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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!

“You’re durn tootin’, Hoppy!”

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The August 11, 1941 broadcast of CBS’ Forecast marked the first time the character of Hopalong Cassidy was offered up to radio audiences as a potential series, much in the same manner as fellow B-Western cowboy Gene Autry did with his Melody Ranch in January of 1940. Since the Forecast presentation did not feature the actor who’d been playing Hoppy on the silver screen since 1935—William Boyd—that might have been a factor in why a Hopalong Cassidy program wasn’t spun-off from the summer anthology show in the same manner as Suspense and Duffy’s Tavern. Hopalong Cassidy would have to wait until 1949 before it was launched as a weekly series; it had its network premiere over Mutual Radio on this very date in 1950.

boydvolgaWilliam “Bill” Boyd was born in Hendrysburg, OH in 1895 and moved to Tulsa at the age of seven. He lost both of his parents while in his teens, and after a series of jobs that included surveying and working in the oil fields, Boyd arrived in Hollywood in 1918 with ambitions of being an actor. After appearing in small roles and bit parts in the likes of Why Change Your Wife? (1920), The Affairs of Anatol (1921) and Adam’s Rib (1923), Bill ingratiated himself with famed film director Cecil B. DeMille—who cast him as the leading man in The Volga Boatman (1926) and The Yankee Clipper (1927), as well as substantial roles in The Road to Yesterday (1925) and The King of Kings (1927). Sadly, with the revolution of talking pictures, Boyd found himself without a contract and steadily going broke.

hoppy5What really threatened to put the kibosh on Bill Boyd’s acting career was a newspaper story about a similarly-named actor, William “Stage” Boyd, in which Bill’s photo was mistakenly inserted into an article that detailed “Stage’s” arrest on gambling, liquor and morals charges. It was eventually corrected, but a lot of damage had already been done. Things started to look up for Bill in 1934, however; producer Harry Sherman had negotiated the rights to make films featuring Hopalong Cassidy, a character created by author Clarence Mulford in several popular short stories. Bill was originally cast as the bad guy in what would become Hop-a-Long Cassidy (1935), the first of fifty-four films produced by Sherman and distributed by Paramount and United Artists until 1944. When those came to an end, Boyd himself produced an additional twelve Hoppy features through his own company from 1946 to 1948.

hoppy7Mulford’s cowpoke earned his name “Hop-a-Long” because he walked with a limp (a souvenir of a bullet wound); he was also a whiskey-drinkin’, tobacco-chewin’, ornery cuss. Bill revamped Cassidy into a paragon of virtue: he abstained from liquor and tobacco, didn’t swear (he spoke with flawless grammar) and rarely enjoyed the company of women. (My personal opinion is that this is why Hoppy always wore black.) He became a Saturday matinee hero to millions of young moviegoers, and guest-starred as Hoppy alongside radio favorites such as Bing Crosby, Edgar Bergen and Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.

hoppy6At some point in his career, Bill Boyd realized that playing Hopalong Cassidy was not only the best thing to happen to him as an actor…it was going to be his legacy. So in 1948, he made two shrewd business decisions that to some might have seemed like risky rolls of the dice. The first was to acquire the rights to all of his Hopalong Cassidy films, even if he had to sell his ranch in order to do so (which he did). Boyd was prescient enough to see that with the advent of television, radio’s new competitor was going to need a lot of product to fill broadcast hours. His instincts were right-on-the-money; after edited versions of the old movies appeared on New York television in 1948, new ones were produced to supplement them, and the films soon acquired a berth on NBC-TV’s schedule starting June 24, 1949.

commodoreBoyd wasn’t ready to abandon radio just yet, however. He teamed up with Walter and Shirley White, a couple who responded to the demand for syndicated programming (like Ziv and Mayfair) by founding a shoestring production operation entitled Commodore Productions. As Hoppy, Bill became Commodore’s first star; it was slow-going at first (the transcribed series started out with only a handful of shows in the can—when those were sold to individual stations, the profits were used to make more) but it paid off handsomely when Mutual scheduled the program for a nationwide audience in January of 1950, sponsored by General Foods. Hopalong Cassidy then moved to CBS in September of that year, and stayed on for a two-year stint, ending on December 27, 1952 with a special Christmas-themed episode (“The Santa Claus Rustlers”).

