Category: Golden Age Article

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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DVD Review: The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady


Joan Bradley (Jean Muir), a secretary about to meet her boss’ son is confronted by a husband she’d believed dead who shows up at her apartment to blackmail her. He is murdered while she’s in the other room. She runs into the Lone Wolf (Warren William) and his butler sidekick Jamison (Eric Blore). The two try to help the secretary by chivalrously altering the crime scene in a way that makes her look innocent. However, the police catch a mistake and it’s up to the Lone Wolf to find the real murderer or else he and the secretary could go to jail.

Overall, the film is decently executed. The mystery and the supporting characters are adequate. Warren William has a decent turn as the detective, but was not a standout for the era. He lacked the energy he had in some of his earlier films and was not up to the standard of Chester Morris and George Sanders who played similar roles in the Saint and Boston Blackie films. The saving grace of the film was Eric Blore, who made a great comic sidekick. Blore steals every scene he’s in and provides just the right amount of comic relief to the film without becoming annoying as so many comic sidekicks of the era did.

The DVD is the definition of no frills: no DVD menu, let alone any extras. As a result, when you put the DVD in, it starts playing automatically. For me, this was a minor annoyance.

Overall, this isn’t a bad mystery, but I only recommend it if you want to see an example of the Lone Wolf in action.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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Audiobook Review: Black Mask 1: Doors in the Dark


Doors in the Dark gives is the first of several audiobooks that provide material that first appeared in Black Mask Magazine, perhaps the best known of the crime magazine pulps.

The collection begins with Keith Alen Deutsch’s history of Black Mask. It’s a great listen for fans of classic crime fiction, though skippable if you just want the story.

“Come and Get It,” is written by Erle Stanley Gardener, who’d become a mystery legend for writing Perry Mason. This story features Ed Jenkins, the Phantom Crook. This story is a self-contained short novel but in a series of novels involving the Phantom Crook’s battle with a crime syndicate who is trying to hurt a girl that Jenkins likes. Jenkins has some of the cleverness and cunning that would later be seen in characters like Leslie Charteris’ the Saint. However, he’s also a bit of a throwback to the “Crook with a Heart of Gold” character that was popular in the 1920s, and his sharp self-definition of himself as a “crook” is a dominant. Overall, this story is decent.

“Arson Plus” was originally published by Dashiell Hammett under the pseudonym of Peter Collinson. It’s the first story featuring Hammett’s Continental Op. It’s a quick moving arson case with a very clever solution.

“The Fall Guy” was written by George Harrison Coxe and features Flash Casey, the great crime photographer. Having listened to many episodes of the radio show, “Casey, Crime Photographer,” I found this to be a bit of a treat. The story itself is competent, but not “flashy” with typical noir characters.

“Doors in the Dark,” by Frederick Nebel features Captain Steve McBride investigating the apparent suicide of a friend, but he believes it’s murder. This story is from the series on which the Torchy Blane film series was based, though the series doesn’t feature Torchy with McBride being the hero. Still, there are some madcap/screwball moments in this story that set the tone for the Torchy Blane series.

“Lucky” by Doc Savage creator Lester Dent is one of the few stories featuring his crime solving Ship’s Captain/Insurance Oscar Sail. This story is fast paced and with a bit more violence than any other tale in the collection. Still, quite enjoyable with some clever twists.

Overall, I enjoyed this audiobook, but it’s one of those releases that fall under, “You will like if you like that sort of thing.” One negative review criticized the stories for having the same quality as old time radio. As someone who loves old time radio mysteries, I consider that a positive. The pulp genre is not high literature but much of it is still entertaining in its own way.

Ultimately, this audiobook offers talented narration of a good history of pulp fiction along with five classic pulp stories including a Flash Casey story and tales by the creators of Doc Savage, Perry Mason, and Sam Spade. If that sounds up your alley, then this is definitely an audiobook to pick up.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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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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