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Inner Sanctum at the movies

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In 1943, Universal Pictures was reaping the rewards from a revived horror movie cycle, so the studio decided in June of that year to ink a deal with Simon and Schuster to institute a film series based upon the publishing company’s popular “Inner Sanctum” novels…much in the same way that S&S agreed to let producer Himan Brown fashion a radio program (Inner Sanctum Mysteries) with the same name. Both the novels and the radio series were quite popular…though curiously, Universal did not use any of the novels or scripts from the show, just the “Inner Sanctum” name. Actor Lon Chaney, Jr., who was under contract to Universal and was beginning to chafe at having to play one monster after another, would star in the brief series of six films—though one could charitably say he was miscast in all of them.

drdeath1Still, the Inner Sanctum movie franchise got off to a promising start with Calling Dr. Death (1943), which cast Lon, Jr. as renowned neurologist Mark Steele. Steele subscribes to the then-radical therapy of hypnosis, with which he’s been able to work wonders with his patients. The doc is ga-ga for his nurse, Stella Madden (Patricia Morison), who is most reciprocal in her romantic attentions. But Mark has an unfaithful wife named Maria (Ramsay Ames), who refuses to relinquish her (sorry about this) Steele-like grip on him. At the end of a “lost weekend,” Maria has been discovered murdered at Mark’s lodge (both beaten to death with a poker and then disfigured with acid)—and Mark has no memory of what happened during that previous forty-eight hours due to a blackout. Intrepid Inspector Gregg (J. Carrol Naish of Life With Luigi fame) pursues suspect Steele with the tenacity of a pit bull terrier.

drdeath4Calling Dr. Death is certainly not without its merits—both Morison and Naish turn in fine performances. Morison was sort of the “poor man’s Gale Sondergaard,” which is interesting in that Sondergaard was originally slated to play opposite Lon in all of the Inner Sanctum films. Most of the film’s problems can be traced to its star, who was never that convincing in the leading man parts he played in all six movies. Lon [Creighton] may have been the son of Lon Chaney, but Junior had a rather limited thespic ability. He was very good in movies like Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Wolf Man (1941), but was much better in character roles like those in High Noon (1952) and The Defiant Ones (1958). Director Reginald LeBorg does what he can with the tools that he’s got—there’s a great nightmarish montage toward the end of the film that plays out in the mind of the real murderer—but he’s handicapped by both Chaney’s performance and a pedestrian script.

weird2The Inner Sanctum franchise took a tremendous upswing with the second entry, Weird Woman (1944)—my personal pick as the best in the movie series. Chaney is still a liability as Norman Reed, a college professor who returns from the South Seas (studying native superstitions for a book he’s writing) with a new bride (Anne Gwynne) in tow. This news sort of unnerves his former girlfriend Ilona Carr (Evelyn Ankers), who cattily stirs up a hornet’s nest of trouble by inadvertently causing the suicide of one of Reed’s colleagues (Ralph Morgan, who’s accused of plagiarism) and getting the jealous boyfriend (Phil Morgan) of his intern (Lois Collier) all worked up to the point where the boyfriend is killed in a struggle with Reed and the prof ends up accused of murder. Ankers, Universal’s “Scream Queen,” effectively plays against type as the villainess of the piece (she goes stark raving mad in the last ten minutes of the film—and receives a nasty comeuppance for being such a schemer in the first place). Elisabeth Russell (the memorable dame who calls Simone Simon “Moya Sestra” in 1942’s Cat People) practically walks off with the movie as Ralph Morgan’s ambitious, manipulative wife. Woman was adapted from Fritz Leiber’s classic horror novel Conjure Wife, and was later remade as the even better Burn, Witch Burn! (1962, a.k.a. Night of the Eagle) and the head-scratchingly offbeat Witches’ Brew (1980).

eyes6Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), the third movie, casts Lon, Jr. as a painter who’s blinded in a freak accident, courtesy of a breathtakingly beautiful model played by Acquanetta (whose acting is even worse than Chaney’s). The father (Edward Fielding) of Chaney’s fiancée (Jean Parker) wills his own eyes to Lon in the event of his death…and an unknown somebody brings about this bequest earlier than expected by dispatching dear old “Dad” to the happy hunting ground. Once again, a great supporting cast—which also includes Paul Kelly, Thomas Gomez (as yet another dedicated detective) and Jonathan Hale—adds the only life to this tepid entry, which bears a strong similarity to “The King of Darkness,” an Inner Sanctum radio broadcast first heard on October 11, 1942 and featuring Claude Rains.

ghost2Number four, The Frozen Ghost (1945), easily wins the prize as the worst movie of the half-dozen Inner Sanctum films. As (Alex) Gregor the Great, Lon is a mentalist who’s convinced himself that he’s responsible for the death of an audience member (Arthur Hohl) who volunteered to be hypnotized during a radio broadcast. His business manager (Milburn Stone) suggests he have a little R&R at a wax museum run by curator Tala Birell. Alex finds plenty of mischief to get into there, including matching wits with a creepy ex-plastic surgeon (played by Martin Kosleck, the silver screen’s favorite Nazi officer) now in charge of the wax figures. Evelyn Ankers has a second go-round as Gregor’s fiancée, but the movie actually seems longer than its running time of 61 minutes—it’s that painful.

confession1Strange Confession (1945), entry number five, was for many years not included in Universal’s “Shock Theater” package—the bundle of the studio’s classic horror films sold to television syndication—because it was a remake of their 1934 production The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (with Claude Rains), and the contract with playwright Jean Bart neglected to include any films beyond the original. But Confession was eventually released on VHS in the 1990s, and along with Weird Woman it’s one of the better Inner Sanctum films. Chemist Jeffrey Carter (Lon) works for Roger Graham (J. Carrol Naish—again), whose pharmaceutical company is obsessed with little more than the bottom line. Graham sends Carter to South America (with partner Lloyd Bridges in tow) basically so he can make time with Mrs. Carter (Brenda Joyce, who played Jane in a few of the RKO Tarzans). In the meantime, Graham arranges for Carter’s wonder drug to be released on the market without being fully tested…and Jeff’s young son dies of influenza as a result. Though the denouement of this movie is telegraphed in advance by director John Hoffman, it’s not a bad little programmer. Old-time radio fans might get a kick out of seeing Naish’s later Life with Luigi co-star, Jody Gilbert, in a brief bit as a customer in a pharmacy where Chaney works.

