Category: Golden Age Article

Father Brown’s Not Buying It: A Review of the Incredulity of Father Brown

Twelve years after his second Father Brown books, G.K. Chesterton brought readers a new collection in 1926 entitled, The Incredulity of Father Brown.

While the previous collections titled, The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown had very little with the theme of the stories, Incredulity is a key theme of each story in this collection.

In each story, an event happens to which a miraculous supernatural explanation is offered. Father Brown by and by doesn’t buy into the supernatural solution, but finds a natural, but often amazing solution to the case. Of course, in each case, the people expect Father Brown to go along with a supernatural solution as he’s a priest and all. However, the book makes the point that being religious and being given superstition are not the same thing.

In “The Curse of the Golden Cross,” Brown explains his believe in “common sense as he understands it:

It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

Father Brown applies such incisive common sense to eight problems, with all but one of them involving murder. One thing that makes these stories different is that the goal of the story is not catching the murderer. In the vast majority of cases, the suspect is not caught. The story is about the puzzle and how Father Brown solves it. In one case, “The Oracle of the Dog,” Brown stays one hundred miles away from the scene of the crime and solves it secondhand.

The best story in the book was, “The Arrow of Heaven” which involves the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire in a high tower with an arrow when it was impossible for anyone to be able to shoot it that distance.

“The Miracle of the Moon Crescent” is a fascinating story that has three religious skeptics contemptuously dismiss Father Brown but they begin to think a supernatural cause may be involved in the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire when the police fail to turn up any satisfactory solution.

“The Doom of the Darnaways”  may be one of the most profound stories in the collection. Father Brown encounters a young man whose family is said to be subject to a curse that leads inevitably to murder and suicide. An expert on genetics declares the curse is nonsense, but that heredity indicates the same type of fate. Here Chesterton illustrated that it’s possible for both superstition and science to develop a fatalism about human life and destiny that excludes free and leads people to helplessness and despair. The story has a well-told murder mystery, though I don’t know why Father Brown put off the solution.

There’s not really a story I didn’t like in the collection, although I do think, “Oracle of the Dog” may have a little too much literary criticism and not enough story. Also, some of Chesterton’s rough edges and lack of racial sensitivity are present in this collection. However, if you can get past that, The Incredulity of Father Brown is a truly wonderful collection of stories about the original clerical detective.

You can find all the Father Brown books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Father Brown page.

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The Biggest Show on Radio

In 1950, NBC produced won of radio’s greatest spectacles of talent, a 90 minute variety show.

The late 40s had been bad for NBC as rival CBS had raided their stable of talent, luring Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Harold Peary (Star of The Great Gildersleeve) over to their network with higher wages.

NBC had not come up with an answer for how to challenge Jack Benny’s Sunday Night supremacy and from this was born, The Big Show. It was planned as a 90 minute variety show, which was extraordinary.  There had been other variety programs that had been an hour in length such as The Shell Chateau, The Good News programs of the late 30s and early 40s, The Kraft Music Hall,  and Fred Allen’s Texaco Show of the early 40s. However, 90 minutes was unpreceded for a radio variety show outside of a few specials.

The Big Show alternated between Hollywood and New York, allowing it to access most of America’s major talent wherever they happened to live. With a budget of $30,000 an episode, they managed to land solid talent, producing a fine mix of comedy, music, and drama. The Big Show had many great ingredients:

Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead“The glamorous unpredictable Tallulah Bankhead” was the show’s host. Her voice was one of the most recognizable in radio. It was deep and distinct. She called her guests “darling.” Bankhead was best known as a stage actress on Broadway and in London. The highlight of her film career had been Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Finding other movie roles that suited Bankhead’s unique personality was a challenge.

Bankhead was a rare talent. Her range of duties included comedic banter with the guests who, in the tradition of old time radio variety shows poked fun at her age, her low voice, her offkey attempts at singing, and her rivalry with Betty Davis. Bankhead also would get a chance to showcase her dramatic talent, performing several pieces including several one woman scenes. She also did her fair share of comedic performances.  Bankhead also mixed in occassional sincere moments such as when she paid tribute to the nation’s troops overseas or a great performer. She would signal the station identification on each half hour by saying she was ringing her chimes, which would signal the famous NBC Chimes.

The Comedians

The Big Show played host to some of the greatest and best loved comedians America ever produced.

