Tag: Golden Age article

The Top Ten Things I Like About Dragnet, Part Three

Continued from Part One and Part Two
3) The Realism

While, some exceptions to the show’s realism (such as the constant changing of departments or Joe Friday giving speeches) contribute to making the show enjoyable, it’s the show’s overall realistic presentation that makes it stand out.

Any program is going to have to compromise on realism. With the exception of the five two-part radio episodes, and two movies, every episode Dragnet resolves itself nicely in half an hour. There are bound to be compromises to make for good, fictionalized drama. As Clive James observed, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.”

Where Dragnet excelled is turning things that would be dull into things stuff that was interesting. They made an anti-riot task force set up in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination where nothing happened fairly interesting.

The behind-the-scenes details of how a crime investigation worked were usually neglected on other programs for exciting chases and crooks talking in bad accents in the style of Guys and Dolls. Here we got details on how the police solved their cases in a way no other program had done.

It also created suspense as to the ending. It didn’t always end with them making a dramatic arrest of the suspect. Dragnet wasn’t afraid to portray spending half a day on a stake out only to find out other policemen made the arrest across town. It feels a little anti-climatic, but you buy into that because that sort of thing happens to real detectives.

Dragnet is not perfectly realistic and perfectly true to life. If it were, no one would want to watch it other than people training to be policemen. However, it’s makes the details of police work entertaining and features enough realism in its structure to create a unique feel that allows a listener or viewer to feel like it’s real.

2) The Willingness to Tackle Tough Issues

Dragnet often brought awareness and attention to important issues that most shows wouldn’t tackle. It’s well known for its anti-drug episodes but it doesn’t get enough credit for how it shined a light on child abuse and neglect.

These shows could be the most heartbreaking episodes ever, but that’s what they were designed for. When many modern day dramas  take on a tough issue, it’s exploitative. It was never that way with Dragnet. There’s a sense the show was trying to raise awareness. The earnestness about the show’s approach indicates they’re talking about this issue because it’s important. Jack Webb became highly involved in the LAPD community and the concerns of policemen and what they were seeing on the street became his concerns on the series.

While this can make for some sad and even uncomfortable viewing, I can’t help but respect the show’s honesty and sensitivity in dealing with tough issues.

1) It’s Understanding of the Power of Impact

In a world free of the restraint of prior generations’ mores, producers of film and television hit us with a constant barrage of sex and violence. The result is, what would have been shocking to older generations is rendered meaningless by the sheer volume of it that we encounter.

Dragnet not only stayed within the lines required of its culture, it was more economical with its use of violence. It went back to the show’s realism. Real police officers didn’t deal with shootouts every week, so why should Joe Friday?

Most weeks, Joe Friday’s gun remains concealed in his shoulder holster. However, when there is peril, danger, and gun play in Dragnet, it’s memorable and well done. An episode like, “The Big Break,” which involves smoke bombs, machine guns, and daring criminal escapes is really exciting. There’s Friday’s actions in the big scene of Dragnet 1966 that leaves him a total mess, or there’s also “The Grenade,” where he wrestles a disturbed young man with a live grenade. And limited violence makes Friday’s sadness believable at the end of, “The Big Thief,” when he’s had to shoot and kill a young robber.

Beyond violence, there were many emotions not regularly displayed on the show, but when they were, you knew a situation had really impacted the characters.

A show that uses violence and emotional theatrics all the time quickly makes those moments meaningless to the audience. By being disciplined, Dragnet made these moments truly matter to its audience which is a key to a powerful drama.

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.

 

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchaser.

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your kindle. 

Three Forgotten Old Time Radio Christmas Traditions

Reprinted from December 2011

Television has its Christmas traditions. A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas survive through the wonder of reruns and videos.

The Golden Age of Radio also had its Christmas traditions, traditions that for years were part of what Christmas was in America. Thankfully, through the power of MP3, we can step back in time and rediscover some of the best:

1) Christmas in Pine Ridge

The recurring Lum and Abner Christmas special in the 1930s was somewhat of an odd show. There wasn’t any comedy to speak of. The plot centers around Lum, Abner, and Grandpappy Spears helping out a young couple that’s gotten stranded in Pine Ridge, where the mother is giving birth. The family is clearly meant to parallel the Holy family travelling to Bethlehem.

The episode’s theme shows Pine Ridge at its best and in its fifteen minutes, it’s poignant, thoughtful, and even philosophical as Lum reflects as well on the old year ending and the New Year coming.

Lum and Abner Christmas Special-December 25, 1940

2) Lionel Barrymore as Ebeneezer Scrooge

While most people living in the 21st century have no idea who Lionel Barrymore is. Say, “Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life” and people will have no problem remembering the distinctive voice of the wheelchair bound adversary of Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey.

One key contributor in Barrymore playing Potter was Barrymore had a lot of experience in the role of miser. From 1934-53, he played the Role of Ebenezer Scrooge for 18 of 20 Christmases. He relinquished the role once to his brother John in 1935 and in 1938, Orson Welles took the part. However, in 1939, while Welles was still the boss at the Campbell Playhouse, Barrymore was Scrooge once again. This time in an hour long adaptation that showed off the amazing talent that was Lionel Barrymore with Welles’ narration making the show a must-hear. Listen and you’ll find out why, for an entire generation, Barrymore was the definitive Scrooge.

Listen to The Campbell Playhouse: A Christmas Carol: December 24, 1939

1) Bing Crosby singing Adeste Fideles

If you say, Bing Crosby and Christmas, for many, “White Christmas” is the first song that comes to mind. However, this was not the song most common to the Crosby Christmas Special. It was Adeste Fideles, also known as Oh Come All Ye Faithful.

Whether Bing Crosby was hosting the Kraft Music HallPhilco Radio Time, or the General Electric show, Adeste Fidelis would lead off. Crosby would first sing the song in Latin, then everyone on stage and at home was invited to sing the song in English.

While fewer people understand the Latin version now than in Crosby’s day, the performance is quite powerful and was simply a great way to begin another great Crosby Christmas.

December 20, 1953 episode of the General Electric show.