Category: Golden Age Article

The Golden Age of Radio’s Ten Most Important Women, Part Two

Continued from Part One

5) Gracie Allen

Allen was a bright and intelligent comic talent who was successful at playing Gracie Allen, one of radio’s greatest screwball characters. She began working with George Burns in vaudeville before moving on to a few films, but it was in radio she made her mark. Through the mid-late 1930s to the 1940s, they starred in a comic variety show where Gracie sang as well as doing sketch comedy. Then they starred in a sitcom that lasted seventeen years over radio and television.

Gracie had perfect comic timing and delivery like no one else on the radio. While she and George were good, she played well off nearly any guest star or hapless character. She was also behind two of the greatest radio promotions. In 1940, she “ran for President” on the Surprise Party Ticket and did a tour of dozens of radio shows to promote her candidacy. In 1948, she played off husband George Burns’ put-on lack of singing talent to visit every CBS show she could find (including The Adventures of Philip Marlowe) in order to find one that would let him sing.

The most amazing thing about Gracie Allen was that through her decades as one of America’s greatest entertainers, she suffered stage fright, but she showed her courage by fighting it and left behind a legacy as one of the true all time great comedic talents.

4) Gertrude Berg

Berg was one of those radio pioneers who created a lasting legacy. Her program The Goldbergs began in 1929 and would run over radio and television until 1956. The program was a comedy soap telling the real-life struggles and travails of a Jewish family living in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. The program became beloved by millions and with its humor and heart brought a slice of life that many Americans simply didn’t know existed. Throughout the show’s 27-year run, Berg remained the friendly and unchanging face of one of  the golden age’s most successful enterprises.

3) Kate Smite Kate Smith

Smith was one of radio’s most enduring personalities. Her first radio program Kate Smith Sings began airing in 1931. Her last program left the air in August 1958. During her time on the radio, she hosted variety programs, singing programs, and a daily talk show. Her show would provide launching pads for such great stars as the Aldrich Family, Abbott and Costello, and Jackie Gleason. Smith’s signature song was her rendition of “God Bless America,” which she first introduced in 1938. Her beautiful voice and genial manner makes her one of golden age’s must-listen-to stars.

2) Dinah Shore

Shore came to stardom on Eddie Cantor’s Time to Smile program in 1940. Soon, she had her own show for Bristol Myers in 1941 and would be a much sought-out performer leading shows for Birds Eye frosted foods, Ford, Philip Morris, and Chevrolet. She was one of America’s most popular singers throughout radio’s golden age. Her popularity made her a guest star for programs from Lights Out to Burns and Allen. She was one of radio’s most popular and talented personalities and a true star.

1 ) Virginia Gregg

Gregg was many things over radio. She landed recurring roles most often playing detectives’ girlfriends and girl Fridays. She was Nicki Porter to Lawrence Dobkin’s Ellery Queen, Claire Brooks to Bob Bailey’s George Valentine, she was Helen Asher to Dick Powell’s Richard Diamond, and then she was Betty Lewis to Bailey’s Johnny Dollar.  She was also Miss Wong,  the Chinese Girlfriend of Ben Wright’s Hey Boy on Have Gun Will Travel.

As impressive as these numerous recurring and ongoing roles were, it barely touches on the depth of what she contributed. She was a true artist, a character actress par excellence. She could play a dozen femme fatales opposite Jack Webb’s Pat Novak for Hire, but also old ladies, heartbroken mothers, busybodies, and little girls.

Virginia Gregg was the type of professional that radio depended on. She could be counted on to play any role and play it to the hilt. Jack Webb on Dragnet could call on Gregg to be tough as nails, quirky, or heartbroken, and she’d do it. During the Yours Truly Johnny Dollar serials, Gregg appeared regularly. One week she’d play a girl gone wrong, the next she’d play a big and rowdy Irishwoman who ran a dive.

Certainly Gregg wasn’t the only actress who could do this. But she was one of the most prolific, and she was the best. Without her performances, the Golden Age of radio wouldn’t have shined near as much. Radio without Virginia’s Gregg’s contributions isn’t worth thinking about.

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The Golden Age of Radio’s Ten Most Important Women, Part One

10) Martha Wilkerson (aka GI Jill) 

During World War II, many worked to build the morale of soldiers who found themselves in danger thousands of miles from home and none did more than Wilkerson. When the war launched, many programs were made for soldiers, often featuring celebrity hosts. One such program was G.I. Jive. Early episodes feature such professionals as Frank Nelson and Donna Reed. However, they would be replaced by an unknown who would quickly become known to forces overseas as G.I. Jill. Recorded in Los Angeles, Jill’s warm and friendly voice was a big slice of home to war-weary soldiers. She was the ultimate girl next door. She made the perfect counter to Japanese efforts to undermine morale in the person of Tokyo Rose. With superior records and a winning personality and her recordings of her fifteen-minutes-daily GI Jive show and her half-hour Jill’s All-Time Jukebox, the axis didn’t have a chance against WIlkerson. Her recordings continue to be beloved by Old Time Radio fans to this day.

