Category: Golden Age Article

Top Ten Things I Like About Dragnet, Part One

I first began old-time radio podcasting in 2007 with the Old Time Dragnet show. The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio began in 2009 based on suggestions I received from fans of the Dragnet podcast and it’s safe to say my initial subscribers to this podcast were fans of Dragnet. In 2013, when my Dragnet podcast was finishing its run, I added a sixth weekly episode to this podcast for procedural shows and Dragnet took that stop a year and a half later.

Since beginning, the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio fan base has expanded to include people who don’t care for Dragnet. This is fine. With every series we’ve played on this podcast, someone hasn’t cared for it. Since we started, the strength of this podcast has been that we play a variety of shows so most mystery fans will have some series they can enjoy.

However, a few people have asked genuinely what I like about Dragnet because they just don’t get it. There’s a lot you can point to with Dragnet that shows it was popular and successful. If you’ve listened to the series in recent months, you’ve heard the series given multiple on-air awards, including the Edgar Award for outstanding mystery writing. However, this doesn’t explain the show’s appeal anymore than the box office success of the Harry Potter or Twilight films explains their success to people who don’t get that.

I’m not under the illusion this column is going to persuade everyone to love Dragnet. It’s not to everyone’s tastes and what I love about it may be what someone else despises about it. If anything, I hope some people who’ve never really seen it will check it out and maybe people with limited experience with it might get a fresh perspective.

The Dragnet franchise was actively produced for the better part of two decades across two TV series, a movie, and a radio series, and some of what I talk about will only apply to one of those. With that said, let’s get started with listing ten of the things I love about Dragnet:

10) The Zinger Lines

Many of these lines ended a scene or an episode. It would be rare for the last line in a Dragnet to be something like, “Thanks for your time,” or, “Alright, let’s get going.” The scene had to end with music being played and the show had a sense that the music had to be earned.

Whichever version you’re enjoying, that structure is there. Sometimes, it is humorous, such as in the episode, “the Badge Racket” where Friday is questioned by a detective who sees him making an arrest of two men who’d been pretending to be police officers at police headquarters. This lead to this bit of dialog to wrap up the episode:

Police detective: You make your cases right in the building now?
Joe: No, these two just made a simple mistake.
Police detective: What’s that?
Joe: They thought they worked here.

Other times, it was Joe Friday’s smack downs of the criminal and cowardly. In the 1954 film, a man backed out of testifying against a gang out of fear and asks Friday, “If you was me, would you do it?”

Friday: Can I wait awhile?
Witness: Huh?
Friday: Before I’m you.

In, “The Big Betty,” Friday and Smith had spent the episode on the trail of a gang who took advantage of the families of recently deceased people to find the mastermind half-drunk at a New Year’s Eve Party and blathering about how she cries at midnight at New Years. She declares she does it even though she, “Never had any reason for it.”

Friday frowned and said, “You’re going to have one this year, lady.”

The show’s zingers give it a unique and memorable style. Admittedly, not every zing line works, and some take too long to set up. Still, most hit the mark, and the zinger lines really gives the show a unique rhythm.

9) The Joe Friday Speeches

This one was only prominent in the 1960s revival and is a  controversial element of that series. Overall, I like them.

Probably the closest Friday came to giving big speeches  prior to the 1960s was the episode, “The Big Fraud” where he let his fury fly at con men who had pretended to be policemen and then in the 1954 movie where he detailed his salary to the villain of the film, Max Troy. Both speeches were under sixty seconds but still packed a punch.

It’s in the 1960s when things got epic with speeches like, “A Quirk in the Law” in the Dragnet TV movie or his “To Be a Cop” speech or his speech from, “The Big Departure.”

