What with Oscar awards, Valentine’s Day and just plain interesting movies to write about, February was a busy month for film bloggers and their endless fascination with the best the big screen has to offer.

Kristin Bordwell rhapsodized on the superiority of animation to many live-action films in current cinema, with a side trip to discuss the merits of this year’s Oscar nominees for animated features.

TCM “morlock” Kimberly Lindbergs presented a Valentine’s Day tribute to the demented romance Mad Love, featuring one of Peter Lorre’s most bizarre performances.

Gary Cahall offered a bouquet to losers in love in some of the great romantic movies of all time, on the Movies Unlimited site.

The Cinema Sojourns site gave readers an insightful take on Valerio Zurlini’s 1976 Italian drama of creeping madness, Desert of the Tartars.

Back to the Bordwells (and Peter Lorre): David Bordwell took a thoughtful look at the set pieces of Alfred Hitchcock, with a deep-focus examination of the original The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Brace yourself and start clicking these entertaining links.

February 28, 2013 · Posted in Legends  

The Great Gildersleeve was one of radio’s earliest spin-offs, transferring popular supporting character Throckmorton Gildersleeve from the cast of Fibber McGee and Molly to a starring vehicle of his own that ran from 1941-1957. Harold Peary played the role through 1950, putting such an indelible stamp on it that his successor (Willard Waterman) had no choice but to deliver a Peary impression for the rest of the run. Though Gildersleeve was designed as a self-important gasbag, Peary managed to make him such a lovable one that he was tapped to read fairy tales a la Gildersleeve on a trio of children’s records. When Fibber McGee and Molly were adapted to the movies in 1941, Peary joined them for their first two features. Four more films centering on Gildersleeve and his radio cast followed from 1942-44.

There was a Green Hornet movie in 2011, but the only reason it wasn’t, say, an Ozzie and Harriet revival is that Bruce Lee never played Harriet. That’s no slam at the original radio series, but these days the property is largely remembered for the 1966 TV series in which Lee played Kato, the Hornet’s partner in busting crime. It was another story in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when The Green Hornet was one of the most popular family series on the air. During the show’s 1936-52 run, its heroic vigilante duo turned up in scores of comic book stories, a series of Big Little Books, and two well-received movie serials from Universal Pictures. The first, 1940’s The Green Hornet, starred Gordon Jones (with radio Hornet Al Hodge providng the voice once the hero was in the mask) and Keye Luke as Kato. The Hodge connection was dropped in the 1941 sequel, The Green Hornet Strikes Again! Luke returned as Kato, with Warren Hull replacing Jones and providing  his own heroic vocals whether in or out of the mask.

I Love a Mystery,  writer Carlton E. Morse’s idiosyncratic series about globetrotting detectives and the human monsters they battled, ran at various times on all the major networks and – despite the fact that very few recorded episodes survive – remains a cult favorite to this day. It first ran from 1939-44, enjoyed a brief revival titled I Love Adventure in 1948, and from 1949-52 a new cast reinterpreted the scripts of the original run. Around the time of the show’s mid-‘40s hiatus, three films were produced starring original radio cast member Barton Yarborough and relative newcomer to the screen Jim Bannon. Though Bannon’s private eye Jack Packard was notably less hardboiled than the radio version, Yarborough’s Texas-born Doc Long kept the proceedings amusing and provided a happy link to the freewheeling source material despite the films’ low budgets and less adventurous storylines.

Taking its name from a line of mystery novels, the anthology series Inner Sanctum debuted in 1941 and lasted until 1952, mixing crime stories with overwrought horror tales that usually ended with logical (if unlikely) explanations. From 1943-45, a perpetually agonized Lon Chaney, Jr. starred in a half-dozen features that followed the program’s basic format of explained-away horror. Though the radio show’s popular sardonic host was eliminated from the film versions, a nod in that direction was provided by introductions spoken by a distorted face floating in a crystal ball before the story proper. An unrelated adaptation simply titled Inner Sanctum was released in 1948.

