Friday, April 28, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: "The Picture Postcard Matter," 10/1/56 to 10/5/56

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was one of old-time radio's longest running shows, beginning its run in 1948 and continuing until network radio drama came to an ignoble end in 1962.

It was a quality show with a fun gimmick. Johnny Dollar was a freelance insurance investigator. The show was structured around his first-person narration in the form of his expense account: "Item 1, $342.13: air fare and incidentals from Hartford to L.A." he would tell us, then begin recounting the details of the case as he investigated upon his arrival. All throughout the episode, he would drop in yet another expense ("Item 3: $1.40, cab fare from my hotel to the waterfront"; "Item 11: $10.00 slipped to the bartender to 'encourage his memory'"; and so on.) When the case was wrapped up, he'd total his account and sign the report "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar."

Of course, a clever gimmick is meaningless unless backed up by good storytelling. Johnny Dollar definitely had good stories, with solid plots and often excellent characterizations.

For most of its run, Johnny Dollar was a half-hour show. But for a little over a year in 1955/56, it became a 15-minute per day serial. One story would begin Monday and conclude on Friday.

With Bob Bailey playing Dollar with an easy combination of intelligence and toughness, the show was at its peak during this time. With 75 minutes rather than 30 minutes to tell the story, there was plenty of time for both character and plot development.

"The Picture Postcard Matter" is a typically strong entry from this time. $100,000 dollars in diamonds were stolen from a messenger in Zurich. The insurance company receives a letter from a guy offering to sell them information on the whereabouts of the diamonds.

Dollar is hired to follow up and flies to Zurich. He's almost immediately beaten up by thugs who think he has the diamonds. His contact in the city is murdered, but a picture postcard leads him to a sky lodge in the mountains. Someone tries to off him and Dollar has reason to suspect several different people.

The plot moves along logically, with enough action and suspense seeded into it to make sure things stay interesting. The reasons for both suspecting certain people AND the reasons for thinking those same people may be innocent after all are nicely balanced, leading to a good twist at the end. It is, all things considered, a very nice way to spend 75 minutes.

[The best way to listen to a OTR serial, by the way, is to limit yourself to one part a day. Give yourself the pleasure of the suspense of a cliffhanger.]

These episodes can be downloaded HERE.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Solving a Murder 16 Years Late

   I love the way Agatha Christie constructs her 1942 Hercule Poirot mystery Five Little Pigs.

It's all very methodical, with the book divided into three parts.  The first part has Poirot asked to investigate a murder. There's nothing unusual about this in of itself--but this particular murder was committed 16 years earlier. A well-known artist had been poisoned. His wife was convicted of the crime and then soon died in prison.  The evidence pointing to her guilt seems conclusive.

But now the couple's daughter--a 5-year-old at the time of the crime, but now an adult, wants Poirot to look into the case. Based on a letter written to her just before her mom died, the daughter is convinced of her mother's innocence.

Poirot interviews the lawyers and cops who were involved in the case and concludes that there are five other possible suspects. If the mother didn't do it (and if it wasn't suicide, which was the mom's defense at her trial), then one of the other five present in the home where the killing took place must be guilty.

The first part of the novel concludes as Poirot visits each of the suspects in turn. He thinks of them as the "five little pigs," metaphorically assigning each of them an equivalent to one of the pigs in the nursery rhyme.

Poirot gets each of them to write an account of the day the murder happened, though he appreciates that so much time has elapsed that there will inevitably be gaps in their statements. This is Part 2 of the novel.
It's all very methodical, but Christie uses this structure to both paint us a picture of what happened on the day of the murder AND to give us a sense of the personalities involved. I'm not sure Christie gets enough credit for her skill at characterization. Her ability to populate her novels with people we can think of as real is one of the reasons they are so good and still popular today.

Of course, another important reason she's still popular today is her ability to create magnificent fair play puzzles. We hardly ever figure out whodunnit before Poirot or Miss Marple does, but when its all explained to us, we always have to admit the clues were there for us to see.

In this case, some of the clues involve understanding the psychology of those involved in the case, but conclusions made about that are all reasonable and do nothing to distract from the "fair play" aspect of the story.

