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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).

Review: Radio Stars on Parade (1945)

radiostars3Effervescent chanteuse Sally Baker (Frances Langford) is a success at a nightclub owned by racketeer Lucky Maddox (Sheldon Leonard)—but when Maddox’s attentions start to drift towards a more amorous direction, she decides to go west, young man, go west.  She’s received communication from an agent named Phil Merwin (Ray Walker) that he’ll be able to get her radio work in Los Angeles, and since her G.I. boyfriend Danny (Robert Clarke) is also bound for the same destination, it appears to be a most fortuitous time for Sally’s career change.  Mr. Maddox, on the other hand, is not happy about losing both his meal ticket and object of ardor.  So, he sends a couple of his associates (Ralph Peters, Max Wagner) out to L.A. to keep an eye on his investment.

Mr. Merwin, in the meantime, has turned over his agency to a pair of out-of-work comedians, Jerry Miles (Wally Brown) and Mike Strager (Alan Carney)—though the two men are unaware that Merwin’s generosity is due to his having to lam it out of town to avoid a gambling debt.  Jerry manages to get Sally an audition with bandleader Skinnay Ennis that results in a job on his radio show despite Maddox’s threats to Mike that Sally should refuse the gig.  Both Jerry and Mike find themselves at the mercy of Lucky’s goons and attempt to escape them by hiding out on radio programs such as Truth or Consequences (featuring host Ralph Edwards).  Finally, the authorities round up Lucky and his mob and Sally and Danny are reunited in time for the fadeout.

browncarney1Radio Stars on Parade (1945) is a bit of a misnomer: the “stars” in the film certainly aren’t of the celebrity wattage as some of RKO’s previous radio-to-film employees like Fibber McGee & Molly and The Great Gildersleeve…it focuses more on what might be more accurately termed “second bananas” like Ennis and announcer Don Wilson.  The movie was really more of a showcase for the studio’s comedy team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney…who appeared in a few films (though not teamed together) at RKO before The Powers That Be decided to feature them as an ersatz (Bud) Abbott & (Lou) Costello, beginning with the Buck Privates-like Adventures of a Rookie in 1943.

zombiesThere are two schools of thought regarding Brown and Carney.  The one I graduated from believes that despite the talents of the two men (Carney, for example, was most effective as Cary Grant’s sidekick in Mr. Lucky [1943]) they had no real chemistry as a comedy team…and many of their features are often painful to sit through as a result.  (I will make an exception in the case of Step Lively [1944], which was a decent musical remake of the Marx Brothers vehicle Room Service [1938].)  The other school acknowledges that while the team wasn’t going to measure up to Abbott & Costello, the two men did what they could with the tools that they had.  Two of the Brown-Carney vehicles, Zombies on Broadway (1945) and Genius at Work (1946), have cult followings owing to the presence of their co-star, Bela Lugosi.

wilsonWally and Alan play Jerry Miles and Mike Strager in Radio Stars—characters that they consistently portrayed in nearly all of their vehicles as a team with the exception of Lively and Seven Days Ashore (1944).  Friends of mine who are fans advocate that the two men are unfairly maligned because they rarely got strong material to work with (in Stars, the anemic script comes courtesy of Monte Brice and Robert E. Kent).  In fact, when revisiting Radio Stars the other day I found myself laughing more at Don Wilson than the duo—Don engages in some amusing “hep” badinage with Brown’s Miles: “I grab your gab, Gate…you’re lookin’ for a scat cat who’s a loon for a croon tune…and when I dig, I don’t jig…I’m solid…potato solid!”  (Donsy also has a nice joke when doing a commercial for Ennis’ radio show, sponsored by Paruin’s Vitamin Capsules: “Boys…if your girls want to know what makes you so strong…just say…’Honey—that’s because I’m full of Paruin’s!’”)