pillow4The final Inner Sanctum entry, Pillow of Death (1945), might have been an appropriate instrument to use on the struggling franchise by this time. As attorney Wayne Fletcher, Lon, Jr. is accused of the suffocation death of his harpy of a wife Vivian…and several other pillow murders besides. His secretary Donna (the return of Brenda Joyce) naturally believes in his innocence…her aunt Belle (Clara Blandick) isn’t so sure, but it makes no never mind since she and husband Sam (George Cleveland, the best thing in the picture) are two of the aforementioned pillow murder victims. It takes an iron constitution to sit through this one…if you’ll pardon the pun, it’s murder. (Pillow bears the distinction of being the only movie in the series that does not feature the opening narration of David Hoffman, whose disembodied head inside a crystal ball would intone: “This is the Inner Sanctum…a strange, fantastic world controlled by a mass of living, pulsating flesh…the mind! It destroys…distorts…creates monsters…commits murder…yes, even you, without knowing…can commit murder…”)

20749In an essay (“Half a Dozen Frights: The Inner Sanctum Movies”) penned by film historian Gregory William Mank for Martin Grams, Jr.’s authoritative Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Behind the Creaking Door, Mank writes: “Universal’s Inner Sanctum potboilers never came close to approaching the creativity, assurance and nightmarish potency of the radio show, nor the goose-pimply power of the pulps.” I’ll be the first to admit that the films aren’t great cinema (a mustachioed Lon Chaney, Jr. is generally Clark Gable gone to seed), but the radio show didn’t always hit one out of the park, either. I think the Universal movies capture the flavor of Inner Sanctum Mysteries quite well: the melodramatic plots (as much as I love Weird Woman, it’s lip-smackingly-over-the-top), stream-of-consciousness monologues (often emanating from star Chaney) and liberal use of organ music on the soundtracks. All six films have been released on a 2-disc DVD set entitled Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Movie Collection. You’ll find plenty of the aural Sanctum (the movies weren’t allowed to use the famous creaking door) on Radio Spirits’ new collection, Great Radio Horror and previous Inner Sanctum collections like Romance Gone Wrong and No Rest for the Dead. Until next time…pleasant dreeeeeeams?

Review: Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)

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One thing you can say about Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Harold Peary): his political ambitions are boundless, and in the 1944 film comedy Gildersleeve’s Ghost he’s determined to advance from his present position as Summerfield’s water commissioner to Summerfield’s police commissioner. It’s not proving to be an easy task; the current man in the job, Commissioner Haley (Emory Parnell), has been there for a dozen years and though Gildy is trying his best he’s lagging behind in the polls.

ghost5But The Great Man gets an otherworldly assist from the spirits of two of his ancestors: Randolph Q, Gildersleeve and his nephew Jonathan (both played by Peary). The ghostly Gildersleeves know that at nearby Wagstaff Manor, dotty scientist Dr. John Wells (Frank Reicher) is working on an experiment involving invisibility—once perfected, he’ll use it on a gorilla subject (the first of many more to come) to create an invincible army. Wells and assistant Lennox (Joseph Vitale) have already tested the formula on a chorus girl named Terry Vance (Marion Martin), who has a tendency to appear and reappear at various times. Randolph and Jonathan hatch a plan whereupon they’ll let the gorilla out of his cage to terrorize Summerfield…and Gildy will naturally step up to the plate to capture the beast, thus ensuring his election win.

ghost4To paraphrase an observation often made on his radio program…this looks like it’s going to be one of Gildersleeve’s bad days. Gildy has his hands full trying to convince his druggist pal Peavey (Richard LeGrand) and Paley that there actually is an ape. A series of mishaps result in those three men—along with Gildy’s niece Marjorie (Margie Stewart), nephew Leroy (Freddie Mercer) and housekeeper Birdie Lee Coggins (Lillian Randolph)—having to spend the night in Wagstaff Manor. There, Wells and Terry prove quite successful in convincing Throcky’s family and friends that the cheese has slid off his cracker.

greatgildersleeve3Old-time radio fans know that before Hal Peary went off on his own in the sitcom spin-off The Great Gildersleeve, he was a regular on Fibber McGee & Molly as the obstreperous neighbor of the McGees. But the Gildersleeve character was too popular just to be contained at 81 Wistful Vista. Peary played Throckmorton in a number of feature films: Comin’ Round the Mountain (1940—as Mayor Gildersleeve!), County Fair (1941), and a movie reviewed previously here on the blog, Seven Days’ Leave (1942). He also appears in the Fibber & Molly/Bergen & McCarthy vehicles Look Who’s Laughing [1941] and Here We Go Again [1942]—even though he had already relocated to Summerfield by then. The success of all these films inspired RKO to institute a series of B-films with Hal as his popular character, beginning with the appropriately titled The Great Gildersleeve in 1942.

ghost1Gildersleeve’s Ghost was the last of these “Gildersleeve” romps, and was directed by Gordon Douglas—who helmed all four programmers in the Gildy franchise. Douglas began his movie career as a child actor and worked at Hal Roach Studios for a number of years, as both a gag writer and directing shorts in the Our Gang series (he even helmed the kiddie troupe’s solo foray into feature films, 1936’s General Spanky). Gordon would later go on to sit in the director’s chair on such movies as Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), Them! (1954) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). Robert E. Kent, who handled story and screenplay duties on the previous Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943—my pick for the best in the series), also tackled the same on Ghost…and later worked on radio-themed movies such as Radio Stars on Parade (1945) and It’s a Joke, Son! (1947).