9) Cathy Lewis

Cathy Lewis was a prolific character actress She had recurring roles on programs like Michael Shayne Private Detective with Wally Maher, My Friend Irma, and The Great Gildersleeve. Perhaps, her most well-known program was the series On Stage in which she starred with her then-husband Elliot where she took on a variety of meaty roles. She was invaluable as a character actress, making numerous appearances on anthology programs like Suspense, Romance, and The Whistler. With more than 3000 appearances, Cathy Lewis’s place as one of radio’s most important women is well-earned.

8) Mercedes McCambridge

Orson Welles called her “the world’s greatest living radio actress.” McCambridge was a rare talent. Her big starring role came as radio was in decline.  Starting in 1951,  she starred as a tough and smart female attorney who solved crimes and got justice for her clients.  In 1952, she was recognized as radio’s favorite dramatic actress by Radio TV Mirror Magazine.  McCambridge frequently appeared on Lights Out and also had many appearances on The Mercury Summer Theater, the Great Gildersleeve, and Inner Sanctum.

For my money, the best showcase of her talent was in Studio One,  CBS one hour drama showcase produced by her then-husband Fletcher Markle. She began in November 1947 with the lead in Kitty Foyle. McCambridge became a regular on Studio One returning each week with a new role from an ambitious opera singer to the bored and disgruntled wife of a broken down businessman, McCambridge took all parts, always proof of the old saying that there are no small parts-only small actors, and she was a talented and dedicated actress through and through. Her voice was like none other in radio, a wonderful instrument that’s been keeping fans entertained for decades.

7) Jeanette Nolan

Her friend True Boardman said Nolan was a remarkable actress who could play any female role from the Queen to a widow to a seductress. Her first major role was on Tarzan in the 1930s. Nolan was best known for her old lady roles. Ironically enough, Nolan was in her 20s and 30s while playing most of these dowager roles. She helped to hold some of radio’s great shows together. Producer Norm Macdonnell used her as part of a stock company that appeared often on Gunsmoke, Fort Laramie,and the Adventures of Philip Marlowe. She also made frequent appearances on Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, Suspense, and the Cavalcade of America.

6) Claudia Morgan.

Morgan was the definitive radio Nora Charles. She played the role from 1941-50. What made this remarkable was that the program had seven different runs over four different networks with four different leads. Through it all, she was the indispensable ingredient in this long-running series, maintaining a unique play on Mrs. Charles that was in many ways stronger and more forceful than Myrna Loy’s screen-presentation.  Morgan’s portrayal of Mrs. Charles was so good, when NBC decided to start another husband-wife detective show, she was picked to play Mrs. Abbott on The Adventures of the Abbotts. The new series ran only one season. Morgan played Jean Abbott the whole season while three actors portrayed her husband and official lead Pat. Beyond her most iconic role, Morgan also had a notable role in several radio soap operas, including The O’Neills and The Right to Happiness. 

Audio Drama Review: The Avengers-The Lost Episodes, Volume 2

The second volume of Avengers Lost Episodes continues to provide authentic recreations of lost episodes from the first season of the Classic TV series, “The Avengers,” with Julian Wadham recreating the role of John Steed, Anthony Howell as Doctor Keel, and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Carol.

Below are the summaries of the four episodes:

“Ashes of Roses” features Steed looking into an arson and he recruits Steed’s nurse Carol to go to undercover as a customer of a posh hair salon he suspects of being tied to the arson.

Overall, this was a great mystery story and it’s really helped by Carol taking such a big role as she plays very well off Steed. The guest characters are great and there’s a good amount of both suspects and red herrings to keep the listener fully engaged.

In “Please Don’t Feed the Animals,” the death of a man in a private zoo’s crocodile pit is tied into an attempt to steal government secrets. It’s an intriguing story with great action and suspense, helped by a superb premise and there’s also a good guest villain.

“The Radioactive Man” was easily, the most different episode from what the Avengers would become so far as Steed and Keel take a backseat to an Eastern block refugee who walks off with a radioactive isotope, endangering himself and everyone around him.

The plot  has problems. Not only is the case far from anything that Steed would typically handle, there’s no reason for Keel to be called in. In addition, as our hook, we’re given the plot of some of the refugees wanting to blow up a cargo train but it doesn’t really amount to much in the larger story. Plus how and why the refugee takes the isotope is a bit far fetched.

The story has some interesting ideas, how refugees as “strangers in a strange land” relate to the wider culture and choose to assimilate and become part of it (or not) and whether they can trust each other. What holds up this odd script is the acting and Big Finish’s superb recreation job. Like the previous episodes, it maintains a genuine 1960s feel. It’s just the story it tells genuinely doesn’t fit well with the Season 1 template we’ve heard so far.