The last part of the novel is Poiret visiting each of the suspects in turn, asking each of them one additional question. Then he brings them all together to explain what REALLY happened on that fateful day.  The fate of the real killer is an interesting and atypical one, but dramatically satisfying.

Whenever I read a great murder mystery, it always brings back my desire to one day use brilliant deductive reasoning to solve a murder, then do a melodramatic summation with all the suspects listening. But, as I've written before, I have sadly boring friends who regularly fail to get murdered or (at least) get falsely accused of murder so I can save them by finding the real killer. This is a source of unending disappointment for me.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

From Indian Captive to Indian Scout

Charlton Comics gave the Comic Book Universe a lot of great characters that (except for the superheroes resurrected by DC Comics) have largely been forgotten.  That's too bad--these are characters that provided us with fun stories and deserve to be remembered.

The Cheyenne Kid began his adventures in Wild Frontier #7 (April 1957). The book was retitled Cheyenne Kid starting with the next issue and ran through issue #99, published in 1973. He also appeared as a back-up feature in several issues of Charlton's Billy the Kid. That's not a bad run at all. But when Charlton finally closed up shop, the Kid was among many characters that vanished into limbo.

The Kid's back story was something that had been done before. As a boy, he's captured by the Cheyenne after his family is killed when their wagon train is attacked. Spared because he put up such a brave fight, he's raised by the Indians and, as an adult, considers himself one of them.

But when he comes along on a raid against another wagon train, he rebels when a mean-spirited Cheyenne (Silent Otter) attempt to defeat the wagon train by burning everyone to death.  He switches sides, though he is reluctant to kill his former friends.

But, though this sort of basic plot has been done multiple times, a strong script (tentatively credited to Joe Gill) and Dick Giordano's art make it work. The Kid rejoins white society.  He's offered a job as a scout for the military, but initially refuses and takes a job in a general store. He simply does not want to have to fight the Indians he grew up with.

But he clashes with the store owner when the owner mistreats Indian customers. That soon leaves him unemployed, so he takes the scouting job, often leading the military into clashes with the Cheyenne and the Sioux, but always looking for ways to win a fight without having to kill someone.

It's this attitude that gives the Cheyenne Kid a distinctive personality and the series as a whole its own uniqueness. The Kid wants everyone treated fairly and--though he will fight when he has to--deadly force will always be a last resort for him.

This premiere story brings the Kid into conflict again with the dishonest store owner (who is selling guns to the Sioux) and his old nemesis Silent Otter, eventually bringing the tale to a satisfying conclusion.

So begins the 93-issue odyssey of the Cheyenne Kid. Like Charlton's Billy the Kid or the wild horse Black Fury, the Kid provided us with some excellent storytelling and really does deserve to be better rememebered.

This story is available online HERE.

That's if for this week. Next time, we tag along with Porky and Sylvester as they go on yet another epic adventure.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

One of my favorite aspects of the original "Buck Rogers" novel (though he wasn't yet nicknamed Buck) is the clever ways the rebels used their disintegrator-proof metal in combat.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: “The Light Switch” 5/12/49

Claire Trevor plays a woman who thinks her husband just might be stepping out on her. She hires a down-and-out private eye to follow him and find out one way or another.

When the shamus reports the husband is indeed playing around, the wife plots murder. It all seems pretty straightforward, but all is not as it seems. Structured in a series of flashbacks while the wife is setting up a booby-trapped light switch, the story builds up a lot of tension before hitting us with a very effective twist ending.

Trevor had won an Oscar recently for her portrayal of an aging and boozy gun moll in Key Largo--in which she gets tossed aside by Edward G. Robinson. Here, she’s playing an aging wife who no longer trusts her husband. Poor Claire--her fictional relationships just weren’t working out at all. But, by golly, she was providing us with a lot of good entertainment.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Superman and the Mole Men

Some things are such an integral part of my DNA that I no longer remember when I first learned about them. I don't remember NOT knowing who Superman, the Lone Ranger and Captain Kirk are.

