Friday, February 22, 2013

The Shadow Unmasked

From July 31, 1930 to July 30, 1931, the Detective Story Magazine Hour presented spooky mysteries dramatized late at night, under the sponsorship of Street & Smith Magazine. The stories were adaptations of short stories from the weekly magazine. Contracted for a series of 52 broadcasts with a 26-week cancellation clause, Street & Smith chose thrilling tales from their pulp pages in an attempt to promote their magazine. Allyn Jay Marsh was the account executive at Ruthrauff & Ryan, located then at 132 West 31st Street in New York City. He oversaw the radio production and worked closely with William Sweets, who wrote the radio dramas and selected stories which fit the mold of the program. Marsh was formerly an advertising salesman for the New York Times and would later become director of network program sales for CBS.

A few reference guides claim the title of the program switched from "Detective Story Hour" to "Detective Story Program" after the first two broadcasts. This, however, is inaccurate. The source of this information originated from the New York Times, which oftentimes failed to report the correct or full title among the radio listings. Adding the word “magazine” in the listings would have constituted sponsorship and the newspaper wanted to sell ad space. The radio listings offered little if not limited space for lengthy titles. The correct title was Detective Story Magazine Hour and never changed during the 52 weeks it was on the air. Even though the program ran a half-hour, programs referred to as “Hour” were broadcast on the hour, or on the half-hour; the designation did not indicate the program length. Newspaper listings should never be taken as the gospel, especially when one considers the Washington Post listed this program as “Tales of Mystery” in their radio listings.
The premiere broadcast, “The Serpent Stings” (July 31, 1930), was adapted from the short story of the same name by Herman Landon. It centered on a daring jewel robbery with two ruthless murders pressuring the detective, who finds a number of suspects. Among them are Mrs. Wakeling, Shorty, the rodman’s gun moll, Margy, who squealed when she thought he gave her the double-cross, and Wolf Garrett, who ultimately was executed for murder but was a strong character in the play. One columnist remarked “the program builders might be a little more careful, however, in selecting voices that show contrast. There was some confusion at times, because of vocal similarities.”

To give the program a splash of color, a horror host was added, a menace voice of conscience that sometimes urged the criminal to continue their deeds, and suggested retribution was close at hand. The Shadow became that voice. To add publicity to the radio program, a number of press releases were issued and sent out to various columnists and newspapers across the East Coast. These press releases were designed to add an air of mystery behind the man with the voice.

An undated 1930 column reported: “Secrecy surrounding ‘The Shadow’ announcer for Detective Stories is maintained by having him sneak into the studios via the freight elevator.” The September 4 issue of the New York Evening Journal reported the same news about the freight elevator, remarking, “Those press agents!” suggesting more publicity stunt than fact. The freight elevator story was widely circulated, appearing in numerous newspapers and Variety through late October. 

The January 3, 1932, issue of the Topeka Daily Capital-Journal reported: “‘The Shadow’ has refused to reveal his identity and whenever he was scheduled to appear for a broadcast, those who were in the studio were afforded only a glimpse of him as he dashed to the microphone.”

Early depiction of The Shadow.
The April 10, 1932, “Airy Chats” column penned by Bill Schudt (a Columbia scout) reported a series of mishaps that occurred over the network, including: “The night The Shadow was trying to be so mysterious on that Detective Hour and his mask slipped off, and three people immediately recognized him.”

But these press releases were obviously pure hokum. Some columnists did not bother to report the news as it was submitted, but rather offer their own speculations. The November 28, 1930 issue of The Decatur Review reported: “There was a new ‘Shadow’ to introduce the CBS Detective Story Thursday. The regular Shadow has a voice that vibrates one’s backbone. The sub was almost a tenor!” Columnist Jo Ranson in the October 30, 1932, issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, comented: “I still insist that Singin’ Sam’s laugh reminds me of The Shadow, radio’s most sinister figure.” It seems unlikely that a third person was playing the role of The Shadow but there can be no definite answer because there is an on-going debate between historians question whether Readick was a tenor.
Some newspapers did report his identity. The July 8, 1931 issue of The Boston Post reported the identity of the Shadow “not even known by members of that cast, has been uncovered. ‘The Shadow’ is portrayed by Frank Readick, character artist of the CBS, the same man who enacted the majority of the roles in Time magazine’s broadcast, and has also taken parts in Columbia’s True Story hours.”

