Category: Golden Age Article

Audio Drama Review: Mutual Radio Theater, Volume 1: Week 1

During my recent series on the American Audio Drama Tradition, I was intrigued enough to check out Radio Archives Mutural Radio Theater, Volume 1 set through the Hoopla App.

Mutual Radio Theater was a 1980 series that continued the Sears Radio Theater only on a different network and with a multitude of sponsors so Sears could still advertise on him but not have to foot the whole bill. The series was an anthology with five formats. Mondays were for drama and were hosted by Lorne Greene of Bonanza, Tuesdays were for Comedy and were hosted by Andy Griffith, Wednesdays were for Mystery and were hosted by Vincent Price, Thursday was about love and human relations and it was hosted by Cicely Tyson, and Fridays were for Adventure and were hosted by Leonard Nimoy (a replacement for Richard Widmark from the Sears series.)

The set collects the first four weeks of the series or twenty episodes of about 45 minutes in length. As an overall review of the set quality, let’s just say I doubt these recordings sounded quite as good to people listening to it in 1980. The sound quality is pristine, it’s top-notch. Any complaints you have with the set can’t be due to Radio Archives.

The commercials are a real time capsule. The AT&T “Reach out and Touch Someone” commercials encouraging people to call their friends on long distance were prominent, but there were so many sponsors. Probably my favorite commercials were the country-music-style commercials for Motorcraft Parts. The Agree Shampoo commercials also aged hilariously.

But what about the stories themselves? When you’re talking about twenty stories across five genres, you get variable quality. Some are good, some are not so good. But I don’t think that does the production justice. Over the next five weeks (we’ll take Christmas off), we’re going to look at each of the twenty episodes, starting with the stories from the first week. I also note Golden Age radio stars involved in each production.

The Shopkeeper: A shopkeeper keeps two outlaws from robbing his store by using a gun hidden under his apron. The sheriff suspects he might be part of an outlaw gang about to rob a mining payroll. Golden Age Stars: Vic Perrin and Mary Jane Croft.  

Review: This is a somewhat average Western story, helped by a nice bit of Suspense over who the protagonist is and what decision he’ll make. I had an inkling early on but the story does a good job throwing up red herrings. Grade: B 

Our Man on Omega: A sci-fi comedy imagining a celebration of the man who made first contact with aliens, a somewhat dimwitted computer tech who connected with aliens who experienced time backward and forwards and were shaped like U.S. mailboxes. Golden Age Star: Richard Krenna 

Review: This story has potential, but is mostly told through narration by our unnamed Master of Ceremonies.  The story tries to get political and offers up some dull one-note villains. It’s unengaging and comes off as just a bit of silly fluff and not all that good. Grade: D

Long Distance:  A man about to fly to St. Louis on business receives a warning from his aunt that it’s not safe to fly. He ignores her because she has a fear of flying. However, her call makes him late, he misses the plane, and it crashes. But that’s just the start of her warnings of doom that keep coming true. Golden Age Stars: Janet Waldo, Jerry Hausner, Bill Zuckert 

Review: This is a pretty standard spooky mystery setup. The solution was obvious early on, but I think the story did a good job taking us on the journey. I also liked the main characters. This is enjoyable if somewhat predictable outing. Grade: C+ 

Love Conquers All: A modern British teenager falls in love with her teacher and begins to read romantic literature on how to snare him. Golden Age Stars: None 

Review: I enjoyed this. The story starts off slow but develops over the course of the running. I like Cicily Tyson as the host/narrator and she’s given some good material to work with. While I initially found the teenage girl characters over-the-top, the main character became more realistic, even though she’d embraced a lot of silly ideas. I also liked the teacher. He had chastened a fellow teacher for marrying an ex-pupil but has a fondness for this teen girl. Will he hold onto his ethics or discard them? It’s an interesting story, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. I was nervous it was going to go off the rails, but it didn’t.. It’s actually a lovely story that found a good way to resolve it’s issues ethically. Grade; B+   

The Ship: One of the world’s biggest oil platforms is hijacked. A member of the gang convinces a naïve provisioner to supply the tanker with food in exchange for his life and a cut of the takings. Golden Age Star: John Dehner. The play stars Brock Peters, who was best known for playing Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. Mr. Peters is best known in the audio drama world for being the radio voice of Darth Vader in NPR’s Star Wars adaptations.

