Wednesday, March 31, 2004

“…another transcribed drama of mystery and adventure with America’s number one detective…”

America’s number-one detective? Please—I doubt even Ripley would believe that one. But from 1951-55, Barry Craig, Confidential Investigator did do a credible journeyman’s job with respect to the “mystery and adventure” part, even though the series (this is an opinion I can get behind) “seldom rose above B-grade detective fare,” according to John Dunning.

Barry Craig starred William Gargan, an actor beloved by film buffs today for a formidable string of appearances in A- and B-pictures, specializing in playing detectives, sergeants and other tough-guy roles. His best-known performance is probably that in They Knew What They Wanted (1940), a movie that earned him an Academy Award® nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Gargan had previously starred in Martin Kane, Private Eye—a series originally conceived for television but which also had a run over Mutual Radio from 1949-52. Gargan called it quits on the TV series in 1951, claiming the program had become “a vehicle for the meat parade”—but he soon found another role awaiting him on Barry Craig, which debuted over NBC Radio October 3, 1951. (Gargan later returned to TV in a syndicated series entitled The Return of Martin Kane.)

The role of Craig may have been just a little too tailor-made for Gargan. For starters, the series was originally titled Barry Crane, Confidential Investigator—but producers of Martin Kane emitted a yelp of protest, charging that “Kane” and “Crane” sounded a little too similar. So the character’s surname was changed to “Craig.” Gargan also brought a great deal of expertise to these roles, having previously worked in a detective’s office and as a credit investigator before getting into the acting business.

It’s been quite a while since I paid ol’ Bar a visit; I remember that Barry Craig, Confidential Investigator was one of the featured programs on Victor Ives’ Golden Age of Radio Theater back in the early 1980s. So I grabbed a pair of shows with me in order to reminisce, the first being “Hay is For Homicide,” originally broadcast August 31, 1954. While vacationing in Vermont, Barry and pal Jake (Parley Baer), the elevator operation in Craig’s building, stumble across a corpse in a hay wagon and encounter a woman (Joyce McClusky) firing at them. (CRAIG: “This time it’s not the farmer with the shotgun, it’s the farmer’s daughter.” JAKE: “Spoil a lot of stories that way…”) As our story unfolds, Barry learns that the corpse is an escaped convict who returned to the area to rescue a hidden cache of $30,000 obtained from a bank job, which is also being sought by a fellow con named Brady (Jack Moyles) and his moll Dina (Vivi Janiss). “Ghosts Don’t Die in Bed” (9/7/54) has Barry taking a midnight train to Dorning, NY, where an old friend needing help has asked him to come to a residence known as the Tower House. On the way, he encounters a pistol-packing woman named Ruth Adams (Virginia Gregg)—Craig gains her confidence and learns that she, too, has been summoned to the same house by her uncle, who in an amazing scripted coincidence, is Barry’s friend.

At the end of “Ghosts Don’t Die in Bed,” the listener can hear Gargan’s pre-recorded remarks talking about next week’s show (“The Corpse Who Couldn’t Swim”), but he is quickly cut off by announcer John Lang, who reads the program credits and then drops this little bombshell:

We regret that with the program you have just heard, we conclude the present Barry Craig series…we hope you have enjoyed them, and we look forward to bringing them to you again sometime in the not too distant future…

Less than a month later, “the not too distant future” has arrived—the program has been given a reprieve and resumes on October 3, 1954 (with “Corpse”). It then ran one more season before finally bowing out June 30, 1955.

Barry Craig, Confidential Investigator may not be the most inspired detective series of Radio’s Golden Age, but the two episodes I listened to had some snappy, funny Saint-like dialogue—penned by Louis Vittes. Veteran scribe Vittes (The Adventures of the Thin Man, Mr. & Mrs. North) had a talent for eccentric characters and offbeat dialogue, as illustrated in this exchange from “Hay is For Homicide”:

CRAIG: Hmm…I don’t like this much…but the only thing left for us to do now is…uh…sit down…
JAKE: Excuse me while I cheer…I…
BRADY: Well, what are ya waitin’ for? Go ahead, Grampa—cheer!
JAKE (to Barry): Company.
CRAIG: So I notice…kind of thing you’re liable to run into in old houses…they come out of the woodwork, I think…
BRADY: Uh yuh…don’t try to insult me, mister…
CRAIG: Why not?
BRADY: Anyt’ing you’re liable to say is liable to be true
CRAIG: Don’t be foolish—I don’t use that kind of language…
BRADY: You also ain’t usin’ the kind of language I would like to hear…
CRAIG: What language would that be?
BRADY: The one tellin’ me where the baby’s buried…
JAKE: A boy or a girl baby?
BRADY: Oh, that Grampa’s a joker…Grampa could easy get his head knocked off…
JAKE: Put the gun down, son, and Grampa will be glad to tangle with you…

