Category: Golden Age Article

Old Time Radio 101: Popular Sitcoms and Game Shows

Previous Article: Popular Sitcom/Variety Programs

Amos and Andy

There are few shows from the Golden Age of Radio that have generated more controversy than Amos and Andy, as the two main characters were Black men, but voiced by white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. In addition, there were claims that the show reinforced negative racial stereotypes. Others take a more nuanced view of the radio program and television show by pointing to a universal aspect of its humor and characterization, particularly as the series went on.

There’s a lot that’s debatable about the series, but there’s also quite a bit that’s undeniable. Gosden and Correll pioneered the techniques of radio acting, transitioning from broad methods of playing scenes used by stage actors to more subtle modulations. They worked together in a small studio and weren’t playing to a studio audience. The series was also undeniably popular and long-lasting. It began airing as a daily serial in 1928 and continued until becoming a weekly sitcom and finally a daily program that mixed skits and music called The Amos and Andy Music Hall, which left radio in 1960. Only a few dozen of their 15 years of serialized stories are in circulation, with the bulk of episodes coming from that sitcom era.

Lum ‘n Abner

Two Arkansas childhood friends named Chester Lauck and Norris Goff had established a blackface act that garnered them an audition for a local radio station. Sensing the glut in such acts after the success of Amos and Andy, the two created a new hilbilly act where they played two rural shopkeepers. The characters of Lum and Abner ran the Jot ’em Down Store in the then-fictional town of Pine Ridge, Arkansas. Lum ‘n Abner was a comic soap opera with serialized misadventures keeping listeners tuned in for their homespun humor. Like Gosden and Gorrell, Lauck and Goff were the only ones heard in the studio, although Lauck and Goff voiced even more characters and kept up the practice for most of the program’s serialized run. The serials ran with few interruptions from 1931-48. During the ’30s, its popularity led to the unincorporated Arkansas community that inspired Pine Ridge being renamed from Waters to Pine Ridge, and three other unincorporated communities being renamed after the show.  Unlike Amos and Andy, Lum ‘n Abner‘s transition from daily serial to half-hour weekly sitcom didn’t work, and the weekly series was cancelled after two years in 1950, but Lum ‘n Abner would return for a final serial run for more than a year in 1953. They continued to enjoy popularity, as evidenced by gatherings held of fans from around the country into the twenty-first century through the Lum ‘n Abner Society and also the Lum ‘n Abner Museum and Jot ‘Em Down Store that closed just this year.

Fibber McGee and Molly

Fibber McGee and Molly began in the Depression, but its influence extended for a quarter of a century. The series premiered in 1935 and starred husband-and-wife vaudeville team Jim and Marion Jordan as the titular characters. The show’s lines became part of the culture of the era. It centered around the schemes and exaggerations of Fibber McGee and the trouble it got the pair into. Throughout its run as a 30-minute weekly program, the series boasted a rotating cast of entertaining characters that inhabited the McGees’ hometown of Wistful Vista, such as Mayor LaTrivia (Gale Gordon), Doc Gamble (Arthur Q. Bryan), and of course, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Harold Peary). The series’s great running gags, such as Fibber McGee’s closet, and repeated lines like, “You’re a hard man, McGee” and “Tain’t funny, McGee” became recognized parts of pop culture. The series was vital to morale on the homefront during World War II. In 1953, Fibber McGee and Molly became a daily serialized program, until 1956 when it became a series of short vignettes on NBC’s Monitor program, which lasted until Marion Jordan passed away in 1959.

The Great Gildersleeve

The Great Gildersleeve was the first great sitcom spin-off.  Gildersleeve began as a character on Fibber McGee and Molly as a foil for Fibber McGee. The character was popular enough to get his own series. So in 1941, he boarded a train from Wistful Vista to Summerfield, where he would take charge of the business affairs of his young adult niece and pre-teen nephew, becoming a surrogate father and eventually a pillar of the community. He would become the town’s water commissioner in Season 2, and be involved in various civic projects and misadventures. Gildersleeve’s family, along with their cook Birdie (Lililian Randolph), and Judge Hooker (Earle Ross), would form the nucleus of the series and a community that would become just as real to listeners as Wistful Vista. The series recast the lead when star Peary was lured away to CBS in 1950. Willard Waterman proved an able replacement. Yet, the series suffered the decline typical of many comedies of the era, with long-term characters disappearing, a 1954 reformat as a serialized comedy, and then going off the air for good in 1958.

Burns and Allen

George Burns and Gracie Allen were a husband-wife comedy team that worked together going back to vaudeville in the 1920s and films in the 1930s. They had their first radio appearance for the BBC in 1929 and began working in radio in the 1930s. There are quite a few circulating radio episodes of their 1930s and early 1940s show, which was a lot of sketch comedy and comedic patter. These programs aren’t bad. In fact, they came up with some clever ideas, like the “Gracie for President” stunt in 1940. But a change was needed, as they were doing the same sort of boy-girl comedy sketches they had done in their twenties and they were both over forty-five. In the fall of 1941, they would move to a sitcom format that centered around George and Gracie playing themselves as a married couple. It was a brilliant, crazy ride. During one period of the show, there was the “Happy Postman”, played by a depressed-sounding Mel Blanc; Gracie had a talking pet duck named Herman who talked like Donald Duck; and Gracie also had her women’s auxiliary, The Beverly Hills Uplift Society. The series had recurring ideas such as Gracie believing George to be the most talented singer to walk the face of the Earth, and announcer Bill Goodwin being a major heartthrob and wolf. Gracie succeeded in drawing a universe of Hollywood stars into whatever craziness was going on, whether it was Alan Ladd, Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Frank Sinatra or Herbert Marshall, and their often against-type performances added to the program’s comedy. The series left radio for television after the 1949-50 season.

Duffy’s Tavern

Duffy’s Tavern starred Ed Gardener as Archie, the manager of the titular tavern. Duffy’s Tavern was promoted as a future series on the 1940 CBS Radio pilot series Forecast, with the series making it to air in 1941. The owner, Duffy, was never seen or heard, but we got Archie’s side of regular phone conversations. The tavern was inhabited by regular supporting characters like Eddie the Waiter (Eddie Green) and Finnegan (Charlie Cantor). Like many other old time radio comedy protagonists, Archie would generate most of the plot with one crazy scheme or another, often leading to the involvement of a celebrity guest. The series left the air at the end of 1951.

