Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cab Drivers and Comic Relief

I suppose not even independently wealthy men like Lamont Cranston or Simon Templer can afford to pay for a parking space in New York City. In both The Shadow and the Saint radio shows, the two crime fighters always depended on cab service to get around.

In both cases, the men habitually used the same cab and the same driver. In both cases, the characters of the cab drivers were meant to provide comic relief.

Comic relief characters have always, of course, been a part of the pop comic landscape. Heck, in the B-movies of the 1930s/40s, you often got two comic reliefs for the price of one. In the Boston Blackie movies, for instance, Blackie himself was assisted by another reformed thief known as the Runt, a character played largely for laughs. At the same time, Blackie’s nemesis Inspector Farraday was often pulling out his hair in frustration because his partner, Detective Sgt. Matthews, himself often proved to have a light bulb or two out upstairs.

On radio, they often served a duel purpose. Aside from (hopefully) generating laughs, they also provided the main character with someone off whom to bounce expository dialogue. Hopalong Cassidy rode with California Carson, while the Cisco Kid rode with Pancho. Though both California and Pancho were reasonably useful in a fight, for the most part they existed to perform their various comic relief duties.

Back east, comic relief often came in the form of cab drivers. The original Green Lantern comic book character, for instance, featured cabbie Doiby Dickles in this role.

In the radio version of The Shadow, Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane would often employ the services of Moe Shrevnitz, better known as Shrevvy. The Shadow was a wonderful show, pure melodrama done so well, that it is still satisfying to listen to today.

Shrevvy’s shtick was simple: Aside from being just a little dense, he had a habit of saying everything twice: “I was gonna ask you to do a favor for me; I was gonna ask you.” Or “Which is the residence we’re looking for; which is the residence?” It was hilarious.

Well, okay, it wasn’t hilarious. It was mostly just annoying. Rather than chuckling at poor Shrevvy, we most often want to just smack him one.

The actors who played Shrevvy over the years included Alan Reed, who would later provide the voice of Fred Flintstone in the original animated TV series. Reed was a skilled voice actor with excellent comedic abilities, but the character of Shrevvy didn’t give him anything to work with. The writers of the Shadow were superbly qualified at generating drama and suspense, but they were just plain lousy at comedy.

Fortunately, Shrevvy only occasionally popped up in an episode and was usually only around for a minute or two before the Shadow got back to the business of foiling evil.

Shrevvy did have his one moment of glory, though. This came in the 1946 episode “Gorilla Man.” As the climax approached, Margo Lane was being stalked through a house by a gorilla. A pistol shot at the last moment kills the beast and saves the beauty. Was it the Shadow who fired the shot? No, it was Shrevvy the cab driver. It was almost enough to make you forgive his annoying speech pattern. Almost—but not quite.

When Vincent Price began to play the Saint on radio in the late 1940s, he too got a cab driving comic relief. In this case, though, the cabbie is both funny and likable. Louie (I don’t think we ever find out his last name) is played by radio veteran Lawrence Dobkin, who was adept at both straight roles and comedic ones. The dialogue and one-liners are sharply written and Louie’s common-man demeanor plays nicely off the Saint’s suave personality. Whereas Shrevvy was one of the few weak links of The Shadow, Louie was one of the strengths of The Saint.

Louie, as did Shrevvy, also gets his heroic moment during the course of his series. In a 1950 episode that is darker in tone than was usual for The Saint, a woman is murdered trying to protect her child from kidnappers. Louie, setting aside his one-liners for the time being, gets a tire iron out of the cab’s truck and does more than his share of avenging the brave woman’s death.

I originally intended this entry to be a part of my “They aren’t real, but by golly, they should be” series. But, whereas the world would be a nicer place if Louie were in it, I’m not sure I mind Shrevvy’s absence from reality. He really, really does need to be smacked. It's better that he remain fictional.

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