“All-American boy” Jack Armstrong, a brave and resourceful high school athlete, traveled around the world countless times during the 1933-51 run of his popular children’s program, accompanied by his buddies Billy and Betty Fairfield and their wealthy Uncle Jim. Powered by a belief in clean living and a healthy diet of longtime sponsor Wheaties, Jack and the gang explored far-off lands and defeated a parade of crooks, spies and assorted blackguards wherever they went. In 1947, Columbia Pictures cast John Hart as a slightly long-in-the-tooth Jack in a 15-episode serial that brought the All-American boy and his friends to a jungle island where they battled a gang of villains for possession of a futuristic death ray.

Depending on who the sponsors were, his show was alternately called The Canada Dry Program,  The Jello Program or The Lucky Strike Program – but to its huge following, it was always simply Jack Benny.  From 1932-55, Benny brought his brilliant underplaying and talented supporting cast to the absolute peak of popularity, slowly shifting his format from vaudeville-style variety to prototypical sitcom. With a few shifts in personnel, Benny and company eventually moved the concept virtually unaltered to TV for another 17 years. From 1929-45, Benny was also a starring player in movies, but only one was thoroughly based on the radio show – the 1940 Buck Benny Rides Again.  Missing only Benny’s wife and radio co-star Mary Livingstone, the main radio cast appeared as “themselves” in a Western parody based on one of the program’s running gags.

“I’m just a big good-natured slob,” sighed William Bendix after strangling a man in the 1942 The Glass Key, one of a number of melodramas in which he played convincing psychos – but it was as a good-natured slob of a more lovable variety, riveter Chester A. Riley, that he found his greatest fame.  The Life of Riley, originally conceived as a vehicle for Groucho Marx, aired from 1944-51. In 1949 a TV version debuted starring Jackie Gleason, Bendix’s movie contract preventing him from taking the role on the home screen. But he did star in a movie version that same year, playing opposite Rosemary DeCamp (who played Gleason’s wife in the television series) and John Brown, who was “Digger” O’Dell on both radio and TV. The Gleason series only ran one season but, by 1953, Bendix’s contractual problem was ironed out and he launched his own Life of Riley TV show that lasted until 1958.

Probably the best-known of all radio dramas, The Lone Ranger began its long run in 1933 on a single Detroit station, moved to the coast-to-coast Mutual network and ended on NBC in 1956. The beloved 1949-57 TV incarnation spawned two feature films, The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the City of Gold (1958); the ill-conceived Legend of the Lone Ranger appeared in 1981, followed by an abortive 2003 attempt at reviving the series for television and the 2013 big-screen version starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer. However, Republic Pictures was the first to bring the masked rider to the movies with two popular serials, The Lone Ranger (1938) and The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939). Lee Powell starred in the first serial, followed by Bob Livingston in the second – but in both cases the voice of the Ranger was dubbed by 5’2” character actor Billy Bletcher, who also provided the thundering tones of such cartoon bad guys as Disney’s Big Bad Wolf and Pegleg Pete.

Comedians and boyhood friends Norris Gauff and Chester Lauck found gold in the Arkansas hills when they created Lum and Abner for a Hot Springs radio station in 1931. Lauck played the nominally more sensible Lum, and Gauff took the role of his skittish and gullible friend Abner, partners in the Jot ‘em Down Store in the tiny village of Pine Ridge. They also contributed the voices of most of the show’s other characters. The program went national almost immediately, its gentle hillbilly humor fending off louder and more sophisticated competition until it went off the air in 1954. Gauff and Lauck took their act to Hollywood in 1940, where they starred in five low-budget adaptations distributed by RKO, beginning with Dreaming Out Loud. In 1956 a trio of episodes shot for an abortive TV series was edited into a sixth film, Lum and Abner Abroad, allowing Lauck and Gauff to take their long-running characters to a mass audience one last time.

