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Happy Birthday, Peter Lorre!

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One hundred and ten years ago on this date, a son was born to Alajos Löwenstein and Elvira Freischberger in an Austria-Hungarian village that is now located in present-day Slovakia. His name was László Löwenstein…but we’re much more familiar with his stage name: Peter Lorre. Audiences are also well acquainted with his status as a beloved movie character actor and horror film icon.

lorre8Lorre’s flair for the buskin began at the age of 17. He did a great deal of stage work as a young actor in Vienna, and eventually made his way to Berlin where he earned his acting chops in plays like Bertolt Brecht’s Mann ist Mann. It was director Fritz Lang who would make Peter an international movie star, however; Lang cast Lorre in the challenging role of a child killer in his 1931 suspense masterpiece M. It would be a few years, however, before Lorre would come to America to work on the movies that brought him his greatest acclaim. Director Alfred Hitchcock helped Peter along by assigning him a pivotal role in 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and used him again two years later in his espionage thriller Secret Agent.

madlovePeter’s first Hollywood venture was Mad Love (1935), which once again featured him as a creature of menace in the role of a maniacal doctor obsessed with an actress played by Francis Drake. The actor would eventually sign a contract with 20th Century-Fox, and appear in support in such vehicles as Nancy Steele is Missing! (1937) and Lancer Spy (1937). The movies that allowed him to play a starring role were those based on Asian spy-sleuth Mr. Moto, a creation of author John P. Marquand. Several of the Moto films—notably Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937)—featured written contributions by Wyllis Cooper, whom old-time radio fans know from Lights Out and the later horror anthology Quiet Please.

lorre12Initially excited about the Mr. Moto series, Lorre later became disenchanted with the franchise and left Fox to become a freelancer. This move resulted in some of Peter’s most memorable film roles, notably in such programmers as Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)—which some consider to be the first film noir—and The Face Behind the Mask (1941). But it was signing with Warner Brothers that proved to be Lorre’s shrewdest move, allowing him to appear in the two movies for which he is inarguably best remembered today. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Lorre played the effeminate Joel Cairo, one of several disreputable characters who want to hire gumshoe Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) to look for the titular prize. After Falcon, Peter had a small but pivotal role in Casablanca (1942) as Ugarte, the lowlife whose handing off of “the letters of transit” to café owner Rick Blaine (also Bogart) pretty much sets the wheels of the plot in motion. Lorre would work with Bogart on two more Warner films, All Through the Night (1941) and Passage to Marseille (1944), and the two men later reunited for a third film with Beat the Devil (1953).

lorre14Falcon and Casablanca also paired Lorre up with character actor Sydney Greenstreet. The two actors would appear in a total of nine films together, notably 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios—which features Peter in a rare heroic role (even if Sydney does get top billing). The underrated Three Strangers (1946) finds Peter, Sydney and Geraldine Fitzgerald playing a trio of disparate individuals brought together by a sweepstakes ticket.

Peter Lorre demonstrated an amazing range as an actor: he plays a sympathetic character in The Constant Nymph (1943), and a darkly comic one in the 1944 adaptation of the stage play Arsenic and Old Lace. But by and large, Lorre was usually called on to tackle parts that harkened back to his M and Mad Love days. His Face Behind the Mask director Robert Florey, for example, memorably cast him as the villain in the 1946 horror oddity The Beast with Five Fingers.

lorre15After World War II, Peter Lorre’s film career slowed down and he began to concentrate more on stage work…plus he found a good friend in radio. He was no stranger to the aural medium; Lorre emoted frequently on such series as Inner Sanctum and Suspense, and poked fun at his screen image with such radio funsters as Abbott & Costello, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Jack Benny and Bob Hope. (Bob would later use Peter—along with Lon Chaney, Jr.—as a formidable knife-wielding henchman in one of his funniest comedies, 1947’s My Favorite Brunette.) For the Armed Forces Radio Service, Peter was one of several hosts of Mystery Playhouse, a show comprised of repeats of such popular stateside series such as Mr. District Attorney, Mr. and Mrs. North and The Molle Mystery Theatre (the commercials on these shows were edited out for the benefit of the servicemen). In the summer of 1947, Peter was the star attraction on Mystery in the Air, an underrated anthology series featuring classic horror tales like “The Marvelous Barastro” and “The Horla.”

lorre5By the 1950s, Peter Lorre was an in-demand character actor in such film favorites as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Silk Stockings (1957). He was also gravitating to guest roles on such popular TV series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (in the classic “Man from the South”), Rawhide, Wagon Train and Checkmate. His appearance in an episode of Route 66, “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing,” allowed him to mock his well-honed screen image along with his fellow horror fraternity brothers Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. Peter was also featured in several horror films released by American International Pictures in the 1960s, gracing Tales of Terror (1962) with a marvelous interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” and giving a hilarious performance as Jack Nicholson’s skeevy sorcerer father in The Raven (1963). His last feature film appearance was in Jerry Lewis’ The Patsy (1964); Peter Lorre passed away that same year at the age of 59.

20321Peter enters the swinging doors of a popular radio saloon and eatery in an October 19, 1943 broadcast of Duffy’s Tavern that’s featured on the Radio Spirits collection Duffy’s Tavern: Where the Elite Meet; Peter helps “Archie the Manager” (Ed Gardner) solve the mystery of who filched a sandwich from the tavern’s free lunch counter. You can also hear him hosting select episodes of Mystery Playhouse, including “A Crime to Fit the Punishment” and “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” in the Molle Mystery Theatre set Nightmare. Happy birthday to one of our favorite movie greats!

Happy Birthday, Mary Livingstone!

