When stars like Bob Hope or Bing Crosby started their careers in the movies, they actually started over, since they already were highly successful through their earlier work for radio shows, drama, mystery and comedy.
These old shows, home of many superior actors and great voices, today are mostly forgotten, and the programs will only be mentioned whenever a new Hollywood movie catches on and recycles a story almost 80 years old, taken from the huge vaults of US radio drama and suspense shows.
The majority of the shows – if you can find them online – is free, they have become public domain or are at least available for listening. When I discovered Old Time Radio and the fantastic American radio dramas at archive.org some years ago, I spent the next weekends online to listen to those great shows. Some of them have been revived as modern movies, while others still await their rediscovery.
To mention only some shows and their respective movies that made it, here is The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Bold Venture, Amos’n’Andy, Pete Kelly’s Blues, Dragnet and Chandu the Magican.
And here are some shows with lots of potential if we check their story lines, plots and cast, but that, until now, have not caught the attention of a movie producer or director: Jungle Jim, X Minus 1, Suspense, Yours Truly-Johnny Dollar, Nick Carter, Rocky Jordan and many, many more.
Not always did the movie follow a radio drama; since there are quite a few characters that were born in pulp magazines or in comic books, their history sometimes ended with the radio show. Alternatively, the characters skipped this step and were produced for the screen, TV or movie, immediately like Nick and Nora Charles, Mike Hammer, Ellery Queen, Sam Spade, Philip Marlow, Bulldog Drummond or others. Of these we will not learn in Hal Erickson’s new book, since their origin was not a radio drama.
With the advent of TV culture in America, a very peculiar age came to its end, more or less. Erickson places the Golden Age of Radio between 1926 and 1962; since in 1962 Suspense and Johnny Dollar, two excellent mystery shows, aired their last episodes.
Many famous Hollywood actors, owed their success to radio shows and had a huge following. Without comedy shows, adventure or mystery that was broadcast by radio, the careers of Eddie Cantor, Orson Welles, Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton and many others would have taken another turn.
Sometimes the parts of the radio characters were transported from one medium to the other, but, more often the stars could rely on their following that already had gotten used to their voices. Furthermore, some actors with minor roles in movies had their origin in radio broadcasts too, such as the characters of Bert Gordon, Fibber McGee & Molly or Kay Kyser.
Erickson actually seems to have thousands of stories about Old Time Radio and early television to tell. However, do not expect a short text that gets along by name dropping and movie listing. Instead, we find a huge compendium of names, roles, companies and plots of several dozens of radio and TV shows. All of this information will not come in short paragraphs in a who’s’who style. Instead, the book basically consists of an index and one single 280 pages chapter. There may be other ways of presenting names and characters, but this approach is not so bad, since all the information comes in essay style with 50 photos, heavily supported by infinite anecdotes and references to other actors, shows, studios, production units, story writers and voices.
Hal Erickson has written extensively about television shows, movies and for many years was a primary editor of the All-Movie Guide website.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2015
Hal Erickson. From Radio to the Big Screen. Hollywood Films Featuring Broadcast Personalities and Programs. McFarland, 2014, 316 p.