Parley Baer does an dead-on impersonation of Parker Fennelly in this episode, and while I won’t swear to this as gospel, it would appear that Jake made earlier appearances on the show, since Fennelly often appeared as a supporting player when Barry Craig was produced in New York from 1951-54. Many veterans of the New York radio series found work on this program, like Elspeth Eric, Santos Ortega and Ralph Bell (who did play a recurring character, Lt. Travis Rogers from 1951-53). In fact, while the series originated from the Big Apple the show's director was none other than Himan Brown of Inner Sanctum fame.

Approximately sixty episodes of Barry Craig, Confidential Investigator have survived for collectors today, and while the program’s plots are sometimes pretty standard stuff, Gargan has a nice way with a hard-boiled quip and the supporting cast of players rarely disappoints. That having been said, I’ll take a cue from Mr. Craig and close this post with a simple “Good night, folks…”

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

“…ace cameraman who covers the crime news of the great city…”

Old-time radio historian John Dunning describes the popular radio series Casey, Crime Photographer as having “more history than substance. It was a B-grade radio detective show, on a par perhaps with The Falcon, better than Mr. Keen, but lacking the polish and style of Sam Spade.”

Now, I have nothing but the utmost admiration for Mr. Dunning—his On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio is considered by many to be The Hobby’s “Bible”—but I think his assessment of this series is a tad harsh. Any detective program will pale in comparison to The Adventures of Sam Spade, a show that I consider the gold standard of private-eye dramas, and to classify Casey as better than Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons is damning it with faint praise. The only possible way to be entertained by Mr. Keen nowadays is to enjoy it as the camp classic it has since become, particularly the character of sidekick Mike Clancy (“Saints preserve us, Mr. Keen!”), who just might possibly be the most mentally challenged character in the history of OTR. (I mean, this is a guy who makes Clem Kadiddlehopper look like Robert Oppenheimer.)

The origins of Jack “Flashgun” Casey can be traced to the 1930s detective pulp Black Mask; the hard-boiled photojournalist was introduced in the March 1934 issue by former newspaperman/ad exec George Harmon Coxe. Coxe discussed the inspiration for Casey in a 1978 interview:

I had read and enjoyed the fiction exploits of reporters from time to time, but I also knew that it was the photographer accompanying such newsmen who frequently had to stick their neck out to get an acceptable picture…This is turn meant that while the reporter with his pad and pencil could describe a warehouse or dockside fire from a safe distance, the guy with the camera had to edge far closer to get a negative that would merit reproduction. So why not give the cameraman his due? If the reporter could be a glamorous figure in fiction, why not the guy up front who took—and still does take (consider the televised war sequences)—the pictures?

So radio audiences received a formal introduction to Coxe’s creation over CBS Radio beginning July 7, 1943. The series was originally titled Flashgun Casey, but during its run it was also referred to as Casey, Press Photographer; Crime Photographer and Casey, Crime Photographer. (Apparently Casey was ducking a few creditors.) Casey snapped photos for the fictitious Morning Express, and often found himself cast in the role of amateur sleuth by getting involved in the stories he covered. Many of the plots had him stumbling across a clue in a photo he had taken (something the police had overlooked), and with the help of fellow reporter—and romantic interest—Annie Williams, they would inevitably bring the culprit(s) to justice.

What set Casey, Crime Photographer apart from its radio crime drama competition was its laid-back atmosphere, chiefly personified in its backdrop of Casey and Annie’s favorite watering hole, The Blue Note Café. There, in between assignments, they would engage in badinage with their philosophically sardonic bartender pal Ethelbert, often to the melodious accompaniment of the Blue Note’s background piano. Another factor in the show’s success was the first-rate scripting by Alonzo Deen Cole (The Witch’s Tale), who was responsible for adapting Coxe’s Casey character to radio. One reviewer at the time credited Cole’s scripts with “wit and naturalism missing from many radio thrillers.”