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Today’s birthday girl was born Sadye Marks 109 years ago on this date in Seattle, Washington—the daughter of newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Romania. Much of her childhood, however, was spent in Vancouver, British Columbia. At a Passover seder, fourteen-year-old Sadye was introduced to a popular vaudeville entertainer who was born Benjamin Kubelsky…but was just starting to make a name for himself as Jack Benny. Despite Sadye’s attempts to appear older (by dressing up in her sister’s high-heel shoes and a borrowed dress), Jack (eleven years her senior) didn’t give her the time of day. In fact, he unknowingly insulted her while she was treating the seder guests to a violin recital (by walking out on her performance). So, the next night, Marks and several of her girlfriends went down to the theater where Benny was headlining…and sat completely stone-faced during his act.

mary2Three years later, Mary and her family moved to San Francisco. One night, after Benny played the Pantages Theater, she re-introduced herself at the stage door entrance around back. Jack still refused to give her a tumble. But, the third time was the charm…after a few more years went by and Jack found himself entertaining in Los Angeles. On a blind date with one of the members of an acrobatic act, he couldn’t help but notice that the young woman with whom he had been set up looked awfully familiar. It was Sadye, all grown up…and Jack fell head over heels in love. Benny even went down to her place of employment, the now-legendary May Company department store, and pretended to peruse the items in her department (lingerie) while she spared him no embarrassment. The couple enjoyed a long distance courtship after that—Benny would often call her several times a day while he was on tour—and when Sadye got engaged to another man, Benny finally gave in and proposed to her. They married in 1927.

jack&mary3In vaudeville, it was not uncommon for performers to use their wives as partners in their acts: one of the most famous teams was George Burns & Gracie Allen, of course, but other talented duos included Fred Allen & Portland Hoffa, Jesse Block & Eve Sully and Bennie Fields & Blossom Seely. (The trend would later continue in radio with the addition of Jim & Marian Jordan, Goodman & Jane Ace and Ozzie & Harriet Nelson.) Jack followed tradition by making Sadye his partner. For performing purposes, she had some cosmetic surgery done (bobbing her nose) and she dyed her dark hair honey-blonde. Sadye never really considered herself a performer in the traditional sense, and when Jack began his show for Canada Dry on NBC Blue in May of 1932 she probably thought that would be the end of her show business career. But on an August broadcast, husband Jack pressed her into service to play the part of Mary Livingstone (a Plainfield, New Jersey resident who billed herself as the comic’s biggest fan) when the actress originally hired failed to appear.

Sadye’s stint on the program was originally planned to be brief…but the network received so much mail applauding her participation that Jack persuaded her to stay on as a regular. Sadye would later change her name legally to Mary Livingstone…though she personally preferred being addressed as “Mrs. Jack Benny.” While her contributions to the show—her infectious laugh and dry, sarcastic manner—would be just one of the many building blocks in what ultimately made The Jack Benny Program one of radio’s most successful comedy shows, there was always a bit of an enigma about her weekly appearances. Namely—what exactly was Mary’s function on the program (besides getting big laughs)?

jackbennygang2Most members of Benny’s “gang” served distinct purposes: Don Wilson was Jack’s announcer; Phil Harris the show’s bandleader; Dennis Day the program’s tenor; Eddie “Rochester” Anderson Benny’s loyal chief-cook-and-bottle-washer. Mary’s only assigned task seemed to be to serve as Jack’s foil. You couldn’t technically call her his “girlfriend” because Jack dated a number of women in addition to Mary, and though she’s sometimes been referred to as a “secretary” she didn’t type or take much dictation. Yet whenever Mary’s verbal barbs lanced Jack a little too hard he’d often threaten to send her back to the May Company…and on at least one broadcast Mary herself refers to Jack as her “boss.” Perhaps it’s best not to think too much about the occupation implications; whatever her job was she excelled at it, always ready to waylay the “boss” with an impeccably timed wisecrack whenever he started to believe a bit too much of his own press. Mary also became well-known for reading weekly letters from her family in Plainfield, referring to her not-at-all-attractive sister Babe (frequently a target of Jack’s insults) and her mother (who had a mutual antagonism toward Mary’s employer).

jack&mary5As accomplished a comedienne as Mary was, she was not immune to the kind of blooper that made old-time radio such a joy to listen to (both then and now). One of her famous flubs was heard on the October 27, 1946 broadcast. She mispronounced “Swiss cheese” as “chiss sweeze,” and allowed Benny’s writers to milk the gag for several shows after the initial goof. A December 3, 1950 episode found Mary pronouncing “grease rack” as “grass reek”…and the creative staff were off to the races again. By the mid-1950s, Mary had started to develop a crippling case of mike fright and she began to cut back on her appearances on Jack’s radio program (she appeared in a few of his earlier TV shows as well, before tapering off). She pre-recorded her lines for each broadcast and, on occasion, her adopted daughter Joan would act as a stand-in, mouthing her mother’s words.

20545By 1958, Mary had decided to recede from the limelight, only occasionally appearing on talk shows and as a guest star on other programs. She had put in quite a bit of time on the Benny show, and even enjoyed a brief movie career both with her husband (she appears in 1933’s Mr. Broadway, and had vocal cameos in films like Buck Benny Rides Again and It’s in the Bag!) and as a solo performer—she’s one of several stars in the 1937 concoction This Way Please (which also features radio’s Fibber McGee & Molly, Jim & Marian Jordan). Radio Spirits features many classic radio appearances from “Miz Livingstone”—our newest collection, Jack Benny International, and past sets like Oh, Rochester!, Neighbors, Tall Tales, Wit Under the Weather, Maestro, Remotes, Drawing a Blanc, No Place Like Home and On the Town. Mary even plays reluctant referee between her boss-husband and his nemesis Fred Allen on Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud! Happy birthday, doll!

