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Old-time radio, 30 July: Restrengthening the Dollar

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His early life isn’t much known or recorded. But Bob Bailey, yet another alumnus of Chicago’s fertile 1930s radio community, went from “born in a trunk” (as most sketchy biographies of the actor phrase it) to “the man with the action packed expense account” at a time when Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar needed either a shot in the head or a kick in the ass to deliver it from the near-banality in which it was mired since its uncertain birth in 1949.

Johnny Dollar began as a slightly offbeat freewheeler, with a slightly endearing habit of tossing silver dollars around as tips and a slightly maddening knack for padding his expense account fluffily. Before long, however, whether played by original star Charles Russell or successors Edmond O’Brien and John Lund, Dollar sank so deep into the guise of the gruff tough guy, with none of the humanising touch that made Gerald Mohr’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe so bearable, that it was wholly legitimate to wonder what the hell Dollar was still doing on the air, even in old-time radio’s long intensive-care-unit (figuratively speaking) decade before its final death.

By contrast, Bailey helped pioneer the humanised hard-boiled gumshoe when he took on the title role in Let George Do It, which predated America’s fabulous freelance insurnace investigator by a couple of years. Bailey’s George Valentine was a fully-formed former GI with a flair (some might call it an obsession) for thinking not just out of the box but in the next county over from it, and he packed a disarming wit soon to be given greater head by Dick Powell’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

Let George Do It was strictly a West Coast proposition; its presence on the Mutual/Don Lee Network kept it from picking up much if any East Coast following. But it did prepare Bailey for an impossible job when Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar‘s overseers at CBS decide to overhaul the still popular but rather exhausted property and hand the tiller to Jack Johnstone. And Johnstone decides at once to scrap every previous trapping of the show.

He releases the writers who were too much of the gumshoe genre to make it fresh. He brings in writers, largely freelancers, who have comparatively little experience in crime drama writing. And he reaches for Bailey, who’d shown himself a solid character developer as an actor, to lead Dollar into a serial format holding down a five-day-a-week story line each week. Now, character development is just as important as plot and device, if not more so. Indeed, the one would come to seem impossible without the other.

The new Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar continues the show’s lingering popularity and adds the once-unthinkable bonus of receiving a few critical praises in the bargain. Bailey’s Dollar seems newly alive, though occasionally impatient (which created deft complications solved on the turn of a dime sometimes) and it extends to the supporting players and their roles, particularly Harry Bartell’s Pat McCracken, and the old, exhausted device of Dollar’s expense account padding now playing for subtle laughs.

The serial format lasts for just over a year, 55 weeks, before Johnstone and Bailey restore the original weekly half-hour without many of the old tired devices, even if some might accuse the restoration of acquiring (as John Dunning would note) a certain triteness.

But Bailey and Johnstone leave an impact regardless. After Bailey left the show in 1960, when its production moved to New York, successors Bob Readick and (especially) Mandel Kramer strive to keep the depth Bailey injects into the once-cardboard character, helped no doubt by Jack Johnstone staying aboard as the show’s chief writer (he’d send the scripts east from his Hollywood base) while Bruno Zirato, Jr. took over the direction.

There’s a case to make that Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar is old-time radio’s least likely survivor, riding fourteen years until it is the absolute last first-run broadcast of a classic network radio program in 1962. Bailey just might have ensured that it would have that chance in the first place.

TUNE IN TONIGHT:

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: The Sea Legs Matter, Part One (CBS, 1956)

Tonight begins a classic example as to why critics and fans of the long-running crime drama believe it would never be better than in the year it was transformed into a weekly, five-part serial: Wealthy Long Island sportsman Douglas Lanfair has died aboard the Sea Legs, his sumptuously-apportioned yacht, on which his widow (Virginia Gregg) has filed a lucrative insurance claim.

Dollar (Bob Bailey) learns the Sea Legs sinking wasn’t the first time Lanfair lost a boat, or recovered damages, after sailing through dangerous Central American currents. Unfortunately, Dollar learns further that the widow seems just a little more interested in the yacht’s fate and the damages it merits than she seems stricken by her husband’s death.

First of five parts. Pat McCracken: Harry Bartell. Announcer: Roy Rowan. Music: Amerigo Moreno. Writer/director: Jack Johnstone.

Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Whistler: Summer Thunder (Crime drama; CBS, 1945)

The Whistler: Borrowed Byline (Crime drama; CBS, 1947)

Bold Venture: The Voodoo Vendetta in Paradise; or, The Search for Tommy Reed (Adventure; ZIV Syndication, 1951)

Gunsmoke: Tap Day for Kitty (Western; CBS, 1955)

Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: Smelly Dave in Albany (Improvisational comedy; hmmmmm, 1959)

Suspense: You Can Die Laughing (Mystery/thriller; CBS, 1961)

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