Category: Audio Drama Review

The Best American Radio Detective Performances, Part Four: Honorable Mentions

In Parts One, Two, and Three of my series on the Greatest American Radio Detective performances, I laid out the ten best performances, but are there other great performances worthy of consideration? Sure. Here we take a look at some honorable mentions in no particular order:

Jack Webb as Joe Friday in Dragnet:

It was certainly one of the most iconic post-war performances taken together as a whole in radio and television. The narration, the sardonic one liners, were the stuff of Joe Friday on radio. The reason he doesn’t make the list is simple. Most everyone on the list had to carry most of the weight of the show’s success. On Dragnet, Friday was important in that regards but not  pivotal. His partners provided comic relief. For whole stretches of most episodes, his dialogue was limited to asking simple questions. In television, even when he wasn’t talking, Friday’s facial expressions told something. However, when someone else is talking on the radio, he’s just sitting there.

Now, Dragnet is a better show than most that are on this list, but the performance of Jack Webb the actor has less to do with that than Jack Webb the Director, Producer, and Creator.

Jack Smart as Brad Runyon in The Fat Man, 1946-51

Smart played another one of the golden age of radio’s iconic figures, the Fat Man, an overweight detective who was one of radio’s first hard-boiled private eyes. The character was created by Dashiell Hammett based on his Continental Op character, but ultimately it was Smart who gave him life as a tough, street-smart detective with a soft spot for people in trouble.

The Fat Man was hugely successful. It had high ratings, was one of the few detective radio programs to spawn a movie, and everyone who heard the program remembers it fondly and distinctly. The series also points out to the challenge of making a list like this: It’s based on surviving episodes.

Out of approximately two hundred and eighty-nine episodes, there are only ten episodes from Smart’s run as the Fat Man in circulation. They’re all very good, but based upon what I heard, I was more impressed by everyone who made the list. But what if I had a greater sample of Smart’s work? Let’s say seventy-two episodes. If those were exceptionally good, would that change the list?

Every detective show on the list (other than Harry Nile) have lost episodes and many have significant numbers of episodes missing. What if we had more runs of Barrie Craig, the Saint, or Candy Matson? What if we had more of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes? Most of his circulating episodes come from his last season and a half where he was feeling burnout with the role. All these could change our perceptions, but we can only go by what we can hear. So we just do the best we can. Still, I think it’s important to acknowledge the issue.

Smart’s performance as the Fat Man may have been far better than the good performance we had, but it’s also possible what makes the show so memorable to those who first heard it is the opening, which doesn’t have Smart doing anything.

Alan Ladd as Dan Holiday in Box Thirteen (1947-48):

A radio show that Ladd created for radio. It not only served to provide him and his family additional income in resyndication, it helped to promote him as an actor. He burst onto the scene with This Gun for Hire where he played a hired killer. The big risk of such a role is getting typecast as playing these sort of tough guy underworld roles.

Box Thirteen helped in showing Ladd’s range. Yes, he could do action and daring, but he could also be smart, compassionate, and even recited a poem in one episode. Ladd’s voice on radio is smooth and he’s fun to listen to. He always benefited from great scripts but his performance made the series memorable and it showed all the world what Alan Ladd was capable of.

Frank Lovejoy as Randy Stone in Night Beat, 1950-53: 

Lovejoy had some solid roles in movies, TV, and film, but the role of Randy Stone is the one he was born for. Stone is an interesting character who traverses the Night Beat, solving mysteries, and helping other people in their lives. He brims over with ideals, but also has a cynical streak. He’s often in humorous situations but can unleash righteous fury on those he thinks are acting unjustly. While he’s well known in the streets of Chicago, his job and the nature of working nights has left him with few close friends.

A big part of what makes Night Beat such a delight to listen to is the way Lovejoy fleshes out Stone with all of his wonderful contrasting and occasionally contradictory characteristics. It’s really the key to help us to connect with the unusual stories Stone finds while working the Night Beat.

 

Gale Gordon as Gregory Hood in The Casebook of Gregory Hood, 1946:

For those who grew up on television, Gale Gordon was known for playing a series of loud-mouthed authority figures: Mr. Conklin in Our Miss Brooks, John Wilson on Dennis the Menace, and Lucille Ball’s boss in The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. This goes even further back, to Mayor Latrivia in Fibber McGee and Molly. Then you have the Casebook of Gregory Hood where he plays Gregory Hood, a smooth, sophisticated antiques dealer who occasionally plays amateur detective.

Gordon is good and convincing in the role and it’s a shame he left the series after sixteen episodes. While Elliott Lewis was a solid replacement, he didn’t quite have that same style and finesse that Gordon had. While Gordon would go to comedy gold in basically similar roles for the rest of his career, the surviving episodes of this series point out what a good and versatile actor he really was.

