Saturday, November 13, 2010

I Love a Mystery film series

I Love a Mystery was an extremely popular radio series, which was first broadcast in 1939, and was created by Carleton E. Morse. In the radio series, I Love A Mystery followed the exploits of three intrepid detectives, Doc Long, Reggie York and Jack Packard, who had (as the story went) originally met as soldiers of fortune in the Far East. The three comrades travelled the world in search of mystery, adventure, and danger, which always met them with equal enthusiasm. As the partners in the A-1 Detective Agency - "no job too tough, no adventure too baffling" - Jack, Doc and Reggie matched wits with an assortment of both earthbound and supernatural villains, in a group of serialized dramas that held enthusiastic listeners spellbound. Indeed, the radio show still inspires near-fanatical devotion today among its fans, and episodes of the surviving programs are featured in a number of sites on the web for interested listeners.

With occasional interruptions, time slot changes, a network shift (from NBC to the Mutual Broadcasting System) and even title changes (to I Love Adventure), the immensely popular series ran from 1939 to 1944 (originating from Hollywood), and then from 1949 to 1953 (broadcast from New York). The scripts for the series were usually themed towards the dark and supernatural, with perhaps the most famous, or infamous (depending on your point of view) scenario being “Temple of the Vampires,” which aroused a great deal of censorial comment when first broadcast as a twenty-episode serial from January 22 through February 16, 1940.

Other episodic serials, with such titles as “The Thing That Cried in the Night,” “The Fear That Crept Like A Cat,” “Flight to Death,” The Bride of the Werewolf,” The Monster in the Mansion” and “Murder Hollywood Style” give one an idea of the general tone of the series, which was a combination of a straightforward adventure series, along with generous helpings of noir and the supernatural, and existed in a fantasy world of nonstop danger and exoticism. As the series progressed, Reggie was written out of the radio serial in 1942, and Doc and Jack were left to helm the A-1 Detective Agency alone.

Such a series would seem a natural for Hollywood of the 1940s - numerous radio shows were adapted into film series, such as The Whistler - so it’s somewhat surprising that Columbia didn’t get around to I Love A Mystery until 1945, with the eponymous series entry I Love A Mystery, directed by Henry Levin, who would direct all three entries in the short-lived series. Subtitled “The Decapitation of Jefferson Monk,” the film toplined the always reliable George Macready as a wealthy man about town, Jefferson Monk, who lives in fear of a prophecy that he will die, by beheading, at a specifically predestined time and date. Needless to say, Monk isn’t exactly looking forward to this rendezvous with death, and implores Jack (Jim Bannon) and Doc (Barton Yarborough) to help him avoid his supposed fate.

Both Bannon and Yarbrough had considerable radio experience; Yarbrough, in fact, had originated the role of Doc in the radio series, and came by his Texas drawl as Doc quite honestly; a native of Texas, Yarbrough would go on to star as Sergeant Ben Romero in the radio version of Dragnet opposite that series’ creator, Jack Webb, until his untimely death at the age of 51 from a heart attack. Jim Bannon, an announcer and jack of all trades in the radio industry, who later rose to prominence in the Red Ryder series of westerns, had actually served as an announcer on the radio version of I Love A Mystery. Bannon’s autobiography, “The Son That Rose in The West,” self published in 1975 - and actually composed of letters that Bannon wrote home to his parents keeping them apprised of his luck in Hollywood - is unusually blunt in its assessment of the films in the I Love A Mystery series, which took a long time to get into production, much to Bannon’s displeasure.