The best of the Joe Friday speeches were snappy but eloquent. They express their ideas well and often have evocative imagery. There’s nothing original about the idea that police have a challenging job, but the imagery used in his, “To Be a Cop” speech is so vivid:

“And then there’s your first night on the beat. When you try to arrest a drunken prostitute in a Main Street bar and she rips your new uniform to shreds. You’ll buy another one out of your own pocket. And you’re going to rub elbows with all the elite: pimps, addicts, thieves, bums, winos, girls who can’t keep an address, and men who don’t care. Liars, cheats, con men, the class of Skid Row. And the heartbreak: underfed kids, beaten kids, molested kids, lost kids, crying kids, homeless kids, hit-and-run kids, broken arm kids, broken leg kids, broken head kids, sick kids, dying kids, dead kids. The old people that nobody wants: the reliefers, the pensioners, the ones who walk the street cold, and those who tried to keep warm and died in a three-dollar room with an unvented gas heater.”

It’s a great use of language with good delivery that gives authority to the material. Of course, there’s a question of how this works with the idea of realism in Dragnet. Real life police officers don’t give big, eloquent speeches. They’ll give lectures to motorists but nothing like a Friday speech, particularly in debating non-criminal antagonists of the police force as Friday does in several episodes.

The important thing to remember is Jack Webb had spent many years working with the LAPD at this point and gotten to know several real officers. In many ways, in the 1960s, he made Friday their voice about issues that bothered them such as drugs, family decline, and what being a cop meant. Friday said things that most on-duty cops wouldn’t dare say but that most of the cops Jack Webb associated with really thought. So, it compromises realism but so does Joe Friday switching departments every week.

8) The Banter

This was an element that came into the show in 1952 with Ben Alexander coming on board as Friday’s partner Frank Smith and continued even into the 1960s TV series with Harry Morgan as Bill Gannon.

From 1952 on, this was in the vast majority of episodes and usually right at the start of the episode. Most episodes would begin with some good-natured banter between Friday and his partner, with the conversation often taking a comedic turn. This initial conversation would occasionally be followed up later on in the episode, but usually it was paid off in that one scene.

The scenes are always funny, but not too funny or over the top. Frank Smith and Bill Gannon aren’t sitcom characters or caricatures, they’re just a couple of friends with some personality quirks.

This serves several purposes other than being fun to watch. First, it makes you feel like they are real people with real personalities that play off one another. It also can serve the dramatic plot of the story. Most often, it creates a contrast. In a week where the show deals with a heavy topic, the light scene at the beginning serves as contrast and makes a heavier plot seem more serious and grim by comparison.

Next week, we’ll continue our look at what I think makes Dragnet so great to watch and listen to.

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Graphic Novel Review: Mask of the Red Panda

The Mask of the Red Panda is based on the audio drama podcast written by Gregg Taylor. In this three-issue comic story, the Red Panda and Kit Baxter (aka the Flying Squirrel) investigate a series of strange murders that lead them into a battle with forces of supernatural evil and Nazis. The story’s set in the pulp fiction era, so of course Nazis.

The book captures the flow and spirit of the podcast adventures well bringing our heroes on to the comic page and into the visual media. It moves at a nice pace with plenty of action. I also like the way they deal with magic, but fight with a magic inhibitor device which stops the story from getting too spooky, weird, and out of its typical depth. It’s certainly a better take than many modern superhero stories which become some entirely different series when magical beings come a calling. The art is good and the coloring (while far from natural) isn’t unpleasant.

On the other hand, you might expect something more epic for the trade paperback from a long-running series. This is a decent three-issues story rather than something epic and grand that will make readers demand more Red Panda comics. In addition, some elements don’t quite transfer over from audio to the written page.

In the Red Panda, Kit is not only the Red Panda’s sidekick but his employee as his chauffeur, so she responds to many of his statements with, “Yes, Boss.” In the radio program, Andrea Lyons, the actress who plays her, communicates a lot of what Kit thinks through voice tone as she says it. So “Yes, Boss” can be an acknowledgment or agreement or it can be annoyance, humoring the Red Panda, or something else. You don’t get that sense of expression in the comic and so you have to guess and, without voice tone, “Yes, boss” can be a bit repetitive. In addition, while I appreciate her fighting spirit, there was one panel where I think she went a little too far.

