembered is Nightbeat, a woefully short-lived but nevertheless splendid drama that did a two-and-a-half year stretch on NBC beginning in 1950.

“Hi, this is Randy Stone—I cover the night beat for the Chicago-Star,” Lovejoy would announce after the program’s unforgettable bass drum fanfare. Randy Stone (who was originally tagged “Lucky” Stone in the show’s January 13, 1950 audition—and “Hank Mitchell” in an even earlier audition in 1949 with Edmond O’Brien) was a reporter who wrote stories with a human interest angle, making Nightbeat more than just a run-of-the-mill crime drama. William Nadel, in a fine essay in The Big Book of Noir, labeled the series “radio noir,” stating:

More detective than reporter, Stone solved crimes with a flair and panache than few so-called “gritty” shows had. Each night Stone would roam the streets of Chicago looking for that special story. Usually it was one of crime or great tragedy, and always it would be tagged with a memorable closing monologue about the people of “his” city.

I would place Nightbeat firmly among by top ten old-time radio show favorites; I fell in love with it ever since the first time I heard it on WOUB’s Monday Night at the Radio back in the 1970s. One of my favorite episodes is an July 31, 1950 entry, “City at Your Fingertips,” in which Randy playfully starts dialing random digits on his telephone, only to stumble onto a situation in which a desperate woman is about to be murdered by her insane husband. Great stuff!

This evening, I listened to two Nightbeat episodes, the first originally broadcast November 3, 1950 (it’s the second-to-last show from the series’ original February 6-November 10, 1950 run). In “The Black Cat,” a man named Nick Corbi goes out for a walk with the titular pet and ends up robbed and killed. Randy has quite a few suspects to choose from—his wife (Lurene Tuttle), a demented handyman/caretaker (Will Geer), and Mrs. Corbi’s lover, a drunken musician (Tudor Owen—shades of Jocko Madigan!). It’s a refreshingly offbeat story, with fine support from Ken Christy, June Foray, Lamont Johnson and Lou Krugman. The second show was “Big John McMasters,” which kicked off the series’ second run from March 4, 1951 to September 25, 1952, and stars William Conrad as a former bootlegger who’s just been released from prison—and who is shot at not long after. I really enjoyed this rather poignant entry, which was scripted by E. Jack Neuman and John Michael Hayes (a talented radio scribe who later went on to pen the screenplays for Hitchcock’s Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and The Trouble With Harry). It’s an unpardonable sin that such a well-written and well-acted show went down in flames so quickly, though the usual suspects of poor scheduling and lack of sponsor interest were probably to blame.

As I mentioned earlier, Frank Lovejoy had a fruitful career in film and television and while I mean no disrespect to his talents, he wasn’t too particularly effective in those two venues, having a tendency to come off a bit stiff. You can see it in his performances in cult fave House of Wax (1953) (in which it’s hard to distinguish him from the wax mannequins) and the trash classic Shack Out on 101 (1955). (Let me just reiterate that I dearly love both of these films.) If we apply my patented Blind Squirrel Film Theory™ (so designated because “even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then”) to his role in Try and Get Me! (1950), then he definitely coulda been a contenda; he’s positively aces in that noir classic. (I’ll even concede that he provides fine support for Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in 1950s In a Lonely Place.)

Sometime back, NBC aired an equally short-lived but fine series called Midnight Caller (1988-91), which starred Gary Cole as an ex-cop-turned-all-night-radio-jock who often got involved in some of his listeners’ personal lives. I was a big fan of that one, since it reminded me so much of Nightbeat. I’ve often mused that a Nightbeat-like series would do pretty well today, though you’d probably have to do it as a period piece, since most reporters sit in front of computers and word processors as opposed to roaming the streets of Chicago at night. But while I’m waiting for someone to pitch that concept to the networks, I rejoice in the fact that close to 100 episodes of the original still exist for me to enjoy today. I guess that’s the three-oh mark, then…copyboy!

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