Review: The Chance of a Lifetime (1943)

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With the manpower shortage during World War II, reformed safecracker-jewel thief Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris) apparently feels that Rosie the Riveter can’t do it alone in this nation’s defense plants. That’s why Blackie has persuaded Governor Rutledge (Pierre Watkin) to parole twelve convicts into his custody, men who will then be employed at a tool factory owned by his wealthy pal Arthur Manleder (Lloyd Corrigan). As is to be expected, Blackie’s cop nemesis, Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane), is convinced that this noble social experiment will backfire on B.B…thus granting him his most fervent wish to stick Blackie behind bars a second time.

lifetime4Farraday isn’t right about too many things, but his instincts are on the money where Blackie’s fellow cons are concerned. It only takes one bad apple to spoil the whole barrel, and in this particular case it’s Dooley Watson (Erik Rolf), a con who Blackie agrees to grant temporary leave to see his wife Mary (Jeanne Bates) and son Johnny (Larry Joe Olsen) before reporting to work in the morning. Dooley hasn’t exactly come clean about his true intentions: convicted for his participation in a robbery that netted him a nifty $60,000, he recovers the stashed loot and is planning to light out with his family before the men who assisted him on that job show up with their hand out for their cut. Sure as you’re born, “Red” Taggart (John Harmon) and “Nails” Blanton (Douglas Fowley) enter the picture…and in a scuffle with the two hoods, Dooley winds up shooting and killing Taggart.

Blackie arrives too late to keep Dooley from making that mistake…even though he killed Taggart in self-defense. So our hero agrees to take the rap for Dooley while at the same time engaging in the search for Blanton, who vamoosed after seeing his partner slump to the floor. With the help of his loyal sidekick The Runt (George E. Stone), Boston Blackie eludes Farraday and Sergeant Matthews (Walter Sande) through a number of comical escapades—several of which necessitate Blackie’s penchant for disguises.

williamcastlePart of a formula that continued to be entertaining even in the weaker entries of Columbia’s Boston Blackie franchise, The Chance of a Lifetime (1943) is a briskly engaging programmer whose fortunes at the box office weren’t quite as rosy as earlier outings in the series. This might have proven to be a setback for the man who made Lifetime his feature film debut as director, but the studio recognized that young William Castle showed a lot of promise, and assigned him to future pictures including four from Columbia’s successful Whistler franchise (based on the radio series)—The Whistler (1944), The Mark of the Whistler (1944), The Power of the Whistler (1945) and Mysterious Intruder (1946). Castle left the studio in 1947 to pursue a more independent directorial career (though he did return briefly in the 1950s for a few films) and he’s best known for a series of horror movies in the 50s/60s popularized with “gimmicks” to put audiences in the seats: The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Mr. Sardonicus (1961), etc. Castle’s most successful movie project was Rosemary’s Baby (1968); as producer of that seminal horror classic, Bill had shrewdly purchased the film rights from author Ira Levin but was asked not to direct the movie by Paramount for fear that his “schlock” reputation would have damaged the project.

lifetime6The title, The Chance of a Lifetime, seems rather fitting for a novice director; Castle later claimed that his first feature film was a hopeless project and that he simply re-arranged the reels in the editing room to make Lifetime “work.” I personally think Bill is engaging in a little fiction here; it’s unquestionably coherent and while Lifetime isn’t nearly as splashy as some of his later horror efforts, it’s a first-rate job from a clearly talented filmmaker…even though the finished product sometimes feels as if the people involved were just punching a time clock to get the job done. The most amusing aspects of Lifetime involve Blackie’s donning disguises to avoid capture by Farraday; it’s a practice that the amateur sleuth engaged in previously in Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941) and Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942), but masquerade is the order of the day on three different occasions in Lifetime. First, Blackie and The Runt pose as carpet installers to get access to Nails’ apartment, and then later our hero pretends to be a cop (with a brogue as thick as Irish stew—The Runt plays the World’s Oldest Messenger Boy) while plying two cleaning ladies with strong drink. With the charwomen plastered, Blackie and Runt then don drag in order to locate a safe in the police station where the $60,000 from the robbery has been stored for (pardon the pun) safekeeping.

Scripted by Paul Yawitz, The Chance of a Lifetime is well-stocked with a number of familiar character faces you might recognize from classic films and television: Bonanza sheriff Ray Teal is one of the cops that Blackie fools with his carpet installer costume, and two of the paroled convicts are played by Arthur Hunnicutt and Sid Melton (of Make Room for Daddy and Green Acres fame). (Old-time radio veteran Jeanne Bates is also on hand, as Dooley’s concerned wife.) Other familiar performers include Richard Alexander, Trevor Bardette, Heinie Conklin, Minta Durfee, Douglas Fowley, Forbes Murray, John Tyrrell and Pierre Watkin.

lifetime8Sadly, Lifetime is the final Boston Blackie film for two actors playing the series’ supporting characters. It’s the last go-round for Cy Kendall as Blackie’s informer pal Jumbo Madigan (Joe Crehan takes over the role in the next Blackie, One Mysterious Night) and the swan song for Walter Sande as the stupefyingly dense Detective Sergeant Matthews. The Matthews character would be played by Lyle Lattell in Night, and then Frank Sully inherited the role for the remaining entries in the franchise. (Interestingly, Matthews appeared to get dumber and dumber with each new actor in the role.)

20588While I’m on the topic of One Mysterious Night—that’s the next Boston Blackie film I’ll be covering in our monthly spotlight on the Radio Spirits blog; like previous entries directed by Castle, Michael Gordon and Edward Dmytryk, Night allowed a future director the opportunity to show his stuff with his first credited feature. (Night is also one of only three Boston Blackie movies available on DVD as part of Sony/Columbia’s Manufactured-On-Demand Collection…so you might want to rent it in case there’s a quiz next time.) Don’t forget: our Radio Spirits collection Boston Blackie: Outside the Law would make the perfect gift for the old-time radio fan in your family (and would keep the rest of your RS collections company on the shelf!).