Writer Ed Byron teamed with radio impresario Phillips H. Lord to create Mr. District Attorney, a series about an unnamed crusading D.A. and his two-fisted investigator Harrington, who brought a parade of cheap thugs and criminal masterminds to justice from 1939 to 1953. Republic Pictures produced a pair of seriocomic adaptations that had virtually nothing to do with the source material in 1941, Mr. District Attorney and Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case, the first with Stanley Ridges as the D.A. and the second with Paul Harvey, and both starring Dennis O’Keefe as an assistant prosecutor created for the movies. O’Keefe returned as a different A.D.A. in the noirish 1947 Columbia production Mr. District Attorney , which featured Adolph Menjou in the title role.

My Friend Irma was a popular sitcom about dim-but-beautiful secretary Irma Peterson and her long-suffering roommate Jane, negotiating workplace adventures and troubles with boyfriends in postwar New York. Series star Marie Wilson (and co-star Hans Conreid) brought their radio characterizations to the 1949 musical comedy My Friend Irma, which also introduced Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to the big screen. Wilson, Martin and Lewis returned in the 1950 My Friend Irma Goes West. Wilson continued in the role for the entirety of the radio show’s 1947-51 run, and also played Irma in the TV version that aired 1952-54.

Dragnet made Jack Webb a star, but his heart belonged to Pete Kelly’s Blues, a short-lived 1951 series about a jazz musician in 1920s Kansas City. Webb blended his love of the Dixieland sound with Untouchables-style tales of speakeasies and Jazz Age mobsters in the 13 episodes that aired during a summer break following Dragnet’s second season. Though the series disappeared from the air after that initial run, Webb kept the idea alive and brought it to the motion picture screen with the sober and atmospheric 1955 Pete Kelly’s Blues, perhaps the most personal of all his creations.

Adventures of the Sea Hound followed the adventures of tough-as-nails Captain Silver and his mate Jerry as they battled spies and criminals in colorful Latin American ports from 1942-48. In 1947, Columbia Pictures produced a 15-chapter serial starring Buster Crabbe battling modern-day pirates for possession of a lost cache of Spanish gold.

Radio powerhouse Phillips H. Lord scored his first hit at age 27 with Sunday Evening at Seth Parker’s, which ran sporadically from 1929-38 and starred Lord himself as the elderly protagonist. Parker was a kindly New England preacher and crackerbarrel philosopher whose wholesome get-togethers offered lots of hymns and similarly innocent old-folks-pleasing tunes. Lord turned Seth into a cottage industry, generating books, records and a stage play from the property. In 1931 he slapped on the old-age makeup to play Parker in the RKO melodrama Way Back Home, in which the lovable old clergyman protects a boy from an abusive father with the help of Bette Davis in the first year of her film career.

The Shadow, radio’s famous invisible avenger, premiered on the air as the narrator/host of various anthology programs in 1930, and made his film debut in that role in a series of shorts produced by Universal in 1931 and ’32. By the time he returned to radio as an ongoing character, the concept had been rebuilt from the ground up by writer Walter Gibson for a best-selling pulp series. The radio show as it’s remembered today began its 1937-54 run with Orson Welles in the title role. That same year saw the Grand National release The Shadow Strikes with Rod La Roque, who returned the following year as Lamont Cranston (but not his costumed alter ego) in International Crime. Victor Jory, a dead ringer for the character as rendered on the pulp magazine covers, starred in a goofy but entertaining 15-chapter Columbia serial in 1940. Kane Richmond slipped into the black cloak and hat in 1946 for a trio of Monogram features, followed by Richard Derr in the 1958 Invisible Avenger, a feature cobbled together from an unsold TV project. The invisible hero’s last sighting to date was the 1994 The Shadow, starring Alec Baldwin in a special effects-laden amalgamation of the pulp and radio concepts.

The Whistler was another of radio’s patented fictional narrators, offering sardonic commentary on a series of ironic crime stories that aired from 1942-55. Though “The Whistler” himself never evolved into a fully developed character, the concept proved dynamic enough to adapt to a series of well-regarded B pictures from Columbia Pictures. Veteran actor Richard Dix turned in intense starring performances in six features from 1940-47, playing various poor saps crossed by fate. A final entry, 1948’s The Return of the Whistler, made after Dix’s retirement from acting, starred Michael Duane.

