By 1950, the golden age of dramatic radio had come to an end. In the twenties, thirties and forties, radio was the at-home alternative to a night out at the movies. With the coming of television, however, the radio that Americans had known for the better part of three decades simply ceased to exist. If television irrevocably altered the movies, it effectively destroyed dramatic radio.
Which is not to say that it died overnight. In its final decade, old-time radio made several last ditch efforts to salvage its diminishing audience. It had long employed movie stars to voice radio adaptations of hit films or to star in dramatic series built around their established personas. For instance, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall not only starred in a radio production of To Have And Have Not, they headlined their own adventure series, Bold Venture, from 1951 to 1952.
For my money, the best of the early fifties radio shows was a wonderfully dark little program called Night Beat, which may well be the closest thing to a real radio noir that the golden age ever produced. The show starred the incomparable Frank Lovejoy as Randy Stone, the “night beat” reporter for the fictional newspaper The Chicago Star. (Stone’s paper had no intended connection to the leftist newssheet with the same name that had been run by Frank Marshall Davis in the forties.) At the beginning of each show, Stone headed out into the Chicago night in search of a new story. “Stories start in many different ways,” he would say. “This one began…”
What he invariably found was trouble—“the wino dreaming of a muscatel paradise in cold dark doorways, painted little dames defying the world with their brassy laughter…the homeless, the hopeless.”
Though Stone was occasionally called upon to do some de facto detective work, the show wasn’t exactly a mystery series. It was more of a noir anthology series, with Stone running around the streets of Chicago, finding desperate people living lives of frustration, loneliness, greed, and violence. Sometimes he helped them. Sometimes they were beyond help. “My beat is eight square miles of darkness,” he noted in one episode. It seemed as if those miles were populated exclusively by “the lonely, lost, mixed-up, screwy people of the night.”
The show ran from 1950 to 1952 and logged some 104 episodes. Highlights include:
- “The Football Player and the Syndicate”: Stone discovers an ex-college gridiron star who has become a hopeless gambler and is considering becoming a hitman in order to clear his debt to the mob.
- “A City At Your Fingertips”: Stone dials a wrong number and accidently calls a woman who fears that she’s about to be murdered by her husband.
- “Doctor’s Secret”: Sent to the penitentiary to cover an execution, Stone meets an alcoholic doctor with a dark past.
- “The Will of Mrs. Orloff”: After Stone witnesses the death of an elderly scrub woman, he discovers that she has $50,000 in her bankbook.
- “Gunner’s Last Fight”: A down-and-out boxer with a no-good wife considers fighting one last time, with tragic results.
- “Byline for Frank”: While he’s filling in at the rewrite desk one night, Stone gets a call from a dying ex-reporter with a deathbed confession.
- “Fear”: Stone is stalked by a psychotically dissatisfied reader. A real tour-de-force of old-time radio suspense.
Night Beat was produced and directed by Warren Lewis, a talented showrunner who eventually made the transition to television (where he would later work with Lovejoy on various projects). His direction is beautifully evocative, a lesson in the sonic texture of drama. Like most great dramatic radio, Night Beat utilizes small sounds (the click of heels on pavement, the creak of a door, the shuffling of paper) and glues them together with moments of precisely applied silence. To listen to these shows is to be exposed to a lost art form, one that is deliciously fun and entertaining. Listen to them in the dark as you’re going to bed, but be warned that some of the suspense episodes work so well you’ll actually get creeped out.
Of course, like a television show, an old-time radio show is only as good as its cast. Night Beat had an incredible array of vocal talent including film noir regulars like William Conrad, Jeff Corey, and Ted de Corsia, as well as radio stalwarts like Joan Banks (Frank Lovejoy’s wife), Lurene Tuttle, and Martha Wentworth.
At the center of it all was Randy Stone himself—Frank Lovejoy. He’d started out in radio in the forties before making the jump to movies, where he soon became the great everyman of film noir working on classics like In A Lonely Place, The Hitch-Hiker, The Sound of Fury, and Finger Man. Toward the end of his life he worked quite a bit on television and scored a huge Broadway hit in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (he died before the play was a made into a film). As much as I love his film noir work, though, I have to admit that my favorite Frank Lovejoy might well be that voice in the night searching for a good story on Night Beat.
Read more in our Film Noir series.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.