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Review: Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949)

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No sooner has Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris) dropped off a bundle of dirty clothes to his laundryman, Charley Wu, when frenemy Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) wants a few answers to questions surrounding Wu’s murder. It seems that Wu’s niece, Mei Ling (Maylia), spotted Blackie and The Runt (Sid Tomack) leaving the gentleman’s establishment shortly after she discovered Uncle Charley’s corpse. Farraday isn’t completely convinced that Blackie is the murderer, but he’s sure B.B. knows more than he’s willing to reveal. Mei Ling believes Farraday’s not above pinning the rap on Blackie—or even her—just to close the case, though Blackie reassures her the Inspector is “an honest cop.”

venture2And thus, it falls to Blackie and Runt to expend the necessary shoe leather to clear up the matter of Wu’s death. Farraday thinks it might have some connection to the numbers racket, but Blackie soon learns that Charley inadvertently received a package that points toward a Chinatown tour bus racket and, ultimately, stolen jewelry. The jewelry angle is right in Blackie’s line of work as the curtain rings down on the final entry in Columbia Pictures’ movie series based on Jack Boyle’s creation, Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949). Chinese Venture is one of three Blackie movies that’s been released to MOD DVD by Sony Pictures Video (along with One Mysterious Night and A Close Call for Boston Blackie). That might be your best bet if you haven’t seen the picture; in January, when getTV televised a marathon of Boston Blackie movies, Chinese Venture was curiously not on the schedule.

venture4Chinese Venture is a fitting capper to the long-running franchise, though it can be argued that the story (courtesy of Maurice Tombragel) and direction (Seymour Friedman, who helmed the previous Trapped by Boston Blackie) are aggressively average for a movie that should have exited with a bit more flourish. Unsurprisingly, the final entries in Columbia’s Whistler (The Return of the Whistler) and Crime Doctor series (The Crime Doctor’s Diary) were pretty humdrum as well. But Chinese Venture moves along at a brisk clip (barely an hour’s running time) and shines a spotlight on several first-rate Asian-American actors, including Maylia, Philip Ahn, Benson Fong (a one-time scion of cinematic sleuth Charlie Chan) and Victor Sen Yung (also a member of the Chan clan).

On Demand Master_10rillViewers will also notice that there’s a different actor playing the role of Blackie’s loyal sidekick The Runt; he’s Sid Tomack, a balding character actor who played scores of clerks and cabbies throughout his movie career…though he’s probably better known for playing second-string hoods, the kind of roles Ben Welden would have taken on had Ben not been busy. Tomack can be seen in such films as A Double Life (1947) and Hollow Triumph (1948); one of my favorite Tomack appearances is in Force of Evil (1948), in which he’s uncredited as human calculator “Two-and-Two” Taylor. Sid also performed often on radio; he can be heard on several broadcasts of The Life of Riley (Tomack was playing the role of Jim Gillis in the Jackie Gleason TV version so that John Brown could concentrate on Digby “Digger” O’Dell) and he replaced Brown as “Al” in the waning years of radio’s My Friend Irma. As The Runt, Sid does a respectable job…but he just couldn’t convey the rat-like quality that was the bailiwick of George E. Stone.

venture6Columbia contractee Joan Woodbury plays the femme fatale in Chinese Venture (known simply as “Red”); we’ve mentioned her appearances in Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941) and The Whistler (1944) on the blog, and she’s also familiar to serial fans as the titular Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945). Another familiar cliffhanger face appears in Chinese Venture as well: Don McGuire as Les the bus driver. McGuire brought the comic strip character of Congo Bill to life in 1948, and appeared in such films as The Threat (1949) and Armored Car Robbery (1950). He later became a director-producer, overseeing features such as Johnny Concho (1956) and Jerry Lewis’ first solo outing, The Delicate Delinquent (1957).

20808We here at Radio Spirits hope you’ve enjoyed our retrospective of Columbia’s Boston Blackie franchise, and highly recommend these entertaining mystery comedies to anyone who’s a fan of classic movies. Radio Spirits also reminds you that we have TV’s Boston Blackie on hand in a DVD featuring four of his boob tube adventures, as well as classic Blackie broadcasts on Outside the Law and Great Radio Detectives (“Kingston and the Disappearing Office Building”).

Happy Birthday, Nigel Bruce!

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If we can suggest a word association exercise for the old-time radio devotees and classic movie fans who drop by the blog on occasion…what would be the first thought to come to mind upon the mention of “Nigel Bruce”? We’d bet dollars to donuts the largest percentage of answers received would be “Dr. Watson.” Playing the physician sidekick of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes is unquestionably the English actor’s most memorable role. But we’d also be doing William Nigel Ernle Bruce—“Willie” to his close friends, and born on this date in 1895—a grave disservice; though he was immortalized on the silver screen as the archetypal bumbling Englishman, Bruce did more than just aid and abet Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in over a dozen celluloid investigations and 200 radio broadcasts. For example, Nigel had substantial roles in two classic Alfred Hitchcock films, Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941).

bruce7The English actor was born the second son of Sir William Walter Bruce and Lady Angelica Bruce…though interestingly enough, not on British soil; his birthplace was Ensenada in Mexico’s Baja California, a little surprise to his parents as they vacationed there. His schooling took place in his home country, however, and after a brief job with a stockbroker’s firm Willie enlisted in the service—achieving the rank of lieutenant in the 10th Service Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry and the Honourable Artillery Company. Like his silver screen counterpart Dr. Watson, Bruce suffered an injury (taking eleven bullets in his leg at Cambrai) during his military stint; Bruce was forced to spend the remainder of the war wheelchair-bound.

