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…”)

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