Still, overall this is a decent and nicely written homage to the pulp era that brings a beloved audio drama character to life. If you like pulp heroes like the Shadow or Green Hornet, but would like something a tad less intense than those heroes’ current comic book offerings, this is a worthwhile read even if you haven’t listened to the podcast. If you’re a fan of the Red Panda and the Flying Squirrel, this is a great opportunity to see them in a visual medium.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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The Best American Radio Detective Performances, Part Four: Honorable Mentions

In Parts One, Two, and Three of my series on the Greatest American Radio Detective performances, I laid out the ten best performances, but are there other great performances worthy of consideration? Sure. Here we take a look at some honorable mentions in no particular order:

Jack Webb as Joe Friday in Dragnet:

It was certainly one of the most iconic post-war performances taken together as a whole in radio and television. The narration, the sardonic one liners, were the stuff of Joe Friday on radio. The reason he doesn’t make the list is simple. Most everyone on the list had to carry most of the weight of the show’s success. On Dragnet, Friday was important in that regards but not  pivotal. His partners provided comic relief. For whole stretches of most episodes, his dialogue was limited to asking simple questions. In television, even when he wasn’t talking, Friday’s facial expressions told something. However, when someone else is talking on the radio, he’s just sitting there.

Now, Dragnet is a better show than most that are on this list, but the performance of Jack Webb the actor has less to do with that than Jack Webb the Director, Producer, and Creator.

Jack Smart as Brad Runyon in The Fat Man, 1946-51

Smart played another one of the golden age of radio’s iconic figures, the Fat Man, an overweight detective who was one of radio’s first hard-boiled private eyes. The character was created by Dashiell Hammett based on his Continental Op character, but ultimately it was Smart who gave him life as a tough, street-smart detective with a soft spot for people in trouble.

The Fat Man was hugely successful. It had high ratings, was one of the few detective radio programs to spawn a movie, and everyone who heard the program remembers it fondly and distinctly. The series also points out to the challenge of making a list like this: It’s based on surviving episodes.

Out of approximately two hundred and eighty-nine episodes, there are only ten episodes from Smart’s run as the Fat Man in circulation. They’re all very good, but based upon what I heard, I was more impressed by everyone who made the list. But what if I had a greater sample of Smart’s work? Let’s say seventy-two episodes. If those were exceptionally good, would that change the list?

Every detective show on the list (other than Harry Nile) have lost episodes and many have significant numbers of episodes missing. What if we had more runs of Barrie Craig, the Saint, or Candy Matson? What if we had more of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes? Most of his circulating episodes come from his last season and a half where he was feeling burnout with the role. All these could change our perceptions, but we can only go by what we can hear. So we just do the best we can. Still, I think it’s important to acknowledge the issue.

Smart’s performance as the Fat Man may have been far better than the good performance we had, but it’s also possible what makes the show so memorable to those who first heard it is the opening, which doesn’t have Smart doing anything.

Alan Ladd as Dan Holiday in Box Thirteen (1947-48):

A radio show that Ladd created for radio. It not only served to provide him and his family additional income in resyndication, it helped to promote him as an actor. He burst onto the scene with This Gun for Hire where he played a hired killer. The big risk of such a role is getting typecast as playing these sort of tough guy underworld roles.

Box Thirteen helped in showing Ladd’s range. Yes, he could do action and daring, but he could also be smart, compassionate, and even recited a poem in one episode. Ladd’s voice on radio is smooth and he’s fun to listen to. He always benefited from great scripts but his performance made the series memorable and it showed all the world what Alan Ladd was capable of.

