Espionage in Old Time Radio

third manHardboiled Detectives and Spies are some of the most appealing of characters from the Golden Age of Radio (1920’s – 1959). Of course they have a lot in common, but they are, or should be, fundamentally different types of individuals. They will encounter the worst of humanity in their adventures, so they are both entitled a degree of cynicism. But despite their earned cynical view, Spies and Dicks are essentially hopeful people, who feel that their success will make the world somehow a better place. dangerous assignmentThe Spy and the Hardboiled Detective make great Radio Drama because Danger is in the very air that they breathe. The Detective is chasing Bad Guys, and Bad Guys are Evil; that almost defines Bad Guy. For the Spy the opposition is a Sovereign Nation or their Representative. And that Nation may or may not be friendly to that of the Spy. The stakes will be high for the Detective; some of their antagonists do have designs on “World Domination,” but for the most part the price of their failure will only be paid by themselves and their client. A much bigger stack of chips falls if the Spy fails. The secrets that they are pursuing or defending will could precipitate war between nations, or endanger the nation’s military. the third man

The fictional and Radio Spy is usually a loner. It seems that the more popular often have a loose grip on morality, but like the most beloved cowboys and detectives, he will have a strong sense personal code of honor. Not that he will let it come between him and the charms of a beautiful woman- especially when the pretty lady is part of the enemy. The Spy in fiction is often a lot more colorful than his real-life counterpart. A real Spy living and working in the jaws of the enemy will do all he can to avoid attracting attention. Radio producers and audiences expect a bit of gun play and dramatic chase scene.

As nations compete in reality, the fictional Spy becomes grist for the propaganda mill. The changes in the antagonists of Radio Spy Drama over the years are interesting and educational. During the late 1930s rumors of War were swirling from Europe. Agent K-7 Returns deals with American agents in Europe. The agents K-7’s people face are enemies of Democracy, but not positively identified as Nazis.

Lux Radio Theater presents the story of a young couple in love as WWII descends during “A Winter in Paris.” The young lovers are both spies, and are in danger of discovery by both German and Russian agents. David Harding, Counterspy chases Nazi Agents during the Second War, but after the War the enemy becomes black-marketeers, drug smugglers, and Atomic Competitors. True stories of the OSS are dramatized in Cloak and Dagger, occurring in both the European and Pacific Theater. The minions of the Soviet enemy within the US are a very real Cold War Enemy in I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. communist for the fbi lobby

Radio matured both as a technology and dramatic form during WWII and the opening of the Cold War, but Espionage Radio has been around much longer. Listeners will find the Spies between the Wars to be much more melodramatic than is fashionable today.

Dan Dunn, Secret Operative 48 was a Dick Tracy copy in both the newspaper comics and radio. Tracy would chase fanciful inner city hoods, but Dunn concentrated on enemies set on Global Domination, or at least sabotaging American Defense.

Agent K7 Returns is from the time between the World Wars, and America is not officially involved in Europe. However Agent K7, a “former United States secret agent who operated in 22 countries” presents stories that take place in Europe. The stories are generally of other highly fictionalized agents, B-9 and Agent Z and their lovely sidekicks. Many of the stories seem as though they could have come from modern headlines- poison gas, defense secrets, and suicide ships. The stories themselves seem somewhat simplistic, but are very effective when presented in a 15 minute time frame.

The long running radio anthology series, Lux Radio Theater started by adapting Broadway plays for the radio, before turning to Hollywood movies. Espionage was a favorite of movie makers. “British Agent”, broadcast June 7, 1937, tells the story of an agent who is left behind when the British Embassy in Moscow is abandoned during the Russian Revolution. Frustrated with inactivity, the agent, played by Erroll Flynn falls in love with a lovely Bolshevik.

Ned Jordan, Secret Agent (1940?) was a short-lived, FBI inspired series from the pen of Fran Striker, one of the creators of The Lone Ranger, and The Green Hornet. Jordan is a Federal Agent who foils the assassination plans of a secret society that tries to draw the US into war, works with a scientist developing a light for Blackouts, and protects Army plans from terrorists. Ned Jordan starred Jack McCarthy and featured future newsman, Mike Wallace as announcer. In another episode Jordan has to protect an Army Tank expert who is the target of the Fifth Column.

Phillips H. Lord, creator of Gang Busters, also gave us David Harding, Counter Spy. In one broadcast a German Spy who has rowed ashore is captured by residents of a small Maine community. David Harding is called in and manages to capture the Spy’s submarine on the surface with the aid of local fishermen. In another adventure a Spy has embedded himself in a Defense Plant, and murders his wife to throw off suspicion, but doesn’t count on David Harding who finds that the spy network is larger than it first appears.

Of course the rest of the Nation is doing their duty and watching out for potential spies, even Fibber McGee and Molly. At one point Fibber is nervous about a stranger who follows him around taking pictures, click-click-click! Is he a spy, or is it a reporter doing a story about a small town busy-body?

Armed Forces Radio Service presented a series in 1953 called Douglas of the World. Brad Douglas is a newspaper correspondent with an international beat, always tackling the tough stories, and usually getting involved with a pretty girl. In “Double Trouble” he becomes wrapped up in a kidnap plot while covering a Dutch referendum for the unification of Europe. Another time he covers Iranian Premier Mossadegh, just prior to Mossadegh’s actual overthrow by the CIA. In the final episode of the series Douglas sings the praises of the United Nations while covering the threatened suicide of a disabled Korean War Vet.

This just begins to touch the surface of Espionage Stories from the Golden Age of Radio. We hope you will enjoy many hours of enjoyable listening. But it might be a good idea to keep your disguise on while you’re listening. And watch out for that beautiful lady in the corner booth. Wasn’t she the one from Tangiers? Or perhaps it was Singapore? Is she after the Secret Formula too?

Visit Old Time Radio for more tales of espionage and suspense and visit the OTRCAT.com extensive library of recordings from the golden age of radio.

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.