Matt Crowley was the first actor to tackle the role of Casey; then replaced by Jim Backus (!) and finally Staats Cotsworth, a radio veteran who also portrayed the title fourth-estate hero of NBC’s daytime serial Front Page Ferrell. The part of Annie was essayed by many different actresses: Jone Allison, Alice Reinheart, Lesley Woods, Betty Furness and Jan Miner were all heard at various times as the photographer’s main squeeze. Ethelbert was faithfully played by John Gibson throughout the entire run, and Captain Bill Logan—Casey and Annie’s contact on the police force—was portrayed by Jackson Beck, and later Bernard Lenrow. The Blue Note’s pianist was played by Herman Chittison for most of Casey’s run, but Juan Hernandez and Teddy Wilson (formerly with the Benny Goodman Trio) were also on hand to tickle the ivories from time to time.

“Self Made Hero” (7/17/47), the first of two programs that I listened to at work last night, tells the story of a young man (Jack Grimes) named Jack Clifside (one “f”), who suffers from a self-esteem problem—so much so that he reports a fake shooting incident in an attempt to impress his shallow girlfriend Myrna. The cops quickly ascertain that Jack is running a scam, and are about to run the little crumb in when Casey intercedes on his behalf. When Casey offers to have a talk with the vacuous Myrna on Jack’s behalf, the wacky complications ensue, as witnessed in this exchange:

CASEY: Gimme a cup of black coffee, Ethelbert…
ETHELBERT: Okay, Casey…you want one, Miss Williams?
ANNIE: No thanks, Ethelbert…
ETHELBERT: Casey, you look like you got troubles…
CASEY (in disgust): Eh…
ANNIE: I’ll say he has, Ethelbert—in a neat red-headed package…trimmed with short skirts, and a pair of bobby sox…a hero-worship complex, and a…very unbashful personality…
CASEY: It isn’t funny, Ann…
(Annie giggles)
ETHELBERT: You’re talkin’ about a woman, huh?
CASEY: No, not a woman, no—a goofy seventeen year old that oughta be spanked…wish I had the nerve to do it…
ANNIE: She’s developed a crush on Casey—phones him at the office several times a day, and waits for him on the street so she can (sighs) gaze at him, and…sigh…
ETHELBERT: Casey, how did you get yourself into anything like that? You ain’t no cradle snatcher…
CASEY: Ethelbert, all I did was to call on her one afternoon last week in order to…uh…um…well, to try and square something for somebody else…
ETHELBERT: She isn’t the girl that Clifside kid set off the firecrackers on account of…?
ANNIE (giggling): That’s who…
ANNIE: But Clifside doesn’t know yet that Casey squared things so beautifully
(SFX: phone ringing)
ETHELBERT: Will you get it, Walter…?
WALTER: Yeah, sure…
CASEY: I put off telling him that…she won’t listen to anything that I say in his favor, because…well…he’s miserable enough as it is…you know, he phones me a couple times a day, too, Ethelbert—to ask how I’m making out with her…I can’t stall him much longer! Oh, I must have been nuts to get myself mixed up in something like this…

(Note: Jim Cox, in his invaluable reference Radio Crime Fighters, mentions that an OTR trivia expert recalls that Walter—an employee in the Blue Note’s kitchen—was often referred to but never heard on-air. “Self Made Hero” puts that myth to bed, particularly since he has a line or two more after the above scene, in which he informs Casey that the phone is for him.)

Jack is upset when he learns about Casey and Myrna, and vows to throw himself off Lover’s Leap—Casey and Annie go after him, and the three of them eventually end up witnessing a hit engineered by a notorious racketeer. The program concludes with our boy Jack becoming a hero for real. “Photo of the Dead” (7/24/47) is another solid episode: a friend of Casey’s not only ends up dead but swindled out of a hefty sum by a bogus swami. Annie then poses as a potential client in order to smoke him out, and to get a nice exclusive for the paper in the bargain.

For most of the series' run, Casey, Crime Photographer was sustained by CBS—except for brief periods of sponsorship by Anchor Hocking (1946-48), Toni Home Permanent (1948-49), and Philip Morris (1949-50). The show’s association with Anchor Hocking is particularly noteworthy in that most of this series’ extant episodes (approximately 70 or so) were obtained from transcriptions saved by the glass company. The Anchor Hocking episodes often feature an opening billboard spotlighting the show’s characters:

CASEY: You know, Ethelbert—you and I have a good chance to be famous…
ETHELBERT: How’s that, Casey?
CASEY: Well, I figure if a man’s known by the company he keeps…
CASEY: …then he ought to be known by the company that keeps him
ETHELBERT: That makes sense…
CASEY: And the company that keeps us is…
ANNOUNCER (Tony Marvin): Anchor Hocking! The most famous name in glass…

Casey, Crime Photographer left CBS Radio November 16, 1950—and enjoyed a brief live television run (with Miner and Gibson in their radio roles) from April 19, 1951 to June 5, 1952. (Casey was originally played by Richard Carlyle, but was replaced by a young Darren McGavin two months later.) The series then returned to radio January 13, 1954, and hung on for another year before finally getting the axe April 22, 1955—the same day that Mr. & Mrs. North and Mr. Keen also turned in their gumshoes. I have to confess, though; when I first listened to Casey, I didn’t care for it much but the more shows I previewed, the more I became a convert. Strong characterizations and good scripting have made this OTR detective series a genuine winner.

