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Graphic Novel Review: Jazz Age Chronicles, Volume 1

This black and white comic book collection features two stories set in the 1920s. Both feature Private Detective Ace Mifflin, a Boston-based Private Detective. He has many of the same vices as Sam Spade, but isn’t quite as good as Spade. Though he is good enough to get the job done in most cases.

In the first case, “The Case of the Beguiling Baroness,” Mifflin is hired to keep tabs on a baroness. A secret society is interested in her because of her dabbling in the black arts. When she dies, it’s just the start of the case. This one’s an intriguing mystery and a bit of a genre mash-up between a traditional private detective story and the strange tales featured in the Doc Savage and the Shadow pulp magazines. This one works okay, but Mifflin’s role in this is a bit confused. He’s out of his element, and the hero is supposed to be Clifton Jennings, who hired him. This one could have worked better.

The second case is, “Vote Early, Vote Often.” Mifflin gets in trouble, gets his license suspended, and runs into a whole lot of political corruption. All as he tries to help a friend get free of a murder charge. It’s a good noirish story with a neat mystery to unravel. Mifflin works far better in this story and he is in his element. Of the two tales in the book, I preferred this one more.

Overall, this is a decent graphic novel collection and a nice read if you’re a fan of 1920s’ detective and pulp fiction stories.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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DVD Review: Pie in the Sky, Series 2

Series One of Pie in the Sky was a good enough series with a likable lead that, despite some weaker stories, left me hungry for more. In Series Two, Pie in the Sky really hits its stride.

The basic set up of Pie in the Sky is that Police Inspector Henry Crabbe (Richard Griffins) is ready to retire and focus on running a restaurant. Due to a mishap and a crooked partner, Crabbe ends up in line for a murder wrap. Assistant Chief Constable Fisher (Malcolm Sinclair) knows Crabbe’s innocent but holds the threat of an inquiry over Crabbe’s head to keep him on call. Crabbe spends most of his time running the restaurant Pie in the Sky, but when Fisher calls he goes into action to solve a case.

Series 2 manages to expand and clarify much of Series 1. Including giving a clear understanding of Crabbe on a very fundamental level. It only took a single sentence, but in a conversation with newly promoted Detective Sergeant Sophia Cambridge (Bella Enaharo) about the importance he placed on doing police work as opposed to a police career. That defines the difference between Crabbe and Fisher, whose entire focus is on career advancement. For Crabbe, each case is a job that must be worked well and solved correctly. For Fisher, cases are important based on how the outcome will advance his long-term career goals. While In Series One, Crabbe’s problem with other policemen was  vague. In Series Two, it firmly nailed down that it’s officers who are more concerned about advancing their career rather than actually getting things right.

It also explains why Crabbe is so suited to being a chef. The focus on quality work and getting the job done right is at the core of that position. And whereas his lack of attention to career left him in a rut on a police force, the attention to detail serves him well in the kitchen.

Of course, this does lead to some conflicts with his accountant wife Margaret (Maggie Steed) who is the legal owner of the restaurant  to satisfy a British legal requirement that wouldn’t let Henry own the restaurant as a policeman. It doesn’t help that she has no real taste for fine food and only sees how the bottom line can be improved. She doesn’t meddle all the time, but most often her efforts to change the business to make it more profitable cut against Henry’s overall ethic and good restaurant practices such as when she decided to start double booking tables to maximize the profits.

Yet, despite their differences or perhaps because of them, the Crabbes make a lovely middle-aged couple, balancing each other out. Both can be kind. While Henry’s heart of gold and decency is much more obvious, Margaret also shines in the series and the way they play off each other is fun to watch.

We do get some insight on Fisher. In the episode, “The Policeman’s Daughter,” Fisher has Crabbe look for his daughter who has fled to an enclave of drifters. We learn all Fisher really has is his career and that his wife cheats on him regularly and he has lost the respect of his daughter. Crabbe does his best to bring some sort of peace.

Cambridge received a promotion after the first series and this one focuses on the challenges of it. In one scene, another department tries to get her and Fisher fights the head of the other department over her and it becomes apparent she’s merely being used as a way for them to beef up their rankings for racial diversity. This contributes to the fact there are several instances where she doesn’t get respect for her achievements or rank that are due. It’s all done in an understated way though. She’s a still a very good character, but both she and Fisher are in this series less than in the first.