The Big Show’s most frequent guests were Fred Allen and his wifeFred Allen Portland Hoffa. Allen had had his own show for many years, but a combination of declining ratings, declining health, and the rise of television led to the end of his program.

Allen was known for his biting satirical wit which stood as Allen’s unique genius in this era. Allen got off the show’s most memorable line when he declared the reason television was called a medium was because nothing was well done.

Jimmy Durante as host of the Colgate Comedy HourJimmy Durante was also a frequent guest on the program. His mangling of the English language, self-depreciating manner, and jolly singing made him a delightful addition to the show.

Other comedians making multiple appearances included Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, Joan Davis, and Martin and Lewis. These programs led to some interesting combinations. In one episode, Groucho groused about having to play straight man to Jerry Lewis at this point in his career. Dean Martin would have a similar thought a few years later.

Every comedian I’ve listed so far had their own radio shows, so The Big Show is a great way for OTR fans to find new comedy favorites. In addition, two men who would have great careers in television (Danny Thomas of Make Room for Daddy and Phil “Sergeant Bilko” Silvers) made an appearance each.

Music and Meredith Wilson

The musical portion of the show included top shelf talent with appearances by Ethel Merman, the Andrews Sisters, Jack Carson, Mindy Carson, Judy Garland, Ethel Waters, and Railroad Hour host Gordon McRae among others. Perhaps the biggest novelty of the show is the three appearances by then-first Daughter Margaret Truman.

Meredith WilsonHowever, the musical  delight of the show remained Meredith Wilson, the music director who was charged with a 40-piece orchestra. Wilson not only came up with great arrangements, the first season of the Big Show was punctuated with several original Wilson songs. Wilson’s creativity was not limited to music. In the only full Season 2 episode in existence, the cast performs scenes from Wilson’s novel, “Who Did What to Fedalia?”

Perhaps Wilson’s greatest hit was the show’s closing anthem, “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.” Bing Crosby called it a song of faith and good will. On the Big Show, the song was sung at the end by the week’s entire cast, including those who weren’t regular singers. Each would distinctly whether it was Groucho Marx or Fred Allen or one of the dramatic stars. Those who couldn’t sing would speak their parts including Tallulah. This gave the show a memorable and classy ending.

Even after the Big Show ended, Wilson’s creation endured. “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” has been performed by artists as diverse as Tammy Wynette, Bing Crosby,  Jim Reeves,  and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It’s an enduring classic and the biggest thing to come out of the Big Show.

Drama

The Big Show took a few episodes to live up to the show’s promise of providing drama in addition to the comedy and music, however when it did, it it did the dramas well.  Movie actors would come and perform scenes from new film releases or when the Big Show was in New York, radio audiences could get a taste of the latest Broadway play, including many who would never make it to New York to watch the performance. Actors who made dramatic appearances on the show included Peter Lorre, Edward G. Robinson, Rex Harrison, and George Sanders.

The Big Show would often follow up a serious well-done drama with uproarious comedy.  Tallulah and male guest star could perform a deadly serious piece and then a comedian like Jimmy Durante would ask permission to perform his version of the scene. After the heavy scene that came just before, the humorous takeoff was made even more funny.

The Demise of the Big Show

Sadly, the Big Show didn’t last but two seasons. It couldn’t have done much better. Television was coming on strong and advertising dollars would not support the Big Show’s big budget. Indeed, one of the advertisers for The Big Show was RCA which promoted it’s new television console. The day of big radio were clearly numbered.

The entire First Season of The Big Show survives to this day but only 1 and 2/3 episodes of 31 survive from Season 2. Still, what remains is a fantastic program put on by some of the finest talent radio produced. Truly the Big Show was worthy of its big name.

Further reading:

The Digital Deli’s Definitive log of The Big Show.

May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” as performed on the Big Show.

All 27 circulating episodes of “The Big Show”

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Book Review: Murder by the Book

As I wrote last week in my review of The Rubber Band, you never know quite what to expert when you read a Nero Wolfe Mystery.  This is certainly true of Murder by the Book which provides a solid mystery, but also a brilliantly executed and effective element of drama.

The story begins with a particularly desperate Inspector Cramer consulting Wolfe to interpret the only clue in the murder of Leonard Dykes, a man who lived alone with no local living relatives.  It’s only a list of names and all Wolfe can offer is that the murdered man was inventing a pseudonym for either himself or a friend.

