Category: Golden Age Article

Radio Detective Story Recommendations

Recently, I saw a Tweet asking podcasters when was the last time that they recommended another episode of their podcast that listeners might enjoy based on the episode they were listening to. This specific activity isn’t something I do often with our podcast, since we’re working through different detective series and honestly, I can’t remember all the details of more than 3,800 episodes enough to be handing out 1:1 plot recommendations.

However, what did occur to me is that listeners who like the programs that we’re currently playing may enjoy another series from our archives that’s similar. I’ll be making specific recommendations for our current programs in podcast episodes next week. In this article, I’ll not only cover those series that we’re currently featuring, but those we’ve started, going back to Season Eleven. Note: I’m only going to do series that we did for a long time (apologies to so many of the short programs we’ve done).

Mondays:

If listeners enjoyed Dan Holiday’s adventures in Box 13, they might also like Night Beat. Box 13 is tough to find a match for and the characters’ motivation does differ. Dan Holiday needs to write novels and gets inspiration from the adventures that he’s sent on by people who mail Box 13, while Randy Stone spends his nights prowling around for a story that goes into the next edition of his newspaper, The Star. What both have in common is that not only do they each have a journalism background, but their methods lead to them investigating mysteries that you don’t really hear on other mystery programs.

Another tough program to match is Casey, Crime Photographer. No one’s going to match the exact quirkiness of Casey, Crime Photographer with the presence of unique characters like Ethelbert the bartender and the Blue Note (which is a character in and of itself), or Casey’s unique code of honor and role. However, if you want a similar style of mystery, you might enjoy Nick Carter, which was also produced in New York and has a similar style of crime fiction.

For people who love Spade, I’d suggest checking out Richard Diamond. This hard-boiled detective series starring Dick Powell, like Sam Spade, has plenty of humor, and like Spade it also has some romantic interludes. Diamond is a bit of a lady’s man and can spout a line of well-timed sarcasm. As a program, Richard Diamond has more violence than Sam Spade, and more and better singing.

Tuesday:

If you enjoyed the Australian version of It’s a Crime, Mr. Collins, you might also like The Adventures of the Abbotts, a 1955 NBC series whose scripts were later reused on It’s a Crime, Mr. Collins. The Abbotts generally features better quality acting and sound quality vs. It’s a Crime, Mr. Collins. 

If you liked the serialized radio adventures of Dick Tracy, unfortunately, we don’t have a detective program quite like that. However, you may enjoy our Old Time Radio Superman podcast.

For lovers of the Australian version of The Fat Man, I’d recommend checking out Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator. While not advertised based on weight, Barrie is established to be a big guy who gets into and out of lots of trouble.

If you were delighted by our extended revisit to Jeff Regan, I’d suggest listening to our dedicated Jeff Regan feed where you can find all the episodes we did of the series going back to our first season. Regan is another tough series to match very well: Regan’s status as an employee, his crazy uncle boss Anthony Lyons getting him involved in weird cases because of greed isn’t something you’ll find in other series. Richard Diamond may have the most in common as on this series, as some truly silly set-ups can lead to some genuine moments of hard-boiled action and peril.

Mister Chameleon was a a bit of an acquired taste for many people. If you enjoyed it, then you might also enjoy the other programs created by Anne and Frank Hummer, including Hearthstone of the Death Squad, Inspector Throne and the longest-running detective series of all-time, Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. We created a “Keen and Company” feed with all of those programs.

Several good matches for our current Tuesday series I Hate Crime are available. That Hammer Guy (the radio adventures of Mike Hammer), That Strong Guy (AU), and The Man From Homicide all feature more violent, rough-edged protagonists. They were among the series that some listeners complained about at the time, but if you like I Hate Crime, they may be worth checking out on my Hated Detectives feed.

