radio

The Glamorous Detective

It was inevitable that radio producers and advertising agencies would alter the emphasis in the detective program to develop series in which the personality of the central character dominated the action. Writers of detective fiction like S. S. Van Dine, Dashiell Hammett, Earl Derr Biggers, and Raymond Chandler had been doing this since the 1920s. In motion pictures, the same type of glamorized characterization had enjoyed financial success beginning in the mid-1930s. Even radio had moved in that direction in the early 1930s in The Townsend Murder Mysteries program which featured Octavus Roy Cohen's "hayseed" sleuth, Jim Hanvey. Not until the Realistic Detective pattern had achieved solid popularity with American listeners, however, did broadcasters seriously market this new Glamorous Detective.

Where the unhampered flow of plot was primary in the Realistic Detective programs, in this new style the embellishment of characters with irrelevant or peripheral traits was as much a part of the program as the story line. Here, listeners found their traditional "whodunit" augmented with the likes of trivial conversations between the hero and the people he encountered, loquacious descriptions, comedic relationships between the hero and his partner, and even sexual tensions between male and female characters. The process of investigation and apprehension was not insignificant in these programs, and neither was the general image of the society they projected. Often, however, such matters seemed more a concession to logic than a deliberate emphasis of the program.

Instead, the Glamorous Detective series presented listeners with a personalized, attractive, and familiar recurring character that an audience could like for his charm and wit, even more than for his investigatory brilliance.

The heroes of the Glamorous Detective series, more than in any other type of mystery programming, related to listeners on a recognizably human level. The documentary-like rigidity possible in the earliest style now gave way to the hero-as-common-man, a popular theme in democratic culture. Most of the human foibles were present in the make-up of the new crime-solvers. Heroes were overweight (The Fat Man) and skinny (The Thin Man); they were young (The Adventures of Chick Carter) and old (The Adventures of Leonidas Witheral) Some were married (Mr. and Mrs. North); some were thinly veiled playboys (Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar); and some had questionable sexual relationships (Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane in The Shadow).

Many of the characters in this format were private detectives or police investigators, but a sizable number practiced other professions. These ranged from newspaper editor (The Green Hornet), lawyer (Murder and Mr. Malone), news photographer (Casey, Crime Photographer), clergyman (The Adventures of Father Brown) to magician (Blackstone, the Magic Detective), importer (The Casebook of Gregory Hood), circus acrobat (Mr. Mercury), and unemployed do-gooder (The Saint).

In addition to physical and occupational differences, the Glamorous Detectives usually exhibited a wide array of personal eccentricities and traits that were inevitably demonstrated in the weekly broadcasts. In this category, perhaps the most embellished of all these characters was orchid-fancier and gastronome, Nero Wolfe, who in one episode was described by his assistant as, "the smartest, and the stubbornest, the fattest and the laziest, the cleverest and the craziest, the most extravagant detective in the world."

Relative to other types of radio detectives, the Glamorous crime-solvers appear not to have taken themselves too seriously. They lacked the explicit moral tone of the Realistic style; and the self-conscious brutality of the later Neo-Realistic Detective programs was also absent. Instead, this format was principally an entertainment form with a refreshing stress upon lightness and frivolity. Listeners might encounter the hero of Richard Diamond, Private Detective, breaking into song in the middle of his story. The spicy sexual banter between Sam Spade and his secretary, Effie, in The Adventures of Sam Spade, or between the characters created by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Bold Venture, added a sensual dimension to their broadcasts. Audiences also found as much delight as intrigue in the myriad disguises employed by the hero of Mr. Chameleon, or in the "Confucius-Says" type of aphorisms spouted in Charlie Chan.

This new type of detective programming emerged in the 1930s, but did not flourish until the following decade. By the 1950s when detective drama reached its zenith, two-thirds of the series were in the Glamorous style. In fact, even into the 1960s Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, remained viable.

The hero and series which spawned the Glamorous Detective in radio was Lamont Cranston, the "wealthy young man-about-town" who masqueraded as The Shadow. It is significant that the program began in 1930 with a Realistic format—the character called The Shadow being only the narrator and reader of stories from pulp magazines published by Street & Smith. By the middle of the decade, however, The Shadow was amplified by its writers. The character was given an alter ego, magical qualities, a love interest, and a moral purpose. He, thereby, became the investigative hero of the weekly broadcasts.

A striking aspect of Lamont Cranston was that he operated in American society as a vigilante. An independently wealthy man of leisure, he was committed to securing justice, unhampered by the legal restraints that would have thwarted official law enforcement agents. He was, moreover, a man of great prestige and influence, being on such familiar terms with Police Commissioner Weston that he could call upon Weston at any time. Cranston also avoided another social responsibility. Although he was forever accompanied by his "constant friend and companion, the lovely Margo Lane," Cranston and she were never married. In fact, although they were obviously attached to one another, except to call her "darling" Cranston usually abstained from romantic gestures or tender words around his female assistant.