There are many performances we could mention. There were many good performances on detective programs in the golden age of radio. The top ten were the best, and these were just a notch below that.

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Top Ten Greatest American Radio Detective Performances, Part Three

I began my examination of the top ten American radio detective performances in parts one and two, now we get to the big three.

 

3) Gerald Mohr as Philip Marlowe (1948-51):
That opening. It’s impossible to talk about the Adventures of Philip Marlowe’s performance without talking about one of the best openings in old time radio when Mohr comes on the air as Marlow and proclaims:

“Get this and get it straight. Crime is a sucker’s road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave. There’s no other end, but they never learn.

It’d be tweaked throughout the series run, but it’s simply the best introduction to any golden age detective program. Mohr’s delivery conveys a mix of danger, excitement, and world-weariness. Even better were the teasers for the adventure Marlowe delivered in the earlier episodes of the series:

“This time it started as a routine search for a rich girl’s fiancé and the trail led to a silent house haunted by a face at the window and blood in an open cedar chest. But before it was over, it became a search for a corpse that wouldn’t sit still.”

You feel like you’re about to experience a true hard-boiled detective tale. It sets the tone perfectly.

Mohr’s performance goes beyond a superb opening. He’s superb from start to finish in every episode. Mohr portrays a Marlowe who could be as tough as nails with a touch of biting cynicism, but at other times he could show great kindness, a sense of humor, and also a philosophical side.

To be sure, Mohr benefited from some of the best writing and direction in the golden age of radio, but his performance took great material and made it excellent.

2) Phil Harper as Harry Nile (1976-78, 1991-2004)

The title of this list intentionally didn’t tie making this list to having appeared radio’s golden age. Of course, there haven’t been many contenders for this list since the end of the Golden Age. But then there’s a detective called Harry Nile and the actor who first portrayed him, Phil Harper.

Harry Nile originated as a part of the anthology series Crisis. He was a Chicago private detective in early 1940 with deep gambling debts, forced to go west to commit a murder. Harry was no fan of the idea and didn’t end up going through with it and instead drifted around until he settled in Los Angeles and eventually relocated to Seattle. Nile was assisted by Murphy, (Pat French) an LA librarian who was a recurring character who became his secretary and eventually his partner.

Harry Nile appeared in twenty-four episodes in 1976-78 and returned with an unaired Christmas special in 1990, and then in June 1991, Harper would begin playing Harry Nile regularly for the rest of his life.

Harper was incredibly versatile as Harry Nile. The original premise had Nile as simply a private detective who always seemed to be under a rain cloud of bad luck, such as clients who never paid. Yet, over time, the character grew and Harper brought him to life as a fully formed private eye. He could play the comedy of the chronically late and cheap boss and senior partner, the professional talking to a potential client, but also show a great deal of compassion. Nile’s Chicago-based siblings were recurring characters and Harper’s performance captured his realistic concern for them. Then there was the interplay between Harry and Murphy. Harper’s Nile never went beyond friendship with her despite hints that Murphy was interested in more, yet Harry often showed a tenderness and protectiveness towards that was very sweet.

Phil Harper grew up in 1940 and dreamed of appearing in radio dramas only to find he was born too late. However, Jim French offered Harper the opportunity to play Harry Nile and he jumped on it. His inspiration came from his memories of the golden age of radio, particularly Howard Duff as Sam Spade and Edmond O’Brien as Johnny Dollar. Harper fulfilled his boyhood dream of appearing in radio drama and managed to be the equal of the best Golden Age radio performances and surpassed many.

1) Bob Bailey as Johnny Dollar (1955-60):

Bob Bailey makes our list twice. As good as he was as George Valentine, it’s his role as the fourth on-air Johnny Dollar that he’s best known for. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the  fact, for most of his run, Johnny Dollar was the only detective program still on radio, so he wasn’t competing with twenty other shows doing the same thing. The series re-aired frequently on Armed Forces Radio and Television Services even after it went off the air. Thus there’s a sub-generation for whom Bob Bailey’s Johnny Dollar is the Radio Detective they grew up with.

That Bailey made it five years was remarkable. 1955 was a horrible time for anything on radio other than adult Westerns. So many detective programs came to air only to be cancelled after less than a year. Johnny Dollar was initially to be serialized and was the third show they had tried as a serial after Mr and Mrs. North and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. 

Bob Bailey’s Johnny Dollar was different than nearly every radio detective that came before because he was a fully fleshed out character. He had friends who weren’t just introduced as plot devices. He had ongoing relationships with recurring characters. He had a favorite hobby and a favorite vacation spot. And Bailey did a superb job pulling this off.

