Category: Golden Age Article

The Radio Adventures of Doc Savage

Doc Savage is an enduring character from the pulp fiction area that continues to boast a legion of fans to this day. However, unlike fellow pulp hero, The Shadow, Doc has not done so well in other media.

Doc Savage came to the big screen in 1975 in a widely panned movie. Doc did have two separate radio series from 1934-35 and in 1943, but neither amounted too much and no transcription from those shows survives in circulation.

However, in 1985, Doc Savage finally got a just treatment when he was brought to life by the Creative Arts Theater in a series of radio dramas that were eventually broadcast nationally over NPR.

The Man of Bronze

Doc Savage was raised to become the height of human perfection.  He had bronze skin and bronze hair. To say Doc was a jack of all trades would be a drastic understatement:

He was a physician, surgeon, scientist, adventurer, inventor, explorer, researcher, and, as revealed in The Polar Treasure, a musician.

In Savage, you can see shadows of other heroes who would become dominant forces in the comic books in years to come.  Such mixing of talents and abilities would be seen a few years later in Batman.

Of course, someone with Doc’s abilities could work mischief, but Savage was defined by an oath:

Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.

With these ideals, Doc was joined by five well-accomplished and worthy assistants: chemist Monk Mayfair, sword-wielding attorney Ham Brooks, engineer Renny Renwick, electrical engineer Long Tom Roberts, and archaeologist Long Tom Roberts.  Doc had as fine a team as any hero had.

There were 13 radio episodes made. Originally, the creators thought of remaking the 1930s radio scripts, but found them unsatisfactory and decided to adapt the books. They chose to adapt Fear Cay and The Thousand Headed Man.

Fear Cay starts off a little slow as two villains plotting to capture Doc Savage discuss his many unique powers which only serves as informational dialog.  But once they have Doc the story takes off.  As Doc fools the kidnappers and finds that they were hired by a company called Fountain of Youth, Incorporated to stop him from meeting with Kel Avery who was due in from a flight to Florida.

Doc and his assistants seek  to unravel the secrets of Fountain of Youth Inc.  in an adventure that included lots of action, a couple explosions, and plenty of mystery.  My only criticism other than the beginning was that parts 4-6 of the 7 part series could have been a little tighter. But that’s a small issue with such an exciting adventure.

In The Thousand Headed Man, Doc is in London and while at the airport, a young British man tosses him a black stick.  This seemingly innocuous event draws Doc and the gang into a dangerous adventure that will take them into the jungles of Indochina and puts the men against a mysterious force that with sound can knock people unconscious.  This startling six part adventure is well-told and a lot of fun.

Overall, the Creative Arts Theater did a fantastic job bringing these characters to the 1930s.  Their goal was to create a faithful adaptation that wasn’t campy and they certainly succeeded.  With some of the most talented voice actors in Los Angeles, each character was brought to life in a unique and memorable way. They were particularly skilled with Doc’s assistants and the main villains of each series.

The set from Radio Archives is up to their usual high standards of audio quality. In addition to the complete 13 episodes of the Doc Savage Series, Radio Archives sweetened the deal with two extras.

First was a making of CD which provides a 40 minute story of how the series was produced and interviews with much of the original cast and crew as they discuss some of the decisions made including the most disappointing part of the series: Doc Savage signature “trill” from the books sounded like a tea kettle.

The only thing I took issue with on the extras is one star’s opinion that they had revived the golden age of radio. The Statement was a little silly as in the late 70s and early 80s, radio drama experienced a resurgence with The CBS Mystery Theater, The Mutual Radio Theater, The Sears Radio Theater, NPR’s Ear Play, and The General Mills Adventure Theater. Still, many of these productions remained lesser known to the extent that anyone starting a similar revival would think they were doing something unique.

The final extra is a sample disk from Radio Archives including two of their high quality masters of radio detective shows with one episode of Philip Marlowe and one episode of Michael Shayne, both of which were fairly enjoyable and added value to the set.

Overall, the Adventures of Doc Savage was a radio treasure and Radio Archives did a fine job with this beautiful set.

Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5.

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The Fictionalized Adventures of Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth
George Herman “Babe” Ruth was the greatest baseball player of his era and perhaps of any era. He revolutionized the game of baseball, bringing about a new era in American sports. His career was the stuff of legends: 714 Home Runs, .342 career batting average, and by the way he began as a pitcher. He racked up a 94-46 record with a 2.28 ERA. In post-season, he was superb, as a hitter he hit .326 with 15 homers, and as a pitcher he was 3-0 with an 0.80 ERA.  The Babe has held the record for most Home Runs in the American League for 90 years.

The Babe was also a big personality whose place in American folklore remains strong to this day.  What  most people don’ t know is that Babe Ruth’s adventures were also the focus of an Old Time Radio program.

The Adventures of Babe Ruth were released originally in 1934 as a syndicated program sponsored by Quaker Oats. The year after Babe died, the series was rerun with the Navy as the sponsor. This made sense for the Navy as many young men who were of age to join the Navy hadn’t even heard the Babe play and much of the information about him came secondhand.

The Adventures of Babe Ruth episodes that are in circulation are from this Navy syndication. They portray Babe’s good sportsmanship, generosity, and compassion.  The stories are told by Steve Martin, a sports writer who knew the Babe and helped write for him.

The stories are either fictional, or probably fictionalized. The writers were under the apparent impression that for any story to truly be dramatic, it has to be the seventh game of the World Series or the Pennant coming down to the last game of the season and I fact checked a couple of these stories and couldn’t find the Yankees having played under the circumstances described. In the episode, “Dutch Reaver,” the Babe is left to manage the team on the last day of the season with the pennant on the line. A fantastic story by any means as: 1) no manager would take the last day of the season off if the pennant were on the line and 2)  The Yankees refusal to let the Babe manage led to his leaving the Yankees. To believe that the club would place him in charge at this crucial point is fantastic. Of course, the game in question didn”t happen either.

However, the episodes do a great job of portraying the Babe’s willingness to help other guys who had similar rough edges to the ones he had coming up. Whether the stories were strictly true or not, they portrayed the side of Babe that America fell in love with.

Of course, like the William Bendix movie, The Babe Ruth Story, The Adventures of Babe Ruth did ignore many of the Babe’s flaws. However, this may be preferable to the approach of John Goodman’s 1992 film which seemed to gloss over Babe’s good points to focus on his flaws.

The truth is that Babe’s strengths outlasted his wild days early in his career. He continued to work with and reach out to kids and be a great good will ambassador for baseball.

The Adventures of Babe Ruth while by no means a perfect picture of the Bambino provides a great profile of the characteristics that made Babe more than a sports legend, but a personality Americans truly admired.

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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.


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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