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A look at Crime Correspondent

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 8, 2014 10:48am | Post a Comment

The overwhelming success of Dragnet -- surely the greatest police procedural on radio -- predictably led to the creation of several similar programs. Dragnet's network, NBC, offered several more twists on the genre. Perhaps the best was Tales of the Texas Rangers which sounds as if it might be a juvenile western but was actually an excellent Texas-set police (or Ranger) procedural. Confession, was a fascinating and too-short-lived criminal procedural that dramatized true crimes from the perspectives of the convicted. 

 



NBC's network CBS somewhat successfully countered with The Line Up (a procedural set in New York City), 21st Precinct (another New York procedural), and the absolutely fascinating Night Watch -- one of the first unscripted "reality" shows in which a police recorder rode with Culver City PD to the scenes of actual crimes. Someone recently told me about another CBS crime drama of which I hadn't heard, Crime Correspondent. I was intrigued.

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Stories start in many ways -- a look back at old time radio's Night Beat

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 20, 2014 02:45pm | Post a Comment
In the Golden Age of Radio, NBC produced some of the medium's best crime dramas, programs like The Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam Spade, ConfessionDragnet, and Tales of the Texas Rangers. Another -- although sadly not well-remembered today -- was Night Beat, which debuted on 6 February, 1950 and aired not just in the US, but Australia and South Africa as well. 

The plot of Night Beat revolves around a reporter named Randy Stone who works for the fictional Chicago Star newspaper. In the process of writing his human interest column, "Night Beat," Stone passes in and out of the lives of night owls, underworld figures, lost souls, and other denizens of an improbably noir Chicago

Night Beat's first audition aired in May of 1949. Taking a grittier approach than is found in the final product, it starred the well-known celluloid tough guy Edmond O'Brien (A Girl, a Guy, and a Gob, An Act of Murder, White Heat, D.O.A.), was directed by William Rousseau (Pat Novak... for Hire), and written by Larry Marcus (Backfire, Dark City, and a few years later, Witness for the Prosecution).

By then radio was then rapidly losing its audience to television. Although NBC television programming began in 1940 with Meet the Wife, it wasn't until 1948 -- when the Milton Berle vehicle Texaco Star Theatre debuted -- that NBC seemed to lose all interest in its radio programming. As television raked in the dough by focusing increasingly on children's programing and family-friendly fare, radio attempted to remain relevant by producing innovative and intelligent programming that television had no room for.

Nonetheless, eager to please skittish network executives unsure about radio's future, the National Association of Broadcasters self-imposed a curfew on crime dramas, relegating them to later time slots than other sorts of programs. Sponsors had to be pleased and using the same script, a second audition for Night Beat was produced under the direction of Bill Karn (Gang Busters, Dangerous Assignment, and Ma Barker's Killer Brood) and starring Frank Lovejoy. The softer version was OKed and the program was sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and Wheaties

Frank Lovejoy was a seasoned radio and film actor who'd earlier starred on Gang Busters and played the Blue Beetle (one of the few, almost completely-forgotten Golden Age of Comic Books superheroes) on the radio program of the same name. He was born Frank Andrew Lovejoy, Jr. in the Bronx in 1912 and grew up in New Jersey. Lovejoy's portrayal of Stone wasn't just more audience (and sponsor) friendly, it was sensitive and nuanced, balancing Stone's hard-boiled toughness with sensitivity, compassion, and likeability. 

Stone was equal parts reporter, crusader, and nocturnal flâneur. Week after week Stone somehow finds the strength to fight battles in an unwinable moral crusade, get into all sorts of trouble in the process (often ending up worse for wear as with his detective peers), and type up his piece in time to yell "copy boy" so that it can go out with the early edition. 

Perhaps the frequency with which Stone became deeply involved in murder, mayhem, Tong wars, et cetera and the speed and facility with which they're wrapped up is, well, ridiculous but unlike most series of its sort there was a measurable degree of continuity from episode to episode. At it's worse Night Beat was formluaic but above average -- at its best it's among the best of the genre.