Our Miss Brooks

Our Miss Brooks was the most notable role of Eve Arden’s amazing career, as she played Connie Brooks, English teacher at Madison High School. She was doted on by teacher’s pet Walter Denton (Richard Crenna), and constantly found herself at odds with authoritarian principal Osgood Conklin (Gale Gordon), while vying for the affection of “bashful biology teacher” Philip Boynton (Jeff Chandler and later Robert Rockwell).  Unlike other protagonists, Miss Brooks didn’t always cause the craziness around her, but found herself having to deal with the dictatorial whims of Mister Conklin or some overzealous or foolish action by Walter. The series premiered over radio in 1948, it moved to television from 1952-56, and even was turned into a feature film in 1956, but also continued over radio until 1957.

You Bet Your Life

You Bet Your Life was a quiz show hosted by Groucho Marx. The basic gameplay involved Marx asking two contestants a series of questions to win money. If they said the Secret Word of the day, a stuffed duck that had a mustache like Groucho would descend from the ceiling and give the lucky pair $100. The details of the gameplay changed quite a bit over the course of the show’s fourteen-year run, but no one really cares about those details more than sixty years later. The appeal of the series is listening to one of the greatest comedians of all time interview ordinary people and come up with hilarious lines on the spot. The series came to television in 1950 and would continue to be broadcast simultaneously over television and radio until 1960. There have been numerous attempts to revive the concept, most recently with Jay Leno as host in syndication from 2021-2023.

Next Week: Adventure/Western Programs

Old Time Radio 101: Popular Comedy/Variety Shows

This is an article series that’s really written for people who have little to no background in the Golden Age of Radio. You might wonder what old-time radio programs are out there, and what are the sort of well-loved must-listen-to shows that are staples of the Golden Age.

By no means are these the only shows or even the best shows or the shows you might like best. In most of these genres I’ve enjoyed series that are a bit more off the beaten path or a bit more specialized. But these are a good place to start to find out what programs you might enjoy from the shows that other generations of fans have liked. In most cases, there’s a large number of episodes available, so if you really connect, you’ll have a lot of entertainment in store.

I’m basing these recommendations on factors such as induction into the Radio Hall of Fame, as well as observations on what the most popular programs seem to be and which come up most with casual old-time radio fans and not necessarily my favorites.

In this first article, we’re going to cover comedy/variety programs that are a combination of sketches and musical numbers, as opposed to sitcoms. Next week, we’ll include sitcoms and game shows.

The Jack Benny Show

Simply put, Jack Benny was the biggest name in the golden age of radio comedy. The Jack Benny Show was a top-rated program for twenty years. Benny showed himself adept at evolving his style and performances to change with the times, while also building one of the best supporting casts in radio, including announcer Don Wilson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, bandleader Phil Harris, and singer Dennis Day. The latter two actually had their own successful sitcoms. Benny’s running gags, such as his character’s cheapness, his attempts at playing the violin, his claim to being thirty-nine years old for decades, and Benny’s ego were established pop culture ideas and even served as fodder for other comedians.  Benny’s success continued with Emmy- and Golden Glove Award-winning work on television. The earliest Jack Benny shows are interesting as historical artifacts but he really hits his stride in the mid-late 1930s.

The Fred Allen Show

Fred Allen was a master of wit and sarcasm, and was a trailblazer in the realm of radio satire. He hosted radio comedy programs for various sponsors from 1932-49, with his wife, Portland Hoffa, appearing in most of them. Allen was best remembered from his long-running comedic feud with Jack Benny. Also, Allen’s later radio shows (beginning in December 1942) featured a segment called Allen’s Alley, where a cast of wacky characters answered a question or commented on a news item of the day.

The Bob Hope Show

Bob Hope hosted radio programs for Pepsodent, Jello, and finally Chesterfield Cigarette over a 16-year period from 1939-55. Hope enjoyed immense popularity that was buoyed by his his invaluable work entertaining US troops overseas. Hope delivered snappy opening monologues that were filled with topical jokes, which can leave modern audiences unfamiliar with the news of Hope’s day a bit confused. However, Hope was a strong ad-libber. For most of his radio run, he was supported by “Professor” Jerry Colonna, a mustached comedian whose absurdist lines drew nearly as many laughs as Hope. Hope also featured some of the best stars in Hollywood as guest stars.

The Red Skelton Show

Skelton probably had fewer guest stars on his show than any program on this list. After a bit of monologing, most episodes became a mix of songs and sketches, all of them starring Skelton. Skelton created multiple beloved characters: Clem Kadiddlehopper; the outlaw Deadeye; Willy Lump-Lump; and, most popular of all, Junior, the “Mean Widdle Kid”, a young boy who was easily far more dangerous than the outlaw.  He was great at ad-libbing a sketch, and when he or anyone else flubbed a line, he was sure to let listeners know and make it a hilarious moment. While Skelon was light-hearted, he would often surprise listeners with a poignant or thought-provoking piece. He also considered coming into people’s homes via radio to be a trust that should not be abused. Skelton’s program ran from 1939-53.

The Abbott and Costello Show

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are best known for the “Who’s on First” baseball comedy routine, but fans of classic comedy know them as one of the best teams on the silver screen. Their films have maintained enough popularity that their radio program remains a natural draw. They had their own radio series as a summer replacement in 1940 before getting their own time slot. On radio, you get typical Abbot and Costello verbal comedy with all the clever wordplay and the brilliant delivery. The radio show didn’t have any way to feature Costello’s brilliant physical comedy skills, but the show makes up for it by allowing the two to play off some interesting guest stars, including Lucille Ball, Bugs Bunny, Cary Grant, and Alan Ladd. In the later years, they also did an Abbott and Costello Kids program that was tied to the work of the Lou Costello, Jr. foundation.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Shows

One of radio’s quintessential acts, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen found success with his dummy Charlie McCarthy on the Royal Gelatin Hour. In 1937, they became a featured comedy act on the new Chase and Sanborn Hour. The series would change names and sponsors over the years, becoming The Charlie McCarthy Show and eventually The New Edgar Bergen Hour. The series had varying lengths and features, but until the end seem to feature Hollywood’s A-list as guest stars, from Mae West to Liberace. Charlie McCarthy was a mischievous character who made cutting remarks to guests, argued with Bergen, and also got into all sorts of trouble, and even had a romance with Marilyn Monroe at one point. Bergen was the straight man to Charlie, making for a fascinating one man comedy team.

