Tag: Harry Nile

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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Audio Drama: The History of Harry Nile, Set Six

The History of Harry Nile Set 6 covers 24 cases in which the late Phil Harper portrayed the Seattle Private Detective, set between May of 1956 and Summer of 1958.

At this point, it’s tough to add much to what I’ve written in the previous five reviews. The series while produced in the 1990s and early 21st century sounded just like a vintage detective series from radio’s golden age.

Both Harry (Phil Harper) and his red-headed assistant Murphy (Pat French) were well-established in their roles and had them down to a tee. And producer/writer Jim French really knew how to do a 19-23 minute radio drama and make it shine.

The stories are mostly typical PI fare but with a few surprises thrown in such as, “Submarine Warfare” which has the owner of a new subshop asking for Harry’s help with vandals while his wife is sending Harry notes that her husband wants to kill her. Harry’s cases take him to New Orleans, to California, and to three different western cities where a salesman is keeping different girls and runs into predictable problems. There’s a theft at a mission around Christmastime. And the story of a missing fire extinguisher salesman where Harry has to live up to the bill of one of America’s top ten private investigators.

These are well-done tales with no real clunkers, but consistent quality from episode to episode. The only downside is that on occassion, the motive may be a little thin. Some listeners may be bothered by the relationship between Harry and Murphy with Harry, with Murphy pining for Harry but Harry showing no interest whatsoever. However, this too is a throwback to some golden age programs like Let George Do It.

Overall, this set lives up to the high standards of its predecessors and is a must for fans of Phil Harper’s Harry Nile.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

The set is available at French’s website for $49.95 on CD or as a digital download for $25.

The History of Harry Nile, Set 6  (along with Sets 1-5) are available on Audible for $19.95 for members or 1 Credit. I bought this set with my an Audible listener Credit ($14.95).

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Review: History of Harry Nile, Set Five

Set Five of Harry Nile continues the high quality from the previous four sets with most episodes clocking in at 19-22 minutes in length recorded in the 1990s, but with stories set between 1954-56  (sort of) produced by Jim French and starring Phil Harper as Harry. The vintage feel remains on most episodes, with a few exceptions.

“The Toni Parsons” story is a great story about a girl who runs away to Seattle in hopes of finding her brother who has been declared MIA in Korea. There’s the case of Harry running into a less than savory relative in, “Who Killed Harry Nile?” And Harry has to deal with a medical mystery in, “The Case of the Missing Witness.”

This set marked a return of double episodes. “Always Leave ’em Wanting More”  informs us that Harry had briefly been married to a black lounge singer in the 1930s before he began his career as a private eye. While Harry learns the truth about his late wife’s murder in the 1950s much of the story is set in the mid-1930s. While the episode was educational about the type of challenges faced by an interracial couple in the 1930s, it really felt like it was primarily trying to be educational. The attempts to squeeze this incident into what we know of Harry’s back story was really forced and not credible.

It is perhaps the final step in the rehabilitation of Harry’s harder edged past. Recalling that the first Harry Nile story, “West for My Health” had Harry come West with orders to kill a man with Harry debating whether he’d carry this out, we’ve come along way to much more of a straight arrow character.  Though if you want a rougher edged story, another 1950s framed story tells of Harry’s days in Los Angeles and deadbeat client he’d never forget in a great story called, “Tony Macaroni Still Owes me $600.”

The other thing that become apparent listening to the show is how hard it was to keep supporting characters actors on the show.  Harry gets several friends on the force who pop in for two or three episodes and then pop out. Perhaps the most memorable such character to appear was Keys Louise who has a key that’ll get her into every office in town.

One actor who stuck with the show and eventually succeeded Harper was Larry Albert whose voice work on a variety of characters was truly indispensable. His best episode was entitled, “Finding Portland,” in which Albert plays Fred Allen, who is visiting town to promote his new book. The story is set in 1956, seven years after Allen’s last radio appearance and Albert is dead on as Fred Allen. He captured the voice perfectly in a way that made you feel like you were actually hearing Allen.

Despite a few rough spots, Set 5 of the History of Harry Nile was simply marvelous radio entertainment the spirit of golden age radio detectives.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

The set is available at French’s website for $49.95 on CD or as a digital download for $25.

The History of Harry Nile, Set 5  (along with Sets 1-4, and 6) are available on Audible for $19.95 for members or 1 Credit. I bought this set with my an Audible listener Credit ($14.95).

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Review: History of Harry Nile, Set 4

Set 4 of the Adventures of Harry Nile settles into a good rhythm with these adventures set in 1952-54 and having a flawless golden age feel. The series is so right, so good, and so relistenable.

Harry Nile is to 1950s Seattle what characters like Barrie Craig were to New York or Jeff Regan to Los Angeles. French captures the time, the place, and the feel of a great city that just wasn’t represented as a consistent locale among writers of golden age detective fiction.

Jim French had clearly become the master of the 20 minute episodes as Harry plows through one case after another with mystery, comedy, and a good dose of suspense. The late Phil Harper is flawless. He’s mostly supported by French’s wife Pat as Murphy, but also an ensemble cast of local actors appear. However, some bigger names do make an appearance including Russell Johnson (the Professor from Gilligan’s Island) and Harry Anderson (Night Court) takes a couple turns, most memorably as the owner of a jazz club facing vandalism and harassment.

The set includes “The Case of the Blue Leather Chair” the only Harry Nile to be broadcast live. In addition, many were recorded live before a studio audience, who are heard throughout the production. The most amazing thing about these stories is that they were recorded in the 1990s, at a time when most people thought radio drama was a lost art. However, the Frenches and Harper showed that the formula worked: good writing and professional acting can make magic in the theater of the mind, even in 1990s Seattle. Even for a detective like…Harry Nile.

Purchasing Information:

The set is available at French’s website for $49.95 on CD or as a digital download for $25.

The History of Harry Niles, Set 3  (along with Sets 1,2  and 4-6) are available on Audible for $19.95 for members or 1 Credit. I bought this set with my an Audible listener Credit ($14.95).

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.

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.

Audio Drama Review: The History of Harry Nile, Set 3

This 3rd Set of Harry Nile stories starring Phil Harper follows Jim French’s Private Detective on adventures from October 1950 to the Summer of 1952. These stories take a turn. There’s one double length episode in this set and that’s it. The episodes become shorter in length. With 19-22 minute self-contained shows becoming the new normal.

When I saw the track length, I was really nervous. Towards the end of the golden age of radio, many shows including Yours Truly Johnny Dollar and Have Gun Will Travel had their lengths of actual performance cut to that level and the results were really poorly written condensed material. That’s why I think that Jim French deserves big time plaudits because he succeeded in making the scripts really pop and fitting a complete mystery into such a small amount of time.  Jim French really does a superb job on these episodes that makes them worth listening to.

This set rings true to the Golden Age setting of the stories.  In addition, there are some solid guest stars in Gilligan’s Island Alumni Dawn Wells and Russell Johnson, and the distinct voice of Night Court’s Harry Anderson is heard on a couple episodes as well.

Tight acting, great writing, and most episodes recorded before a live studio audience are just some of the reasons why this set is a must buy for fans of radio drama.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars

Purchasing Information:

The set is available at French’s website for $49.95 on CD or as a digital download for $25.

The History of Harry Niles, Set 3  (along with Sets 1,2  and 4-6) are available on Audible for $19.95 for members or 1 Credit. I bought this set with my an Audible listener Credit ($14.95).

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.

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.