From the beginning, Larry Marcus stayed on the series with Mary Marcus, both serving as editors. Warren Lewis (Cavalcade of AmericaFour Star PlayhouseYancy Derringer) was brought on as director. Frank Worth composed the timpani-fueled intro and wonderfully Gershwin-esque score. The announcer was Donald Newton Rickles (The Whisperer, The Great Gildersleeve, and The NBC University Theatre). Supporting actors included many of radio's biggest and most-prolific talents including Ben WrightHoward McNearJack KruschenJeff CoreyJoan BanksLawrence DobkinLurene Tuttle,Martha WentworthParley BaerPaul FreesPeter Leeds, and William Conrad

Radio being the "theater of the mind," a lot of series' artistic success hinged on the show's wring and the writing on Night Beat was usually top notch. The pictures it created are vivid and, in the case of Stone's journalism, enjoyably florid but never quite over-the-top. Some of the series' best writers were E. Jack Neuman (Suspense and The Adventures of Sam Spade), Kathleen Hite (CBS's first female staff writer and later writer for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Gunsmoke), and Russell Hughes (The House Across the StreetCustoms Agent, and later, Them!). Other writers include David EllisIrwin AshkenazieJoel HuntJohn Bagni and Gwen BagniJohn RobinsonLarry RomanLou RusoffMarty WilkensonMerwyn GerardRussell Bender, and Selig Lester


NBC seems to have never believed in Night Beat and for most of its run was happy to bounce it around various nights and time slots. There were about 104 episodes and roughly 74 are currently in circulation. The final episode aired 25 September, 1952. Night Beat was adapted for television with an episode of the anthology series, Four Star Playhouse titled “Search in the Night.” In it, Lovejoy resumed his old role and it aired on 5 November, 1953. It's possible that it was produced as a pilot for a television series but whatever the case, that didn't happen.

Ironically, after he was replaced by Lovejoy, O'Brien went on to play the truly bland (and therefore much more popular) title character on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar -- a radio drama whose conclusion in 1962 is usually viewed as the end of old time radio. Lovejoy went on to appear on Suspicion and star in Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker. He died on 2 October, 1962 from a heart attack at his residence in New York City. Recordings of Night Beat and other Old Time Radio shows can be found in Amoeba's Spoken Word section.

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Six Shooter -- The Radio Western Starring Jimmy Stewart Debuted 20 September, 1953

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 20, 2013 02:16pm | Post a Comment


On this date (20 September) in 1953, one of my favorite old time radio Westerns debuted on NBC -- Six Shooter. It was created and written by Frank Burt, who'd also written for The WhistlerThe Man Called X, and The Unexpected. It was produced by Jack Johnstone (Buck Rogers, The CBS Radio Workshop, Richard DiamondSomebody KnowsYours Truly, Johnny Dollar, and others). The music director, Basil Adlam, arranged and conducted the theme,Ralph Vaughan Williams’s "The Highland Lament." The announcers were Hal Gibney (and John Wald), who introduced each episode with the words "The man in the saddle is angular and long-legged. His skin is sun-dyed brown. The gun in his holster is gray steel and rainbow mother-of-pearl, its handle unmarked. People call them both "the Six Shooter."

The only recurring character was Britt Ponset – played with greatness by Jimmy Stewart, who'd been interested in starring in a radio drama for some time before Six Shooter. Other actors that frequently appeared on the series included Parley Baer, Virginia Gregg, Harry Bartell, Howard McNear, Jeanette Nolan, Dan O'Herlihy, Alan Reed, Marvin Miller and William Conrad (though often credited as "Julius Krelboyne" since, at the same time, he was starring on Gunsmoke over at NBC's rival network, CBS).


ADULT WESTERNS

Six Shooter is one of the finest examples of the Adult Western (no, I'm not talking about Bareback Mountain or How the West Was Hung). Unlike their juvenile counterparts in which a quick-draw sheriff in all white nearly always disposes of the villain in all black in a duel, Adult Westerns were more concerned with inner turmoil and moral gray areas, leading some to call them Western Noir.

The subgenre first arose in the 1940s with radio westerns like Hawk Durango (1946) and Hawk Larabee (1946) and films like I Shot Jesse James (1949). In the early 1950s, when TV began to erode the audiences of both film and radio with family-friendly fare, both film and radio responded by offering more examples of Adult Westerns with movies like Winchester '73 (1950) and High Noon (1952) and radio series like Frontier Town (1952) and best of all, Gunsmoke (1952).


JIMMY STEWART

Six Shooter had something in its chamber that most radio programs didn’t – a movie star – in this case, Jimmy Stewart. As Britt Ponset, Stewart portrayed the wandering gunslinger as a reluctant, yet highly efficient, ronin cowboy. As is still mostly the case, even then film, radio, and TV stars rarely dabbled in more than one format (as they were and are competitors). Stewart was primarily a film actor, having built a reputation on films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), among others.