Next week: Sitcoms and Game Shows

Streaming Review: The House on 92nd Street

While books, films, movies, and radio programs told all sorts of high-flying adventure and espionage stories during World War II, these were almost entirely fiction. Yet, as the war came to an end, many stories could at last be told. The House on 92nd Street was one of the earliest of these to make it to film.

The film starts before the U.S. entered World War II, when a chance traffic accident sets the FBI, led by Inspector George Briggs (Lloyd Nolan), onto a Nazi spy ring operating with support from the German Consulate in New York. While they have enough information to capture some members of the spy ring, they can’t identify the leader, a mysterious Mr. Christopher. A college student (William Eythe) who had been recruited by the Germans contacts the FBI, and they encourage him to play along with the Germans and go undercover to help round up the entire spy ring.

The House on 92nd Street was a ground-breaking film, and one of the earliest to utilize the sort of documentary style that would become popular in so many films based on true incidents in the latter part of the 1940s, such as The Naked City and He Walked by Night. Reed Hadley has the perfect voice of authority for a narrator. The story has some very nice, authentic touches. Real FBI agents appear in many agent roles in the film. The rest of the cast is made up of talented character actors. While there are some recognizable names in the cast (Nolan and Gene Lockhart stand out), all are well-suited to character roles and deliver believable performances. The film also features real secret footage of Nazi agents coming and going from the German consulate before Pearl Harbor.

Despite the authentic touches, the film takes its share of liberties with historic events, most of which seem to have been changed to make a more compelling and exciting film experience. And in that, it certainly succeeds, with some great camera work, tense music, and an exciting finale and big last-minute reveal.

House on 92nd Street is a real gem of a film. If you’re interested in World War II, or love a good 1940s thriller or spy story, this is a must-see film. It’s an intriguing film that takes real events and tells a story in a grounded yet compelling way.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

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The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations, Volume Seven

Big Finish continues to put out new episodes in the world of that classic TV Spy/Mystery series The Avengers. As is the case with every volume of Avengers from Big Finish, Julian Wadham stars as John Steed and in this volume, Emily Woodward returns as Tara King, with Christopher Benjamin starring as the spymaster, Mother.

This box set features three stories adapted from serialized scripts in the British magazine TV Comics. Each strip was only a few pages long, and is expanded upon by a Big Finish writer into a full hour-plus audio drama.

The period when The Avengers included the character Tara King was one that had gone very solidly in a more silly, over-the-top direction, and this set reflects that sensibility.

It kicks off with “The Fabulous Sky Beam Dilemma.” Steed and Tara King are charged with serving as bodyguard and tour guide for a visiting President, as well as investigating a series of strange, unexplained stomach illnesses.

Bad propaganda movies, silly accents, and mind-control-flavored ice cream: this story has a lot going on in it, with so many outrageous over the top moments. There’s a lot of fun to be had if you can just go with the silliness.

For the most part, I could. What I took issue with is how the story was resolved. The character that figures things out and saves the day isn’t who you would think, and it’s not done in a way that seems clever or satisfying.

Still, the ending weakens but does not ruin a solid hour of entertainment.

In “A Tale in Tartan,” with Steed unavailable, Tara King is off on her way to a Scottish castle to retrieve a stolen formula that “the other side” means to use on their athletes to boost their chances at the next Olympiad. However, there are strange goings-on at the castle. And what about McSteed (also played by Julian Wadham), the guy who looks like Steed but only with a beard, and speaking with a Scottish accent and wearing a kilt?

This is a tricky story to evaluate. It’s weird that there would be a comic strip set at a Scottish castle, given that there was an actual Avengers episode set at a Scottish castle, and a comic strip sequel to that (which Big Finish has adapted in “Return to Castle De’ath”).

That said, this is a decent story. It’s always entertaining, but like many an Avengers story from this era, it has an over-the-top setting and general feel, with so many odd and weird things happening, and off-the-wall characters. It never becomes too much, nor does the story reach some ascendant level of brilliance. Rather, we’re treated to a solid, weird, and ever-so-slightly grounded Avengers Highland tale. It’s different enough from the Castle De’ath stories as to not feel derivative, while still being a good time.

The set concludes with “This Train Terminates Here.” A special train is nearly derailed because of a collapsed viaduct, but is saved by the chance action of a passerby. However, the derailment was no accident. The train was carrying a shipment of gold bouillion bound for the IMF. Something sinister is behind it, and it’s up to Steed and Tara King to sort it out.

This story is a delight, as it draws its inspiration from the world of British trains and the odd characters that inhabit them. The late Paul O’Grady is the perfect Avengers villain as the sinister station master gone bad, Septimus Crump. He clearly played the part with gusto.

The story also features one of the best Audio Action scenes you’ll find in a tense and thrilling climax on a runaway train. The story also is full of witty lines and clever train puns. This is one of the best Avengers stories Big Finish and a perfect conclusion to this set.

All in all, if you’re into off-beat 1960s mystery/adventures, this is a solid set. The production values are top notch and the writers nail the feel of the era. There are two very good, though not perfect, stories, combined with another story that represents the pinnacle of this range with Big Finish. Well worth listening to.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

.The Avengers: Steed and Tara King is available at the Big Finish website.

