The Adventures of Sam Spade, Detective

Howard Duff Sam Spade

As the late Forties turned into the early Fifties, the airwaves were filled with a seemingly endless series of gumshoes. They were meant to appeal to the hard working, big spending young men in the audience, many of whom were just back from the War and may have been unhappy trying to readjust to the humdrum of civilian life.

With so many hardboiled detectives on the air, it’s hard to imagine there was room for one more, but ABC did in the summer of 1946. Most of the hardboiled detectives on the air took their cues from the hard bitten detectives that were popular in the movies, but essentially, they all wanted to be Sam Spade.

Star of Sam Spade

Of course, there could only be one Sam Spade, and that was Humphrey Bogart, who brought Spade to the screen in The Maltese Falcon(1941). This is a little surprising, since Bogie was not the first to play Sam Spade. There had been two earlier versions of The Maltese Falcon on the screen. Bogart didn’t even fit the physical description of Sam Spade that author Dashiell Hammett placed in his stories. In Hammett’s book, Spade was a ”blond Satan”, tall, and somewhat imposing. Bogie with his snappy fedora and rumpled trench coat was neither blond nor tall, but he was imposing. It could be said that when Bogie played that other hard boiled classic, Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep(1946), he was still playing Sam Spade.

We don’t know why it took so long for Spade to make it to the radio, but we would like to think that Dashiell Hammett was waiting for the right team to bring his favorite detective to the airwaves. He was already enjoying the royalty checks he was receiving for The Thin Man.

The first element which would make the Sam Spade radio series such an incredible radio hit was director William Spier. Spier had been an incredibly knowledgeable music critic, who got into radio as producer of the Atwater Kent Hour, a showcase for classical and semi classical music. He took to radio production like a fish to water, and had Duffy’s Tavern and “Radio’s Outstanding Theater of Thrills” Suspense to his credit before taking on Sam Spade. Suspense was as well know for its outstanding production values as its terrific stories. The same quality and attention to detail would be part of Sam Spade.

Sam Spade

Like many hardboiled detectives, Spade worked as a lone wolf, but his world was anchored by his doting secretary, Effie Perrine, played by “the first lady of radio” Lurene Tuttle. Effie was less than a sidekick, and not really even a love interest (Spade was too worldly to be tied down to a single dame), however there is little doubt that Spade cares deeply about Effie and what she thinks. Ms. Tuttle shows us that Effie had the same of stronger feelings for her boss, but she is smart enough to not let her affection get in the way of a good relationship.

The real genius of The Adventures of Sam Spade was the acting of Howard Duff in the titular role. Just like Bogie became Sam Spade by being Bogie, Duff paid tribute to Bogie by being Duff. Just like Bogie, Duff was tough because he was cool. Listeners could hear Duff’s insouciant smile through their speakers, and it carried just as much disdain as Bogie’s sneer, only without sneering.

Duff grew up in Bremerton, Washington, a Navy town across the Puget Sound from Seattle. He took up acting when he was cut from the High School Basketball team. He did some acting in the Seattle area, which helped him to be assigned to the Army Air Force’s radio division during the War. After discharge he found himself in Hollywood. He landed a few roles as general purpose tough guys in a few noir films (and a tempestuous relationship with Ava Gardner), but his real break was landing the Sam Spade role under the tutelage of Spier and Ms. Tuttle.

Spier’s vision for The Adventures of Sam Spade was a street wise detective who knew better than to take the world too seriously. Even though Spade got his share of knocks, there was none of the deadly seriousness which was a weekly feature of Suspense. Some of the situations that Spade wound up in stretched the bounds of believability, but the program’s attitude told audiences “stick with us, it will be worth it”, and it always was.

ABC ran The Adventures of Sam Spade, Detective, as a summer replacement series in 1946, but did not have a spot for it in the fall line up. The production moved to CBS on September 29, 1946, and picked up a sponsor, Wild Root Cream Oil Hair Tonic. The show ran continuously, without taking summer breaks, until September, 1950. Sometimes Sam had to deal with a new and especially scatterbrained secretary until Effie got back from vacation, and there were quite a few replacement directors. Duff told one interviewer that he was taking the show to New York for a while; the only way he could get a vacation was to take the show with him. The show moved to NBC in September of 1949.

The show remained popular for its entire run, but it was eventually a victim of the Red Scare. Dashiell Hammett was the first to be cut. His name in the “Created By” slot was cut because he was an admitted Communist. Duff had worked in support of labor unions, which was enough to get him listed in Red Channels.

In the fall of 1950, both Howard Duff and Wildroot Cream-oil left the show, the sponsor willingly, the star less so. Wildroot felt that the Red association would damage their reputation with the slicked back hair crowd, and put their sponsorship money behind a different detective program, Charlie Wild, Private Detective (a play on their jingle; Get Wildroot Cream-oil, Charlie). The new program was a rather direct ripoff of The Adventures of Sam Spade with a new cast and crew. Charlie’s secretary was even named Effie Perrine!

When The Adventures of Sam Spade went off the air, Duff gave a few interviews stating that he would miss his radio alter ego. NBC reportedly received 45,000 protest letters from fans over the cancellation. In November, Sam Spade was back without a sponsor, still directed by Spier and featuring Ms. Tuttle as Effie, but the title role went to Steve Dunne.

Although most careers were ruined by a listing in Red Channels, Duff’s wife, actress and director Ida Lupino, was able to keep him working, even after they separated. He continued to work on the big and small screen until his death in 1990.