bruce8This wouldn’t be a setback in the acting career that Nigel Bruce set his sights on; his stage debut was as a footman in a 1920 production of Why Marry?, and he later appeared in such plays as The Ringer, Lean Harvest and Two White Arms. Bruce’s credited film debut is believed to be in a 1929 silent entitled Red Aces, and he later graced such British-made films as The Squeaker (1930) and I Was a Spy (1933; with Conrad Veidt and Madeleine Carroll). Nigel still continued to be active in the footlights, but his move to Hollywood in 1934 opened up many more motion picture opportunities: the films on his resume at that time include Stand Up and Cheer (1934), Treasure Island (1934), She (1935), The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937). Bruce also appeared in Becky Sharp (1935), the first feature film released in full Technicolor.

bruce9Many of his movie roles were consistent with the lovably absentminded British twits that became his stock-in-trade—though Nigel Bruce wasn’t afraid to expand his range when needed, playing a particularly loathsome sort in 1939’s Oscar-nominated The Rains Came. It was also in 1939 that Bruce was cast as Dr. John Watson in 20th Century-Fox’s production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel. The chemistry between Willie and Basil Rathbone (as Holmes) was positively perfection (the two actors were close friends even before shooting on Baskervilles began), and a follow-up from the same studio was released that same year, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (Adventures was based on the famed William Gillette play and not Conan Doyle material…but the film has quite a few admirers, notably for the first-rate casting of such thespians as Ida Lupino, George Zucco, Henry Stephenson and E.E. Clive.)

bruce1Their success in the two Fox films would pave the way for Nigel and Basil to reprise their characters in a Sherlock Holmes radio series that premiered over NBC in the fall of 1939. We need to stress that this was not the first time Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuthing creation was heard before the microphones; Sherlock Holmes had been entertaining listeners as far back as 1930. But the teaming of Rathbone and Bruce on the radio was undeniably the most celebrated of the various Holmes series incarnations; the duo broadcast for Bromo Quinine for two seasons on the Blue network, then switched to NBC for a season with the same sponsor. In April of 1943, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes moved to Mutual, where Petri Wines agreed to pick up the tab.

bruce10At the same time the radio series was on the air, Bruce and Rathbone were the stars in a Sherlock Holmes film franchise that began at Universal in 1942. Though signed to an MGM contract in 1941, Rathbone was generously loaned to Universal for each entry in the movie series, beginning with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942). That entry was helmed by John Rawlins, with each subsequent film featuring Roy William Neill in the director’s chair; Neill had an incredible talent for making B-pictures (which the Universal Holmes films clearly were) look lavish despite their miniscule budgets. Despite an ill-advised decision to update the first three films to the modern era (as well as saddling Rathbone with a risible haircut), the remaining installments (well, with the exception of 1944’s The Spider Woman) operated in a quasi-Victorian period that occasionally echoed the era depicted in Baskervilles and Adventures.

Basil_Rathbone_Nigel_Bruce2The Universal Sherlock Holmes films were treasured by movie audiences, but they often came under criticism by devoted Sherlockians, who objected to the portrayal of Dr. Watson on screen by Nigel Bruce. The dispute was with Bruce’s interpretation of Watson as a not-too-terribly bright sidekick who fumbled and harrumphed his way through the investigations, the very picture of foggy bewilderment. Conan Doyle’s Watson was an intelligent man (he would have had to have been, seeing as he was a physician and all) whose intellectualism paled in contrast to the brilliance of Holmes. I’ve long dismissed this nitpicking; Bruce’s performances were infused with a lovability that his co-star Rathbone later championed in his 1961 memoir In and Out of Character: “There was an endearing quality to his performance that to a very large extent, I believe, humanized the relationship between Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes.” Their relationship on both film and radio was an engaging one, but all good things eventually come to an end; by 1946, Rathbone believed playing Holmes had grown stale, and he informed Universal that Dressed to Kill would be the final time he dawned the deerstalker hat and inverness cape. Basil left the radio series as well at the end of the 1945-46 season, with an eye on working on stage for a while.

20743Nigel Bruce, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to cease being Dr. Watson; he soldiered on in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with Tom Conway taking on the titular role. Nigel got a hefty raise and top billing on the show…but tensions between the writers and the series’ producer made the experience an unpleasant one for Bruce, and so he relinquished the Watson part at the end of the season. He could certainly afford to do so; his career as a beloved character actor was in full swing, as he racked up appearances in such films as Journey for Margaret (1942), Lassie Come Home (1943), Son of Lassie (1945), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), Limelight (1952) and Bwana Devil (1953), the first 3-D film. Bruce passed away at the age of 58 on October 8, 1953—his final film (released posthumously) was 1954’s World for Ransom.

Radio Spirits’ latest CD collection Great Radio Detectives features today’s birthday boy opposite his friend Basil Rathbone in a November 6, 1939 broadcast of “The Bruce Partington Plans.” We’ve also got a new set of cases from The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (with Tom Conway as Holmes) in Cue for Murder, as well as our classic compilation The Stuttering Ghost & Other Mysteries. It’s Nigel Bruce at his beloved bumbling best, and we wish one of our favorite character thesps a most happy birthday!

