Category: Golden Age Article

Audio Drama Review: The Life of Riley

The Life of Riley was a radio sitcom that aired from 1944-1951 and starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley, an aircraft riveter from Brooklyn who moves to California and eventually settles into a bungalow with his wife Peg (Paula Winslow), his daughter Babs (Barbara Ellis), and his son Junior (multiple actors including Tommy Cook and Alan Reed, Jr.). The series has many episodes in circulation and many episodes missing. The Life of Riley went through three distinct phases during its seven-year run.

1. War Worker Riley (1944-45)

From the beginning, Riley was known for his malapropisms and bizarre thought processes, but in these early years, Riley wasn’t near the dope he’d be portrayed as in later seasons. He was involved in essential war work, and in the middle of World War II, you didn’t make essential war workers out to be idiots. He developed one of the best comedy catchphrases of all time, “What a revolting development this is,” and it was often used either in moments of exasperation or surprise, sometimes even when there was a positive surprise after he’d worked himself into a lather.

There was plenty of comedy to be had, particularly caused by the free-loading character of Uncle Baxter (initially played by Hans Conreid). In addition, the housing crunch of the late War era impacted the Rileys, and they spent several episodes struggling to find a place to live. While not all episodes of this storyline remain, … there’s quite a bit of humor in their various ups and downs and what they have to do to find a place to stay. The series also captured another aspect of the war: proxy weddings. In one two-part story, confusion ensues when Riley has to stand in for a deployed bridegroom. The series also featured heartfelt stories, like when Riley invites the boss’s son over for Christmas and teaches him the true meaning of the holiday, or when the Rileys throw a New Year’s Party for troops departing by train.

John Brown would appear as Riley’s neighbor and friend from Brooklyn, Jim Gillis. Gillis would often be Riley’s pal but would also antagonize him.

2. Riley, the Well-Meaning Idiot (1945-50)

After the war, the writers seemed willing to make Riley a bit more ridiculous. Yet, he was still well-meaning. He unleashed havoc because his mind went off in weird directions and he misunderstood a situation. He only wanted the best for his kids, but sometimes comedy resulted from it.

The series also featured several recurring characters. In addition to Gillis, RIley had another neighbor named Waldo Benny (Dink Trout), a hen-pecked husband who stoked Riley’s worst fears to comic effect. Of course, the greatest supporting character on the show was the morbidly hilarious Digby “Digger” O’Dell (aka: “The Friendly Undertaker”) (also played by Brown). O’Dell’s appearance followed very rote procedures, often including his greeting of Riley, “You’re looking fine, very natural,” and his complaint about youths stealing signs from other businesses and placing them in his window. But the character often found a surprising way to turn the conversation back to Riley’s problem with a morbid twist. Digger is such an unusual character that it’s a stand-out in the golden age of radio. Alan Reed played the recurring role of Mr. Stevenson and Riley’s father-in-law, along with other characters.

There were also quite a few flashback episodes to when Riley and his wife Peg were in Brooklyn. This set the stage for other programs to do this a lot, such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, although The Life of Riley really made no attempts to put this into any continuity. In fact, none of the post-World War II episodes have much continuity, which allows for some script re-use.

It was a good run, but nothing lasts forever. The series’s decline over radio began with the introduction of Louella (Shirley Mitchell). Louella was the type of Southern belle character Mitchell was known for playing on a wide variety of programs, including The Great Gildersleeve. She’s a single woman who moves into the neighborhood and gets Riley to do things for her, like household chores and buying her gifts. The joke is that Peg and many people think there’s something between Riley and Louella, and Riley even thinks Louella’s trying to seduce him, when there’s nothing going on. However, knowing that it bothers Peg, Riley continually engages with Louella throughout the entire rest of the series. It wasn’t funny, particularly after the first Louella episode. No married man with any sense would do that to his wife, even Chester Riley. It was a bad turn for the series and a preview of what was yet to come.