browncarney2Radio Stars also features bandleader Skinnay Ennis and vocalist Frances Langford, who appeared together for a time on Bob Hope’s radio program.  Ennis maintains his easygoing Southern persona and even gets a song spotlight with his hit “I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night.”  Langford, who shares top billing with Brown and Carney, doesn’t quite fare as well.  Although her singing talent is evident with such tunes as “Can’t Get Out of This Mood” she’s little more than a plot device—it’s difficult to believe that the woman who would later prove so adept at comedy by playing Blanche Bickerson wasn’t given an opportunity to do anything but sing and look pretty.  This was Frances’ second film with Wally and Alan.  I’ve yet to see their 1944 comedy musical Girl Rush…which features the novelty of Robert Mitchum as an outlaw who disguises himself as a mail order bride at one point in the movie.

edwardsSpeaking of drag—Messrs. Brown and Carney are also forced to don women’s clothing in Radio Stars…which is worked in cleverly as a stunt on Truth or ConsequencesConsequences host Ralph Edwards plays himself in both this segment and an earlier sequence that introduces the Jerry and Mike characters (with a little pie-throwing at Mr. Strager). Edwards’ radio show had also been featured in an RKO film three years earlier, Seven Days’ Leave.  The Truth or Consequences bits are the comedic highlights of Radio Stars—though I also chuckled during the film’s windup, which features our heroes barging in on a broadcast of Dick Tracy.  (The Tracy character would be the focus of four RKO programmers beginning the same year as Radio Stars on Parade’s release.)

leonardRufe Davis, who fans might recognize as conductor Floyd Smoot from TV’s Petticoat Junction (as well as a frequent B-western sidekick), has his moments as a sound patterns engineer (even singing a little ditty entitled “The Sound Effects Man”).  Sheldon Leonard performs what he could probably have done in his sleep by that point in his career: the menacing gangster, though he also conducts a brief masquerade as a courtly Southern attorney.  Sharp-eyed viewers will also spot character veterans like Emory Parnell (as a cop—there’s a stretch) and Jack Rice as a persnickety usher whose attempts to oust Leonard’s goons from the Consequences studio are doomed to fail.  Radio Stars was directed by comedy veteran Leslie Goodwins, who also helmed many of RKO’s Mexican Spitfire vehicles.  A news item in The Hollywood Reporter from that period noted that RKO executives were so pleased with the first cut of the film that they planned to do a few more films featuring radio personalities…but none of these productions came to pass.

radiostars2Radio Stars on Parade is by no means a great film…but the novelty of its radio background and spotlight on familiar “second bananas” surely make it a curiosity to look out for the next time you spot it on the schedule of Turner Classic Movies.  In the meantime, why not check out Frances Langford in The Bickersons: Put Out the Lights! and Burns & Allen: Treasury (as well as the 1946 feature People are Funny, another fun radio-based film).  Don Wilson and Sheldon Leonard can be heard in many of Radio Spirits’ Jack Benny collections…but you’ll also enjoy hearing Leonard as “Grogan” in such Phil Harris-Alice Faye compilations as Private Lives and Wonga and in dramatic showcases on Suspense, The Line Up and Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

Happy Birthday, Andy Clyde!

clyde3

The actor who entertained fans on radio, television and in the movies as Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick California Carlson was born on this date one hundred and twenty-two years ago in Blairgowrie, Scotland.  Yes, Andrew Allan Clyde was what California would call a “furriner”…and was born into a show business family.  His father was actor-producer-manager John Clyde, and his siblings David and Jean developed a flair for the buskin as well.  Andy Clyde first came to the U.S. in 1912 as part of a touring company (at the invitation of his friend James Finlayson, who you know as the bald-headed, mustachioed foil in many a Laurel & Hardy comedy) and by 1920 he was ready to establish permanent residency.

clyde11By 1922, Andy had established himself as a hard-working comedian at the studio run by none other than the “King of Comedy” himself, Mack Sennett.  Clyde worked in tandem with many of Sennett’s star funsters including Harry Langdon and Ben Turpin, and enjoyed a fairly successful collaboration with Australian-born Billy Bevan, appearing in such classic slapstick outings as Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies (1925), Ice Cold Cocos (1926), and Wandering Willies (1926).  Because Mack was notoriously tight with a buck, Andy would eventually move up through the ranks to become the studio’s most popular comic…owing to the fact that Sennett’s other stars eventually deserted him for a more lucrative payday.

