Category: Golden Age Article

Audio Drama Review: The Collected Bowdrie Dramatizations, Volume 3

The final collection of dramatizations of stories featuring Louie L’Amour’s tough and smart Texas Ranger, Chick Bowdrie (Reathel Bean) offers six more adventures as he hunts down and solves mysteries as he roams the state of Texas serving justice as he goes.

The first four stories in the set have a strong mystery element and he makes a good detective. The mysteries aren’t top tier, but they’re engaging enough.

The last two stories, “Down Sonora Way” and “Strange Pursuit” are different as each is about Bowdrie chasing outlaws. “Down Sonora Way” finds the ranger in a stalemate with an outlaw when they both observe a settler family butting heads with indigenous peoples and they decide to call a truce to rescue the family from harm’s way. In “Strange Pursuit,” Bowdrie is on the trail of a quick-witted outlaw whose exploits included hanging a sheriff who was trying to hang him and riding off with the sheriff’s horse. Bowdrie spent weeks on the man’s trail and spends much of the story making little progress and picking up new tales of his exploits.

Overall, these are at the same level as the previous two collections. While most of L’Amour’s characters aren’t complex, they do have some interesting wrinkles. His level of research and knowledge of the old west is profound. In fact, one of these stories includes a bonus addition of L’Amour talking about sign tracking. The stories are thoroughly entertaining. Bean is superb at Bowdrie and all the other actors are on-point.

The Bowdrie collections would be enjoyed by anyone who loves tales of the Old West, or even if you’re not big into Westerns, if you like well-made audio dramas, this is definitely worth a listen.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

 

My Favorite Old Radio Research Resources

The following are some of my favorite and most powerful research resources for the Golden Age of Radio:

Radio Goldindex: This was created by respected radio researcher and chronicler David Goldin. It recently was hosted at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which has helped ensure it’s always up.

You can search for programs by series title, by performer name, or by date. There are tens of thousands of programs included. Oftentimes entries are based on Goldin’s examination of actual transcription disks, so it’s helpful to settling questions about when programs aired. Unless there’s strong evidence to the contrary, I go with what’s in Goldin’s log. He’s also far better at recognizing a host of old time radio voices than I am. I also use this to help me find programs for extras I do for the app. featuring old time radio detectives in different roles or when I do a themed series on the Amazing World of Radio featuring a specific actor. I also used this when I did a special podcast gift to my mother featuring programs that aired on her birthdate a few years back.

The site does have its problems. The listings aren’t 100 percent accurate and the search by artist and search by programs aren’t perfectly synced. Also, entries have varying degrees of information on dramatic programs. Some will give just cast/crew information. Others will include plot details and even occasionally a mini-review.

Still, it’s incredibly useful and its flaws are due to the fact the Index began as a one-man labor of love.

On the Air is John Dunning’s massive encyclopedia of Old Time Radio. I bought the Kindle edition several years ago, but a listener was moving and sent me their hardback edition and it is nice to have this big physical book filled with Old Time Radio shows.

It’s an incredibly useful book. It’s particularly helpful when I’m researching obscure programs. The length of each entry varies, and the popularity of the program may determine that in part as people are going to be more interested in reading about Fibber McGee and Molly rather than pages about some obscuring singing program. It’s particularly useful in determining how long a series ran.

The book was released in 1998 and there has been additional research since then and there have been some programs discovered that aren’t listed in Dunning’s massive tome. Still, it’s an incredibly useful starting place to get basic information on a series’ stars, how long a series ran, and what networks it was on as well as a lot of little tidbits.

Wikipedia has some information on old time radio programs, but Wikipedia is always best as a starting point for research rather than as an end. Some topics are well-researched and edited, with detailed radio logs. Others have partial logs, no log at all, or has information included that’s wrong or just an urban legend. As a rule of thumb, the more obscure the program, the less likely you are to find a good article on it here.

Google Books has been a lifesaver in helping with obscure topics and programs because it searches and indexes so many different old time radio books and books on various actors that it comes up with information that’s just not available searching the Internet. I’ve gotten on some interesting rabbit trails. And this resource has also led to a few Interlibrary loans and purchases.