Review: So far, this is  the story that most easily could have been told during the golden age of radio, although probably not with an actual African character as a protagonist. Otherwise, this would have been an average episode of the radio anthology series Escape. Peters performance makes it worth listening to. Grade: C+ 

 

To be continued…next week.

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DVD/Streaming Review: The Last Detective, Series Four

After three series of Detective Constable “Dangerous” Davies (Peter Davison)  solving difficult crimes while being disrespected by his colleagues, and having life continue to throw one indignity after another at him, most notably his estranged wife (Emma Amos) finds new ways to emasculate him and take advantage of him.

In the first three series, his relationship with his boss (Rod Spendlove) improved considerably, and in the third series, he built up the courage to have an honest and direct conversation with his wife that seemed to point towards a reconciliation.

In the fourth series, Dangerous has moved back in with his wife and the two are doing quite well. There are mysteries to be solved and the fourth series give us five cases each weighing in at a little over an hour. The mysteries are each ingeniously plotted, and the episodes are impeccably cast with a variety of both serious and comic characters. The series kicks off with the investigation of the murder of a popular mobster, the second episode turns to a pornographer killed in a case involving a snuff film, the third episode is about the murder of an elderly comedian, the fourth episode features the murder of a limousine driver, and the final episode features the murder of a member of a secret society.

I don’t think there’s a weak mystery among the five, although the fourth episode was my favorite. There were so many angles to the case and it took a lot of surprising turns. Given this turned out to be the final series, I wish that it had the episode had turned out to be the finale rather than the actual finale.

The series’ big challenge is that the Last Detective reached a dead-end in character development. Dangerous had a compelling character arch in the first three series as he became a bit more assertive and showed his strength as a detective and to at last stand up for himself with his wife. In series four, he’s pretty much arrived. He’s peaked at work. While his boss has some more respect for him, their personalities are bound to clash. In series four, he’s a relatively old detective constable. Davies age was never stated in the TV series, but Davison was fifty-five years old when he filmed these episodes and his character is often still mocked and put down by younger, less mature but higher-ranking officers, though a little less frequently. Mostly, in terms of Series Four, we kind of get to see the guy we followed in the first three series get a happy ending. The final episode gives us a little cause for doubt, but not much.

The series’ best attempt to introduce conflict involves Davies’ friend Mod (Sean Turner.)  who becomes a bit of a fly in the ointment for the Davies’ as a long-term houseguest. The problem with Mod is that he provides some nice comic relief but it’s hard to take anything about him seriously.

How much this change impacts your enjoyment will vary. For me, I loved the mysteries and it was nice to see that Davies got a happy ending. However, the existence of the fourth series violated the way modern television programs are typically made when they center around a particular character’s journey. Making the fourth series of The Last Detective, is akin to making the ninth season of Monk after the episode, Mister Monk and the End resolved all his major issues. You just don’t carry on with a series after your main character’s big problems are resolved unless you can come up with some new challenge that’s as big if not bigger than the problems resolved. So even while I was enjoying the series, I knew why there weren’t any further episodes made.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: The Seamstress of Peckham Rye

This story is set several months after Big Finish’s previous Holmes release, The Master of Blackstone Grange (review: here). Watson (Richard Earl) has moved into a gender-segregated rooming house to be near the American actress he met in the previous story while they continue the task of obtaining a divorce from the lady’s estranged husband. At the same time, Holmes (Nicholas Briggs) has sunk deeper into melancholy and drug use. The two are brought back together when a young Inspector Silas Fisher (played by James Joyce) enlists Watson’s help to get Holmes to investigate a baffling murder.

The Seamstress of Peckham Rye continues a couple of major threads from the Master of Blackstone Grange, but otherwise stands on its own. The previous work felt Doylesque in its overall plot and structure. This story is a different beast. It feels like a modern-day mystery in its structure, while still being true to its Victorian setting and characters. It does work. It’s an intriguing and engrossing three-hour story. The mystery has a lot of turns and the story is given a lot of space to breathe. However, it never feels padded. It’s engaging from the beginning of the story until the final rendition of the closing themes.

The casting and acting performances are impeccable. Mark Elstobb and Lucy Briggs-Owens turn in flawless performances as Americans. India Fisher offers one of her most vocally unique performances. Briggs and Earl know their characters well and turn in a superb performance that highlights the strength and the complexities of the relationship between Holmes and Watson. The characters are well-drawn and engaging from start to finish.