Joining Boyd in this new radio venture was veteran film comedian Andy Clyde, who reprised his movie role as Hoppy’s sidekick, California Carlson, in the series. Clyde appeared in the first twenty-six transcribed episodes, with Joe DuVal taking over for a brief period until Andy rejoined the program. A total of 104 episodes were produced, directed by Walter White and with musical supervision by Albert Glaser…who also composed the show’s main theme.

hoppyradio1950 was the height of what might be called “Hoppymania”. With the success of both his radio and TV series, Boyd oversaw a Hopalong Cassidy commercial juggernaut that was nothing short of astonishing: there were Hoppy guns, hats, bicycles, comic books, roller skates (with spurs, even), pajamas and much, much more. The immense demand for Hopalong pants and shirts was so great that it resulted in a shortage of black dye. Cassidy jokes became a staple on television and radio; in the traditional Christmas episode of Amos ‘n’ Andy, a boy sitting on department-store-Santa Andy’s lap makes the request: “I want a Hopalong Cassidy hat, a Hopalong Cassidy shirt, Hopalong Cassidy spurs, a Hopalong Cassidy belt, a Hopalong Cassidy gun, Hopalong Cassidy boots, and a Hopalong Cassidy toothbrush.” (When Andy asks the youngster who his favorite cowboy star is, the boy replies “Roy Rogers.”)

20413Bill Boyd hung up his hat and spurs in 1953 and retired to Palm Springs (his last film appearance was fitting a cameo as Hoppy in his old boss Cecil B. DeMIlle’s The Greatest Show on Earth); the Whites would solider on with Commodore Productions, initiating such series as The Clyde Beatty Show and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. Here at Radio Spirits, we have classic broadcasts from the Hopalong Cassidy series on hand in Bullets on the Range and Out From the Bar-20—both would be perfect to celebrate the show’s anniversary today!

“Look out, Jerry—he’s got a gun!”

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For Nick and Nora Charles, the famed imbibing couple created by Dashiell Hammett in the 1934 novel The Thin Man, sleuthing was a walk in the park; Nick was a retired gumshoe, and knew a little bit about the in-and-outs of detecting. But Jerry and Pam North—the other well-known twosome who investigated murder and mysteries—were strictly amateurs; Jerry was a run-of-the-mill book publisher who constantly found himself pulled into cases by his irrepressible spouse. Together, Mr. and Mrs. North would headline one of radio’s most successful mystery-comedy programs—one that premiered on this very date seventy-two years ago.

MrMrsNorthAuthor Richard Lockridge introduced us to the Park Avenue Norths in a popular series of short vignettes first published in The New York Sun in the mid-1930s, then in short stories featured in The New Yorker—which were collected together in book form with Mr. and Mrs. North in 1936. In 1940, the Norths’ destiny took a detour not unlike the plot of a film noir. Lockridge’s wife Francis assisted him with The Norths Meet Murder…and the success of that book led to twenty-five additional collaborations that ended only when Mrs. Lockridge passed away in 1963.

norths4The Norths Meet Murder became the basis of a 1941 Broadway play (starring Albert Hackett and Peggy Conklin) written by Owen Davis, Sr.…and its success inspired an audition record for a potential series (with Conklin and Carl Eastman in the title roles) that reverted back to the original New Yorker format of humorous romantic comedy. It was MGM who brought Pam and Jerry to the silver screen in January of 1942 in Mr. and Mrs. North, with the emphasis reverting back to mystery. Gracie Allen, on a rare vacation from husband George Burns, played the scatterbrained Pam (William Post, Jr. played spouse Jerry). The movie would spark additional interest in another radio go-round, premiering on NBC on December 30, 1942 for Jergens lotion and Woodbury cold cream. Cast in the roles of Mr. and Mrs. North were Joseph Curtin and Alice Frost.

