Wednesday, February 4, 2004

”…the Texas plainsman who wandered through the western territories, leaving behind a trail of still-remembered legends…”

I’ve discussed on this blog from time to time about how radio actors were a very special breed, in an entirely different class from those of their Hollywood brethren and sistern. There was something about reading a script in front of a live microphone that unnerved some of the acting greats, Joan Crawford being a good example; La Joan was literally petrified of facing an audience. Hollywood’s “King,” Clark Gable made rarely few appearances for the same reason; he simply could not conquer his mike fright. Still others were dismayed by the fact that in live radio—there are no retakes.

On the other side of the coin, several actors did extremely well on radio—and I can think of no better example than James Stewart. (Well, actually, there are others—but this is Stewart’s moment, so let’s let him enjoy it.) Veteran radio performer Dick Beals had high praise for Jimmy, commenting that he “was a total professional as a radio actor and never tried to draw attention to himself as the star." Indeed, Stewart brought the same dedication and conviction to his radio appearances (Suspense, Lux Radio Theatre) as he did to the classic films in his 50-odd-year cinematic career. He also starred in one of the finest western dramas ever presented on radio: The Six Shooter.

Stewart made his first appearance as the gunslinging “Six Shooter” on an April 13, 1952 broadcast of the dramatic anthology Hollywood Star Playhouse. This series replaced the usual film-adaptation-with-original-star product by presenting original, half-hour suspense plays with Hollywood’s finest talent. (Marilyn Monroe made her dramatic radio debut on this show in an August 31, 1952 broadcast, “Statement in Full.”) The production was one of this series’ high spots (the program ran from April 24, 1950 to February 15, 1953) and a little over a year after it was broadcast, there was sufficient interest in both the concept and Stewart to produce an audition record on July 15, 1953. The Six Shooter received the green light in the fall, debuting over NBC Radio September 20, 1953—with the show’s creator, Frank Burt, in charge of the scripts and direction handled by radio vet Jack Johnstone (Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar).

“The man in the saddle is angular and long-legged,” went the show’s opening. “His skin is sun-dyed brown…the gun in his holster is gray steel and rainbow mother-of-pearl, its handle unmarked. People call them both ‘The Six Shooter.’” From there we would hear a tale from the exploits of Britt Ponset, an easy-going drifter who often roamed the West, encountering various characters and eccentrics along the way. The program not your typical western in that there was a sort of tongue-in-cheek tone to its stories, occasionally offering up parodies of A Christmas Carol and Cinderella. Basil Adlam provided the music, including the show’s haunting theme, “Highland Lament.”

Britt Ponset was a role tailor-made to fit Stewart’s laconic, folksy charm—but I’ve also observed that Ponset was quite similar to the morally ambiguous characters that Jimmy began playing as the actor matured, most memorably in a series of westerns directed by Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River). In fact, in the first of the two shows I listened to last evening, “Hiram’s Gold Strike” (from January 10, 1954), Ponset actually uses his guns in a gunfight which, despite the series’ title, was a very rare occurrence. The plot involves a grizzled old prospector (Howard McNear) who asks Britt to help him make sure Enoch Wilson (Herb Vigran), the town’s assayer, doesn’t cheat him in his latest gold strike. It’s a nice seriocomic piece, with Barney Phillips, Bill Johnstone, and Tony Barrett rounding out the cast. “The Silver Belt-Buckle,” from the following week, is a change-of-pace suspenser: two outlaws who robbed a train and killed one of the passengers are being pursued by two other men who are part of a sheriff’s posse and enlist Ponset’s help to locate the bandits to collect the reward. An equally fine cast in Forrest Lewis, William Conrad, Frank Gerstle, Joel Cranston, and Eleanor Audley (whom I recognized right off the bat thanks to some well-timed Green Acres reruns on DVD), plus some effective narration (spoken in a whisper by Stewart) at the climax makes this one a keeper.

As splendid as The Six Shooter was, the program was on for only one season, leaving the airwaves June 24, 1954. One of the factors that played a large role in the show’s early demise was that it was sustained by NBC (although the first four shows did have a sponsor in Coleman Heaters), and unsponsored shows rarely managed to stick around for long. Curiously, there were companies who wanted to sign on to the series, notably Chesterfield Cigarettes—but star James Stewart put the kibosh on that, not wanting to besmirch his wholesome silver screen image. Fortunately for today’s audiences, the gods of old-time radio have smiled upon them—all thirty-nine episodes of the show have survived the ravages of time and neglect, with both the audition and the Hollywood Star Playhouse production extant for good measure.

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