Log Sites:

Digitial Deli FTP, is not as updated as often as it used to be but it also has a lot of good information and articles on various radio programs. The site not only includes logs but it tends to show which old newspapers it got information from as well as often reprinting or quoting articles on a particular source. Digital Deli FTP can be a bit uncharitable with the perceived failings and disagreements of others within the Golden Age of Radio community and also can get a little political. However, despite those issues, it’s got a lot of great information on it.

Old Time Radio Program logs is a great listing of Old Time Radio episode logs by Frank Passages, Stewart Wright, and other notable researchers. The logs not only contain information about when episodes aired, but also the show’s overall production. Their log of O’Hara was invaluable in understanding how to best discuss the two circulating episodes recorded five years apart with two different stars. There are a few of them that are a bit older and maybe not as up to date, but the site is still an incredible resource.

Jerry’s Vintage Radio Logs: This is from the site of Old Time Radio pillar Jerry Haendiges. The logs are designed to feature his high-quality old time radio recordings which are available on CD and MP3. He has some program logs here that are just not available anywhere else. While some are quite old, you can tell which ones are more out of date as he always notes the last updated date. His logs for Sherlock Holmes and the Australian run of the Fat Man have been invaluable. He’s also got a lot of other great resources on his site.

Miscellaneous:

Old Time Radio Star Interviews: Years after the golden age of radio ended, many starts continued to talk about their experiences. The OTRR library has full interviews with several radio stars conducted by John Dunning and Chuck Schaeden. If you don’t want to listen to full interviews, the Breaking the Walls podcast does a great job incorporating selected excerpts that highlight interesting tidbits about radio history.

Old Time Radio Newsletters:

The Old Time Radio Researchers puts out the Old Time Radio Times every two months in pdf.

The Metropolitan Old Time Radio offers its Radio Recall newsletter to its members and has samples on its website.

Audio Drama Review: Black Jack Justice, Season Nine

Season Nine of Black Jack Justice sees Jack (Christopher Mott) and Trixie Dixon (Andrea Lyons) back for six more investigations. The ninth season continues the same high standard. It offers everything you come to expect: The opening monologue that introduces a well-worn aphorism as a basis for the case, the clever banter, and the solid mystery stories you come to expect.

Jack’s status as a newly married man has a small impact on the series. Had there been romantic tension between the two lead characters, it would have been much more major. However, unlike in most detective fiction, where statements of contempt hide passionate love, the statements of contempt between Jack and Trixie reflected that they didn’t much like each other personally but had a good working relationship. However, Jack’s mood is less dour than in past seasons as he’s enjoying conjugal bliss. One episode, “Home for the Holidays” saw Jack getting involved in solving a crime in a small town so Jack could get home to his wife.

The series had limited appearances from the recurring guest cast. Jack’s wife is seen and not heard after appearing in the previous two seasons. King the office dog and Freddy the Finger are far less present than in previous seasons.

The episodes are all good. I particularly liked the contrast between the last two episodes of the season. In “The Big Time,” Jack and Trixie get an unexpected opportunity to take on a big case for an insurance company with a big payoff. This is followed by, “The Learner’s Permit” where they agree to help a writer do research for his new detective story, and then bungle their way into a murder investigation where they should be able to tell the police everything needed to solve the case and provide photographic evidence, but instead have bungled it so badly that someone else has to step in and solve the case. Creating a contrast between a high water mark and one of their most embarrassing moments business is a clever take by writer Gregg Taylor.

While I did miss some of the recurring characters, this was still a fun listen. If you enjoyed any of the past Black Jack Justice seasons, Season 9 is well-worth listening to.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

Black Jack Justice Season 9 is available to listen to for free at Decoder Ring Theatre.

Four Difference Between the Original and Later Columbos

Columbo in the 70s
Columbo 90s

Note: A version of this article was published in 2015.