The Adventures of Sam Spade is considered one of the high points of radio detective drama. No copies of Charlie Wild, Private Detective are known to exist.

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Man of a Thousand Voices when One was Enough: William Conrad

William Conrad in Gunsmoke

The movie hero generally fits a specific physical type. Not necessarily handsome in the classic sense, he has a manly, rugged appearance, tall, with a V-shaped torso, tapering from wide, solid shoulders to a narrow waistline. In classic films, he may not have the chiseled “six-pack abs” which are the trademark of modern leading men, but there is an undeniable masculine toughness about him. Fortunately, Hollywood has nearly as many of this type running around as it does pretty girls.

On the radio, the equivalent of broad shoulders and a narrow waist is a commanding basso profundo voice. Several actors were blessed with such a commanding voice, but few were able to use it to the degree William Conrad did, especially when we consider how far Conrad was physically from the leading man type.

William Conrad Hazel Brooks

William Conrad was born in Lexington, Kentucky, 1920, where his parents owned and operated a movie theater. Little Bill was babysat by the flickering light of the projector and growing up with the scent of popcorn in his nostrils there is little wonder that he dreamed of becoming one of the screen heroes who were a part of his daily life. It seemed that he might have his chance during high school when the family left Kentucky for Los Angeles. The youngster soon discovered that, as mentioned above, there were dozens if not hundreds of leading men types in town, all looking for their big break n the studio system.

One place that surprisingly few of them were looking was in local radio. In 1934, Detroit businessman George A “Dick” Richards paid $125,000 for a controlling interest in Los Angeles station KMPC, making it the third jewel in his “Good Will Broadcasting Company”, along with WGAR Cleveland and WJR in his native Detroit. Partially to raise capital but mostly as a marketing move, Richards sold minority shares in KMPC to Bing Crosby, Freeman Gosden and Charles Corell (Amos ‘n’ Andy), Paul Whiteman, and Harold Lloyd, and began advertising KMPC as “the Station of the Stars”. All-American tackle Bob Reynolds was retiring from the Detroit Lions (Richards owned the team) in 1938 and joined KMPC’s marketing department and soon became general manager.

Bill Conrad joined KMPC as part of the acting company for The Hermit’s Cave. The horror anthology was a rather direct rip-off of Mutual’s The Witch’s Tale, but it had been successful on WGAR and WJR, so Richards and Reynolds were happy to bring it to the L.A. market.  Conrad’s deep voice and willingness to experiment with microphone technique made him a welcome addition to the company. Other work at KMPC followed and soon he was producing The Hermit’s Cave.

When the War started, Conrad had earned enough of a showbiz background that he might have found a “behind the lines” job but he chose to join the Army Air Corps and train as a fighter pilot. Soon after he won his commission, however, he was diagnosed as suffering from night blindness and was transferred to AFRS as a producer-director. When he mustered out as a Captain, he was in a very good position to continue his radio career. He joined the acting company of The Man Called X and The Whistler along with numerous “Radio Row” gigs.

One of Conrad’s most recognizable parts was intoning the introduction to the CBS adventure anthology Escape: “Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you… Escape!” In fact, the announcing duties for Escape were shared with Paul Frees, one week one of the deep, rich voices would announce while the other acted in the episode, and the next week they would trade places. In addition to a classic part, Escape also gave Conrad a chance to work with director/producer Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston.

When CBS boss Bill Paley asked for ‘a Philip Marlowe set in the Old West’, MacDonnell and Meston came up with Gunsmoke. It was Meston who first advocated for the Escape announcer to breathe life into US Marshal Matt Dillon. Marshal Dillon would be a heroic yet tragic figure. He was determined to uphold the law in a generally lawless territory but saw first hand that the rule of law was not always a civilizing influence at the very edge of civilization. He was prepared to give his own life to preserve justice and it affected him deeply to see examples where even the force of law failed to bring justice to those who deserved it most. Dillon was no matinee hero who would win in every given situation, he enjoyed a beer at the end of a hard day and sometimes he needed something stronger to deal with his job. Miss Kitty was euphemistically described as someone the marshal “has to visit every once in a while”.

William Conrad and microphone

Although it aired when the Golden Age of Radio beginning to lose ground to TV, Gunsmoke was easily one of the greatest dramas commercial radio ever produced, thanks in no small part to the character created by William Conrad. However, adapting the program to television was inevitable, and while he was a great actor there was no way Conrad would be able to carry off the physical appearance the network expected for Matt Dillon at 5’7″ and tipping the scales more than 250 pounds, he was hardy the tall, broad-shouldered and narrow waist type envisioned as a leading man. The fact that his leading man could not play the part on TV may have been one of Norman MacDonnell’s biggest objections to “confining” Gunsmoke to the small screen, but the fact that James Arness was able to play the role for twenty seasons shows that his judgment may have been off.

Conrad seems more accepting of the fact that he would not be acting on TV’s Gunsmoke. He contributed scripts and directed episodes of the TV series and narrated a two-part story during the 1973 season. He managed to land a few roles which took advantage of his girth, including starring in Cannon (1971-1976), Nero Wolfe (1981), and Jake and the Fat Man (1987-1992). His voice work continued on television, including commercials and narrating the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. In 1981, he starred as the famous Masked Man in the animated reboot The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger.

William Conrad suffered a fatal heart attack on February 11, 1994, in Los Angeles. He was posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1997.