Wednesdays:

Our last two Wednesday series, The Man Called X and Dangerous Assignment, featured stories of international troubleshooting and intrigue. If you enjoyed either of those series, you might want to check out The Adventures of Frank Race. In addition, we did another espionage-based series starring James Monks as I.A. Moto. The series is included with another James Monks-led series, The Avenger, in a combined podcast feed. In addition, even though it’s not in the detective genre, you might like Top Secret, starring Ilona Massey as a World War II/Cold War Secret Agent. We did the entire series for The Amazing World of Radio.

Thursdays 

Our last two Thursday series, Mystery is My Hobby and Philo Vance, have some similarities to each other. Both feature genius detectives solving cases with the glowing admiration of minions of the law. Fans of Philo Vance might enjoy Boston Blackie, a series that was also produced by Ziv Productions, features an organ-based theme and also utilized New York character actors. Fans of both series might also enjoy more famous genius detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, and Hercule Poirot

Fridays

Yours Truly Johnny Dollar is our Friday mainstay and each era is a little different in terms of what the show is most like.

With Edmond O’Brien as star, the series was one of the bleakest old time radio detective programs.The closest series to the tone and feel of O’Brien’s take on Johnny Dollar would be the Jack Webb episodes of Jeff Regan. If you’re into downbeat mysteries, you might also enjoy another short Webb-led series, Pete Kelly’s Blues, which is part of our Forgotten Detectives feed.

The John Lund version of Yours Truly Johnny Dollar was a big mix of different types of stories, including a lot of script reuse from series such as Richard Diamond. Overall the type of stories being featured were quite a bit different than the hard-boiled tales of the late 1940s and early 1950s. There are some very rich and multi-layered stories that reflect evolving listener tastes. Other programs from the mid-1940s, such as Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator and The Abbotts, are most comparable.

Saturday 

We’ve featured several Saturday procedural programs including The Silent Men and Tales of the Texas Rangers along with several shorter series. One program that procedural fans would do well to remember is our first Saturday series The Line Upa series focused on realistic police cases, with each episode featuring a lineup scene. If you’ve enjoyed our other Saturday offerings, The Line Up is a must-listen.

If you have any recommendations or favorite golden age detective series that I’ve not discussed, feel to mention it in the comments.

Film Review: Cosmo Jones in the Crime Smasher

Frank Graham created the character of Cosmo Jones for his radio series Nightcap Yarns, where he voiced all the characters in a Monday-Friday program. One of the more recurring stories to emerge was Cosmo Jones, an eccentric little “professor” who solved crimes whether the police wanted him to or not.

In 1943, the series received a poverty row adaptation as Monogram released Cosmo Jones in The Crime Smasher. The main plot centered around a socialite being kidnapped after a gangland killing.

The highlight of the movie was getting an actual on-screen appearance by Frank Graham, who also did radio announcing work and starred in the more serious detective program Jeff Regan, Investigator in the 1949-50 season. He had also served as narrator for a lot of short subjects and animated features (the most famous of which was Disney’s The Three Caballeros)Graham does a great job embodying the character of Cosmo Jones, the small, eccentric professor. He shows some decent physical comedy skills and is fun to watch as far as that goes.

The rest of the movie is weak. It feels unfocused at times. Edgar Kennedy and Mantana Moreland, two Monogram mainstays, were in the film but the script didn’t give them a lot to work with. The story is simple enough, but seems to get sidetracked, and much of the humor doesn’t land. Like many films, they felt the need to tack on a boy-girl romance between two side characters that just isn’t that compelling. It mostly seems to take away from the main attraction of seeing Cosmo Jones work on-screen. The film is not horrible or particularly offensive, but it isn’t good, either.

The film’s an odd curiosity for modern viewers. It’s a movie adaptation for a radio character for whom we have scanty recordings. The one episode we do have from Frank Graham’s run on Nightcap Yarns that features Cosmo Jones includes a fight between Jones and several policemen that would have taken Monogram days to shoot and an elaborate stunt in a museum that would have probably blown their production budget for the entire year. All this occurred in a twelve-minute radio story with nothing more than Frank Graham’s voice and a few sound effects.