Freed, then, of the conditions experienced by most adult males in modern society—regular job, common status, wife and family, debts—Cranston maneuvered on his own to bring criminals to justice. With his greatest weapon being his unique and secret ability to hypnotize men's minds so they were unable to see him, Cranston philanthropically turned his existence into a crusade to better society.

The savoir-faire of wealthy Lamont Cranston and the omniscience of The Shadow made for a prepossessing mythical figure who entertained listeners for twenty-four years. Most importantly, however, he symbolized the direct action not affordable to most citizens. To a complex urbanized world, The Shadow offered simple answers that emerged through vigilante processes; in a time of uncertainty, he reasserted the old morality that "crime does not pay." And when the pressures of existence in the twentieth century produced alienation and boredom, the romantic dynamism of The Shadow provided listeners a model that was exhilarating and desirable.

The success of The Shadow influenced creators of radio drama to develop detective series focusing upon personality rather than the science of investigation. Frank and Anne Hummert—who had produced many of the most popular soap operas in daytime radio—developed by the end of the 1930s "the kindly old investigator" in Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, a series that lasted for seventeen years. Carleton E. Morse adapted the humane characters of his successful One Man's Family melodrama and produced Jack Packard, Doc Long, and Reggie York of the A-1 Detective Agency and the I Love a Mystery series. And eminent motion picture actors Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor lent the prestige of their names and talents to Big Town, a series which related the crime-solving activities of newspaper editor Steve Wilson and his able assistant, society editor Lorelei Kilbourne.

The significance of the Glamorous Detective programs, however, lies not with the likability of the principal characters but with the coveted attributes of their fictional existences. If radio in general was an escapist medium which allowed each listener to transport himself by relating to its various entertainment forms, the Glamorous Detective programs afforded an audience the greatest opportunity to transcend reality and enter a fantasy realm of romance, action, invincibility, and rectitude.

As in the case of The Shadow, one of the persistent motifs in this style of programming was that of the individual hero assuming responsibility to bring justice to a small corner of the vast civilization. This pattern operated not only as a condition within the plots of the various stories, but also as a lure to the individual listener desirous of escaping his reality for a short while. Listening to the radio was a private activity. It demanded attention, especially when involved in a complex story or play. Its nature, thereby, militated against conversation and other forms of social interaction. Furthermore, the images produced in a broadcast were also individualistic, each listener experiencing within his own mind's eye the fantasy being aired. In this way the exploits of the hero, acting alone in the name of commonly-held interpretations of justice, affirmed the one-to-one relationship between a listener and the radio set. In doing so, his exploits reinforced the commitment of the listener to sit in mental solitude, to hear, and to transcend.

Reflective of this relationship, many of the Glamorous Detective series featured the exploits of an individualistic hero, operating as a loner or with minimal assistance from others. In this sense, the most appropriately titled series was The Lone Wolf, based on the writing of Louis Joseph Vance, and relating the adventures of the character, Michael Lanyard. Other programs, such as The Falcon, Boston Blackie, The Adventures of Phillip Marlowe, and The New Adventures of Michael Shayne, were also dramas about of lone wolves. Although they may have flirted or conversed with incidental characters, they wandered through civilization unable to rest because justice was incomplete. Whether they were self-righteous or casual in their approach to responsibility, ultimately they all were compelled to action. Free of restraint, save their inbred codes of justice and honor, these heroes alluringly embodied the desire of many in the audience to wander uninhibitedly.

The romantic appeal became even more compelling when the champion of justice operated within a foreign context. Such programming was alluring to Americans who romanticized foreign travel. Generous doses of intrigue, sensuality, action, and exoticism served to increase listener interest. Before World War II, with the isolationism of American foreign policy carefully reflected in broadcasting, there were few series which glorified the solving of crimes in foreign lands. But during and after the war the pattern was altered, and many crime-solving programs emerged which adapted the Glamorous Detective to a non-American society. Slate Shannon in Bold Venture operated a fishing boat in the Caribbean; Jethro Dumont, the hero of The Green Lama, fought for justice principally in the Far East; Rocky Jordan had its home base in Cairo; Cafe Istanbul, although transferred in its second season to San Francisco, was originally set in the Middle East; and Dangerous Assignment, The Adventures of Frank Race, and Orson Welles' roguish hero in the British import, The Lives of Harry Lime, operated in a different foreign metropolis in each episode.