There’s at least one major mystery that’s left unresolved at the end of the set and a few plot points that remain open questions. All of which should be resolved in next year’s release. I can only help that story is as superb as this one.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Book Review: The Fortress of Solitude/The Devil Genghis

I’m reviewing a (sadly out of print) copy of Nostalgia Ventures’ /Sanctum Doc Savage novel reprint featuring two Doc Savage Novels, “The Fortress of Solitude” and “The Devil Genghis.” However, for early readers of this review, you might be able to get a copy for something approaching a reasonable price.

While most people associate the “Fortress of Solitude” with Superman. Doc Savage had a Fortress long before the Man of Steel graced the cover of Action Comics #1. Savage’s fortress was also in the Arctic. It was an isolated spot where Doc carried out his experiments and also where he stored all the death machines he found in his adventures.

The Fortress of Solitude was published in October 1938 and Doc Savage had been around for nearly seven years and at that point could use a shake up. And boy did Fortress of Solitude provide it. The unthinkable happened. A mad genius named John Sunlight stumbled upon Doc’s fortress took command of its arsenal and unleashed it upon the world, offering Doc’s unused discoveries as well as his confiscated cache of weapons.

As a plot, this is a real corker. This is tops for telling a different sort of story and pushing the character in a different direction against a foe that has to be Doc’s most menacing. John Sunlight is brilliant, ruthless, and yet enigmatic and strange enough to be Doc’s Moriarty. He’s also the only Doc Savage villain to return for a second encounter, which comes in the Devil Genghis.

The Devil Genghis was published in December 1938 and features a more complex and refined plan for world domination as key people around the world are being driven mad. The plan begins with an effort to kidnap Doc, who is set to use one of his lesser known (and less useful) talents and play a violin recital at Carnegie Hall for charity. The Devil Genghis is another globe trotting adventure but with a wider variety of settings. It also offers a key surprise in what John Sunrise’s endgame

As a collection, this is smashing, and the volume is enriched with some commentary by Will Murray. The one thought I had as I finished The Devil Genghis is that if they’d wanted to have Doc Savage end on a strong note, this would have been a great finale because there’s just no topping it. In addition, the next year, the World would be at war and the World of Doc’s Golden Age would disappear forever while comic books and superheroes would replace him in popular culture. However, magazine publishing was a business and they decided to keep milking the character until he ran dry.

However, this book is Doc near the height of his popularity in a story that takes him to places no other Doc Savage story before or since ever took him. If you’ve enjoyed any Doc Savage story, this one is a must-read. While its out of print, interlibrary loans are a great option to enjoy these stories. They are classics of the pulp adventure genre.

 

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

MyComicshop.com has copies of this reprint available at their website (even though this isn’t a comic book) at a reasonable price. The book is #1 in the Doc Savage Reprints collection from Sanctum. Once it’s gone, ownership of the book will be for collectors only as the cost on most marketplaces I’ve seen is around $30-50

Audio Drama Review: The Red Panda Adventures, Season Ten

The War is over and young Harry Kelly is back, although his absence during his time in the military is still unexplained. The Red Panda and Flying Squirrel are now parents. With the Red Panda well into his middle-aged years, he’s looking for an exit. Could the new superhero emerging be the key to giving Toronto’s Terrific Twosome a chance to ride into the sunset?

The Tenth Season of the Red Panda Adventures (unlike the previous nine) is only six episodes long. The season deals out another run of pulp fiction adventures as the Red Panda takes on old foes and new and also manages some clean-up of all the mad science and magic running about in his world during the War. There are some really solid battles and fun adventures to be had.

Yet, the series overall theme is of transition. There’s a sense that at this stage, our heroes are being pressed to the limit of their abilities and dealing with threats that might begin to get beyond them. Emotionally, they’re ready for the exit, they just need the confidence to know the city is left in good hands. The finale of Season Ten is satisfying and makes for a good chronological close for the adventures of the Red Panda.

The season is a cumulation of years of work. Writer and star Gregg Taylor to take his characters on a journey through a heroic career from close to the start of their career to finish. The Red Panda and Flying Squirrel began their careers during the Depression at a time in real life where mystery men like the Shadow, the Green Hornet, Doc Savage, the Spider, and the Black Bat captured the public imagination. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, they began to be supplanted by the cape and costume crowd: Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. The Red Panda and Flying Squirrel clearly fit into that former tradition, stayed around during the War, and chose to give way to the new generation of heroes at the end. It’s a really imaginative way to do the arc, and Taylor did a tremendous job plotting this out and also helping the characters to grow and change over the series without becoming unrecognized for who they were at the start.