The staff of the restaurant was used more creatively. In the first series, Pie in the Sky was Crabbe’s refuge from trouble. Yet, in a bit of realism, the restaurant itself began to present some genuine problems, particularly when Crabbe had to step away to solve a case. He’d be in and out while his restaurant was in the hands of his twenty-something assistant chef and waitstaff and problems would develop that he would eventually have to solve. My favorite example of this is when they decided to switch out the classical musical Crabbe plays in the chicken coop for heavy metal music in order to get the chickens to lay more eggs. It actually works but with a side effect.

There’s also tension between the assistant chef Steve (Joe Duttine) and the head waiter John (Ashley Russell) as the former is an ex-con and the later is an experienced waiter from many highly regarded establishments. The rivalry mainly serves to show Crabbe’s sense of diplomacy.

The episodes are well-written. Each has a mystery at the core that’s well-crafted, but not so complex it doesn’t leave time for the comedy and drama of the episode. Some of the better ones include, “The One That Got Away,” where Crabbe has to stop a friend from being railroaded from the murder of his fiancee by an ambition Detective Inspector. In “Black Pudding,” Crabbe meets up with an elderly woman whose cookbooks he admires and finds her relatives are after her steamy memoirs. The “Mild Ones” finds Crabbe in pursuit of two elderly con-women who rip off people for thousands but leave behind an amazing recipe for bread pudding. In the “Mystery of Pikey,” some locals pressure Fisher to get Crabbe to investigate a series of minor local crimes. He gets results, but not what they would hope for.

The only weak episode of the series is the series finale, “Lemon Twist” that has Crabbe, Fisher, and Cambridge attending a management training conference. The premise is problematic as its hard to see why Fisher would send Crabbe as Crabbe is only working part time and has no interest in managing for the police or a long-term police career. The mystery is weak and there’s some humor around Crabbe that requires him to act out of character. The episode is not that bad, though. The restaurant plot has some genuinely funny moments after they earn a five star review from a nationally known food critic.

So, the worst episode of this series was but mediocre. The rest of the Series is pure gold. The stories are fun cozy mysteries with a lovable lead doing his best to bring peace and order in the kitchen and to whatever case he’s called to investigate.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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Top Ten Greatest American Radio Detective Performances, Part Three

I began my examination of the top ten American radio detective performances in parts one and two, now we get to the big three.

 

3) Gerald Mohr as Philip Marlowe (1948-51):
That opening. It’s impossible to talk about the Adventures of Philip Marlowe’s performance without talking about one of the best openings in old time radio when Mohr comes on the air as Marlow and proclaims:

“Get this and get it straight. Crime is a sucker’s road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave. There’s no other end, but they never learn.

It’d be tweaked throughout the series run, but it’s simply the best introduction to any golden age detective program. Mohr’s delivery conveys a mix of danger, excitement, and world-weariness. Even better were the teasers for the adventure Marlowe delivered in the earlier episodes of the series:

“This time it started as a routine search for a rich girl’s fiancé and the trail led to a silent house haunted by a face at the window and blood in an open cedar chest. But before it was over, it became a search for a corpse that wouldn’t sit still.”

You feel like you’re about to experience a true hard-boiled detective tale. It sets the tone perfectly.

Mohr’s performance goes beyond a superb opening. He’s superb from start to finish in every episode. Mohr portrays a Marlowe who could be as tough as nails with a touch of biting cynicism, but at other times he could show great kindness, a sense of humor, and also a philosophical side.

To be sure, Mohr benefited from some of the best writing and direction in the golden age of radio, but his performance took great material and made it excellent.

2) Phil Harper as Harry Nile (1976-78, 1991-2004)

The title of this list intentionally didn’t tie making this list to having appeared radio’s golden age. Of course, there haven’t been many contenders for this list since the end of the Golden Age. But then there’s a detective called Harry Nile and the actor who first portrayed him, Phil Harper.

Harry Nile originated as a part of the anthology series Crisis. He was a Chicago private detective in early 1940 with deep gambling debts, forced to go west to commit a murder. Harry was no fan of the idea and didn’t end up going through with it and instead drifted around until he settled in Los Angeles and eventually relocated to Seattle. Nile was assisted by Murphy, (Pat French) an LA librarian who was a recurring character who became his secretary and eventually his partner.

