Category: Golden Age Article

My Favorite Non-Detective Old Time Radio Dramas

While we play detective shows on the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio, I love many other programs from radio’s golden age, too. If you’re looking for family drama or for an exciting adventure, this list might provide some programs that are good for you.

Family Theater (1947-57):

The program was brought to you by the idea of family prayer. This is a lovely program that engaged some of Hollywood’s finest actors from Vincent Price and Bob Hope to Edmond O’Brien and Maureen O’Sullivan and Raymond Burr. The stories range from retellings of classics to dramatic tales that illustrated powerful lessons. The program’s messages are positive, inspiring, and thought-provoking. Some dodgy moments may offend modern sensibilities. Otherwise, this is a great example of what a family program can be. My favorites include the original story, “God and the Red Scooter” and their adaptation of “The Hound of Heaven.”

Cavalcade of America (1937-55):

Cavalcade of America would occasionally tell well-known stories of American history. Those episodes are okay. However, what makes me listen to Cavalcade are all of their obscure stories. They’ll tell about some aspect of a founding father’s life few remembered back in 1937 or talk about some now unsung hero who made a great difference in American history.

Cavalcade of America tells stories about how an American began selling ice overseas or the first American to become an opera star overseas. There’s the story of a lawyer who set out to protect an abused child in the absence of laws against child abuse by trying to apply laws for the protection of small animals. I learn so much from this show, and I am more historically aware than the average person. Most Cavalcade episodes are entertaining and enlightening. A few are a little too pedantic, particularly some early episodes. This anthology series also has a great cast, including episodes featuring Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and Basil Rathbone.

Dr. Christian (1937-54)

After playing a kindly doctor in a series of films featuring the Dionne Quints, the Danish-born actor brought to life the kindest country doctor imaginable. As Dr. Christian, he stood at the center of the upstate New York community of Rivers End. Dr. Christian lived a life of selfless love and care for everyone in the community. He not only cared for broken bodies but broken hearts and the health of the whole community. Later episodes in the 1940s were chosen from fan-submitted scripts. The lessons in Dr. Christian are often out of fashion, but few are useless relics. Usually, they’re timeless truths that we have forgotten.
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Fort Laramie (1956)

Just before he achieved stardom on TV, Raymond Burr stars as the rugged and wise Captain Lee Quince, second in command of Fort Laramie. The program featured uncompromising realism in its portrayal of life in the army in this Old West fort. Despite this, the show wasn’t dry or constantly dark or humorless. It was intelligently written. One episode would be funny and light, reflecting some odd but true aspect of life in the West. Then it would be followed by a tragic story. That meant the tragic story hit harder than it would have otherwise. The feature has a solid recurring cast including Harry Bartel and Jack Moyles and great production values.

Voyage of the Scarlet Queen (1947-48)

Captain Phillip Carney (Elliot Lewis) captained the Scarlet Queen as she sailed across the world. He various adventures with the aid of his first mate Red Gallagher (Ed Max). This was one of the few adult adventure series on the radio. It’s brilliant, filled with great characters, suspense, and an ability to bring exotic ports to life in a Hollywood radio studio. While all 35 episodes of the series are good, the first 20 are superb. They have a running plot of a particular cargo Carney is trying to deliver with a big enemy that’s trying to stop him through the villain of the week. It’s a pretty interesting approach and not something done in the 1940s.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1947-56):

A lot of religious dramas aired in the 1940s and 50s. In my view, this was the best. It dramatized stories from the Bible, mostly the New Testament. It features a good (but uncredited ) cast and almost no commercial interruption. Much like some later dramatization of the Bible for television, it expands on some stories to fill half an hour. Usually, this works. On occasion, new themes are drawn from the added material and take the story in an odd direction. Again, most of the time, it worked quite well. It’s a shame more episodes of the series didn’t survive, with only about 1 in 7 circulating today.

I’ll also offer honorable mentions to Bold Venture and I Was a Communist for the FBI.

Share your favorite radio dramas in the comments below.

Audio Drama Review: Agatha Christie: The Lost Plays:

Agatha Christie: The Lost Radio Plays collects three BBC radio plays that aired between 1948 and 1960. It also includes some bonus material.

“Butter in a Lordly Dish” from 1948 stars Richard Williams as Sir Luke Enderby KC, a skilled prosecutor who is also a philanderer, who is headed out on his latest fling. Then there’s Personal Call, a 1955 original story about a man receiving calls from someone claiming to be his dead wife. It stars Ivan Brandt and Barbara Lott. Finally, Williams stars as Poirot in the hour-long adaptation of Christie’s “Murder in the Mews.”

The acting is mostly solid with a few exceptions. There is a slight bent to the melodramatic in the original radio plays, and Williams isn’t the best Poirot ever.

As for the writing, anyone expecting new masterpieces will be disappointed. “Butter in a Lordly Dish” is comparable to an above average episode of the 1960s American series Theater Five.  “Personal Call” is comparable to an average mid-1950s episode of Suspense. “Murder in the Mews” is a good story undermined by direction and style that is competent at best and Williams is a somewhat mediocre Poirot.

The extras include Agatha Christie-related audio recordings and interviews with actors who appeared in the original London stage production of her play the Mousetrap. In addition, comedian Toby Hadoke interviews the last-surviving cast member of the radio plays. In that extra, they discuss his showbiz career and how he became a successful costume designer on both sides of the pond. Hadoke is a talented interviewer who shows great interests in his subjects and makes this far more interesting than you might otherwise expect.

Overall,  major fans of Agatha Christie will enjoy this release. It features rare and little-heard radio productions featuring her work that are okay, but not remarkable. In addition, the bonus material is well-presented and engaging.

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: The Master of Blackstone Grange

Big Finish’s latest Sherlock Holmes release features a three-hour Sherlock Holmes adventure and a one-hour Christmas special.