Jan Sterling, dead at 82

Man...I just learned via an Old-Time Radio Digest post from Kermyt Anderson that one of my favorite actresses, Jan Sterling, has passed on. (By the way, there's an excellent website dedicated to her and maintained by her son Adams Douglas, whose father was Paul Douglas, actor and one-time OTR announcer.)

Where to start? She made appearances in some of my favorite noirs: Caged (1950, as "Smoochie"), Union Station (1950), Appointment With Danger (1951) and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957). She was great alongside Kirk Douglas in the classic Billy Wilder film Ace in the Hole (1951) (why, oh why won't someone release this to DVD?) and she gives a very nicely understated performance as Humphrey Bogart's wife in Bogey's last hurrah, The Harder They Fall (1956).

She was also in a few of what I like to call my guilty pleasures: Split Second (1953, a great Dick Powell-directed B-pic about a group of people trapped in a ghost town that's due to be destroyed by a nuclear bomb test), Women's Prison (1955)--with a cast that includes Ida Lupino (as a waaaaay over-the-top prison warden), Cleo Moore, Audrey Totter, Phyllis Thaxter and Ida's hubby Howard Duff, and of course, High School Confidential (1958).

The last movie I saw her in was the 1981 comedy First Monday in October (1981), which wasn't all that great, but it did have Walter Matthau in it, and if memory serves me correct, she played his wife. Again, another quiet but effective performance.

R.I.P, Jan -- you will be so missed.

Monday, March 29, 2004

“…and now, here’s America’s top master of ceremonies…”

Though I’m sure Ralph Edwards might have raised a few strenuous objections over those words, it was nevertheless the way Art Linkletter was introduced week after week as the host of People Are Funny—which competed with Edwards’ Truth or Consequences as radio’s best-known audience stunt show. Created by producer-director John Guedel, the series premiered over NBC Radio on April 10, 1942, and enjoyed a lengthy run of nearly twenty years before bowing out June 10, 1960.

Entrepreneur Guedel had a definite Midas touch when it came to creating hit radio shows; in addition to Funny, he was also responsible for launching House Party (a popular daytime program also hosted by Linkletter) and You Bet Your Life, the comedy-quiz starring the one…the only…Groucho Marx. Funny’s origins date back to 1938—with an audition record that cost him thirty dollars, Guedel would give birth to a program that would net him millions. In its earliest incarnation, it was known as Pull Over, Neighbor, heard over NBC and CBS stations in Los Angeles in 1939 and later revamped as All Aboard. The story goes that the show’s eventual title stemmed from Guedel’s attendance at a dull after-dinner speech; while observing that the fidgety audience was just as bored as he was, Guedel jotted down on a napkin—“People are funny, aren’t they?”

Not long after, Guedel was browsing through a magazine while at the doctor’s, and came across a blurb that mentioned the recent cancellation of a current radio show—so he telephoned the agency that produced the show, and sold them People Are Funny. The concept of the show would be a concentration on the humorous facets of human nature—a subject that Guedel, a self-proclaimed “jack of all trades,” knew a little something about. (Before getting into radio, Guedel’s colorful career included jobs as a ditch-digger, traveling salesman, and writer for motion picture comedy producer Hal Roach.) His first choice for the show’s host was a young announcer named Art Linkletter, whose tremendous talent for ad-libbing appealed to Guedel. Linkletter, however, was already employed in San Francisco—but it didn’t really matter to NBC anyway; the network wanted top emcee Art Baker for the host’s position, though Guedel brought in Linkletter as co-host in the program’s early weeks so that he could compare and contrast the two Arts in action on the same soundstage.