As such, this was one of those ideas that would never have worked as a film, but you can’t blame either Monogram for giving it a try in the midst of World War II. I can only recommend it if you’re curious to see Graham act or if you’re a completist fan of either Kennedy or Moreland.

Rating: 2.25 out of 5

Audio Drama Review: The Fiends of New York

The Fiends of New York City is Big Finish’s latest three-hour Sherlock Holmes release, starring Nicholas Briggs as Holmes and Richard Earl as Watson. It’s set after Watson’s latest marriage to an American actress and after the events of The Seamstress of Peckham Rye. (See: my review here.)

The story proper begins when a man claiming to be an American detective arrives on Holmes’s doorstep with an incredible story. However, he and the object of his pursuit disappear, and Holmes and Watson are beset with more troubles and mysteries, including the return of the elusive Seamstress of Peckham Rye.

The Fiends of New York City is an enjoyable ride through late Victorian London, with a lot of complex twists and plot turns. For the first two parts, the story may be the best we’ve seen from writer Jonathan Barnes, who has written many great Holmes releases. The sound design and acting are impeccable.

Yet, the final part, and in particular, the ending, is a bit frustrating. The core mystery is given a resolution and we’re told that certain things are likely to happen to certain people and Mycroft Holmes and the Seamstress of Peckaham Rye and maybe Sherlock Holmes are all playing games, but we have no idea what the endgame of any of this is. Given that this was cited as a conclusion to the previous release, the ending feels like an anti-climax, in the same way that The Seamstress of Peckham Rye was. While I was fine with that ending, repeating the trick multiple times leads to diminishing return, particularly without a clear indication that the story is going to be more fully resolved.

I can hope that these issues will be sorted out by the end of a future story, but it is frustrating to reach the end of a three-hour audio drama and feel no closer to understanding anything important going on with these characters than when you first started. This is a shame because apart from the weak ending, this was a very entertaining release.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

The Fiends of New York City is available from Big Finish.

Book Review: Crimson Lady/Sidewalk Empire

Larry Kent began his career in the I Hate Crime radio series, and a series of short pulpy tie-in novels were launched. The tie-in novels continued until the end of the radio show and were then resurrected with more than 400 being published through the 1960s and 70s into the early 1980s. Several of these novels have been reprinted in two-novel collections by Bold Venture Press. This reprint included Crimson Lady and Sidewalk Empire.

In Crimson Lady, Valerie Nash, a beautiful ex-flame of Larry’s, comes to him for help because men who are interested in her are winding up dead and she’s having premonitions about it because of her ESP. Larry runs into a few dead-ends but is encouraged to carry on by one of New York City’s most iconic homicide detectives, a man reverently known as “The Murder Man.”

There are some good aspects of the first novel. The opening scene and its misdirection add some interest to the story. Larry’s relationship with Valerie is a little less shallow than what would be heard on the radio program.

That said, my patience with this story was really tried in the slow early chapters. But Larry solves the case early, and then has to prove it, and protect Valerie Nash. This leads to some really tense and suspenseful moments.

The book is not good. It deals with ESP, incredibly improbable criminal pseudo-psychology and, of course (reflective of the era), mentally unstable Vietnam vets. But if you can overlook the nonsense, it’s a fair story.

In Sidewalk Empire, a beautiful ex-flame of Larry’s (notice a pattern here?), a soap opera producer, calls Larry in because someone is blackmailing her with photos of her wild drug and partying days. Larry is able to figure out that she’s being blackmailed along with other wealthy clients of an unlicensed hypnotherapist.

