Pre-Christmas Noir

I was so happy when I hit the point in Lux Radio Theatre’s February 1948 production of “The Lady in the Lake” when detective Philip Marlowe needs some information, picks up the phone, calls a friend at the newspaper, and gets the facts he needs. And it’s right around Christmas.

That’s enough of an excuse for me to include the story here today, in a blog ostensibly discussing the portrayal of journalists in radio drama. We don’t get to hear much from the reporter, but he delivers the information needed at a key point in the case. Speed, efficiency and facts, what more do you want from a reporter?!

A lot of radio stories throw reporters fully into the role of detective, or have detectives impersonate reporters to get information… Or have detectives investigate reporters getting killed — or, less often, killing someone. It’s enough to have one just getting some for a change and then disappearing out of the story without as much as a byline.

Another thing reporters and detectives have in common, besides working on holidays, is that the daily job of drumming up facts can convince them they have enough of a story to twist some of those facts into a semi-autobiographical novel and maybe make a little more money. And that gets us back to The Lady in the Lake.

In this Raymond Chandler novel, detective Philip Marlowe has decided to write a detective novel. The first femme fatale is the publisher’s agent… who offers to buy the novel, but also wants to hire him to investigate the disappearance of her boss’s wife. He suspects that she has her cap set for the millionaire publisher.

The hour-long Lux Radio Theatre production stars Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter, both from the original 1947 motion picture. ( IMDB Lady in the Lake page ) In an interesting twist, the Lloyd Nolan bad-cop role in the movie is played in the radio adaptation by Gerald Mohr, who later in 1948 got to play Philip Marlowe as star of his own radio series. It must have been challenging to deliver the Raymond Chandler style detective story complexity in a half hour weekly format. Lady in the Lake has enough plot twists to fill the Lux hour.

The movie is a curiosity, in that Montgomery directed and starred, but didn’t spend a lot of time on camera. The film was an experiment in narrative form, with the camera taking the detective’s point of view, as shown in this IMDb still, showing Montgomery’s hand in the foreground and his reflection in a mirror behind his seductive costar. Think video game or virtual reality. So Montgomery’s radio performance may not be that much different from his mostly voice film performance.

It will be interesting to see Audrey Totter in the film version, which is available on Turner Classic Movies. It may have been more difficult to convey the different aspects of her character in a voice-only role.

I think Montgomery does a respectable job, functioning as both hero and narrator, although sometimes I got the feeling he was channeling Bogart.

As usual, the audio file playable above is from the collection of the Old Time Radio Researchers group, stored at the Internet Archive. I have had a few articles published in the group’s newsletter, and may compile my last few Philip Marlowe posts into another one. Browse back through the blog for a couple of examples of the half hour Adventures of Philip Marlowe radio show, on those occasions when he ran into newspaper folk, for better or worse.

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Detective as fact-checker versus libel case

Detective Philip Marlowe meets a whole Hollywood trade paper crew in “The Green Flame” from March 1949 …

It’s a colorful tale. We get matches that burn with a green flame, a note in blue wax pencil, and various red herrings.

The opening blurb mentions a “ghostwriter with ambition,” but that didn’t make me think newspaper. However, the detective’s client proved to be the publisher of a movie industry daily paper… making this the third Marlowe episode I have encountered with journalists in the plot, although not necessarily as a hero.

The publisher offers the detective five times his usual salary to fight a libel suit, so this is detective in the journalistic role of fact-checker instead of the more common radio story where a reporter gets to be a detective. The publisher also owns six screen magazines and a radio station — Quite the media mogul!

The “ghost writer” phrase doesn’t just have the usual meaning … The gossip columnist who wrote the allegedly libelous story has died of a stroke overnight while his column was in the mail.

Marlowe’s assignment is to find the ghostly columnist’s source and prove the story was true.

The columnist did have a less literal ghost writer, a “legman” who along with fact-gathering claims to have written a lot of the columns, including that last one, except for the offensive item.

We also meet the fast-talking editor of the newspaper, “anybody’s Napoleon,” says the publisher, who apparently trusts him.

The columnist’s home holds clues to his career, an autographed photo of Teddy Roosevelt, a 20-year-old tarnished loving cup for excellence in reporting, and a tip about a fiery redhead who might be the story’s anonymous source.

She’s the actor’s ex-wife and the essential femme fatale for this radio noir half-hour, which sadly has some shaky acting, and only a few passages of faux Raymond Chandler writing. (“You handle a spiked heel like Babe Ruth handled a bat.”) We don’t even get a description of the lady publisher, except that she doesn’t like cigars, thinks her gossip columnist was “a thorough man and never heard of the word ‘rumor,'” and that she is old enough to call Marlowe “boy.”

