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Happy Birthday, Judy Canova!


At the height of her popularity in the 1940s, Judy Canova—born in Starke, Florida on this date in 1913—started a pigtails-and-calico fad among female students on college campuses. Juliette Canova, whose mother Henrietta Perry was also a singer, had serious aspirations in the field of music…and in my opinion, had the pipes to pull it off. However, because her early vaudeville career consisted of singing and yodeling with her siblings Annie and Zeke (as The Three Canovas)—not to mention her brief marriage to Bob Burns (a.k.a. “The Arkansas Traveler”) in the 1930s—Judy was destined instead to become America’s favorite female hillbilly in radio, movies and TV.

canovas2Judy, Annie and Zeke got their start in various nightclubs in the Florida area before hitting the big time at The Village Barn in Manhattan. Their efforts soon landed them a spot in the Broadway stage revue Calling All Stars, and the Canovas attracted the attention of Rudy Vallee, who arranged for them to appear on his Fleischmann Hour in 1933. The three siblings then moved from The Vagabond Lover to The King of Jazz—none other than Paul Whiteman, whose Musical Varieties program welcomed them from 1936-37. The Canovas also made regular appearances in the fall of 1938 on The Chase & Sanborn Hour, the popular Sunday night variety hour that launched ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and dummy Charlie McCarthy to prominence.

judycanova11In addition to their radio work, the Canova siblings began appearing together in feature films—they’re among the specialty acts in the 1935 Warner Bros. picture In Caliente, and they also turned up in a number of Paramount movies like Artists and Models (1937) and Thrill of a Lifetime (1937). When Judy went out on her own as a solo act, she signed a contract with Republic Pictures. For many years, she would be that studio’s bread-and-butter with box office attractions like Scatterbrain (1940), Sis Hopkins (1941) and Joan of Ozark (1942). (Her last film for Republic was 1955’s Lay That Rifle Down, ending a most fruitful fifteen-year partnership with the studio best known for B-Westerns and serials,)

canovashow2In the fall of 1943, Judy launched her most successful radio venture with the appropriately titled The Judy Canova Show (though it was briefly known as Rancho Canova). It ran on CBS for a season, sponsored by Colgate, then moved to NBC in January of 1945 and continued there until May of 1953. The program featured Canova as a country girl transplanted from the mythical hamlet of “Cactus Junction” to Southern California, where she lived with her Aunt Aggie (played at times by Verna Felton and Ruth Perrott) and maid Geranium (Ruby Dandridge). The material on the show was corn as high as an elephant’s eye (though it featured Judy singing both novelty and serious numbers), but is best remembered for its impressive cast of radio pros: Hans Conried (as complaining boarder Mr. Hemingway); Sheldon Leonard (as Joe Crunchmiller, Judy’s cabbie boyfriend); Gerald Mohr (as Humphrey Cooper) and Joseph Kearns (as Benchley Botsford). Gale Gordon, Elvia Allman, George Neise and Sharon Douglas also made occasional appearances.

canovashow1The Judy Canova Show is also remembered for showcasing the work of the one-and-only Mel Blanc…as if he didn’t have enough work in radio at that time. Mel’s primary character was Pedro, Judy’s gardener, who popularized the oft-repeated catchphrase “Pardon me for talking in your face, senorita…” Mel also did double duty as Roscoe Wortle, a fast-talking salesman, and Sylvester—a character whose name and spray-when-he-talked voice were later adopted for the famous Warner Brothers cartoon cat. Mel also recycled Pedro’s voice to use for the same studio’s lightning-quick rodent Speedy Gonzales…and in addition, fell back on Pedro when he voiced the Frito-Lay mascot The Frito Bandito in a series of commercials in the 1970s. (Audiences had become a bit more enlightened by that time, and the ads were quickly pulled after objections were raised by those who felt the stereotype was a bit much.) In later years, Mel and Judy would do a “Ma and Pa” sketch in the latter half of her program.

judycanova5Because The Judy Canova Show was a popular Saturday night institution, it was often heavily promoted in tandem with A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, a comedy show also sponsored by Colgate. And years after the show left the airwaves, audiences can still sing the lyrics of Judy’s closing theme:

Go to sleep-y, little baby
Go to sleep-y, little baby
When you wake
You’ll patty-patty cake
And ride a shiny little pony

19972Even before her radio program signed off in 1953, Judy Canova began making inroads on the small screen—with guest appearances on popular shows headlined by Milton Berle and Red Skelton, and roles on such favorites as Make Room for Daddy, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Love, American Style. Her final TV appearance was in a 1977 episode of The Love Boat. Content in retirement (and proud of her daughter Diana, who at that time was a cast member on the TV sitcom Soap), Judy passed away in 1983 at the age of 69.