The Never-Ending Battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way

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The Man of Steel made his comic book debut in Action Comics on April 18, 1938, and less than a year later (in January of 1939), the costumed superhero creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster would conquer the world of newspaper comic strips as well. But the induction of Superman—“strange visitor from the planet Krypton who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men”—as a genuine pop culture icon didn’t really get underway until the alter ego of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent detailed his incredible exploits over the radio airwaves. It was on this date in 1940 (after several audition records produced in 1938 and 1939) that The Adventures of Superman premiered as a syndicated series from New York’s WOR, and it would soon become a favorite of juvenile audiences for a decade afterward.

19383For those of you who’ve been encased in ice during the past century, the origin of Superman is pretty straightforward. Kal-El, the son of Jor-El and Lara, arrived on Earth in a spaceship of his father’s design after the destruction of their home planet of Krypton. The atmosphere of Earth would prove beneficial to Kal-El; it helped him run faster than a speeding bullet; made him more powerful than a locomotive; and enabled him to leap tall buildings in a single bound. These impressive feats literally made the Krypton alien a “superman,” and he made it his mission to take on those villains and evildoers who posed a threat to his adoptive planet. Superman disguised himself as Clark Kent, a reporter for the major metropolitan newspaper known as The Daily Planet—which he pretty much had to do, in order to ward off autograph seekers and groupies and the like.

budcollyerThe role of Superman was essayed by Clayton “Bud” Collyer, an actor-announcer whose old-time radio resume included such series as Terry and the Pirates, The Guiding Light, The Goldbergs and Renfrew of the Mounted. Superman was unquestionably his most famous role; Collyer would use his normal voice when playing Clark Kent, and then when it came time to let the audience know that “This looks like a job for Superman” his voice shifted an octave lower on the last word to indicate he was now “The Man of Steel.” Bud played Supe on radio for nearly a decade before transitioning to the small screen as one of TV’s first game show hosts—among the popular programs he hosted were Beat the Clock and To Tell the Truth.

joanalexanderJoan Alexander played Clark Kent’s rival (and love interest) at The Daily Planet, reporter Lois Lane…in what surely ranks as one of the most unusual love triangles in popular culture. (Clark was mad about Lois, who spurned his advances; she had a thing for Superman, who really didn’t need anybody.) The role of Lois would later be played by Rolly Bester and Helen Choate. In the part of cub reporter-sidekick Jimmy Olsen was Jack Grimes, with Julian Noa as exasperated Planet editor Perry White. Other actors heard on The Adventures of Superman over the years include Ned Wever, Agnes Moorehead, Jay “Mr. District Attorney” Jostyn, Arthur Vinton and Matt Crowley. Crowley played Inspector Henderson, the top cop in the city of Metropolis…but he also emoted as Superman’s buddy Batman when the decision was made to add DC Comics’ other breadwinner to the program in the mid-1940s. (Stacy Harris and Gary Merrill also took their turns as “The Caped Crusader.”)

jacksonbeckOne of the most important performers on The Adventures of Superman was the show’s announcer, Jackson Beck. Beck took over as narrator when the series moved to Mutual in August of 1942, after they lost their #1 kiddie adventure show Jack Armstrong to NBC. (The announcer for Superman in the years between 1940 and 1942 was George Lowther.) Beck, whose range on radio included stints as The Cisco Kid and Philo Vance, played a number of minor characters on Superman (Daily Planet copyboy Beany Martin, Batman butler Alfred Pennyworth) but is best known for his thrilling introduction to the main character—“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” Beck acknowledged in later years that he was often called upon by fans to recreate the legendary opening, adding: “It’s nice to be part of a legend.”

pepUpon its addition to Mutual’s schedule beginning August 31, 1942, The Adventures of Superman quickly became one of that networks most popular programs; its devoted after-school audience would gather around to listen to their favorite superhero vanquish villains, accompanied by commercials for Kellogg’s Pep cereal (beginning in January of 1943). Many of the facets that we associate with the Superman character were actually a by-product of the radio series; for example, to allow lead actor Collyer a little vacation time (because the show was performed live five days a week), his Superman would often briefly disappear thanks to the effects of the powerful substance known as Kryptonite. (The addition of Batman and Robin also came about from the need for Bud to get a little R-and-R.) Most of the stories on the show were serialized in multiple chapters; one of the most famous story arcs was “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” in which The Man of Steel squared off against the Ku Klux Klan. (Spoiler warning: Superman wins.) The episodes coincided with a promotional campaign in Time magazine for racial and religious tolerance; it was in those pages that Bud Collyer revealed that he was the voice behind Superman when Time conducted an interview.

jackiekelkThe five-day-a-week quarter-hour that was The Adventures of Superman continued on Mutual until January 28, 1949; three days later the program expanded to a full half-hour while curtailing the output to three weekly broadcasts. Superman continued at its Mutual home until June, and then in October moved to an 8:30pm Saturday slot on ABC with a revamped “mystery” format designed to appeal to an older audience. That version of Superman ended on January 21, 1950, and after a period of idleness resurfaced as a twice-weekly afternoon offering on the same network at 5:30 before finally calling it a day on March 1, 1951. This new Superman did without the services of Collyer; Michael Fitzmaurice replaced him as Clark Kent/Superman, with Aldrich Family player Jackie Kelk as Jimmy Olsen and future Wild Wild West master of disguise Ross Martin as the announcer/narrator.

19382Novelist Tom De Haven recreates the early experiences of The Man of Steel in It’s Superman, a 2005 novel that starts with the formative teen years of young Clark Kent, growing up in Smallville. It’s available for purchase from Radio Spirits, along with a Superman poster and two CD collections: Up! Up! And Away! (a 2-disc set featuring the first twelve episodes of the series) and Last Son of Krypton, which showcases rare quarter-hours from 1948 as well as several half-hour broadcasts from 1949. There’s no better way to celebrate the anniversary of the individual who indisputably put the “super” in superhero!

