Radio Is . . . a "Popular Corpse"

Well, you know you’re in trouble when you are asked to find a missing dame who “collects epitaphs.” On this day, 30 October, in 1948, radio detective Michael Shayne was hired to find such a dame. Could he be featuring prominently in that album of headstone headlines before this case is solved? His assignment that Saturday evening was “The Case of the Popular Corpse.” Back then, Shayne was portrayed by Jeff Chandler, who, at that time, was also cast opposite the aforementioned Eve Arden in the radio sitcom Our Miss Brooks. His film career would not take off until the early 1950s; and, like many Hollywood hopefuls, the man who came to Tinseltown as Ira Gossel kept afloat on the airwaves, playing frequently in the Lux Radio Theater and stepping behind the microphone to please audiences of Suspense, Escape, and assorted P.I. candy tossed on the air to catch the ear of an increasingly fickle audience.

In the spirit of Halloween, I thought I might investigate the “Popular Corpse,” intrigued by its New Orleans setting and curious about a program I have not as yet given any consideration, serious or otherwise. Turns out, I have been misled, more so than our hapless investigator. “The Popular Corpse” is executed routinely if competently, leaving no ghostly trail in the graveyard of your mind.

“Bei Mir Bist Du Shayne”? Not quite. The sounds of fisticuffs, the rants of an irate gardener, a nocturnal chase in a cemetery, and whatever goes for tough talk in the air-conditioned atmosphere of radio dramatics—not much to make sense or simulate the senses. “You’d better read a book,” commented critic Harriet Van Horne on the state of the radio thriller anno 1948: “I think I’ll take my mystery neat—out of a book—rather than give an ear to the half-hour blood baths common to radio.”

The title of this Michael Shayne episode, scripted by Robert Ryf, is an apt metaphor for the medium itself, for commercial radio, the talent it consumed, and the moribund condition in which it was left well before the end of the 1950s. By the late 1940s, radio thrillers, which rarely equalled, let alone surpassed “The War of the Worlds” (broadcast on this day in 1938), were not necessarily a skeleton in the closet of a motion picture star; but it seems that actors, producers, and audiences alike could not wait to bury them when television began to stomp on the grave of the imagination that radio had kept alive all those years.

That said, The New Adventures of Michael Shayne came to American ears for a decade (from 1944 to 1953); on television, the detective met his demise after a single season (1960-61). Perhaps, looks can kill faster, especially if Jeff Chandler is out of the picture . . .

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