Other Glamorous Detectives were inherently involved in international capers because they were foreign by birth. In such instances, the exotic nature of things foreign was found by definition in The Adventures of Hercule Poirot, which featured Agatha Christie's Belgian detective; in Bulldog Drummond and The Adventures of Father Brown, which both involved British heroes; in Mr. Moto, which concerned a Japanese detective; and in the escapades of a Chinese-Hawaiian police inspector in Charlie Chan.

Another salient aspect of many Glamorous Detective shows was the existence of an assistant to the principal character. Those assistants who were males often brought a warm and comical personality to counteract the business-like efficiency toward which the series' heroes tended. Thus, Mike Clancy, with his brogue and his penchant for Irish clichés, such as "Saints preserve us!" was a vulnerable complement to affable but serious-minded Mr. Keen. Archie Goodwin, the assistant to Nero Wolfe, brought his blending of working-class humor and brawn to counterbalance the refined proclivities of his employer. And Tim Maloney provided a likable awkwardness which meshed harmoniously with the intelligent and coy qualities of Inspector Mark Saber in Mystery Theater.

Female partners, or at least continuing female characters, played a much different role than did male assistants. In some cases they provided primarily sexual content to the stories. The hero in Philo Vance, for example, maintained a flirtatious relationship with his assistant, Ellen Deering; in The Adventures of Sam Spade, Sam routinely flirted with his secretary, Effie; and Suzy, the newspaper employee who maintained the mailbox of Alan Ladd's character, Dan Holiday, in Box 13, expressed her attraction to him whenever he picked up his mail.

In several other series, however, women played a more integral role in the solution of the crimes under investigation. Brooksie, the secretary and girlfriend of George Valentine in Let George Do It, travelled with her boss, vacationed with him, and helped him with factual information which, along with his brawn, was needed in solving his cases. Margo Lane often acted as a decoy for Lamont Cranston, offering herself to be kidnapped, attacked, mutilated, or worse, in order to force the hand of an antagonist and allow The Shadow to apprehend him. The assistant in Nick Carter, Master Detective, Patsy Bowen, was not as exploited as Margo Lane, but she often suffered physical and psychic torment in her important role beside her employer. And in at least two series, Mr. and Mrs. North and The Thin Man (Nick and Nora Charles), the feminine half of the detective team played a role virtually equal to that of her husband in solving cases.

Although the interaction between hero and assistant was a strong ingredient in many Glamorous Detective series, of even greater significance was the relationship of the hero with representatives of the police. Since in radio fiction both private and public investigators labored to rid society of crime, listeners might well have expected to discover an amicable working relationship between the two. This, of course, was the case in many shows. Lamont Cranston, if not The Shadow, usually kept the cooperative Commissioner Weston informed of his plans. Phillip Marlowe often stressed the fact that he worked closely with the police. And Boston Blackie was so intimate with public law enforcement that in one program he even assisted the police department in raising funds for underprivileged children.

Nonetheless, many private detectives and amateur sleuths exhibited a distaste for police officers. This caustic relationship ranged from sarcasm to open contempt. Such tension usually emanated from the rivalry of the two investigatory units seeking a solution to the same crime. Mike Waring, The Falcon, carried on a wise-cracking feud with both a lieutenant and a sergeant on the police force. Philo Vance at least respected rank and was cordial towards the District Attorney, but bitter toward Police Sgt. Heath. Richard Diamond, however, possessed a mocking disdain for all police officials. And most of those series dealing with international locales had principal characters who at least distrusted foreign police.

This anti-social rivalry was often a function of the heroes' methods of operation. The Green Hornet, for example, never intended to undermine police authority. In fact, in the early years of the series one broadcast each month would feature as a public service a special Law and Order Roundtable—an educational forum in which racketeering in the United States was discussed by authorities. Reflecting popular sentiment, one fan magazine in 1940 warmly praised The Green Hornet for presenting the strong moral lesson that "criminals, in the long run, always must face the bar of justice." Nevertheless, the hero Britt Reid—who was publisher of The Daily Sentinel as well as being the vigilante, the Green Hornet—often came into conflict with the local police. In several broadcasts this antagonism resulted in warrants for the arrest of the Hornet, or in the police chasing the hero through the city at high speeds.

The producers of The Green Hornet, which premiered in 1936, created in Reid and his Japanese valet and confidant, Kato, avenging angels for whom the ends justified the means. On many occasions their activities aroused police anger because they interfered with investigations already underway. The pair also frustrated law officials because they often overlooked legalities in their championing of justice. Even when it ceased to be broadcast in the evening hours and, by the early 1950s, was aired in the late afternoon for juvenile listeners, the series continued to demonstrate patterns that insulted police but were acceptable and natural outgrowths of Britt Reid's personal struggle against criminals.