”Stories start in many different ways…”

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Habitual old-time radio listeners have no difficulty identifying their favorite actors and actresses; while some radio thesps possessed the talent to disguise their voices in the roles they were assigned, others have a distinctive “tell” that gives them away immediately. There’s no mistaking, for example, Frank Lovejoy in a part. Lovejoy wasn’t able to master dialects in the way someone like, say, Hans Conried could…still, Frank’s authoritative tough-guy voice, blended with concern and compassion, leaps out at you if you happen to be listening to him on broadcasts of Suspense or Escape. Frank Lovejoy had regular roles on such old-time radio classics as Mr. and Mrs. North, Murder and Mr. Malone (a.k.a. The Amazing Mr. Malone) and This is Your FBI (he was the narrator in the early years of the program); and his best-remembered series, the short-lived but first-rate Night Beat, which premiered over NBC on this date sixty-five years ago today.

lovejoy4Lovejoy played journalist Randy Stone, who penned a column for a fictitious newspaper known as The Chicago Star. The title of Night Beat was just what it implied: Stone worked the swing shift, and in order to gather material for his column walked the streets of the Windy City in a Whistler-like fashion, encountering a colorful array of individuals—some good, others often menacing. Stone in many ways served as the narrator for an anthology program that could feature a terrifying series of events on one broadcast…and the following week, a decidedly humorous and light-hearted tale. He chased down members of the criminal element while at the same lending a sympathetic ear to those in need of assistance; Randy Stone provided a “voice” for those without influence or power, marginalized on the edges of society.

lovejoy1The origins of Night Beat began with a May 19, 1949 audition recording that would have cast Edmond O’Brien in the role that Frank Lovejoy would make famous. O’Brien’s character answered to “Hank Mitchell” in that audio pilot (and his newspaper of record was The Examiner), in which he becomes trapped in an elevator in the pursuit of a murderer named George Bailey. (Does anyone in Bedford Falls know about this?) The Powers That Be at NBC liked the “Night Beat” concept, but didn’t feel that O’Brien had what it took for the lead role. (O’Brien later replaced Charles Russell as “fabulous freelance insurance investigator” Johnny Dollar, so he wasn’t out of work for long.) The same script (by veteran scribe Larry Marcus) was recycled for a second audition (in January of 1950), now featuring Lovejoy as the new lead, “Lucky” Stone. NBC greenlighted the series for a February 6, 1950 premiere, with a final name change to the now well-known “Randy” Stone. (Though if you listen to that inaugural broadcast, “Zero,” announcer Frank Martin identifies the protagonist as “Rudy” even though Lovejoy introduces himself by his more familiar moniker two lines earlier.)

lovejoy2Night Beat had a relatively brief radio run (its final broadcast was September 25, 1952). It’s mindboggling that a series of such quality scripting (much of it from co-creator Marcus, with contributions from first-rate writers like Russell Hughes, Kathleen Hite, John and Gwen Bagni, and David Ellis) struggled in its two-year stint over the airwaves, but NBC did little to promote the program and constantly switched Night Beat’s time slot around as if they were challenging listeners to a game of three-card monte. The acting on the show was nothing short of tremendous; in addition to Lovejoy, many of Radio Row’s “usual suspects” appeared on the broadcasts—such as Lawrence Dobkin, Parley Baer, William Conrad, Jeanette Nolan and Georgia Ellis. Its distinctive timpani-accompanied opening remains one of radio’s most memorable, as does Lovejoy’s trademark cry of “Copy boy!” at the program’s close. Because NBC inexplicably chose to orphan Night Beat, it was difficult for the show to attract sponsors; it was sustained for most of its broadcast run, save for a brief period where General Mills’ Wheaties made sure Randy got his paycheck each week.

20439Despite the network’s indifference, Night Beat became one of old-time radio’s true “success stories.” Special care was taken to preserve its transcriptions by fans of the show, and during the nostalgia boom of the 1970s, it was prominently featured among the offerings on the syndicated The Golden Age of Radio Theatre and other old-time radio-themed shows.

Radio Spirits enthusiastically endorses this absorbing radio drama: there are several Night Beat broadcasts available on our Stop the Press! collection, and a March 27, 1950 episode (“Flowers on the Water”) on our new Great Radio Detectives set. For pure undiluted Randy Stone, we invite you to check out Lost Souls.

Happy Birthday, W.C. Fields!

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One of the funniest men to ever walk this planet was born one hundred and thirty-five years ago on this date; his birth name was William Claude Dukenfield, but modern audiences know him as W.C. Fields. Fields cultivated a persona on stage, screen and radio of a beloved misanthrope—an individual who drank, smoke, lied, cheated and gambled…and was rewarded for such behavior at a time when moral scolds and bluenoses looked down at such goings-on. The Great Man is perhaps best known for endearing himself as a sympathetic underdog to audiences despite such vices…as well as a barely-concealed dislike for dogs and children.