3. Riley, The Terrible (1950-51)

The last season of The Life of Riley contains the worst character violation in old-time radio that I’ve ever heard. Riley by definition was a well-meaning family man. In the second episode of the 1950-51 season, the Rileys finally get a new car, and Riley and Peg take their driver’s tests. Riley fails the driver’s test because he didn’t study and has a horrible driving exam. Peg gets her license. Despite this, Riley insists on driving, gets into an accident, and tries to get Peg to take the rap for him. She ends up nearly going to jail, when he had been driving.

This is just one example. In another episode, Junior gets together with some other boys to start a lawn-mowing service, and Riley takes over and turns them into virtual slaves to his massive ego. A similar thing happens with a father-and-son concession stand that Riley and Junior start and that Riley ruins when he goes on a huge ego trip. In this season, Riley is transformed from a well-meaning but dim-witted husband and a father to an out-of-control narcissist. It’s often hard to find joy in these later, more cynical episodes.

John Brown’s Digby O’Dell continued to be a highlight, but his appearance and statements became increasingly disconnected from the plot. It’s as if old Digger O’Dell couldn’t care less about Riley’s self-inflicted problems caused by being a horrible person. And who can blame him?

The series did rebound a little towards the end, but its 1951 cancellation really put it out of its (and its audience’s) misery.

Bendix would reprise the role of Riley when the series returned to television in 1953, and the episodes I’ve seen lean more towards the lovable Riley of the early radio seasons, as opposed to the nasty 1950-51 version.

As a series, it’s a solid episodic family sitcom for most of its run, but the 1950-51 season is one of the worst seasons of a long-running show that you’ll find in Old Time Radio.

The first six years of the Life of Riley earn a 4.25 rating, but I’ll give the overall series a rating of 4 based on the horrendous final season.

You can listen to episodes of The Life of Riley on the Internet Archive for free.

Book Review: A Man Called Spade And Other Stories

The vintage Dell Paperback edition of A Man Called Spade begins with an introduction by Ellery Queen (pseudonym of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee) praising Hammett as a mystery writer, and Spade as a character. The stage is set for five stories, three featuring Sam Spade, and two others included as these three weren’t long enough to make up a book.

The titular story, “A Man Called Spade,” sees Sam go to an apartment in response to a phone call asking for his help. Sam arrives to find his potential client murdered.

It’d be too much to expect this to be another Maltese Falcon, but “A Man Called Spade” is practically a second-rate mystery story. It’s nearly 50 pages long and finds Spade and Lieutenant Dundy walking around a single location questioning a bunch of unremarkable and forgettable characters about what they know.

Sam gets a few decent lines and the solution’s not half bad. But 90% of the story is spent on a very long questioning scene. It’s a dull story that’s practically lifeless.

“They Can Only Hang You Once” finds Spade arriving at a house to find his man murdered. In this case, Sam was at least out on a case when it happened and pretending to be someone else. Once again, he’s teamed up with Dundy in walking around the various suspects. This one is a much pacier story. At only 22 pages, while not an ideal Sam Spade vehicle, it’s better for not dragging on.

In “Too Many Have Lived,” Sam is hired to track down a failed poet who turns up dead and then has to solve his murder. This is a very good hard-boiled private detective story with a good mix of shady characters, red herrings, and an engaging case. Again, it’s no Maltese Falcon, but it’s a fun little read.

In “The Assistant Murderer,” the focus shifts to disgraced ex-cop turned private eye Alex Rush, who is ugly (as Hammett tells us multiple times) and he’s called in by a man who thinks a beautiful former employee is in trouble. Rush finds himself caught in a twisting, turning world of murder, corrupt characters, and unreliable stories left and right. This is a really engaging story. It would have been nice had Rush come closer to the truth on his own rather than having the character spill it to him, but there’s something to be said for being able to apply the right pressure to the guilty party.

“His Brother’s Keeper” follows a young naive boxer in the ring who’s in a very dark and dangerous situation without even knowing it. Hammett makes the boxer his first-person point of view character. This is a departure from most other stories that are told from the point of view of street-smart detectives. It’s a decent story and an interesting experiment in Hammett’s range.

Overall, most of these stories were actually quite good although the titular story bogs things down and takes up more than a quarter of the book. Still, I’m glad I read the collection. “Too Many Have Lived” and “The Assistant Murderer” were both superb stories and the other two were decent enough.

