Suspense in 1948 starts the year with an experiment: an hour-long exercise digging deeper, as if the show isn’t already renowned for digging plenty deep and then some in half an hour. It’s also going to make another change little by little: incoming director Anton M. Leader will rotate the established players from Radio Row out and hold open auditions while also reaching for known Hollywood talent.
Just before Leader comes aboard Suspense is already reaching toward established characters to work with. Few will prove as memorable as tonight, when it brings aboard no less than the lead from another radio hit, The Adventures of Sam Spade.
The only reason Howard Duff is Sam Spade in the first place is because he somehow managed to impress Kay Thompson, the wife of Suspense mastermind William Spier, who also happened to be slated to direct The Adventures of Sam Spade. Spier wanted someone who could get even reasonably within striking distance of Humphrey Bogart, who’d made Spade his own in The Maltese Falcon. Duff was about as close to the Bogart style as Guy Lombardo was to Duke Ellington’s.
He was seasoned well enough on radio, having been an Armed Forces Radio Service mainstay before he landed in Hollywood in 1945. And that seasoning probably helped Duff overcome whatever trepidation he or Spier had. “Thirteen weeks later,” John Dunning would recall in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio, referring to the show’s first thirteen weeks, “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 Maltese Falcon] the novel. Compared with Bogart’s dour and straitlaced Spade, Duff’s was a cutup: a hard-knuckled master of street-level 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 created it.
Despite originating network ABC’s insistence upon creating the impression that The Maltese Falcon author Dashiell Hammett was deeply involved with the show, The Adventures of Sam Spade would be written in fact by Bob Tallman and teammates Jo Eisinger (under the Jason James pseudonym) and, later, Gil Doud, until 1949. Tallman and Doud would come to believe they’d done everything they could with the show’s writing, and yielded to a rotating team (including E. Jack Neuman) until September 1950.
That would be when Howard Duff’s name turns up in Red Channels, the book purporting to describe by way of names, groups, and events Communist influence in radio and television. Duff himself has never been an actual Communist. But he does support Henry Wallace’s presidential aspirations in 1948. And Wallace (Edward R. Murrow would describe him as “naive”) refuses to disavow the Communist Party USA, which endorses him publicly and pours resources and workers into his campaign covertly.
Blend that to Hammett’s name having already turned up before the House Committee on Un-American Activities—Hammett was a Communist Party member and highly visible president of the Civil Rights Congress, which may or may not have factor into the Congress itself becoming suspected as a Communist front—and it would equal a very nervous sponsor in Wildroot, the men’s hair tonic.
The Adventures of Sam Spade does tackle a few issues that could be tied to the issue of both Communists in government and the lawmakers who sought to purge them, of course, including a dig or two at House Committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas in one script. At first, Wildroot will go no further than insisting that Hammett’s name presence be diminished, but by 9 September 1950 Wildroot lets Sam Spade go in favour of sponsoring a new (and barely-to-be-remembered) detective yarn, Charlie Wild, Private Detective.
The good news for radio fans would be that an avalanche of protest mail to NBC (a reputed 250,000 letters, in fact) would prompt the network to continue The Adventures of Sam Spade. The bad news would be that it would continue without Duff. In his place would be Steve Dunne, “a boyish-sounding Spade labouring under a major handicap,” Dunning would recall in due course. “Not even Bogart could have followed Howard Duff by then.”
The new Sam Spade would last only five months. Suspense’s experiment with an hour-long format would last only a hair longer. The original Spade series would come to be regarded as old-time radio’s arguable pinnacle among detective shows.
Howard Duff—whose personal life has included a “tempestuous” liaison with Ava Gardner (weren’t all her liaisons tempestuous?)—would be rescued from his blacklisting by way of his marriage to Ida Lupino, who included him in several of her films and in several of her television activities, including a co-starring role with her in the comedy Mr. Adams and Eve.
In time Duff would make a distinguished second career in television, including a key role as Det. Sam Stone in the ABC television hit The Felony Squad. By that time, his marriage to Lupino ended, though they wouldn’t divorce formally for almost two decades.
Spade’s longtime rivals Joe Cairo (Hans Conreid) and Kaspar Gutman (Joseph Kearns) warn him about an unscrupulous dentist (Wally Maher) and his equally unscrupulous sister (Cathy Lewis), but the warning takes a further, more ominous meaning when the siblings approach Spade and the sister warns her brother’s merely a dental impersonator . . . and the brother admits Gutman paid him to extract a possibly valuable tooth from a corpse and implant it into another man’s mouth.
Reading that description makes it sound like a satire of the venerable gumshoe classic. This episode is many things. Satirical isn’t exactly one of them. Stay with it.
Effie: Lurene Tuttle (who also plays the role regularly in The Adventures of Sam Spade.) Additional cast: Jay Novello, William Johnstone, Jeanette Nolan, Jack Edwards, Jr., Sydney Miller. Host: Robert Montgomery. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Director: William Spier. Writers: Jason James, Robert Tallman.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Lux Radio Theater: Enter Madame (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1938)
The Great Gildersleeve: McGee’s Visit (comedy; NBC, 1943)
Lux Radio Theater: The Constant Nymph (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1944)
Escape: The Second Class Passenger (adventure; CBS, 1948)
Fibber McGee & Molly: The McGees Help at Walt’s Malt Shoppe (comedy; NBC, 1950)
Life with Luigi: Luigi’s First Citizenship Papers (comedy; CBS, 1950)
The Mysterious Traveler: Survival of the Fittest (crime drama; Mutual, 1950)
Broadway is My Beat: The Lona Hansen Murder Case (crime drama; CBS, 1953)
Gunsmoke: Word of Honour (Western; CBS, 1953)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Daredevil Dave Subs for Fibber (comedy; NBC, 1955)
Gunsmoke: Luke’s Law (Western; CBS, 1960)