Fast forward six weeks and a man from Peoria, Illinois wants to hire Wolfe to find who killed his daughter, Joan Wellman. The police insist it was a hit run, but the father thinks it was murder because his daughter wrote to him that day and told him that she had a dinner date with a man named Baird Archer, who had submitted a manuscript she’d rejected and wanted to hire her to help him make it publication-ready.

Wolfe recognizes  Baird Archer as one of the names Inspector Cramer showed him. Wolfe meets with Cramer and agrees to full cooperation as the existence of Baird Archer indicates a tie in with the previous murder.

Wolfe acts on the assumption that the first murder was the author of the book under the pen name Baird Archer, and the second was the editor who reviewed it. Clearly finding out what was in the manuscript is key to solving the case. Wolfe sets Archie, Saul, Fred, and Orrie about the task of locating the typist. Unfortunately, Archie finds Rachel Adams just three minutes after she was pushed out a window. The only net result of his search is a receipt which confirms the existence of the manuscript, but nothing about what was in it.

The death of the typist leaves Wolfe in a precarious position. He has to generate a lead. To do that, Archie has got to shake up the staff of a law firm who harbor dark secrets and dark suspicions, but are keeping everything quiet in order to protect the firm.

Murder by the Book is that rare detective novel that transcends its status to provide compelling human drama. While Wolfe’s clients range from neurotic women to men who’ve cheated on their wives and don’t want it come out in a murder investigation, in Murder by the Book we’re given a singularly sympathetic client in John Wellman.  Wellman exudes a quiet decency and strength of character that makes the novel work. He has come to hire Wolfe against his wife and his pastor who fear he’s sinfully seeking revenge, though Wellman is really concerned about justice.

Unlike millionaires who throw $100,000 at Nero Wolfe like someone else might hire Philip Marlowe for $25 a day,  Wellman is a man of moderate means, well off but not super-wealthy. Wolfe, at one point becomes concerned that the fee is becoming too much for Wellman and the odds of success are becoming narrower. Wellman stands firm: Wolfe can quit the case when Wellman runs out of money.

The only time Wellman considered backing out was when he misunderstood what Wolfe met when he urged Archie to become intimate with the office staff. The way Wolfe meant intimate was in the sense of “characterized by a close or warm personal relationship.” However Wellman took an entirely different meaning and was ready to pull out until Archie stepped in and explained not only to save the client, but also his reputation as private eye and ladies man.

Archie does shine in Murder by the Book. Coming off, In the Best Families where Archie held center stage for most of the book, he does so again in Murder by the Book.

Archie’s first challenge is to open up the mouths of an office staff that has been dumb to both Wolfe’s men and the police.  He gives Orchids to each woman in the firm and invites him to the party at his house. Wolfe leaves the house to avoid business, which in this case involved ten women calling for a party. The liquor flows freely, and then he coaxes the women to ask him about being a detective. He offers to share with them about the case he’s working on now.  He talks about the triple murder and then introduces Mr. Wellman and Rachel Adams’ mother. They talk about their loss and grief at length. Usually detective novels that focus on puzzles and geniuses stay away from the real human pain that comes from crime, but Murder by the Book doesn’t and puts on an emotional tour de force, that helps you sympathize and connect with these strangers in a way you rarely do in Nero Wolfe stories.

On the audiobook version, Michael Pritchard shows the depth of his talent during the scene as he brings both Mrs. Adams and Mr. Wellman to life, as well as the few hecklers in the room.

Archie succeeded in getting the office staff to (for the most part) begin to act like human beings, rather than defenders of a law firm’s reputation. Archie managed to force back to the surface, the ugliness that led to the string of murders. This is one case where without Archie, Wolfe couldn’t have solved it.

Murder by the Book takes other fun turns. Most notable is Archie’s trip to California to bait a trap where he meets the book’s exceptional woman, the housewife sister of Leonard Dykes, a character who in her simple common sense outshines the New York professional women Archie spends most of the book with.

In terms of criticisms, there’s hardly anything. Though, there did seem to be a lapse of continuity. Coming on the heels of, In The Best Families a year before, Wolfe justifies Archie’s trip to California by asking, “Have we ever been pushed such extremes?” This made me chuckle.  “Other than that time, you had to flee the house for five months and assume a false identity, no.”