People Are Funny became an immediate Friday night smash for NBC, a popular quiz program that technically wasn’t a quiz program, but a show in which audience members participated in offbeat, unusual stunts for prizes of cash and merchandise. To illustrate with an example of how the show worked, a broadcast (undated, though believed to be from either 1955 or 1956) I previewed last night begins with an eight-year-old child actress who is sent out of the studio to a nearby grocery market. She has a grocery list—buttermilk, a ¼ lb. of butter, a loaf of bread and a bottle of catsup—and she has been given a dollar by her “father” to procure said groceries. (I’ll wait for the incredulous laughter to subside as we marvel at the low cost of comestibles back then.) Now, the premise dictates that she’s "lost" the dollar, and she must try to convince a passerby to loan her another—whereupon that individual will be brought back to the studio so that they can retrieve the amount loaned; it has been placed under the windshield wiper of a new Plymouth convertible, which is also theirs to keep. (The kid comes back later, and not one person has given the little moppet the necessary dollar—demonstrating that not only are people funny, they’re notoriously tight with a buck to boot.)

People Are Funny made a small change on October 1, 1943—the show gave Art Baker his walking papers and announced that Linkletter would now be the emcee. Baker did not go gently into that good night, however; he sued both Guedel and the show’s sponsor for breach of contract, stating that according to its terms he could be released only if the sponsor had cancelled the show. Baker accused them of conspiring to axe the program, and then quickly re-signing Linkletter (at a lower salary). Alas, Baker was not restored to his proper place on People’s throne (he lost the lawsuit, but would later resurface on television as host of You Asked For It)—and it wasn’t long before people were saying: “Baker…Baker…can’t say as I recollect the name…” Linkletter rode the program to national prominence, and he earned the respect and admiration from notables like Eddie Cantor and Bing Crosby for his ad-libbing prowess. (The radio show even went to the movies, in a 1946 film that showcased Linkletter and old-time radio stars like Jack Haley, Rudy Vallee, Ozzie Nelson and Frances Langford.)

Listening to People Are Funny today, one becomes keenly aware that while it’s a teensy bit dated, it still holds up fairly well. In addition to the little grocery guttersnipe, the first show has a single man who is extremely boastful regarding his culinary talents—so Linkletter has several women in the audience test him with cooking-related questions. If he’s able to answer five out of seven correctly, a motor scooter awaits him for his efforts; but for every one he misses, ingredients are added to a mixing bowl by Prudence Penny (the home economics editor of the Los Angeles Examiner), which he must sample generously if he loses. (Ms. Penny also serves as the arbiter as to whether or not the questions have been answered correctly.) Needless to say, our Galloping Gourmet isn’t quite as clever as he believes himself to be, and before he goes home with a stove as a consolation prize, he has a heaping helping of raw oysters, chocolate syrup, soft strawberry ice cream, sauerkraut, horseradish and raw egg (a concoction endorsed by both the salmonella industry and World O’Crap, in its early Regrettable Food Recipe days). Linkletter cracks (after also sampling this “goop mélange,” to show he’s a good sport): “This dish is the dish that you serve your relatives just before you want them to go back home.”

The second show has an interesting stunt in which a “bride” and “groom” are assigned to bring people back to the studio in order to prove that “all the world loves a lover.” The bride is assigned to return with “something old” (a person over the age of 60) and “something new” (someone under the age of 6), while the groom must nab “something borrowed” (a wife or girlfriend) and “something blue” (a sad or melancholy person). “You know, he’s the one really taking the chance—because if he borrows somebody’s wife [and] brings her back here he may find the guy doesn’t want her back and he’ll be stuck with two,” Linkletter remarks. Under the guise of needing witnesses for a wedding, the first one to return to the studio will be awarded “a 21-inch Stromberg-Carlson console model television” (on a show sponsored by RCA Victor, no less). The “bride” wins the TV, but the “groom” gets a nice camera and the guests get wristwatches (except for a little four-year-old girl, who nets a new bicycle out of the whole deal).

For most of its run, People Are Funny was an NBC staple, sponsored by Wings Cigarettes from 1942-45 and then by Kool/Raleigh Cigarettes and Sir Walter Raleigh Tobacco (1945-51). It then moved over to CBS for three seasons for Mars Candy, and then returned to NBC for a year sponsored by Toni, and multiple sponsorship after that. (The show also made the successful leap to television, from 1954-61.) The radio version (of which there are approximately fifty episodes extant) hasn’t lost its power to entertain audiences today, demonstrating that—to borrow the raison d’être of Candid Camera’s Allen Funt—that people are funny when caught in the simple act of being themselves.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

“…true crime stories from the records and newspapers of every land from every time…”

Initially intended as a summer replacement for Suspense, the anthology series Crime Classics was created, produced and directed by Elliott Lewis, one of the major talents of Radio’s Golden Age. He was not only the creative force behind Suspense from 1950-54, but also Broadway’s My Beat (1949-54) and On Stage (1953-54); he was also prominent in front of the mike, with such roles as the titular sleuth of The Casebook of Gregory Hood and sidekick Frankie Remley on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. The genesis of Crime Classics sprang from Lewis’ deep, long-standing curiosity with the subject of murder; the actor-director possessed a voluminous library of true crime cases dating back to the 17th century. Under Lewis’ tutelage, Crime Classics would not only re-create the facts and circumstances of famous crimes, but would do so in the exact historical detail and period in which they had occurred.