Review: The Lineup (1958)

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As San Francisco antiquities dealer Philip Dressler (Raymond Bailey) disembarks from a cruise ship, a porter snatches one of his valises and tosses it into a waiting cab. The driver speeds off…directly into an eighteen-wheeler. After pulling away from that smash-up, he hits and kills a uniformed policeman. The cop does manage to fire a shot before his death, hitting the driver…who plows into a barricade, thus saving the Frisco D.A. a little paperwork.

 
lineup6Detectives Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson) and Al Quine (Emile Meyer) investigate the death of the officer. Although Dressler is unable to provide a description of the porter who made off with his suitcase, Guthrie and Quine discover a package of heroin hidden in a statue that Dressler purchased during his trip to Hong Kong. Quine is convinced that Dressler knows more than he’s letting on. The veil of suspicion is eventually lifted, however, when further digging reveals the existence of a drug ring that relies on unwitting tourists to bring in their merchandise, concealing the narcotics in cheap tchotchkes and other benign souvenirs.

 
the-lineup-posterThat, in a nutshell, is the plot of The Lineup: a 1958 feature film spun-off from a popular TV procedural (even though its director, Don Siegel, originally wanted to give the movie a different title). The origins of the show are firmly rooted in radio. In the summer of 1950, The Lineup replaced The FBI in Peace and War when FBI went on hiatus. It proved so popular that it was brought back in the fall on CBS’ regular schedule. Elliott Lewis, the wunderkind behind another radio crime drama, Broadway’s My Beat, served as the director-producer during Lineup’s initial summer run, and Jaime del Valle took over afterward. (Del Valle was also the producer on the 1958 feature film.)

 
johnstoneThere were many similarities between The Lineup and NBC’s Dragnet—but the major deviation from Jack Webb’s creation was that The Lineup’s stories were not based on actual police files. The crimes were fictional creations from such writers as Morton Fine & David Friedkin, E. Jack Neuman, and future film director Blake Edwards. The setting for Lineup was also fictional, with the show’s opening announcement identifying it only as “a great American city.” One-time Shadow star Bill Johnstone headed up the series, playing the part of Lt. Ben Guthrie, with Wally Maher (formerly radio’s Michael Shayne) as his partner, Sergeant Matt Greb. (Greb was played by Joseph Kearns in Lineup’s audition episode, and on one other occasion by Howard McNear.) With Maher’s passing in 1951, the Guthrie character got a new partner in Sergeant Pete Karger…played by one-time Rocky Jordan star Jack Moyles.

 
LineUp_TomTully_The Lineup closed up its radio squad room on February 18, 1953…but later got its second wind when a CBS television version of the show premiered on October 1, 1954. Warner Anderson played Guthrie, and character veteran Tom Tully was assigned the role of Inspector Matt Greb. No, Greb didn’t get a promotion; the TV version was set in San Francisco where there are no sergeants on the police force…so “Inspector” was the closest corresponding rank. (A third detective in Inspector Fred Asher was added, played by Marshall Reed.) Produced by Desilu, The Lineup enjoyed great success as a 10pm Friday night staple for five seasons when CBS decided to expand it to an hour in the 1959-60 season. Anderson’s Lt. Guthrie was the only cast member retained for that incarnation—the veteran cop was paired with four young newcomers. This would prove unsuccessful, and the show did its final telecast on April 18, 1960.

 
lineup8Although the series would later enjoy a healthy retirement in syndication (under the title San Francisco Beat), The Lineup isn’t rerun much today…so the 1958 movie spin-off is really the only accessible remnant of the once-popular program, outside of the radio broadcasts. Scripted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night), it’s an overlooked later entry in the film noir style and most deserving of rediscovery. It was directed by Don Siegel, who would make his name with a number of movies featuring Clint Eastwood, including Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry. (Siegel directed the original television pilot for the show.) Don is additionally remembered as the individual at the helm of the cult horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Lineup is just one of several outstanding noirs in the director’s holster (including Private Hell 36 and Baby Face Nelson). Siegel showcases some memorable set pieces in Lineup, notably a murder committed in a steam room and a famous chase climax in which the bad guys get trapped on the upper section of an as yet-unfinished Embarcadero Freeway.

 
lineup10The movie version of The Lineup also spotlights unforgettable performances by actors Eli Wallach and Robert Keith…who received top billing over series stars Anderson and Reed. Tom Tully was unavailable to make the film, so Emile Meyer replaced him as the Greb-like Al Quine. (Siegel had actually lobbied to concentrate the movie solely on the bad guys…but was told he had to include the show’s regulars for Lineup fans.) Wallach is Dancer, a hit man described as “a wonderful, pure pathological study…a psychopath with no inhibitions.” Dancer is motivated only by money and hatred. He struggles to maintain a veneer of respectability, but eventually his cold and calculating nature is revealed to everyone with whom he comes into contact. He’s working for a wheelchair-bound individual (Vaughn Taylor) identified only as “The Man.” In one sequence, Dancer tries to explain to his employer that the heroin shipment is light because one of the pouches was discovered by a little girl (Cheryl Callaway)…who used it as “dusting powder” for her doll. When The Man proclaims that Dancer is “dead,” the enraged Dancer pushes his wheelchair off a high balcony onto a skating rink below. (This scene was filmed at Sutro’s Museum, one of several San Francisco landmarks seen in the film.)

 
lineup1Keith is Dancer’s “handler,” Julian, an amoral career criminal who possesses an unusual quirk: he likes to write down in a notebook the last words of the individuals killed by Dancer (for “research”). Sadly, Julian loses control of his killing machine in the final reel of the movie, and is gunned down by the very monster he’s created. The supporting cast of The Lineup also includes Richard Jaeckel (as a wheelman with a fondness for booze), Mary LaRoche, and William Leslie. In one scene, Dancer meets with a man named Staples, who is played by Robert Bailey — best known to old-time radio fans as fabulous freelance investigator Johnny Dollar. (Former radio Lineup actor Jack Moyles also has an uncredited bit in the movie, as the attendant of the club in which the steam room murder takes place.)