ghost6So I’m going to be honest—this movie is not Blithe Spirit. Kent’s screenplay for Ghost is pretty much your standard “scare comedy” material, but it does get a boost from impressive special effects (for a B-picture) and enthusiastic performances from its players. The problem with the Gildersleeve movies is that RKO only availed themselves of three of the principle performers from the radio series: Peary, Legrand and Randolph (who appeared in all four). Child actor Freddie Mercer replaced Walter Tetley as Leeeeeroy in the Gildersleeve movies, and was never really able to convey Tetley’s endearing rambunctiousness as Gildy’s skeptical nephew. (Tetley does make an appearance, however, as a pugnacious bellhop in Broadway.) Margie Stewart is okay as Marjorie (she replaced the actress who played Marj in the previous Gildy romp, Margaret Landry), but she’s certainly no Lurene Tuttle. He’s not billed in the credits, but Earle Ross appears briefly in Ghost in the role he played on the program, Judge Horace Hooker (Hooker was played by Charles Arnt in the first two Gildersleeve films)—possibly making Ghost the winner when it comes to featuring the most performers from the radio incarnation. (Ken Christy, who played Chief Gates on the show, is in a couple of the movies in minor parts and Forrest Lewis, who would play Peavey on the short-lived TV series, is a druggist in Broadway.)

ghost2This is just nitpicking, of course; the supporting players in Ghost all turn in solid work—particularly Marion Martin, who plays the “ghostly” Terry. The platinum-tressed Martin, known as “Hollywood’s blonde menace,” could play both comedic and serious roles in such movies as The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), His Girl Friday (1940) and Angel on My Shoulder (1946). As Terry, Martin tries to put the moves on our favorite water commissioner (she’s been told by Wells that if she doesn’t help to convince everyone Gildy is cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs she’ll never be visible again), and Throckmorton continuously rebuffs her advances. (I know—he must not be feeling well.) Nicodemus Stewart also generates more than his fair share of chuckles as Paley’s chauffeur Chauncey (doubling as Birdie’s love interest); Stewart, who must have landed the part because Mantan Moreland and Willie Best were unavailable, is able to work wonders with even the weakest material. (As the two of them explore a secret passageway in the mansion Gildy asks: “You want to go first, Chauncey?” Chauncey: “No, sir—I don’t even want to go second!”) Nick would later play the role of Lightnin’ the janitor in the boob tube version of Amos ‘n’ Andy. His roles in films and TV may have been demeaning, but he was able to use the money he earned to establish the prestigious Ebony Showcase Theatre in Los Angeles in 1950.

20536Gildersleeve’s Ghost isn’t anywhere close to high art, but its shortcomings are overcome by its sense of whimsy and fun—it’s available on a 2-DVD collection entitled The Great Gildersleeve Movie Collection, which also contains The Great Gildersleeve, Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943), Gildersleeve on Broadway and Seven Days’ Leave. Be sure to check out Radio Spirits’ other Gildy sets featuring his radio adventures in Baby, Marjorie’s Wedding and Neighbors (and special seasonal shows in Happy Halloween and Christmas Radio Classics!). We even have Gildy on TV in Classic TV Comedies of the 50s (Featuring “The Great Gildersleeve”).

Review: A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946)

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A Close Call for Boston Blackie begins in a particularly jaunty mood: Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris) and his sidekick The Runt (George E. Stone) are riding back to Blackie’s apartment courtesy of Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) and his aide de camp, Sergeant Matthews (Frank Sully). It seems that Blackie’s Galahad-like gallantry got him into trouble by stranding him and The Runt in the middle of nowhere with no transportation; fortunately, Farraday happened along to help him out of the jam. His longtime cop nemesis even warns him to stay away from women because they eventually lead to trouble…a bit of advice that Blackie could have used in any number of the previous Boston Blackie vehicles. (Come to think of it, the ones to follow as well.)

closecall1No sooner have they arrived at Blackie’s apartment when Blackie and The Runt come to the aid of yet another damsel in distress—it’s Geraldine “Gerry” Peyton (Lynn Merrick), an old girlfriend of our hero, who’s being manhandled by a pair of thugs outside the apartment building. Blackie and The Runt spirit Gerry upstairs…and find another surprise waiting inside—an abandoned baby! (Blackie: “Is this one of your ideas?” Runt: “Now wait a minute, Blackie—if this were one of my ideas do you think it would be that good-looking?”) Gerry claims the child is hers; the product of a marriage between her and her no-account husband John (Mark Roberts), who’s just been paroled after doing a two-year stretch in the pokey. In fact, Blackie warned Gerry before she wed the ex-con that he was nothing but trouble…and John proves his point by arriving unannounced at Blackie’s digs, ready to start some fireworks. The true fireworks begin when John is shot and killed by a man later identified as Smiley Slade (Erik Rolf)…though in typical Boston Blackie fashion, our reformed jewel thief isn’t able to convince Farraday that he had nothing to do with the murder.

closecall2Short on plot (Gerry and Smiley are working a con with the baby to secure a large financial payoff from John’s father) but long on comedy, A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946) is an enjoyable lark—within its one hour running time, the Boston Blackie players run through their usual paces with frenetically hilarious situations and clever disguises. The Runt, in charge of watching the baby until Blackie can square himself with Farraday, is forced to borrow a waitress’ uniform from his girlfriend so he can go on an errand of mercy and obtain milk for the little shaver. Blackie adopts the persona of the late Mr. Peyton’s father Cyrus in an effort to trap Gerry and Smiley…and Matthews dons the same getup! (Farraday has his dumb-as-a-sled-track detective do this to prove to Blackie that he’s got some Moxie; that he can round up the guilty parties before the closing credits roll…and that he wasn’t joking about dames being nothing but trouble.)

closecall7B-picture veteran Lew Landers holds the directorial reins on Close Call, which guarantees that the proceedings (scripted by Ben Markson from a Paul Yawitz story…with additional dialogue from Malcolm Stuart Boylan) will be fast and funny, and the supporting cast plays it to perfection as well. Lynn Merrick is great as Blackie’s latest femme fatale, with Erik Rolf solid as her confederate in crime. One of the members of their gang, Hack Hagen, is played by character great Charles Lane (you know him as Homer Bedloe on Petticoat Junction); he’s the actual father of the tyke used in the set-up but Hack sadly suffers a tragic fate. Russell Hicks, Emmett Vogan and Kathryn Card are also on hand—I Love Lucy fans might recognize Card as Mrs. McGillicuddy, Ricky Ricardo’s mother-in-law.

closecall6But just as character favorite Iris Adrian walked off with Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous (1945), A Close Call for Boston Blackie is the victim of further onscreen larceny with the presence of Claire Carleton, who plays The Runt’s ditzy blonde girlfriend Mamie Kerwin. Reluctantly dragooned into helping her man and Blackie out of the hot water they’re in with Farraday, Blackie tells her “Well, if you’re arrested, Mamie—we’ll come visit you and we’ll send you flowers and candy.” “Never mind the flowers,” Mamie replies sharply. “If I get pinched, you’ll need ‘em yourself!”

