Radio cooked up its share of hard-boiled sleuths
Sure, radio had its share of hard-boiled detectives. And their shows attracted large audiences every week.
But the truth of the matter was radio’s tough private eyes weren’t as rough and tumble, as their press releases made them out to be.
In fact, they were more soft-boiled than anything else. In the movies, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and company could get away with their rugged shenanigans once or twice a year.
On radio, these two-fisted sleuths had to drop by your house for a half-hour every week. And who wants a battered and bruised specimen coming by regularly, especially one who snarls at senior citizens, picks on pretty females and is liable to slug every second person who comes his wayâ¢
Radio’s private eyes, no matter how tough they claimed to be, had to ooze charm whether they liked it or not.
Take Dick Powell. In his celebrated 1944 film, ”Murder My Sweet,” the former crooner was mugged, drugged and slugged before he was able to toss a few punches and catch the murderer. Powell was a great Philip Marlowe on screen, but he had to calm down when he played private eyes on radio during its glory years.
For two years on the Mutual Network, Powell starred in ”Rogue’s Gallery.” He was Richard Rogue, a private detective, who vaguely resembled Philip Marlowe, except for the fact he had gone to charm school. Then in 1949, Powell launched ”Richard Diamond, Private Detective,” which lasted, mostly on NBC, until 1952.
Diamond solved all his cases – no doubt about that. And he was tough every once in awhile. Mostly, he was ”happy-go-lucky,” as one critic described him. On the show, Powell usually celebrated nabbing a villain by singing a song from one of his old Warner Bros. movies or whistling a tune. No doubt about it, Powell was kinder and gentler on radio.
Van Heflin, it should be noted, played Philip Marlowe on the airwaves during the summer of 1947. Gerald Mohr played the title role, when the series came back on CBS in 1948. Most of the time, it was on a sustaining basis until it went off in 1950. Marlowe tried to seem tough, but he was really lovable; he was kind to children and patted dogs on their heads. Radio’s Marlowe lacked the old film gusto.
No doubt, Dashiell Hammett turned his radio off when ”The Adventures of Sam Spade” came over CBS every Sunday night during the late 1940s. Humphrey Bogart probably trembled too.
As played by Howard Duff, who had a magnificent speaking voice and was one of radio’s all-time greats, Spade was a whimsical soul who led a carefree life, loved chasing skirts, and, in general, had a jolly old time before solving the case every week. Radio’s Spade was more Duff – by a long shot – than Bogie. He was a wonderful, but definitely a different character. Lurene Tuttle played his faithful secretary, Effie, on the show.
In 1946, Hammett also created another popular private eye show, ”The Fat Man.” It came on ABC in 1946 and lasted until 1949. J. Scott Smart, a pudgy actor with a tremendous voice, played Brad Runyon, the overweight crime-solver. The character started out tough, but melted down to a nice guy after a couple of months. Overall, it was a good show.
Jack Webb of ”Dragnet” fame had two private eye shows, ”Johnny Madero, Pier 23” on Mutual in 1947 and ”Pat Novak, For Hire” mostly on ABC during the late 1940s. On both shows, Webb played a waterfront private eye who solved problems for a price. ”Novak” established Webb as a radio actor of top quality. His staccato approach to crime-solving lacked the warmth of Powell and Duff, but he was all heart when the script required, and it often did. The two shows were primers for radio’s ”Dragnet,” which later hit the big time when it went on television.
There were a number of popular private eye shows. Remember radio’s ”Martin Kane, Private Detective,” ”Michael Shayne,” ”Boston Blackie,” ”The Abbott Mysteries,” ”Affairs of Peter Salem” and Mickey Spillane’s ”The Hammer Guy”â¢ Mike Hammer obviously took a tranquilizer before he went on the air in this one. The show did not last too long on Mutual in 1953.
Two of the private-eye shows were exceptions to the rule. They were ”The Affairs of Ann Scotland” and ”Candy Matson.” Both featured female private eyes. Radio veteran Arlene Francis played Ann on ABC in 1946 and 1947, and she did a fine job as a sweet talking ”quick-on-the-uptake” detective. She tried, but hard-boiled she would never be – maybe a souffle.
As for ”Candy Matson,” she was played in sultry fashion by Natalie Masters over NBC from 1949 to 1951. Matson was a beauty, and all the admiring males in the radio cast made that clear. But she was tough enough … and always a lady. She was fearless and never let all the flattery go to her head.
For some reason, Matson never switched over to television, and that was a shame. Her countless male fans – and there were millions of them – would have enjoyed watching the sexy sleuth on the video screen. Such is life. It was a great show. There is a possibility the TV picture could never have matched the image created by Matson’s radio voice. Imagination can be a powerful thing.
Of all the private-eye shows on radio, one did regularly feature a hard-boiled sleuth every week. Most of the time, this particular character had a nasty word for everybody who came close to him.
That would be Red Stout’s ”Nero Wolfe,” who ”rated the knife and fork the greatest tools ever invented by man.” Wolfe could be mighty nasty when his meals were late.
Now it may be argued that Wolfe was not a detective of the Marlowe/Spade genre. True. But he was definitely a private eye, and, in his own way, he was as hard-boiled as any of them.
It is true, the orchid fancier rarely left his New York brownstone, and that his assistant, Archie Goodwin, had to do most of the legwork. Wolfe weighed a ton, and he was probably heavier than that other overweight private eye, ”The Fat Man.”
Because of his weight, Wolfe did not go out among the populace. He evaluated all the clues, summoned the suspects to his office or dining room table and let the cat out of the bag.
From 1943 until it was last aired in 1951, ”The Adventures of Nero Wolfe” was mostly on NBC. Early on, Santos Ortega and Luis Van Rooten played the lead. Hollywood’s Sydney Greenstreet played the part for a while.
Along the way, Elliott Lewis, Herb Ellis and Lawrence Dobkin, among others, played Goodwin.
Wolfe, though he kept close to home, was slugged a few times along the way, but seldom tossed any punches. That was Goodwin’s department.
Nevertheless, Wolfe was as tough as they make them. Never once did he ever abandon his hard-boiled image. He was true to the code.
Richard W. O’Donnell is a Port Richey, Fla., free-lance writer for the Tribune-Review.