 
20587A cult oddity that for many years was not readily available to classic film fans, The Lineup was released to DVD in 2009 as part of the five film collection that comprises Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I. We encourage Radio Spirits fans to track down this little sleeper…and while we’re at it, the radio version of the show is represented in a CD set, Witness. While you’re at it—check out Bob Bailey in our extensive Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar collections, too: Confidential, Murder Matters, Phantom Chases, Wayward Matters…and The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Review: After Midnight with Boston Blackie (1943)

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Jewel thief “Diamond” Ed Barnaby (Walter Baldwin) has just been paroled from prison, and his loving daughter Betty (Ann Savage) is anxious to make a new life with him…but “Diamond” Ed has a few loose ends to tie up. His last job netted him a nice little haul of diamonds that he feels rightly belong to Betty—but racketeer Joe Herschel (Cy Kendall) begs to differ. Herschel assigns a couple of his goons (Al Hill, George McKay) to retrieve the gems from Ed, who’s stashed his nest egg in a safety deposit box for safe keeping.

midnight1Returning by train from a trip to Chicago, Boston Blackie (Chester Morris) and his loyal sidekick The Runt (George E. Stone) are handed a telegram from Betty…who needs Blackie’s help in locating her father after he fails to show up for an appointment. Actually, it’s a second-hand telegram—Blackie’s nemesis, Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane), and his dimwitted partner Sergeant Matthews (Walter Sande), originally intercepted the message in an effort to keep up-to-date on Blackie’s activities. Blackie and The Runt do a little investigating once they’re off the train and learn of Barnaby’s safety deposit box. Unfortunately for them, Farraday has intercepted a phone call from Ed telling him that “two men are headed for the box” shortly before he’s killed by an unknown assailant. When he catches Blackie and Runt breaking into the box, Farraday naturally puts two and two together…though with his track record, it rarely adds up to four.

midnight2Howard J. Green’s screenplay for After Midnight with Boston Blackie (1943)—based on a story by Aubrey Wisberg—continued the success of Columbia Pictures’ B-movie series based on Jack Boyle’s reformed safecracker and jewel thief from novels and pulp magazines. Lew Landers returns to direct his second film in the Blackie series; he held the reins earlier on Alias Boston Blackie (1942) and would direct one more B.B. vehicle with A Close Call for Boston Blackie in 1946. (On a brief side note, I happened to catch an earlier collaboration with Landers and star Morris the other day: the 1937 programmer Flight from Glory, which also features Richard Lane in the cast. It’s sort of a proto-Only Angels Have Wings, in which Morris, Lane and a young Van Heflin play disgraced pilots flying dangerous cargo missions in the Andes.) The producer of After Midnight, Sam White, had a brother working for Columbia that some of you might know: Jules White, the head of the studio’s shorts department who cranked out two-reel comedies with the Three Stooges, Andy Clyde and so many others.

After Midnight with Boston Blackie is a slight drop in quality from the previous Blackie films. It’s not that it isn’t entertaining; it’s just that the plot (a sort of “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?”) lacks the cohesiveness of earlier entries. Screenwriter Green worked in a sequence in which Blackie and Company have to operate during a blackout (it’s a wartime thing) that was topical for the time but might not completely gel for modern audiences—though I did get a kick out of how Blackie, in a tight spot with Betty, signals he needs assistance by knocking out the letters in a sign that reads “HOTEL PARK” to form “HELP.” (I bet they got that idea from a gag in Abbott & Costello’s Who Done It?) There’s also a bit in which Blackie dons a bit of blackface (he’s disguised himself as a bull fiddle player, amusingly played by comedian Dudley Dickerson) that might make those same audiences wince in these more enlightened times.

midnight4After Midnight does feature a funny subplot involving The Runt; he’s engaged to be married to a showgirl named Dixie Rose Blossom (Jan Buckingham), and Blackie’s pal Arthur Manleder (Lloyd Corrigan reprises his series role) is hosting the nuptials at his apartment, complete with justice of the peace (played by character fave Dick Elliott). The investigation of Diamond Ed’s murder keeps putting the event on hold, and at the end of the film, The Runt is ready to walk down the aisle with his fiancée when Farraday and Matthews show up unannounced…to arrest Dixie Rose for bigamy! A relieved Runt cracks to Manleder: “That’s the first time Farraday ever did me a good turn!”

midnight5Character veteran Cy Kendall makes his third appearance in this Blackie vehicle—but not in his usual persona as Jumbo Madigan, Blackie’s underworld contact (instead, Kendall is ruthless nightclub owner Joe Herschel). Kendall would play Jumbo one more time in the next entry in the series, The Chance of a Lifetime (1943), and then Joseph Crehan would tackle the part in two more Blackie films. After Midnight features quite a few familiar faces—Walter Baldwin, Don Barclay, Eddy Chandler, Heinie Conklin, John Harmon, Eddie Kane—but the most familiar is no doubt that belonging to Ann Savage, who plays the female lead. Before Ann became a cult favorite for her one-of-a-kind performance as the deadly femme fatale opposite Tom Neal in 1945’s Detour, she was a contract player at Columbia, appearing in such films as Footlight Glamour (1943), One Dangerous Night (1943) and Passport to Suez (1943). (These last two features were part of Columbia’s popular Lone Wolf franchise with Warren William and Eric Blore.)

20588Next month on the blog: Blackie’s idea to have convicts work as labor for the war effort goes south thanks to one prisoner who’s out to collect the proceeds from a robbery…which finds him at odds with the men who were in on the job, since they want a piece of the pie as well. It’s The Chance of a Lifetime (1943), the motion picture that would serve as the feature film debut for a director who would make his fortune with a series of popular “gimmicky” horror movies in the 1950s/1960s as well as produce the terror classic Rosemary’s Baby (1968). And don’t forget to check out star Chester Morris in the Radio Spirits CD release Boston Blackie: Outside the Law!

