Howard Duff “was a seasoned but insung veteran” of radio when he bumped into the radio role of a lifetime in 1946, and he had the wife of the show’s director to thank for getting the role in the first place.
William Spier (Suspense) wanted nothing less than the next best thing to Humphrey Bogart when he decided to bring Sam Spade, the hero of Dashiell Hammett’s stories The Maltese Falcon, to radio, and Duff was anything but. But Spier’s wife, Kay Thompson, was taken so powerfully by Duff’s audition that her husband relented.
“Thirteen weeks later,” John Dunning would remember in On the Air: The Encylopedia of Old-Time Radio, “it would be difficult to remember that any other choice had been possible.”
Duff had become Spade, overcoming two intimidating handicaps—the image of Bogart and the power of the novel. Compared with Bogart’s dour and straitlaced Spade, Duff’s was a cutup: a hard-knuckled master of street whimsy and sarcastic comeback. His sense of burlesque was superb. The Adventures of Sam Spade on the air was its own entity, owing little to the forces that had created it.
Tonight the show is in the middle of an impressive run of three straight top fifty seasonal ratings finishes. Only one thing can stop the show and does: abject stupidity.
NBC will take The Adventures of Sam Spade on for 1949-50, following those three solid seasons on CBS. But thanks to NBC’s programming Spade against Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy (on CBS), the detective will blow 25 percent of its audience and fell into single-digit ratings for the first time.
Which will not sit comfortably with sponsor Wildroot, at a time the company is also bringing pressure to bear on behalf of removing Dashiell Hammett from the show credits—thanks to Hammett coming into the crosshairs of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. (Hammett had raised bail for four Communists associated with the New York Civil Rights Congress, even though he himself had left the Communist Party without renouncing his Marxist political views. The writer had refused to inject pure party-line views into his novels and clashed with party overseers often on the matter.)
The hair cream maker will dump Spade in favour of a thinly-disguised half-hour commercial packaged as Charlie Wild, Private Detective. When it is announced in Variety, a throng of mail protesting the move will convince NBC to continue Spade as a sustaining series.
But NBC decides it, too, will have had enough of Duff, himself to be named in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. His replacement will be Steve Dunne, who’s as boyish-sounding as Duff isn’t and will be “labouring under a handicap,” Dunning will recall. “Not even Bogart could have followed Howard Duff by then.”
Duff will be able to clear himself, with a little help from his then-wife, actress/director Ida Lupino; his was clearly a guilt-by-association mention, and he will go on to fashion a respectable career in 1950s film noir and in television. (He’ll be remembered best as Det. Sam Stone in the mid-1960s crime drama The Felony Squad.)
NBC will never quite understand what it loses when it declines to keep Duff in the radio role he’s made his own. And The Adventures of Sam Spade will be remembered appreciatively, as Dunning will summarise:
The show was loved in its time and still is. The plots were often run-of-the-mill radio fare, obviously hacked out in the heat of the deadline. No one cared if holes were patched in an obvious and sometimes careless way—this show had a style and class that the others all envied. Duff made the writing part of his own unique character. The wit and charm of the show has weathered four decades, and The Adventures of Sam Spade remains today the pinnacle of radio private eye broadcasts.
There will also be a somewhat ironic postscript: The Adventures of Sam Spade has taken a few jabs at Congressional Communist hunters, including the once or twice reference to House Committee on Un-American Activities chairman J. Parnell Thomas. At around the same time as Wildroot tries to dump the show, in part because of Hammett’s and Duff’s reputed politics, Thomas himself will fall: his secretary, Helen Campbell, will hand columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson documents proving he has staffers who didn’t show up for work and whose annual salaries were kicked back to Thomas on the pretense of avoiding taxation.
Thomas will be convicted of salary fraud and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. In spite of pleading the Fifth Amendment several times during his trial, a pleading he customarily denounces and denies witnesses before his HUAC—including Dashiell Hammett.
TUNE IN TONIGHT:
Spade (Howard Duff) gets a delivery that’s a dangerous kind of special: an inscribed photograph and matching, passionate love letter from a woman (Cathy Lewis) who wants to escape her controlling—and possibly murderous–uncle, though she may have some explaining to do when Spade’s accused of robbing her.
Effie: Lurene Tuttle. Additional cast: June Havoc. Announcer: Dick Joy. Music: Lud Gluskin. Director: William Spier. Writers: Gil Doud, Bob Tallman.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
mr. ace and JANE: Sally is Fired (CBS, 1948)—Goodman and Jane Ace, Eric Dressler, Evelyn Varden, Florence Robinson, Jill Dennison, Ken Roberts. Ace would rather that canning his incompetent secretary be his own idea and not Norris’s, who’s jamming one of his own relatives down his throat. Don’t ask, just laugh.
Quiet, Please: A Time to Be Born, a Time to Die (ABC, 1949)—Ernest Chappell, Edgar Stehli, Joyce Gordon, Helen Choate, Athena Lord. A man who’s worked his way from rock bottom to company presidency wishes he could change a life he thinks has spiraled out of his control. Stay with it.