Audio Drama Review: The Great Gildersleeve, Volume Six

Volume 6 of Radio Archive’s Great Gildersleeve features the final two episodes of the 1941-42 season and the start of the 1942-43 season, with Harold Peary as the Great Gildersleeve, Earle Ross as Judge Hooker, Lurene Tuttle as his niece Marjorie, Walter Tetley as his nephew Leroy, and Lillian Randolph as the household’s cook and housekeeper Birdie. Featured are episodes from the last two weeks of June and then from between August 30 and November 22, 1942. As always, Radio Archivesdelivers these episodes in the highest possible sound quality

The penultimate Season One episode features a similar gag to other Gildersleeve episodes, where family and friends create confusion by going at the same end without telling one another. In this case, it’s the goal of getting Gildersleeve a new chair for Father’s Day. It’s a simple idea, but well-executed and before the episode is over, chairs are being moved in and out with a dizzying degree of comic absurdity.

The final episode of Season One features Gildesleeve trying to romance Judge Hooker’s sister, Amelia, despite the judge’s objection. While Gildersleeve and the judge have many battles in the first season, the finale offers the most satisfying. It also previews some of the romantic plots that would make up later seasons of The Great Gildersleeve, only condensed into a single episode.

The Season Two episodes really saw the series starting to take on a form more familiar to those who have encountered later seasons of The Great Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve has an ongoing interaction with the Summerfield Water Commissioner that ends with him being appointed to the job. We also hear  the Gildersleeve cast expand, with barber Floyd Munson (Mel Blanc), along with one of the most important Gildersleeve supporting players, Mr. Peavey (Richard LeGrand). LeGrand joined Peary in three of the four Great Gildersleeve episodes.

Unfortunately, the characters seem to just appear in the series. This may be because the three episodes prior to their first appearance are missing. So it’s possible there was a more fitting introduction to the characters that were originally broadcast but have since been lost.

The series also introduces Southern Belle widow Leila Ranson (Shirley Mitchell) as Gildersleeve’s crush. Leila is a bit of a flirt who uses her “wiles” to manipulate men (particularly Gildersleeve and his rival Judge Hooker) into doing her bidding. Mitchell plays another Southern Belle character in Season One, but this one would stick and be part of Gildersleeve’s life off and on for years to come.

The War and related government messaging remained part of the show, with the plots being used to hone key points. Summerfield was hit with an October snowstorm to educate the public about the importance of buying coal early and completing conversions from oil-powered to coal-powered furnaces necessitated by wartime shortages. Four weeks later, in response to a government directive to stay home to cut down on expenses and consumption. Gildersleeve, in a sort of Goofus and Gallant example of how not to follow the directive, stocks up on food and supplies and even buys a new piano for his quiet evening at home, which quickly goes awry and becomes a house party.

Overall, The Great Gildersleeve was headed in the right direction. Summerfield started to feel less like it was inhabited solely by Gildersleeve’s household and Judge Hooker and the episodes were generally even funnier than the first season’s already strong outings. On the other hand, I do think that setting up Judge Hooker as Gildersleeve’s rival for Leila Ranson’s affections just doesn’t work with the way the Judge was generally portrayed in the series. It feels like the writers needed Gildersleeve to have a recurring rival and didn’t want to introduce a new character. Never mind if it made sense.

It’s worth noting that the show seemed to forget its own continuity and imagine that Gildersleeve had been in Summerfield far longer than he had, with references in the Thanksgiving episode to Judge Hooker always eating Thanksgiving with Gildersleeve when this was only Gildersleeve’s second Thanksgiving in town and Hooker wasn’t there for the first one. However, while it might annoy modern listeners, it’s hard to consider it a demerit against the series, as most programs didn’t take continuity seriously. And given how long Gildersleeve would be on the air, a year or so here or there is not a big deal.

I think all of the episodes in this set are solid, without any weak ones in the bunch. However, my favorite episode had to be the one where Gildersleeve is appointed Water Commissioner. While any OTR fan knew Gildersleeve was going to get the appointment, it really does take an interesting journey to get there. Judge Hooker tells him he’s a shoo-in for a job and Gildersleeve takes it seriously. But Hooker had only been joking. Gildersleeve and family go into overdrive to play up the big event. Hooker realizes too late that they’ve taken it seriously, and Marjorie has to figure a way to save her uncle from further embarrassment while a dejected Gildersleeve stays at home.

The episode gives a brief exploration of the feelings of an over-the-hill man who wants to be of service at a time when younger man are going off to war and has had that chance seemingly snatched away. At the same time, for once, Marjorie is given a pivotal role in the story. Lurene Tuttle was one of Hollywood’s most talent radio actresses, yet rarely got a chance to show it.  Her going to bat for her uncle is one of the best moments of the series so far, with Tuttle really showing how great an actress she was. And with this little bit of drama, the story is still a lot of fun, with even the happy ending coming about in a humorously ironic way.

At this point, The Great Gildersleeve was a series on the rise. After a solid first season, The Great Gildersleeve chose to build on it successes rather than resting on them.That bold direction pays off as each Gildersleeve box set continues to be stronger than the last one.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Oscar-Winning Short Films of John Nesbitt, Part Five: Goodbye, Miss Turlock

Previous Films: That Mothers Might LiveOf Pups and Puzzles,  Main Street on the March, and Stairway to Light.

Goodbye, Miss Turlock (1948)

Ten years after his first Oscar-winning film, John Nesbitt produced, wrote, and narrated his last Oscar Winner.

Goodbye, Miss Turlock is set against the backdrop of the social changes that America faced as the country marched towards the second half of the twentieth century. For decades, the one-room “little red schoolhouse” was a symbol of rural education in America. The expansion of highways and other changes in rural life made bussing children to larger schools make more sense. And so America’s rural one-room schools were slowly passing away. This short focuses on one of these schools, whose teacher was Miss Turlock.

The film spends a few minutes with Miss Turlock, who is viewed by her young students as harsh and stern, except to a boy who the narrator described as “slow.” The film in its short-running length shows the reality of Miss Turlock, something many of her students didn’t figure out until adulthood. The movie’s closing is sweet and sentimental in a way that calls to mind longer films like Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Cheers for Miss Bishop.

Goodbye, Miss Turlock has all the hallmarks of the best Nesbitt short. Great and moving narration with a touch of humor, solid silent acting that uses body language and facial expressions to sell scenes, and some nice editing work.

