On This Day in 1930: Old Sleuth Re-emerges in New Medium

Well, before taking a moment to give my page a bit of a makeover and getting all gimmicky by setting up a poll to encourage reader participation (despite my own difficulties with such surveys), I tuned in again to BBC 4 last night and watched another fine British thriller: Edward Dmytryk’s Obsession (1949). Sufficiently motivated by the experience, I promptly cast my vote at IMDb, which is something I am just getting into the habit of doing.

Obsession is told mainly from the perspective of the criminal, a jealous husband determined to do away with his wife’s lover; eventually, Scotland Yard is on his case, and the storytelling loses some of its focus as the inspector keeps calling and occasionally takes the camera along with him. Still, with its emphasis on the execution and prevention rather than the detection of a crime, Obsession is a psychological thriller as opposed to a whodunit, the genre revolutionized in the 1880s by Conan Doyle and his famed Sherlock Holmes stories.

I have always enjoyed a solid whodunit, even though I prefer them in print instead of visualized on the screen or dramatized for radio, as I explained previously. I nonetheless put aside my copy of Agatha Christie’s Poirot puzzler The Clocks to commemorate a milestone in radio mystery drama. It was on this day, 20 October, in 1930, that master detective Holmes and his sidekick-chronicler, the logic-deficient Dr. Watson solved their first mystery on the air.

The mystery, “The Speckled Band,” was a familiar one, to be sure, as was the actor who assumed the role of the brilliant if conceited armchair detective. The performer before the microphone that night was none other than William Gillette, who had not only played Holmes more than a thousand times before but had rewritten some of his adventures to create a stage melodrama that was to serve as his star vehicle for over three decades.

As a Theatre Magazine critic pointed out, Gillette “himself cut the radio score, arranged by Edith Meiser [. . .], directed his cast, and spoke into the microphone from the special glass-curtained stage of the National Broadcasting Company’s Times Square studio” atop the theater that had been “the scene of Gillette’s farewell return to the footlights” earlier that year.

Gillette was already in his late 70s and did not return to the microphone for subsequent episodes; but, being described by a New York Times reviewer as standing “erect and unbending” and as having a “clear, precise, vibrant” voice, the aged thespian was lured out of retirement now and again to play the part for several years longer, returning to the airwaves once more for the 18 November 1935 Lux Radio Theatre production of his stage success.

Holmes survived Gillette’s death in 1937 and continued for another decade to solve mysteries on US radio, even though he had to face plenty of competition on the blood-speckled bandwidths. Like the motion picture series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the Holmes adventures on the air also played an important role in home front motivation, endearing Americans to their at times veddy peculiar and snobby sounding allies in Britain. After the war, the British reclaimed Holmes and continued to dramatize his adventures on BBC radio.

Although I was not immediately taken by such pastiche, the American dramatizations eventually won me over with their charm. Retaining Watson as the narrator added much to the cozy atmosphere of these miniature mysteries; the banter between Holmes and his friend supplied the wit; and the thrills were not wanting either, as aforementioned writer-adaptor Meiser managed to keep the guessing game going despite the challenge of making the short plays intelligible by reducing the number of suspects and dropping fairly conspicuous hints.

So, as the sun is setting earlier or refuses to appear altogether on these gray autumn days, I will sit back more often to join Dr. Watson at his fireside, listening attentively to his tales of intrigue and murder. Just don’t call it an obsession . . .

2 Replies to “On This Day in 1930: Old Sleuth Re-emerges in New Medium”

  1. Small correction: After Gillette appeared in the first episode of the 1930 Holmes series, he was followed for two episodes by Clive Brooks as Holmes. It was in the fourth episode that Richard Gordon appeared as the famous detective.

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