norths1The appeal of Mr. and Mrs. North was fairly easy to appreciate: an average couple up to their necks in murder and mayhem each week. The fact that the Norths were amateurs distinguished them from the professionalism practiced by Nick and Nora, whose program debuted a year earlier over NBC. Indeed, Mr. and Mrs. North’s popularity over the airwaves would soon overtake The Adventures of the Thin Man; North averaged a weekly audience of 25 million listeners a week, seriously threatening the mystery show forerunner, Mr. District Attorney. There was sort of a sly subversive undertone to the program in that Pam and Jerry often accomplished what specialized law enforcement could not; as Jim Cox noted in his reference book Radio Crime Fighters: “No explanation was given, of course, as to why a couple of misfits could be so successful in their preoccupation while the professionals thrashed about ineffectually.”

lovejoy8Pam and Jerry’s pal on the force was Lieutenant Bill Wigand (initially played by Frank Lovejoy, then Staats Cotsworth and Francis De Sales)—a first-rate cop who was a bit shy around the opposite sex (Pam was always trying to play matchmaker for the bashful detective). Wigand grudgingly got used to the fact that people simply had a bad habit of kicking off whenever the Norths went anywhere. Wigand’s aide-de-camp was Sergeant Aloysius Mullins (Walter Kinsella), a bumbling cop in the Barney Fife tradition who often bewildered his superior due to the fact that the easily exasperated Mullins was married with a family of eight children. The strong characterizations of Mr. and Mrs. North contributed to the show’s success; other individuals who populated the colorful cast included the loquacious cabbie Mahatma McGloin (Mandel Kramer) and problem child Susan, Pam and Jerry’s 14-year-old niece (Betty Jane Tyler).

britton15Mr. and Mrs. North won the Edgar Award (presented by the Mystery Writers of America) for Best Radio Drama in 1946 (tying with Ellery Queen), the year the series got its pink slip from NBC (it went off the air in December). But the married sleuths got a reprieve in July of 1947 when CBS began airing the series as a Tuesday night staple for Colgate-Palmolive. Often advertised as “mystery liberally sprinkled with laughs,” Mr. and Mrs. North performed quite well for their new network—and Curtin and Frost continued as Jerry and Pam until the beginning of the 1953-54 season, when Richard Denning and Barbara Britton inherited the roles. Denning and Britton were by that time appearing in the TV version, which ran on CBS from 1952-53 and a short season on NBC in 1954. A year later, Mr. and Mrs. North solved their last radio case when CBS cancelled their show, along with their fellow sleuthing brethren Casey, Crime Photographer and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.

20518To celebrate the North’s radio anniversary, Radio Spirits offers two collections of the popular program featuring broadcasts from both the Curtin-Frost years and the Denning-Britton collaborations: Bet on Death and Touch of Death. We also have on hand an 8-DVD box set featuring thirty-two of the couple’s exciting television cases as well. Happy 72nd anniversary to radio’s most engaging amateur sleuths!

Review: Boston Blackie and the Law (1946)

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Previously on the Radio Spirits blog, I discussed Alias Boston Blackie (1942), the third entry in the popular Columbia Pictures movie franchise—it’s a holiday-themed picture, with the events taking place during Christmas Eve/Christmas Day and centering on Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black’s (Chester Morris) attempt to recapture an escaped convict who made a successful break as a result of our hero’s inviting a vaudeville troupe to entertain at a prison. Boston Blackie and the Law (1946), the twelfth Blackie outing, is a semi-remake of the earlier film; it simply does a gender switch (the prisoner on the lam is now a woman) and starts the plot on Thanksgiving.