The film is the most sentimental of the five Oscar-Winners. But it’s important to be just as clear what it’s not. It’s not a film that’s resisting the end of the red schoolhouse or complaining about it. Rather, it’s honoring the schoolhouse and those who taught in them. The film is a salute to the passing of a way of life with no judgment on what came after.

Appropriately, even as the little red schoolhouse was nearing its end, so was John Nesbitt’s passing parade. The last of Nesbitt’s seventy-two short films for MGM would be released in 1949 and in 1951, The Passing Parade would pass from radio.

So much of Nesbitt’s radio work has been lost to the ages. However, that which survives, coupled with his short films, showcases his talent as a storyteller and his gift for speaking to the hearts of listeners and viewers. And in many cases, that gift can even bridge the chasm of time.

Goodbye, Miss Turlock is currently available on YouTube

 

The Oscar Winning Short-Films of John Nesbitt, Part Four: Stairway to Light

Previous Films: That Mothers Might Live, Of Pups and Puzzles, and Main Street on the March.

Stairway to Light (1945)

Stairway to Light begins with a powerful attention-grabbing opening.

A French language chyron on a mental asylum appears, and then shifts to a dark basement covered with straw. Text splashes across the screen: “Until this fantastic but historic event took place, mentally sick people were believed to be animals. They were penned in cages and controlled by the use of whips and streams of ice cold water.” The camera pans across the basement to a room where a burly, rugged man hoses down a man in a cell.

The film goes on to tell how this all changed thanks to the efforts of Philippe Pinel (Wolfgang Zitzer), who took charge of a mental hospital and transformed mental asylums in France, and later throughout the world. The story is beautifully and dramatically told, with so many powerful moments packed into less than ten minutes of screentime.

Pinel’s changes ran into opposition, with many viewing him as a menance. In many ways, this story paralleled Nesbit’s first Oscar Winner, That Mothers Might Live. However, life played out a bit differently for Dr. Pinnel and the opposition culminates in a violent mob and perhaps the most memorable twist of a remarkable short form.

Stairway to Light is currently available on YouTube

 

The Oscar-Winning Short Films of John Nesbitt, Part Three: Main Street on the March

Previous Films: That Mothers Might Live and Of Pups and Puzzles

Main Street on the March (1942)

From 1936-1956, there were actually two categories for live-action short films, one-reel films (up to eleven minutes long) and two-reel films (up to 22 minutes long.) The only year which saw Nesbitt win an Oscar for the two-reel category was 1942. It actually won the same year that  Pups and Puzzles won in the one-reel category.

Some Americans might imagine that the country moved immediately from a footing of self-satisfied isolationism to the country being all-in for World War II. The reality was more complicated than that. Main Street on the March shows America undergoing a subtle evolution, with the events of Pearl Harbor being the end rather than the beginning. It starts on a typical American Main Street in May 1940, where Americans tended to believe the year-old War was a “phony war.” However, Germany’s May 10, 1940 invasion of Belgium, Luxembourg, and Holland began to awaken Americans to the importance of strengthening America’s national defense.

The film is of great historical significance, as Nesbitt’s narration is mixed with real-life historic statements by figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Nesbitt describes a process of change and the country passing through multiple stages over the year and a half between Germany’s actions and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It also shows how Americans prepared for war in that crucial year and a half. Without those prepartions, the war could have had a very different outcome.

The film had actually been completed and slated for release on December 8, 1941. However, events led to the film being pulled back, and new scenes and narration being added to reflect the events of Pearl Harbor and America’s final evolution. The original film wrapped before America’s entry into the war, and would have had a different conclusion, and you can see a few hints of what that might have been in the surviving footage.

Not all edits were merely for dramatic or thematic purposes. Some street scenes were filmed in Hagerstown, Maryland on West Washington Street and North Potomac. As such, the premiere of the film was held on January 5, 1942 in Hagerstown. However, in the original cut, there were more scenes in Hagerstown’s leading defense factories, but after the US joined the War, it was determined that these scenes had to be removed.

While I’d be curious to see the original cut, the final film is well worth a view and definitely earned its Oscar. It tells how America changed over the course of a year and a half. It’s a film that would really be of interest to anyone who’s interested in the events of World War II and America’s involvement in it.

As of this writing, Main Street on the March is available on YouTube.

The Oscar-Winning Short-Films of John Nesbitt, Part Two: Of Pups and Puzzles

Previous Film: That Mothers Might Live

Of Pups and Puzzles (1941)

This short film is about a revolution in American industrial hiring practices. The one-reel film talks about the old way, where a foreman would look at a group of men, and make a superficial choice as to whom to hire based on who looked strong.

Circumstances were going to make such arcane hiring practices untenable. While the film was released three months prior to Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, America had begun a peace-time draft and ramped up national defense production. Getting the right person into the right job would be critical. To do that, employers turned to psychologists, and behavioral experiments involving three dogs and a chimpanzee.

The film does a good job of making its potentially dry content interesting, as it explains how animal behavior studies changed human hiring practices. Having cute animals on the screen for much of the run time keeps things interesting, and Nesbitt’s storytelling abilities keep the story moving along. The resulting hiring practices of the 1940s are quaint to say the least, as we travel back to a time when unexpectedly pulling a gun out of a drawer and firing it was just all part of the hiring process.

While Of Pups and Puzzles presents its material in an entertaining way, I can’t help but feel actual interest in the film’s content is a bit niche for modern audiences. One IMDB user said it’d be of most interest to “research psychologists and industrial/ organizational personnel specialists.” If you fit that niche or just want to see some old animal footage, you may enjoy this film.

Of Pups and Puzzles is available on YouTube.

The Oscar-Winning Short-Films of John Nesbitt, Part One: That Mothers Might Live

John Nesbitt was a mainstay of the Golden Age of Radio as one of radio’s great storytellers. Nesbitt was known for his Passing Parade, which aired for more than a decade, both as a stand-alone program as well as a segment on longer programs, such as Johnson’s Wax Summer Program and The John Charles Thomas Show.