Peter Falks had two runs as Columbo. The first ran from 1971-78 over NBC as part of the network’s Mystery Wheel. Columbo returned in 1989 over ABC in a series of TV movies, with the last airing in 2003.

There were four key differences between the newer Columbo films and the originals:

1) Length

Most of the original Columbo films had a 90 minute time slot on air which made them about 70-75 minutes without commercials. The new Columbo films took up 2 hours and had a running time of approximately 90 minutes. I have to admit, in general, this was a case of “less is more.”

One key example was the second ABC Columbo, “Murder, Smoke, and Shadows” where the film started strong but dragged on too long and at the end of Columbo’s denouement we had (and I kid you not), the police coming out and doing a musical number when they announced the arrest.

The old Columbos worked because of their limitations. They didn’t go on forever, and when there was a longer case thrown in such as with, “A Friend Indeed,” the time was well-spent while the only new film that I think benefited from the longer running time was, “Agenda for Murder.”

2) More Adult Content

Columbo in the 1970s remains a tasteful family-friendly TV show. The latter Columbo had a lot more sex in the plot and a lot more skin on the screen. A few episodes featured lurid plots and disturbing murder scenes. Of course, this isn’t to say that all of the latter Columbos were strictly adult affairs but quite a few pushed the envelope.

With one exception, the added sexual content and violence tended to detract rather than add to Columbo. At its core, the strength of Columbo are great characters and their interactions, and the episodes that had the most adult content such as, “Uneasy Lies the Crown” and “Murder: A Self Portrait” tended to sacrifice quality for titillation. If there was an episode that seemed more “grown up” that did work, it was, “It’s All in the Game” starring Faye Dunaway as a suspect who is trying to seduce Columbo to keep him off her trail but that works because of the character interactions.

3) More Experimentation

Of the forty-four 1970s Columbo films, only one messed with the formula of Columbo being an inverted mystery (Season 5’s “Last Salute to the Commodore.”) Of the twenty-four revived shows, there were half a dozen different attempts to break with the formula. These variations ranged from following the killer up to the point of the murder and finding someone else had already committed the murder, not showing the murder and then planting doubt as to the killer’s guilt, and then there were two adaptations of Ed McBain novels.

“Last Salute to the Commodore” was one of my two least favorite 1970s episodes, but some of these later experiments aren’t too bad. “Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo” begins with the funeral of “Mrs. Columbo” and is told through flashback from the point of view of a woman seeking revenge on the good Lieutenant by murdering his wife. The McBain novel adaptation, Undercover” is a fine thriller if you can get past the fact Columbo’s behavior is inconsistent with everything we know of the character. “Columbo Cries Wolf” also had some good moments,.

The other three are more problematic, but not for messing with the formula. Still, while some of the revived Columbos that go in other directions can be entertaining, they still can’t beat the best of the “normal” Columbo episodes.

4) Less Star Quality

The original Columbo was known for the amazing casting. Among the actors who played Columbo murderers in the old days were Anne Baxter, Robert Culp, Leonard Nimoy, Roddy McDowell, Martin Landau, Dick Van Dyke, Patrick McGoohan, Ricardo Montalban, Ruth Gordon, and so many more. Peter Falk was a fantastic actor and had great chemistry with so many guest stars and that chemistry made the 1970s episodes so memorable.

The new series had a virtual power outage, particularly in 1989 and 1990. Of the first eleven villains, the only actor in Falk’s league was McGoohan. The second best of the group was Fisher Stevens. That’s a big gap.

The series did get better guest stars between 1991-94 when Columbo cut back from 4-6 films a year to between 2 and 3 films. The results were among the best of the new run as Faye Dunaway was nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Glove for her appearance. Dabney Coleman, George Hamilton, and Rip Torn turned in memorable and satisfying performances in their turns against Columbo.

Of course, not even a good guest star could save some films. A mustached William Shatner is miscast in Butterfly in Shades of Grey. Tyne Daley did the best she could with a fairly stereotypical flirty lush role in A Bird in the Hand but deserved far better as a Columbo villainess.

