A couple of years back (in 2011 to be precise), the disappointing Green Hornet movie (a meagre 43% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes) triggered my curiosity about the original Radio Series which had created the character.
I knew that the Green Hornet had captivated a world of radio listeners, and I wanted to sample the pure original genius of the radio series, instead of the lackluster modern movie remake. My curiosity lead to Google, and before I knew it, I was transported into the wonderful world of "The Radio Detectives" — a genre which ruled the airwaves in the 30's, 40's and 50's.
Some of the episodes have been lost in the mists of time. But many remain, and fortunately nearly all of these radio shows are now out of copyright, so you can legally download and share them for free. There are plenty of sites that offer free MP3 downloads. Also there are several commercial sites which will take your money and post you a CD or DVD, should you prefer that option.
Here's my comments on the shows that I have sampled so far. I hope they will guide you into your own adventures.
The Green Hornet (1936-1952): Among the earliest of the detective/adventure radio shows, and the starting point for my journey. I was expecting such wonderful things. Unfortunately I found it clichéd, hackneyed, and unbearably holier-than-thou. The first story was a laughable insult to my intelligence, and I ditched the entire series and went looking for something else to take away the nasty taste.
Verdict: Don't Bother!
The Saint ( 1947-1951): I must confess, I'm a huge fan of Leslie Charteris's wonderful character "The Saint". The novels and short stories are fantastic, intelligent, original and refreshing. The radio series was an insulting Americanisation which discarded pretty much every single element which made the books so entertaining. The only saving grace was Vincent Price's wonderful voice acting. He refused to take the ridiculous radio scripts seriously, and the result was a shamefully amusing low-brow entertainment.
While "The Saint" in the books was an intelligent, ruthless outlaw who committed crimes more often than he prevented them, the radio version was a bumbling amateur detective who usually managed to stumble onto the mystery's answer, but normally only after his client had been shot. Another cliché-ridden show, I gave up counting the times that the Saint's phone would ring, and an informant on the other end of the line would say "I know who killed that woman, it was... Just wait, there's somebody at the door. No! Don't Shoot! BANG!" And if they survived long enough to make it to the Saint's apartment, they would inevitably get shot via the open window by a gunman on the fire escape.
Verdict: Quite entertaining but don't take it seriously.
The Man Called X (1944-1952): Featuring a globe-trotting U.S. agent, the "Man Called X" was notable for being recorded in front of a live studio audience. The mysterious Ken Thurston would travel the world, constantly hampered by his annoying, incompetent, unpaid, corrupt and double-crossing sidekick Pegon Zellschmidt. Honestly, if I was Ken Thurston, half way through episode one I would have shot Pegon in the head and dumped his body outside of an Egyptian railway station.
Early episodes of The Man Called X were corny, but almost self-deprecating enough to be bearable. However it soon began to take itself seriously, and became preachy and sanctimonious. It eventually became insufferable and I had to abandon it without further ado.
Verdict: Don't Bother!
Sam Spade (1946-1952): Made famous by the wonderful film "The Maltese Falcon" (shame on you if you haven't seen it). Private Detective Sam Spade was the creation of popular novelist Dashiell Hammett. Sam's transition to radio was an instant success. Voice actor Howard Duff was brilliant. He was fond of ad libbing, and his interactions with his co-star Lurene Tuttle as Effie displayed a delightful chemistry. Sam was glib and intelligent, despite being knocked unconscious on a regular basis. His cases were original and varied, the plots were mostly light-hearted, but contained the occasional serious moment.
Verdict: An absolute classic, and hugely entertaining.
Philip Marlowe (1947-1951): Philip Marlowe was another detective to move from novel (by writer Raymond Chandler) to movie (the Big Sleep and others) to radio. The first few episodes were a bit slow, but it survived, the pace soon picked up and the show became a successful rival to Sam Spade. Marlowe's adventures were generally a bit more serious than Sam, and often featured a slightly darker tone. While Marlowe always "cracked the case", the final outcome was often a little ambiguous, in the sense that the good guys didn't always win an absolute victory.
Verdict: Another classic, highly recommended.