Assisting Lewis in this task was the veteran writing team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin (The Lineup, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar) who also worked alongside the director-producer on Broadway’s My Beat and On Stage. Their scripts would be fact-based, realistic…and leavened with a slightly humorous edge. In the liner notes accompanying a First Generation Radio Archives Premiere Collection of Crime Classics, OTR historian Elizabeth McLeod succinctly summarizes what made the show so unique:

What distinguishes Crime Classics from other crime anthologies of the day is its mordant wit—while the cases were never played for out-and-out laughs, Lewis, Fine and Friedkin saw to it that just the right edge of tongue-in-cheek humor crept into the scripts and performances. In this way, the series could be taken as either a straight crime show or as an extremely subtle satire of that genre’s often overblown conventions. By refusing to ever take itself too seriously, Crime Classics earned its reputation as one of the bright spots of the radio era’s last years.

And that is truly what made this series (which ran on CBS from June 15, 1953 to June 30, 1954) an absolute marvel—it succeeded in being a top quality program despite the lack of a sponsor and, as a consequence, negligible ratings. The level of professionalism involved in the show is incredible; not only did it have the participation of the finest talent from Hollywood’s Radio Row—Mary Jane Croft (who would later become Mrs. Elliott Lewis), Bill Johnstone, Jeanette Nolan, etc.—but it showcased music composed and directed by the renowned Bernard Herrmann, who often captured the precise mood with only one or two musical instruments. As First Generation Radio Archives’ Preservation Manager Harlan Zinck commented in a recent newsletter, “Give a listen to two or three shows in the series and you’ll soon discover that the people who created Crime Classics clearly weren’t just doing it for the paychecks. They were also doing it because they were good at it, cared about it, and found it challenging and exciting.”

So I took Harlan’s advice and grabbed a couple of the Crime Classics CDs on my way out the door to work last night, and I can’t say when I’ve been more enthralled and entertained by a radio series. A good representative of the show is “The Checkered Life and Sudden Death of Col. James Fiske, Jr.”, originally broadcast June 29, 1953. The program is introduced by actor Lou Merrill as the series’ host, Thomas Hyland—“connoisseur of crime, student of violence and teller of murders”:

HYLAND: Good evening—this is Crime Classics. I am Thomas Hyland. I’m going to tell you another true crime story. Listen…
(SFX: body falling down a flight of stairs, music starts)
HYLAND: The man who just fell down the stairs of Colonel James Fiske, Jr. Although the Colonel is a man given to the consumption of dozens of blue point oysters—and bottles of heady wine at a sitting—his friends were given to pointing him out as a man inordinately steady on his feet. So why did he tumble down the stairs? And in New York’s Grand Central Hotel, no less—where stair-tumbling was frowned upon…the Colonel didn’t slip…he wasn’t pushed…he was shot. The sudden presence of two bullets in him had upset his equilibrium.
(SFX: footsteps, running)
HYLAND: The man who’s running away is the man who just shot the Colonel. His name—Edward S. Stokes, until recently the Colonel’s very dear friend. There he goes…(SFX: more running, door slamming shut) And tonight—my report to you on the Checkered Life…and Sudden Death of...Colonel James Fiske, Jr.

I suppose it’s probably too late in the game for me, but I would give anything to be known as a “connoisseur of crime” (it’s such a classy title, don’t you think?). Speaking of titles, Crime Classics had some of the cleverest—“John Hayes, His Head, and How They Were Parted”; “The Younger Brothers: Why Some of Them Grew No Older”; and “Good Evening, My Name is Jack the Ripper” are just a few of my favorites. “Fiske” outlines the tragic tale of a pair of friends who both fall in love with a widow (deliciously played by Mary Jane Croft), and includes a top-notch cast featuring Harry Bartell, Bill Johnstone, Paula Winslowe, Charles Calvert, Martha Wentworth and Steve Roberts.