The “Green Flame” of the title is a nightclub, and one of its matchbooks is the big clue. And although the columnist appears to have died of natural causes, of course there’s a murder and the threat of another to complicate matters.

The main “Newspaper Heroes on the Air” messages here are that publishers weren’t always men (even in the Truman years), gossip columnists weren’t always rumour-mongers, and maybe journalists weren’t always heroes, despite the title of this blog.

Newspaper movie fan trivia: actress Fay Baker, who I thought played the publisher here, was in the journalism classic Deadline USA with Humphrey Bogart — but as one of the deceased publisher’s alienated daughters who sell the newspaper out from under editor Bogart.

However, after looking up both actresses in the RadioGoldIndex and Internet Movie Database, I think Baker played the redhead and the publisher was the older actress, Myra Marsh, better known for playing the mother of the teenage lead in the series “A Date with Judy,” which I will have to go listen to to be sure.

Oh, look, in one of the first episodes I listened to, Judy got to interview movie star Charles Boyer for the school newspaper! I do find journalism plots everywhere. It’s a wonder she got her article written for all the eyelash fluttering, but it’s a charming mistaken identity tale from 1945, when having a non-celebrity character from France also made this a wartime refugee-immigration story.

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A case of mistaken identity

In Raymond Chandler’s novels or the 1947-51 radio series they inspired, Philip Marlowe wasn’t the kind of detective who plays for the headlines.

“What’s the news in that?” he asks at the end of this 1950 adventure titled “The Big Book.”

It took a while to find episodes of his radio adventures with newspaper reporter characters. I had just started on the 105 half-hour tales available at the Internet Archive’s Old Time Radio Researchers collection when I wrote this. I had found an adventure in which he looked for a newsboy’s missing uncle, but there wasn’t enough newspaper to it.

So why is “The Big Book” here in a blog about newspaper reporter and editor characters? Because, in it an Italian shoemaker — who once was an artist and also can bind large volumes in leather — easily mistakes Marlowe for a newspaper reporter, and their dialogue is interesting.

Given the location of Marlowe’s office, I suspect there are episodes with Hollywood publicity agents, but I’d rather stick with the working press.


Oops… In the background while I was editing this, my playlist of Marlowe episodes got to a new story, and I heard the phrase “a Tribune reporter dodging bullets” while Marlowe was investigating the disappearance of a diner owner’s wife. I’ll be back to write about “Friend from Detroit” if I can do it without plot spoilers. Feel free to jump in and listen.

Next discovery, Marlowe meets a whole Hollywood trade paper crew in “The Green Flame” … which I will write about next.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, detectives, reporters | Leave a comment

A cemetery scoop

It’s October, and as Halloween approaches, I am reminded that I have not posted many stories from radio’s always popular macabre or thriller series… Might as well start early.

“Scoop,” the December 8, 1942, episode of the scare-filled late-night radio show Lights Out must not be confused with the amusing Evelyn Waugh novel by the same name.

As it opens, a 40-year-veteran newspaper columnist is called into the office of a heartless and clueless new publisher. To save his job and keep serving his readers, the columnist even offers to continue working for no money.

The columnist sounds a bit like Boris Karloff, which should be a warning that the publisher’s end will not be a pretty one.

The story is by Arch Oboler (1909–1987) one of radio’s most creative writers and producers. At the end of the wartime program, he delivers a personal war-bond sales message about a real terror, preventing “the horror of a Jap-Nazi world.” has separate sections headed “LightsOutOTR” and “LightsOutoldTimeRadio,” each with a version of this program, so I will include a link to the duplicate copy here, just in case one or the other is, like the old man in the story, declared redundant.

Pioneer radio collector and historian J. David Goldin reports that the later syndicated episode was also known as “Cemetery.”

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Before Bond: Moscow correspondent faces Russian with steel teeth

Suspense (1955):

This script by John Dehner was timely Cold War radio about an American correspondent attempting to flee his Soviet interrogator, “The Man with Steel Teeth.”

It was produced twice, both times by Antony Ellis, for two of radios most popular anthology series, Suspense and Escape.

Dehner, who also starred as a newspaper reporter in the wild west series Frontier Gentleman, took the lead in the Suspense production in February 1955, but Escape was the first to broadcast the story, in March 1953, with Harry Bartell in the lead.

