One of the reasons I’m so thoroughly obsessed with old radio dramas lately (as I think I’ve mentioned here before) is their language. They are sometimes cheesy, true, but often they’re just devilishly clever, and I can usually count on them being consistently fun. The people who wrote these things clearly had a much different audience in mind than, well, people like me (who grew up long after the glory days of radio faded into their current ClearChannel purgatory, occasionally lightened by NPR), but if a lifetime spent in the thrall of AMC and Turner Classic Movies and Family freakin’ Classics on WGN back in the day can’t prepare a 70s brat for the 30s, 40s, and 50s, then nothing short of a TARDIS can.
My current obsession is Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, particularly the golden years between 1955 and 1960 when Bob Bailey voiced the title character. I love the show as much for Bailey’s performance as for the writing (under the able direction of radio great Jack Johnstone). While the show had originally been conceived as yet another wisecracking detective bit, the revival period with Bailey featured a character as notable for his compassion as for his cleverness or his toughness. Bailey’s Johnny Dollar is a complex, marvelous character — “America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator” was often also a moral witness to tragedies, as acute in his examination of himself as in his investigation of others. Oh, he could and did pull off the hard-boiled stuff, but there was always a heart of gold in there somewhere. He was simply and gloriously human.
Sometimes, the writing tickles, in part because it’s clear that the writers are taking shots at their own industry under cover of radio drama. This could be relatively subtle or (as in the case of Bob Bailey’s last episode, “The Empty Threat Matter,”) an overt jab. There are brief, sweet little moments that play well, too, because they are so delightful in their economy of expression. I listen to podcasts of the episodes via The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio when I work out in the mornings and when I walk the dogs, and some mornings I just find myself surprised into a laugh that makes it necessary to stop. Example: Yesterday, I was listening to parts one and two of “The Laughing Matter” (1956), in which the following exchange takes place between television producer Frank Multz (who has arranged for johnny to be called in on the case at hand) and Johnny:
MULTZ: Very funny. You ought to go on television.
JOHNNY: I’m waiting until they perfect it.
MULTZ: I feel the same way about murder.
I don’t know why that bit cracked my shit up, but I must say I love the quick, sharp efficiency of it. It just slips right in, tidy and parallel. The crack about going on television gets thrown at Johnny again later, and he responds the same way, but none of the other characters quite keep up with that first moment. Radio attacks the television with words in the mouths of characters meant to represent television writers and actors, at a time when the competition between them was slowly sliding in favor of the visual. It’s worth remembering that Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was one of the very last radio dramas on the air when it ended in 1962, and was never successfully made into a television program. I don’t know why it never worked on TV, but I know I can’t imagine it as a visual phenomenon — so much of the appeal of the thing really did lie in Bailey’s voice, and in the words the characters used. Television (especially contemporary television) just can’t work that way. We’re too slow, to fixed on the spectacle. The disembodied voices are somehow so much more immediate and intimate that I think seeing it would be sort of embarrassing, like looking just a little too long into the eyes of a stranger.
Ahhh…I just love this stuff!