20 September: The unlikely plainsman

The Six Shooter: Jenny (Series Premiere; NBC, 1953)

James Stewart, who made a singular Britt Ponset. (Photo: NBC.)

James Stewart, who made a singular Britt Ponset. (Photo: NBC.)

James Stewart, who’s done enough guest shots to know, should have been a natural for network radio. His laconic vocal style and ability to immerse himself in even the lightest characterisation should have added radio star to his resume. The problem was, when he finally finds a regular vehicle for his gifts, it comes a decade too late.

Any way you view it, The Six Shooter is one of network radio’s greatest Westerns and possibly its most unusual. As Britt Ponset, Stewart is a talker so slow he makes Matt Dillon resemble Walter Winchell, and his manner is so easygoing he makes the eventual Frontier Gentleman resemble a nervous wreck. His Ponset also practically pratfalls into assorted stories and struggles wherever he travels, which sometimes seems like about seven-eighths of the Old West.

And if you can name one other Western hero (maybe anti-hero is the better term, though not in the way it’s usually deployed) who plays Hamlet in a road company one week, falls into a Cinderella story (complete with satanic stepmother and troll-like sisters) the next, and turns A Christmas Carol into a Western adventure minus the big, long, loud shoot-’em-up for justice, you’re smarter than I am.

Not to mention maybe the single most classic and lonely sounding theme music in the history of broadcast Westerns. Even if you don’t pay attention to the measured hoofsteps behind it, Basil Adlam’s “Highland Lament” just reeks of the unspoken loneliness of the long-distance plains wanderer. You can just picture Stewart aboard his benign horse, Scar, moving quietly, steadily, almost invisibly, from one territory to the next, at once intrigued and petrified at what might await them.

The genuinely sad part is that, for all Stewart’s cachet and the near-consistent understated brilliance of its writing (the show can, and sometimes will, lapse into folksily maudlin platitudes, though they tend to come and go almost in a flicker when all is said and done), The Six Shooter doesn’t stand a prayer of survival without consistent sponsorship.

Which was one time Stewart shot himself in the foot, if you care to see it this way in the context of the time. Liggett & Meyers Tobacco wanted to sponsor the show for Chesterfield cigarettes. Stewart demurred, politely but firmly, because he feared just enough that an attachment to a tobaccomaker would clash with his straight-arrow image.

Tonight: Young, plain Jenny Garver (possibly Elvia Allman) intrigues Ponset (Stewart) with her quietly reserved, almost masculine carriage and fashion sense, but he doesn’t quite understand why townspeople deride her so mercilessly.

He finds himself concerned for Jenny despite her defiant self-reliance and unusual compassion—the kind that lets her love and hide an outlaw simply because he didn’t deride her as others do.

And you thought Gunsmoke has the market cornered cold on intelligent, understated, even compassionate Western radio writing.

Additional cast: B.J. Thompson, Jess Kirkpatrick, George Niess, Harry Bartell. Announcer: Hal Gibney. Music: Basil Adlam. Director: Jack Johnstone. Writer: Frank Burt.

Tune In Today, Continued . . .

Comedy

Mayor of the Town: Amy Lou Goes to War (NBC, 1942)—Lionel Barrymore, Agnes Moorehead, Stan Ferrar, Veola Vonn. Amy Lou Peters is torn between joining the Women’s Army Corps and staying behind as the wife of her lifelong love, but joining the Corps gets her a court-martial over front-line treatment. The miracle: it avoids soapy melodrama. Writers: Jean Holloway, Leonard St. Clair.

The Jack Benny Program: Return to Paradise (CBS, 1953)—Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, Dennis Day, Bob Crosby, Eddie Anderson, Don Wilson, Bea Benaderet. The South Seas saga gets the Benny lampoon treatment. You know your film has it made if Benny decides to take a good-natured poke at it. Writers: George Balzer, Hal Goldman, Al Gordon, Milt Josefsberg, Sam Perrin, John Tackaberry.

 

Crime Drama

The Whistler: Fog (CBS, 1942)—Joseph Kearns (as the Whistler); unidentified cast. In heavy fog a merchant shipman becomes temporarily amnesiac in a fall and discovers the hood he goes to meet over a debt is dead—and he fears he may have killed the man during his amnesiac spell.It’ll kind of force you to stay with it, believe it or not. Writer: Herbert Connor.

Richard Diamond, Private Detective: The Bald Head Case (NBC, 1950)—Dick Powell, Virginia Gregg, Mary Jane Croft, Ed Begley, Wilms Herbert, Ted de Corsia. Diamond’s old friend Pat needs him: one of her salon regulars is dead and there’s no apparent sign of foul play but one speculative motive—until a safe deposit box key, a blackmail list, and the corpse’s apparent girl friend all prove more than meet the proverbial eye. Clever in its way. Writer: Blake Edwards.

 

Mystery/Thriller

Suspense: The Library Book (CBS, 1945)—Myrna Loy, Conrad Binyan, Cathy Lewis, Wally Maher. Loy as a mousy public librarian who drops everything to discover who vandalised her library’s copy of Gone With the Wind . . . including her eyeglasses, which causes people to treat her much differently when she does. Tour de force for Loy. Writer/director: William Spier. (Based on the novel, The Book That Squealed by Cornell Woolrich.)

 

WORLD WAR II

Special Report: Hitler’s Danzig Address (NBC, 1939)—A soap opera break-in reports Hitler’s expected arrival in the Polish city whose annexation der Fuehrer had demanded the previous spring. The Third Reich invaded Poland at the beginning of this month, launching what becomes World War II after Britain and France—having guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity after the betrayals of the Munich Pact—declared war on Germany in return. An excerpt from Hitler’s rant is included in this recording, though no translation is available . . . or, perhaps, needed.

CBS European News: A Quiet Day, Sort of (CBS, 1940)—On an unusually quiet day, Eric Sevareid leads off with one round of German raiders driven back during the London Blitz, apparently, though reports out of Dover indicate another invasion wave is iminent; British troops at Dover are confident of being able to beat the wave back. Sevareid also notes scattered, very occasional incendiary bombs striking around his particular location the day before, not to mention the crash of a German aircraft atop a London home adjacent to a hospital.

Other news: Little counter-invasion activity otherwise (William L. Shirer from Berlin); a Roosevelt Administration plan to transfer B-17s to the British despite Congressional isolationists and speculation on who will head the Selective Service (Albert Warner from Washington); the forthcoming Ribbentrop-Mussolini talks; major British air raids against Italian forces in northern Africa; unexpected Japanese demands for French Indochinese base location of little known value.

Anchor: George Bryan.

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