In the November 27, 1931 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, columnist Jo Ranson added an air of mystery when she remarked: “Very few people at the Columbia studios really know who he is. Every one is entitled to a guess and the guesses have been high, wide and handsome. He generally appears in the studio completely disguised (black robe, hood and mask) and comes up to the mike in the freight elevator. Among those suspected of being The Shadow are Frank Readick, Tony Wons, Bill Schudt, Jesse Butcher, Herb Glover, the Gloomchasers, and the Round Towners Quartet.”

Frank Readick as The Shadow (and all photos on this page).

From January to February 1932, The Shadow returned to the airwaves after a five month absence from the blood ‘n’ thunder format with his own program titled The Shadow. Frank Readick definitely reprised the role for this short-run series, giving the listeners (for five weeks, anyway) the opportunity to hear his weekly narrations. (Readick’s appearance was verified by numerous periodicals, including the January 12, 1932, issue of the Cleveland Press, which remarked: “Frank Readick, a mite of a fellow with an oily mustache, is the very mysterious Columbia ‘Shadow’ you’ll hear tonight.”)

The February 3, 1932, issue of the Elmira, New York, Advertiser reported: “With this week The Shadow again fades from WABC-CBS after a comparatively brief revival of his mystery dramatizations, and The Shadow is impersonated by Frank Readick, whose identity was kept secret for quite a time.”

The newspapers could only work with press releases issued from the network and often contradict each other, leaving one to wonder whether The Shadow’s identity truly remained a secret to anyone other than their readers. The October 2, 1932 issue of Radio Guide revealed Frank Readick as the former announcer, claiming a press agent revealed the fact and “now everybody knows ‘The Shadow.’” The October 5, 1932 issue of the Akron, Ohio, Times-Press claimed that the new Shadow was “not Columbia’s Frank Readick, and his identity will remain a secret.” The October 14 issue of the Grand Rapid Chronicle reported the Shadow’s return, contradicting the Ohio paper: “He’s on the NBC-WEAF net and his name, in case you haven’t heard, is Frank Readick. Last year he was just ‘The Shadow’ and enjoyed hearing remarks about his program, but now he takes his place among the headliners.”

Which all leads to a simple question. When did Frank Readick become publicly known as The Shadow? Who was the first to leak the info out? After finding a column in an old radio periodical that supports the July 8, 1931 Boston Post, there was a casual mention that The Shadow had unmasked on stage at a special event in St. Louis in September 1931. Naturally, I looked up the library on the internet, e-mailed a reference librarian and asked what the possibility would be of having someone dig through old microfilms of St. Louis newspapers (there were three) in September of 1931, to find what I was hoping to verify -- a personal one-stage appearance of The Shadow. Trent Sindelar of the St. Louis Public Library had no problems performing the task. He spent about two hours browsing every page of all three newspapers through the month of September 1931 and he found something that brought new light to the mystery. The results of that finding, and a copy of an advertisement from that microfilm is included below.

The Shadow Unmasks!
Eight weeks after the Detective Story Magazine Hour ended, The Shadow supposedly made an appearance on a radio broadcast heard over KMOX, KSD and KWK in St. Louis, Missouri. Sponsored by the Seventh Annual Southwest National Radio and Allied Products Exposition, the St. Louis Radio Show was heard twice a day from 4:45 to 5:15 and 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., CST, in a week-long special broadcast (Monday through Saturday, September 21-26, 1931) from the Crystal Coliseum. Most of the performances were musical in nature, with the Hawaiian Melodists (Joe and Dick), Eddie Jackson’s Crackerjacks, Romeo and Juliet (performed by Robert Betts, tenor, and Grace McGowan, soprano), and Helen Traubel. Not all of the stage performances were broadcast, but on the evening of Friday, September 25, The Shadow was heard over the ether in a rare public appearance. As pictured in this advertisement, The Shadow was scheduled to unmask in front of those in attendance!

Advertisement found on microfilm. Thank you, Trent!