Conclusion

There did seem to be a fair share more stories in the later years that strained credulity in terms of motive or were plain derivative (i.e. “Strange Bedfellows.”)

Yet, the one thing that remained the same was Peter Falk. Some episodes felt like the only thing good in the movie was Columbo but almost always that still made it worth watching. There’s so much in every moment when Falk’s on the screen that he can carry the show by himself which was a good thing because he often had to.

By almost every measure, ABC’s Columbo was an inferior product to its predecessor, but it provided two dozen opportunities to see Peter Falk in action as his greatest character and that makes most of them worth viewing.

You can watch the 1970s episodes of Columbo on IMBD TV and all episodes of the series are available for viewing on Peacock.

Book Review: Silent are the Dead

Silent are the Dead is an original Flash Casey novel by George Herman Coxe. It 1941, it was originally serialized in Black Mask Magazine (where Casey made his debut in 1934) in three parts, and published as a standalone novel in 1942.

In it, ace photographer Flash Casey has to get pictures of a disgraced lawyer after his camera case is stolen and his film exposed. When he goes up to the lawyer’s apartment, he finds the lawyer dead and himself in a case that grows ever more complex.

Flash Casey is an interesting character. He bares little resemblance to the character who’d arrive on radio the next year and less to the hotheaded goofball of the film Here’s Flash Casey. Casey is a decent sort. He’s got a nose for news but he’s neither heartless, nor unethical. He’s got a hard boiled edge to him, but this never goes over the top. He also takes a great deal of pride not just in his own work, but in the profession and its status, which motivates his actions in the final act of the novel.

This is a solidly written mystery novel. The plot is complex and intriguing with twists around every corner. The story is well-plotted, and well-paced. My interest never lagged from start to finish. I appreciated how photography was used in the novel to make this story distinct from the countless tales of private eyes, lawyers, and mystery men that dominated the fiction shelfs of the day. I’ve experienced a few stories from the old Black Mask magazine and compared to them, this book is above average. 

The characterization is not a huge strength. With one exception, the other characters feel mostly functional. They’re not unrealistic, over the top, or badly written, but as individuals, they’re surface level and blend quickly into a sea of newspaper employees, gangsters, damsels/potential femme fatales, and cops without much personality to distinguish them. Still, with Casey being well-written, he’s an anchor that keeps the story interesting.

In terms of quality, I’d consider it similar to the best Michael Shayne books.  It’s not a genre classic by any means, but it is a good example of a pre-War detective novel with hard-boiled flavor. In addition, its photographer hero makes it stand out from most of its mystery peers. It’s also a nice read for those who enjoy the Casey, Crime Photographer radio series and are curious about the hero’s literary origins. 

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Radio Series Review: My Friend Irma

My Friend, Irma came to radio in 1947 starring Marie Wilson as Irma, a quirky young secretary from Minnesota who came to New York and was befriended by Jane Stacy (Cathy Lewis and later Joan Banks) who took her on as her roommate. The series is all about their misadventures. 

It would be spun off into two films as well as a TV series. The series was created by Cy Howard, who would go on to create Life with Luigi and it’s stylistically similar in many ways as well as both series featuring legendary  voice actors Hans Conried and Alan Reed. 

The series had a lot of running jokes. Conried’s character Professor Kerplotkin would greet Irma and Jane with an analogy to two things with the latter being a back-handed suggestion Irma wasn’t quite all there and would apologize stating it was “a little joke” he’d picked up somewhere. Mrs. O’Reilly, their landlady would show up and also get insulted by Professor Kerplotkin. The Professor would also complain about his room in the most over the top way possible and make a suggestion of something romantic with Mrs. O’Reilly (played by Jane Morgan and later Gloria Gordon) only to pull the rug out from under her with yet another insult.

Irma’s shiftless boyfriend Al (John Brown) would always try to turn any situation to his own benefit through (often poorly thought out) schemes. When he ran into a situation where he didn’t know what to do, he would say, “There’s only one man who knows what to do,” dial a number and then say, “Hello, Joe….Got a problem.” Nothing is inherently funny about this but Brown’s delivery practically wills it into a laugh line.

