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.

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