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Charles Boyer in Old Time Radio

Charles Boyer: Many critics argue that Charles Boyer‘s success in Hollywood is due to the appeal of being a Frenchman. We would suppose that the appeal of Frenchmen is that they are so much like Charles Boyer.

Ever since the Marquis de Lafayette and later the pirate Jean Laffite stepped in to aid the newly formed United States, Americans have gone absolutely bonkers for Frenchmen. This was especially true during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whenever the chips were down in a picture, the doughty Frenchman could be depended upon to flip away his cigarette butt, whisper “c’est la Guerre”, and rush headlong into the fight. When his British or even American cousins had their full attention on the trivialities of business, the Frenchman would have the savoir-faire to think “Cherchez la femme” and give any available lady the attention she needed.

American Cinema’s prototypical Frenchmen was Charles Boyer, although the case could be made that moviegoers enjoyed romantic Frenchmen because they were reminded of Charles Boyer. In the dialect of Southern France, the surname “Boyer” means cowherd. Charles was born in the small town of Figeac in 1899, his father a merchant. Young Charles was a basically shy boy who learned to express himself by watching plays and movies. During the Great War, he worked as a hospital orderly and was popular with the soldiers for performing comic sketches in the wards. 

Boyer’s father helped him to get into the Sorbonne where he studied Philosophy, but he gave more attention to his budding show business career and trying to get into the Paris Conservatory. A stage manager noticed how well he memorized lines and helped to get understudy work. Charles became an overnight success when he appeared in the 1920 play La Bataille, winning more stage work as well as establishing himself in French silent cinema.

Hollywood reached out to Boyer for the first time to star in the French language version of MGM’s groundbreaking prison film The Big House (1930, the French version was Révolte dans la prison, not L’homme du large which was Boyer’s 1920 cinematic debut). He would appear in a few English language films, including Jean Harlow‘s racy Red Headed Woman (1932) before returning to France. For the next several years he worked alternately in France and Hollywood as his Star continued to shine ever brighter. His classic role of Pepe le Moko in Walter Wagner’s Algiers (1938, United Artists), costarred Hedy Lamarr and Sigrid Currie. This is the film that attached him to the line “Come with me to the Casbah”, although Boyer never uttered those words on the screen. 

When France declared War on Germany in 1939, Boyer was in Nice, France, to make a pirate picture. The film was never finished, and Charles immediately volunteered with the French Army, although by November the government convinced him to accept a discharge and return to Hollywood where he would have a greater effect on the War Effort. He would receive an Honorary Oscar Certificate for establishing the French Research Foundation and became a naturalized American Citizen in 1942.

Although there is no denying Boyer’s savoir-faire, he was a small man (shorter than many of his leading ladies) with a noticeable paunch and he began losing his hair at an early age. He wore a toupee while working, but in public proudly displayed this magnificent Gallic dome. Back in 1934, he met British actress Pat Paterson at a dinner party, they fell in love and became engaged within two weeks, marrying three months later. Socially, Boyer described himself as “a stick in the mud” who would rather stay at home and read than engage in the Hollywood nightclub scene. He and Pat moved from Tinsel Town to Paradise Valley, Arizona.

Boyer’s gregarious and fun-loving demeanor made him a popular guest on several radio variety programs, and he was a popular target of Gracie Allen’s flirtations. He reprised several of his film roles for Lux Hollywood Theatre as well as other parts. In 1950, NBC gave him his own radio program, Presenting Charles Boyer.

Although he often played an unattached Continental bon vivant, Boyer’s loyalty to his wife, Pat was boundless, and they had a son, Michael Charles, in 1943. In 1960, he was honored with two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Motion Pictures and for Television. Tragedy struck in 1965 after Michael Charles broke up with a girlfriend, he committed suicide by playing Russian Roulette. Pat succumbed to cancer in 1978, Two days later, on August 26, 1978, Charles Boyer took a fatal dose of Seconal. It was two days before his 79th birthday. Charles Boyer‘s Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are at 6306 and 6308 Hollywood Blvd.

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The Skinny on The Fat Man

Fans of Old Time Radio are used to creating a portrait of character just from their voice. The announcer who tells us “There he goes into that drugstore. He’s stepping on the scales…” is a slender but not underweight dandy. The voice of the scales reads the card: “Weight, 239 pounds, Fortune, Danger!”

Even before the intro tells us, we know we are listening to The Fat Man. However, if we tuned in late, we still know just who we are listening to when we hear the the thick, rich, almost syrupy voice of J. Scott Smart flowing luxuriantly from the speaker.

The Fat Man was built on the success of The Thin Man, itself ironic since the Thin Man we heard on the radio was not the Thin Man in the title. Nick and Nora Charles were not so much a husband and wife detective team as they were a hustler with a heart of gold doing his best to drink his wife’s fortune away (the Thin Man in the original story was a former client of Nick’s and the focus of the mystery). The characters were created by “the dean of hard-boiled detective fiction” Dashiell Hammett. The Thin Man was Hammett’s last novel, and it would provide him with a surprisingly steady income. Not only were the book and the movie it inspired successful, the film spun off into six sequels and a popular radio series, and Hammett continued to collect royalties on them.

Since nothing succeeds like success, Hammett was encouraged to create a Fat Man to go with The Thin Man. The new character, Brad Runyon, was designed to be everything that Nick Charles was not. Nick took advantage of his position as Nora’s husband to hold the rest of the world in disdain, while Runyon was a consummate professional for whom the welfare of his clients was foremost. Runyon was based on the anonymous character who narrated Hammett’s early stories, the Continental Op, but The Fat Man would be “fleshed out” by the actor who played him, J.Scott Smart.