However, Nesbitt’s talents weren’t just enjoyed by radio listeners. He narrated more than fifty short films, which were played in theaters before the feature attraction. Many, but not all, were a film series of Passing Parade. Nesbitt’s voice would be the only speaking role as he told viewers an unusual or remarkable true life story.

Nesbitt’s films were not just filler. Films that Nesbitt narrated and either produced or wrote received a total of five Academy Awards for short films over an eleven-year period from 1938-49.

In this series, we’ll take a look at each one.

That Mothers Might Live (1938) 

That Mothers Might Live opens with shots of a 1930s hospital. We’re then told of a man who dreamed of this a century before and are transported to a 19th-century hospital. There, a popular young obstetrician named Doctor Semmelweis (Shepherd Strudwick) becomes obsessed with finding out what has caused the death of more than two thousand women over the course of six years.

Semmelweis’s tireless research leads to a breakthrough discovery that could change medicine and save the lives of numerous patients. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it was considered common sense. But in the nineteenth century, it rubbed against hospital politics and the pride of physicians. The film shows Semmelweis’s fight and the toll it would take on him.

Strudwick’s acting is solid. In what’s a non-speaking role, he manages to bring Semmelweis to life and to go through the whole gamut of emotions in just a few minutes.  The film is well-directed and well-edited, taking the audience on this emotional roller coaster ride in ten minutes through the incidental music and cuts. Nesbitt’s narration is flawless and keeps the audience engaged from start to finish.

Semelweis’ story was a footnote in history that the average viewer both then and now had never heard of. For those who saw That Mothers Might Live, Semelweis’ story is one that’s impossible to forget.

The film won the Oscar for Best Short Subject (One-Reel) in 1939.

That Mothers Might Live is currently available on YouTube.

Father Brown’s Not Buying It: A Review of the Incredulity of Father Brown

A version of this article was posted in 2011.

Twelve years after his second Father Brown book, G.K. Chesterton brought readers a new collection in 1926 entitled, The Incredulity of Father Brown.

While the previous titles, The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown had very little with the theme of the stories, Incredulity is a key theme of each story in this collection.

In each story, an event happens to which a miraculous supernatural explanation is offered. Father Brown by and by doesn’t buy into the supernatural solution, but finds a natural, but often amazing solution to the case. Of course, in each case, the people expect Father Brown to go along with a supernatural solution as he’s a priest and all. However, the book makes the point that being religious and being  superstitious are not the same thing.

In “The Curse of the Golden Cross,” Brown explains his belief in “common sense as he understands it:

It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

Father Brown applies such incisive common sense to eight problems, with all but one of them involving murder. One thing that makes these stories different is that the goal of the story is not catching the murderer. In the vast majority of cases, the suspect is not caught. The story is about the puzzle and how Father Brown solves it. In one case, “The Oracle of the Dog,” Brown stays one hundred miles away from the scene of the crime and solves it secondhand.

The best story in the book is, “The Arrow of Heaven” which involves the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire in a high tower with an arrow when it was impossible for anyone to be able to shoot it that distance.

“The Miracle of the Moon Crescent” is a fascinating story that has three religious skeptics contemptuously dismiss Father Brown but they begin to think a supernatural cause may be involved in the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire when the police fail to turn up any satisfactory solution.

“The Doom of the Darnaways”  may be one of the most profound stories in the collection. Father Brown encounters a young man whose family is said to be subject to a curse that leads inevitably to murder and suicide. An expert on genetics declares the curse is nonsense, but that heredity indicates the same type of fate. Here Chesterton illustrated that it’s possible for both superstition and science to develop a fatalism about human life and destiny that excludes free and leads people to helplessness and despair. The story has a well-told murder mystery, though I don’t know why Father Brown put off the solution.

There’s not really a story I didn’t like in the collection, although I do think, “Oracle of the Dog” may have a little too much literary criticism and not enough story. All in all, The Incredulity of Father Brown is a truly wonderful collection of stories about the original clerical detective.

The Incredulity of Father Brown entered the public domain in the United States on January 1, 2022 and is available on Project Gutenberg Australia

DVD Review: Father Dowling, Season Three

A version of this article appeared in 2017.

After a TV movie and two partial seasons, ABC gave the Father Dowling Mysteries a regular season of 22 episodes in 1990-91.

The same cast of regulars from Season Two returns with Father Frank Dowling (Tom Boswell) and Sister Steve (Tracy Nelson) investigating mysteries, and Father Prestwick (James Stephens) and housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) providing comic relief.

The series maintains a pleasant, family-friendly tone with likable characters. Steve does a lot of undercover work and handles most tasks well, but you don’t get the impression she’s unrealistically super competent in everything like during Season One.

Some of the past seasons had episodes that could more rightly be called “adventures”  than “mysteries,” but this season all the episodes are true mysteries. The plots are thought-out but never too intricate.

The one thing I did miss from Season Two was the little touches that made Father Dowling and Sister Steve seem more like a real Catholic priest and nun. Except as discussed below, they don’t do anything to cut against that idea, other than the fact that the two can always run off to investigate a mystery.

One of the best episodes of the season is “The Christmas Mystery.” It’s a nice mystery with a few suspect twists, but it’s a fun Christmas treat and there aren’t enough good Christmas mysteries out there. In “The Moving Target Mystery,” another of my favorites, a contract killer comes into Father Dowling’s confessional and confesses he was hired to kill Father Dowling. He is backing out because he won’t kill a priest, but somebody else will. It’s a good set-up for a story.

The “Fugitive Priest Mystery” finds Father Dowling on the run thanks to his evil twin Blaine, and he has to clear his name and find out what Blaine’s up to. “The Hard-Boiled Mystery” is my favorite episode of the season. Father Dowling goes to have words with a writer who has decided to write a story based on Father Dowling. It’s set during the 1930s, with Dowling as a hard-boiled priest-detective. We flash from the present to the hard-boiled detective scenes and they’re absolutely hilarious.

On the downside, some stories just didn’t work. After having an angel in Season Two, the writers decided, “How about having Father Dowling encounter the devil?” Thus we are given “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery.” What we get is a Hollywood version of the Devil, who is defeated by a plot ripped off from “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” The story introduces an older brother for Steve and contradicts a previous season’s story featuring Steve’s younger brother. Further, it has the characters acting really out of character. It’s the worst episode of the series.