Other than presenting the reporter as brave, stubborn and resourceful, there is little about journalism here . . . No particular job of reporting gets him charged with espionage, the charges are entirely trumped up, and the toothy interrogator tries beatings and torture to extract a confession.

Both actors do a fine job, and the script reinforces the era’s assumptions about the Soviet Union. No spoilers here, just a good suspenseful attempted-escape story, as the names of the two series suggest.

One interesting twist in the radioplay — patches of dialogue are in Russian with no translation. . . or what sounds like Russian to an American who only knows a few words.

Escape (1953):

Continue reading

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Shocking! Presidents do lie to and about reporters

The various radio series that dramatized historical events sometimes sacrificed historical accuracy to tell a story, especially in the common 30-minute format.

In this broadcast, at least a newspaper reporter gets a happier ending out of the revisionist history.

“Mr. President” was an 1947-1953 ABC series in which Edward Arnold played a different U.S. president each week, disguising the president’s name until the end of what was usually a little-known story in that presidential life.

(Unfortunately, online archives of mp3 recordings of the series, such as this collection of Mr. President at the Old Time Radio Researchers Library, often give away the president’s identity in the filename.)

This tale of a president hiding a cancer diagnosis — and even a secret surgery on a yacht — includes more than one newspaper reporter. Only one gets the scoop early — so early that the president swears him to secrecy until after the operation, and even then the reporter has difficulty convincing his editor that he has the true story… and the president comes to his defense.

That’s quite a different tale from the one reflected in the subtitle of a more recent book, “The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth, by Matthew Algeo.

In 2011, NPR interviewed the author, who among other things found a letter from Cleveland admitting his attempt to “deny and discredit the story,” which continued throughout his life.

The reporter is identified as “Holland” at the end of the “Mr. President” episode, which was the syndicated column pseudonym of reporter Elisha Jay Edwards.

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Fatherly editor faces romantic son, Persian poetry

When Ah, Wilderness, Eugene O’Neill’s comedy-drama about coming of age, was adapted for radio, Walter Huston starred as the newspaper-owner father whose poetry-besotted son is tempted by what passed for the wild side of life in 1906 Connecticut.

Theatre Guild on the Air broadcast the program in 1945, but the show is still set in 1906, when that Connecticut wild life — or the amount of it suited for a 1945 family radio audience — consisted of beer and a blind date arranged by the lad’s older brother’s Yale classmate, who knew “a couple of swift babies from New Haven.”

The radio production made no reference to the 1935 film with Wallace Beery, previewed above via YouTube, Lionel Barrymore and Aline MacMahon, but tipped its hat to George M. Cohan‘s year-long star turn as the father and editor in the play on Broadway and for two years on the road.

The Theatre Guild program had Eugene O’Neill Jr. provide narration for the radioplay. In addition, Huston not only had played another O’Neill father in “Desire Under the Elms,” but was married to newspaper reporter Rhea Gore Huston.

His character, Nat Miller, is owner-publisher of the paper in a “large small town” — the Barrymore role in the movie — who stands up to an irate advertiser whose daughter is being pursued by his son, Richard, writing letters full of quotations from Swinburne and Omar Khayyam.

Reading about socialism as well as romance have led the 17-year-old son to make family-table speeches about “liberty,” and “wage slaves” and July 4 being a farce. But the father defends him against charges of being “dissolute and blasphemous” and corrupting his advertiser’s daughter.

We never get to the newsroom in this domestic drama, but we do learn that the editor has his own copy of the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” at the office, even if he lets his son know that Swinburne’s sensuality is “a little strong” to be sending to a nice girl.

The bottom line, as a portrayal of a journalist, the play is pleasantly free of negative stereotypes. With one son at Yale and another headed there in the fall (even though he might rather dive right into a newspaper job), the editor is presented literally as a father figure, educated, practical, family-oriented, ethical and thoughtful. He’s not infallible, at least on the subject of bluefish. But, significantly, he is not the alcoholic in the family, one of Hollywood’s favorite cliches about newspapermen. (In fact, the inebriated uncle is less of the story in the radio adaptation than he was in the movie, where Wallace Beery received top billing over Lionel Barrymore as the father.)

Note: Some sources of information on the radio program spell its name “Theater Guild,” but the parent organization uses the “Theatre Guild” spelling. I have never seen a printed script, “U.S. Steel Hour” press release, or transcription disc label to determine whether the radio industry departed from that spelling.

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, adaptations, comedy, Drama, editors, ethics, romance | Leave a comment