Review: Radio City Revels (1938)

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Aspiring songwriter Harry Miller (Jack Oakie) is long on ambition…and short on talent.  With his piano-playing partner Teddy Jordan (Milton Berle), Harry is barely making the rent on the apartment they share in NYC—their main source of income derives from the mail-order songwriting “lessons” they send to Van Buren, Arkansas native Lester Robin (Bob Burns) every week.  Harry has dreams of promoting tap dancer Billie Shaw (Ann Miller) to the big time, despite an enormous amount of skepticism from her acid-tongued sister Gertie (Helen Broderick).

revels7Lester makes the trek to the Big Apple, determined to finish his songwriting training.  Harry and Teddy are ready to give him the bum’s rush once they determine that their student has no money (he lost his wallet somewhere between Van Buren and NYC)—but have a change of heart when Lester reveals a knack for writing hit tunes in his sleep.  Robin’s nocturnal efforts like “Take a Tip from the Tulip” and “Good Night, Angel” become quite popular.  However, Harry has taken credit for the compositions, keeping their true origins a secret from producer Paul Plummer (Victor Moore).  When he’s not “sleep songwriting,” Lester is making goo-goo eyes at Billie…who’s fallen in love with singer Kenny Baker (playing himself).

revels6In the meantime, sister Gertie has set her cap for Lester and discovers that it is he, not Harry, with the songwriting talent.  She eventually spills the beans to Plummer, who’s just handed a large check to Harry upon completing the score to a stage musical, Radio City Revels.  Harry has a change of heart about the deception; he lets Lester and Gertie have the check, and wedding bells are in the future for them (as well as for Billie and Kenny) as the proceedings come to a close.

poster1Radio City Revels (1938) is not a great musical comedy, but it is an interesting one: originally conceived as a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical, it’s burdened by over length (at ninety minutes it could have used some trimming) and some mediocre songs that you probably won’t wind up humming any time soon.  Four writers worked on Revels (from a story by Matt Brooks) including Anthony Veiller, who later collaborated with director John Huston on films like Moulin Rouge and The List of Adrian Messenger.  The directing chores were handled by Ben Stoloff, who helmed a number of B-pictures and shorts for RKO in the 1930s.

Stoloff had worked with Revels star Jack Oakie on two previous films, Fight for Your Lady and Super Sleuth, and would again on a fourth film the following year, The Affairs of Annabel.  Oakie is in his element here as a lovably obnoxious sort whose larceny is undercut by a kind heart and a genuinely altruistic drive to help Ann Miller’s Billie experience stardom.  Jack was a major motion picture star in the 1930s (appearing in a number of hit Paramount musicals including College Humor and The Big Broadcast of 1936), but was also a headliner on radio’s The Camel Caravan from 1936 to 1938 (also known as Jack Oakie’s College).  Oakie continued his extensive work in musicals at 20th Century Fox in the 1940s with vehicles like Tin Pan Alley and Hello Frisco, Hello.

revels1Co-starring with Oakie and Miller is comedian-musician Bob Burns…who is appropriately introduced in Revels playing his “bazooka”—a novelty instrument that consisted of a funnel and a gas pipe, played in the manner of a slide trombone.  (The name would later be appropriated by the U.S. Army for their handheld anti-tank rocket launcher.)  Burns was no stranger to movies at this time: he appeared in vehicles like Rhythm on the Range and Waikiki Wedding alongside the Old Groaner himself, Bing Crosby.  Bob, who began his radio career on a number of local shows before getting his break on Rudy Vallee’s popular variety hour, was the comedian-in-residence on Der Bingle’s The Kraft Music Hall from 1936 to 1941 (Bob kids his boss in Revels by having his character murmur “boo-boo-boo-boo” just before he starts sleep composing).  He then moved out on his own with a self-titled series heard on CBS and NBC (for such sponsors as Campbell Soup and Lifebuoy) from 1941-47.  The Bob Burns Show (also known as The Arkansas Traveler, one of Burns’ many nicknames) featured such performers as vocalist Ginny Simms, character actress Edna May Oliver, Bowery Boy Leo Gorcey and Spike Jones & His City Slickers.

revels4At the time of Radio City Revels’ release, tenor Kenny Baker was the featured vocalist on The Jack Benny Program.  Baker was a regular on the show from 1935-39, leaving to work for Benny’s feuding partner, Fred Allen, from 1939 to 1942.  In 1946, he headlined the daytime variety program Glamour Manor.  On Manor, Kenny was reunited with Jack Benny’s announcer Don Wilson, who was also a regular.  “Donsy” is along for the ride here in Revels, appearing in the opening scenes as the announcer who introduces Baker’s rendition of “Taking a Shine to You.” 

Radio City Revels marks the final screen teaming of Victor Moore and Helen Broderick (they appeared in a total of six RKO films, notably 1936’s Swing Time) although their characters aren’t romantically linked (Broderick chases after Bob Burns).  Old-time radio fans know that Moore later appeared as a regular on the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy and Jimmy Durante shows.  Other familiar names appearing in Revels include Richard Lane (Inspector Farraday in the Boston Blackie movies) and comic dancers Buster West and Melissa Mason (who could give Charlotte Greenwood competition in the “high kicks” department).  A young Jane Froman is also on hand (Jane and Kenny were regulars on radio’s The Texaco Star Theatre at the time) to sing a few of the movie’s tunes, accompanied by Hal Kemp and His Orchestra.