The appeal of radio in its Golden Age was so pervasive that even the most unlikely programs had their time in the Hollywood sun. In addition to all the comedians, dizzy teens and crimefighters noted above, quiz shows Pot o’ Gold and Take It or Leave It and chat shows Breakfast in Hollywood and People Are Funny managed to find their way to to the big screen. In its day, radio was everywhere, and though most of those classic programs are gone forever, hundreds of hours of film remain to show us just how well loved were those men and women behind the microphones.

February 24, 2013 · Posted in Legends  

There are critical groans whenever Hollywood adapts another old TV series to the big screen, and they’re mostly justified – but it’s hardly the sad sign of creative decline that some would have us believe. Film studios have been blazing the broadcast-to-movies trail since the 1930s, more than a decade before commercial TV began to come into its own.

There are differences, of course, between the appeal of, say, a Lum and Abner feature from 1940 and 2012’s 21 Jump Street: adaptations of popular radio shows gave audiences the chance to put a face to the unseen characters and performers they enjoyed in their homes, while the recycled TV concepts – mostly with new actors taking on old roles – have more to do with Boomer or post-Boomer nostalgia…but in both cases, the bottom line is Hollywood’s eternal quest for pre-sold product that extends from the days of the silents to the present day.

Some films, such as the the 1954 Dragnet and the1956 Our Miss Brooks, were technically based on concepts that began on radio – but they clearly existed to capitalize on the popularity of their small-screen versions rather than the audio-only source material. Other radio-related films, such as You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and The Life of the Party, profited from personalities developed by radio comedians but were strictly celebrity vehicles, offering new storylines and situations that had nothing to do with their over-the-airwave adventures.

The following movies from the ‘30s to the ‘50s were adapted from old time radio programs at the time those shows were still on the air. Some are well remembered, others are obscure, but the sheer number represented by this partial list may be a revelation for those unaware of the vast popularity enjoyed by those long-ago radio broadcasts.

A Date with Judy, a teens-are-wacky series that ran on radio from 1941-1950, was spun off into a 1948 comedy starring Jane Powell and providing big-name support in the way of Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Stack, Wallace Beery and Carmen Miranda.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, a domestic comedy starring Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and, eventually, their sons David and Ricky, premiered on radio in 1944 and lasted until 1954. Here Come the Nelsons brought the cast (with up-and-coming supporting player Rock Hudson) to the big screen in 1952. Having established that his brood worked as well in front of the cameras as before the microphone, family mogul Nelson launched a TV version late that same year, which eventually ran a remarkable 14 years.

The Aldrich Family, the most popular of all teen comedies, was based on the 1938 play What a Life, but as it was developed for radio through running sketches on other popular programs, former supporting character Henry Aldrich took center stage and remained there. Henry and his gang got their own series that lasted from 1939-1951. In 1939 Henry appeared in the first of an 11-film series from Paramount. Jackie Cooper starred in the first two, with Jimmy Lyden taking over the role until the series folded in 1944.

Amos ‘n’ Andy, a title that’s anathema these days, was a wildly popular series that played on the radio in various formats from 1928-1960. Stars Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll brought their racial stereotype comedy, complete with blackface, to the big screen in the 1930 Check and Double Check. After contributing voices to a pair of 1934 cartoons, Gosden and Correll blacked up to bring their characters to the screen one last time, in The Big Broadcast of 1936.

The 1937-52 newspaper drama Big Town went on the air with some major starpower in the persons of Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor, but movie audiences had to scale down their expectations with lesser names Phillip Reed and Hillary Brooke as two-fisted editor Steve Wilson and his society editor girlfriend Lorelei. The film series lasted for four features in 1947 and ’48 before producers scrawled a big red 30 on the concept.

The flying paramilitary superhero Captain Midnight battled bad guys and hawked chocolaty Ovaltine from 1938 to 1949 on the radio before moving to a fondly remembered television version in the early ‘50s. In 1942, Dave O’Brien starred in a 15-episode serial that jettisoned most of the radio show’s supporting characters and transformed the Captain into a masked mystery man.