Frank Lovejoy as Randy Stone in Night Beat, 1950-53: 

Lovejoy had some solid roles in movies, TV, and film, but the role of Randy Stone is the one he was born for. Stone is an interesting character who traverses the Night Beat, solving mysteries, and helping other people in their lives. He brims over with ideals, but also has a cynical streak. He’s often in humorous situations but can unleash righteous fury on those he thinks are acting unjustly. While he’s well known in the streets of Chicago, his job and the nature of working nights has left him with few close friends.

A big part of what makes Night Beat such a delight to listen to is the way Lovejoy fleshes out Stone with all of his wonderful contrasting and occasionally contradictory characteristics. It’s really the key to help us to connect with the unusual stories Stone finds while working the Night Beat.

 

Gale Gordon as Gregory Hood in The Casebook of Gregory Hood, 1946:

For those who grew up on television, Gale Gordon was known for playing a series of loud-mouthed authority figures: Mr. Conklin in Our Miss Brooks, John Wilson on Dennis the Menace, and Lucille Ball’s boss in The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. This goes even further back, to Mayor Latrivia in Fibber McGee and Molly. Then you have the Casebook of Gregory Hood where he plays Gregory Hood, a smooth, sophisticated antiques dealer who occasionally plays amateur detective.

Gordon is good and convincing in the role and it’s a shame he left the series after sixteen episodes. While Elliott Lewis was a solid replacement, he didn’t quite have that same style and finesse that Gordon had. While Gordon would go to comedy gold in basically similar roles for the rest of his career, the surviving episodes of this series point out what a good and versatile actor he really was.

There are many performances we could mention. There were many good performances on detective programs in the golden age of radio. The top ten were the best, and these were just a notch below that.

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Top Ten Greatest American Radio Detective Performances, Part Three

I began my examination of the top ten American radio detective performances in parts one and two, now we get to the big three.

 

3) Gerald Mohr as Philip Marlowe (1948-51):
That opening. It’s impossible to talk about the Adventures of Philip Marlowe’s performance without talking about one of the best openings in old time radio when Mohr comes on the air as Marlow and proclaims:

“Get this and get it straight. Crime is a sucker’s road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave. There’s no other end, but they never learn.

It’d be tweaked throughout the series run, but it’s simply the best introduction to any golden age detective program. Mohr’s delivery conveys a mix of danger, excitement, and world-weariness. Even better were the teasers for the adventure Marlowe delivered in the earlier episodes of the series:

“This time it started as a routine search for a rich girl’s fiancé and the trail led to a silent house haunted by a face at the window and blood in an open cedar chest. But before it was over, it became a search for a corpse that wouldn’t sit still.”

You feel like you’re about to experience a true hard-boiled detective tale. It sets the tone perfectly.

Mohr’s performance goes beyond a superb opening. He’s superb from start to finish in every episode. Mohr portrays a Marlowe who could be as tough as nails with a touch of biting cynicism, but at other times he could show great kindness, a sense of humor, and also a philosophical side.

To be sure, Mohr benefited from some of the best writing and direction in the golden age of radio, but his performance took great material and made it excellent.

2) Phil Harper as Harry Nile (1976-78, 1991-2004)

The title of this list intentionally didn’t tie making this list to having appeared radio’s golden age. Of course, there haven’t been many contenders for this list since the end of the Golden Age. But then there’s a detective called Harry Nile and the actor who first portrayed him, Phil Harper.

Harry Nile originated as a part of the anthology series Crisis. He was a Chicago private detective in early 1940 with deep gambling debts, forced to go west to commit a murder. Harry was no fan of the idea and didn’t end up going through with it and instead drifted around until he settled in Los Angeles and eventually relocated to Seattle. Nile was assisted by Murphy, (Pat French) an LA librarian who was a recurring character who became his secretary and eventually his partner.

Harry Nile appeared in twenty-four episodes in 1976-78 and returned with an unaired Christmas special in 1990, and then in June 1991, Harper would begin playing Harry Nile regularly for the rest of his life.