bblaw5As part of a Thanksgiving Day party, Blackie is entertaining the inmates at a women’s prison…and when he announces his piece de resistance, a disappearing cabinet trick, the volunteer he solicits from the audience is one Dinah Moran (Constance Dowling)…who takes advantage of Blackie’s amateur prestidigitation by vanishing permanently. Naturally, Dinah’s disappearing act lands our hero in Dutch with the ever-suspicious Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) and his sidekick Sergeant Matthews (Frank Sully). Unbeknownst to Blackie, Dinah was a former assistant to a magician named John Lampau (Warren Ashe); three years earlier, Ms. Moran was jailed along with her boss on suspicion of stealing $100,000 during a performance at a private party…and while Lampau was later cleared of any involvement, Dinah wound up taking the fall, serving a stint at the county’s bed-and-breakfast.

bblaw2In tracking down Dinah, Blackie pays Lampau a visit at the theatre where he’s performing: he’s got a new name (Jani) and a new assistant named Irene (Trudy Marshall), whom he plans to marry. To recapture the fugitive Dinah, Blackie will not only have to press upon his amateur magic skills but his penchant for disguises (he impersonates Jani) as well.

In addition to his thespic duties on the silver screen, Chester Morris was an amateur magician—showing off his boyhood love of magic at a number of USO shows during the war years, and working many of his tricks into the plots of the Boston Blackie films. No more is this evident than in Boston Blackie and the Law, which, despite Morris’ undeniable enjoyment at being able to show-off his craft, suffers a bit from a static script and some ham-handed attempts at humor. Off-screen, Morris got into a bit of trouble the following year when he revealed some of the “tricks of the trade” in an article for Popular Mechanics (“There’s Magic Up Your Sleeve”) that did not win him any fans in the magic community.

bblaw4The problem with Law is that the paucity of suspects in the film makes it fairly easy for the viewer to suss out who’s responsible for committing two of the movie’s murders. In addition, while a healthy sense of humor has always been a hallmark of the Boston Blackie series, much of the comedy in Law comes off a bit forced. Case in point: When Blackie is brought into police headquarters to be interrogated as to what he knows of Dinah Moran’s prison break, we find that the magic cabinet he used in his performance happens to be in Farraday’s office. Announcing his intention to learn the disappearing trick by hook or crook, stumblebum Matthews examines the cabinet in vain …until Blackie volunteers to demonstrate how it’s done. A prolonged sequence of Blackie disappearing and reappearing in the box follows, with Matthews repeatedly assuring the apoplectic Farraday he did not let his nemesis escape. The repetition of this routine might have worked as an Abbott & Costello bit, but here it’s just tiresome.

bblaw6This is not to say that Frank Sully’s Matthews doesn’t have his moments: later in Law, Farraday pieces together some of the elements of the mystery by glancing at a precinct report and he asks his dimwitted sergeant: “Matthews! Do you realize how important this is?!!” “Only because you’re excited, and that’s nothing new” is Matthews’ deadpanned response—Sully’s throwaway delivery of the line is a peach. The most ridiculous sequence in Law is a jailbreak by Blackie and his pal The Runt (George E. Stone), in which they outwit a turnkey (Syd Saylor) in a manner that suggests he might be a distant relative in the Matthews family. Director D. Ross Lederman may have earned the studio’s gratitude for cranking out their programmers on time and under budget…but his handling of this kind of comic material is truly leaden.

bblaw3Constance Dowling plays the on-the-lam Dinah; Dowling’s films include Up in Arms (1944) and Black Angel (1946), and she would be reteamed with Chester Morris a year later in Blind Spot, a nifty little whodunit that should get exposure on TV more often. Audiences will probably be more familiar with the other female lead in Law: Trudy Marshall’s credits include The Sullivans (1944), The Purple Heart (1944), The Dolly Sisters (1946) and The Fuller Brush Man (1948). A gaggle of familiar character actors and Columbia contract players round out the cast, including Eddie Dunn and Selmer Jackson. And pay close attention to the woman who plays the librarian in the early portion of Law: it’s Maudie Prickett, who later played “Rosie” on TV’s Hazel (and Jack Benny’s sarcastic secretary in several episodes of his TV show).