“Dance with Death” is an interesting tale as it begins with the actions of Keel as he’s called to an office where a woman has nearly been asphyxiated. When she visits her dance studio the next day, she finds the rest of the staff carrying on as if she had died. Then, when she is murdered, Keel becomes a suspect.

This starts out as a fairly clever mystery with a twist solution where the murder of the dance studio’s co-owner is a means rather than an end, and Steed and Keel have to thwart the ultimate end. This could have been a bit more suspenseful, but still this is an entertaining conclusion to the set.

Overall, the set continues to offer an amazing degree of authenticity, feeling very true to the early 1960s the scripts were originally performed in. The acting remained solid, and I think the scripts in the set were better than in the previous set even if, “The Radioactive Man” wasn’t to my taste.

Movie Review: A Close Call for Boston Blackie

A Close Call for Boston Blackie is one of just three Boston Blackie movies starring Chester Morris that are official releases.

In this film, a man is murdered in Blackie’s apartment and his widow escapes, leaving the baby in the care of Blackie and his sidekick Runt. Blackie has to stay one step ahead of Inspector Farraday and his minions.

Chester Morris is charming and funny as Blackie and has a very convincing turn in his disguise. Some of the early scenes reminded me of the radio show but this played things for comedy more than the radio show did and not all of the humor worked. The baby is cute, however most of the humor centering around the child falls flat. Frank Sully (who plays Sergeant Matthews) seems to be trying to be a poor man’s Red Skelton but ultimately doesn’t work. The pace of the first half of this hour-long film drags as it takes forever to get out of Blackie’s apartment. However, the film does become more engaging in the second half.

Overall, the film isn’t bad, but it’s essentially an average detective B movie from the 1940s. It is entertaining due to a strong performance by Morris more than anything else.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

DVD Review: Michael Shayne Mysteries, Volume 1


This two DVD collection collection collects four of the seven Michael Shayne films: Michael Shayne, Private Detective, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, Sleepers West, and Blue, White, and Perfect. 

These are the cream of the series. Nolan plays Shayne with loads of light-hearted charm and street smarts. In general, the writing is solid as it avoids the flaws of other films in the series that have since been released as solo stories. The films are detective comedies but do a good job providing a great balance between detective story and comedy.

Each film is based on a different book. However, only one of those was a Michael Shayne book. The other three were from other detective writers. While the films have a light comedic touch to them, each is also influenced by its source material and so each feels a little different.

Michael Shayne, Private Detective is the only one based on an actual Shayne book, and it finds Shayne watching an underage heiress who has a bad gambling habit. Shayne undertakes to keep her safe but quickly finds himself mixed up in a murder.

In The Man Who Couldn’t Die, Shayne goes undercover as a woman’s new husband to help her find out the secret behind strange goings on at her father’s estate. This is an atmospheric “old house” mystery with lots of comic misunderstandings thrown in.

Sleepers West has Shayne transporting a key witness on a train where he runs into an old flame and her fiance, who has a secret. Shayne has to keep the witness safe from the mob and also ensure she makes it to the trial. This one becomes a little more drama than mystery towards the end, but has a positive message and a lovely performance by Nolan.

Finally in Blue, White, and Perfect, Shayne pretends to quit the private detective business for the benefit of his fiancee, but in reality he’s going undercover to investigate the theft of diamonds. However, he’s fired from the job after a complaint is lodged against him by the perpetrators (who he can’t prove are guilty), so he does the only sensible thing he can: tricks his fiancee into giving him a thousand dollars so he can book passage on a boat to Hawaii and follow the crooks across the sea,  intending to capture the crooks, claim the reward, and pay her back. This film is enjoyable, particularly for featuring future Superman star George Reeves as a Spanish/Irish mystery passenger, but it is probably a little too convoluted for its own good.

It’s worth nothing that the films all seem to have an obsession with Shayne being Irish, with the theme being an Irish jig and Shayne whistling Irish songs.

Beyond that, the films are incredibly entertaining. The DVD boxset contains a nice booklet, and the CDs are in two slip cases, each with gorgeous artwork related to the films. In addition, there are four mini-documentaries about the Michael Shayne books and movies that make for great viewing for the true mystery fan.

Compared to other mystery box sets, the current $9.99 price on this set is dirt cheap. The reason for the price is that 20th Century Fox packaged the set as a double-sided DVD which is generally a cheap option. That’s ironic because everything else in the set is quite exquisitely done. However, the result of this is that this is a great bargain for fans of classic mystery movies.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

This DVD  is available as a thank you gift for our listener support campaign with a donation of $50 or more through Sunday, March 7, 2016.

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