My colleague Ben Ohmart is the author of a very good book about today’s birthday girl. Judy Canova: Singin’ in the Corn—which is available for purchase from Radio Spirits. Plus, you can also check out a December 21, 1946 broadcast of her popular radio sitcom on the RS collection The Voices of Christmas Past. Why not spend some time with the gal affectionately known to her fans as “The Ozark Nightingale” in honor of her natal anniversary?

Review: The Phantom Thief (1946)


Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris…who later explains to a character in the film that he’s “of the Philadelphia Blackies”) returns to his humble bachelor environs to find a note from his loyal sidekick The Runt (George E. Stone)—who apparently has gone to the aid of a friend in need. That friend is ex-con Eddie Alexander (Murray Alper), who’s employed by a wealthy couple as a chauffeur…and the female half of that coupling, Anne Parks Duncan (Jeff Donnell), has given him an assignment to ransack an office for some valuable “papers.” Opening the leather case containing this paperwork, all three men are astonished to find a diamond necklace!

thief9Knowing that he’ll soon get a visit from Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) if he retains possession of the hot ice, Blackie takes Runt and Eddie to where Eddie grifted the case—the offices of spiritualist Dr. Nejino (Marvin Miller). In questioning the mystic, Blackie is clued in on Anne’s history (Nejino remarks she’s a bit “unstable”)…and our hero also learns that Anne and husband Rex (Wilton Graff) will be stopping by for a séance, where Nejino will contact the spirit of Anne’s dear, departed father. Blackie, Runt and Eddie are cordially invited to sit in on the séance—however, things do not go according to plan. When the lights go up after the attempt to contact Anne’s pop has failed…Eddie winds up well-prepared to have a one-on-one conversation with the deceased!

thief8The third of three films in Columbia’s Boston Blackie movie franchise that does not have “Boston Blackie” in its title (the others are The Chance of a Lifetime [1943] and One Mysterious Night [1944]), The Phantom Thief (1946) is a rather uninspired entry, with an all-too-familiar plot line involving a phony spiritualist racket and a series of murders. The bright spot is that charlatan Dr. Nejino is played by an actor who will probably be quite familiar to old-time radio fans; Marvin Miller served as an announcer on a number of shows including The Whistler, Duffy’s Tavern and Songs by Sinatra. (Miller would later achieve TV immortality as the narrator on the long-running The F.B.I. and as Michael Anthony, the man who handed out John Beresford Tipton’s checks on The Millionaire.) Sadly, the scenes involving the séance fakery are a bit disappointing, and seem to serve only as a backdrop for some tired “scare comedy” involving The Runt (and later Detective Sergeant Matthews, played by Frank Sully).

thief11The highlight of Thief is an amusing sequence in which Blackie manages to elude Farraday’s attempts to nab him for a crime he didn’t commit by getting himself pinched by an Irish cop named McGonagle (Tom Dillon)—our hero pretends he’s intoxicated and is thrown into the “drunk tank” overnight in Farraday’s own precinct. The next morning, Blackie is ordered to do a little “tidying up” to pay for his room and board…so he goes about polishing various brass fixtures (wearing dark sunglasses as a disguise) under Farraday’s very nose! Blackie then contacts his friendly nemesis on a pay phone in the same station, and due to his sunglasses goes completely unrecognized by the dimmer-than-dim Matthews.

thief10Blackie has two untrustworthy females to deal with in The Phantom Thief: one of them answers to “Sandra” (Dusty Anderson), an accomplice of Dr. Nejino’s who arranges for Blackie and Runt to be the main suspects in the murder of Nejino’s associate, Dr. Purcell Nash (Forbes Murray). The other is Anne Duncan herself, played by Columbia starlet Jeff Donnell (The Boogie Man Will Get You, Nine Girls); Donnell is familiar for roles in such film noirs as In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Blue Gardenia (1953), and was previously seen here on the blog in The Power of the Whistler (1945). (Donnell would later play wife Alice on George Gobel’s popular comedy-variety TV series in the 1950s.) As Anne, Donnell gets an unintended chuckle when she asks for Blackie and The Runt’s help as the two of them hide from the police in her car; “If only I was sure…” she begins before The Runt adds “…I could trust you.”