According to a number of news items following the unmasking, Frank Readick was the actor on stage portraying the mysterious Shadow. When The Shadow later made a return to radio, newspapers reprinted a press release issued by the radio station that the masked man’s identity still remained a mystery. A number of columnists who recalled the news item of September 1931 were quick to point out that Frank Readick’s name had been reported as the elusive figure and questioned the validity of the press release. At the time of the unmasking, Street & Smith may have had no intentions to revive The Shadow and therefore created the confusion that mounted throughout the months following.

Months after the unmasking, the following appeared in the Editor's Mailbox column of the May 22-29, 1932 issue of Radio Guide: “After publishing in this column some weeks ago that the real name of ‘The Shadow’ had never been revealed, we received several confidential letters stating that his name was Frank Readick. We have since verified this information.” Many newspaper columnists throughout 1932 and 1933 who were not caught up in the mystery (or followed the events) continued to supply information as it was being delivered via press releases, claiming The Shadow's identity was still a mystery. 

Gotta love Canadian newspapers on microfilm!
There are a few grey areas of casting that remains unknown. The October 18, 1980, issue of The Winnipeg Free Press reported George Earle and Robert Hardy Andrews as playing the role of The Shadow at one time. This inaccurate statement most likely originated from the columnist having consulted a previously published reference guide that incorrectly stated Andrews played the role of “The Shadow” for the five Perfect-O-Lite broadcasts. Numerous periodicals have verified it was, indeed, Frank Readick, during the Perfect-O-Lite era and further investigation has shown Andrews was still in Chicago scripting and acting on soap operas, such as Just Plain Bill and Easy Aces. When Frank and Anne Hummert pulled up stakes in Chicago in 1938 to relocate to New York City, they steered Andrews away from his radio scripting and acting tasks to join them in the trek to the East. A thorough search of the Robert Hardy Andrews papers at Boston University confirms that Andrews never played the role. To this day the error continues to be reprinted, so with this detail, the record is set straight.

On the evening of Friday, June 15, 1934, The Shadow made a comeback in the form of a late-night audition that practically went unnoticed by faithful Shadow followers. Radio listings in the New York Times and other New York newspapers reveal only “Mystery Drama,” with no further details or even a mention of The Shadow. Slated for a deadly time slot of 10:30, following William Barley at the organ and a lecture about better business management for the government by Bernarr MacFadden, rival publisher of Street & Smith, The Shadow was more than likely accidentally discovered by those craving a good mystery yarn or twisting the dial in fear of laughing at the antics of Jack Benny, which aired over NBC during the same time slot. Benny received advanced publicity; The Shadow did not. 

Confirmation of the audition can be found in the June 23, 1934, issue of Billboard, which remarked that The Shadow “made a one-time comeback June 15 on WMCA for Blue Coal. Chances are a steady return in the fall.” Broadcast over WMCA, the same New York station that had established its independence by syndicating programs on motion picture soundtrack film and recently dropping its time-sharing agreement with WNYC, the Shadow broadcast was not aired on any other station, limiting the number of potential listeners and possibly suggesting this was an audition broadcast to determine whether the series could make a
return in the fall.
The actor playing the role of The Shadow remains unknown. Historians speculate either James La Curto or Frank Readick. La Curto had worked at every radio station in New York City and at the time was closely associated with producers at WMCA. The November 24, 1934, issue of Radio Guide reported La Curto replacing Readick “in the role he had had for so long, The Shadow.”  But there was nothing to ensure La Curto, who by that time took over the role for Readick for another radio run of The Shadow, was playing the role for every appearance including auditions. I have seen researchers and authors type their words in such a way as to offer an "assumption" as a fact, misleading readers. There are other Shadow appearances on other programs and the casting for those, too, remains elusive. The mystery continues...

Friday, February 15, 2013

James Cagney Meets Dick Tracy, 1933

With Warner Brothers and their gangster pictures so popular, it comes as no surprise that Chester Gould, creator and artist of the Dick Tracy comic strips, created a character molded in the image of James Cagney -- including the mannerisms and dialogue so commonly heard in a James Cagney picture. His name was Jimmy White, the son of a wealthy industrialist living outside of town on Ballard Boulevard. Mr. White's bonds and securities were stolen and Jimmy was responsible for the theft... but I'm getting ahead of myself. 