I’m a little biased about the fun that Claire provides in Close Call because she’s been a longtime favorite of mine. You can see her display her comedic talents in many of Columbia’s two-reel comedies (notably the Three Stooges’ Fright Night [1947] and Schilling & Lane’s Two Nuts in a Rut [1948]) and movies like Lady of Burlesque (1943), Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943), Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (1946) and It’s a Great Feeling (1949). Claire had a serious side, too; she’s the waitress fired for stealing in 1945’s Mildred Pierce…and the secretary who dallies with Willy Loman in the 1951 version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Death of a Salesman.

20588A Close Call for Boston Blackie is one of three films in the long-running Columbia Pictures mystery-comedy franchise available on DVD (on a manufactured-on-demand disc from Sony Home Video) and while it’s not quite in the same league as another Blackie vehicle released on MOD, One Mysterious Night (1944), Close Call’s lighter moments most certainly make up for whatever plot shortcomings there are in the finished product. We encourage you to rent it for an evening of fun…and Radio Spirits would also like to remind you that our Boston Blackie collection, Outside the Law, is available for purchase—with several broadcasts featuring the actors who portrayed Blackie and Inspector Farraday in the movies, Chester Morris and Richard Lane.

Happy Birthday, Ted de Corsia!

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If you’ve seen this popular character actor’s mug in any movie on Turner Classic Movies I guarantee you it’s a most familiar one. He’s the sneering, Brylcreemed thug from a countless number of film noirs, notably The Enforcer (1951)—where he plays a member of a murder-for-hire operation who’s agreed to turn states’ evidence on behalf of crusading D.A. Humphrey Bogart. Born Edward Gildea De Corsia on this date in 1905, Ted de Corsia relied on his impressive size, gravelly voice and streetwise Brooklyn origins to effectively play onscreen menaces…though he could on occasion play a good guy, like a prison warden (Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison) or judge (A Place in the Sun). Many individuals are unaware, however, that de Corsia had a long career in radio…where he displayed an amazing range that lent himself to roles like that of Scotland Yard inspector Peter Black on the CBS Radio crime drama Pursuit.

decorsia10Ted’s father (Edward G. de Corsia) was a vaudevillian who hailed from Texas, and the younger de Corsia lived a life on the road with his family, attending school in various stopovers in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc. At the same time, Ted gained acting experience as a child actor in several road companies, and during the Depression found steady work in radio. De Corsia became a frequent presence on The March of Time, where he imitated the likes of President Herbert Hoover, Huey Long, and Benito Mussolini. One of his steady gigs over the ether was on The Adventures of Ellery Queen in 1939, playing the role of Sergeant Velie, and in addition he starred as a lovestruck Brooklyn cabbie on a short-lived situation comedy in 1941 entitled Joe and Mabel. (De Corsia, a dedicated Dodgers fan, purportedly asked the announcer on this last program to keep him updated on the team’s game progress whenever it was relevant to the broadcast.)

decorsia11De Corsia’s radio resume is a lengthy one; he appeared on such favorites as The Adventures of Maisie, Bold Venture, Boston Blackie, The Cavalcade of America, The Columbia Workshop, The CBS Radio Workshop, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Escape, Frontier Gentleman, Hallmark Playhouse, Let George Do It, The Line-Up, The Molle Mystery Theatre, Murder Clinic, Mystery In the Air, Night Beat, Pat Novak for Hire, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Rogue’s Gallery, The Shadow, The Silent Men, The Adventures of the Saint and This is Your FBI. Occasionally, Ted would land the lead role on series such as McGarry and His Mouse and That Hammer Guy. From 1949 to 1950, de Corsia also played the lead on Pursuit, a solid mystery series that centered on the exploits of Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Black (though he went by “Inspector Harvey” in the pilot and premiere episodes of the show). De Corsia was joined on the series by radio veteran Bill Johnstone as Chief Inspector Harkness (who served as Pursuit’s narrator), but Ted’s stint on the program was fairly brief: he handed over the role to John Dehner in March of 1950…possibly due to his burgeoning film career.

decorsia9A finer film debut could not have been concocted for Ted de Corsia than that of the blackmailing Sidney Broome in the Orson Welles-directed cult noir The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Ted’s next film appearance was also a memorable one: harmonica-playing Willie Garzah, an ex-wrestler whose murder of a young model leads to a confrontation with police on the Williamsburg Bridge in Jules Dassin’s seminal The Naked City (1948). Film noir was definitely de Corsia’s calling; he acted in such movies as Mr. Soft Touch (1949), The Turning Point (1952), Crime Wave (1954), The Big Combo (1955), Slightly Scarlet (1956), The Killing (1956—outstanding as a cop-gone-bad) and Baby Face Nelson (1957). In addition, Ted played an assortment of up-to-no-good guys in Westerns like The Outriders (1950), Gunfight at Dodge City (1957), The Lawless Eighties (1957), Gun Battle at Monterey (1957) and Noose for a Gunman (1960). Every once in a while, to break the bad guy monotony, Ted would fall back on his incredible range and take on interesting roles like those in It Happens Every Spring (1949), Three Secrets (1950) and From the Terrace (1960).

decorsia7On the small screen, Ted guest starred on many hit TV series—and indulged his fondness for Westerns playing parts on Death Valley Days, Gunsmoke, Maverick, Lawman, Sugarfoot, Rawhide and Daniel Boone. He turned up everywhere, on sitcoms like Get Smart and Green Acres and science-fiction favorites like The Outer Limits and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Before his death in 1973 at the age of 69, de Corsia went out on a memorable note…literally. In the 1972 movie The Outside Man, he plays a mobster named Victor who’s killed by hit man Jean-Louis Trintignant early in the film, but later has an encore in a shootout scene around his bier (he’s been embalmed seated in a chair, holding a cigar).