“How did you know I was going to say that?” Anne asks. “They all do,” returns The Runt. “Dames are always telling Blackie they can trust them.” This is a bit of a wink at the fact that in the Boston Blackie movies, our heroes would often be double-crossed by the damsels in distress to which they offered assistance (and not to give anything away, but Anne turns out to be on the side of the angels).

morris-ledermanThe Phantom Thief was helmed by director D. Ross Lederman, a man described by his fellow B-picture director Edward Bernds as a “bull in a china shop” when it came to his talent behind the camera (in his defense, D. Ross excelled at action sequences where the stuntmen were forced to carry the load). Lederman was by all accounts not an easy individual to get along with (he directed many of Tim McCoy’s oaters for Columbia in the 1930s, and frequently clashed with the star), but his propensity for cranking them out on time and under budget earned him respect from the studio brass. Lederman also directed the next entry in the Boston Blackie series, Boston Blackie and the Law (1946), and also held the reins on the final film in the Whistler series, The Return of the Whistler (1948).

20588So join us here at Radio Spirits next month when we’ll have the skinny on Boston Blackie and the Law, an outing that may seem familiar to those of you who’ve seen Alias Boston Blackie (1942)…but allows amateur magician Chester Morris to once again display some impressive feats of prestidigitation. In the meantime, you can listen to Morris and his Blackie co-star Richard Lane in select broadcasts from 1944 if you purchase the Blackie collection Outside the Law…which also features episodes starring Richard Kollmar and Maurice (The Mysterious Traveler) Tarplin!

Happy Birthday, Norman Macdonnell!


One of old-time radio’s most important—and inarguably, most creative—director-producers was born ninety-eight years ago on this date. A native of Pasadena, CA, Norman Macdonnell would use his experiences during World War II—he was among the many who stormed the beaches at France’s Normandy Beach on D-Day—throughout his distinguished radio and television career. He was hired by CBS as an assistant director in the mid-1940s, and quickly worked his way up to the ranks of director, guiding such programs as The City and the classic adventure anthology Escape.

macdonnell2Escape was a most prestigious assignment for Macdonnell. Produced by William N. Robson, Escape was kind of a neglected “kid sister” to the more popular Suspense series (which Norm Macdonnell later worked as a director during the 1949-50 and 1953-54 seasons), but that certainly didn’t mean that it measured any less in terms of quality. Escape told tales of “high adventure” and, though it may not have possessed the star wattage of “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” it featured powerhouse acting from the true professionals in the medium: artists who hailed from what was commonly referred to as “Radio Row.” Performers such as Parley Baer, Harry Bartell, William Conrad, Hans Conreid, John Dehner, Lawrence Dobkin, Sam Edwards, Jeanette Nolan and Vic Perrin were just a few of the many who plied their trade on the series and, not coincidentally, these same thespians would work on future Macdonnell-supervised series as well.

mohr21Norm was also made director-producer of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, a show that had originally aired on NBC in the summer of 1947 as a replacement for The Bob Hope Show—with actor Van Heflin in the role of Raymond Chandler’s literary fictional shamus. When CBS resurrected Philip Marlowe in the fall of 1948, Gerald Mohr had taken over as the detective—something that pleased its creator (Chandler wasn’t a fan of Heflin’s interpretation), who remarked that Mohr’s gumshoe “at least packed personality.” The Adventures of Philip Marlowe was broadcast on the Tiffany network for two seasons (and a final re-appearance in the summer of 1951). I’ve argued with many about whether Mohr was the right actor for the job (I think Mohr was strongest in supporting parts), but the show remains important for what it ultimately brought about. CBS chairman William S. Paley was a Marlowe fan, and suggested to both Norm and CBS director of programming Harry Ackerman that they develop a “Philip Marlowe in the Old West.”

