Old Time Radio

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.