20740Here at Radio Spirits, we invite you to sample some of Ted’s splendid radio performances (especially if you’re only familiar with his film career!). He’s present and accounted for in our collections Escape to the High Seas, Frontier Gentleman: Life and Death, Gang Busters: Cases of Crime, Night Beat: Lost Souls, Pat Novak for Hire: Pain Gets Expensive, Romance, The Saint Solves the Case, Stop the Press! and Suspense: Tales Well Calculated. De Corsia’s regular role as Lieutenant Walter “Walt” Quincy Levinson can be heard in our latest Richard Diamond, Private Detective set Shamus…not to mention Homicide Made Easy and Mayhem is My Business. Finally, the birthday boy gets first-hand knowledge that “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit” in three collections starring The Shadow: Crime Does Not Pay, Radio Treasures and Strange Puzzles. Happy natal anniversary to one of the best character actors from the past!

Review: Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous (1945)

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As he and his sidekick The Runt (George E. Stone) settle in for the night, Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris) gets an unexpected visit from his wealthy friend Arthur Manleder (Harry Hayden). Manleder needs Blackie’s help in the matter of his homicidal nephew James Cooke (Steve Cochran), who had been a guest at a mental institution until his recent crashout. As Arthur elaborates further on Jimmy’s past, the young Cooke is shown listening outside on a fire escape in Blackie’s apartment—and when Blackie calls it a night (after assuring Manleder he’ll look into the matter), Jimmy makes himself at home by entering Blackie’s bedroom. Jimmy’s story is that his uncle is purposely concocting a story questioning Jimmy’s sanity in a plot to keep him from receiving a large inheritance. Blackie tries to persuade Cooke to give himself up—and Jimmy’s reaction is to choke Mr. Black unconscious, then help himself to Blackie’s wardrobe.

rendezvous8Jimmy makes his way to a dance hall to meet a young woman named Sally Brown (Nina Foch), with whom he’s been corresponding during his incarceration. He’s informed that Sally isn’t working that evening, so he agrees to have a few dances with her roommate, Patricia Powers (Adele Roberts). He convinces Pat to go off with him so that the two of them can be alone. In the meantime, Blackie and The Runt follow clues left by Cooke and are hot on his trail; eventually they stumble onto the final resting place of Ms. Powers, who’s been strangled by Jimmy. Fans of the Boston Blackie movie franchise will not be surprised to learn, however, that our hero encounters Inspector John Farraday (Richard Lane) at the murder scene…and like so many times in the past, Farraday has fingered Blackie as the strangler.

rendezvous2The last part of the previous sentence goes a long way toward explaining why Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous (1945) is one of the weakest entries in Columbia’s successful movie series. Blackie is a reformed jewel thief and safecracker…but he’s not a murderer, and you would think that Farraday would realize this. Even an actor as solid as Dick Lane has difficulty making the audience believe that he’s convinced of his nemesis’ guilt. Rendezvous has other problems with its narrative as well: for example, in the opening scenes Jimmy explains to Blackie that his uncle Arthur has told people he’s insane in order to take his inheritance. We know from earlier Blackie vehicles that while Manleder is a man of considerable means, he’s also a gentle, kindly soul: a straight-shooter, firmly supportive of his friend and always in his camp. (Having a different actor—Harry Hayden—play the role shouldn’t make any difference.) The screenwriter of Rendezvous, Edward Dein (who later directed the 1955 cult classic Shack Out on 101), thereby makes no bones to those watching that Cooke is cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs—when ambiguously suggesting Jimmy’s guilt of the strangulation murder might have been more effective.

rendezvous3Also telegraphing his punches is director Arthur Dreifuss, who held the reins on the previous entry in the Blackie series, Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion (1945). Watch for the scene in Blackie’s apartment forty-five minutes in when Farraday gets on the phone to corroborate Blackie’s alibi—there’s a photo of B.B. prominently displayed on the desk, which catches Farraday’s eye (and produces an amusing grimace). There’s a reason for the photo, and all will be made clear at the film’s climax. (Farraday is also holding the phone’s receiver upside down, something that didn’t induce director Dreifuss to go for a retake.)

rendezvous5Actor Steve Cochran, who also figured prominently in Booked on Suspicion, plays the crazed Cooke in Rendezvous…and while there’s certainly no doubting his capability for onscreen violence and projecting a sense of menace, his attempt to portray Jimmy as a sensitive, poetic soul isn’t quite convincing. The leading lady of Rendezvous—who, for a nice change, doesn’t double-cross Blackie toward the movie’s conclusion—is Nina Foch, who was just earning her stripes as a Columbia starlet in programmers like The Return of the Vampire (1943), Cry of the Werewolf (1944) and the Crime Doctor series entry Shadows in the Night (1944). Her next film release after Rendezvous—apart from a bit role in Columbia’s A Thousand and One Nights (1945)—would be the B-picture classic My Name is Julia Ross (1945)…which led to such successes as The Dark Past (1948), The Undercover Man (1949) and Best Picture Oscar winner An American in Paris (1951). A few years later, Foch would score her sole Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 1954’s Executive Suite. (Queried in later years about Rendezvous, Nina couldn’t remember too many details…and I can’t say I blame her.)