A native of Philadelphia, John Kenley Tener Smart found his way to the stage via the orchestra pit. Born in 1902, Smart found an aptitude for music after the family moved to Buffalo, New York. Jack, as he was known, graduated from Lafayette High School in 1922, and was a classmate of Fran Striker, who would gain radio fame as the creator of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. Smart began finding jobs with local stage bands but it wasn’t much of a stretch for him to realize that the actors on the stage were having more fun, getting more recognition, and being paid better than the musicians in the pit. He apprenticed with the McGarry Majestic Players, a stock company, and toured the eastern seaboard as a journeyman actor before settling in New York.

The New York Stage was in for hard times after the Stock Market Crash, but fortunately for Smart, radio was just beginning to take off. He found small roles on NBC’s dramatic staff until moving to CBS as Joe on Mr and Mrs, a show about spouses who had tired of each other that became the forerunner of The Bickersons, The Naggers and TV’s The Honeymooners and Married With Children. After Mr and Mrs‘s two season run, Smart stayed with CBS and eventually became a regular player on The March of Time impersonating a number of real people as the show dramatized current events. His versatility won him the nickname “The Lon Chaney of Radio”, a moniker that would not be lost on his next boss, Fred Allen.

Fred wasn’t sure what to make of radio in 1932, but he could see that the format his fellow vaudevillians were using could not last. Vaudeville used a visual and aural connection with the audience, but Fred instinctively knew that radio audiences couldn’t see what he was up to. He needed voice talents to sell his stories. He needed the Lon Chaney of Radio!

Jack worked with Fred Allen’s company of players on The Linit Bath Club, The Best Foods Salad Bowl Review and The Sal Hepatica Review. He played everything from pimply faced kids to blow-hard politicians to sissyfied artists to Samson Souse, Allen’s Alley’s resident tippler. In 1944, Jack left radio to take a role in the stage play “A Bell for Adano” which enjoyed a successful run in New York and Washington D.C. After the show closed, he auditioned for a new detective show on ABC, The Fat Man.

Any casting director would have tapped Smart for the role based on his looks alone, but it was his voice and expression that really won him the part. Although the character was based on Hammett’s creation and fleshed out by series writer Richard Ellington and producer Mannie Rosenberg, It was Smart who breathed life into the character. He often quipped that “it takes a fat man to sound like a fat man” (Runyon weighed between 235 and 244, depending on which episode you listened to, while Smart tipped the scales at 270 on a 5’9” frame).

Smart took an active role in creating the scripts, and had a clause inserted into his contract that he would receive a copy of the script two weeks before broadcast so that he could make changes he felt were necessary. He became the show’s “continuity man”, ensuring that the business of an episode would not contradict something that the audience would have learned about the characters in a previous episode. One touch that outsiders would not have known was Smart’s delight in changing character names for people he knew in his personal life. A friend in Ogunquit, Maine, tuned in one night to discover that he and his fishing boat had been lost at sea!

The popularity of the series was not lost on Hollywood, and a movie based on The Fat Man seemed like a natural. As it turned out, the 1951 film was used as a vehicle for Universal’s new star, Rock Hudson, and featured famous Barnum and Bailey clown Emmett Kelly but Smart was still the standout player. One of the picture’s running gags involved Runyon driving around town in a rented MG. 270 pound Smart disengaging himself from the tiny British roadster was not to be missed!

It seemed inevitable that The Fat Man‘s success would continue on the strength of the film and four seasons on radio. However, even though he had little to do with the series after creating the character, when Dashiell Hammett was named in the Red Channel’s Scandal and refused to “name names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee, sponsors began dropping show’s related to him. (NBC TV did bring The Thin Man to the small screen on Friday nights from 1957-59).

J. Scott Smart did some more acting after The Fat Man, but for the most part he had retired from show business to a fisherman’s shack in Ogunquit, Maine, where he worked at painting and sculpting. He died of pancreatic cancer in January, 1960.

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How to Hard Boil a Detective, A Look at “Let George Do It”

George Valentine wasn’t any tougher than the next guy, but he certainly was no sissy. He did not aspire to any self-made code of right and wrong, although he tried to be honest with his fellow man and if he made a promise he did his best to keep it. Although he wasn’t a teetotaler, he didn’t keep a bottle of rye whiskey in his desk drawer to get through the morning. He was no rumple-suited, hard-boiled type packing a well-worn .38 in a shoulder holster, in fact, George may not have even carried a gun after he got out of the military and even after serving in the War, George Valentine wasn’t all that hard-boiled.

So how did Let George Do It get lumped in with all the other Hard-boiled Detectives which had escaped the pulps to become a staple of post-War radio? Perhaps we should look at the Hard-boiled Detectives before we pursue that answer. Although the pulps were less than respectable reading during their heydays of the 1930’s and early ’40’s, they inspired some of the great films of the period. The most classic example might be The Maltese Falcon (1941) which helped to cement Humphrey Bogart‘s reputation as a tough guy.

Crime drama had always been a popular part of radio drama simply because the interplay of good guys and bad guys just makes for good stories. Classic mysteries like Sherlock Holmes stories or Agatha Christie adaptations were focused on how smart the detective was in bringing the bad guy to justice. As the detectives became more and more hardboiled, the settings became grittier, the bad guys more violent, and the good guy more jaded. George Valentine begins his detective career with a relatively non-violent, even optimistic notion. Recently released from War service and with no job prospects, Valentine decides to open his own business. With no other resources or specific skills, he rents an office and some furniture and takes out an ad in the local classifieds.