macdonnell3That show would eventually reach the airwaves as Gunsmoke, Macdonnell’s best-known contribution to Radio’s Golden Age. Even before its debut on April 26, 1952, Norm was laying the groundwork for the phrase he would be credited for coining: “adult western.” He did so in tandem with writer John Meston, who had contributed a script to Escape (broadcast on December 22, 1950) entitled “Wild Jack Rhett.” Another building block in the creation of Gunsmoke was “Pagosa,” a script also penned by Meston and broadcast on August 6, 1951 on radio’s Romance, a series on which Macdonnell also toiled as director-producer. With Gunsmoke, both Macdonnell and Meston ushered in a new breed of radio western that was a far cry from the juvenile adventure days of The Lone Ranger and Wild Bill Hickok. The stories were depicted with a gritty realism, where happy endings were scarce. Matt Dillon, the show’s “hero” (portrayed by Bill Conrad), was a man whose devotion to doing a tough job could make him unsympathetic at times…but all-too-human as well.

macdonnell6The success of Gunsmoke led eventually to a television adaptation…and CBS, who owed the program’s popularity to the hard work of Macdonnell, writer Meston and the superlative radio cast and crew, decided to put Norm in charge of the small screen version as well. I’m kidding, of course; they handed the TV show’s reins over to Charles Marquis Warren (who later became the creator of TV’s Rawhide) for the program’s inaugural season (though, wisely, they brought Meston over as story editor) before promoting Macdonnell (who was the associate producer in Season One) to the job in Gunsmoke’s sophomore season. Is it any wonder that the second season is when the show began its phenomenal run of audience popularity—appearing in the Top Ten before becoming #1 in the Nielsen ratings from 1957-61?

laramie1While Macdonnell was seated on the sidelines as Warren supervised his “baby,” the director-producer created a second classic radio western in Fort Laramie. Laramie, a series that depicted the harsh and often challenging experiences of soldiers on a U.S. Army post in the 1880’s, utilized many of the performers who appeared on Gunsmoke, and its creative team as well. Sadly, it lasted barely a season – but it did provide future generations with truly compelling radio. Macdonnell was also in charge in the early days of Have Gun – Will Travel when the hit TV series enjoyed a brief transition to radio from 1958 to 1960.

Norm’s stint as producer of TV’s Gunsmoke lasted until the end of the 1964-65 season; the show had dipped substantially in the ratings, and it was thought that some “new blood” would revitalize the program’s fortunes (as it turns out, all Gunsmoke needed was a new time slot…which propelled the warhorse back into TV’s Top Ten). Norm worked on The Kraft Suspense Theatre for a season, but it’s unquestionably his work on The Virginian that’s as accessible to audiences today as Gunsmoke. Norm served as the executive producer of TV’s first ninety-minute oater until The Virginian ended its run in 1971 (as The Men from Shiloh); during that time he also produced The Road West, a western that ran briefly in the 1966-67 season and starred Barry Sullivan as the patriarch of a pioneer family headed for the Kansas territory. (Perhaps they ran into Marshal Dillon on their way out there?)

20547Norman Macdonnell died on November 28, 1979 at the age of 63. His work in radio is defined by a stamp of quality that modern-day listeners cannot ignore: Escape, Suspense, Philip Marlowe, Romance, Fort Laramie and of course, Gunsmoke. Macdonnell also worked on such series as The Lux Radio Theatre and The Bakers’ Theatre of Stars, and indulged his lighter side on the likes of Life with Luigi, Honest Harold (The Hal Peary Show) and Rogers of the Gazette. Why not celebrate the birthday of one of radio’s indisputable creative geniuses—we have the Escape collection Escape to the High Seas ready to purchase, not to mention Fort Laramie Volume Two, Romance, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe; plus episodes of Rogers of the Gazette in Stop the Press! and Honest Harold in our Yuletide collection The Voices of Christmas Past. Check out our Suspense collections Ties That Bind and Omnibus as well!

Inner Sanctum at the movies


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)


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)


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!


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)


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!