rendezvous1Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous isn’t completely without merit: it features a scene-stealing performance from character great Iris Adrian, who played gum-chewing blonde wiseacres in nearly a million films (Lady of Burlesque, The Paleface) and also appeared on radio programs alongside Abbott and Costello and Jack Benny. Adrian is Martha, the ticket taker at the dance hall, and provides most of the film’s necessary lighter moments. You’ll also catch veteran Joe Devlin as a cab driver—Devlin, who could have been Jack Oakie’s twin brother, made a comfortable living in the movies portraying Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (he bore an uncanny resemblance to Il Duce) in The Devil With Hitler (1942), They Got Me Covered (1943), Natzy Nuisance (1943) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944).

rendezvous7I got a chuckle out of seeing Tom Kennedy in a small role as a doorman outside the dance hall who gives Blackie information on Jimmy’s whereabouts (Kennedy was working steadily at Columbia at that time, appearing in a good many two-reel comedies with Shemp Howard), and Three Stooges nemesis Philip Van Zandt plays a psychiatrist who “analyzes” Blackie, thus allowing star Morris to do a few of his amateur magic tricks. Chet also trots out a blackface routine when he and Stone disguise themselves as cleaning women, which got me to wondering if Morris resorted to that bit of business more than Eddie Cantor, believed to be the onscreen record holder. (On top of this, one of my favorites, Clarence Muse, sadly plays “straight man” to the blacked-up Blackie and Runt.)

20588Next month: Blackie comes to the rescue of an old flame in A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946)—one of only three movies in the series available on DVD (in a manufactured-on-demand disc from Sony Home Video), so you can watch it ahead of time and follow along in your workbooks. While I’m on the subject of availability, Radio Spirits’ fine collection of broadcasts from the Boston Blackie radio series—Outside the Law—is just what you need to enjoy the adventures of the former-thief-turned-crimefighter. Several of the shows on the set feature Chester Morris and Richard Lane in the roles they’d make famous in the movies. Grab a copy today…or two, in case you need one for a friend!

Happy Birthday, Hanley Stafford!

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The actor who achieved his greatest fame on radio as the best foil Fanny Brice’s Baby Snooks could ever wish for was born on this date in 1899 as Alfred John Austin. His birthplace of Hanley in Staffordshire provided all the inspiration he would need for his chosen stage name: Hanley Stafford.

stafford5Hanley and his parents immigrated to Winnipeg, Canada in 1911, and it was during his time in The Great White North that he developed his ambition to be an actor. You see, he had enlisted in a Canadian military platoon at the age of 16 and was injured in World War I…during his convalescence, he formed a theatrical group, which led to his later finding work with the Winnipeg Permanent Players. After that, he got a job with a stock company that toured western Canada. The life of an actor was not a secure one, however; when the company folded he found himself toiling in wheat fields in order to earn enough money to return to Winnipeg. Stafford’s interim jobs also included hauling freight and being a stenographer.

stafford2Hanley and his first wife Doris—along with his only son, Graham, who was one at the time—entered the U.S. in 1922 (he became a naturalized citizen three years later). He landed villainous roles in B-westerns and, after doing that for a few years, eventually made his way back to the stage. He received rave notices for his appearance in Six Characters in Search of an Author, and the positive buzz from that led to more parts…and eventually an engagement as an actor-director with Los Angeles’ Shelby Players. Then the Great Depression hit, and Stafford found a life preserver in the medium of radio.

Hanley Stafford’s early days over the airwaves were marked by a constant presence in many programs produced for syndication; some of the shows he appeared on include The World Adventurer’s Club, Strange Adventures in Strange Lands, The Last of the Mohicans and Police Headquarters. In the 1932 serial Tarzan of the Apes, Hanley took on three roles—Count Raoul de Conde, Lord Tennington and Karanoff! He could also be heard on Chandu the Magician and The Further Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon, and toward the end of the 1930s, Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police and The Shadow of Fu Manchu (as Nayland Smith). In addition, Hanley was one of several familiar radio voices who appeared in the holiday favorite The Cinnamon Bear (he was Snapper Snitch, the Crocodile). Hanley eventually began to make the rounds of network radio, notably on daytime dramas like John’s Other Wife (on which he was “John” for a few years) and Big Sister; he also played the titular role of Thatcher Colt on the NBC Sunday afternoon crime drama from 1936 to 1937. Some of the other series on which he guested include Big Town, Calling All Cars, The Court of Human Relations, The John Barrymore Theatre and The Palmolive Players.

stafford3It was 1938 when Hanley Stafford landed the gig that would make him famous. The legendary Fanny Brice had become quite a sensation on radio playing the child terror known as Baby Snooks (Higgins) on the 1936 series The Ziegfeld Follies of the Air, with broadcast veteran Alan Reed as her father, Lancelot “Daddy” Higgins. When Brice wanted to move to the West Coast, Reed elected to stay put…and Hanley auditioned for the part, much to Fanny’s delight. “He was perfect,” she reminisced in later years. “We didn’t need to hear anyone else.” Brice and Stafford performed Baby Snooks sketches on the Good News program from 1938 to 1940, then on Maxwell House Coffee Time from 1940-44 (a show she shared with comedian Frank Morgan). Baby Snooks then became a half-hour situation comedy on CBS for General Foods from 1944 to 1948, and for Tums on NBC from 1949 until Brice’s death in May of 1951.

brice&stafford5Playing opposite Brice soon made Stafford one of the “go-to” guys in radio for stack-blowing, as the poor put-upon “Daddy” would be driven to distraction by his daughter’s bratty antics. The Snooks gig undoubtedly led to Hanley’s other recurring radio role as J.C. Dithers on the situation comedy Blondie. Who could ever forget Dithers bellowing “Bumstead! I’ll run your little finger through the pencil sharpener!” Hanley used his exposure with Fanny to work alongside such radio comedians as Jack Haley (on his Log Cabin Jamboree), Fred Allen (Town Hall Tonight), W.C. Fields (Your Hit Parade) and Eddie Cantor (It’s Time to Smile). In addition to all this, Hanley also made time for guest appearances on such shows as The Halls of Ivy, Presenting Charles Boyer, The Screen Guild Theatre, Suspense and The Railroad Hour.

stafford11Hanley Stafford’s work in radio kept him pretty busy, so he only made sporadic appearances in motion pictures like The Light That Failed (1939) and Life with Henry (1941). But after the passing of Fanny Brice, he began to get more roles in movies like Three Guys Named Mike (1951), Lullaby of Broadway (1951), A Girl in Every Port (1952), Just This Once (1952), Here Come the Marines (1952—with the Bowery Boys), Francis Covers the Big Town (1953) and The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953). His notable guest appearances on the small screen include such favorites as Maverick, The Millionaire, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne and 77 Sunset Strip—his final appearance on TV was in an episode of The Lucy Show. Hanley Stafford passed away in 1968 at the age of 68…less than two weeks from his sixty-ninth birthday.