His Johnny Dollar had the best range of any performance on this list. He had a lot of times when he was fairly easy going. The character could get along with and connect with a lot of people. Bailey had good chemistry with every actor to appear on the program which made this seem effortless. His Johnny Dollar was smart and often brilliant in his deductions, but he also often blundered by jumping to wrong conclusions, which gave him a great humanity. Dollar also could be tough, at some times hitting Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer levels of intensity on deserving targets. At the same time, the character often showed a great deal of kindness and fell in love a few times. He was more believable in romance than most any other detective and this often led to heartbreak particularly in serials like the Lamar Matter and the Valentine Matter.

Bailey’s first year on Johnny Dollar was the best. The series was using multi-part fifteen minutes episodes often adapted from other detective radio series and they were brilliant. The Johnny Dollar serial era is the best year of dramatic production during the entire Golden age of radio. After that, the series went to once-a-week broadcasts and the quality declined as series producer Jack Johnstone had to write every script. He did the best he could while CBS’ budget cuts left him unable to pay writers and forced him to operate outside of his genius. He was a great producer and great director. And he was great at creating interesting characters, but he was not equipped to put out great detective scripts every week for years on end. That’s why there’s many weaker scripts in the later part of Bailey’s run.

The fact the writing worked against Bailey for the last three years of his run on Johnny Dollar was a testament to how good his performance was. He elevated every script he was given. Listeners love episodes that are subpar from a writing standpoint solely based on Bob Bailey’s performance.

Bailey’s performance with both good material and weaker material shows his strength as an actor. In the golden age of radio, where there were so many good performances, this one stands out head and shoulders above them all.

 

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Top Ten Greatest American Radio Detective Performances, Part Two

In the previous article, we began listing the top 10 best American radio detective performances, we continue now with #6:

6) Vincent Price as Simon Templar in The Saint (1947-51):

Vincent Price is a legend for his work in horror films, but over radio he showed another side as he played the dashing, tough, and witty Saint. Price’s performance is a delight to hear. His Saint’s mood is, by default, light and easygoing, but can get tough in a hurry when it’s called for. The character also has some profound, philosophical moments and Price plays these  well. He also plays well off other actors, particularly Lawrence Dobkin, who played Louie the Cab Driver. Together they were a superb double act. Everything Price did on the Saint was superb, showing both his strength and range as an actor.

5) Howard Duff as Sam Spade (1946-50):

After Humphrey Bogart played Spade on film, any actor would have had a tough act to follow in taking on the role over radio, but Howard Duff was up to the challenge. Duff took Spade and made the character his own, different from all prior film characterizations and from the book. Sam’s character traits were there, but he was not as hard as Hammett wrote him, which made the character more likable.

The series tone also helped. The Adventures of Sam Spade featured more comedy and zaniness in the plot than almost any other detective series and it was never more evident than in the opening and closing segments where he’s engaged in banter with his secretary Effie Perine (played by Lurene Tuttle.) The Rehearsal recordings of the show that have come into circulation show Duff was having a grand time making the show and that translated well to the listening audience at home. Duff’s Spade mixes wise-cracking narration with the right amount of toughness and cunning to get the job done, making for a mix that delights fans to this day.

4) Dick Powell as Richard Diamond in Richard Diamond, Private Detective (1949-52):

Dick Powell’s acting career had two major parties. In the 1930s, he was the star of light musical comedy. Then in the 1940s, he played Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet and began to play cops and tough guys. Richard Diamond, Private Detective combined both halves of Powell’s career.

The way Richard Diamond is written for radio sounds insane. A typical show would begin with Diamond in his office, joking around with his girlfriend Helen on the phone, then Diamond would be put into a mystery and beat up. Then he’d stumble down to the police station, do a comedy routine with Lieutenant Levinson, question witnesses, beat up the people who beat him up, get into a shoot out with the boss and his men, kill them in self-defense, and wrap up by stumbling into his girlfriend’s apartment and sing either a romantic ballad or a goofy song.

There are so many reasons why Richard Diamond shouldn’t work with its constant change of moods and style. There’s one major reason it does work: Dick Powell. This isn’t to say that Powell was the only talent on the show. Indeed, he was blessed with a strong supporting cast. However, Powell was the only lead who could effortlessly manage the show’s constantly shifting tone. If any other singer/actor had tried this type of show and it would have been a thirteen episode curiosity. With Powell, the series ran for three years and has become of the most beloved shows in the detective genre.

To be concluded next week.

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Top Ten Greatest American Radio Detective Performances, Part One

Around the time I first started the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio, I did a series of articles ranking radio detectives by network, listing the top five detectives from ABC, CBS, NBC, Mutual, Multi-network shows, and Syndicated shows.

