Shamuses & Private Dicks

Detectives, I mean. Gum shoes, the kind Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and hundreds of other writers, second and third-raters unworthy of replacing Chandler and Hammett’s typewriter ribbons, gave us.

My main exposure to the private detective is through the 1940s and 1950s radio show, and I’ve listened to a lot of old radio shows in my life. Given the circumstances Jennifer and I are in right now, radio and the occasional podcast are the only media we have access to. So, what follows is a review of radio private eyes. (I hope to do the same for comedians, cops, and westerns at some point in time).

The plot for a typical half-hour radio private detective show varied little — someone disappeared, something was stolen, someone died — and the gumshoe is hired (usually after some witty reparte) to find/solve “the case.” There’s always a dame or a doll involved (there is a difference, I just can’t put it into words), and sometimes the dame or doll is also the bad guy’s moll. Marlowe was best at rebuffing the advances of the fairer sex, while Johnny Dollar was always falling for someone. It was the 1940s, and this was radio, so no one got much of anywhere… There’s as goon or two or three, the private dick would conked on the head a time or two (Marlowe was always getting beaten into unconsciousness), a fact or clue quickly and conveniently remembered, and a cynical police detective lieutenant with a heart of gold on speed dial (or what passed for speed dial in 1946) and there at the end to make sure the bad guys, nabbed by the 22nd minute, were hauled off to the pokey. Withoutout the benefit of a Miranda warning, of course. It wouldn’t have mattered, as the bad guys were always guilty and they always confessed.

My personal favorite is Philip Marlowe, played on the big screen by Humphrey Bogart, Elliot Gould and Robert Mitchum (Robert Mitchum!!) and on the radio by Gerald Mohr. Mohr may have been one awful actor, but he made a perfectly serviceable radio Marlowe. He does the hard-bitten semi-monotone just right, and he (and the writers) get the character’s cynical nobility right as well. The show is full of dames, thugs, Los Angeles locations, big cars driving noisily down Pacific Coast Highway, and more than its fair share of violence. It may have been a rule for Marlowe to get knocked out once every episode — you’d think, after a while, such a man would suffer some brain damage and be utterly uninsurable. Chandler may have hated the radio show, but I suspect it was because there’s only so much you can do given the constraints of 26 minutes of radio story-telling time, and that every ending has to be a happy one. This is a fun show to listen to.

Jack Webb, on the other hand, makes an awful private detective in Pat Novak for Hire. His monotone, which works for Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet, is overwrought here (it’s hard to imagine that Webb also played a jazz trumpeter who solved crimes in his spare time in Pete Kelly’s Blues). And overwritten. Chandler’s prose tortured, strangled and turned deep purple here, the result of too little oxygen and imagination. The fact he works for a fat man is also a deliberate rip off of the Nero Wolfe concept (with Webb’s Novak being the “Archie” character of the series). Webb became so identified with one character — Joe Friday — it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else. Once, in Saudi Arabia, I caught the last two thirds of an early 1960s film, THE LAST TIME I SAW ARCHIE, about the WWII adventures of Arch Hall, Sr., the man who made all those awful films starring Arch Hall, Jr., with Robert Mitchum (!!!) as Hall and Webb playing his sidekick (!!!!!). It was an odd casting, produced by Webb’s Mark VII production company, but it worked, in a very strange way.

Speaking of Nero Wolfe, Sydney Greenstreet made fantastic Nero Wolfe in “The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe,” accompanied by a series of Archies that included the venerable Gerald Mohr (for as crummy an actor as he was, he never lacked work, a sure sign he filled his niche very well) and Gunsmoke veteran Lawrence Dobkin. I’m not sure the half-hour radio show format did this show and its characters justice (it didn’t do justice to Marlowe). But Greenstreet did cranky, meal and orchid-obsessed well.

Johnny Dollar (sounds like the name of an Arch Hall, Jr., character) wasn’t really a private detective — he was a “fabulous freelance insurance investigator with the action-packed expense account!” It sounds so silly and absurd that the character must have been based on a real person. The show would typically start with Johnny getting a call from some big insurance firm in Hartford, Connecticut, wanting a full report before paying some fantastically large claim — $100,000 say. The show would then follow Johnny Dollar’s narration as he goes through his expense account: “Item 1, $2.50, cab fare to Union Station to board a train to Timbuktu” or whatever. There were three Johnny Dollars: Charles Russell, Bob Bailey and Mandel Kramer. Russell, and the writers for the show at the time, played Dollar much more in the Spade/Marlowe vein. Bailey played the character with a great deal more sentimentality — the fabulous freelance insurance investigator with a heart of gold.” He was always falling for dolls and helping kids and doing jobs for free for those who couldn’t afford to pay (the sure sign of a virtuous thief). Kramer, who was a semi-regular on the 1970s-era CBS Radio Mystery Theater, was much more low-key in his approach to playing Johnny Dollar.

And finally, there’s Candy Madsen, the only gal gumshoe in the bunch. Not as sophisticated a show as any of the above (all of them had “real” music with an orchestra and everything, while Madsen had to do with an organ), it’s still a fun listen. Candy never had a doll problem (and, I’m guessing, neither did her male sidekick Rembrandt, which makes him as fun character on 1940s radio), but she did have a thing for the hard-bitten police detective lieutenant, and they get engaged or married or somesuch at the end of the series.

I’ve not listened enough to the Sam Spade radio shows to get a sense of the show (it sounds and feels like Marlow in San Francisco), and there are a whole host of lesser radio dicks I’ve never found terribly interesting.

Next time: cops.