While this marks the end of their chronology, with 114 half-hour episodes over the course of a career that spanned fourteen or fifteen years, there are plenty of lost opportunities for “lost stories.” And we’ll get around to reviewing many of them here eventually.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

The Red Panda Adventures Season Ten is available for free from the Decoder Ring Theatre Website

DVD Review: Cannon: The Complete Collection

CBS/Paramount stopped releasing the 1970s private detective series Cannon after doing a DVD-R release of Season 3 in 2013. VEI took over the project in 2015 and brought the full collection, all 122 episodes plus the pilot TV movie and the revival movie The Return of Frank Cannon. 

TV Series Overview

Cannon was released during a golden age of television detective programs  It ran from 1971-76. The show’s tenure overlapped partially with Columbo and NBC’s Mystery Wheel movies, along with Kojak, Ironside, Mannix, and the Rockford Files, among others. Many well-made detective programs that got produced during this era couldn’t get renewed due to the sheer competition for people’s eyeballs. In such a world, Cannon‘s endurance for five seasons is a testament to its quality.

The series stood out for a few reasons. First was its lack of an ongoing supporting cast. Recurring characters were a rarity. In season one, a young Martin Sheen played Jerry Watson, an ex-cop with a disability, and was Cannon’s assistant for two episodes. And that’s it for any significant recurring roles throughout the series. If you look at the Cannon IMDB page, you’ll see a few actors appeared multiple times but most appeared as different characters. The show’s guest cast was a combination of future stars (Sheen, Mark Hamill, and Nick Nolte), recognizable talents like Stephanie Powers and Dick Van Patten, well-known veteran actors like Anne Baxter and Keenan Wynn, and obscure actors.

The series leaned a bit towards suspense rather than typical whodunit plots, particularly in the program’s early episodes. The villains would be known to the audience, and it would be a question of whether Cannon would thwart the villains. The series leaned heavily in the direction of action. If you like car chases, fistfights, and explosions, then Cannon has got you covered. Despite his size, Cannon is more than able to handle himself, not only with guns but also with his fists.

Cannon isn’t just a pudgy fighter. He shows many sides to his character in the course of the series. He was a Korean War Vet and and a widowed ex-cop turned high-priced private investigator. In the first episode, Cannon is portrayed with a nice apartment and an assistant, but in this series itself, this was scaled back. Cannon’s apartment in the series could be best described as comfortable. He wears decent suits, but more often than not, conducts his investigations in a windbreaker and clothes that we’d consider business casual. His Lincoln Continental was a luxury car but has been mentioned at least twice on lists of most ugly television cars.

He generally approaches the question of whether to accept any given case with professional detachment. However, his high prices to the wealthy often allowed him to take on the cases of people in need but without means for free or at a reduced rate. He’s naturally friendly and particularly kind to young people in distress as they seem to bring out his fatherly instincts and he jumps in to help. However, he accepts no nonsense and if you start a fight with him, he will finish it.

The writing on the series was solid. With the series not committed to any particular formula, this gave the writers a lot of freedom to put Cannon into different situations that could range from suspenseful adventures to more typical mysteries. Some story ideas reoccurred, such as the small southwestern towns where law enforcement was crooked or some dirty secret was kept and Cannon had to bust heads to set things right. But that also left room for interesting ideas like the time Cannon helped a political prisoner from another country flee only to discover he’d been conned and had to get the prisoner back or the episode where Cannon had to investigate a murder that appeared to be committed by a being from outer space, or the last episode where Cannon had to save a friend who had gone mad after some military experiments. And then there were a lot of plots around the mafia and underworld class that knew of Cannon from his years as an honest cop.

Cannon never jumped the shark. In fact, Cannon’s last season was probably its best written. It started out with “Nightmare,” the best episode of the series that dug deep into Cannon’s past and how his wife died. (Review here) and also the crossover with the Buddy Ebsen-led series Barnaby Jones, “The Deadly Conspiracy” (reviewed here). The series end was not a case of the show going bad or losing its edge but of the public’s interest going elsewhere.

The DVD also includes The Return of Frank Cannon, a TV movie released four and a half years after the series ended. It finds Cannon having retired and bought a restaurant. However, Cannon comes out of retirement to help the widow (Diana Muldaur) of an old friend, who was also an old flame. Cannon’s friend’s death is tied up in a some cloak and dagger stuff and the local area’s unusually high number of retired intelligence officers.

