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Who knows what evil lurks in the mind of men! The Shadow knows….The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay!
By the time I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, most specific old-time radio heroes were forgotten. This is one that hung around. The Shadow is iconic, and not just any version of The Shadow. The Shadow began on radio as a narrator of a series of mysterious adventures, and then in the pages of his own magazine as a mastermind behind a crime-fighting operation that worked mostly through a string of operatives. But that’s not what most people think of when they think of The Shadow. Nor do they think of the utterly forgettable film adaptations. They think of the heroic man of mystery who fought evil over the radio, aided by his ability to make himself invisible to his enemies by clouding their minds.
In fact, when I talk to people who were not alive during the Golden Age of Radio, but are fans, The Shadow is inevitably listed as a series they listen to.
Orson Welles’s performance of the character is iconic in pop culture, even though it only lasted about a year. His successors, Bill Johnstone and Brett Morrison, would contribute far more to The Shadow’s body of work. Regardless of which performance you’re a fan of, The Shadow is simply the most recognizable and iconic old-time radio program there is.
The Green Hornet
The Green Hornet premiered in 1936. Like many mystery men of the era, he reflected skepticism about the competence of police. He operated outside the law. However, unlike The Shadow, or early takes on Batman and Superman, The Green Hornet didn’t rub the law the wrong way by hunting down criminals. He promoted the idea of himself as a criminal, to allow him some ability to operate in the underworld. In reality, he was wealthy newspaper publisher Britt Reid. The Green Hornet was joined by his Japanese valet Kato, whose nationality was changed to Filipino during World War II.
The Green Hornet also offered its listeners some imaginative equipment in the Hornet’s car, the Black Beauty, a sleek black car that could outrun both the police and criminals, and a gas gun to leave people unharmed but out of the way until the Green Hornet could work out his plans.
The equipment, the characters, and the setting would be the inspiration for comic books and multiple film serials during the radio series run. Afterwards, there’d be a television series, a movie, even more comic books, and an animated series promised down the line. While The Green Hornet spin-off material has been a bit more successful than spin-offs of The Shadow, the radio series is still the basis for where every creature begins their work on the character.
After a brief bit of whistling, a sinister-voiced character says, “I…am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes… I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak!”
As a premise, The Whistler seems pretty similar to the original pre-audio drama The Shadow series. Yet, as no episodes of that series are in circulation, The Whistler is very much its own thing. In early days, The Whistler could have a variety of mystery stories that might seem to fit on series like The Inner Sanctum or Suspense. Yet The Whistler would establish its own style that would define most of its episodes. We meet a character who has a problem or a desire. They make a decision to get what they want by committing a crime, usually murder, and they think they’re clever enough to get away with it. It’s an unusual series, as it’s often waiting to find out how the protagonist ends up getting it in the end. Does their plot fail, do they do the crime but get caught because of some ironic mistake or twist of fate, does their own trap spring on them? With The Whistler‘s tales, there are so many ways it could end up going wrong. And to keep it interesting, there are atypical episodes, where what you expect doesn’t happen.
Throughout most of its run, the series was heard only on the West Coast. It featured the cream of West Coast radio actors, many of whom got to play far darker roles than they typically landed over radio. The series is a perennial favorite of old-time radio fans, with a unique style that makes it stand out from all the Golden Age’s more straightforward crime programs.
The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
This is a series that’s popular for two reasons. First, there’s the enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes in general and interest in all things Holmes. Second is the enduring popularity of the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films. Of the nearly 200 Holmes episodes in circulation, this duo appear in about a quarter of them, with Bruce also continuing as Watson in an additional thirty-eight episodes with Tom Conway as Holmes. Of course, the radio version features more actors than that. There’s the pre-Rathbone programs that featured forgotten stars like Richard Gordon and Luis Hector, as well as the 1947-49 programs starring John Stanley, as well as the syndicated episodes produced in the UK and starring Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson as Holmes and Watson.
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The Adventures of Sam Spade
Like many other detective programs on the list, you can partially explain the enduring popularity of Sam Spade’s radio adventures by the popularity of the source material. The Maltese Falcon novel is a classic that is often assigned reading for book clubs. The film is a perennial favorite that earns honors whenever anyone makes an applicable film list. There’s also a dearth of material featuring Sam Spade. Dashiell Hammett only wrote The Maltese Falcon and three additional short stories featuring Spade and, until recently, there have been few modern spin-off stories.