The other three shows I previewed were equally superb—“The Shrapnelled Body of Charles Drew, Sr.” (7/6/53) is the story of a young man who quickly dispatches his father to the Great Beyond after being screwed in the old man’s newest will, and “The Dread Events Surrounding Mr. Thrower’s Hammer” (8/3/53) takes us to 1793 England, where the murder of a father and daughter goes unsolved for eleven long years. Then there’s “The Terrible Deed of John White Webster and His Crime That Shocked the Nation” (7/13/53), in which the title character murders the man to which he owes a $400 debt. Actor-announcer Larry Thor plays a policeman in this entry whose name is “Daniel Cliver”—and though I suppose it could be based on fact, it sounds more to me like someone decided to sneak in an joke (Thor played detective “Danny Clover” on Lewis-Fine-Friedkin’s Broadway’s My Beat).

At one time, Crime Classics ran back-to-back with another Lewis series, On Stage, in which he appeared mike-side with his then-wife Cathy.  He conducted a bold experiment one evening in December 9, 1953: first presenting “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” on Classics, and then showcasing the play that Lincoln attended that fateful night at Ford’s Theater—“Our American Cousin,” on Stage. Years later, Lewis remarked that it was a huge mistake; “Cousin” was so deadly dull it’s a wonder the President didn’t die from boredom before John Wilkes Booth shot him. The morning after the broadcast, Lewis found a note on his desk from CBS chief William Paley: “Interesting idea. Don’t do it again.”

Though Crime Classics ran but one season, it has nevertheless attained quite a cult following among modern-day OTR fans—and these buffs are indeed fortunate that with the exception of one or two broadcasts, the entire run had been preserved to entertain audiences today. In fact, you could be listening to the show right this very minute—First Generation Radio Archives still has their Crime Classics Premiere Collection on sale, but only until March 31st. Ten CDs with twenty remastered and restored episodes—that’s…well, in keeping with the criminal nature of this program, a steal.

Interesting blurb from the OTR Digest

A couple of days ago, I was prattling on about Force of Evil (1948) and I mentioned that the movie had been placed on the National Film Registry in 1994. But I was not aware, until seeing a post from Art Chimes on the Old-Time Radio Digest this morning, that there is also a National Recording Registry, which can be accessed here.

Anyway, Art mentions that the historic recording of the full broadcast day of WJSV (now known as WTOP, Washington, D.C.) from September 21, 1939 is among the historic recordings named to the Registry this month by a Library of Congress panel.

The recording (at 18-plus hours) is one of the longest and among the few radio broadcasts to be inducted into the registry, which also includes Game Four of the 1941 World Series (Yankees vs. Dodgers—“Owens dropped the ball!”) and the premiere broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion from July 6. 1974.

That’s the great thing about the Digest, though—hardly a day goes by when I don’t learn something new.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

“This case has more angles than a six-pointed star…”

Actor-crooner Dick Powell embarked on a new career as a hard-boiled tough guy with his starring turn as Raymond Chandler’s classic fictional detective Philip Marlowe in the 1944 film Murder, My Sweet. Powell had appeared in scads of musicals at both the Warner Brothers and Fox studios beginning in the early 1930s, and he welcomed the opportunity to shed his chorus boy image, tired of making films that featured “the same stupid story.” I’ve stated previously that Powell’s portrayal of Marlowe is my favorite of all of the detective’s screen incarnations, but I’m tremendously fond of Powell’s other tough-guy films, like To the Ends of the Earth (1948), Pitfall (1948), Station West (1948) and Cry Danger (1951, a really underrated noir that features William Conrad as the bad guy).

After reprising his role as Marlowe on Lux Radio Theatre’s June 11, 1945 broadcast of “Murder, My Sweet,” Powell got the opportunity to further flex his new tough-guy muscles by starring as investigator Richard Rogue on the series Rogue’s Gallery, a summer replacement series for NBC’s popular The Fitch Bandwagon beginning June 24. (During its run as a summer replacement for Fitch, the show was usually referred to as Bandwagon Mysteries.)

Rogue’s Gallery was essentially a warm-up act for Powell’s even more successful Richard Diamond, Private Detective series (broadcast from 1949-53). Though Gallery was fairly standard stuff, it did attempt to set itself apart from the usual gumshoe offerings through a novel gimmick: whenever Rogue was unconscious (either by knockout drops or the more frequent blow-to-the-back-of-the-head), he would travel to what he referred to “Cloud Number Eight” in his subconscious. There, he would confront Eugor—his alter ego (Eugor is Rogue spelled backwards) who would mock and taunt the detective (Rogue called him “a nasty little spook”) and yet would steer him toward a clue or bit of business that might have been overlooked by our hero in his conscious state. Eugor was played by radio veteran Peter Leeds, who appeared in numerous series (Suspense, Gunsmoke) but is probably best remembered as one of Stan Freberg’s supporting players both on records and Freberg’s 1957 radio comedy show (“It’s too piercing, man, too piercing.”).