Rating 3.75 out of 5

This collection is out of print. But another collection containing these stories plus two others is available in Paperback and for the Kindle.(affiliate link)

Streaming Review: Runaway (1984)

In the film Runaway, it’s the near future, and people rely on robots for a lot of things, but sometimes robots go haywire and run away. It’s the job of Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck) to fix it. However, when robots start to kill by program, it’s up to Ramsay and his partner to stop them,

The acting in this film is decent enough, with Tom Selleck turning in an expected good performance as the action hero. Kristie Alley gives the best performance in the film as the villain’s girlfriend, which netted her a nomination for a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress. The villain is played by none other than Gene Simmons of KISS. The film is also the movie debut of child star Joey Cramer (best known to a certain generation of 80s kids for his lead role in Flight of the Navigator.)

However, where the film really shines is on a technical level. The practical effects used to bring the robots and chase scenes to life are really impressive for the time, making for some superb action scenes and a superficially good visual feel.

The film’s weakness is really its writing. When you strip away the robots and all the cool visuals, what writer/director Michael Crighton has produced is a very standard 1980s cop film. Our hero is a cop traumatized by the death of his partner and has emotional baggage from that, which can only be overcome by engaging in copious amounts of violence, during which his new female partner falls in love with him because they’re the leads. No word on whether his partner was only three days from retirement, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that were so.

In addition. while the robots are well-designed, it feels like very little thought was given to the world they inhabit. The ready availability of skilled robots at the level of this film would have major implications for society and would literally change the world. You wouldn’t expect a film (particularly Runaway) to go into some discussion of all the ethical and social implications, but you’d expect the writer to have thought through what those would be and to shape his world accordingly. Yet, the world of Runaway is very much “The Eighties but if everyone had robots.” Given the pioneering science fiction films of the era, such as Blade Runner, Terminator, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and the Star Trek films, it’s easy to see that this was forgotten.

It is by no means a bad film for what it is. If you think a typical 1980s cop film starring Tom Selleck and robots sounds fun, I don’t think this will disappoint. But despite its strength of cast, director and effects, it’s an ultimately disposable and forgettable film.

Rating 2:5 out of 5

As of this writing, Runaway is available for free viewing on Amazon Prime.

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Audio Drama Review: Raymond Chandler: A BBC Radio Collection

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels have been adapted twice by the BBC. The most recent adaptations from the early 2010s starring Toby Stephens have been available as official releases for quite a while under the very similarly named collection Raymond Chandler: The BBC Radio Drama Collection. However, this relatively new collection (released in 2020) contains the 1970s and 1980s episodes, starring Ed Bishop, an American actor best known for his works with British producer Gerry Anderson.

Bishop starred in adaptations of the first six Marlowe novels, although the second novel was performed last due to rights issues: The Big Sleep, The High Window, Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, and Farewell, My Lovely.

Bishop is a strong choice to play Marlowe and his voice is probably better for the character than Toby Stephens, who starred in the more recent adaptations. Stephens uses a tough-guy accent like Marlowe came from the streets of Philadelphia or New York. Bishop’s voice sounds more like the Marlowe from the books, who, as revealed in The Little Sister, came from a small town. That said, it’s been a while since I’ve listened to the Stephens-led dramas, so I won’t comment on how Bishop’s performance compares in every detail. The BBC having given this an official release might allow me to do some fun comparisons as to which version better handled individual novels.

The acting is very good and they avoided the worst tendencies of British drama that feature American characters. The BBC’s portrayal of Americans were often hit-or-miss up until the 1990s, with exaggerated accents that made the entire thing very hard to take seriously. Here, the acting is right on the mark. Whether they were working with a lot of ex-pats like Bishop, or simply British actors who were skilled with American accents, I was never pulled out of the story by a bad or silly performance.

The sound is minimal and a bit primitive, but not more than most British Audio Dramas prior to the 21st Century.