Some have criticized the book for not telling us how the killer’s alibi was busted by one of Wolfe’s men after Wolfe revealed the murderer. He was about to do this when Cramer interrupted and told him not to. It really isn’t believable for a police inspector who believes a murderer has been exposed to let a private investigator share all the evidence for the upcoming trial. And it was a detail that readers just didn’t need.

Overall, Murder by the Book is a solid Wolfe story through and through, with rare well-done touches of human drama that show off the depth of Stout’s talent.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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Radio That Teaches American History

A recent study shows that Americans don’t know their history. According to the NAEP report card, 22% of American students are proficient at grade level in American History, dropping to 13% for High School graduates.

Of course, it hasn’t always been like the case. During the golden age of radio,  the radio not just the theater of the mind, it told the story of America’s heritage, passing it on like an ancient storyteller around a campfire.

And those who told these stories of America were some of the best at it. Thankfully, many of these great shows are preserved so that we can find those unique and exciting stories that are part of American history.

We cannot hope to cover every single series that was about some portion of American History. The field of radio programs is far too vast. Rather, in this piece we’ll highlight four shows that represent a good jumping off point. Nor does this list included the almost never-ending list of programs that because of their age, give us an insight into history.

1) Cavalcade of America: 1935-53:

The term “Cavalcade” is one that was used often during the golden age of radio and television but not commonly today. A Cavalcade is a procession, a noteworthy series. The theme of Cavalcade of America’s early years was that as Americans we were part of a cavalcade that kept moving on.  Early episodes would take a look at a theme. In the first episode, “No Turning Back,” the program began with the pilgrims electing to stay through the hard winter at Plymouth Rock and then turned to farmers who had been hit by the dust bowl who found the courage to keep on. Both, according to the program’s creators were part of  that same procession. Future episodes focused on virtues of self-reliance, industry, and the will to rebuild. Each took vignettes from American history and tied them together through this Cavalcade theme.

And the stories that were told were magnificient. There were, of course, the ones you’d expect such as the Wright Brothers flight. However, there were many marvelous little known gems from American history.  Examples include:

  • A steamboat race from St. Louis to New Orleans that captured the imagination of the world.
  • The settlement of Oklahoma and why the state was called the Sooner State.
  • The man who struggled to make a business of exporting ice from the United States and selling it overseas in tropical climates in the 19th Century.

The program did evolve and the Cavalcade theme became less prominent, particularly during the War years. If you listened to other radio programs during the war you’d hear about the work done by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, but the Cavalcade of America took pains to portray  the Merchant Marines, ambulance drivers in Africa, and those who brought supplies to the front.

Cavalcade of America featured some of the finest talent in radio. Among those who appeared were: Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Dick Powell, Bob Bailey, and a host of others.

Cavalcade continued to tell remarkable true stories, along with a few fictionalized plays that were popular in the era. While occassional bias in the selection of material or the portrayal of controversial figures was on occassion, apparent, the series remains a marvel.

The show was sponsored by the Dupont Corporation and here Dupont deserves some plaudits. Unlike other sponsors who threw old transcription discs out like old rubbish, Dupont has held on to most of these discs, and they deserve some credit for the series being so well-catalogued and with more than 700 episodes in circulation. Dupont’s ads themselves are great history as they describe how the company is working for “better living through Chemistry” and some of Dupont’s latest advances, many of which we take for granted in the 21st Century.

The Old Time Radio Researchers set of this series remains one of the best collections, providing a good look at the breadth of this series.  Click here to sample some of the single episodes.

2) Inheritance: 1954-55

This program, filled the void of Cavalcade of America. It was sponsored by the American Legion and aired over NBC. It featured stories from American History, both well-known figures such as Davy Crocket and George Washington Carver, as well as lesser known figures such as the first female American physician, Elizabeth Blackwell.

49 of 57 episodes of “Inheritance” are available for download at the Internet Archive.

3) You Are There: 1947-50

It was Orson Welles with his, “War of the Worlds” broadcast that first highlighted the dramatic storytelling power of a fictional newscast. In 1947, CBS News used the power of radio to teach history in its radio programs (and later television version), You Are There.