The ad copy reads: “Do you have a crime that needs solving? Do you have a dog that needs walking? Do you have a wife that needs spanking? Let George do it!” In other words, Valentine sets himself up as a “concierge on steroids”. The audition episode, in addition to giving George a teenaged sidekick and a pretty secretary/office manager, involves a murdered mystery writer (who hasn’t been murdered and is not even dead), but murder is not part of the plot for several weeks. The next few episodes involve finding a girl farm for a pig farmer and a cowboy movie star who is afraid of horses.

It does not take long for the bodies to begin pile up for our hero. Apparently, the writers or whoever was paying the writers decided that capital crimes were more likely to hold the interest of the audience. As the content got grittier, George’s want-ad was modified; “Danger is my stock in trade. If you have a job that is too tough for you to handle, you’ve got a job for me. George Valentine. Write full details.” Even as things get more dangerous, Valentine simply cannot help being a nice guy, although he does find more than a few smarmy comments for the cops and his suspects.

The role of George Valentine was created by Bob Bailey. After getting his start in network programs out of Chicago, he built a solid resume with appearances in soaps and dramatic anthologies. He decided to try his luck in Hollywood and in 1943 was signed by 20th Century Fox where he appeared in seven feature films, starting in supporting roles for Laurel and Hardy. Unfortunately, Bailey was not physically imposing enough, nor did he have the sex appeal to develop as a leading man. At the same time, he was too plain to be a memorable character actor.

That everyman plainness was perfect for George Valentine, however, and sponsor Standard Oil soon had a West Coast hit on the Mutual-Don Lee Network. However, the relatively low budgets of radio dropped even further as sponsor dollars migrated to television. For the first years, Bailey’s charm was underscored by a studio orchestra (and the natural laughter of a studio audience) but in later episodes, the orchestra was replaced by a cheaper but less effective organ. In late 1952, Standard dropped sponsorship altogether, but the show kept going as a Mutual syndication. Interest in George Valentine’s brand of detective work eventually won sponsorship from Pream artificial coffee creamer. Unfortunately, the network and sponsor decided that production should be moved to New York, Bailey had found a home as part of L.A.’s “Radio Row” and was unwilling to relocate so the role was given to Olan Soule for nine months in 1954 until the program went off the air.

CBS had their own “nice guy detective” in the form of an “Insurance Investigator with an Action-Packed Expense Account”, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, which had gone of the air in September 1954. When fan and sponsor interest was high enough to bring Johnny Dollar back to the air, Bailey was hired for the role. Like George, Dollar had been becoming more “hard-boiled” as the series progressed, but when Bailey came on board the insurance investigator became more thoughtful and even-tempered. This was helped by a change in format from a half-hour-weekly to a quarter-hour-daily with five-episode story arcs. This gave Dollar, the people he was helping, and the crooks he took down a greater opportunity for character development.Bob Bailey as Yours Truly Johnny Dollar gave one of the most outstanding performances in Old Time Radio, and although that performance was based on the character developed for Let George Do It, the older program stands on its own as great listening.

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Dick Powell and the Fight Against Typecasting

Most serious actors do their best to avoid falling into the trap of typecasting. As creative artists, they would prefer to build a varied resume’, with appearances in a variety of films and roles in Romantic Comedies, Westerns, action films, Period Pieces, Crime Stories, and Space Operas, playing a mix of heroes, villains, clowns, and tragic figures. Of course, only the hottest of Hollywood talent will get to put together a resume’ this rich. Most will find the only way they can keep working is to accept some degree of typecasting.

Typecasting is an easy trap to fall into, and usually, the typecast actor is a victim of his own success. If you are successful as a certain type of character, then the studio bean counters will feel reassured that they can make money if you do it again. That is how Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce wound up making more than a dozen Sherlock Holmes films from 1939 until 1946, as well as several seasons playing the characters on The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on the radio.

Some actors will point out that it is better to be typecast than to not be cast at all, but it is easy to understand the frustration of playing the same type of character, over and over again. That is why it can be so satisfying to see an actor break from type. One of the best examples is Dick Powell who broke from the musical comedy “pretty boy” type so successfully that he seemed to have three separate careers.

Born Richard Ewing Powell in Arkansas, 1904, he was the middle boy of three sons. His father was often away on business, his mother used as a way to keep her sons in line, encouraging each of the boys to take up an instrument. The family settled in Little Rock in 1914, where folks began to notice Dick’s singing talent. After working his way through Little Rock College as a grocery clerk, soda jerk, and other odd jobs, he broke into show business as an M.C. at local theaters. Later, he signed on as a banjo player and singer with the Royal Peacock Orchestra in Louisville, Kentucky, before hitting the road with the Charlie Davis Band, touring throughout the mid-West.

Davis was based in Indianapolis, where he had the bad cut a few sides for Vocalion, and the label had Dick make some discs as a solo artist. Vocalion was owned by Brunswick Records, who were bought out by Warner Bros in 1930. After getting the new acquisitions sorted out the film studio began to take notice of the good-looking young singer and offered Powell a movie contract in 1932. He made his film debut as a singing bandleader in Blessed Event (1932).