There wasn't an outlet for getting comic books around before we moved to Florida when I was 10, so I suppose that--when I wasn't busy being significantly more awesome than my siblings--I was probably introduced to Superman via either reruns of The Adventures of Superman show starring George Reeves or the Saturday morning cartoons produced by Filmation.

I do definitely remember watching Superman and the Mole Men on TV, because the visuals involving the little Mole people were quite striking to my 7-year-old mind.

Heck, they are still striking to my adult mind. The movie was made in 1951, filmed in 12 days on a shoestring budget to test the viability of a Superman TV series. It succeeded in that goal, with George Reeves and Phyllis Coates bringing Clark/Superman & Lois Lane to the small screen to make what is still the most technically primitive but consistently entertaining & satisfying version of the Man of Steel every brought to a live-action medium.

Clark and Lois have traveled to the western town of Silsby, which has drilled the world's deepest oil well. So deep, in fact, that they discover the Earth is hollow. Soon, a couple of denizens from an underworld civilization climb up the drill shaft and pay us a visit.

The look of the Mole Men is effective. As a grown-up, I can see that the make-up work was pretty cheap, but they still manage to give the little person actors an odd, alien appearance. The movie then plays this up, leaving the Mole Men intentions uncertain in our minds for a time, before it becomes apparent that they are just exploring a new world and have no ill-intent.

But most of the townspeople are in a panic, forming a lynch mob and siccing a pack of dogs on the Mole Men. Only Superman's intervention saves the life of one Mole Man after the little guy takes a bullet to his chest. The other Mole Man barely gets away, returning to the drill shaft.

But just as Superman gets the mob calmed down (mostly by bending their guns out of shape), the
escaped Mole Man returns with a couple of friends and a whopping big ray gun (a prop made from a a vacuum cleaner--but it still looks cool).

It really is amazing what skilled storytellers can do even when their time and budget is limited. Aside from just looking cool, the script is straightforward and has the wit to seed the population of Silsby with a few fair-minded people to balance out the fear-crazed mob. Add to this George Reeves' friendly but authoritative performance as Superman, as well as an obvious but still effective moral about McCarthy-style hysteria,  and you have one really nifty way to spend an hour.

The movie was, by the way, edited down by a few minutes and shown as a two-parter at the end of The Adventures of Superman's first season. It was pretty much just as good as a TV show as it was a movie.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Window War

cover art by Joe Kubert
In many of the approximately 800 billion war stories Bob Kanigher wrote for DC Comics, he was not above using a gimmick upon which to build a particular story. Sometimes, those gimmicks were a bit odd. For instance, the cover story from G.I. Combat #73 (June 1959) was keyed off two friends who used to do a lot of window shopping in civilian life, with one of them always complaining that he could never afford to buy all the wonderful stuff kept behind the glass.

So naturally, when the two men are fighting in France, they keep running into less-than-wonderful things behind windows. While on patrol through a bombed-out town, they run into a sniper and a German who likes to drop hand grenades down on the enemy.

So the two friends are happy when their unit moves into a forest. No windows here!

Well, that's not quite right, is it? The gun slit on a pillbox is a sort of window. As are the view slits on a tank they run into not long after.

So the story is definitely gimmicky. But that's actually okay, because Kanigher's plot construction and Ross Andru's excellent art help make "Window War" a good story with several very tense and exciting moments. Several pages in which the two soldiers are pinned down by a tank and then realize they are out of bazooka ammunition is particularly good.

When the fighting moves back into a town, the soldiers get a chance to be inside a window looking out, but even this proves to be dangerous.

The lesson we learn? Windows are booby traps no matter what, but there's no way to avoid them and soldiers just have to play the hand they are dealt. Remember that the next time you are looking at that cool thing behind the window and can't afford to buy it. At least the Wehrmacht isn't dropping hand grenades on your head.

Next week, we'll visit with a forgotten Western hero from Charlton comics.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Cover Cavlacade

If fiction has taught us nothing else, it's that you never get a hand transplant and use the hand of a murderer. That never ends well.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Casey, Crime Photographer: “Bad Little Babe” 3/2/50

Casey was usually a fairly traditional mystery, but this episode has a more hard-boiled feel to it than usual. Casey’s trying to get the goods on a gangster who murdered a judge. At the same time, he’s hoping to talk some sense into the late judge’s daughter, who is dating her father’s alleged killer and seems to be enjoying her walk on the wild side of life.