W.C. Fields Juggling Top HatsMuch of Fields’ character flaws on stage and in the movies would later be assimilated into the biographical sketch that was the man in person—Fields himself enjoyed frequently embellishing the details of his life, portraying himself as a character that leapt full-blown out of a Charles Dickens novel. Most of the real truth about W.C. would later be presented in a 1973 book written by his grandson Ronald Fields, W.C. Fields by Himself. On the professional side, Fields began his show business career in 1898 as a “tramp juggler” in vaudeville, demonstrating a dexterity in juggling objects (cigar boxes, balls, etc.) that would later be showcased in such feature films as The Old Fashioned Way (1934). His big professional break on the stage would arrive in 1915 when he appeared as a featured performer in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway; at that same time, he also made his first foray into the medium that would bring him his greatest fame, starring in a pair of short comedies (Pool Sharks and His Lordship’s Dilemma) that were filmed in New York during his Follies work.

wcfields9His stage work kept him out of motion pictures until 1924, when he graced the cast of the Revolutionary War drama Janice Meredith (1924); Fields later reprised his starring role from the 1923 musical comedy Poppy in the D.W. Griffith-directed Sally of the Sawdust (1925). It’s a bit of stretch to think of W.C. Fields as a silent comedian, particularly in light of his memorable later performances in talkies, but surviving features like It’s the Old Army Game (1926; with Louise Brooks) and So’s Your Old Man (1926) demonstrate that Fields could be just as funny without sound. Both of these movies would later be refashioned into sound features; Old Man was reworked as You’re Telling Me! (1934) and sections of Army Game were appropriated into It’s a Gift (1934), which fans of The Great Man consider one of his comedic masterpieces. Working for Paramount in the 1930s, W.C. also starred in such now-classic comedies as Tillie and Gus (1933), Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) and Mississippi (1935), and all-star romps like Million Dollar Legs (1932) and International House (1933).

wcfields4After finishing his sound remake of Poppy (1936), Fields checked into a sanitarium to recuperate from disorders brought upon by his habitual drinking. W.C. had turned down all previous offers to do a radio show, but after hearing the comedian on a tribute broadcast to Adolph Zukor (W.C. broadcast right from his sanitarium room), the producers of The Chase and Sanborn Hour made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: $6500 a week to perform alongside the likes of Nelson Eddy, Dorothy Lamour and Don Ameche when the program made its debut over radio in May of 1937. (Fields’ ill health at the time convinced him it would be easier to do radio than a feature film.) It was on this show that Fields instituted a “feud” that would become as famous as the on-air squabbles between Jack Benny & Fred Allen and Ben Bernie & Walter Winchell; the undisputed weekly comedic highlight of The Chase and Sanborn Hour was when W.C. matched wits with radio’s most popular brat, Charlie McCarthy (the creation of Edgar Bergen).

wcfields3“Tell me, Charles—is it true your father was a gate-leg table?” Fields asked his wooden nemesis on one broadcast. “If he was,” Charlie retorted, “your father was under it!” W.C. Fields possessed a legendary jealousy toward other comedians but had nothing but praise for Charlie’s “guardian,” Edgar Bergen, admiring Bergen’s talent and timing. (The Great Man, on the other hand, was not particularly enamored of Charlie—according to Don Ameche, who often “refereed” their verbal sparring—even resorting to threatening to saw McCarthy in two during another broadcast.) Fields’ stint on the Chase and Sanborn broadcasts was fairly brief—more than a few sources note that the unpredictable comedian steadfastly refused to “clear” material with the Standards & Practices folks beforehand—but he remained a frequent guest on Edgar & Charlie’s program after his departure and up until his passing in 1946. Edgar & Charlie (and Mortimer!) even co-starred with W.C. in his first film for Universal, 1939’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.

wcfields1In the fall of 1938, W.C. Fields became the star attraction on radio’s Your Hit Parade, adding comedy to the popular variety program that counted down the week’s most listened-to songs in the nation. Like his Chase and Sanborn duties, W.C.’s time on Parade was also brief…but it did provide a momentary bit of subversive Fieldsian humor when the star took to reading letters from his son Chester each week on the show. It took sponsor Lucky Strike a while to catch on that their star comedian was getting mail from “Chester Fields”…but when they did figure it out, the letters came to a screeching halt.

wcfields5Aside from guest appearances on the Bergen-McCarthy and Frank Sinatra programs—and the occasional turn on Mail Call and Command Performance—W.C. Fields continued his movie career with the likes of My Little Chickadee (1940; in which he was paired with the equally legendary Mae West) and The Bank Dick (1940), every bit a classic as the earlier It’s a Gift. Fields would peddle his comic wares in one more starring role in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), then limited his onscreen activities to minor appearances in features such as Follow the Boys (1944) and Song of the Open Road (1944). Years of hard drinking finally caught up to him on (here’s a slice of irony for you) December 25, 1946, when he left this world for a better one at the age of 66.

W.C. Fields left behind a rich cinematic legacy that continues to attract admirers and fans of all stripes and generations; film critic Roger Ebert once described the timelessness of the Great Man thusly: “It is the appeal of the man who cheerfully embraces a life of antisocial hedonism, basking in serene contentment with his own flaws.”

20747You can check out some of his film classics for yourself in the DVD set W.C. Fields Comedy Collection: Volume II (which features my favorite of The Great Man’s sound features, Man on the Flying Trapeze), as well as the collection Hollywood on Parade, Volume 1. No Fieldsian scholar can be without Radio Spirits’ Bergen & McCarthy: W.C. Fields and Friends, a CD set that showcases many of Fields’ Chase and Sanborn Hour appearances and a few guest shots with Edgar and Charlie from the 1940s…including his final work with the duo on that show from March 24, 1946.