“The Consulting Detective Mystery” is also a bit of clunker. Father Dowling makes a deduction as to who committed a crime. He’s wrong, leading to an innocent ex-con losing his job. This leads to Sherlock Holmes appearing in order to restore Father Dowling’s confidence. It’s not a great set-up and the actor playing Holmes doesn’t work. It’s not as bad as “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery,”  but it’s weak and poorly executed.

The rest of the box set is serviceable and fun. Father Dowling was never a big budget show, and it never featured television’s most clever mystery writers. It was a show you could enjoy with the whole family. Another reviewer described the show as “cute,” and I’ll go with that. This season, in particular, features Father Dowling and Sister Steve working to save a cute zoo monkey who is framed for murder. It’s easy viewing with a bit of nostalgia for simpler times thrown into the deal.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season 2

 

Note: A version of this article was posted in 2016. 

This 3-DVD series collects the second short season of The Father Dowling Mysteries, originally broadcast in 1990 when the series moved to ABC after NBC produced its first season. The main cast is Tom Bosley (Father Frank Dowling), Tracy Nelson (Sister Steve), James Stephens (Father Prestwick), and Marie (Mary Wickles).

If I had to describe the difference between this season and season one, I’d have to use the word “authenticity.” In season one, our heroes are people who solve mysteries, who just happen to be a priest and a nun. In season two, they are a priest and a nun who come across mysteries in the course of their lives and duties.

They say prayers, perform ceremonies and deal with church hierarchy and bureaucracy. It plays into the plots. In “The Solid Gold Headache Mystery,” Sister Steve is named custodian of the estate of a wealthy man whom she was visiting. In “The Blind Man’s Bluff Mystery,” she shows kindness to a blind conman and is taken in by him. A similar event happens to Father Prestwick in “The Confidence Mystery.” Father Dowling knows who an art thief is, but is far more concerned about his life and his soul than bringing him to justice in “The Legacy Mystery.”  And Father Dowling’s pastoral relationship is key to his involvement in “The Falling Angel Mystery” and “The Perfect Couple Mystery.”

The show isn’t preachy but it makes the characters more believable. Characterization is also better for Sister Steve. She’s still resourceful and frequently ditches her habit to go undercover. However, this doesn’t happen every episode. Unlike in season one, where she seemed to be super-competent at everything, she fails at a couple of her tasks. Sister Steve doesn’t make a good skater, and doesn’t win at every video game. Thus she’s much more of a real person. This is also helps as we learn that she has a hoodlum brother in “The Sanctuary Mystery,” and that her father was an alcoholic in “The Passionate Painter Mystery.”

The supporting acting shifted as subplots became more about Father Prestwick (who works for the Bishop) than their cook Marie. I didn’t like this as much, as I prefer Marie as a character. Still, the officious and demanding Father Prestwick is more effective as a comic foil for Father Dowling.

The guest cast is mostly solid, although a couple of scenes in “The Perfect Couple Mystery”  were painful to watch.

In terms of the plots, they’re mostly okay. Many of the episodes feel more like adventures rather than typical mysteries, and some were not all that clever, such as “The Ghost of a Chance Mystery.” Some of the better ones were “The Visiting Priest Mystery,” where a mob hitman tries to go undercover as a visiting priest at Saint Michael’s; “The Exotic Dance Mystery,” which ends up with Steve going undercover as a card shark; and “The Confidence Mystery” and “Blind Man’s Bluff Mystery,” both of which have some clever twists, though the similarity in plot made airing them both in the same season a dubious decision.

This season also featured “The Falling Angel Mystery,” where a scruffy angel named Michael (not the archangel) shows up with a warning for Father Dowling. I was dubious about the plot as it could have been cheesy and there were some problems with the story. However, James McGeachin does a good job in the role and the twist is one I didn’t see coming. Of course, Father Dowling’s criminal twin brother Blaine has a return appearance, much to Father Dowling’s chagrin.

Ultimately, the plots were not all fantastic. What holds it together is the characters are incredibly likable and a joy to watch.

 

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

 

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DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season One

A version of this article was originatlly published in 2014.

The Father Dowling Mysteries was a delightful mystery series starring Tom Bosley (Happy Days) and Tracy Nelson as Chicago-based Father Frank Dowling and Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski, a priest and nun who constantly find themselves in the the thick of mysteries. The duo first appeared in a 1987 TV movie before joining the 1989 NBC line up as a mid-season replacement before moving to ABC in 1990 for another mid-season replacement season and its only full season. Having aired on NBC and ABC, the DVD release, of course, comes from CBS Home video. Father Dowling was a character created by Ralph McHenry in a series of popular novels, but the novels really don’t appear to have come much into play in the stories.

The first season set collects the 1987 movie, The Fatal Confession, as well as the seven-episode first season of Father Dowling.

Ultimately, this isn’t a series made by the cleverness of its mysteries, or by bone-chilling suspense, or by CSI-like crime scene details. In the end, Father Dowling stands firmly on the charm and chemistry of its two protagonists, and Bosley and Nelson are wonderful to watch.

Bosley is very believable as Father Dowling. He does a perfect job creating the balance that’s required in a clerical detective. Dowling is clever, but he’s also compassionate. He cares about catching the bad guy, but he also cares about people’s souls and lives. In so many ways, Frank Dowling is a bit of a throwback to a gentler era in television that spawned characters like Andy Taylor. He is truly good and kind, and also doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Sister Steve is street-smart but also very compassionate. The biggest flaw with the way the series played the character was that in each episode, they had to have her do something you wouldn’t typically expect a nun to do, mostly in the line of duty but sometimes not: beating the neighborhood boys at basketball, playing pool, fixing a car, mixing drinks at a bar, or teaching an aerobics class. It was all in the line of work. Sometimes, it was humorous, though at times it could get goofy and a little repetitive. The first few episodes had her being able to do every single thing well. Thankfully, in the “Face in the Mirror Mystery,” they finally had her undertake a task she couldn’t do well: rollerskating.