The episode centers around the question of whether the judge’s daughter has really gone bad. It’s a question to which the answer might end up getting Casey killed at the episode’s climax, which manages to pile several plot twists atop one another to create an effective sense of real danger. It all makes for a very enjoyable tale.

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Plez Spurlock vs. Fat Sam Trigg

"It was hotter than the hubs of fury that late-August afternoon when Young Dave Mohawk pulled rein on the south lip of Hell Dive Pass."

Read that sentence at the beginning of a story and you just GOTTA keep reading, don't you? It's not in the same class as the first sentence from, say, Chandler's "Red Wind," but it does its job. It sets up the atmosphere of the story you are about to read and makes you want to keep going.

"Yellow Devil Starves Tonight" is a short story by Tom Roan that appeared in 10 Story Western Magazine (December 1949). The main character is Dave Mohawk, who is attempting to freight several wagon loads of supplies to the remote mining town of Yellow Devil. The guys who supposedly represent law in order in town, though, would rather not have those supplies arrive. They prefer to maintain a monopoly on food and other necessities, so they can keep charging "two dollars a pound for cheap brown sugar as hard as a rock an' filled with sand an' aswarmin' with ants!"

So the "lawmen," led by Fat Sam Trigg, set up a sort of toll booth in Hell Dive Pass. But with the help of a grizzled mountain man named Plez Spurlock, Dave gets the wagons through. That leads to a fist fight between another thug named Bull Smith against Dave's right-hand man-Whistling Pete Ford. The bad guys then begin to make plans to ensure Dave doesn't make any future supply runs to Yellow Devil.

Gee whiz, I love the names. The story is a good, well-written one--with very fast-paced prose jamming in a lot of action in just 15 pages. But I think it really is the names that make the story work. Everyone has a name that fits perfectly within the framework of the Old West of popular mythology and every name has just the right rhythm to give personality to the person to which it belongs. Aside from Dave Mohawk, Plez Spurlock, Fat Sam and Whistling Pete, we also have Race Rubaney, Fan Cantello, Fetzer Talbutt, Kent Mall, Punch Ritter and Buckshot Bill Driver. Some of these guys aren't in the story for more than a sentence or two, but all add a little bit more to the story's atmosphere just by being named.

It seems a silly thing--a generic Western depending on standing out from the crowd just by coming up with a lot of cool names for its characters. But it works. Though this story is good, it will never rank up there with my favorites and I may never bother re-reading it. But, by golly, I'll remember that time Plez Spurlock faced down Fat Sam Trigg! Because I'm never going to forget those names.

This issue of 10 Story Western can be read online HERE.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Snowy with a Chance of Dinosaurs

Cover art by George Wilson

The logic of the lost valley in which Turok and Andar were trapped was that warm, moist air was trapped inside it, keeping the tropical conditions necessary for prehistoric life to survive. I'm pretty sure that doesn't make real-life sense in several ways, but real life suffers from an acute shortage of lost valleys filled with dinosaurs. So the heck with real life, I say!

Still, there are places in the American Southwest that have some pretty harsh winters, so it makes sense that snow might occasionally find its way into the lost valley. That's what happens in Turok #38 (March 1964), in an uncredited script (though it feels like a Paul S Newman story to me) and art by Giovanni Ticci. Ticci worked at Alberto Giolittti's studio and often filled in for Giolitti on Turok or other titles. I, quite frankly, usually can't tell their work apart. Giolitti, by the way, inked this issue.

Anyway, Lost Valley gets hit by a blizzard. Turok and Andar hole up in a cave, but a tribe of cavemen surprise them and throw hem out without their bows. 

For a few pages, the two friends are trying desperately to stay warm and running from various dangers. Eventually, they end up on a cliff, with several elasmosaurs frozen in a lake just below them. The long-necked honkers can't quite stretch their necks up far enough to make a meal out of Turok and Andar.
This situation is a pretty unique one, but all the same it shows one of the usual strengths of the series. Without their bows and poison arrows, the Indians can't simply slaughter their way out of trouble. Instead, they are going to have to use their brains and think their way out.

