The Overlooked Mrs. North

In the discussion of great female detectives of the golden radio era, one name is invariably left out of the discussion: Pamela North.

Part of the challenge may be that Mrs. North was a part of a detective team and a husband-wife team at that. There are at least four Couple Detective teams with a substantial number of episodes surviving including the Thin Man, the Abbots, It’s a Crime, Mr. Collins, and of course, the Norths. In most of the shows, the wife is the sidekick to the husband. In all three other shows, the husband is a licensed private investigator.

Pamela North is different. She and her husband, Jerry are both amateurs in the field of detection. Pam is a housewife and Jerry is a successful publisher. To stumble into one murder would be improbable, to stumble into 500 as they did in the era of Alice Frost and Joseph Curtain requires a suspension of disbelief to say the least.

On the radio, the Norths were often equally matched . Jerry was most helpful when there was obviously foul play afoot. If they were kidnapped by two mugs, this was right up Jerry North’s alley. However, cases that required more use of intuition and outside the box thinking were ones were Pam North thrived. Given the dearth of female detectives in radio, it’s hard to ignore Mrs. North.

The show hit the radio in 1943 with Joseph Curtain and Alice Frost in the title roles. Richard Denning and Barbara Britton from the TV version would take over on the radio in June, 1953 and stay with the show until April, 1955. The series began as a blend of comedy and mystery. A great many of the exemplars surviving from the war years are from the Armed Forces Radio Service’s Mystery Playhouse, which brought one mystery show a week to America’s servicemen around the world. The number of appearances by the Norths attest to their appeal to American servicemen. The charming Norths with their light mysteries and cute romance were good medicine for men thousands of miles from home and missing their own loved ones.

The show evolved over the time. In the middle-40s, it became a so more serious mystery show and towards the end of its run, it took what I view as an unfortunate turn towards crime melodrama. The vast majority of the episodes featured overacting by guest actors behaving badly for the great majority of the show, and Pamela and Jerry North showing up for a few minutes to solve a painfully obvious mystery.

Barbara BritonWhile the radio show was declining, CBS was bringing the North’s to Television with Richard Denning and Barbara Britton in the title roles. This version of the North’s would be quite different. In the premiere episode, The Weekend Murder, Pam solves the murder case while Jerry is sleeping. This was an indicator of how the series would go. Jerry North was the sidekick.

 Jerry had always been the more level-headed of the two, but on television, he was completely incurious and practical. 90% of the time, he either just wants to relax or is obsessing about the latest manuscript to come across his desk. Pam’s curiosity pulls the Norths into mystery after mystery and proceeds to solve them. In the episodes I’ve seen, Pam can also hold her own in a fight with another woman, though Jerry will usually rush in to save Pam when a dangerous man is about to kill her.

Pam North prepares to jump into action.

Britton’s portrayal combined this curiosity, quick thinking, and toughness with sweetness, feminity, and charm that made the TV version of Mrs. North a joy to watch. The TV episodes succeeded in recapturing the fun and charm of the original radio series.

CBS had a good idea in bringing Denning and Britton to radio to replace Curtain and Frost, as having the same actors on TV and Radio promotes both versions. But the quality of the radio show didn’t improve as the Norths continued through a series of dreary crime melodramas that Denning and Britton could only do so much with.

Mr. and Mrs. North was one of four shows that CBS tried as a five-day-a-week serial before opting to do Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, but the serial version only lasted for a few weeks in 195

Married Couples detective shows made comebacks in the 1970s and 80s with McMillan and Wife and Hart to Hart, however the subgenre seems to have waned in popular media in the 21st century. This may be the result of changes in society and society’s view of marriage. However, to the fan of good mysteries, there’s no question of the values of Mrs. North on television as well as in the 1940s radio version.

Additional resources:

Public Domain TV episodes of Mr. and Mrs. North

Old Time Radio Mr. and Mrs. North

  1 comment for “The Overlooked Mrs. North”

  1. Timothy Dunning
    September 25, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    It’s interesting that (IMHO) the early lighter North episodes are superior to the more hard boiled later version while the opposite is true of “Let George do it.”

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