The first chapter sees Larry’s investigation going nowhere. In the second chapter, a leprechaun appears and gives Larry a subtle clue that renews his investigation. I made an attempt at a YouTube short. The leprechaun wasn’t the only problem with the book. The dialogue was bad, the plot was ludicrous, and the characters behaved in bizarre and foolish ways. Attempts to make Larry look like an amazing lady’s man have never been less effective or compelling than in Sidewalk Empire.

The main asset of this collection I can see is a sort of “so bad, it’s good” vibe. While The Crimson Lady isn’t nearly as bad, both stories are full of over-the-top and out-of-left-field, and poorly-executed moments that will leave many readers scratching their head. If someone decided to produce movies just for the purpose of being roasted on Mystery Science Theater 3000, faithful adaptations of Larry Kent novels would work. MST3K alum Michael Nelson might be able to do something with this reprint on his book-roasting podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back.

Beyond that, it’s tough to recommend this reprint to anyone, unless you’re really a huge fan of the radio series and are curious about the novels. While there are some good moments and the short length prevents the stories from becoming too tedious, these are ultimately unsatisfying works that annoy far more than entertain.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Ranking the Seasons of Yours Truly Johnny Dollar

Most “debates” over Yours Truly Johnny Dollar come down to the question of who was the “best” Johnny Dollar actor, with the consensus being that Bob Bailey is the answer (although Edmond O’Brien and Mandel Kramer do have their supporters). It occurred to me that it would be fun to try ranking the seasons for an idea of which is the best and which may be the worst. Plus, it’d be a different way to look at the show than everyone else has been doing.

Defining the Seasons.

So in order to debate the seasons, we have to define them.

I think the entirety of Charles Russell’s run as Johnny Dollar should be defined as Season 1. His tenure was eleven months and encompassed thirty-three episodes.

Edmond O’Brien’s run should be split into two seasons. He played Johnny Dollar from February 1950-January 1952 and again in a Summer 1952 series. So February 1950-January 1951 would be Season 2 and then the rest of O’Brien’s run would be defined as Season 3.

John Lund’s run should be split into two seasons, which would be Seasons 4 and 5. He took over as Johnny Dollar in 1952. His first season would be November 1952-October 1953, and his second season would be November 1953 until the show’s cancellation in September 1954. Bob Bailey’s run from September 1955-November 1960 should be considered Seasons 6-10.

Bob Reddick’s run from November 1960-June 1961 should be considered Season 11, and Mandel Kramer’s tenure should be considered Season 12.

Now, there can be arguments on several of these, but I think it’s a workable framework. So how would I rank the seasons?

1. Season 6

The vast majority of the Bob Bailey serial era featured memorable characters and great stories that were really given a chance to breathe.

2. Season 7

The rest of the Bob Bailey serial run and the first of his half-hour stories had sharp and engaging episodes throughout this entire season.

3. Season 2

Once Edmond O’Brien settled into the role of Johnny Dollar, the series established a well-done downbeat tone that exemplified the ideals of the hard-boiled detective as well as any other on the radio.

4. Season 5

John Lund was fully established as Johnny Dollar, and the series was blessed with the same capable company of actors who would feature in the Bailey era. The series featured scripts from talented writers. While overlooked at the time of its first broadcast, this remains solid radio entertainment.

5. Season 3

O’Brien’s second season saw the series begin to drift as creative forces tried to keep up with what Dragnet was doing. The tone of the series became uneven, with O’Brien being thrust into scripts that didn’t suit him as well as in previous runs. Still, casting and solid location work made this a good listen.

6. Season 4

John Lund was a decent Johnny Dollar from the beginning, with solid supporting actors. However, his early season features far too many inartful script reuses from other detective series or previous runs of Johnny Dollar. Individually, the shows were quite entertaining but the writing for Johnny varied wildly from episode to episode.

7. Season 8

Bob Bailey remained a solid lead during the 1957-58 season, but there was a marked decline in the writing quality as more of the production duties fell on Jack Johnstone. The season did get a boost by a guest appearance by Vincent Price in “The Price of Fame Matter,” a rarity at a time when name Hollywood stars were rare on network radio dramas.