The Return of Frank Cannons feels like a long episode but a good one. The romance between Cannon and the widow is played up more than any other romantic angle in the TV series. The romance is wistful and sweet. The movie does feel padded at times. Reportedly there were talks of doing a few more Cannon TV movies, but they only ended up doing one which leads to some scenes which in retrospect become unnecessary. That doesn’t stop the Return of Frank Cannon being a nice curtain call for a remarkable TV series.

In my view, Cannon is underappreciated. In its time, the series received several awards nominations including Emmy and Gold Globe nominations for Conrad, and was well-beloved overseas and recognized with awards in West Germany and Spain. But until recently, it’s not received near the same amount of play in TV syndication or on streaming services as many other 1970s programs.

While Cannon isn’t as good as Columbo and The Rockford Files, it’s a well-made series and better than some shows from the era that have been more widely distributed. It’s a superb series and a highlight of a great decade for TV private eyes.

DVD Release Review

This is a no-frills collection. They even dumped the pre-show teasers that CBS included in their releases. Other than some production slides with the theme music playing in the background, you have no real extras. The episodes are essentially provided exactly as aired with no remastering or retouching.

To be fair, Cannon isn’t a series where you expect high definition remastering or featurettes about the making of the series. VEI released a set that’s sure to make fans say, “Finally, the whole series is available on DVD.” And for that, I’m glad.

The DVD Covers are all basic, as is the disc art with William Conrad framed in a picture and a different color for each of the five seasons of the show. I do like the disc art, which does show a sort of elegant simplicity. Each season also has an episode guide with the date the episode aired and a generally accurate synopsis of the plot.

My only complaint with the presentation comes back to how they handled the release of “The Deadly Conspiracy.” Originally, it aired as a two-parter with part one being an episode of Cannon and part two continuing on Barnaby Jones. On this collection, “The Deadly Conspiracy” is shortened to a single episode that hardly justifies the title with a different ending. To get the story as it originally aired, you have to purchase Barnaby Jones, Season Four. VEI was only following the syndication strategy that Cannon had used. (While Barnaby Jones syndicated both episodes as originally aired.) However, it does seem like they could have included the full version of “The Deadly Conspiracy” particularly since Cannon Season Five included an extra disk that would have easily accommodated it.

Overall Thoughts

Cannon is a personal favorite. William Conrad is a delight in this, and if you’re a fan of old school private detectives, this is a real gem of a series. As of this time of this writing, the entire collection is available for $33.99, which comes out to twenty-eight cents per episode. A true bargain by my measurement.

Rating 4.0 out of 5

Note; If you’re curious about Cannon but not ready to buy it, you can check out an episode or so for free. It’s currently airing on the nostalgia-themed network ME-TV. It’s currently in the 2 a.m. time slot, so unless you’re an insomniac or work the late shift, you may want to plan on setting the DVR to record it.

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Book Review: The Kennel Murder Case

In the Kennel Murder Case, a wealthy man is found dead upstairs in a locked room with signs that point to murder. His brother is thought to be the prime suspect until he’s found dead downstairs in a closet. A key clue to solving the case is a badly beaten Scottish terrier. Of course, it falls to Philo Vance to unravel the case.

This is the sixth Philo Vance and in my opinion, it’s much better than the first. Vance is far more likable for one. While in the first book, Vance had a thru line arguing physical evidence was so humbug and how he knows better, the smugness is dialed down considerably. And physical evidence is important to him as he investigates and formulates his theory.

It also helps that Vance is a dog-lover and passionate about the Scottish Terrier breed, giving a really impassioned speech on the breed’s virtues. It humanizes his character quite a bit. Although, it should be noted there are some key differences in the way dogs were treated in the 1930s and what we view as best practices today.

In addition, writer S.S. Van Dine also featured some cameos from real people he knew, which gives the book warmth.

The puzzle has a lot of clues, red herrings, and moving parts that boggle the mind and keep the reader engaged. I’m not a huge fan of the solution, due to ridiculous and improbable mistakes and miscues by so many people. If a re-enactment of the murders as portrayed in the book were done on film, it’d be appropriate to play the Benny Hill theme over it.

Another annoyance is that  Sergeant Heath formulates his theories based on racial stereotypes, although these never pan out.  Despite this, this is an enjoyable read. If you love a decent puzzle mystery or are curious about Philo Vance, this is a fun way to experience the character, if you can tolerate the offensive content and the absurd content..

Rating: 4 out of 5

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