After more than seven years, and a great deal more exposure to all radio detectives, we’re ready to do this in a way that’s less complicated. So, over the course of the next three weeks, we’ll take a look at my lists of the top 10 best performances in American-made radio detective programs. I’m limiting this list to American programs because that’s what I have the most experience with:

10) William Gargan as Barrie Craig in Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator (1951-55)

After the first half of 1950, it was hard to get a radio detective show off the ground. NBC tried several and all but one were cancelled after less than a year. That one was Barrie Craig. Barrie Craig lasted four years and it’s all chalked up to Gargan’s performance. Gargan had been a real-life private operative and had been born in New York City (where the series was set) and that authenticity helped as well as his natural charisma. Craig was easy going with a wry sense of humor that often poked fun at genre tropes. However, he was not a man you wanted to cross, though violence was not his usual means of resolving conflict. Craig was driven by a strong moral code and was one of the best and noblest characters we’ve ever featured on the show.

9) Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes (1939-46):

For nearly half a century, Rathbone’s portrayal of Holmes was the definitive one until Jeremy Brett’s performance in the 1980s and early 1990s Grenada television version emerged as a challenger. Even then, Rathbone’s performance influences Sherlock Holmes producers to this day. There are a number of reasons for this and it makes Holmes a treat whether on film or on radio.

Rathbone had a superb range and was not only able to play Holmes as the genius detective, but also was able to play some moving and emotional moments like in “The Guileless Gypsy,” as well as for comedy such as he did in, “The Second Generation.” Rathbone had great chemistry with his Watson (Nigel Bruce) which made the duo a delight to listen to despite Dr. Watson being occasionally written as a bit daft. Rathbone succeeded in making Holmes a truly likable character and handling all challenges with unmatched professionalism even as he began to tire of being typecast as Holmes.

8) Natalie Masters as Candy Matson (1949-51)

The series was broadcast from San Francisco and only heard on the West Coast, which was a shame. The series focused on Candy, who was a former model and a hard-boiled private detective. This was a very unusual series and an unusual role for a woman at a time. Masters plays it to perfection, creating a characterization of Candy that’s competent, smart, and tough, while still being very likable and compassionate. The series didn’t take itself too seriously, but it never turned Candy into a joke. Masters’ performance was both slightly ahead of its time, and also immensely entertaining.

7) Bob Bailey as George Valentine in Let George Do It (1946-53(?)

Bob Bailey is best remembered for playing Johnny Dollar for five years. That’s so well-remembered, his work on this series is often forgotten, and it shouldn’t be. While Let George Do It began as a somewhat weak detective sitcom, it quickly took off to become one of the smartest and best written detective/mystery shows of the Golden Age of Radio, with Bailey’s detective at the center of the action. As the show changed co-stars and styles, Bailey continued to turn in solid performances whether they required kindness and profundity, action, or humor, Bailey’s performance as George Valentine could always be relied upon to get the job done.

To be continued next week…

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Audio Drama Review: The Wisdom of Father Brown, Volume 2

Colonial Radio Theatre continues to bring the works of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown to the air in this second collection of four mysteries based on G.K. Chesterton’s Wisdom of Father Brown.

•The Duel of Dr. Hirsch-The reclusive French statesman Dr. Hirsch is accused of treason and Father Brown and Flambeau get caught in the midst of swirling political intrigue. This is a classic Father Brown story with a clever solution most listeners wouldn’t see coming. Colonial does a superb job on the adaptation and allows Chesterton’s misdirection to work its magic.

•The Man in the Passage-A great actress is murdered. Several men could have done it, but the case hinges on conflicting testimony as to what the suspects and Father Brown saw in the passage. This is probably one of Chesterton’s lesser mysteries and that it would be a mystery to the police that would end in a climatic court scene requires a greater suspension of disbelief than any other story in the Father Brown canon. The entire mystery is a joke and Father Brown’s conclusion is the punch line. The characters are played quite broadly and a bit over the top because of this, but Colonial is simply playing the story as it’s written. They do good job adapting a story that doesn’t easily lend itself to adaptation.

•The Purple Wig- A freelance journalist investigates a cursed aristocratic family and how that curse has apparently affected the latest Duke of Exmoor. This one has a great satirical element as it focuses on the efforts of a newspaper to shape public opinion by reporting facts that conform to the papers and the reader’s biases. The mystery isn’t bad and it’s wrapped in a clever bit of satire that feels as relevant today as it was when Chesterton wrote it more than a century ago.

•The God of the Gongs: Father Brown takes a winter holiday with Flambeau and they find themselves at a summer resort where Father Brown discovers a body and a dark mystery. This is the most straightforward and suspenseful tale on the CD and builds very nicely to its climax.

In taking on The Wisdom of Father Brown, Colonial has set out to adapt some of Chesterton’s most challenging stories for readers. Like Volume 1, Volume 2 to succeeds in making these stories entertaining and engaging for a modern audience while still being true to the source material with solid production values and good production values. Overall, another great Father Brown collection from Colonial Radio Theatre.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

Disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this production in exchange for an honest review.

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