November 14: Happy Birthday Dick Powell!

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Some actors are stamped with a certain role and are never able to move beyond it. It is called type casting, and Hollywood, which has always been more commercial than artistic, revels in the practice. Why not? Once they have found an actor who can fill a certain type of role, and do it well, what is the sense in changing as long as money is still being made?

dick-powell-c-1930sWhen Dick Powell came to town, he landed one of the typecasting plums, that of Musical Comedy Romantic Leading Man. From the dawn of the Talkies until the 1950’s, the MCRLM was assured to find work, even well past his prime. His leading lady could expect to be tossed aside before she turned 30, but the MCRLM would be playing the fresh-faced college boy into his forties. Powell, however, felt that he had more to contribute, and he was correct.

Powell really was the fresh-faced, bound to succeed at anything sort that he portrayed in his early musicals. He grew up in Indiana and attended Little Rock College where he excelled at his studies, at business, but especially in performing. He began playing cornet and performing in campus musicals. Rather than moving directly into the business world, after college he went on the road with Charlie Davis Orchestra.

With a rather casual tenor style ( Powell did not have the classical training like many big band singers of late 1920’s the band was popular on the mid-Western dance circuit and landed a recording deal with Vocalion. Hollywood noticed, and when Vocalion’s parent company was bought by Warner Brothers, song-and-dance man Dick Powell was a sweet part of the deal.

Through the 1930s, Powell appeared in musical after musical, including 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Flirtation Walk and On The Avenue. Although he was enjoying a good deal of success, Dick realized that an aging pretty boy was going to seem ridiculous, even if the studio heads did not.

Dick_powell_-_publicityHis pleas to play other roles fell on deaf ears. He lobbied for the lead in what was to become a film noir classic, Double Indemnity, but was denied yet again. The role went to another Hollywood “nice guy”, Fred MacMurray (Fred thought it was a casting mistake, but acknowledged that it was the role which turned his career around). MacMurray’s success helped open the door for Dick to work with director Edward Dmytryk in Edward Chandler’s Murder My Sweet(1944). Powell became the first actor to play Philip Marlowe, and broke away from the MCRLM mold forever.

The year 1944 also found Powell in his first steady radio dramatic role. Radio was part of the Hollywood star machine at the time, and Powell had appeared on a number of musical variety programs as well as the Radio Movie anthologies in support of his films. Private eye Richard Rogue of Rogue’s Gallery was rather less hard boiled than Philip Marlowe, but he was no creme puff. Radio detectives of the period were expected to get beat up in every episode, but when Richard Rogue took a powder he would be visited by his alter-ego Eugor (Rogue backwards). Very often it was during his conversations with Eugor that the shamus figured out whodunit.

Through the forties and fifties Powell became a popular film “heavy” in films like Cornered, Johnny O’Clock and Cry Danger. He also made an even bigger splash on radio as Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Richard Diamond was the creation of writer Blake Edwards, who would be better known for films Operation Petticoat, Breakfast At Tiffany’s and the Pink Panther movies. Although Powell had to chops to play a very credible radio noir detective in the hard-boiled tradition, Diamond was a decidedly light-hearted detective. Edwards even convinced Powell that it was OK to sing in the role!

Screen Guild PlayersPowell the businessman realized that TV producers were going to be happier using the resources of the Hollywood film industry than continuing in New York sound stages, and with David Niven, Ida Lupino and Charles Boyer founded Four Stars Television. He also expanded into film direction; his classic submarine film The Enemy Below (1957) won the Academy Award for Special Effects.

The ambitious film The Conqueror (1956) was not Powell’s last creative effort, but it was allegedly the one that killed him. Produced by Howard Hughes and starring John Wayne at the height of his career, the epic should have been one the great hits of the decade. Even with Dick Powell’s direction and the support of Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead, the film was more than a critical flop. It is considered one of the worst films ever made. The real tragedy of the movie came from the fact that the exterior photography was shot in St. George, Utah, just 137 miles downwind from the Nevada Test Site, location of above ground nuclear testing in the early 1950s. Although the production company had government assurance that it was safe, 91 of the 220 people in the production company developed cancer. Although tobacco was a contributing factor in many cases, especially Wayne and Moorehead, radiation is suspected to have contributed to the early demise of Powell, Susan Hayward, and many others.

A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6915 Hollywood Blvd honors Dick Powell.

July 22: 73rd Anniversary of Suspense on the Radio…

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On July 22,  we celebrate the anniversary of one of Old Time Radio’s greatest treasures, Suspense. Soon fans will argue that the anniversary is actually June 17, 1942. That is when the fully developed program launched as a weekly series. However, that night in July of 1940 was the first time the public heard a Suspense radio program, and the premiere caused its own share of ruckus for a program which would go on to last for twenty years as a weekly feature, right to the very end of the Radio age.

The Columbia Broadcasting Service, the “Tiffany Network”, built a reputation for bringing the highest quality programming to the airwaves, no matter the expense. This pursuit of The Best manifested itself in many ways, from the almost cinematic productions of Norman Corwin to the infamous NBC “Talent Raids” when CBS chief William Paley outbid the older network for some of its most profitable acts (and helped to establish CBS as the dominant presence in Post War radio).