Review: Trapped by Boston Blackie (1948)

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The headline in the morning newspaper proves most distressing to reformed jewel thief Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris) and his sidekick The Runt (George E. Stone). Their friend Joe Kenyon has been killed in a freak automobile accident, and our heroes stop by Kenyon’s detective agency to pay their respects to Helen (Mary Currier), Joe’s widow. Blackie and Runt agree to help Helen out on a case Joe was working; they’ll escort Doris Bradley (June Vincent) to an affair hosted by her Aunt Claire Carter (Sarah Selby), who demonstrates for all in attendance what she’s learned studying ballet with instructor Igor Borio (Edward Norris). While showing off her terpsichorean talents, Claire loses her valuable pearl necklace—known as “The Queen’s Ransom”—and a call is quickly placed to police headquarters, prompting the appearance of Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) and porridge-for-brains Sergeant Matthews (Frank Sully) at the society soiree.

trapped1“At least we’re innocent,” observes The Runt with a sigh of relief. “Or are we?” He has good reason to ask this question; as the male party attendees are being searched by Farraday and Matthews, Blackie notices that someone has slipped the necklace into his costume, which prompts Runt to ditch the jewels in a nearby vase. When their masquerade as mystics are revealed to their police nemeses, Blackie and Runt must track down the thief (the contents in the vase are emptied during the two men’s attempt to flee the party)…and in addition, clear Helen of murder charges (she’s the number one suspect in her husband’s death).

trapped3Trapped by Boston Blackie (1948) was the penultimate entry (number thirteen, for those keeping score) in Columbia Pictures’ successful movie series based on the character created by Jack Boyle. It’s not a particularly strong example of what the franchise had to offer, mostly due to a rather convoluted script courtesy of Maurice Tombragel (with story by Charles Marion and Edward Bock) that’s sluggish in spots despite its brief running time. While offering up a multitude of suspects makes solving the picture’s mystery a bit more challenging, Trapped leaves one or two unsatisfying plot resolutions and a number of the movie’s characters disappear before the final fadeout, leaving one to wonder what purpose they served in the narrative in the first place.

trapped5The highlights of Trapped, as in any Boston Blackie picture, involve the disguises adopted by Blackie and Runt to investigate the mystery and elude capture from the determined Farraday. The two men are pretty much in costume from the get-go, impersonating phony mystics at the Carter affair. They’re then forced to don what may very well be their best masquerade in any film in the series: Blackie (Pa) and Runt (Ma) pose as Doris’ parents, and pull it off so well that the dimwitted Matthews explains to Farraday: “They came in here in them get-ups and fooled everybody—they even fooled her, their own daughter! (Pause) No…that can’t be right.” Curiously, The Runt outpaces B.B. in the disguise department (he also impersonates a messenger boy and a cabbie)—but a protracted sequence where Blackie imitates an effete client to infiltrate Borio’s dance studio (while Runt searches an apartment) falls kind of flat.

trapped4Trapped by Boston Blackie features three leading ladies (to keep the audience guessing as to which one will turn on the hero, one assumes). The best known of these actresses is Patricia Barry (billed as Patricia White), who plays Joan Howell, a friend of Doris. As a Columbia starlet, Barry appeared in the studio’s two-reel comedies and Gene Autry westerns like Riders of the Whistling Pines (1949). She later became a familiar TV face, guest-starring on a plethora of series (including The Rifleman, The Twilight Zone and Thriller) and appearing on a number of daytime dramas (like Days of Our Lives, All My Children and The Guiding Light). June Vincent gets top billing in Trapped; she’s recognizable in such Universal features as The Climax (1944) and Black Angel (1946). She would go on to be dubbed by TV Guide as “Television’s Favorite Homewrecker” because, in most of her performances, it was even money the characters she played were trying to tempt either a husband or boyfriend.

The third female lead is played by Fay Baker (she’s Sandra Doray, an assistant to Borio), who can also be seen in such films as Notorious (1946), The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) and Deadline – U.S.A. (1952). Trapped also features an impressive lineup of character thespians including Edward Norris, Sarah Selby (later Ma Smalley on TV’s Gunsmoke), Ben Welden, Pierre Watkin…and “The Queen of the Dress Extras,” Bess Flowers, because there is a party scene.

20808Trapped by Boston Blackie marked the directorial debut of former assistant director Seymour Friedman, whose resume includes The Crime Doctor’s Diary (1949) and Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard (1950)—both movies inspired by old-time radio series. Friedman also helms the final Blackie film, Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949); when I review it next month it will bring to a close our current Boston Blackie retrospective—it’s available on MOD DVD, for those of you who’d like to check it out before I do.

Don’t forget that the radio Boston Blackie is available from Radio Spirits in our collections Outside the Law and Great Radio Detectives, and the TV Blackie as well…on the DVD collection Boston Blackie, Volume 1!

Happy Birthday, Cary Grant!

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For those of you disappointed in the Academy Award nominations announced this past Thursday, here’s a little something to chew on: one of the most beloved motion picture stars of all time (he was named by the American Film Institute as the second Greatest Male Star of all Time, right behind Humphrey Bogart)…never won a competitive Oscar. The man born Archibald Alexander Leach in Bristol, England on this date in 1904 did receive two nominations—both for films considerably out of the wheelhouse of light/screwball comedy genre for which he was best remembered. Cary Grant grabbed Best Actor nods in 1942 (for 1941’s Penny Serenade) and 1945 (1944’s None But the Lonely Heart) but was nudged out on both occasions…he’d have to wait until a few years after he ceased moviemaking to earn the recognition of his peers with an honorary trophy.