Harry Nile appeared in twenty-four episodes in 1976-78 and returned with an unaired Christmas special in 1990, and then in June 1991, Harper would begin playing Harry Nile regularly for the rest of his life.

Harper was incredibly versatile as Harry Nile. The original premise had Nile as simply a private detective who always seemed to be under a rain cloud of bad luck, such as clients who never paid. Yet, over time, the character grew and Harper brought him to life as a fully formed private eye. He could play the comedy of the chronically late and cheap boss and senior partner, the professional talking to a potential client, but also show a great deal of compassion. Nile’s Chicago-based siblings were recurring characters and Harper’s performance captured his realistic concern for them. Then there was the interplay between Harry and Murphy. Harper’s Nile never went beyond friendship with her despite hints that Murphy was interested in more, yet Harry often showed a tenderness and protectiveness towards that was very sweet.

Phil Harper grew up in 1940 and dreamed of appearing in radio dramas only to find he was born too late. However, Jim French offered Harper the opportunity to play Harry Nile and he jumped on it. His inspiration came from his memories of the golden age of radio, particularly Howard Duff as Sam Spade and Edmond O’Brien as Johnny Dollar. Harper fulfilled his boyhood dream of appearing in radio drama and managed to be the equal of the best Golden Age radio performances and surpassed many.

1) Bob Bailey as Johnny Dollar (1955-60):

Bob Bailey makes our list twice. As good as he was as George Valentine, it’s his role as the fourth on-air Johnny Dollar that he’s best known for. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the  fact, for most of his run, Johnny Dollar was the only detective program still on radio, so he wasn’t competing with twenty other shows doing the same thing. The series re-aired frequently on Armed Forces Radio and Television Services even after it went off the air. Thus there’s a sub-generation for whom Bob Bailey’s Johnny Dollar is the Radio Detective they grew up with.

That Bailey made it five years was remarkable. 1955 was a horrible time for anything on radio other than adult Westerns. So many detective programs came to air only to be cancelled after less than a year. Johnny Dollar was initially to be serialized and was the third show they had tried as a serial after Mr and Mrs. North and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. 

Bob Bailey’s Johnny Dollar was different than nearly every radio detective that came before because he was a fully fleshed out character. He had friends who weren’t just introduced as plot devices. He had ongoing relationships with recurring characters. He had a favorite hobby and a favorite vacation spot. And Bailey did a superb job pulling this off.

His Johnny Dollar had the best range of any performance on this list. He had a lot of times when he was fairly easy going. The character could get along with and connect with a lot of people. Bailey had good chemistry with every actor to appear on the program which made this seem effortless. His Johnny Dollar was smart and often brilliant in his deductions, but he also often blundered by jumping to wrong conclusions, which gave him a great humanity. Dollar also could be tough, at some times hitting Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer levels of intensity on deserving targets. At the same time, the character often showed a great deal of kindness and fell in love a few times. He was more believable in romance than most any other detective and this often led to heartbreak particularly in serials like the Lamar Matter and the Valentine Matter.

Bailey’s first year on Johnny Dollar was the best. The series was using multi-part fifteen minutes episodes often adapted from other detective radio series and they were brilliant. The Johnny Dollar serial era is the best year of dramatic production during the entire Golden age of radio. After that, the series went to once-a-week broadcasts and the quality declined as series producer Jack Johnstone had to write every script. He did the best he could while CBS’ budget cuts left him unable to pay writers and forced him to operate outside of his genius. He was a great producer and great director. And he was great at creating interesting characters, but he was not equipped to put out great detective scripts every week for years on end. That’s why there’s many weaker scripts in the later part of Bailey’s run.

The fact the writing worked against Bailey for the last three years of his run on Johnny Dollar was a testament to how good his performance was. He elevated every script he was given. Listeners love episodes that are subpar from a writing standpoint solely based on Bob Bailey’s performance.

Bailey’s performance with both good material and weaker material shows his strength as an actor. In the golden age of radio, where there were so many good performances, this one stands out head and shoulders above them all.

 

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Four Great Radio Good Guys

If one of your New Year’s Resolutions is to try out another old time radio program, I have some recommendations for you. While I love detectives such as Johnny Dollar, Sherlock Holmes, and Philip Marlowe, there’s more to old time radio than great detective stories.