Writing his parents in October of 1945 after the first installment of the series wrapped, Bannon said simply that:

“ - after all the conversation about [the film series] and all of the waiting for the script to be finished so we could get the series started, [the film] was not really a very outstanding production at all. It will do business, I’m sure, simply because of the title and the number of people who have listened to the show on radio for so long. As a truly good movie, however, it limps a little [. . .] One of the things [Bannon and Yarbrough both] objected to was the way they had us just sort of stumble into the situation. In most of the detective series - Boston Blackie, The Lone Wolf, The Thin Man, etc. - the story is set up to revolve around the main characters. That wasn’t the case with us, and I felt that the result was a weakened product. Carleton Morse, the author of the radio series, was on the set much of the time and since he didn’t make too much of a howl about the way it was being done, Bart and I kept quiet. It’s sort of sad because they could very well kill off what has a chance of turning into a good continuing thing (77).

Indeed, both men were quite right in their assessment of the finished film, which is a swift moving but ultimately uninvolving 70 minutes, with Macready dependably delivering the goods in his role as the film’s requisite heavy. Levin’s direction is tentative, as if trying to get a handle on the material, and attempting to strike a balance between the radio version, and translating the characters to the screen. Bannon is one of the film’s chief defects, in fact - his acting is remarkably wooden and colorless, betraying his background as a radio announcer, yet he delivered his lines on cue, and was a quick study. When the first take is likely to be the only take, Bannon’s ability to memorize pages of dialogue was undoubtedly an asset. Yarbrough, on the other hand, seems much more relaxed as Doc, no doubt because of his long association with the series on radio, but he also seems at ease in front of the camera, and the interplay between the two men gradually grows on the viewer. Doc is used almost as comic relief in many of the film’s scenes, with the stolid Bannon carrying the bulk of the film’s action and romantic interest, such as it is.

Interestingly, at the time the first film in the series was being made, Bannon was also working in Victor Saville’s Tonight and Every Night (1945) with Columbia’ reigning sex siren, Rita Hayworth, in what was in every way an “A” level production. Orson Welles, then falling in love with Hayworth, was often on the set of the film, and Bannon shrewdly observed in 1945 that
“Orson Welles seems to be the love of her life at moment, and he shows up on the set every now and then [. . .] It wouldn’t surprise me if they get married, and if that happens he’ll likely come onto the [Columbia] lot as a producer/director. With all the talent [Welles] has, [Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn] could sure do worse” (81).

In December of 1946, Bannon wrote to his parents that
“as I predicted, Orson Welles is on the lot as a producer/director/actor and is preparing a script for Rita [entitled] Lady from Shanghai [completed in 1947]. He is testing a lot of people for [the film] and I have been assigned [to act] in those tests. It’s a pleasure to work with him because he knows exactly what he wants, and has an uncanny ability to communicate that to his actors [. . .] even tests with him are more exciting than a whole picture with most directors. In my mind, there is no question that he will eventually be classed as a genius in this business” (97).

Bannon never got to work with Welles on anything more than these tests for Lady from Shanghai; it’s intriguing to think how it might have turned out if Welles had used Bannon in Lady from Shanghai or another film; after all, both men started out in radio. But for his entire career, Bannon would be directed by journeymen who got the picture in on time and under budget, and never really crossed over to “A” territory, especially in his later films.



From the somewhat unpromising beginning, the film would yield two more entries, each markedly superior to the “pilot” film; The Devil’s Mask and The Unknown (both 1946), and both directed by Henry Levin. The Devil’s Mask offers an intriguing mixture of jungle headhunters and a more conventional murder mystery, and as Bannon observed in a letter to his parents from April, 1946:

“A couple of weeks ago we finished the second of the I Love A Mystery films. I’m not too sure if the script for this one was better than the first or not. One thing is for certain, it was a lot wilder story and, as far as I’m concerned, had a lot more action than the first one. Anita Louise had the female lead and I have rarely encountered a more delightful or more beautiful girl. She is completely charming and a dream to work with. The chief bad guy this time was a man named Paul Burns, a fine old character actor [. . .] The title of this epic was The Devil’s Mask. It had to do with Burn’s hobby of collecting various African and jungle artifacts, including a glass case full of shrunken heads [. . .] another thing this character had was a fetish for was wild animals. The featured member of his menagerie was a black leopard, and you can take my word for it, old Jim and jungle citizens were not cut out to be bosom buddies” (83).