Yet, there’s far more to the series’ popularity. Howard Duff’s take on Spade was iconic, as was Lurene Tuttle as his secretary, Effie. The relationship between the two really sells the series. The direction by William Spier was solid and he managed to have a sort of Rep company of actors who’d bring the superb scripts to life. More than any other series, Sam Spade was able to feature different types of stories and plot points. The series could be absolutely absurd in tales filled with over-the-top characters, at other times, the story could feature real heartbreaking dramatic moments. The ability of the series to do that without giving listeners tonal whiplash is an achievement in and of itself.
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The Adventures of Philip Marlowe
Like Spade, initial interest in Marlowe can be explained partially by his popularity in literature and film, although Marlowe had more books written about him, more films, and even two different BBC radio adaptations of the Marlowe novels.
The popularity of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe is also due to other elements. The star of the 1948-51 series (Gerald Mohr) gave a career performance as Marlowe. And the production choices were so important. The opening line of the series was absolutely iconic: “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 grabs your attention and then holds on with great writing. The series has its humorous moments but never goes for some of the truly silly (but often well-executed) stories done on Sam Spade. It maintains a noirish tone and uses the tropes of hard-boiled detective fiction but is never cartoonish about it.
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Richard Diamond, Private Detective
This is Dick Powell’s biggest radio role and it’s definitely a unique one. Powell’s career had had two parts through 1949: As a song and dance man and juvenile lead in 1930s romantic comedies, and then in the mid-1940s, he turned to hard-boiled roles crime films. What if you combined those?
That’s what you get with Richard Diamond, Private Detective, at least with the early seasons. An episode might begin with Diamond having some light romantic banter on the phone with his girlfriend Helen Asher. Then two thugs come into his office, and beat the living daylights out of Diamond. Then Diamond wakes, goes to the police station to ask for help, after doing comedy routines with both Detective Sergeant Otis (Wilms Herbert) and Walt Levinson (originally Ed Begley, Sr. but four actors would play the role during the series) finally gets some information and leaves. Then we get into some typical hard-boiled detective action for about ten minutes, perhaps ending with Diamond having to shoot down a murderer in self-defense. Then shortly after snuffing out a human life, Diamond makes his way to the apartment of his girlfriend, has some light banter, gets on the piano, croons out a romantic ballad and then has a closing joke.
The series can seem like tonal whiplash but it was entertaining from start to finish. The series could feature some of the most extreme radio violence for the time or be absolutely charming and delightful from week to week. It might seem an odd concept, but it’sone radio fans have come back to for decades.
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Dragnet premiered in 1949 and changed crime dramas forever. The series was created by and starred Jack Webb, and took a more realistic ground look at police work, introducing police phrases and language into the popular vernacular. The series offered a glimpse at how crimes were actually solved, and showed the difficult and tedious tasks that good police work required, without being tedious itself, which is a remarkable achievement. The series made groundbreaking use of sound effects and its third episode presented its iconic theme.
The series would air for six years on radio and would have two separate TV runs, from 1951-59 and 1967-70 as well as producing a theatrical film in 1954 and a TV movie in 1969. The series often took on hard topics that other shows couldn’t or wouldn’t touch, in a way that was never exploitative, while still being true to the core realism of the series. The radio program is not the best known part of the Dragnet franchise, but it is the foundation and a solid one.
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Yours Truly Johnny Dollar:
Yours Truly Johnny Dollar began airing in February 1949 and aired 230 episodes between then and when it left the air in September 1954, with three actors playing the lead role. Each made their mark as the titular freelance insurance investigator. Yet, none of them are the key to the series’ continued popularity.
Jack Johnstone was hired as director of the series and chose Bob Bailey as his star. The series returned to the air as 15-minute daily serialized adventures and then transitioned to half-hour weekly episodes for Bailey’s four years in the series. Johnstone and Bailey’s take on Johnny Dollar was to create a more grounded human character and adding in real touches of continuinity and recurring characters, so that Johnny had a sort of “family” of supporting characters he was associated with.
The vast majority of the serials came into circulation during the boom of old time radio in the 1970s and was frequently replayed by hosts of radio nostalgia programs. Bailey’s characterization gained a following among many who hadn’t heard him the first time. While some dispute whether his take on Johnny Dollar was the best, it is without a doubt the reason for the series’ popularity.
This isn’t say to that Bailey serials or the Bailey era is all that Johnny Dollar has to offer. There were hundreds of episodes with the other five Johnny Dollar actors and each were talented and offered their own unique take on the character. One was an Academy Award winner and one was an Emmy Award winner. Edmond O’Brien, John Lund, and Mandel Kramer have more Yours Truly Johnny Dollar episodes circulating than most other old time radio detective programs and each has people who view them as the best actor to play the role. However, Bailey is the favorite of most fans and without the Bailey era, the series would not be nearly as popular as it still is.
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Next week: Dramatic Anthology Programs