Probably the biggest running gags in the series center around Irma and could be paraphrased, “You know how weird Irma is?”

Marie Wilson deserves a lot of credit for her performance. It’d be easy for a character like Irma to become annoying, but she rarely does, and it’s the writing that sometimes makes Irma too whiny. Her comic delivery and timing is great and helps to sell the show. She’s particularly adept at having Irma’s mixing up messages other people tell her to deliver to sound completely natural.

The supporting cast is good Again, it’d be easy for them to come off badly and for the most part, they don’t. While they all know Irma’s a little bit off, they’re all supportive. Her boss, Mr. Clyde was mean but most comedy bosses during that era were mean, so that was to be expected.

My biggest problem in the series was Jane Stacy. On one hand, she could be nice to Irma and help her out and she could also be long-suffering with all the problems Irma caused. On the other, she often could lose it. In addition, she was the one who introduced the episodes and talked to the audience. She tended to deliver the meanest and most cutting remarks about Irma not only to other characters, but to the audience.

I came to view Jane as Irma’s “friend” who resents having her around and complaints constantly to other people about Irma. I found Jane insufferable and two-faced. I had negative reactions to other Cathy Lewis characters because I’d think of Jane Stacy when I heard them. Joan Banks’ take on Jane Stacy and Mary Jane Croft’s character of Kay Foster weren’t any better but they didn’t have as much time to wear on my nerves as Lewis did.

Numerous casting changes occurred in the course of the program, and not all of them are well-documented or observable. The bulk of episodes in circulation are from the show’s earliest days from 1947 to the spring of 1949, so many casting or character changes are unexplained within the radio program as any transitions occurred in episodes that were lost. There was a total of three episodes in circulation for the three year period between March 1949 and January 1952, and a smattering of episodes for each year from 1952-54. While I have limited exposure to later casts, the original cast, with both Brown and Conried is probably is the best the show had, though the later actors did fine.

Overall, My Friend Irma is a decent comedy. While it’s far from my favorite, it has some laughs. There’s little continuity, so you don’t suffer that much as a result of the missing seasons.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

Telefilm Review: Casebusters

In Casebusters, an elderly ex-cop turned security company owner (Pat Hingle) who sometimes acts like he’s a cop sometimes has his two grandkids come to spend the Summer and they get involved in solving crimes.

This Wes Craven directed short film appeared on the Wonderful World of Disney back in 1986 and given its 45 minute length it feels like a backdoor pilot for a TV series. Growing up, I watched a lot of the Wonderful World of Disney, but didn’t have any memory of this unlike other films from the era such as Little Spies or Earth Star Voyager.

Casebusters does a lot of things that kids movies of the 1980s and 1990s did: kids get involved mysteries, thwart hapless bad guys, and save the day. It’s big problem is it doesn’t do much of it well. The sister (Virginia Keehne) is into mysteries into a superficial way but, we don’t get to know much about the siblings and their characterization is inconsistent times.

The villains aren’t all that interesting. Many kids films of this era would have broad and colorful villains who provide a lot of humor, but this couple is just kind of there.

Nor do we get any zany action or over the top chase scenes, or a real sense that the kids are in serious danger but escape at the last moment. I know kids films of the era and this one didn’t check any of the boxes you’d expect or provide anything interesting instead.

The best part of the film is Hingle, who is likable enough as the grandfather and Ski (Gary Riley), who showed a little potential to develop into an interesting character if the show had been picked up as a series.

Other than that, Casebusters was a disappointing viewing experience. I’d hoped to find a forgotten Disney classic from the era of my childhood that, like the best Disney live action films of the era, still held some appeal for adults. Instead, Casebusters is a film written for kids, and written down to them. The result is one of the most lifeless productions I’ve ever seen from Disney. The only fascinating part of the film is why it was made in the first place. Hopefully, Disney brings back better quality productions from the era.

Rating: 1.25 out of 5