20588Next month, we’ll look at the penultimate Boston Blackie film—Trapped by Boston Blackie (1948)—in which a clever screenwriter decides that an ex-jewel thief is the perfect person to guard a precious pearl necklace. In the meantime, Radio Spirits reminds you that there’s plenty of byplay between Chester Morris’ Boston Blackie and Richard Lane’s Inspector Farraday in our CD set Outside the Law, which also features broadcasts from the team of Richard Kollmar (as Blackie) and Maurice Tarplin (Farraday). Check out a DVD collection of the boob tube adventures of our hero as well, starring Kent Taylor!

Happy Birthday, Jeff Chandler!

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If you were given a name like “Ira Grossel” at birth…chances are you’d have a long career as a certified public accountant or a dentist waiting in the wings once you reached adulthood. But one particular Ira Grossel would overcome the name handicap by becoming a well-known actor—a rewarding gig that spanned both radio, TV and the movies. It was the last medium that brought Ira his greatest fame: as an employee at Universal Pictures, he would become one of their top leading men and most bankable of box office stars. I should also point out that you may be more familiar with Mr. Grossel as Jeff Chandler—born on this date today in 1918.

chandler23Chandler grew up in Brooklyn, the son of Philip and Anna Herman Grossel…who were separated at the time of his birth. (Later, Anna would bring up Jeff when the Grossels divorced.) After attending Erasmus Hall High School, he landed a job as a cashier in his father’s restaurant. Jeff had harbored acting ambitions for a good while but studied art for a year (and worked as a layout artist for a mail order catalog) before he saved up enough money to attend the prestigious Feagin School of Dramatic Art in New York City. From there, Jeff Chandler went to work for a theatrical stock company on Long Island as an actor and stage manager, and later formed his own company, The Shady Lane Playhouse, in Illinois in 1941. His acting career went on hiatus as he enlisted in the Cavalry not long after, serving four years in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.

chandler24After his discharge, Chandler moved to Los Angeles with money he had saved and almost immediately found work in radio. He had dabbled in the medium during his stock company days, and his experience there provided him with the experience to make a good living emoting on the airwaves, particularly in the area of anthology drama. Some of the anthology programs on which Jeff worked include Academy Award Theatre, The Cavalcade of America, The Damon Runyon Theatre, Escape, Family Theatre, Hallmark Playhouse, The Lux Radio Theatre, Mr. President, The Railroad Hour, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Stars Over Hollywood, Suspense and The Whistler.

One of Jeff’s most unusual radio gigs was an appearance on a December 22, 1948 broadcast of Duffy’s Tavern; in a Yuletide episode that some refer to as “Miracle in Manhattan,” he played a stranger who brightens the spirit of “Archie the Manager” (Ed Gardner) after Archie is denied a Christmas bonus. Chandler’s other radio credits include The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Casebook of Gregory Hood, The Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Show, Ellery Queen, Jeff Regan, Investigator, Let George Do It, The Sealtest Variety Theatre and The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen.

chandler21Jeff Chandler’s first starring role on a radio series was playing the part of medical doctor Steve Dana on The Private Practice of Dr. Dana, a CBS West Coast program heard from 1947-48. He then landed the part of Brett Halliday’s legendary literary sleuth Michael Shayne in a syndicated series entitled The New Adventures of Michael Shayne in 1948, and a year later—billed as “Tex” Chandler—initiated the lead on the syndicated Frontier Town, a Western drama on which he portrayed Chad Remington (Jeff handed over the role to Reed Hadley midway through the series’ run). For many old-time radio fans, Chandler is best known as Philip Boynton—the “bashful biologist” who served as the unobtainable object of desire to Constance Brooks (Eve Arden), Madison High’s beloved English teacher on the popular CBS sitcom Our Miss Brooks.