Here are four heroes who are good guys from Comedy to Westerns, here are great programs with some memorable and enjoyable characters, in no particular order:

1) Luigi Basco-Life with Luigi

Luigi Basco (J Carroll Naish) was brought to America from Italy by Italian restaurant owner Pasquale in the hopes that Luigi would marry his daughter Rosa. Luigi has little interest, but Pasquale isn’t easily dissuaded and manages to complicate every event in Luigi’s life so Luigi is only left with one solution–marry Rosa so Pasquale will bail him out .

What defines Luigi is a good natured curiosity, a love for his adopted homeland, and a desire to do the right thing. However, Luigi’s character did get revised from early episodes. In those, he was a foster parent to a young boy and knew more about American history than most Americans despite being new to the country. Always, Luigi has a sunny optimism and eagerness to help that’s infectious as he tries to be a good citizen.

He dealt with serious challenges later in the show. In one episode, he writes a school play that features a role for a Black student over the concerns of people at the school that it would cause an uproar. In another episode, he didn’t get a job because he refused to change his name to “an American name” and he insisted that Basco was a fine American name.

Some of the accents are a bit stereotypical, and the plots are formulaic, particularly in the early seasons, but the show’s heart is in the right place and Luigi is a wonderful character to follow through the 100+ episodes in existence.

See: Full review here.

2) Doctor Christian:

In the mid-1930s, Danish Actor Jean Hersholt took on the role of Doctor John Luke, Doctor to the Dionne Quintuplets in two movies. He was so good in the role of the kindly Doctor, he was given a series he could play it without the famous Quintuplets.

The result was Doctor Christian, who practiced his gentle brand of medicine for sixteen years over radio and in six films. Doctor Christian is the ideal physician: caring, wise, and selflessly dedicated to others. His biggest ambition is to build a hospital for the people he serves in the small town of River’s End. His attitude was summarized in the first episode when a worried woman apologized to him for not paying a $10 bill.

He said, “You can go ahead and forget $5 of that bill.”

She agreed to this.

He replied by saying, “Good, and I’ll forget the other $5.”

River’s End is a town full of decent but flawed people who often require a bit of gentle help from River’s End’s leading citizen. While Doctor Christian isn’t perfect, he holds high a standards of kindness, goodness, honesty, and neighborliness that is noble and exemplary. The show had a fine cast. Like many 1930s dramas, the plots could be over the top. But still, Doctor Christian is a wonderful character. He’s a great person to aspire to be like when you grow up no matter how old you might be.

3) The Mayor from Mayor of the Town 

The Mayor of the Town became a much more lighthearted comedy drama in the vein of Doctor Christian. But at the start, America was at war, which led to a serious footing. In the opening episode, Tom Williams, son of the Mayor’s best friend Judge Williams, wants to enlist. The Mayor encourages Tom to over his father’s objections. When Tom is killed in action, he faces the anger of both the Judge and Tom’s young pregnant widow.

It’s pretty gripping stuff for a premier episode and future episodes would continue the trend. It would have the Mayor taking in a traumatized war orphan. He would encourage the career of a local tomboy as a military nurse and help a musician who was going deaf as a consequence of Axis bombing. It was a tough time to be the Mayor of the Town, but he handled it well. However, he’d much rather handle problems such as being named the winner of the “Papa Dear” contest or helping misunderstood young people. Throughout it all, he remains lovable, wise, and fun. (See full Review)

4) Captain Lee Quince-Fort Laramie

Captain Lee Quince is second in command at Fort Laramie in the 1870s. Raymond Burr played the role before he took on the iconic part of Perry Mason over television. Fort Laramie was a memorable series aired at the height of the popularity of the Adult Western, it is one of the most realistic series ever written.

Quince is a fantastic character to listen to. He’s an experienced and tough Army officer who knows the lands and the peoples of a still very wild west. He’s gruff but possesses the wisdom that comes from years of experience. He’s not preachy but he maintains a strong moral core throughout the series as he deals with all sorts of challenges from Indian attacks to rogue soldiers and Indian agents.

It’s a fascinating series that manages to have a few lighter stories such as an episode where the men are out of payroll and another where they receive some clueless visitors from Back East. Still, there are other far more serious stories such as one dealing with Indian massacring settlers, an episode in which a woman loses her soldier husband on a patrol, and another dealing with a fanatical soldier committing genocide on Native Americans.

Throughout, Fort Laramie is brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, and Burr is at his best as Lee Quince. (See Full Review)

Please feel free to share any of your favorite old time radio programs and heroes in the comments below.

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