The stories themselves are well-told and for the most part capture the spirit of the novels. They even did a good job adapting my least favorite novel of those featured here, The Little Sister. The biggest fault with the adaptation was an over-reliance on expository narration. Narration would be something you’d expect with hard-boiled detective stories, and in most productions, it works just fine. The problem is that each adaptation was fit into a very rigged hour and a half time slot. This worked fine for most of the novels, but for others, it didn’t. The Long Goodbye requires a lot of tough adaptation decisions as to what to include, what to exclude, and what needs to be condensed. The BBC chose instead to not decide and use expository narration a lot. Throughout The Long Goodbye, it felt like a third of the runtime was Marlowe expositing scenes that occurred off-air that probably should have been on-air. The result is an adaptation that feels a bit lifeless. This was also a problem, to an extent, with the adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely.

I think the other four stories are well done, and Farewell, My Lovely is still pretty good, but the adaptation of The Long Goodbye is disappointing despite the story being considered one of Chandler’s best.

The release includes a nice bonus, a 1958 interview of Raymond Chandler by James Bond creator Ian Flemming. The interview is really much more of a conversation between two friends who are both some of the most popular writers of thrillers in the 20th Century. It’s nice to hear it as if you’re a fly on the wall in the room.

Overall, if you’re a fan of Raymond Chandler and Philp Marlowe, this is worth checking out. Despite a lackluster treatment of The Long Goodbye, this is still a good value, particularly if you use an Audible Credit to purchase it.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Book Review: The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade

Martin Grams’ The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade is the definitive guide to the Sam Spade radio series which became a post-War phenomenon that captured the public imagination and became the most-remembered of the hard-boiled private eyes before being brought to a premature end by anti-Communist investigations in the 1950s.

There’s quite a bit to Grams’ book. It includes a good summary of Spade’s literary appearances, the history of the radio program, and its actors and creative team, along with behind-the-scenes insights. This portion of the book takes up about 100 pages. This is typical for books on old-time radio programs where information about program production details was not nearly as plentiful in the 1940s as it is for modern programs, and stars of radio gave relatively few interviews. Still, what it lacks in quantity of information, Grams more than makes up for with quality. Grams has reviewed all the Sam Spade radio scripts, including many lost episodes. The book is peppered with scenes from the series’ catalog. This is very helpful for a series that remains quite popular despite eighty percent of the episodes being missing.

Grams also captures other details that you won’t find by researching the series on the Internet. For example, he details what exactly Sam Spade Star Howard Duff was accused of in the Red Channels anti-communist book.

Then the book also includes an episode with plot summaries for each of the series’ episodes. This is an incredible resource for Sam Spade fans who wonder what happened in all those lost episodes. While the log doesn’t quite have the detail of John Abbott’s The Who is Johnny Dollar Matter, Grams provides a good summary of the plot of each episode and calls out trivia about noteworthy episodes.

The book is not done, however. It delves into William Spier’s papers for some items of historical interest. There’s a one-and-a-half-page script for a promo for a never-produced series in which Sam introduces the world to his cousin Babe Lincoln and sets the stage for her mystery-solving adventures. Then we’re treated to an essay by producer/director William Spier on how he worked and managed his creative team.

Then the book throws in an unused audition script, “The Persian”, for good measure. It’s not a great script and is a bit derivative (thus why it was unused) but it’s not bad reading and makes for a nice bonus and item of historical interest.

The book’s only weakness is a couple of minor editing issues that won’t detract from the enjoyment of most readers.

Overall The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade is a solid, thoroughly researched book that’s obviously written with a lot of affection for the series. If you’re a fan who is left wanting more after listening to the surviving episodes, this is a book you’re sure to enjoy.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade is available on the author’s website.

The Top Ten Perry Mason TV Movies, Part Three

A version of this article appeared in 2012.

Continued from Part One and Part Two

3) Perry Mason and the Case of the Lady in the Lake (1988)

Okay, it’s not by Raymond Chandler, but for a Perry Mason film, this one has got some nice twists. First of all, Perry’s client is an ex-tennis player, played by none other than David Hasselhoff, who is accused of killing his rich heiress wife.