The Devil's Mask is far more adventurous than the first film, making effective use of lighting, shadow, and a noirish voiceover during the opening sequence in a museum that makes the film both memorable and atmospheric. But the best of the series is undoubtedly The Unknown, which was also the least successful of the films, and killed off the series, much to Bannon and Yarbrough's dismay. Here, Levin allows his camera to prowl the set (a huge, almost deserted Southern Gothic mansion) with catlike inquisitiveness, and spins a story, told through the voiceover of an already-dead (or so it seems) narrator, which is comprised of equal parts of Cornell Woolrich and Edgar Allan Poe, although the script was actually written by Malcolm Stuart Boylan, Julian Harmon, Charles O'Neal and Dwight Babcock.

Nina Foch - “without question the most talented of the girls on the contract list” (Bannon, 94) - played the female lead, fresh off her “sleeper” success in Joseph H. Lewis’s My Name is Julia Ross (1945), supported by Karen Morley as a mad heiress, and The Unknown’s intriguing and often grisly plot moves along swiftly to its unexpected climax with moody assurance. Bannon and Yarbrough, perhaps too closely involved in the project, thought otherwise, as did Columbia’s front office. As Bannon wrote his parents in December of 1946,

Both Bart Yarborough and I have the feeling this may be the swan song for the Mystery series. The writing is so bad that is almost seems they’re content to let it die. It’s very sad because it had excellent potential if it had been done right. Instead of continuing with the Carleton Morse stories they have just turned the studio’s staff writers loose on the scripts and what they’ve turned out couldn’t even them a passing grade in a high school playwriting class. If it is cancelled that will be the end of Bart at Columbia. Since I’m on contract I’ll just get shoved onto other things (94)

Looking back on these three phantom films, one is reminded of the superb Columbia "B" noir The Night Editor (1946), also directed by Levin. This, too, was adapted from a popular radio series, but didn't even get past the pilot film before the series was abandoned. Taken on their own terms and turf, these modest, unambitious little films are nevertheless effective examples of 1940s noir, especially Columbia 40s noir - atmospheric, beautifully lit and photographed, concise in their construction and execution, and certainly worth a look today. None of them, of course, are on DVD, which makes their claim on our memory all the more pressing. It's almost as if they don't exist - yet happily, they do, as examples of a time and place when black and white ruled the cinema, and short schedules and tight budgets could often produce some remarkable films. At least two of the films in this brief series fit that description, and are highly recommended.

Works Cited
Bannon, Jim. The Son That Rose in the West. Plano, TX: Devil’s Hole, 1975.
Cairns, David. “The Forgotten: The Radio Dicks,” MUBI Website,
.
Misiaszek, Brian Christopher. “The Unofficial I Love A Mystery Home Page”.




Written by Wheeler Winston Dixton



About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review and Film and Video. His newest books are A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press /Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film(co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008).





3 comments:

  1. Great post, Steve. I never saw any of the I LOVE A MYSTERY series (at least, I don't remember seeing any of them), but I found Jim Bannon's letters to his parents absolutely riveting. To see the production of a "B" movie through the eyes of a journeyman actor at a second-tier studio during the heyday of Hollywood is rare indeed. You could tell he knew he would never taste the wine of fame and fortune that existed all around him in that fairy-tale world.

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  2. I have just seen all three films and really liked them all. I like this kind of little film

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  3. Sir, thanks for writing about I Love a Mystery being adapted into movies. I am a big fan of old time radio who usually thinks it should only be seen in the mind's eye. However, there have been radio shows successfully adapted into motion pictures and television shows. The Devil's Mask, from the short bit you linked to, looks like one of them.

    By the way, as Bannon wasn't too thrilled about Hollywood's make of I Love a Mystery, I'm sure quite a few back then weren't too thrilled hearing great motion pictures chopped up into brief, vapid radio scripts.

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