From 1931 to 1936 and again from 1948 to 1950, Chandu the Magician dragged an entourage of dependents across the globe to fight evil with the mystic powers he learned in India. Early in his radio career, he appeared in two different Hollywood productions: the 1932 feature Chandu the Magician in which silent star Edmund Lowe duked it out with villainous Bela Lugosi, and the 1934 serial The Return of Chandu, which gave Lugosi a chance to slip into the white turban for a rare heroic turn as the titular conjurer.

After striking it big with Gangbusters – and responding to wartime fervor following the attack on Pearl Harbor – producer Phillips H. Lord expanded his crime busting to the field of international espionage with Counterspy. The show began in 1942 with government agent David Harding foiling the plots of Axis spies; after the war, Harding continued out-thinking Commies and other foreign nasties until the series ended in 1957. In 1950, Columbia Pictures released two screen adaptations starring Howard St. John, David Harding, Counterspy and Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard.

Crime Doctor, a mystery series that aired from 1940 to 1947, followed the adventures of a former crook who goes straight and becomes a straight-arrow shrink specializing in criminal psychology after a blow on the head plunged him into amnesia. Warner Baxter took the role in a series of ten features for Columbia that attracted ticket-buyers from 1943-49.

After starring in three well-received features about “Country Doctor” John Luke (based on the real-life Allan Dafoe, who delivered the Dionne Quintuplets), Jean Hersholt created the similarly avuncular Dr. Christian for a radio series that would air from 1937 to 1954. The popularity of Christian led him back to the big screen, where Hersholt played the kindly old medic in six features beginning in 1939 and ending in 1941.

The low humor and high spirits of Duffy’s Tavern aired on three different networks from 1941-51, always starring creator Ed Gardner as low-rent pub manager Archie, whose overachieving ambitions were overshadowed only by his mangling of the English language. Though carried with aplomb by a talented regular cast, the radio show’s premise was too thin to parlay into a film series, though it did spawn one star-studded movie adaptation in 1945.

With Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man a major hit in both its film and radio incarnations, producers borrowed the bulky waistline (and darned little else) of Hammett’s Continental Op character and cranked out a companion series, The Fat Man, mostly out of whole cloth. Starring 270-pound J. Scott Smart as a corpulent and savvy private eye, the series aired for six seasons beginning in 1947. Scott brought his hefty charisma to the big screen in a low-budget 1951 feature directed by William Castle with Rock Hudson and clown Emmett Kelly among its supporting cast.

Fibber McGee and Molly, starring Jim and Marian Jordan as a blowhard layabout and his take-no-prisoners spouse, slowly worked its way up from its debut in 1935 until becoming the most popular comedy program on American radio in the mid-‘40s. Though the cast slowly dwindled to just Jim and Marian in its final days in 1959, their characters remained beloved figures throughout their long run. The Jordans appeared as Fibber and Molly in supporting roles in the 1937 comedy This Way Please, and starred in a trio of films in the ‘40s that also featured many of the regular performers from the weekly series.

Acerbic comic genius Fred Allen hosted a string of popular radio shows from 1933 to 1949, but proved a hard sell for movie audiences, who obviously preferred listening to his variety show to watching him on screen. He did star in a pair of entertaining features, Love Thy Neighbor (which capitalized on his long-running radio feud with Jack Benny) and It’s in the Bag! (which offered a cameo by Minerva Pious as the radio show’s Pansy Nussbaum). In 1947, Kenny Delmar starred in the quasi-adaptation It’s a Joke, Son! as Senator Claghorn, a character he played every week on the Allen show – but Allen himself was conspicuously absent.

Prolific radio producer Phillips H. Lord’s biggest hit, Gang Busters, aired its torn-from-the-headlines cases from 1935 (premiering under its original title G-Men) until 1957. An anthology with different characters from week to week, the show got a major facelift when adapted to a 13-chapter Universal serial in 1942 that featured a pair of city cops instead of the show’s usual G-man heroes, battling a criminal scientist who populated his gang with men brought back from the dead.

(Keep your dial tuned for Part 2!)

February 5, 2013 · Posted in Legends