chandler20The part of Mr. Boynton could arguably be called Chandler’s best radio role; his distinctive voice and previously untapped comedic talent made Boynton a most likable character (even though he was a bit dim not to see that Connie had it bad for him) and Our Miss Brooks a solid hit. The problem for Jeff was that while he excelled vocally in the part, he knew that visually, he just wouldn’t be right for Boynton when Brooks eventually transitioned to TV in the fall of 1952. Jeff Chandler was a ruggedly handsome chap, with a 6’4” build, broad shoulders and a tan from head to toe—so the creative minds behind OMB cast Robert Rockwell as Boynton for the boob tube version, who looked more like a nebbish science teacher. To Chandler’s credit, he insisted on continuing to play Boynton on radio until the end of his contract (Rockwell took over after that)—still, it’s sad that of all the Brooks principals Jeff was the only one who didn’t make the transition to the small screen.

Jeff ChandlerFortunately, Jeff was occupied on the silver screen by that time. A guest appearance on Dick Powell’s Rogue’s Gallery impressed Powell so much that he gave Chandler a small role in a 1947 noir, Johnny O’Clock. The actor continued to appear in small roles in the likes of Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) and Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949), and his work on Our Miss Brooks attracted the attention of Universal studio executives, who cast him as an Israeli leader in Sword in the Desert (1949)…and then signed him to a seven-year contract beginning with Abandoned that same year.

chandler19Chandler’s skyrocketing silver screen fame was actually due to a film released by 20th Century-Fox in 1950. Jeff would play the role of the Apache chief Cochise in that studio’s successful Broken Arrow, which also starred James Stewart and Debra Paget. His performance garnered an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor, and he would later reprise the role in 1952’s The Battle at Apache Pass (this time at Universal) and cameoed as Cochise in Taza, Son of Cochise (1954). Jeff was a bona fide matinee idol by this time; his tanned appearance allowed him to appear in a variety of films such as Flame of Araby (1951—as an Arab chief) and the 1951 remake of Bird of Paradise (as a Polynesian). Red Ball Express (1952), Sign of the Pagan (1954), Foxfire (1955), Female on the Beach (1955), Away All Boats (1956), The Tattered Dress (1957), Jeanne Eagels (1957), Man in the Shadow (1957) and Return to Peyton Place (1961) are just a few of the many movies that featured the popular actor.

chandler18His work in movies kept him pretty busy, but Jeff Chandler still found the time to appear on programs with established boob tube favorites such as Martin & Lewis, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Steve Allen and Frank Sinatra. He even dabbled in music: Jeff formed his own publishing company, Chandler Music, and recorded a few albums while entertaining in nightclubs (though the verdict is still out on Chandler’s actual musical talent). After completing what would be his final film role in 1962’s Merrill’s Marauders, Jeff had to undergo surgery for a spinal disc herniation that resulted from a back injury playing baseball with some extras in the movie. Complications unfortunately resulted when one of the actor’s arteries was damaged during the procedure and Chandler began hemorrhaging. A second operation could not repair the injury…and Jeff Chandler passed away at the age of 42 on June 17, 1961.

19982It was indeed tragic that Jeff Chandler left this world for a better one at a young age…but fortunately for old-time radio devotees, he left behind a rich legacy of wonderful performances—particularly his first-rate work on Our Miss Brooks, which we invite you to sample on our Boynton Blues and Good English collections. Jeff exercises his dramatic chops on select broadcasts featured on the Michael Shayne, Private Detective set, and there’s also appearances by the actor on The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, Volume 2, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s Road) and Let George Do It. There’s a rare 1954 broadcast of San Francisco Final available on Radio Spirits’ Stop the Press!…and in keeping with the season, a nice little Christmas outing from Family Theatre (“The Other Wise Man”) in our Radio Christmas Spirits collection. Happy birthday, Jeff!