20697Here at Radio Spirits, we remember Hanley for what is unmistakably his greatest radio role: the long-suffering Daddy Higgins, tormented to no end by his mischievous daughter Baby Snooks. Why. Daddy?—with liner notes composed by yours truly—features skits and sketches from the duo’s successful stint on Maxwell House Coffee Time. The latest collection, Smart Aleck, concentrates on their appearances from the Good News program. Author Ben Ohmart contributed the liner notes for Aleck, and has also compiled two wonderful books—The Baby Snooks Scripts and The Baby Snooks Scripts Volume 2—that contain original scripts written by the man who also gave us John and Blanche Bickerson, Philip Rapp. Happy birthday, Hanley!

Happy Birthday, Lawrence Dobkin!

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There are eight million stories in the naked city…and today we’ll highlight one of them, by celebrating the 95th birthday of the actor who narrated those tales on one of television’s most memorable police procedurals. Before becoming the “voice” associated with the Naked City series, Lawrence Dobkin—born in NYC on this date in 1919—was a veteran of radio, stage and movies, possessing some of the most distinctive tones in any broadcast medium.

dobkin5Larry began acting at an early age. In fact, he broke into radio in order to finance his studies at the Yale School of Drama (his roommate was Richard Fleischer, future film director and son of cartoon innovator Max). Dobkin’s prolificacy over the airwaves was astonishing: he emoted on many big-time broadcasts including The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Broadway is My Beat, Doctor Christian, Jeff Regan, Investigator, Let George Do It, The Line-Up, The Man Called X, Night Beat, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Tales of the Texas Rangers and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Dobkin also made the rounds of the prestigious anthology programs—notably on Escape, where he was practically a regular—but also on The CBS Radio Workshop, Family Theatre, The First Nighter Program, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Lux Radio Theatre, The NBC University Theatre, Romance, Suspense and The Whistler.

Lawrence Dobkin circa 1958Lawrence Dobkin was one of five actors to play the legendary Ellery Queen on radio; he solved cases as the super sleuth over ABC from 1947 to 1948. Dobkin was also a regular on The Adventures of the Saint as Simon Templar’s cabbie sidekick…and once stepped into the shoes of Mr. Templar in an episode entitled “The Fish Case” (09/02/51) when the star of the series, Tom Conway, was incapacitated by drink. Larry was also one of several actors to play famed sidekick Archie Goodwin to the corpulent Nero Wolfe (played by Sydney Greenstreet) in a celebrated crime drama broadcast on NBC from 1950 to 1951. In 1951, he sidekicked for Dan Duryea (and in the first episode, Charles McGraw) in a summer replacement for Inner Sanctum, The Man from Homicide.

dobkin8One show that Larry Dobkin frequented, even though he wasn’t technically a regular, was the dean of radio westerns: Gunsmoke. Along with John Dehner, Vic Perrin, Harry Bartell, Jeanette Nolan, Sam Edwards, Virginia Gregg, Barney Phillips and so many other talented veterans, Dobkin could usually be counted on to pick up a script weekly. Well, let’s put it this way—if an episode didn’t feature Larry in a supporting role that week it was cause for concern. Dobkin would later turn up on the many radio westerns that followed in the wake of Gunsmoke’s success and dotted the landscape in radio’s waning era: Fort Laramie, Frontier Gentleman, Luke Slaughter of Tombstone and Have Gun – Will Travel.

dobkin7Lawrence Dobkin’s first credited film role was in 1949’s Not Wanted, playing an assistant district attorney in the directorial debut of actress Ida Lupino (she did not receive credit for taking over for the ailing Elmer Clifton). He did not possess matinee idol looks, but his bald pate was perfect for playing all sorts of authority figures (doctors, lawyers, police sergeants)…and if push came to shove, he could always wear his toupee. His C.V. in movies is far too lengthy to list here, but some of our favorite Dobkin film appearances include D.O.A. (1950), Angels in the Outfield (1951—as a rabbi), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Deadline – U.S.A. (1952), Them! (1954), The Killer Is Loose (1956), The Ten Commandments (1956—as Hur Ben Caleb!), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Portland Exposé (1957), and The Defiant Ones (1958). You’ve also heard him narrate classics like Broken Arrow (1950) and The Robe (1953). And in North by Northwest (1959)—my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film—he plays the U.S. intelligence official who observes: “It’s so horribly sad…why is it I feel like laughing?”

dobkin4Perhaps he was inspired after watching Lupino start her directing career in Not Wanted…but Lawrence Dobkin started to flex his muscles behind the camera by the late 1950s. He wrote episodes for such series as The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor and The Rifleman, produced the series Klondike and Temple Houston, and helmed a number of episodes from hit series such as The Real McCoys, 77 Sunset Strip, The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, The Andy Griffith Show, The Donna Reed Show, Felony Squad, The Mod Squad, Emergency!, Cannon, Barnaby Jones and The Waltons. Though Larry was comfortable as the unseen narrator on Naked City, he occasionally stepped in front of the camera to play Dutch Schultz in three episodes of The Untouchables. He also appeared on the likes of I Love Lucy, Have Gun – Will Travel, Rawhide, The Streets of San Francisco (he played a memorable bad guy in that series’ pilot, a former horror film actor turned psycho)…and of course, Gunsmoke. Larry was also the only person to direct an episode of the original Star Trek series (“Charlie X”) and later appear in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“The Mind’s Eye”).