20394Radio City Revels is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies this May 21st at 8:30am EDT, and the cast alone makes it worth a look-see.  You can check out some of the Revels stars on Radio Spirits collections: Don Wilson is a permanent presence on our Jack Benny sets while Kenny Baker is featured in the early years (Oh, Rochester!) as well as Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud.  Milton Berle guest stars on a 1943 Duffy’s Tavern broadcast available on Where the Elite Meet to Eat and sets like The Voices of Christmas Past spotlight his 1947-48 NBC radio series.  You’ll also enjoy the hilarity of Victor Moore on Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy: Homefront Charlie and the song stylings of Jane Froman (You Make Me Feel So Young) and Hal Kemp (Decade of Hits: The 1930s, 75 Happy Hits: Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart) on our music CDs, too!

Review: Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942)

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Though the title of the fourth entry in Columbia’s Boston Blackie series—which stars Chester Morris as reformed safecracker/jewel thief Horatio Black, the hero created by pulp fiction author Jack Boyle—affirms that Blackie and his sidekick The Runt (George E. Stone) are headed for the motion picture capital…it’s technically not the original destination on their itinerary.  Blackie and The Runt have plans to vacation in Florida…but on the eve of packing for their trip, they hear a prowler in Blackie’s apartment and contact the police.  To their relief (and amusement), the intruder turns out to be none other than Blackie’s frenemy, Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane).

hollywood1Farraday has suspicions regarding his nemesis’ plans for Florida fun and sun—particularly after hearing the news that the famed Monterey Diamond has vanished, and he’s convinced it was too tempting a target for a man formerly in Blackie’s line of work.  Farraday has his dimwitted sidekick, Sergeant Matthews (Walter Sande), keep an eye on Blackie and The Runt at the train station.  There, Blackie is handed a note from his good friend Arthur Manleder (Lloyd Corrigan), who desperately needs Blackie’s help to bring $60,000 out to him in Hollywood (the money is stored in a wall safe in Manleder’s NYC pad).  The whereabouts of the missing diamond can be traced to Arthur—he’s being kept under wraps by two goons (John Tyrrell, Forrest Tucker) in the employ of Blackie’s old cellmate, Slick Barton (William Wright), who’s got big plans for the sixty large…so our heroes make tracks for the West Coast by plane with Farraday and Matthews close on their heels.

hollywood2Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood continues the streak of enjoyable comic mysteries in Columbia’s franchise; the only real disappointment is that the title of the film promises a little more than it’s capable of delivering.  Screenwriter Paul Yawitz should have capitalized on Blackie’s Hollywood venture by making it seem like he’s actually in Hollywood; that portion of the picture looks pretty much like the same locale as the previous entries (perhaps he could have worked in a sequence around the Columbia lot).  But this shouldn’t dissuade you from watching Hollywood, because it’s really an enjoyable entry, with all of the expected jokes and situations that define the Boston Blackie trademark.  For example, Blackie learns the identity of the man who’s invaded his apartment (a revealing leg is sticking out of a fireplace) by giving the trespasser a hotfoot.  Later, when Blackie needs to use a phone booth to contact his lawyer, he and the Inspector do some amusing business by playing tic-tac-toe on the window of the phone booth door.  Blackie also spends a good portion of Hollywood in disguise: with the help of Jumbo Madigan (Cy Kendall), he adopts the distinguished persona of “Professor Stratton”…and The Runt reluctantly plays “Junior,” his nephew.

hollywood3Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize actor Forrest Tucker in a small role as a goon named “Whipper,” and Hollywood also marks the return of actress Constance Worth, who played the bad girl in the first entry of the series, Meet Boston Blackie (1941).  (Sadly, Worth has not reformed—as Gloria, a confederate of the villains, she tricks the gullible Manleder into letting her take possession of the diamond.)  In addition, Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood is notable as one of the earliest directorial efforts of Michael Gordon, who would later go on to helm such features as The Web (1947), Another Part of the Forest (1948), The Lady Gambles (1949) and Cyrano de Bergerac (1950).  His career was sidetracked in the early 1950s because of his previous political affiliations—but by the end of the decade, he was back at work directing popular Doris Day comedies like Pillow Talk (1959) and Move Over, Darling (1963).

20588Many of the stock players from the Columbia studio earn their bread-and-butter in this delightful programmer.  You’ll recognize Eddie Laughton from many of the Three Stooges two-reelers (Laughton often played the troupe’s straight man in their stage appearances), as well as Ernie Alexander, Ralph Dunn, James C. Morton and Virginia Sale.  Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood is a first-rate entry from the popular series, expertly mixing action and laughs, and is a must-watch the next time it’s shown on Turner Classic Movies.  Next month: Chester Morris tangles with Detour femme fatale Ann Savage while wedding bells ring for George E. Stone’s The Runt in After Midnight with Boston Blackie (1943).  And don’t forget—check out the adventures of Blackie in the Radio Spirits CD collection Outside the Law!

Happy Birthday, Hans Conried!

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The man born Hans Georg Conried, Jr. on this date ninety-seven years ago in Baltimore, Maryland is described by author Leonard Maltin in his book The Great American Broadcast as “one of the most prolific performers in the medium,” demonstrating a proficiency for “a dazzling range of dialects” and taking on “both serious and comic parts with enthusiasm.”  The medium to which Maltin refers to is, of course, radio…but the same can be said about Hans’ extensive work in TV, movies and live theatre as well.

