Sunday, November 09, 2008

Frank Lovejoy

A palate cleanser to try to restore some equilibrium. Three classic radio shows starring Frank Lovejoy.

For the last few days, I've been listening to a melodramatic mystery show named Night Beat. Night Beat is an early 50's series about a Chicago reporter named Randy (sometimes "Lucky") Stone. Every episode starts pretty much the same way: Stone is wandering around late at night, wondering what he's going to write about, when he runs into a random stranger and gets pulled into a mystery. After he solves it, he gives a final monologue wrapping things up (a la Kolchak, the Night Stalker), then calls for a copyboy. The shows are pretty good, but try too hard to be sophisticated adult drama and often veer into melodrama instead. Here's a sample episode from 1950, titled "Mentallo, the Mental Marvel."

But what really captured my attention right away was the show's opening, in which the announcer says the star of the show is Frank Lovejoy. The name sounded familiar. I realized that he had starred in one of the shows I listened to when I was searching for good Halloween shows to post a couple of weeks ago. It was an episode of Escape titled "The Outer Limit." Escape was another high-budget show, like Suspense, that featured big-name stars and adapted short stories to radio, like "Leiningen vs. the Ants" and "The Man Who Would Be King." "The Outer Limit" is a hokey science-fiction story about a test pilot who encounters something uncanny during a high-altitude flight. The story is by-the-numbers, but at the end of the show, they emphasize that they worked with test pilots and aviation companies to confirm the details of real test flights.

So I started to wonder who Frank Lovejoy was. I didn't recognize his name, but the fact that he got top billing on Escape made me think he must have been some sort of celebrity of the day. I looked him up on Wikipedia and learned that he was a radio and movie actor. He'd appeared on Gang Busters in the 30's and starred in Night Beat in the 50's. And in between, he'd played The Blue Beetle.

I'd read the adventures of the modern Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, in the pages of Justice League in the 80's. But I was unfamiliar with the original Blue Beetle, aka Dan Garrett, rookie cop by day, avenging superhero by night, dressed in special chainmail that's "flexible as silk, but stronger than steel."

The only thing I knew about the original Blue Beetle was what I'd read in Jules Feiffer's introduction to The Great Comic Book Heroes.

His sign--the shadow of a great beetle projected into the evildoer's line of vision--struck terror into their hearts. He wore a Phantom-type uniform, with scales--rather unpleasant looking without being impressive. He was a great favorite for a far longer time than he deserved.

On radio, he battles spies and dope dealers and low-level thugs of all types, aided by kindly old pharmacist Dr. Franz. Franz is the Beetle's own personal Q, who invents all manner of super-potions and techno-weapons in his back room to help the Blue Beetle in his crusade. The production values are cheap--thin sound effects and a lone organ for music--and the stories are thrill-a-minute idiot plots (a plot that can only work if everyone in the story behaves like a idiot--criminals are always leaving behind the most obvious clues that lead the Beetle straight to their doors). Even the Beetle's catch phrases are awful: "The Blue Beetle has some nipping to do tonight!" Here's a typical episode, "Murder for Profit."

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