On This Day in 1937: “Saints preserve us,” Here Comes Mr. Keen

Well, I just attended a touring production of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, a critique of which will have to wait until tomorrow; for tonight I am going to acknowledge, however half-heartedly, the anniversary of a radio program preposterous enough to be deemed food for foolery by noted on-air lampoonists Bob and Ray (pictured). I am referring, of course, to Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, whose melodramatic excesses were first endured on this day, 12 October, in 1937.

Sure, radio drama chronicler Jim Cox has devoted an entire volume to the story of the “kindly old investigator”; and considering that the program managed to stay on the air for eighteen years, it must have had its unfair share of admirers. Each week, Keen was unabashedly announced as “one of the most famous characters of American fiction” in “one of radio’s most thrilling dramas.” To me, however, the theme music—”Some Day I’ll Find You”—always seemed taunting, a hollow promise at best. Find that last missing person already and begone, old tracer!

Keen eventually changed his line of business, cornering criminals instead of countering disappearing acts. Still, whether apprehending miscreants or retrieving the missing, his methods of deduction rarely changed and were not of the most sophisticated sort. As Cox points out in his Radio Crime Fighters, Keen’s cases were poorly constructed, their solution relying on “minimal logic,” mere coincidences or abject slip-of-the-tongue-shodness.

None of this bothered me as much as the condescension with which the sanctimonious hero interfered in the lives of those who sought his help or came under his scrutiny. He was an officious, moralizing snoop who went about what was often none of his business at all.

I am usually not one to embrace camp, which, to me, is a cavalier act of willful misreading; but I was greatly amused when a recreation of a Mr. Keen episode—”The Case of the Inherited Fear”—was performed and greeted with irreverence at the 25th Friends of Old Time Radio Convention in Newark, New Jersey.

The case involved a young naval officer who, as the narrator puts it, “disappeared after he’d been discharged from the navy for medical causes. He was obsessed with a fear of being in confined places.” I could identify with the runaway right away, for what could be more stifling than being clap-trapped by old Mr. Keen?

The ever successful tracer manages to get hold of the claustrophobe in a mining town in Pennsylvania, engaged in an attempt to overcome his anxieties by toiling underground. Just when he is about to make his first descent, an alarm is sounded and his efforts are temporarily thwarted: a cave-in has occurred, endangering the lives of 140 miners.

Keen has “seized the occasion” to lecture the fearful man, insisting that he go below to rescue the workers. The old fellow single-handedly (or, make that, single-mindedly) unlocks the mystery of the ex-officer’s phobia by unearthing its true cause: “Your fear is nothing more than a symbol in your subconscious mind, a symbol of what happened the day you were locked in the closet with your mother.”

Well, such pop-psychological drivel could only trickle from the busy pen of radio melodramatists Anne and Frank Hummert, who decreed that, thanks to Mr. Keen, sanity be restored and social ties mended as the thoroughly rehabilitated young man rushes to the aid of the miners with the “same calm, untroubled expression” his mother has when she turns to her bible.

“Saints preserve us” (as Mr. Keen’s sidekick would put it), the aged tracer has done it again, dispensing another dose of sentiment when suspense might have sufficed. Now, if only we could stuff him into that closet . . .

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