IDW has been doing a bang-up job reprinting the entire five decades of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy comic strip. Volume two centers on the years 1933 to 1934 (they touch on he first week or two of 1935 just to conclude a story arc) and featuring Junior on the dust jacket is certainly appropriate. He dominates the calendar year of 1933 saving Dick Tracy's life three times, Tess Trueheart's life twice and helps apprehend numerous criminals -- as well as going through a lot of pain in the process. I recommend you purchase the IDW hardcover reprints today and start enjoying them as much as I do.

Picking up where we last left off (CLICK HERE if you missed a review of 1931-32), in January 1933, Dick Tracy uses a lie detector to prove Larceny Lu's guilt, then reveals to Dan the Dope Peddler how lemon juice makes a good invisible ink that becomes visible when the paper is held over a flame. The lie detector is also applied on Tess Trueheart to learn how she feels about Dick Tracy and the two make plans to get married and raise Junior up as their own. It was in 1933 that Gould made it a habit of applying scientific tricks in his comic strips, including advancements in law enforcement and investigation techniques.

Opening the new year with a new criminal, "Stooge" Viller, a professional pick pocket, is hired by the remainder of "Ribs" Mocco's ring of criminals to frame Dick Tracy for a crime. Stooge plants phoney currency in the pockets of Dick Tracy, and in his house, to frame the detective so the police department believes Tracy is operating a counterfeiting racket on the side. The way Stooge sets up the whole scenario is brilliant and Tracy is promptly fired from his job. Tess, for a short while, leaves Tracy in tears. Stooge, believing he could one-up on Tracy, falls in love with Tess Trueheart, romances her and momentarily sweeps her off his feet. When Stooge slips and Tess discovers the truth and phones the police with the knowledge he learned, Stooge shoots her and attempts to flee the country. 

Tess Trueheart is shot by "Stooge" Viller when she tips off the police.

Junior, however, having a superb memory, remembers seeing Stooge more than once and at the train station where both Tracy and Junior are leaving for Western Kansas to start a new life and run Tracy's Uncle's big ranch. Junior spots the pickpocket and Tracy takes appropriate action. Tracy clears his name (thanks to Tess) and the detective is reinstated and the Chief apologizes to the best detective on the force. (Stooge attempts to slice his throat with an ink pen when he realizes he is going to jail, but police restrain him before he finishes the job.)

In March, 1933, Tess is healing from her wounds but Tracy, having discovered she was unfaithful for a spell, chooses to spend more time at the police station than her apartment. In the March 1 panel, Tess is down on her knees praying to God that Tracy doesn't drift away from her because she truly loves him. Steve the Tramp, meanwhile, stumbles on the mountain ranch of blind "Hank" Steele, who needs a hired hand. It doesn't take long before Steve discovers Hank's past and the blind man's $5,000 reward for anyone who can find his son, who was taken away from him nine years prior when his shiftless wife abandoned him. Steve remembers how Junior had no father and is about 9 years old and plots to return to town, kidnap Junior and reunite father and son for the reward money -- hoping to convince Junior to play along and fool the old blind man.

Steve successfully kidnaps Junior and forces the youth through a long journey by train, coal cars and stolen vehicles while Dick Tracy takes to the air to find Junior. In an abandoned gain elevator in a small country town, Dick Tracy falls into a trap and momentarily loses Steve and Junior's whereabouts. At the Steele ranch, Junior is introduced to Hank Steele and Dick Tracy exchanges both gunfire and brawn with Steve the Tramp. Della, the negro cook, is shot and wounded and ultimately dies. Steve stabs Tracy in the arm with a pitchfork. Steve jumps off a cliff in an attempt to escape but Tracy ultimately follows his trail and puts him behind bars. As one on-looker comments, while Steve is putting up a fight with the police, "He's a hard looking egg, isn't he?"

Back on the Steele Ranch, Junior remains with the blind man who, as it turns out, really is his father. The panels below from May 7, 1933, explain Junior's background.

Junior's true origin is revealed by Hank Steele, his father.