I listened to some episodes of Gallery last night at work, and what makes the show fun is observing the origins of Richard Diamond come into play—particularly in an episode entitled “Little Drops of Rain” (originally broadcast November 8, 1945). Rogue is playing the piano and whistling (a la Diamond) while engaged in a conversation with his girlfriend Liza:

LIZA: I don’t want to go to a nightclub tonight, Richard—I’m too tired…let’s just go to a show, shall we?
ROGUE: Anything you say, baby…that’s the kind of a guy I am…
LIZA: I want to see Two Girls and a Sailor—it’s playing at the Rialto…
ROGUE: June Allyson’s in that, isn’t she?
LIZA: Mm-hmm…
ROGUE: Oh ho, that’s for me, then…!!!
LIZA: You think so?
ROGUE: Definitely.
LIZA: You think she’s prettier than I am?
ROGUE: Well, you’re…you’re not in pictures, angel…
LIZA: Do you think she’s prettier than I am?
ROGUE: Well, uh…well…uh…you’re a…you’re a different type…
LIZA: Are you going to answer me?
ROGUE: Oh, ho ho ho…you’re jealous…how can you be jealous of a girl I don’t even know…?

For the uninformed, June Allyson became manacled, marital-wise, to Powell in August of 1945—and the two enjoyed a life of wedded bliss until Powell’s passing from the scene in 1963. These sorts of in-jokes were frequently showcased in the later Richard Diamond series—Powell drives the point home here by warbling an amusing version of “June is Busting Out All Over” during the above conversation The plot involves a wealthy society dame who hires Rogue to break up a romance between her husband and his secretary, which proves not to be too hard when the husband turns up dead.

After Rogue’s Gallery’s successful summer run, Powell continued on with the role, only on another network—the program moved to Mutual beginning September 27, 1945 and ran for one season before returning to NBC June 23, 1946 for another summer run in the Fitch Bandwagon time slot. The series then resurfaced again for Fitch in the summer of 1947, but by this time Powell had been replaced by Barry Sullivan as a very different Rogue. Rogue’s Gallery enjoyed an additional season on ABC from November 29, 1950 to November 21, 1951 (played by both Chester Morris and Paul Stewart) before the sleuth took a trip to Cloud Number Eight permanently.

Of the nearly two dozen episodes of Rogue’s Gallery in circulation today, most of them are culled from the Powell version of the show (only one episode is available with Barry Sullivan). Written by Ray Buffum and directed by Dee Engelbach, the series also features music from Leith Stevens and the usual gang of Radio Row professionals (Gerald Mohr, Lurene Tuttle, Lou Merrill, etc.). Though I’m partial to Powell’s turn as Richard Diamond, Gallery provides solid entertainment for detective/crime drama fans—courtesy of the fine folks at the F.W. Fitch company (“Laugh a while/Let a song be your smile/Use Fitch Shampoo…”)

Friday, March 26, 2004

“What do you mean ‘gangsters?’ It’s just business…”

I am a very happy camper this morning, and I am only too pleased to tell you why. I found out yesterday that Republic-Artisan is finally releasing the 1948 noir classic Force of Evil to DVD. Appointed to the National Film Registry in 1994, it’s a cracking good film that cleverly equates capitalism with gangsterism.

I have a copy of this movie on VHS—in fact, if memory serves me correct it may have been one of the first things I bought online when I finally decided to get a computer. I remember seeing the movie on Cinemax in the mid 1990s, as part of a four-film festival hosted by Martin Scorsese (the other three movies were Johnny Guitar, Pursued, and A Double Life).

What makes the release of Force of Evil such good news for me is not only because it’s one of my all-time favorite films (directed by the great Abraham Polonsky, whose career was crippled by the Hollywood blacklist), but because since both Pursued and A Double Life have already been released on DVD—and that has to mean that Johnny Guitar can’t be far behind.

I won’t swear to this, but I think Republic-Artisan owns the copyrights to several other great noirs, including Pitfall (1948) and Try and Get Me! (1950, a.k.a. The Sound of Fury). (The studio released the 1951 underrated Bogart noir The Enforcer also not too long ago, so I’m joyously optimistic.) The wonderful thing about Republic-Artisan is that they make these movies very affordable—Force of Evil has an asking price of $7.19 at Deep Discount DVD.