That's one of the reasons I think this is a Paul S. Newman story--Newman was enormously skilled at story construction and his ability to place the protagonists in situations that required them to be clever is unparalleled. Like Giolitti and Ticci, the reason he's not hailed as one of the greats in the comic book field among many comic fans is that he worked for a company that has largely disappeared from pop culture consciousness. In terms of talent, he was one of the best,

Well, Turok and Andar can't just wait it out on the ledge. The sun is shining again and the snow & ice is melting. It won't be long before the elasmosaurs will be able to reach them. But that really doesn't matter--the T-Rex who is now stalking them along the ledge will probably eat them first anyways.

Unless, of course, Turok comes up with a clever plan--such as luring the T-Rex out to the edge of the ledge and causing it to stumble down to the frozen surface of the lake. There, it makes quick work of the elasmosaurs.

A bit more cleverness is needed in smoking the cavemen out of the cave and retrieving their bows, but that's quickly accomplished as well. It was a short blizzard, but an eventful one.

That's it for now. Next week, we'll learn what its like to go window shopping during a World War.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Granby's Green Acres: “Granby Quits his Job” 3/30/50

Green Acres was briefly a radio show—fifteen years or so before it came to television. I didn’t know this until recently. Which is embarrassing because I write books about old-time radio and I’m supposed to know stuff like this.

Anyways, on radio, Green Acres had a very short run as a summer replacement series—but it was a really, really funny run while it lasted. Gale Gordon plays the long-suffering John Granby, a discontented banker who impulsively buys a farm and moves out of the city. Bea Benaderet is his wife and Louise Erickson is his teenage daughter.

“Granby Quits his Job” is the pilot episode. (I’m not actually sure it ever aired, as it runs a time-slot-awkward 36 minutes and may have been made purely to sell the idea to sponsors.)

Gordon and Benaderet were both brilliant comedic actors and the pilot is often hilarious. Parley Baer is Eb, the farm hand, whose ability to deliver a funny line with perfect timing proves to match that of his co-stars.

Gee whiz, this show is funny. Every scene is dripping with clever dialogue--from Granby discovering the farm has no electricity (after he’s bought the place, of course) to his side-splitting attempt to figure out how to milk a cow. Nobody this side of Edgar Kennedy could make perpetual aggravation as funny as could Gale Gordon.

But the show also has an unexpected level of sweetness to it, especially towards end of this initial episode. Mrs. Granby and her daughter have, by this time, put up with quite a lot. But when the chips are down and it looks like Granby’s crops will fail to grow (thus ending his dream of being a farmer), they pitch in to come up with a plan to help him succeed. Or at least make it appear he’s succeeded.

Why? Because despite his faults, they love him and want him to be happy. After producing a number of laughs, Granby’s Green Acres abruptly proves to have heart as well. Which, of course, just makes the funny parts that much more satisfying.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Edward G. Robinson Film Festival, Part 4

It is impossible--IMPOSSIBLE, I say--to watch 1942's Larceny, Inc without smiling non-stop in those rare moments you're not laughing.

Like The Little Giant (made 9 years earlier), Edward G. is playing a parody of his gangster image. But this time, his character (Pressure Maxwell) isn't a bootlegger or bank-robber. He's a smooth-talking con artist. We discover that right off the bat as we watch him play catcher on a prison baseball team, talking his friend and partner (Broderick Crawford) into taking a hit-by-pitch for the team. A few minutes later, he's talking the warden out of a nice pinstriped suit before he's released.

The opening scene also establishes the relationship between Pressure and Crawford's dimwitted character Jug. According to the film historians doing the DVD commentary, studio executives asked that it be modeled after George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men. Remember that the Studio Era, for all its flaws, was a time when producers and studio execs were often men who had a good sense of storytelling, so executive meddling wasn't always a bad thing. This dynamic between Pressure and Jug is perfect, setting up a lot of the comedy later in the film.

Anyway, Pressure has promised his sort-of adopted daughter to go straight and he really, really does plan to do so. He's going to buy a dog track in Florida. All he needs is 20 grand to finance this. But when the bank won't give him a loan--well, if he has to do one more job before going straight, that's not so bad, is it?