Warner’s brought Dick along as a journeyman crooner, eventually pairing him with Al Jolson’s wife, Ruby Keeler, in the backstage musical 42nd Street (1933). Audiences loved the Keeler and Powell pairing, and they appeared together in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934), Flirtation Walk (1934), Shipmates Forever (1935), and Coleen (1936). Joan Blondell, another Warner’s contract player, was part of Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames, and Coleen. She also appeared with Powell in Convention City (1933), Broadway Gondolier (1935), and Stage Struck (1936). The Blondell/Powell pairing appeared to work both on and off the set, and Dick and Joan were married in September 1936 (the second marriage for both).

Dick adopted Joan’s son and they had a daughter together. On screen, they made the farces I Want a Divorce (1940) and Model Wife (1941). By this point in his career, Powell was beginning to realize that he would soon outgrow the lightweight roles which had so far defined his Warner’s career. This may have been a strain on the marriage, but he campaigned hard to get the lead in Double Indemnity (1944). The part went to another aging “nice guy”, Fred MacMurray, and Powell was even further frustrated when he saw how working out of type revitalized MacMurray’s career. Powell and Blondell were divorced on July 14, 1944.

Perhaps to help cultivate a roguish image Dick began pursuing MGM starlet June Allyson, who was 13 years his junior. Her studio’s publicity department had sent her on public dates with their own young leading men, including Van Johnson and Peter Lawford. None of the studio set-ups were as attractive to June as Powell, even after Louis B. Mayer ordered her to stop seeing him. In an attempt to mollify the studio head, June asked him to give her away at the wedding. The shocked Mayer accepted (but still suspended her for defying him). Dick and June wed in August 1945.

Powell was cast in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944) as the screen’s first Philip Marlowe. Although the role would be forever identified with Humphrey Bogart once he played him in The Big Sleep (1946), Powell’s Marlowe was closer to the thoughtful character created by Raymond Chandler and every bit as tough and hard-bitten as Bogie’s sneering Marlow. The picture certainly turned Dick Powell’s career around, setting his reputation as a noir tough guy.

Along with the hard-boiled movie roles, Powell was a popular radio drama star. He was no stranger to the broadcast studio, usually as a guest crooner supporting his films, but in 1945 Powell was hired to play Richard Rogue of Rogue’s Gallery, the summer replacement for Fitch Bandwagon. Although detective and mystery series had been a staple of radio for a long time, Rogue was arguably the first “hard-boiled” detective who took more beatings than he dished out. The program held on past the summer, but in 1947 Powell left to concentrate on his film career and the part of Richard Rogue was picked up by Barry Sullivan and later Paul Stewart.

After a number of successful he-man film roles, Powell was coaxed back to the airwaves in 1949 for NBC’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Diamond was as ready to take or throw a punch as any other hard-boiled detective, creator and writer Blake Edwards convinced Powell that it would be alright for the gum-shoe to sing a musical number after putting away the bad guy.

On screen, Powell was beginning to age out of the tough guy leading roles, so he began to explore the possibility of keeping his career alive from the other side of the camera. His feature directorial debut was RKO’s noir thriller Split Second (1953) about a group of escaped convicts hiding in a ghost town which is to be the site of an atomic weapon test. There would be a Cold War spin on his second feature, but it would be more sinister and much deadlier.

The Conqueror (1956) had the elements to be a major blockbuster. Powell was a relatively new but highly talented and creative director, Howard Hughes (and his fortune) backed the project as co-producer. There was serious star-power involved, with John Wayne and Susan Hayward leading a strong cast. The principal photography was shot in the grandeur of the Utah desert, and the cavalry scenes involved hundreds of horsemen. What no one seems to have considered was how ridiculous it was to cast The Duke as a Mongolian warrior (Temujin, or Genghis Khan), let alone blond Susan Hayward as his concubine.

Even more tragic than having to sit through the film’s 111 minutes was that the arduous filming took place 137 miles downwind of the site of eleven recent above-ground atomic test shots. Of the 220 people in the cast and crew, nearly half would die of various forms of cancer before 1980 (granted, most of these people were also heavy tobacco users, but the downwinder status seems a bigger factor in their illnesses). Howard Hughes took the film out of circulation by purchasing every known print of the film until Universal bought the rights from his estate in 1979.

Powell had greater directorial success on the small screen. In the early Fifties, he saw that there were greater creative opportunities in the growing TV industry, and he felt that the industry was bound to shift from live programs from New York to recorded shows shot in Hollywood. Impressed by the Desilu Studios business model developed by his friends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, he convinced Charles Boyer, David Niven, and Joel McCrea to invest in Four Star Television. McCrea left to pursue his own career and Ida Lupino became the fourth Star, although she did not own stock in the enterprise.

Four Star’s pet project was Four Star Playhouse which featured a weekly rotation of the principals (sometimes more than one working together) in an anthology series. The company also brought a number of Westerns and Sitcoms to TV and resurrected Powell’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective with David Janssen playing the slick gumshoe (Janssen did not, however, sing on the program). Four Star was a career launching pad for TV heavyweights David Janssen, Steve McQueen, Robert Culp, Chuck Connors, Mary Tyler Moore, Linda Evans, Jeannie Carson, Lee Majors, The Smothers Brothers, and Aaron Spelling.

In September 1962 Powell acknowledged rumors that he was undergoing aggressive treatment for cancer. He passed away on January 2, 1963, at the age of 58. Although it has widely speculated that Dick Powell was a victim of the Nuclear Downwinder Phenomenon, his widow June Allyson stated in a 2001 interview that the cause of death had been lung cancer resulting from years of cigarette smoking.

Three Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame were set for Dick Powell, one for Motion Pictures at 6915 Hollywood Blvd, another for Television at 6745 Hollywood Blvd, and for Radio at 1560 Vine Street.