In the titular Master of Blackstone Grange, Holmes is bored by the lack of a challenge now that Professor Moriarty is gone. However, Watson’s barber is distraught because of some strange problem he’s having with his wife. Watson sees this as a case that can get Holmes out of his doldrums. While Holmes is initially interested, that interest wanes when Moriarty’s henchman, Colonel Sebastian Moran is released from prison. This leaves Holmes unavailable when their client heads to the home of the country’s newest multi-millionaire, Honest Jim Sheedy. However, the barber has plenty of company as all the country’s great men are coming together at Blackstone Grange. But why?

The plot of this story borrows a lot from other Doyle work. The story pays homage to both The Valley of Fear and Hound of the Baskervilles. Yet, this doesn’t stop the story from having its own original plot and mystery but helps to set up the story and give it a sense of authenticity.

The performances are solid as usual. Nicholas Briggs is a very good audio Holmes, able to adjust his performance to capture different aspects and eras in Holmes life. Here, he manages to play mostly to Holmes’ melancholy and do so quite skillfully. Richard Earl is the consummate Watson, and in this story, we get to see a little of the widowed Watson. The rest of the cast is very competent, but Harry Peacock deserves special praise for his performance as one of the villains, Honest Jim Sheedy. Peacock is able to play Sheedy alternately as charming and menacing in ways that are equally convincing.

In The Fleet Street Transparency, Sherlock Holmes gets a mystery at Christmastime of a columnist who complains about his columns being edited before they appear in the paper. He doesn’t want to take the case at first but relents out of curiosity when a thug is hired to threaten him into doing it.

This is not a great Holmes story but it is pretty good. The solution doesn’t tax Holmes’ brainpower much, but it has a unique ending. What does make it worth listening to is the general authenticity of the script. There are moments that feel positively like it’s out of canon. A couple moments take you out of that, such as Holmes and Watson passing judgment on their client’s political views. However, it maintains authenticity far more often than not. Briggs and Earl turn in another solid performance. The story is sure to be a fun Christmas listen.

Both stories feature superb music by Jamie Robertson which captures both the feel of the era and the respective seasons.

Overall, this is another solid box set from Big Finish.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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Book Review: Tracer of Lost Persons

So lost, I'm fading

photo credit: Greyframe So lost, I’m fading viaphotopin (license)

Tracer of Lost Persons by Robert W. Chambers is a 1906 book that was oft-sighted in the show’s introduction as a bit of a masterwork of detective fiction in the introduction to the 1937-55 radio series Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons and as a basis for the series.

The book does provide some basic foundation for the character in the radio series. Its hero is Mister Keen and he does run a bureau that finds lost persons. The character exudes the type of warmth and kindness that defined Mister Keen in his early years.

However, there are many differences. Unlike in the radio series, Mister Keen does have a first name in the book(Westrel.) Mister Keen does charge fees in the book, although those are occasionally foregone. Like his radio counterpart, he has become quite wealthy through his efforts.

The cases Mister Keen takes in books are different. According to Jim Cox’s book on Mister Keen, the radio version of Mister Keen began by taking on cases of legitimately lost persons from his earliest days before moving on to investigating cold-blooded killings in his later years. While there are indications Mr. Keen does take more typical missing person cases, all of the cases in this book involve helping his clients finding love.

The book is a braided novel, telling connected stories about Mister Keen’s investigations. Truth be told, at least two of these cases don’t involve a search for an actual missing person, but rather a male client presents his ideal woman and expects Mister Keen to find her. In the first story, the client does so without telling Mister Keen what he’s doing and in the final story, the client does so explicitly.

Keen is resourceful and a retired Egyptologist (because it was convenient for the plot) who cracks ciphers when he gets into actual mysteries.

The plots are light and occasionally take turns for the absurd. For example, one story ends with a body that’s been in suspended animation for thousands of years being revived so she can be Keen’s client’s wife. In another story, a female doctor dedicates her life to the study of a disease where only one person has been diagnosed with it, which turns into a plot point because the disease is actually a hoax.

Yet, this is some forgivable as Tracer of Lost Persons doesn’t take itself all that seriously. It’s a light and fluffy read featuring a kindly investigator with the romantic soul who plays Cupid. It’s the type of book you want to read if you’re in a mood to not think much. It’s an interesting curiosity that features a few fun moments and provides a little insight into the origin of one of radio’s longest-running characters.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Tracer of Lost Persons is in the public domain and can be read for free at Project Gutenberg.

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Audio Drama Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Death and the Life

(Note: This Review was originally posted July 2015) but is being reposted. Big Finish is having a sale. The download version can be purchased for 0.99 (in your local currency). You can access the sale by clicking here and using the password “redballoons” before 5/1/2018.

The Death and the Life is another one-man play starring Roger Llewellyn and written by David Stuart Davies adapted by Big Finish Productions. The story is a mix of fact and fiction. It centers upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s efforts to rid himself of his most famous creation once and for all with the writing of “The Final Problem,” which failed.

The play imagines Holmes and his fellow characters reacting to Doyle’s actions and scheming. Doyle’s disinterest is reflected in a hilarious scene where Holmes describes a madcap adventure to a snoring Watson. The story is bolstered by the use of Doyle’s journals and letters. Another great scene is the one which Holmes learns he’s a fictional character from his arch-rival, who is none too pleased he was created by Doyle as a single-use plot device.

With its light comedy and heavy symbolism, The Life and the Death is a story about a literary creation whose popularity transcended the writer who created him. The play is helped by another strong performance from Roger Llewellyn who manages to perfectly portray all the characters and angles of this deep and well-written play. Overall, this is another story that is a wonderful listen for fans of Sherlock Holmes.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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