He and Jug run a quick "hit-and-run" scam with a passing car to get a thousand bucks, then use this to buy a down-and-out luggage store that happens to be next to a bank. The idea is to tunnel into the bank vault.

But Pressure's daughter wants him to go straight right away and a salesman (Jack Carson) wants the store to do well for reasons of his own. So they conspire to bring in customers, which interferes with digging the tunnel. Also, the other store owners on the street rope Pressure into helping them deal with a contractor who is prolonging street repairs and hurting business. Soon, at first much to his aggravation and later to his slowly realized delight, Pressure becomes a successful businessman.

But then another old "friend" who's a lot more prone to violence forces himself into the bank job and won't let Pressure give it up.

The movie is simultaneously a screwball comedy and a tribute to small business capitalism. The script is clever and ingenious, calling on Pressure and his friends to constantly improvise as they desperately try to carry out their schemes. The wonderful cast helps bring that script to joyous life.

Try watching this movie without smiling non-stop. Try it. I dare you.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Stolen Trains, Burning Bridges and Hijacked Armored Cars

In a career that spanned a half-century, Roy Crane introduced the concept of a daily adventure strip with Wash Tubbs, then moved on to do the equally brilliant Buz Sawyer. Perhaps because I read Wash Tubbs reprints as a kid and didn't encounter Buz until I was older, I've always considered Wash to be my favorite of the two. But the recent reprints of Buz Sawyer are reminding me of just how wonderful that strip is. I'm getting to where I'm not sure I can choose a favorite.

A story arc from late 1949 and early 1950 is fine example of how great a strip Buz Sawyer could be. 

Buz, who is working as a trouble-shooter for an oil company, is sent to a Central American country to  investigate a long delay in getting the oil concessions there. He brings his wife Christy along, figuring the job is an easy one and he can enjoy a working vacation with her.  That is actually a silly thing for him to do--Buz ought to know by know that any job he takes will result in danger and the constant threat of sudden death. It happens to him pretty much every time.

Upon arrival, he begins to get an obvious runaround from the oil company's local agent. Looking deeper into the situation, he befriends a local pilot named Pancho Del Rio and finds out that the company agent is helping to fun an impending revolution against the government.

Pancho is an inspired character, giving the story arc emotional depth that adds to the excitement of a great adventure story. Pancho had opposed the current president during the last election and still thinks a poor leader. In fact, that opposition has kept Pancho from getting the permission he needed to start his own airline.

But, by golly, the election was a fair one and Pancho will not support a revolution and will, in fact, fight as hard as he can to keep the legitimate government in power. 

Buz and Pancho have several chances to trade off performing heroic deeds as the action leads up to them stealing a train containing the ammunition the rebel army needs. In what I think is one of the most well-paced and exciting sequences in the history of the newspaper comic strips, the next four weeks of strips follow Buz, Christy and Pancho has they try to escape the rebels with the train.

When the train is eventually wrecked, the chase continues afoot. Eventually, our heroes manage to steal a rebel jeep and arrive safely at the presidential palace--though not after there's a close call resulting in their failure to take the rebel flags off the jeep.

But there is no such thing as break time for heroes. There's still the necessity of destroying a bridge to cut off the rebels from reinforcements. Buz and Pancho end up with this job, blowing the bridge but getting captured soon afterwards.

This is yet another exciting sequence. Roy Crane really is at the top of his game here. The story moves along at lightning speed; the art is great; and Crane portrays the Buz/Pancho team-up as a perfect synergy of characters. Neither of the heroes is overshadowed by the other as they continue to work together in tandem. Having effective co-protagonists in an adventure story is not an easy balance for a writer to maintain, but Crane pulls it off. 

Anyway, Buz and Pancho rather quickly hijack the armored car in which they had been imprisoned and make their escape. The rebellion collapses, Buz has made his company look good when future oil concessions are considered by the government and Pancho gets permission to start his airline. And we--the readers--come away with the intense pleasure of having experienced a master storyteller regale us with one of his best-ever yarns.

Next week, Turok and Andar have a Snow Day.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...