By June 1933, "Stooge" Viller and Steve the Tramp form an unlikely bond and friendship, cleverly plotting an escape from prison using a can of naptha and a red-holt bolt to blow a hole in the prison wall. The two succeed and the crooks race in a stolen car to the Steele farm to get revenge on Junior, both of whom would not be in prison if it wasn't for the kid. Dick Tracy knows exactly where they were going and races out to the farm to meet Hank and Junior and warn them of the approaching danger. Hank and Junior take the first train back into town, thanks to Tracy, while Stooge and Steve arrive on the farm and begin torturing Hank's hired hand.

Dick Tracy orders Pat to accompany Hank and Junior on an ocean cruise where the criminals would never think of looking, while Tracy remains behind to find Stooge and Steve. Stooge visits his sister, Maxine, who recently masterminded the robbery of expensive jewelry. Maxine agrees to hide Stooge for a short while, but presently has to get the jewels to a fence. Using her dog "Satan" as a means of communication, using hidden messages in the dog collar, she orders the fence to deal with Steve the Tramp when he arrives later in the day. Dick Tracy gets his arm bitten in an attempt to read the message and uses this information to get both "Gyp" Reed, the fence, and Steve the Tramp.

At Gyp's hideout, Dick Tracy falls through a trap door, finds himself in an underground room and is sprayed with gasoline from the pipes in the wall. Gyp then attempts to set Tracy on fire. 

Gyp attempts to set Dick Tracy, covered in gasoline, on fire.

Tracy, with lightning speed, raises his foot and thrusts it down on the flaming stick of wood. Knocking the gun out of Gyp's hand, Tracy punches Gyp through the door while Milligan apprehends Steve the Tramp who arrived at the fence's house.

After the crooks are put behind bars, Tracy and the police raid Maxine's house and Milligan falls for a poison gas bomb made to resemble walnuts. Maxine and Stooge make a getaway while Milligan and Tracy fall to the floor unconscious. Realizing it's been a long time since Tracy left, the chief orders his men to Maxine's residence and rescues the two cops in time. On the high seas, meanwhile, the boat carrying Junior, Hank and Pat is dashed to pieces in a storm. Everyone exist via lifeboats and makes for Halifax... the same seaport Maxine and Stooges are flying into during their getaway. Stooge recognizes Junior and against Maxine's protests, forces the three heroes into a warehouse. Attempting to defend Junior, Hank raises his cane and Stooge shoots Hank dead. 

The death of Junior's father.

Angry, Pat gives chase and Stooge jumps into the water as Pat takes shots with his gun. Stooge fakes his death in the bay and swims back to the waterfront where he is shanghaied onto Old Mike's boat and being two old friends, strike up a new partnership. Old Mike is presently smuggling goods within the hidden compartments of his ship and Stooge agrees to help Old Mike in return for a little "revenge." Disguising himself as an old seaman, Stooge visits the residence of Tess Trueheart and tells her that Tracy was met with a serious accident on a boat and was calling for her. Tess willfully goes along, unaware she is being kidnapped. While the police comb the waterfront, Tracy and Pat receive a threat to back off or Tess will be seriously injured. Junior is disguised as a waterfront street urchin in order to infiltrate the correct ship where Tess is being held captive. But Junior's disguise only fools the crooks momentarily and escapes just in time. The crooks are caught with their hands up. Tracy, apprehending the criminals on deck above, is unaware that Tess, below, makes a daring escape. Old Mike discovers what Tess is escaping in a lifeboat and shoots holes into the boat. Tess is screaming for help and Dick Tracy and Junior races out in a speed boat to rescue her. Old Mike is captured when he discovers that fish nets and propellers do not mix, thanks to quick thinking on the part of Dick Tracy.

Old Mike has an ace up his sleeve. He makes an offer to Dick Tracy that will expose three new underworld characters -- provided he can stand on the deck of his ship one last time, where he spent so many years of his life. But Old Mike detonates an explosive and everyone on board except Old Mike jumps overboard to save their necks.

Old Mike plots to kill as many police officers as possible, including Dick Tracy.