clyde5We would be remiss if we didn’t stress that once Andy obtained his “promotion,” he demonstrated that he was worthy of his rise in the ranks due to his invaluable comic talents.  While at Sennett, Clyde developed an onscreen persona of an elderly character with a drooping mustache, grey wig and spectacles (which went under a variety of names, but the most frequent was “Pop” Martin).  The characterization was so popular—allowing the comedian to play everything from crackpot scientists to wealthy eccentrics—that when Andy had a dispute over salary with Sennett in 1932 (the studio was experiencing financial trouble) Mack attempted to ape Andy’s “old man” character with actor Irving Bacon.  Audiences saw through the charade immediately…but by that time Andy had moved on to Educational Pictures (Sennett’s former distributor).

clyde8Andy Clyde was hired by director-producer Jules White to join the fledgling comedy two-reel shorts department at the Columbia Pictures studio in 1934, a mirth-making factory that audiences know today as the home of The Three Stooges.  Clyde was second only to Moe, Larry and Curly (and Shemp and Joe) in longevity at Columbia; his last two-reel comedy, Pardon My Nightshirt, was released in 1956.  Although the Columbia comedy shorts echoed many of those produced in the halcyon Mack Sennett slapstick days, Andy had matured enough as a movie comedian that he was able to use subtler methods (a mere lift of the eyebrow and a plaintive “My oh my oh my!”) to convulse audiences.  He starred in some truly first-rate shorts, among them Old Sawbones (1935), It Always Happens (1935), Caught in the Act (1936) and The Peppery Salt (1936).  Clyde was also making inroads as a much-in-demand character actor, lending support in features such as Million Dollar Legs (1932), The Little Minister (1934), Annie Oakley (1935) and It’s a Wonderful World (1939).

clyde2It was Andy’s work with William Boyd—known to movie audiences as motion picture cowboy Hopalong Cassidy—that remains his long-lasting legacy.  Beginning with Three Men in Texas in 1940, Clyde played California Carlson in 35 additional B-Westerns, ending with Strange Gamble in 1948.  Andy revived the character in the Hopalong Cassidy radio series (produced for Commodore Productions between 1948 and 1950).  Six of the Hopalong TV episodes (edited versions of feature film westerns) featured the California character.  Andy’s expert sidekick skills also came in handy when Monogram hired him to be the comic relief in a B-picture series featuring Whip Wilson beginning in 1949; Clyde appeared in an even dozen of the Wilson oaters before he left and was replaced by Fuzzy Knight.

clyde9With B-Westerns riding off into the sunset and the market for two-reel comedies drying up, Andy Clyde brought his talents to the small screen.  He had recurring roles on such television programs as Circus Boy, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, The Tall Man and No Time for Sergeants; and guest starred on the likes of The Texan, The Andy Griffith Show, Gunsmoke and Dr. Kildare.  His best remembered TV roles were that of George MacMichael, the next-door neighbor of Grandpappy Amos McCoy (Walter Brennan) on the long-running sitcom The Real McCoys, and Cully Wilson, a kindly farmer and neighbor of the Martin family on Lassie.  (It was Cully who inherited the famous collie dog at the beginning of the 1964-65 season when the Martins hightailed it off to Australia…until the farmer had a heart attack that paved the way for Lassie to take up with the U.S. Forestry Service.)  Clyde’s last television appearance was on an episode of Lassie in the following season (he played a different character, Ben Adams).  He passed away at the age of 75 on May 18, 1967.

19684Radio Spirits invites you to doff your ten-gallon hat in honor of Andy’s birthday and check him out on two CD collections of Hopalong Cassidy broadcasts: Cowtown Troubleshooters and Out from the Bar 20.  On a personal note…I’d like to salute the man who made my early childhood days of staring at a black-and-white TV a memorable and enjoyable experience, full of laughter and love.