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Rumors, Excess, and the Unlikely Journey of John Barrymore’s Corpse

Hollywood sometimes seems to run on the motto that “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing”. A one-industry town built where fantasy and hard cash come together, it can be difficult to tell which stories are true and which are simply stories. Strangely, because Hollywood is a place where excess is a way of life, the more fantastic a story is, the easier it is to believe. The story that follows is so far out that it seems more likely to have happened than not. There are voices from the past which claim it is a hoax and others which claim it is true. Our opinion is that true or not, it is a very good story.

John Barrymore became one of the greatest actors of his generation. Born into the Drew and Barrymore acting dynasties in 1882, Barrymore was expected to follow his father Maurice, older brother and sister Lionel and Ethel, and his maternal uncles John and Sidney Drew onto the stage. John became one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time, was one of Hollywood’s first super-Stars during the silent era, and with his stage-trained voice flourished with the advent of talkies. This success came despite the fact that Barrymore struggled with the bottle from the time he was fourteen. While starring in the silent horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), he was working at the studio during the day while staying at a sanitarium to dry out (he also managed to get another man’s wife pregnant about the same time).

Hard-drinking director Raoul Walsh had been a friend of Barrymore’s since boyhood, and notorious tippler W.C. Fields was also a companion. Swashbuckling star Errol Flynn, who claimed to have patterned his own acting after the great Barrymore, joined what became known as the “Bundy Drive Gang”, a gin-soaked bunch who made Humphrey Bogart‘s and Frank Sinatra‘s Holmby Hills Rat Pack seem likes a gathering of choir boys.

By the mid-1930’s, Barrymore’s drinking had led to him nearly being blacklisted by the major studios. However, word got out that CBS was going to broadcast Columbia Presents Shakespeare as a summer replacement program in 1937. Not to be outdone by the upstart “Tiffany Network”, NBC began to plan Streamlined Shakespeare, but the show needed a “name” to carry it and the decision was that John Barrymore was the name.

Critics are divided on Barrymore’s performance on Streamlined Shakespeare, some praising him for bringing the Bard to life for the masses while others felt his work lampooned the greatness of the material. To Barrymore’s credit, he remained sober and reliable through the program’s run, leading the studios to give him another chance at film work. Although he was relegated to supporting roles, the infusion of cash was a great relief to his many creditors and film crews referred to him as “Mr. Barrymore” out of respect. NBC took another chance on him, giving him a part as Rudy Vallee‘s foil on The Sealtest Show. There was plenty of self-deprecating jokes about his relations with women and his drinking, but the show also gave him a chance to do some serious radio acting. While recording a segment from Romeo and Juliet on May 19, 1942, Barrymore collapsed in the studio. He was rushed to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital where he died of cirrhosis of the liver complicated by kidney failure. After sixty years, John Barrymore had finally drunk himself to death.

The surviving members of the Bundy Drive Gang did not take the death of their leader well and retired to L.A.’s Cock and Bull Bar. After a few hours of liquid mourning, excused himself, claiming that the grief had overwhelmed him. Errol Flynn expressed his grief by continuing his attempt to drink the establishment dry. What happened next is reported in Flynn’s autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1959, Putman) which was released weeks after his own death (Flynn, too, drank himself to death, dropping dead in Vancouver, British Columbia, October 1959, where he had traveled to sell his yacht Zaca to satisfy creditors, at the time the schooner was rotting in a harbor in France, it has since been restored and is said to be haunted by Errol Flynn‘s ghost).

After leaving the bar, Walsh drove to the Pierce Bros mortuary where money was exchanged with a funeral director. Barrymore’s body was loaded into the director’s car, and Walsh then drove to Flynn’s mansion. He pounded on the door until he awoke Flynn’s butler who he directed to help him bring Mr. Barrymore into the house. “I think he is dead, sir,” said the butler, but Walsh pointed out that the butler had seen Barrymore in this condition before. Once the departed Barrymore was ensconced on Flynn’s sofa, Walsh sent the butler to get coffee “to help sober him up”.

About this time, Flynn wobbled home from the Cock and Bull. He collapsed into a favorite chair when the butler came into the room saying, “Here’s Mr. Barrymore’s coffee”. Flynn then spotted the corpse on his sofa and ran screaming from the room. From behind a bush, he yelled for Walsh to “Get him out of here! You are going to get us all of us put in San Quentin!” When Walsh returned to the funeral home, the funeral director asked where the film director had been. After laughingly describing their visit to Flynn’s mansion, the mortician said, “Why, if I’d have known you were going to take him up there, I would have put a better suit on him!”

This episode, as mentioned, was described in Flynn’s autobiography and confirmed by Raoul Walsh in a documentary in 1973. However, a close friend of the Barrymore family and fellow member of the Bundy Street Gang, Gene Fowler, states that he and his son stood vigil with Barrymore’s body in the funeral home and the shenanigans described above never occurred.

True or not, it is too good of a story not to share.

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Mystery Writers in Old Time Radio

Although sometimes maligned for its pulp-magazine origins, Hard Boiled Detective fiction has become a fixture in romantic literature. The genre delights in emphasizing emotions of apprehension, terror, awe, and even horror while filtering the emotions through the cynicism of the protagonist. The cynicism results as a reaction to the violence that the protagonist faces.

The typical Hard Boiled Hero faces senseless violence on a daily basis, and the hero’s cynicism is a defense to help prevent him from going mad. In some cases,  it may be a manifestation of madness. In any case, it is this very cynicism that we enjoy in the Hard Boiled stories.