8. Season 1

Charles Russell’s first season has some rough moments and his season is controversial among fans. Some odd ideas were tried, like making Johnny the type of guy who went around giving dollar tips even for services that were eighty-five cents, like he was obsessed with dollars. Much of Russell’s first season was spent adjusting and calibrating the show and its format. By the time they decided what Johnny Dollar would be like, Russell was out and the series would be redefined for Edmond O’Brien. Still, there are some funny moments and Russell does well in what was obviously a chaotic environment.

9. Season 10

Season 10 marks a bit of a rebound from Season 9. This season sees the introduction of a recurring girlfriend for Johnny in Betty Lewis, which allows for a bit more exploration of the character than all the one-shot romantic interests from previous seasons. This also features the celebratory Five Down Matter, which marks five years of Bailey playing Johnny Dollar.

10. Season 9

Season 9 was the worst of the Bailey seasons. The drop-off in the quality of writing, combined with less of each episode being dedicated to stories made for a weaker series.

11. Season 12

Mandel Kramer was a slight upgrade on Bob Readick, but the weakness of the previous season continued. There’d be some solid episodes and Kramer turned in some good performances, but this was definitely a season in decline.

12. Season 11

The series moved from Hollywood to New York for budgetary reasons and Bob Readick replaced Bob Bailey. Readick was no Bailey, but did a good job. The series would also have a more jazzy feel that would be appropriate for the 1960s. On the other hand, the loss of access to the Hollywood character actors who had been at the core of Johnny Dollar since its beginning hurt the quality, as the show feels almost alien and its attempts at continuity from the Bailey era with New York actors is awkward.

Of course, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar does have its strengths and weakness, but some seasons are better than others, and these are my rankings. I’d love to hear in the comments what seasons of Johnny Dollar people like most and least.

Telefilm Review: Garfield’s Babes and Bullets

Garfield’s Babes and Bullets is a 1989 Emmy-Award-winning Television special based on Jim Davis’ book Garfield: His Nine Lives, a book which was based on the premise that cats literally have nine lives and that Garfield has had past lives as a cave cat, a lab animal, etc. The other segments of the book were adapted as a separate TV special, Garfield: His Nine Lives. The Babes and Bullets segment from the book shares only the name of the character and tone. The story for the TV special is different from what was in the book.

In the TV special, it’s a rainy day, and Garfield (Lorenzo Music) goes to sleep in the closet and dreams he’s Sam Spayde, a hard-boiled private investigator. The wife of a recently deceased twenty-three-year-old college professor thinks her husband was murdered rather than dying in an auto accident. Spayde sets out to investigate the case.

The special does a great job capturing the tone, the feel, the style, and the dialogue of a noir film perfectly. The story is a comedy but never becomes a farce. The story is kid-friendly, but the humor is a little less silly than what was being played on the Saturday Morning mainstay Garfield and Friends with that sort of all-ages family comedy feel the Garfield specials went for.

I also appreciate the premise on a conceptual level. Cats spend a lot of time sleeping or perching in odd places and staying totally still. The idea that they’re doing something like daydreaming about being a hard-boiled private eye is a nice premise.

While the “Garfield” framing segments are animated in the typical style of the other TV specials, the Spayde segment is done very well in Black and White, which really adds to the ambiance. The special also has a very nice jazzy theme song and score. Although, if I were to level one criticism at the special, it’s that there was at least one segment where either no music or a different selection might have worked a bit better.

Garfield’s Babes and Bullets is a well-done and entertaining love letter from the late 1980s to the hard-boiled detective films of the 1940s and 1950s. If you love Garfield or share the creative team’s appreciation, it makes for an entertaining twenty-four minutes.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Garfield’s Babes and Bullets is currently available for free to Amazon Prime Members along with eight other Garfield TV specials.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchaser.

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.