In September 1933, Junior stumbles on an automobile racket. Tracy promptly makes the arrest. "Slicer," one of the criminals, pleads for a shot of "snow" in the arm and Tracy decides to trick the criminal into receiving what is in reality, truth serum. Tracy hopes to learn the identity of the political big shot or fixer in back of the auto-stealing ring and protection rackets. Someone in the Mayor's office is crooked. In an attempt to smoke out the man in charge, Tess disguises herself as a new store owner to lure the crooks through the front door. The scheme works as members of the protection racket introduce themselves and the trail leads to Jim Herrod, the retired politician. Herrod is caught in the cross-fire, shot and killed. Tracy's war against racketeers rivals that of the real exploits of Elliott Ness, with one crime smashed after another and his war against racketeers climaxes when someone throws a pineapple (that means a bomb) into the front window of his house and blows it up. (Oddly, except for that one panel, no further mention of Tracy's house being bombed or Tracy's continued war against racketeers is brought back to papers. Could Gould have been influenced to back off depicting newspaper headlines?)

In October 1933, "Big Boy" is still behind bars and offers a $1,000 reward for anyone who sends lead into Dick Tracy. This prompts two men to take desperate action. While Tess Trueheart and Junior are waiting outside the police station for Tracy, two crooks force them out of the vehicle and across the street where Tess is ordered to strip down to her underwear. Disguising himself with Tess's dress, one of the criminals returns to the car and waits for Tracy to come out of the station. Tracy is fooled for a couple minutes and then discovers the gun pointing in his ribs. Forced to drive to a shack in the woods, Tracy is tied up to a wood post in the center of the shack. Barney, one of the crooks, pours oil on the roof of the shack. Junior and Tess are forced into a car and the crooks make for the same shack. "Big Boy," meanwhile, has gotten a gun and forced his way out of prison. Junior puts up a fight and is thrown out of the car and over a bridge. Tess is taken to the shack and tied to another post. "Big Boy" arrives and laughs. The shack is going to be set on fire and the great detective and his girlfriend will be burned alive. 

Could this be the end of Dick Tracy and Tess Trueheart? Wait, is that Junior alive and well and coming to the rescue?

Junior swims out of the river and follows the automobile tracks, races into the shack and unties Tess and Tracy. "Big Boy," observing the actions below, races down to the shack with his men and forces Tess and Tracy to face the burning wall. Before he can shoot them, the police arrive and "Big Boy" makes his escape. Junior, meanwhile, has been badly burned by the fire and a surgeon does what he can for the boy.

Throughout the month of November, as if the fire burning his entire body wasn't enough, Junior suffers more than any 9-year-old would normally stand. "Big Boy" wants to leave the country and sends "Confidence" Dolan to the city to fetch $10,000 from his shady lawyer, Ben Spaldoni. Spaldoni, however, phones a few friends and arranges for Dolan to be slugged and the money stolen -- a problem Dolan now has to solve and quickly. Every attempt to raise the money puts Dick Tracy closer on his trail -- including the discovery of $20,000 in stolen bonds. Sandy Maguire and "Confidence" Dolan attempt to steal a young boy out of the hospital, who messed up the delivery of the stolen bonds. They make a mistake and kidnap Junior instead. Junior gets hold of a gun and forces the two crooks out to the streets so he can call the police. The crooks get the upper hand thanks to two additional crooks (but not before the police are tipped off) and Junior is taken back for a little torture.

While Dick Tracy and the police set out to find Junior, Dolan and Maguire force the boy into an old hot water tank and solder the bottom closed so the boy will suffocate inside. The water tank, insulated, will prevent anyone from hearing him scream and shout. The crooks leave the building and accidentally leave the blowtorch on, burning the bottom of the tank. (It was at this point that I had to leave for an out-of-state business trip and spent an entire week pondering how the boy would escape... boy, did that annoy me.) Unaware of their mistake, the torch melts the solder and Junior is able to roll the tank on its side and make an escape from the bottom. Tracy arrives but is knocked from behind. Attempting to throw the detective into a coal hole, Sandy Maguire is shot to death by the approaching police. Dolan is identified as the crook that stole the bonds.

Another attempt to eliminate Tracy goes foul and another criminal killed.

In December 1933, Dick Tracy visits the house of Joseph White, a wealthy industrialist who is pleased to hear his bonds have been recovered. Jimmy, Joseph's son, is a spitting image of screen actor James Cagney, and the true mastermind behind the theft of the bonds. 