With this in mind, it is interesting to take a look at some of our favorite Hard Boiled authors. These are the minds that have given life to many of the stories which have delighted radio listeners, movie goers, and readers for decades. Were these minds as troubled as the characters they created suggest? Perhaps so, in some cases. In others, the writer seems to be having as much fun as we are.

James M Cain (1892-1977) personally hated labeling, but came to personify the Hard-Boiled novelist and screenwriter. Cain’s most famous novels, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are tales of infidelity and murder. Both novels have been retold several times on the screen. The stories were apparently inspired by the true-life case of Ruth Synder, the New York housewife who plotted with her lover to murder her husband for the insurance money. Both were executed in Sing Sing’s electric chair.

John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was a master of the plot driven “closed door mystery”. An American who spent time in Great Britain, Carr is often grouped with English Mystery authors. In addition to his novels, Carr penned a number of scripts for Suspense, and his radio play Cabin B-13 was expanded to an entire CBS series. During WWII, he wrote mystery and propaganda scripts for the BBC.

Frederic Brown (1906-1972) is best remembered as a Sci Fi author and a master of the “Short-short” form of storytelling (many of his best works are less than 1000, some less than 500 words long). Many of his stories have been adapted for popular Sci Fi television, including the Star Trek episode “Arena”. Brown’s crime novels are noteworthy for their tight plotting and riveting suspense, reminding us of the noir influences of Cornell Woolrich.

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) wrote crime fiction almost exclusively, but her work is considered to be artistic and thoughtful enough to rival mainstream fiction. European critics consider her to be an important psychological novelist, pretty good for someone whose writing career began by writing for comic books. Her novel, Strangers On A Train was first adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock.

John Micheal Hayes (1919-2005) is remembered for his screenwriting collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. He had missed much of his primaries schooling due to recurring ear infections, but while bed ridden he developed a passion for reading. Hayes began writing for radio while in college after winning a contest sponsored by the Crosley Corporation. After serving in WWII, he moved to California and continued his radio career, contributing scripts to The Adventures of Sam Spade, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, My Favorite Husband, Your’s Truly, Johnny Dollar, and others. Radio success led to a call from Universal, and eventually to collaboration with Hitchcock on four films, including Rear Window.

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) has been called “the dean of the ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction”. Hammett was an agent for the Pinkerton Detective Agency before he began writing (he found the agency’s role in union busting distasteful, however). His best known stories include The Maltese Falcon, which introduced Sam Spade, The Thin Man with Nick and Nora Charles. Hammett’s nameless character, the Continental Op is considered the prototype for the most popular Hard Boiled characters, including Hammett’s own Sam Spade, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and several others.

Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) has had more of his stories adapted to film noir scripts than any other author in the Hard Boiled Genre. He began writing Jazz Age romance novels, but turned to detective fiction, often writing under pseudonyms. Many of his stories were adapted for Suspense.

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) turned to writing pulp fiction at the age or 44 after losing his job as an oil company executive. Chandler and his character Philip Marlowe had an enormous influence on the style of hard-boiled fiction. Indeed, Marlowe as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, is considered the model for movie Hard Boiled Detectives.

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Happy Birthday, Carol Channing! Enjoy her Old Time Radio Broadcast from 1955

Today we celebrate the 97th birthday of the actress, Carol Channing.  Dubbed “First Lady of Musical Comedy”, Carol Channing was primarily a comic stage actor.

Born on January 31, 1921, she debuted on stage in “No for an Answer” (1941), She made her Broadway debut in “Proof Through the Night” (1942) and appeared on the silver screen in the film “Paid in Full” (1950).

Channing went on to appear in additional films such as “The First Traveling Sales Lady” with Clint Eastwood.   She is best remembered as Muzzy Van Hossmere in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” for which she won a Golden Globe award.

Please enjoy this rare radio broadcast of Anthology from June 5, 1955: “The Lives and Times Of Archie and Mehitabel” in which she appears in the recording:

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Country Music Parleyed Strong … Just Ask Johnny

Old Time radio never would have had the following it enjoyed if not for the music venues that were offered from coast to coast. Americans loved to tune-in and catch the hits and wonders of the day in various musical genre. One of the more prolific and popular trends was that of country music. Country music caught the attention of many listeners because it brought things down to the roots of the nation. Country music spoke at a time when people were needing to have heels kicked up with the heaviness of life; economically, foreign problems, family strife; hitting people where they lived.

Johnny Cash brought the “old time religion” back into America’s hearts and homes and inspired people to gather around their tables and pray. His brand of folk-tale “talk” worked well with the American working man, because he came from the dirt of the land and carried his homespun words of ‘wisdom’ to millions of listeners every week. Cash had the innate ability to warm a heart the moment he started to “speak’ a song.

Country music singers, like Johnny Cash, denied the critics that branded their musical repertoire as “fit for the simple”. If the music catered to the less intellectual, well then much of America must have been simple. People loved the Grand Ole Opry and they loved their night time visit around the radio to hear the songs that comfort and told a story.

Country style music…ah heck, call it what it is…country lovin’ music played to a need in the country on the airwaves. The need was to be be reminded of what this country meant to people. The need to be be brought home again. Finally, the need to know neighbor could count on neighbor. Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash knew that people loved God, country and family and used that as the theme to regain the consciousness of the American radio audience. “If the Circle be unbroken” then thank country music for keeping it secured.

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