1958 - Actor Hans ConriedBorn to Hans Georg, Sr. and Edith Beryl Conried (whose maiden name was “Gildersleeve,” so that could only have been a positive omen), Conried started his acting career after graduating from Columbia University (where acting was also his major), appearing on radio in the 1930s after desperately seeking work during the heights of the Great Depression.  Many of the actor’s gigs were for independent producers like C. P. MacGregor, who specialized in fifteen- and thirty-minute syndicated programs.  “They paid $3.50 or $5.00 for the show,” Hans once related at a meeting of the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters, “and we would have to stand by.  God forbid the announcer would make a fluff on the end of a fifteen-minute platter; we all had to do it all over again.”  Conried would soon find his talents much in demand on network radio—his broadcasting career would become linked with actor John Barrymore, since Hans was paid by the producers of Rudy Vallee’s Sealtest program (on which Barrymore was a regular) on a stand-by basis—ready to step in should The Great Profile be too incapacitated to perform.  (Conried can also be heard on a number of early broadcasts of The John Barrymore Theatre, on which he was able to indulge his lifelong love of Shakespeare.)

irma2Hans also worked a great deal with radio wunderkind Orson Welles—then again, the actor maintained a frequent presence on many of the medium’s top dramatic anthology shows: The Cavalcade of America, The CBS Radio Workshop, Crime Classics, Escape, Family Theatre, Favorite Story, Hallmark Playhouse, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Railroad Hour, Romance, Suspense and The Whistler, to name a few of the many.  On the other side of the comedy/tragedy mask, Conried worked with a slew of radio’s best-known funny men (and women) including Fred Allen, Amos ‘n’ Andy (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll), Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), Fanny Brice, Bob Burns, Eddie Cantor, Jack Carson, Joan Davis, Dennis Day, Bob Hope, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Ozzie & Harriet Nelson and Alan Young.

hans13On George Burns & Gracie Allen’s program in the 1940s, Hans had the recurring role of ham actor Nigel “Cueball” Bolingbrook, a con man who met his match whenever he went up against the scatterbrained-but-guileless Gracie; Conried later appeared on the couple’s show as Dr. Miller, a neighbor who found his psychiatry career continually challenged after moving in next to the Burnses.  Hans played Mr. Hemingway, the constantly kvetching boarder of Judy Canova on her show, and joined his fellow cast member Mel Blanc on Blanc’s self-titled sitcom as “Mighty Potentate” Mr. Cushing, who headed up The Loyal Order of Benevolent Zebras and greeted Mel each week with the show’s memorable catchphrase “Ugga ugga boo ugga boo boo ugga!”  Hans also appeared occasionally as Uncle Baxter, the sponging relative of Chester A. Riley on the sitcom The Life of Riley, and as sardonic neighbor Pete Porter on December Bride (a role later played by Harry Morgan on television).

hans12Hans’ best-remembered comedic turns were on two series created by writer Cy Howard.  On My Friend Irma, he originated the part of Professor Kropotkin, the upstairs neighbor of Jane Stacy (Cathy Lewis, Joan Banks) and Irma Peterson (Marie Wilson), who announced his presence each week by gently rapping on the girls’ front door and meekly saying “It’s only me, Professor Kropotkin.”  (Conried would reprise the role in the 1949 feature film based on the series—but only after the actor originally cast as Kropotkin, Felix Bressart, died unexpectedly during filming.)  Howard’s second radio success, Life with Luigi, cast Conried as Schultz, the German-born classmate of fellow immigrant Luigi Basco (J. Carrol Naish)…who never missed an opportunity to explain to Luigi and his other students that “My rheumatism is killing me!”  You’d be hard pressed to find a radio show that the ubiquitous actor didn’t appear on.  Even after radio gave way to television as the dominant medium, Hans Conried appeared on such revival series as The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, Earplay, Heartbeat Theatre and The Sears/Mutual Radio Theatre.

hans11At the same time his radio career was on fire, Conried supplemented his income with movie appearances—beginning with his debut in 1938’s Dramatic School.  Although Conried preferred radio to film (the parts were larger and the money better), he turns up often in small or unbilled roles in favorites such as It’s a Wonderful World (1939), Dulcy (1940), Blondie’s Blessed Event (1942), Journey Into Fear (1943), Crazy House (1943), On the Town (1949), Summer Stock (1950) and I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951).  1953 was a particularly memorable year for Hans: in addition to his Broadway debut in Can-Can, he made six feature films (including the hilarious The Siren of Bagdad) and starred in two of them, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and The Twonky (written, directed and produced by radio legend Arch Oboler).  (The latter two movies have considerable cult followings.)  That same year, Hans provided the voice of Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan, and would do additional work for that studio such as the featurette Ben and Me and playing the role of “Slave of the Magic Mirror” on TV’s Disneyland.

hans7Hans continued doing voice work on the small screen, notably providing the speaking voice of “Snidely Whiplash” in the Dudley Do-Right segments of Rocky and His Friends (he also voiced “Uncle Waldo” on Hoppity Hooper and was the host of Jay Ward’s live-action Fractured Flickers).  He did guest appearances on all three of Lucille Ball’s classic sitcoms—I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy, which was no doubt “old home week” for Hans since he had worked with the zany redhead on her radio sitcom My Favorite Husband (as Mr. Woods, the next-door neighbor who was blessed with many mouths to feed).  Conried’s most recognizable TV gig was that of Uncle Tonoose, the excitable relative of Danny Williams from Make Room for Daddy (a.k.a. The Danny Thomas Show); Hans later reprised the role of the Williams patriarch on the 1970s follow-up, Make Room for Granddaddy.

20466Hans Conried died on January 5, 1982…and we’ve just barely scratched the surface of all he accomplished in his remarkable show business career.  To his peers, he was known as an actor who never met a part he didn’t like.  Gale Gordon, with whom Conried worked on My Favorite Husband and Burns & Allen, once observed: “He was an actor-holic.  I’m sure that Hans’ idea of heaven would be to do a play that had thirty characters, men and women, and that he would do them all.”  You can get a feel for the depth of his performances and range of his dialects by checking out such signature Radio Spirits collections as My Friend Irma: On Second Thought and Life with Luigi.  There’s also a whole lot of Hans on Burns & Allen (Treasury),The Damon Runyon Theatre (Broadway Complex), The Halls of Ivy, The Life of Riley (My Head is Made Up!), The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (Private Lives) and Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Surplus Homicides).