James Cagney look-alike in the form of Jimmy White, master criminal.

Jimmy befriends Junior and realizing the youth could prove valuable in his schemes, introduces Junior to the "25" Club, which maintains a bad reputation for petty theft and burglaries. Junior doesn't know the Club is crooked, believing the gang members are a swell bunch of guys that like to play pool and listen to the radio. Junior is sworn not to tell anyone about the Club... it'll be their little secret. So every night, Junior sneaks out of the house and hangs out with the guys... until he discovers the real motive for the Club. Forced to help the gang break into the back room of a store, Junior is concerned that he was tricked into helping them steal the contents of a safe, but can speak nothing to Tracy about his nightly adventures... if Junior talks, Tracy will be exposed as the father of a young criminal and Junior knows just what would happen to Tracy if the truth became known. Day after day, Junior creates distractions while the "25" Club steals money out of cash registers and other petty crimes. (It should be noted that Junior, throughout the month of November and December, is still wearing bandages from the shack fire.)

How will Junior be able to escape the clutches of the James Cagney look-alike? We'll find out in 1934...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day!

What's a little love without a little Hollywood nostalgia? These photos should help get the blood pumping.

Gail Patrick

Irene Regan

Marilyn Monroe

Rita Hayworth

Friday, February 8, 2013

Gene Barry and BAT MASTERSON

Lawman, Indian fighter, scout and professional gambler. That's the way Bat Masterson was portrayed on a television program starring Gene Barry in the title role, broadcast over NBC from 1959 to 1961. The classic Western television series was produced by ZIV-TV, famous for producing such classics as Science Fiction Theater, I Led Three Lives, Highway Patrol and Sea Hunt.

The program featured Masterson's adventures through the pioneering West, meeting criminals and beautiful women along the way. With a derby hat, a gold-topped cane and clothes that fancied himself as a dandy, the program ran a total of three seasons. Along the way, Barry went on strike for merchandising which was never extensively detailed in his salary contract. For your amusement, here are some archival letters and telegrams that reveal some fascinating behind-the-scenes trivia. (Remember to click on the photo to enlarge.)

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939)

movie poster
As a friend of mine, Michael Schlesinger, wrote: "It was an irresistible idea." But it should never have been made. Perhaps it could have been better. Either way, The Gracie Allen Murder Case, a 1939 Paramount motion-picture, should include a suicide hotline number.
About seven years ago I saw the movie for the first time. It had been unavailable on the television markets since the 1970s, but when The Gracie Allen Murder Case finally made it to home video in 2006 through Video Attic (and then on DVD in 2008 through Nostalgia Family), I took advantage of the opportunity and spent the evening watching the movie friends recommended. I enjoy the George Burns and Gracie Allen radio show, so why not a movie starring Gracie Allen? After all, she gets top billing over Warren William.

Seventy-eight minutes later, I was not laughing. Only one chuckle. My opinion was etched in stone. The film wasn't very funny. I thought my friends were going to shoot me when I delivered my opinion but, over the years, I later came to the conclusion that others felt the same way as I do. One of the flaws is that Warren William, star of The Mind Reader (1933) and four of the six Perry Mason movies (which I enjoyed, by the way), never shows up for a half-hour and when he does, he's the straight man. When Gracie cracks a joke, William pauses momentarily (obviously so the audience can have a few seconds to laugh). He's great as a straight man, but he was much better as Perry Mason.

Title screen for The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939).
William Powell was the first Philo Vance, having starred in three Vance movies including The Canary Murder Case (1929) and The Benson Murder Case (1930). Powell was great as Vance. But when he went to MGM and starred in The Thin Man movies, his character shined and dominated the Paramount mysteries. The Philo Vance movies were financially successful for the studio, Paramount, which housed Gracie Allen in a number of motion pictures. So it seemed only fitting that the studio team them up for a big production.