His first adult western film had been Destry Rides Again (1939). Beginning with 1949’s Winchester '73, Stewart also began a fruitful collaboration on a series of noir-influenced adult western films with director Anthony Mann which continued with Bend of the River (1952) and Naked Spur (1953) before coming to radio.

Six Shooter
wasn’t Stewart's first foray into radio.  He'd previously graced anthology programs like Lux Radio Theater's The Screen Guild Theater as well as Screen Guild Theater, Theater Guild of the Air and others with his widely-imitated, slow, fumbly, South Midland drawl. He also appeared numerous times as a guest on radio variety shows. Six Shooter, however, was his first and only starring radio role. 


THE PRECURSOR AND AUDITION 

On 13 April, 1952, NBC's Hollywood Star Playhouse anthology series aired an episode called "The Six Shooter" that -- like the series to come -- was written by Burt, directed by Johnstone, and starred Jimmy Stewart. A subsidiary of MCA-TV called Revue Productions expressed interest in fleshing out the episode into a series and reunited its participants. 

The following year the group produced an audition script with guest stars William Conrad as Sheriff Ed Scofield, Ben Scofield as the sheriff's son, Parley Baer as Fred Wilmer, and Herb Vigran as 'Heavy' Norton, the town blacksmith. 


SERIES PICKED UP



Less than a month later, Coleman Home Heaters became the series' sponsor. It debuted on 20 September and ran for 39 more episodes. The episodes veered between tense action and light comedy, sometimes in a single program. In most, Ponset found himself drawn into a situation that he often ended up reluctantly shooting his way out of. It seems that the series was popular but Stewart probably found starring on a weekly series and continually making films too time-consuming. Although I haven't seen any reputable sources to confirm it, by most accounts Coleman oddly dropped their sponsorship and Liggett & Meyers stepped in but Stewart was unwilling to star in a show hawking Chesterfields. It seems to me that, since the program was possible, some other sponsor could've been found if Stewart really wanted to continue doing the show. Whatever the reasons, it ended but luckily for modern fans, all episodes of the series remain in circulation today. 


MORE
 SIX SHOOTER

Six Shooter moved to television in 1957, re-titled The Restless Gun, and without the involvement of Stewart or Johnstone but with Burt on board for its two year run as consultant. Instead of Britt Ponset its protagonist was Vint Bonner -- played by John Payne.

Stewart revived the Ponset character for two 1957 episodes of the television anthology series General Electric Theater -- "The Town with a Past" and "The Trail to Christmas" (although in the latter his name was for some reason changed to "Bart"). Two years later, the anthology Startime, based the episode "Cindy's Fella" on Six Shooter's "When the Shoe Doesn't Fit" although in it Stewart played an unnamed character rather than Ponset.


AFTER RADIO

Stewart continued making films (including adult Westerns with Anthony Mann) like The Man from Laramie (1955 -- co-written by Frank Burt), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and many more. In 1989 Stewart published a collection of poetry titled Jimmy Stewart and his Poems that I used to own a copy of although sadly seem to have long ago lost or misplaced. 


*****

Big thanks to the incomparable old time radio researchers at Digital Deli Too. Old Time Radio programs are located in Amoeba's Spoken Word section.

Happy Birthday, Gunsmoke - The Greatest Radio Western of All Time

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 26, 2011 12:24pm | Post a Comment
Gunsmoke was, without question, the greatest radio western of all. It debuted 59 years ago today, on April 26th, 1952. Having been exposed to juvenile westerns like The Lone Ranger and Red Ryder as well as the boring Gunsmoke TV series, for a long time I avoided the radio program. Besides, it was set in Kansas.
 
Then one day, I tuned in to an episode already in progress. Not knowing what it was, I didn't immediately change the station and was drawn into what sounded like a vivid, violent film noir, albeit set in 19th century Dodge City. When I realized it was Gunsmoke, I was surprised to say the least, but also hopelessly hooked.
 

Gunsmoke was created by director Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston at the behest of CBS's programming chief, Hubell Robinson. His boss, CBS chairman William S. Paley, was a fan of another classic CBS program, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. Robinson had suggested to the West Coast CBS Vice-President, Harry Ackerman, who had developed the Philip Marlowe series, to create a 
"Philip Marlowe of the Old West" in the 1940s.
 
