By Elizabeth McLeod
Radio wasn’t all about hard-boiled detectives — even though you might think so given the popularity such programs enjoy today among enthusiasts and collectors of the medium. Nor was radio always about hard-boiled detectives — the genre didn’t really move to the forefront of the medium until the mid-1940’s, two full decades after the start of network broadcasting. And yet, while there was a lot more to network radio drama than rain-swept streets, well-oiled roscoes, and mysterious blondes, hard-boiled crime adventure and radio drama seem made for each other. Perhaps it was because of the importance of first-person narration for both, perhaps it was the presence of so many gritty-voiced leading men around the radio studios just waiting to be cast as intrepid gumshoes, or perhaps it was just the need of so many post-war white-collar workers leading hum-drum office lives to imagine what it must be like to be a bold anti-hero. But whatever the factors, radio and the hard-boiled detective go together like gin and tonic, like Smith and Wesson, and most of all, like Howard Duff and Sam Spade.
William Spier entered broadcasting via the print media. He had been a rising music critic on the staff of Musical America, a distinguished publication serving the symphonic and operatic communities, when he was approached to take over the production duties for the Atwater Kent Hour, one of the leading radio showcases for classical and semi-classical music during the early years of network broadcasting. He soon found that he enjoyed radio more than print, and soon joined the full-time production staff at CBS. It was there that he got to know many of the professionals who would help shape his career, from actors like Orson Welles and Agnes Moorehead, to composers like Bernard Herrmann, writers like Lucille Fletcher, and fellow directors like John Dietz. By the turn of the forties, he had risen to head the network’s program development office, where his most distinguished accomplishment, in 1942, was the inauguration of Radio’s Outstanding Theatre of Thrills, Suspense. Spier headed Suspense for its first five years on the air, establishing the format and the high standards of production that would mark the program for its entire twenty-year run.By the time he was ready for something new, the West Coast was already littered with private-eye shows — something about California seemed to breed the idea of chain-smoking, hat-wearing, prose-spouting rebels with a gun. Dashiell Hammett was already enjoying the weekly royalty checks emanating from the successful radio version of The Thin Man, and the author was in no way averse to seeing further broadcast exploitation of his characters. The result, in the fall of 1946, was the ABC premiere of The Adventures of Sam Spade.
Spade wasn’t entirely new to the air, of course. He’d turned up in a couple of adaptations of The Maltese Falcon, and based on the familiarity of that property, the general outline of the character didn’t really need to be established. Listeners already knew that he operated out of a sleazy office in San Francisco, that he had a faithful secretary named Effie Perrine, and that he was often at odds with Sgt. Polhaus and Lt. Dundy of the SFPD. Listeners also knew that he could take a beating as well as he could dish one out, and that he wasn’t always as clever as he thought he was in dealing with mysterious women. That, in a nutshell, was all you really needed to know about Sam Spade in order to produce a radio series about him.
But, William Spier knew one more thing beyond those basics. He knew that radio detectives tended to take themselves a bit too seriously, and a bit of comedy, just a bit of a wink and a nudge toward the audience, would not be out of line. It was that ingredient, that sense of, “yeah, we know this is a ridiculous, implausible plot, but stick with us and see how it strings out” that made The Adventures of Sam Spade a hit…
Spier didn’t have to look far to find the ideal actor to play his lead. Howard Duff was already knocking around Hollywood, just released from his Army job at the Armed Forces Radio Service, where he had worked closely with another bright young man named Elliott Lewis. Duff’s tough-but-bemused persona he was exactly what William Spier wanted. He wasn’t Humphrey Bogart — nobody was ever Bogart but the man himself, and sometimes even Bogart himself fell short – but, Duff understood enough of what Bogart had brought to the role of Spade on screen to subtly satirize it without turning his own portrayal into a crude spoof. That was exactly the approach that Spier wanted. Likewise, veteran actress Lurene Tuttle offered a credible take on Lee Patrick’s smart, sympathetic movie portrayal of Effie without slavishly imitating it…and added a unique sense of humor all her own. Spier wanted originals who, at the same time, weren’t too far afield from the established portrayals. And, he got them. In Spades, if you will.
The Adventures of Sam Spade worked on every level, from the laconic tone of the scripts by such quality radio authors as Robert Tallman, Gil Doud, Jack Neuman, and Harold Swanton to the music and sound work by two of Spier’s closest collaborators from Suspense, composer Lud Gluskin and soundman Berne Surrey. Even the announcing by the ebullient Dick Joy and the commercials for Wildroot hair products were just exaggerated enough to fit the tone without sliding too far into parody. Rarely had radio ever assembled a more perfect package. Even rival programs acknowledged it as a masterwork. The appearance on a rival network of Dick Powell as “Richard Diamond” not long after Spade’s success was testimony enough that satire — even of a satire itself — is the sincerest form of flattery.
It was, of course, too good to last. The series skipped from ABC to CBS after one season, and enjoyed a satisfying run there. It had just moved on to NBC when the mood of the times caught up with it. The early 1950’s were not a time suitable for free-thinkers in any field, least of all show business, and when the unapologetically left-wing political sympathies of Hammett and Duff came to the attention of those who had appointed themselves watchdogs of orthodoxy, Sam Spade was in a predicament that he couldn’t fast-talk his way out of. Hammett had never made any secret of his political views, and his name disappeared immediately from the program. Duff was jettisoned in the fall of 1950 after his name appeared in the vigilante publication “Red Channels” on the basis of his public support for members of the Hollywood Ten. Even with Duff gone and Hammett’s name dropped from the credits, the series remained tainted by the gummy stroke of the blacklisters’ brush — and lasted only one more unsponsored season in its denatured form, with Steve Dunne in the title role.
The Adventures of Sam Spade receded into legend, re-emerging with the rediscovery of Old Time Radio as a series beloved even by those who have little fondness otherwise for the hardboiled genre. In building a series that developed such powerful mass appeal — even with only a comparative handful of its episodes available for modern-day listening — William Spier proved once again that he was a true master of the medium.
Copyright 2013 Elizabeth McLeod and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.