Fun With Hitchcock

Alfred_Hitchcock_by_Jack_MitchellCBS was not afraid to take risks on new shows and concepts, but like anyone else playing for high stakes, they did their best to minimize the risks. One way the network developed to try out new shows was to introduce them as a summer replacement series for the radio. Another device was a weekly program called Forecast (Forecast itself filled a Monday night summer slot). Forecast was designed as a preview of new radio programs, presenting two audition shows each week. Other great shows that got their start on  Forecast include Duffy’s Tavern.

English movie director Alfred Hitchcock had already established himself as “the master of Suspense” by 1940. Having established himself as one of England’s greatest movie directors, Hitchcock was brought to America by producer David R. Selznick. His first American film, Rebecca, won best picture, and he was getting ready to repeat that success with Foreign Correspondent. Part of the promotion for both films was to have Hitchcock direct the audition program for Suspense. To sweeten the deal, Edmund Gwenn and Herbert Marshall, both of whom were working on Foreign Correspondent, were included in the package.

Hitchcock chose to dramatize the short story “The Lodger” which he had brought to the silent screen in 1926. It was the story of a London boarding house keeper whose guest may or may not have been the infamous Jack The Ripper. In an effort to keep the audience in “Suspense”, at the end of the broadcast Hitchcock neglected to reveal whether or not the Lodger really was the Ripper. This was a major coup for the show-to-be. If listeners wanted to find the answer, they had to write to the network. The show received hundreds of letter, not all of it favorable. Many were upset over the cliff hanger, but CBS was convinced.

Establishing a Weekly Favorite

SuspenseadHowever, even the Tiffany network could not afford Hitchcock every week, so the project was turned over to William Spier, “the Hitchcock of the airwaves”. Suspense began as a sustained program, but soon sponsor Roma Wines was paying the bills.

A number of factors went into making Suspense an incredible Radio success. The production values were kept very high. Spier and the producers that followed him were able to attract an impressive selection of actors to Suspense, not just radio heavyweights, but big names from the screen, as well.

For the actors, Suspense gained a reputation for being a fun project to appear on. The anthology format meant that there would be a variety of different characters to play and develop. Rarely were they the sort of characters that the actors were used to playing. It is very interesting to hear comics like Jack Benny playing a Martian laborer or a clueless bank robber, or Jim and Marian Jones (Fibber McGee and Molly) as kidnap victims. Listeners have their ear ready for a quip or joke, but it never comes. Instead, the anticipation draws the listener even deeper into the story.

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Even more than the production and the actors, the stories were the big attraction of Suspense. Pretty much anything was fair game, as long as it would keep the audience in Suspense. One of the earliest successes was an adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number”, Agnes Moorehead plays a woman who panics when she overhears part of the murder plot but cannot convince anyone of what she heard. “Sorry,
Wrong Number” would be repeated seven times over the 20 year run of Suspense. Fletcher also penned “The Hitch Hiker”, which featured Orson Welles as a man stalked by a mysterious stranger across country.

Endings, Remembrance, and Rebirth

suspense5The coming of television took a toll on Suspense, but not as big as it would appear. Budgets were slashed, both sponsors and producers left for the small screen, but the stories were still presented every week, keeping audiences in Suspense. Eventually, CBS gave up on dramatic radio completely on September 30, 1962. The last two programs broadcast were Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense.

Suspense was simply too good of a show to die with the Golden Age of Radio. The existing episodes are a cornerstone of any OTR collection.

70th Anniversary of “Sorry, Wrong Number”

On May 25, 2013, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of one of Old Time Radio’s truly magnificent treasures. One that evening in 1943, CBS’s “Outstanding Theater of Thrills”, radio’s Suspense!, presented for the first time the chilling tale “Sorry, Wrong Number”.

Lucille Fletcher, one of the female mystery writers who dominated the genre, wrote the radio play. In contrast to other types of fiction, there was relatively little “gender-gap” for mystery writers. In part, this was due to Agatha Christie’s work popularizing the genre, but the editor’s need to gather compelling stories whereever they could be found was also a factor. Ms. Fletcher also penned “The Hitch Hiker” script that was hugely successful for Orson Welles in 1941. Welles would later opine that “The Hitch Hiker” and “Sorry, Wrong Number” were the best suspense plays ever written for Radio.

“Sorry, Wrong Number” was as simple as it was effective. The program as originally written as almost a one woman show and radio veteran Agnes Moorehead handled it masterfully. The story opens as she is trying to reach her late-working husband, but finds that his office telephone is constantly busy. Seeking aid from the operator, she overhears two men plotting a cold-blooded murder. As the program progresses, the woman (and the audience) come to realize that she is the intended victim of the crime.

There were two performances of the episode on the evening of May 25, 1943; first for the East Coast and then for the West. One of the supporting actors missed a cue near the end of the East Coast broadcast, which resulted in some confusion among listeners as to the actual outcome of the story. Producer William Spier aired a clarification at the beginning of the following week’s episode, “Banquo’s Chair”, and also announced that the story would be repeated on the coming weeks due to the outstanding audience response. Suspense would present “Sorry, Wrong Number” seven times, each time starring Ms. Moorehead. Each time she assumed the role, Moorehead used her original, dog-earred script.