Just after Christmas of 1937, Van Dine agreed for $25,000 to supply Paramount Pictures a 3,000 word outline of a Philo Vance mystery to star Gracie Allen and, it was assumed, her husband and straight man, George Burns. Reportedly Burns would bow out after seeing the first draft of the screenplay. Under contract, Paramount could do anything they liked with Van Dine's outline while he went his own way and published his novel based on the original outline.
The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939) did not became one of the studio's more profitable pictures that year and it's probably because Gracie tries too hard to be more dumb than she depicted on her weekly radio program. And yes, publicity for the movie was inserted by the announcer's closing comments at the end of each radio broadcast at the time the picture came to theaters. And yes, there can be a bit too much Gracie. The only cute part of the picture is Gracie repeatedly referring to the detective as "Fido."

The Gracie Allen Murder Case
In any case, the film was made and Van Dine made his "novelization" (retaining the George Burns character from the original outline). Both movie - opening in New York June 8, 1939 - and book flopped, but Van Dine went on that year to do one more Philo Vance mystery (this time prompted by an offer from Fox Films for him to build a Philo Vance novel around their latest star, Olympic champion skater Sonja Henie, to be filmed later). The mystery was called The Winter Murder Case and was in its final stages of pre-publication when Van Dine succumbed to a heart attack on April 11, 1940. Some have theorized that Gracie Allen's starring vehicle meant the decline of the Philo Vance mysteries but, in all fairness, that decline began a couple years prior.

There would be one more posthumous Philo Vance movie from Warner Brothers, Calling Philo Vance, a remake of The Kennel Murder Case, and three more from a poverty row studio in 1947. The Gracie Allen Murder Case was the last during Van Dine's lifetime and with his direct participation. Fox later reworked Van Dine's last story, omitting the character of Philo Vance entirely, to make "The Sonja Henie Murder Case," which was ultimately released as Sun Valley Serenade!

In March of 2012, I had the opportunity to watch the movie a second time, thanks to the selection of movies at the Cinefest Convention held annually in Syracuse, New York. Now with an audience that (I hoped) would add a sense of laughter to the sound track, I had hoped the film would be funnier the second time around. After all, Laurel and Hardy shorts are funny when you watch them by yourself. They are hilarious when you watch them in a theater filled with people laughing. The projectionists set up both reels, the lights dimmed down, the sound of popcorn crunching diminished with the soundtrack during the Paramount Pictures logo.... and away we go!

Two projectors cued and ready to screen the movie.

The projectionist sets up for the late-night showing at Cinefest.

Close-up of one of the projectors.


Noted trivia to keep an eye out for. Gracie sings "Snug as a Bug in a Rug," co-written by Matty Malneck, who composed and conducted music for many radio comedies including Duffy's Tavern. Gracie makes a reference that "cigarettes never hurt anyone." Gracie makes a reference that she heard "Fido Vance" on the radio. And there's an indirect reference to former Vance cases including The Canary Murder Case, The Benson Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case.

Seventy-eight minutes later I was still not laughing. How much you enjoy The Gracie Allen Murder Case will entirely depend on how much you like Gracie Allen as a comedian.

S.S. Van Dine wrote The Gracie Allen Murder Case in 1938 to introduce his real life friend, Gracie Allen, into a Philo Vance Murder Mystery. George Burns made a appearance in the novel as the head perfume-smeller at the In-O-Scent Perfume Corporation, but is not in the movie version of the novel. In classic Gracie style, when Van Dine was working on the novel, Gracie quipped, "S.S. Van Dine is silly to spend six months writing a novel when you can buy one for two dollars and ninety-eight cents." The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938) (also published as The Scent of Murder) was the eleventh of twelve detective novels by S.S. Van Dine. Can anyone tell me if I will enjoy the novel more than the movie? Because I fear in doing so, I'll waste five hours of my life I will never get back.

Closing comment: Cinefest is held annually in March in Syracuse, New York. Their web-site is and if you are withing driving distance of the event, I recommend you take a day and check it out. Vendors sell everything from magazines, comics, books, DVDs, posters, lobby cards and much more. The selection of movies ranges from silents to 1940s star-studded musicals. Almost all of the films they screen are not available commercially which means the films they screen are rare. Even Leonard Maltin attends and raves about the event in his blog. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Photo of old movie, screen and old-time radio magazines.

Books available for sale at Cinefest in the vendor room.

78 records available for sale at Cinefest in the vendor room.