In 1949, Ackerman and the famed scriptwriting duo of Mort Fine and David Friedkin created an audition script called "Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye" based on one of their Michael Shayne radio scripts, "The Crooked Wheel." It starred Michael Rye as Matt Dillon. A second audition used Howard Culver, who employed a lighter approach. CBS OKed the latter but Ackerman's contract as the star of Straight Arrow (on the Mutual Network) interfered. Gunsmoke was thus shelved until three years later, when MacDonnell and Meston discovered it whilst working on their own adult-oriented western.
 

The new version cast the inimitable William Conrad as Marshal Matt Dillon, Howard McNear as Doc Charles Adams, Georgia Ellis as Kitty Russell and Parley Baer as deputy Chester Proudfoot. The writers sought to create the first realistic western, one populated by sociopaths and without untarnished heroes. Stories unflinchingly depicted rape, lynchings, murder, prostitution, scalping, massacres, theft, drug addiction and more. Justice was often not served. 

What made the dark tone even darker was the unrivaled sound effects department, who created the most vivid and soundscape I've ever heard on any radio program through use of subtlety and multiple layers of rich and realistic sound.
 

Almost immediately there was discussion about adapting the hit program for TV. MacDonnell was naturally reluctant. TV was almost always sanitized, neutered and dumbed-down almost beyond recognition. CBS didn't care. The radio cast was given a token audition out of respect although they were never serious. Though an amazing actor with a great voice, William Conrad was not traditionally photogenic. The portly Kentuckian looked old for his age. His TV replacement was the square-jawed, tall James Arness... the sort of spotless archetype the radio program so successfully avoided. The pictures taken at Knotts Berry Farm, given the fact that it was all show, make the charade all the more sad.
 
The TV series went on until 1975. The radio series ended in 1961, only one year before the date generally given as the death of old time radio. Lucky for those of us too young to have caught it the first time around, Gunsmoke remains popular on internet radio stations and episodes are available for purchase on CD.
 
 
 

Confession

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 8, 2009 05:55pm | Post a Comment

Confession is a crime drama anthology that originally aired on NBC from July 5 to September 14 in 1953, Sunday nights at 9:30. Each episode featured Paul Frees as Richard McGee -- then the director of California Department of Corrections. John Wald was the announcer.

                

The rest of the cast changed from episode to episode and was a veritable "who’s who" of radio talent of the era, including: Alice Reinhardt, Anthony Barrett (aka Tony Barrett), Barney Phillips, Charlotte Lawrence, Dan Rhys, Eddie Firestone, Eve McVeagh, George Peroni, Gerald Mohr, Gloria Grant, Helen Kleeb, Jack Kruschen, Jack Moyles, James Edwards, Jay Loughlin, Jester Hairston, Joel Davis, John Crawford, John McIntire, Jonathan Hole, Joyce McCluskey, Lamont Johnson, Lurene Tuttle, Les Tremayne, Maidie Norman, Marvin Miller, Sam Edwards, Stacy Harris, Virginia Gregg, Vivvie Jennis and Warren Stevens.

Each episode begins with the Wald solemnly intoning “The confession you are about to hear is an actual recording...” (followed by two loud, distinct beeps of the Canadian Beeper Phone). Then the interviewer vocally encourages the convict to begin their confession, gently prodding “alright... go ahead... make the statement please." Then the convict/protagonist reads the beginning of their confession before the program segues into a dramatization of the events of the confessor's arrest.

In the premiere episode, the interviewer suggests “if there’s comfort for the listeners it’s that you’ve [the convict] been apprehended.” The way the criminals give their accounts is distinguishable from comparable examples with fictional stories of most TV, film and radio of their era. Unlike those frequently over-the-top characterizations of criminals, on Confession, the criminals laconically tell their tales with unpretentious, unembellished language spoken with the seemingly distinct cadences, accents and slang of the era. The realism is further abetted by the subtle acting, with characters coughing, occasionally mumbling unintelligibly and sometimes interrupted by the interviewer giving instructions to speak up, lean toward the mic or sometimes even correcting the confessor's reading of their own confessions as they convincingly stumble through their written accounts. The sound effects are used sparingly and skillfully and the most memorable sound is that of the spare, haunting piano score of Michael Sumogi (or Somage in some accounts) which contributes to an uneasy disquiet.

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