The theme of tension between the police and the hero of a radio series had a literary origin. In many instances this pattern was a vestige of the hard-boiled detective stories which emerged from pulp literature in the 1920s. The motif gave the hero a ruggedly individualistic flair and accentuated the personal triumph inherent in his ultimate victory. Although the attitude was more often found in the Neo-Realistic Detective series, many Glamorous Detective programs, adapted from literary roots, retained aspects of their antecedents. Certainly, radio tamed characters such as Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer when they appeared in their own series. Yet, Britt Halliday's Michael Shayne—at least as interpreted by actor Jeff Chandler in The New Adventures of Michael Shayne in 1949—retained much of his resentful attitude toward police investigators.

In those series where such tensions were noticeable, however, their intention must be understood as a literary residual rather than a subversion of law and order. The antagonism was a function of the detective's personality. And, as if to prove that no anti-social message was implied by this pattern, the private eye and the police usually reconciled their differ¬ences when the case was solved and the program concluded.

Regardless of relationships or personality traits, the most obvious ingredient in the Glamorous Detective series was adventure. It was the attractive element that captivated and maintained most listeners, for it was the aspect which most contrasted with the familiar routines of the listener's reality. Dan Holiday in Box 13 started his weekly adventures by placing a classified ad in the local newspaper—a bold invitation to action reading, "Adventure wanted. Will go any place, do anything." Richard Rogue of Rogue's Gallery was apparently more selective in his adventures, boasting in one broadcast that “I collect murders." The hero of Leonidas Witheral, a man described as "a New England schoolmaster who looks like Shakespeare and is always getting mixed up in murder," transformed the pedantic world of a school administrator into a life of dangerous activity.

Sex was another adventure vicariously experienced by listeners of the Glamorous Detective series. This was especially the case when virile and unattached young heroes of programs such as Sex was another adventure Sex was another adventure The Falcon, The Adventures of Frank Race, The Lone Wolf, or The Adventures of Phillip Marlowe were relating their stories. On the other hand, more esthetic than sexual were the activities of heroes in series, such as The Adventures of Nero Wolfe, The Saint, and Gregory Hood, as they continually pointed out the relatively more-civilized features of good wine, furniture, orchids, and art. Whatever their behavioral characteristics, however, all Glamorous Detectives were meant to touch the imagination of the audience and to entertain. Perhaps, therefore, the best epithet describing the intent of such programming was frivolously uttered by Simon Templar, The Saint, when a client thanked him for solving a case. To the expression of her gratitude, he replied, "Don't bother. It was fun."

One of the most glaring oversights of the Glamorous Detective format was the absence of a significant number of detective heroines. While women were featured in the broadcasts as stenographers and attractive assistants, in only a few instances were they the principal characters. In these rare cases, however, the programs were either so cliché-ridden or denigrating that they where short-lived and insignificant. Meet Miss Sherlock, which was broadcast in the mid-1940s, concerned the investigative adventures of Jane Sherlock, who was introduced as "as smart a little gal as ever stumbled across a real live clue." Sherlock, however, was not a private detective, but a buyer for an exclusive department store owned by the mother of Peter Blossom, the young lawyer to whom Sherlock was engaged. A more traditional, yet tritely written undertaking was The Affairs of Anne Scotland, composed by Barbara Owens, directed by Helen Mack, and starring Arlene Francis. This program premiered in October 1946, and featured Francis as a private eye who worked irritatingly independently of the police and became involved in solving crimes in her own manner. The series was heard on the West Coast and endured only one season.

Candy Matson, however, was the most successful female detective produced in radio. It originated in San Francisco in 1949, and for two seasons was broadcast on NBC stations in the West. Matson was a full-fledged detective who aptly handled guns and recalcitrant antagonists. The writers, however, could not help portraying her both as a pin-up girl and a private eye. Thus, in the opening of one broadcast, the announcer described her:

Figure? She picks up where Miss America leaves off Clothes? She makes a peasant dress look like opening night at the opera. Hair? Blonde, of course. And eyes? Just the right shade of blue to match the hair.

As a fitting finale, when the series was canceled in 1951, the writer caused her to become engaged to her male rival on the police force and to announce plans to abandon her career in favor of becoming a housewife.

As mentioned in connection with the Realistic Detective paradigm, the only serious image of a female investigator was the Policewoman series produced by Phillips H. Lord which drew inspiration from incidents in the thirty-five year career of Sgt. Mary Sullivan of the New York City Police Department. In contrast, those heroines who emerged as Glamorous Detectives all lacked credibility and dignity. Given the serious portrayal of women in other genres of radio broadcasting, the conclusion must be drawn that detective programming, like the radio western, was dominated by masculine values and attitudes. To survive, female characters—whether principals or assistants—had to reflect this condition. To have expected solid, creative characterization of fictionalized female crime-solvers would have been to presume a set of non-sexist preconditions which, of course, were absent from American society as well as from detective broadcasts at the time.

 

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