Barrie Craig (1951-1955): Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator was one of the later offerings, starting his series just as the popularity of Spade and Marlowe had waned. Craig was from the East Coast (New York) compared to the west-coasters Spade (LA) and Marlowe (San Francisco). Barrie was a more solid-built man, not as attractive, nor as quick with a witty comeback. However, he was a little bit more sensible than his predecessors, and was (refreshingly) less likely to be tricked or slugged from behind.
Verdict: I rather enjoyed this one.
Yours Truly Johnny Dollar (1949-1962): A long-running show, with a regularly changing main actor, Johnny Dollar featured an insurance investigator based in Connecticut who travelled around the U.S. and occasionally overseas. Johnny was famously for his outrageous expense account claims, but was an equally successful detective.
As a character Johnny Dollar was a bit more unpredictable than the Spade/Marlowe/Craig/Regan tough-guys. Johnny would sometimes leap into action without fully understanding what he was doing. On the other hand, he wasn't afraid to call for assistance when he knew he was out of his depth. But more interestingly, despite being generally a nice guy he was actually capable of going further than his "hard-boiled" contemporaries... as demonstrated in one episode where he took the law into his own hands.
Johnny Dollar ran for over a decade, and the end of his show in 1962 is considered by many to mark the end of the "Golden Age of Radio". He is another important classic of the genre.
The Shadow (1937-1954): The Shadow was another of the earliest examples of the detective/adventure genre, and was the longest running of them all. It is often acclaimed as a vital piece of American culture, and I was determined to round-out my radio-show knowledge by experiencing it for myself. I was to be sadly disappointed.
The Shadow possesses psychic abilities which allow him to "cloud men's minds" and render himself invisible. He also has the abilities to read men's minds under certain conditions. He uses these powers to punish evil-doers. The result was a dull series of repetitive stories in which the Shadow would discover some terrible crime, then follow the suspects until they revealed their guilt. In later episodes, an attempt was made to spice things up by having the criminal trap the Shadow in a deadly device, which the Shadow would always manage to escape shortly after. Also, the Shadow's sidekick Margo Lane was inevitably wedged into the storyline somehow.
I have been accused of heresy for daring to suggest it, but I really don't think The Shadow is a particularly good show. It featured nothing more than "inevitable justice". The weak and helpless are saved (although a few might be killed just to demonstrate the seriousness of the affair). The criminal is always punished. In war-time and post-war episodes, American interests were often defended, with foreign spies and saboteurs foiled.
Verdict: Superficial and uninspired. Interesting only as a history lesson.
Carter Brown Mystery Hour (1950's): Carter Brown was actually an Australian writer of popular pulp detective stories. Although his tales were all set in America, most of the radio cast was Australian, employing fake American accents with varying degrees of success. The hero varied each story, but was inevitably an attractive, single, smart-talking man who spent most of the episode drinking, smoking, and behaving in a shockingly offensive sexist fashion to every woman he met. The women were inevitably single and beautiful with curvaceous figures, and more often than not the hero would end up marrying one of them.
These stories offended my intelligence with their plot holes, and my sensibilities with their shockingly inappropriate misogyny. I listened to every one of them and enjoyed them greatly.
Verdict: Flawed in countless ways, yet embarrassingly entertaining.
Jeff Regan (aka The Lyon's Eye) (1948): One of three hard-boiled detective shows where the lead character was played by Jack Webb. The other two were "Pat Novak for Hire" and "Pete Kelly's Blues". This series was way ahead of its time in both its script and it's production. The plots are smart and tightly constructed. The dialogue is fast and frequently overlapping, in a style more customary for a modern-day radio drama than something over five decades old. Although still very tame by modern standards, the tone for these shows was gritty and darker than its contemporaries.
Verdict: Superb drama.
Well, that's the sum of my experience so far in the detective/adventure radio genre, and it covers pretty much all of the big name shows from the "golden age". I plan to try and track down some of the lesser-known shows, and if I find any hidden gems then perhaps I'll do a follow-up article. But before I do go, I'd like to recommend two last radio shows to your consideration.
The first is "The Damon Runyon Theatre". I personally consider short story writer Damon Runyon to be one of the most important voices of 20th century American writing. The Damon Runyon Theatre was a radio series which dramatised 52 of his best-known short stories, and every single one is a gem.
The second is a modern radio show. The Thrilling Adventure Hour. It's golden age radio detective/adventure, revived and improved!