20745Before his death in 2002 at age 83, Lawrence Dobkin remarked on his radio days: “The few of us who are left kept telling each other we never had it so good.” He’ll certainly get no argument from us, but we’re most fortunate that Larry’s radio legacy survives in the form of several Radio Spirits collections: The Saint is Heard, Night Beat: Lost Souls, Defense Attorney, Frontier Gentleman: Aces and Eights, The Man from Homicide, three sets of Suspense (Around the World, Tales Well Calculated, The Ties That Bind) and two sets of The Adventures of Nero Wolfe, The Case of the Midnight Ride and Other Tales and Parties for Death. Be sure to keep an ear peeled for our birthday boy in Fort Laramie: Volume Two, The Whistler, The Whistler: Root of All Evil, Escape to the High Seas, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Let George Do It, Jeff Regan, Investigator: Stand by for Mystery, The Line Up: Witness and Broadway is My Beat: Neon Shoals. Happy birthday, Larry!

Happy Birthday, Edmond O’Brien!

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Born 101 years ago on this date in New York City, Redmond O’Brien would go on to become one of the movies’ most beloved and respected character actors…after dropping the “r” in the first part of his name, that is. Edmond would make a standout debut in the 1939 film classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and go on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1954’s The Barefoot Contessa. But old-time radio fans know that O’Brien also took on the role of “the man with the action-packed expense account” on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar from 1950 to 1952.

obrienyoungIt has been said that while growing up in The Bronx, Edmond O’Brien was a neighbor to the legendary magician Harry Houdini, who encouraged Eddie’s own amateur aspirations to prestidigitation. Dabbling in magic instilled in the young man a desire to study acting and, after majoring in drama at Columbia University, O’Brien made his Broadway debut at the age of 21 in Daughters of Atreus. Ed’s deep voice and mature looks gave him an advantage in the theater—he was able to play roles much older than his actual age. He excelled in a number of Shakespearean productions: he was “The Gravedigger” in John Gielgud’s Hamlet, “Mark Antony” in Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater presentation of Julius Caesar, and “Mercutio” to Laurence Olivier’s “Romeo” when Larry produced Romeo and Juliet.

obrien2His stage experience convinced RKO’s Pandro S. Berman to cast him in Hunchback…but after that auspicious debut, most of O’Brien’s film work consisted of fairly standard vehicles such as Parachute Battalion (1941) and Obliging Young Lady (1942). Ed really wouldn’t come into his own in movies until he finished a stint in the service (he’s billed as “Sergeant Edmond O’Brien” in 1944’s Winged Victory) and was cast in a 1946 film based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers.” Because of the need to flesh out the details for a full-length feature, O’Brien played the role of an insurance investigator (a foreshadowing of things to come?) looking into the death of a former boxer (played by Burt Lancaster in his film debut). The Killers would establish the actor’s solid noir credentials, and Ed appeared in subsequent “Dark City” films such as The Web (1947), A Double Life (1947) and An Act of Murder (1948).

obrien8Edmond O’Brien would receive another plum assignment at Warner Brothers in 1949 when he landed the part of an undercover cop who ingratiates himself with James Cagney’s psychotic criminal in the gangster classic White Heat. A year later, the actor continued his streak of film noirs with entries like Backfire (1950), 711 Ocean Drive (1950) and Between Midnight and Dawn (1950)…and a movie that features one of his finest performances, D.O.A. (1950). In that classic crime tale, Ed is Frank Bigelow, an accountant whose casual notarization of a bill of sale ends up being his death warrant when he’s slipped a radioactive poison; the unforgettable opening has Bigelow stumbling into a police station, babbling that he wants to report a murder…his own!

edmondobrien1950 was also the year that Edmond O’Brien took on the role of “America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator” on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Ed was no stranger to radio; he had impressive showcases on programs like Suspense and Escape, and made appearances on the likes of Arch Oboler’s Plays, The Lux Radio Theatre, Hallmark Playhouse, The NBC University Theatre, Family Theatre, Screen Directors’ Playhouse and The Cavalcade of America. In fact, if things had worked out differently, O’Brien might have become the star of the program eventually known as Night Beat; he had appeared on a May 19, 1949 audition record for the series (which eventually starred Frank Lovejoy in the fine dramatic offering that ran from 1950-52).

obrienoscarEdmond O’Brien left Johnny Dollar in the capable hands of actor John Lund in 1952, and continued his impressive string of film performances that included offbeat roles as the titular husband of The Bigamist (1953) and “Casca” in MGM’s all-star presentation of Julius Caesar that same year. (O’Brien even had a couple of turns behind the camera, co-directing 1954’s Shield for Murder and later Man-Trap in 1961.) The actor finally received tribute from his peers in 1955 when he was awarded a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as sweaty press agent Oscar Muldoon in 1954’s The Barefoot Contessa (all those years of perspiring in noirs finally paid off!). Ed would continue to make impressions in such memorable classic films as 1984 (1956), The Rack (1956), The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), The Great Imposter (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Seven Days in May (1964—for which he received a second Best Supporting Actor nomination), Fantastic Voyage (1966) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

obrien5Edmond O’Brien kept busy on the small screen as well: the programs are not rerun much, but he was the star of a 1960-61 syndicated detective series entitled Johnny Midnight and later played lawyer Sam Benedict on a short-lived NBC series from 1962-63. Ed also guest starred on such hits as Laramie, The Virginian, Mission: Impossible, It Takes a Thief, The Name of the Game, The High Chaparral, The Streets of San Francisco and McMillan & Wife. His last feature film before retiring was 1974’s 99 and 44/100% Dead; he passed away at the age of 69 in 1985.

19881You can hear today’s birthday boy in three broadcasts of the radio series he starred in from 1950-52 in our collection The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: “The Yankee Pride Matter” (10-14-50), “The Woodward Manila Matter” (11-25-50) and “The Hannibal Murphy Matter” (11-03-51). When you’re done with that, curl up with some of Edmond O’Brien’s finest forays on the silver screen; we highly recommend The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Killers, A Double Life, White Heat, D.O.A., The Hitch-Hiker and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance…just for starters, you understand! Happy birthday, Ed!