grant5When we think of Cary Grant, we think of an actor who was the epitome of urbane sophistication; a practiced farceur who did splendid work in any number of film comedies: Topper (1937), The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1940)…well, this list could probably continue until the end of time. Yet Grant excelled in dramatic roles as well (always leavened with a light touch), as the likes of Gunga Din (1939), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Mr. Lucky (1943) and Destination Tokyo (1944) will readily attest. Grant would become one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite leading men: Cary first worked with the Master of Suspense in 1941’s Suspicion (Hitch had wanted to make Cary the villain but was forced to abandon that plan at the request of the studio), and later co-starred with Ingrid Bergman in what some have called one of Hitchcock’s finest films from the 1940s: Notorious (1946).

grant7Since there have been reams of paper written about Grant’s motion picture legacy—and acres of bandwidth colonized expounding on his contributions to film—let’s explore Cary’s contributions to the aural medium. Like most of the top movie celebrities at that time, he was made most welcome on CBS’ The Lux Radio Theatre, where he appeared on multiple occasions reprising the roles he popularized onscreen in films like Madame Butterfly (1932), The Awful Truth and Only Angels Have Wings. (Grant was also occasionally called upon to act in productions of movies he did not star in; he appeared alongside frequent movie co-star Irene Dunne in a June 13, 1938 Lux broadcast of Dunne’s Theodora Goes Wild, in which her original onscreen leading man was Melvyn Douglas.) Cary also emoted on such shows as The Silver Theatre, The Screen Guild Theatre, Theatre of Romance, The Cavalcade of America, Academy Award Theatre and Command Performance.

circleOne of Cary’s earliest and most interesting radio gigs was a short-lived program entitled The Circle, which premiered over NBC on January 15, 1939. An hour-long “talk show” (that sounded spontaneous but was tightly scripted), Circle not only brought Grant to the microphone but also Ronald Colman, Carole Lombard and Groucho & Chico Marx (later, Basil Rathbone and Madeleine Carroll would replace departing cast members). The concept of the series was to present Hollywood celebrities in a format where they could demonstrate to the listening audience an erudite grasp on important subjects of the day. Circle, despite sponsorship by Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, was expensive to produce (the stars netted $2,000 to $2,500 each weekly) and left the airwaves in July of that same year because according to writer Carroll Carroll in None of Your Business, “It might have worked if actors weren’t all children.” (Carroll dismissed the series as “radio’s most expensive failure.”)

grant1“If I ever do any more radio work, I want to do it on Suspense, where I get a good chance to act,” Cary once remarked about “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills.” Grant made four appearances on the popular anthology drama, doing the Cornell Woolrich-penned “The Black Curtain” twice on December 2, 1943 and November 30, 1944, and “The Black Path of Fear” (also based on a Woolrich tale) on March 7, 1946. It was Cary’s Suspense swan song that would feature his most well-regarded acting turn on the show—in addition to becoming a radio classic—as he and Cathy Lewis played a couple who happen to give a lift to a female hitchhiker (Jeanette Nolan) suspected of being an escaped mental patient in “On a Country Road.”

blandingsBecause Cary Grant also spent time on the airwaves joking and joshing with the likes of Al Jolson, Abbott & Costello, Burns & Allen and Eddie Cantor, he was schooled enough in comedy for his second try at a weekly radio series in 1951. Cary frequently appeared on The Screen Director’s Playhouse (one of his best Playhouse showcases has him taking over Joseph Cotten’s bad guy role in a November 9, 1950 broadcast of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt), and on two occasions—July 1, 1949 and June 9, 1950—he reprised his starring turn from his 1948 box office smash Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (with Myrna Loy as his co-star). The 1950 Playhouse broadcast featured Cary acting alongside his real-life spouse Betsy Drake, and in November of that year the couple performed in an audition for a series based on the film, Mr. and Mrs. Blandings. Blandings had an impressive pedigree (it was directed and produced by Nat Wolff, who also did The Halls of Ivy) but its scripts were horrible (Drake even tried her hand at writing, as “Matilda Winkle”) and ratings dismal; it ran briefly from January 21 to June 17, 1951.

grantoscarAfter the failure of the Blandings series, Cary Grant mostly limited his radio participation to The Lux Radio Theatre, where among the productions were aural adaptations of such Grant classics as The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and People Will Talk (1951). In the meantime, the beloved actor continued to be a favorite with moviegoers; he acted in two more Hitchcock films (including 1959’s North by Northwest; director Hitchcock believed Cary was his definitive movie hero) as well as popular entries like Houseboat (1958), Indiscreet (1958) and Operation Petticoat (1959). By the 1960s, a graying Cary demonstrated he could still wow the ladies with vehicles like Charade (1963) and Father Goose (1964); only when he completed 1966’s Walk Don’t Run (a re-working of the Joel McCrea-Jean Arthur romantic comedy The More the Merrier) did he decide to take his last bow. 1970 was the year when “Archie Leach” would be recognized by his peers “for his unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues” with his honorary Oscar, and he continued to be one of Hollywood’s respected statesmen (he received Kennedy Center Honors in 1981) until his death in 1986 at the age of 82.

19985Radio Spirits’ George Burns & Gracie Allen CD collection Treasury features a pair of broadcasts that guest-star our birthday boy…and personally, I think they’re among the funniest shows that the comedic husband-and-wife ever did. (Longtime Burns & Allen writer Paul Henning once remarked in an interview with historian Jordan R. Young in The Laugh Crafters that Cary loved working with George & Gracie: “When can I be on again? You don’t have to pay me, I’d just like to come on.”) We also invite you to check out a December 7, 1950 broadcast on our Screen Director’s Playhouse set in which Grant and leading lady Irene Dunne are re-teamed for a production of “My Favorite Wife.” In addition, Cary is one of many celebrities featured in the delightful DVD of Paramount Pictures’ classic celebrity newsreel shorts, Hollywood on Parade, Volume 1…and you can listen to Mr. Grant display his playful tuneful side with three song selections in the 2-CD set Did You Know These Stars Also Sang? Hollywood’s Acting Legends. Happy birthday to the incomparable Cary Grant!