Rounding out the regulars were Father Dowling’s cranky housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) and the very particular Father Phil (James Stephens), who would appear in the first and last episodes of the 1989 series before becoming a regular.

As for the episodes themselves:

The Fatal Confession had some good moments in it as Father Dowling looks into the apparent suicide of a former parishioner, but the last quarter of it or so is just too much like a soap opera

“The Missing Body Mystery,” the feature-length first episode of the 1989 series, begins with a man stumbling into St. Michaels and dying. When Father Dowling returns after calling the police, the body is gone. His stability is called into question and the bishop wants to relieve him and replace him with Father Phil. It’s a great story and a solid beginning.

“What Do You Call Girl Mystery” is a story about a slain high-priced call girl that manages to tell a good story without being exploitative or sleazy.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner Mystery” is probably the only clunker in the first season. Steve’s ex-fiance (played by Nelson’s then-husband William Moses) witnesses a murder, but when he shows up with the police, the body’s gone. Even worse, someone’s trying to kill him. This story not only has a similar plot to a much better episode that aired two weeks previously, as a well as a weak conclusion, but it tries to create dramatic conflict over Steve’s decision to become a nun and fails.

The main problem is that we’re told that Steve was almost ready to marry her ex when she ran off to the convent to become a nun. Why would a young woman make this very radical decision? All of the reasons Sister Steve gives, such as, “It was the right thing for me,” don’t really ring true. It’s impossible to believe that the Catholic Church would allow someone with such weak reasons, or inability to articulate them, to become a nun at all. Of course, treating the subject realistically may have required too much religiosity for network TV executives’ liking. But if you can’t do it well, why do it at all? Why try to introduce a dramatic subplot that’s not believable?

The season got back on track with the two part “Mafia Priest Mystery,” in which Father Luciana, the son of a mafia family, becomes Father Dowling’s new assistant. He’s trying to make a break with the family business, but is drawn into an effort to help his brother Peter go straight, and finds himself framed for murdering the DA. This is a great story with a lot of tension, suspects, and situations. We do learn whodunit about halfway through the second episode, but there’s still some great suspense including a delightful train chase. I also appreciate how the episode highlights both Frank and Steve’s compassion as they deal with and minister to members of the crime family even while trying to find the killer.

“The Face in the Mirror Mystery” is actually a pretty decent story despite the fact that the premise of an “evil twin” of the main character has been done to death. This is a great cat-and-mouse game between Father Dowling and his twin brother Blaine, though the payoff scene is a little silly.

The season concluded with “The Pretty Baby Mystery,” which has a woman chased by armed men, leaving her baby in the church. Father Dowling and Steve try to find the mother and end up getting arrested by the Feds. This is another episode that really respects the characters’ vocation and differentiates them from the typical TV detective. The episode also marks the return of James Stevens as Father Phil, who has become the Bishop’s assistant.

Overall, the first season of Father Dowling was thoroughly enjoyable. It manages to be a mostly well-written, family-friendly detective series with likable characters. It treats its main characters with respect, but also manages a great deal of humor and warmth. I’ll look forward to future seasons.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: Space 1999: Dragon’s Domain

Dragon’s Domain is the Third Box set in British Audio Drama producer Big Finish’s re-imagining of the Gerry Anderson classic series, Space 1999. It stars Mark Bonnar as Commander John Koening, Maria Teresa Creasey as Doctor Helena Russell, Timothy Bentinck as Space Commissioner Simmons, and Glen McCready as Alan Carter.

The series follows the adventures of the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha after the Moon was blown from its orbit and sent into deep space in the events of the two hour adventure Breakaway. Like the previous two box sets, there are three episodes in this set.

First up is “Skull in the Sky.”

After the opening theme, we find ourselves on a very different Alpha than we’re used to. It’s Planet Alpha and Commissioner Simmons is Governor, ruling a semi-Police State after exiling Commander Koenig after the apparent death of Alan Carter. He delivers an oration on the anniversary of his sacrifice that allowed the discovery of water that allowed life to come to the moon.

Things get complicated when an Eagle is spotted…Alan Carter’s Eagle.

This has a nice mystery plot while also allowing the regulars a chance to play slightly different versions of their typical characters. More than that, the series builds to a satisfying, mind-blowing conclusion that leaves listeners and a few of the leads with a lot of questions.

The second story is, “The Godhead Interrogative:”

Dhashka Kano is trying to decode the relic left by the alientZantar at the end of the previous box set. While some think she’s become obsessed, the situation becomes a top priority when a hundred engines attach themselves to the moon and begin pulling off on a course with a strange world.

This is a very solid story with a great sense of mystery with a bit of the vibe of the movie, Arrival.  There are some great, realistic and grounded twists and surprises along the way. It’s emotionally and intellectually engaging. If I had any complaint, it was that Alan Carter got a bit annoying in this episode with his focus on Dhashka’s work habits.

The conclude episode is the titular story, “Dragon’s Domain”

Dragon’s Domain sees Alpha building a ship that could allow them to abandon the moon and return to the wormhole that brought them into deep space. Alan Carter teams up with a French scientist and falls in love as they work the ship and plan a test flight. The test flight leaves…and then everything goes wrong.

This is a solidly packed Sci-Fi story that manages to make a relationship between a main character and a one-off really have an impact while also creating an atmosphere of mystery and terror in deep space. It manages to be suspenseful, and scary without being gory or gratuitous.  It has a realistic time scale which means this story actually takes place over the course of several years.

This time scale does present a few slight problems. Mainly, it seems like for some issues, time has moved forward, while for others, like the relationship between Captain Koenig and Doctor Russell, things seem to have remained at a standstill. Then again, being stuck in deep space. may limit options to force a resolution. One of them can’t exactly request a transfer. Hopefully, the effects of the passage of time are visited in a future box set.
All in all, Dragon’s Domain offer more than a nostalgia high for fans of the original TV series. It’s adult sci-fi at its finest, mixing high concepts, realistic characters, and practical touches that make give this far-fetched premise seem far more realistic, sometimes frighteningly so.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0
Dragon’s Domain is available exclusively at Big Finish.