CBS is There/You Are There showed how historical events would have been covered by a modern news organization. In this Case, CBS, brought to life such events as the passage of the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  It should be noted that not every episode of You Are There focused on American History, with CBS covering global events such as the last days of Pompeii and deaths of Joan of Arc and Socrates.  CBS offered a great product and episodes are available at the Internet Archive. The Digital Deli has put together a wonderful log that arranges the episodes of You Are There in historical order.

4) Mr. President: 1947-53

Each episode of Mr. President tell a real story from the life of the President of United States.  Often the stories are exciting or little known chapters in the lives of the men who have filled the office. Mr. President in all of his persons is played by Edward Arnold.

The series was noted for not telling listeners what President was being profiled until the end with listeners guessing who it was. Sadly, many OTR collectors have ruined that aspect of the series by labeling the shows with the name of the President.

However, there’s still much to enjoy. You can download 126 episodes of Mr. President at the Internet Archive.

5) Other shows:

As stated at the start of this article, we’re only scratching the surface of historical old time radio.There were plenty of other shows that profiled American History. The OTRR, a few years back assembled a collection of radio shows on American History with excerpts from programs such as American Trail,  Destination: Freedom, and Frontier Fighters.

You can listen to these miscellaneous  programs at the Internet Archive which also contains many other great radio treasures that provide an insight into America’s great history.

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The Family Doctor: A Wholesome Radio Prescription

If you’re looking for a wholesome Old Time Radio  for the whole family, Family Doctor could be just what the doctor ordered.

Over the years, many television series, books, and movies  have taken a longing look at the past in programs such as Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons which served as  a reminder of old fashioned values and a time when a sense of community was a reality. The quest for this sort of world continues in the 21st Century with the rise of Amish fiction stories.

Family Doctor is not taking a look back, but is set in the then-present which is widely believed to be 1932 when the shows were produced.  Like the other syndicated 15 minute shows we examined the last two weeks, Family Doctor’s 39 episodes were syndicated to various radio stations and sold as a package. Unlike the other shows, Family Doctor had regular character and story archs.

The show follows the adventures of Grant Adams, the longtime physician of the small town of Cedarton. Cedarton is a three-dimensional town brimming with wonderful characters who Doc Adams tries to help and encourage including Pete who runs the drugstore and Griff, the workaholic boat renter who works too hard and always promises that he’ll find a younger man to do his hard work.  Then there are two teenage girls who compete for the hear of a clerk at the drug store and then when he leaves, they fight for the next clerk hired.

The 39 episodes of Family Doctor range from the humorous to the exciting  , the heartbreaking and the inspirational:

“Pete May, the Ambulance Driver”

With Dr. Adams’ car is in the shop so he asks Pete to drive him out on a house call)

“The Fire Alarm”

After talking about how nothing happens in Cedarton, Doc and the other volunteer firemen go to the scene of a fire where Doc risks his life to save a child.

“Enjoyment”

The town drunk is injured saving the life of a little girl and Doctor Adams works feverishly to save him.

Episodes 37-39

The 3-part series finale which requires Doc to make a difficult choice about his future and that of the town.

Doc Adams calls to mind generations of country doctors who were revered for their selfless giving of their lives for their patients.  Yes, this doctor does make house calls. He dispensed more common sense, wisdom, and kindness than any other prescription in the series.

Cedarton feels like a real place with real flaws: the program portrays Cedarton having incidents surrounding gossip, foolish competitions, suspicion of strangers, and even uncivil politics. At the same time,  Cedarton is also a  community where people are watching out for others. When Chic, who works at the drug store wants to rent a boat for a date, Griff makes it clear that he doesn’t rent boats to unmarried young couples without parental consent. Family Doctor presents small town life at its best and its worse. The exact location of the fictional town is never disclosed, but based on clues from the show, it was probably in upstate New York or New England.

The show remains a little known treasure:. It captures a time and place in American history with well-written and well-performed stories. The actors remain anonymous, although some take guesses. David Goldin suggests Jane Morgan and John Gibson (“Ethelbert”) appeared in the show, and I think I heard Agnes Moorhead, but identifying voice without credits s is always iffy.

The program pre-dates the similarly themed Dr. Christian radio series by five years and stands up well after nearly eighty years despite the lack of a named cast.

Click here to download episodes of the Family Doctor from the Internet Archive.

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