Producers hired Ms. Fletcher to expand the story for the 1948 film starring Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck received a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar for the role, but many fans of noir fiction feel that the expanded plot of the movie loses the taut simplicity and sheer terror of the original radio version. Ms. Stanwyck appeared on the Jack Benny Program plugging the film and supporting Jack’s parody. She also reprised her movie role for the Jan 9, 1950, Lux Radio Theater presentation.

Enjoy the “West Coast” version of “Sorry Wrong Number” starring Agnes Moorehead in radio’s Suspense!:

http://www.otrcat.net/otr6/Suspense-430525-043-SorryWrongNumber–OTRCAT.com.mp3

Atomic Consequences of “The Conqueror”: Howard Hughes Big Budget Film Flop



Howard Hugh’s film, The Conquerer (1956) was a big budget flop and nearby nuclear testing was blamed for 91 or 220 of the film cast suffering from cancer in subsequent years.

An artifact of the Atomic Age, the 1956 big budget film, The Conqueror could be considered just another costly Hollywood mistake.

One thing that can be said for legendary tycoon Howard Hughes: when he made a mistake, it tended to be an incredibly costly mistake. The film had a $6,000,000 budget, and a domestic gross of just $4,500,000; an almost textbook definition of a failed movie. Hughes felt bad enough about the mistakes on the film that he bought every existing print of the film for $12 million and kept it from view until 1974.

The Conqueror was a lousy film. It appears on several lists the “Worst Films of All Time.” It is a story based on the life of the Mongol warrior Temujin, whom history remembers as Ghengis Khan. Marlon Brando was the intended lead when the script was written. It eventually wound up in the hands of radio and movie star Dick Powell.

After ending his association with NBC Radio’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Powell began directing films. John Wayne was near the end of a three film contract with Hughes’ RKO Studios, and came to Powell’s office to review scripts. At some point, Powell left the office for a few minutes, and the Duke began perusing The Conqueror. He expressed enthusiasm for the project when Powell returned to the office. Powell would later comment “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?”

Along with All American John Wayne cast as the Mongol leader, Susan Hayward came on board as a red-headed Tartar princess and the picture’s love interest. Very creditable supporting roles went to Pedro Armendariz and radio and film star Agnes Moorehead.

Work on the film progressed with a degree of enthusiasm that should accompany a blockbuster. Principle outdoor photography took place near St. George, Utah, during the summer of 1954. John Wayne went on a crash diet for his role. The local community was wildly enthusiastic at having a big budget film crew in their midst. The film used many locals as extras, including Native North Americans as horseback warriors. Hughes bankrolled the shipment of sixty tons of sand and soil from the area to Hollywood for use in retakes.

The movie premiered on Feb 26, 1956 and flopped.

And then the principles began dying.

The St. George area was within 135 miles of the Nevada Test Range. Although no test detonations occurred during production of the film, 11 atomic explosions took place the previous year, including two exceptionally “dirty” above ground tests with high degrees of fall out. The dunes around St. George were natural collecting areas for wind-borne material, including fallout. The dunes were also the preferred location for many of the movies very dusty action scenes.

Actress Agnes Moorehead was one of the first to express concern about rumors over “radioactive germs” near the filming sites. Shortly after Agnes Moorehead’s final role in Radio Mystery Theater, Moorehead died of uterine cancer in 1972. Director Dick Powell died of cancerous lymphoma in 1963. Pedro Armendariz received diagnosis of cancer of the kidney in 1960, and committed suicide when his condition became terminal in 1963. Susan Hayward passed away in 1975 from pneumonia related to complications due to brain cancer.

When John Wayne heard about Armendariz’ suicide, he commented “I don’t blame Pete. I’d have done the same thing.” Wayne’s doctors diagnosed lung-cancer in 1964, which the Duke battled nobly. His entire left lung and four ribs had to be removed, and he was declared cancer free. He would continue to work, including a physically demanding role in the 1969 Cold War classic The Green Berets. John Wayne’s final film was the eerily prescient; The Shootist centered on an aging gunfighter suffering the ravages of cancer. Wayne died of stomach cancer in 1979.

There were, of course, many other factors behind these cancer deaths than spending the summer of 1954 near the Nevada Test Range. Agnes Moorehead was a heavy smoker. Unfiltered cigarettes were as much a part of John Wayne’s screen persona as his Colt Peacemaker. However, of The Conqueror’s production company of 220 people, 91 contracted some form cancer by 1981 (Statistically, a group that size should see around 30 cases of cancer.) This number does not include the high incidence of cancer among the families of the stars who spent that summer in St. George. The residents of that area of Utah have an inexplicably high rate of cancer, as well.

The Conqueror was the last film with which Howard Hughes involved himself. The movie’s high cost was one of the final factors in the demise of RKO Studios. Along with another Cold War fable, Ice Station Zebra, it was one of the films that Howard Hughes watched repeatedly during the isolated madness of his final years.


More more interesting reading, see also: Atomic Radio