Happy Birthday, Steve Dunne!

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Certified couch potatoes have seen today’s birthday boy guest star in a number of TV classics: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Batman, The Andy Griffith Show, The Brady Bunch…and so many more. Classic movie fans remember the man of the hour as a leading man in several B-pictures, but he occasionally appeared in higher profile films like Mother Wore Tights (1947), Above and Beyond (1952), Ten Thousand Bedrooms (1957) and Home Before Dark (1958). But for old-time radio devotees, the name of Steve Dunne instantly brings to mind a short-lived acting stint as “the greatest private detective of them all” on The (New) Adventures of Sam Spade.

dunne4Born Francis Michael Dunn in 1918 on this date in Northampton, MA, Steve Dunne supplemented his high school studies by working as a stenographer for the local branch of General Electric. By the age of 17, Steve expressed an interest in drama and journalism, which he majored in while attending the University of Alabama. To put himself through college, Dunne landed a job as a disc jockey with a local radio station…and enjoyed that so much that he decided to make it his career. From those auspicious beginnings, he moved on to Chicago and became a respected announcer…and then with another roll of the die headed to New York, where he was hired by WOR, and subsequently the Mutual Broadcasting System.

danfieldDunne’s employment in the Big Apple would eventually win him the notice of Hollywood, where he landed both a screen test and motion picture contract by the mid-40s. Because of his need to move to the West Coast, Steve began to work in radio there—and one of his first major gigs was a starring role as a criminal psychologist in a series entitled Danger, Dr. Danfield, which premiered over ABC on August 11, 1946. Co-starring Joanne Johnson, Herb Butterfield and Jay Novello, Danfield did not particularly wow its listening audience; one reviewer at the time remarked the program was “one of the worst detective shows ever to curse the ABC airwaves.” The American Broadcasting Company must have taken this advice to heart because they cancelled the show in April of 1947. Steve, however, got a promotion: he was cast in a follow-up series (as an intrepid newspaper reporter named Lucky Larson), Deadline Mystery—which premiered a week after Danfield’s cancellation and ran until August of that year.

dunne9When he wasn’t emoting on such classics as Family Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Screen Director’s Playhouse and Stars Over Hollywood, Steve Dunne was doing what he came out to Hollywood to do: work in motion pictures. He graced such films as Junior Miss (1945), Doll Face (1945), Colonel Effingham’s Raid (1946), The Return of October (1948), The Big Sombrero (1949) and Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949). While working for Columbia, he appeared in three movies with future “Miss Moneypenny” Lois Maxwell: The Dark Past (1948), The Crime Doctor’s Diary (1949) and Kazan (1949). But it was a role in a small B-picture entitled Shock (1946) that brought Dunne to the attention of producer William Spier, who was looking for an actor to replace Howard Duff as radio gumshoe Sam Spade on the popular detective drama.

dunne4NBC had pulled The Adventures of Sam Spade off the air when longtime sponsor Wildroot Cream Oil dropped its sponsorship—the history of this would literally fill a book, but the company is believed to have bowed to both economic and political pressure (both Spade star Howard Duff and original creator Dashiell Hammett found their names in the notorious Red Channels directory). NBC, in turn, found itself besieged by fans of the program and hastily put the show back on the air in the fall of 1950 with Dunne as the insouciant gumshoe. The problem was that Steve was simply not up to the task of duplicating the tough guy-quality that bore Duff’s distinctive stamp; many historians have complained about Steve’s adolescent voice but John Dunning put it best in Tune in Yesterday when he observed the actor “sounded like Sam in knee pants.” It’s to the credit of Bill Spier (plus Dunne and co-star Lurene Tuttle) that the show did soldier on for one more season until its cancellation on April 27, 1951.

dunne7Steve Dunne pressed on with his movie career, with his film resume including favorites such as The Underworld Story (1950), The WAC from Walla Walla (1952) and I Married a Woman (1958). Most of the time, he focused on announcing and hosting such small screen quiz shows as You’re On Your Own, Truth or Consequences (from 1957 to 1958) and Double Exposure, and did star in two short-lived TV series—the first in the sitcom Professional Father in 1955, in which his leading lady was the future Mrs. June Cleaver, Barbara Billingsley. The second was a 1960-61 syndicated crime drama entitled The Brothers Brannagan, which cast Dunne and Mark Roberts as a pair of investigators who worked out of an Arizona resort. Neither of these two shows is rerun much (if at all), so if you’ve come across Steve on TV it’s probably with guest shots on the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction or Dragnet. His last show business credit was in the Walt Disney comedy Superdad (1973); Steve Dunne passed away in 1977 at the age of 59.

20354Here at Radio Spirits, we’ve got Steve Dunne on hand in several adventures featuring legendary detective Samuel Spade on the collection Sam Spade: Volumes One and Two. You can also tune in to an episode of Deadline Mystery on our tribute to radio journalism, Stop the Press!…and hear Steve as a guest star on Screen Director’s Playhouse in presentations of “The Spiral Staircase” (11/25/49), “One Way Passage” (12/30/49) and “Miss Grant Takes Richmond” (05/19/50). Happy birthday, Steve!