This is one of Perry’s more complex cases. It’s not just a matter of this current murder, but a twenty-year-old kidnapping plays a big role as well. The movie was the last for Paul Drake, Jr. (William Katt) and Michael Reston (David Ogden Stiers) and it’s certainly a memorable one with a big twist on the usual Mason ending.

2) Perry Mason and the Case of the Sinister Spirit (1987)

A horror writer invites hosts a private party at a hotel for his friends and associates, who are suing him after he wrote a book whose characters are obviously based on them, in an unflattering way. The writer ostensibly intends to make peace with them, but he instead pulls a series of cruel practical jokes that bring up painful memories for everyone. For publisher Jordan White (Robert Stack), this includes a reminder of the death of Jordan’s son in a swimming pool.

It surprises no one when the writer turns up murdered, thrown from the top of the hotel. The publisher is accused and Perry is hired by White to defend him. Paul Drake, Jr. is investigating. A witness who heard the dead man’s last word and saw him fall to his death is seemingly beset by supernatural occurrences, apparently being haunted. In what amounts to one of the most inexplicable scenes in all the movies, Perry impeaches the poor woman’s testimony. Decency aside, there was no real reason for this and it made Drake’s job harder.

However, the solution to the mystery, the story’s dramatic conclusion, and a spell-binding performance by Dwight Schultz make up for these little wrinkles.

1) Perry Mason and the Case of the Desperate Deception (1990)

Perry Mason takes on Nazi war criminals. This is the basic plot of the story. His client is a young Marine attached to the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The young officer is searching for the concentration camp guard that devastated his family during the Holocaust. He is led to believe he found the ex-Nazi at a health club. However, when the ex-Nazi is killed, suspicion points to the young officer, who faces a court martial.

Perry Mason goes to Paris to head up the defense. He and Ken Malansky find intrigue around every corner. Mason finds ex-Nazis, traitors, and Nazi hunters roaming Paris. Perry has to sort through more than four decades of deception to find the truth, not only to acquit his client but to bring long-overdue justice to the perpetrators of heinous war crimes. A goal worthy of one Perry Mason’s top cases.

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The Top Ten Perry Mason TV Movies, Part Two

A version of this article appeared in 2012.

Continued from Part One

6) Perry Mason and the Case of the Avenging Ace (1988): Prior to the first movie, Perry Mason had been elevated to an appellate court judge. In this film, he revisits a case he’d heard on appeal and declined the defendant’s appeal because the trial was fair. But when the convicted murdered (an Air Force officer) has a new witness come forward, Mason steps in to help clear the man.

This case is far more complicated than that.  The witness changes his testimony at the last minute, so it no longer helps the convicted man and Perry’s client apparently escapes, and is set up to take the fall, when the wavering witness is murdered. This movie takes Perry Mason to a different place – a lot more action, suspense, and intrigue than usual. In addition to this, the producers take full advantage of the Colorado location to produce some great scenic shots.

5) Perry Mason and the Case of the Fatal Fashion (1991): Perry is in New York and this time he defends a long-time friend (Diane Muldaur) of Della’s who is accused of killing the editor of a rival fashion magazine.

This episode has a lot going for it. Ken Malansky finds himself dealing with the mob when a relative of the head of the family is killed before he can reveal vital information to Perry.  He finds a mob tough guy assigned to “help” him investigate, but how far can Malansky trust his new “colleague? This works out to a lot of excitement in New York City.

This movie also features a rare prosecutorial highlight, with the appearance of Scott Baio in his first post-Charles in Charge appearance, as Assistant DA Peter Whelen. Baio makes a solid competitor for Mason as the young upstart New York D.A. You knew he wasn’t going to win, but he made it interesting for a while.

The episode ends with an emotional punch and a murderer you’d never guess.

4) Perry Mason and the Case of the Lost Love (1987):

Perry’s old flame (Jean Simmons) is being appointed to a vacant United States Senate seat, but it’s all put at risk when her husband is accused of murdering a man who knew a secret that could have destroyed her political career.

The chemistry between Simmons and Raymond Burr is incredible. The mystery is well-plotted and we’re left with a powerful and very surprising ending as Mason faces one of his most unpleasant tasks.

Continued…Next Week

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