Harper was incredibly versatile as Harry Nile. The original premise had Nile as simply a private detective who always seemed to be under a rain cloud of bad luck, such as clients who never paid. Yet, over time, the character grew and Harper brought him to life as a fully formed private eye. He could play the comedy of the chronically late and cheap boss and senior partner, the professional talking to a potential client, but also show a great deal of compassion. Nile’s Chicago-based siblings were recurring characters and Harper’s performance captured his realistic concern for them. Then there was the interplay between Harry and Murphy. Harper’s Nile never went beyond friendship with her despite hints that Murphy was interested in more, yet Harry often showed a tenderness and protectiveness towards that was very sweet.

Phil Harper grew up in 1940 and dreamed of appearing in radio dramas only to find he was born too late. However, Jim French offered Harper the opportunity to play Harry Nile and he jumped on it. His inspiration came from his memories of the golden age of radio, particularly Howard Duff as Sam Spade and Edmond O’Brien as Johnny Dollar. Harper fulfilled his boyhood dream of appearing in radio drama and managed to be the equal of the best Golden Age radio performances and surpassed many.

1) Bob Bailey as Johnny Dollar (1955-60):

Bob Bailey makes our list twice. As good as he was as George Valentine, it’s his role as the fourth on-air Johnny Dollar that he’s best known for. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the  fact, for most of his run, Johnny Dollar was the only detective program still on radio, so he wasn’t competing with twenty other shows doing the same thing. The series re-aired frequently on Armed Forces Radio and Television Services even after it went off the air. Thus there’s a sub-generation for whom Bob Bailey’s Johnny Dollar is the Radio Detective they grew up with.

That Bailey made it five years was remarkable. 1955 was a horrible time for anything on radio other than adult Westerns. So many detective programs came to air only to be cancelled after less than a year. Johnny Dollar was initially to be serialized and was the third show they had tried as a serial after Mr and Mrs. North and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. 

Bob Bailey’s Johnny Dollar was different than nearly every radio detective that came before because he was a fully fleshed out character. He had friends who weren’t just introduced as plot devices. He had ongoing relationships with recurring characters. He had a favorite hobby and a favorite vacation spot. And Bailey did a superb job pulling this off.

His Johnny Dollar had the best range of any performance on this list. He had a lot of times when he was fairly easy going. The character could get along with and connect with a lot of people. Bailey had good chemistry with every actor to appear on the program which made this seem effortless. His Johnny Dollar was smart and often brilliant in his deductions, but he also often blundered by jumping to wrong conclusions, which gave him a great humanity. Dollar also could be tough, at some times hitting Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer levels of intensity on deserving targets. At the same time, the character often showed a great deal of kindness and fell in love a few times. He was more believable in romance than most any other detective and this often led to heartbreak particularly in serials like the Lamar Matter and the Valentine Matter.

Bailey’s first year on Johnny Dollar was the best. The series was using multi-part fifteen minutes episodes often adapted from other detective radio series and they were brilliant. The Johnny Dollar serial era is the best year of dramatic production during the entire Golden age of radio. After that, the series went to once-a-week broadcasts and the quality declined as series producer Jack Johnstone had to write every script. He did the best he could while CBS’ budget cuts left him unable to pay writers and forced him to operate outside of his genius. He was a great producer and great director. And he was great at creating interesting characters, but he was not equipped to put out great detective scripts every week for years on end. That’s why there’s many weaker scripts in the later part of Bailey’s run.

The fact the writing worked against Bailey for the last three years of his run on Johnny Dollar was a testament to how good his performance was. He elevated every script he was given. Listeners love episodes that are subpar from a writing standpoint solely based on Bob Bailey’s performance.

Bailey’s performance with both good material and weaker material shows his strength as an actor. In the golden age of radio, where there were so many good performances, this one stands out head and shoulders above them all.

 

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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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