The Whistler: The Alibi (CBS, 1942)
It isn’t just its famous whistling theme and the chillingly gleeful voice of its “voice of fate” title character that makes The Whistler a radio crime drama standout. The Whistler is hardly the only such voice of fate on the air; the Shadow was such a voice, more or less, until he became his own hero and cliché at the same time, and the Mysterious Traveler would become something only too similar in due course, without packing either the Whistler’s terse punch or the Shadow’s campy elan.
What sets The Whistler apart is that there is no question, almost, but what the key criminal in each week’s story—almost always a murderer—is never in doubt except to the absolutely witless. The Whistler himself establishes that without question within the first five minutes, then takes a listener on a journey through the mind of the criminal and the events that provoke and produce his or her crime. The stories usually take enough twists, turns, and trips to cast the originally-identified killer into serious doubt, even to where—as often as not—there may prove to be a different killer entirely, though the originally fingered suspect often proves to have a secondary or indirect hand in the outcome. All of which are exploited deftly enough by oddly understated writing and likewise oddly understated performances.
Almost all those performances will be delivered almost exclusively by the fabled Radio Row of southern California radio performers. Indeed will this company perform so often on The Whistler that they will become known as Whistler’s Children. Cathy and Elliott Lewis (both of whom show a genius for playing the ordinary people trapped in the extraordinary, if not the surreal, which may be one reason why they would become Suspense mainstays in due course, as well), Betty Lou Gerson (whose deftness in playing intellectually superior but catty women will be exploited at regular intervals), Wally Maher (“a perfect blowtop,” as eventual director George Allen will describe him), Gerald Mohr (who could play the disarming sophisticate in one episode and a downright thug in the next and be nothing less than believable as both), Hans Conreid (who proved ideal for split personalities), Lurene Tuttle (so versatile she could and will play identical twins in one particularly riveting episode and none but castmates would be the wiser), and John Brown (perhaps the best of the company at giving perverse comic twists to his characters), among others.
Even more chilling is that The Whistler deploys almost no on-air violence. Historian John Dunning would call it “velvet violence . . . murder by implication” decades after the show leaves the air. In more than one way, that kind of violence is more jarring than the kind that eventually gives this show’s genre a dubious enough name.
Tonight: Artist-turned-businessman Henry Farrington, who married a wealthy young widow and chafed over twenty subsequent years of his wife’s domineering and all but shoving him into a business life to which he was ill-suited, is determined to raise $2,000 to partner in an oil lease deal with an attorney she had disbarred over dubious charges of embezzlement—even as his now-intolerable wife suffers a heart attack, which may provoke other ideas in his too-troubled mind.
Cast: Unidentified. The Whistler: Joseph Kearns. Music: Wilbur Hatch; whistling theme: Dorothy Roberts. Writer/director: J. Donald Wilson.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Ed Wynn, the Fire Chief: Dorothy Burnham of Haddon Hall (NBC, 1932)—Tonight the show isn’t exactly gonna be different, of course: Wynn and his foil Graham McNamee (later to become a titan of early radio sportscasting) zip through a bag of revue jokes involving, among other things, cheese, horses, stock, subways, a baby with a 108-degree fever, and letters from listeners. Announcer: Louis Witten. Music: Don Voorhees Orchestra. Writers: Ed Wynn, Eddie Prebel. (Advisory: Skips midway through recording.)
Lux Radio Theater: Arrowsmith (1937)—Spencer Tracy and Fay Wray step in for Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes in this cool if occasionally awkward adaptation of the 1931 film depicting a respected physician (Tracy) who is forced to decide priorities for a vaccine that may arrest a deadly plague outbreak. Joyce: Helen Wood. Dr. Gottlieb: Frank Riker. Novak: John Qualen (reprising his film role). Host/producer: Cecil B. DeMille. Music: Louis Silvers. Adapted from the screenplay by Sidney Howard; based on the Pultizer Prize-winning novel by Sinclair Lewis.
The Green Hornet, “What Price Glamour” (ABC, 1945)—On routine assignment involving beauty products and a proposed state regulation, a comely Daily Sentinel reporter is spooked after seeing a model’s disfigured face, spooking Britt Reid (Bob Hall) into getting to the foundation, so to say. Typically effective if slightly hackneyed installment of the long-running crime drama. Axford: Gil Shea. Kato: Rollon Parker. Lenore Case: Lee Allman. Additional cast: Unknown. Director: Charles Livingstone. Writers: Fran Striker, possibly Tom McDougall.
The Harold Peary Show, “Harold’s Campaign Speech” (CBS, 1950)—Running reluctantly for mayor against his own boss Peabody (Joseph Kearns), Harold (Peary) rehearses a campaign speech a little edgily . . . then decides he needs a campaign manager. It could be taken as a tongue-in-cheek sendup of a storyline Peary explored a little more famously in a certain other radio show. Could. Gloria: Gloria Mitchell. Evaline: Mary Jane Croft. Additional cast: Parley Baer. Music: Jack Meakin. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Writers: Harold Peary, Bill Danch, Gene Stone, Jack Robinson.
The Six Shooter: Red Lawson’s Revenge (NBC, 1953)—Riding through Flat River country, Ponset (James Stewart) looks forward to seeing old friends Dan and Mary Mailer (Leon LeDoux, Shirley Mitchell) until he runs into Red Lawson (Paul Richards)—who’s itching to kill Dan out of vengeance for the death of Lawson’s brother four years earlier. Additional cast: Barney Phillips. Announcer: Hal Gibney. Music: Basil Adlam. Director: Jack Johnstone. Writer: Les Crutchfield.