“Fortune . . . Danger!”: Weighing In on The Fat Man

Well, he had more than a slim chance of winning over the public when he first stepped on the the scales on this day, 21 January, in 1946, solving the mystery of “The 19th Pearl” (an anniversary also commemorated today by the unfaltering “Easy Ace”). His name, after all, was The Fat Man (also known as Brad Runyon); and he was allegedly fathered by the same guy who gave us The Thin Man. The connection exhausted itself in the contrast expressed in—and unabashedly exploited by—the title. The Fat Man was part of ABC’s “Monday night surprise package,” four programs the network added to its line-up of offerings. According to New York Times radio critic Jack Gould it was a “courageous venture.” Not quite so “courageous,” perhaps, considering that the producers of The Fat Man were banking on the public’s familiarity with the author of The Maltese Falcon, even though said talent had no involvement in the new series other than lending his name to it, for a considerable fee.

Of that, the press appeared to have been unaware, lest they were complicit in duping the public. Gould, at least, assumed the The Fat Man to be “from the pen of Dashiell Hammett, who except for a changed perspective on human avoirdupois, is still drawing liberally on the pattern set by his eminently successful Thin Man.” Not that he was particularly impressed, arguing that the “script left a good deal to be desired, being pretty wishy-washy in characterization and worse in motivation.” Deemed an “altogether different matter” was the second episode (“The Unfamiliar Face”), a “well-knit thirty minutes” for the fashioning of which Robert Sloane was acknowledged as “adapter and director.”

And yet, Gould argued, it was the performer in the title role who might “determine the program’s long-range fate.” Runyon was played by J. Scott Smart (pictured above, in an image freely adapted from a contemporary Life magazine article photographically recreating one of the Fat Man’s subsequent adventures). Gould called his delivery “casual,” at times assuming a “rather sing-song quality that does not always make for the best of listening.” Like Sydney Greenstreet (as Nero Wolfe), the audibly bulky Smart had a voice well-suited to the role of a criminologist who, the announcer reminds us, “tips the scale at 247 pounds.”

Rather more human than the average hard-boiled investigator, the apple-chewing Runyon is self-conscious about his physical appearances: “The only time you really feel [fat] is when you run into a beautiful woman.” In his first adventure, he does just that. Bidding farewell to his mother at Grand Central Station, he bumps into the proverbial—and as such dubious—damsel in distress to whose charms (enhanced by a slight case of Dietrich) our hero too willingly succumbs. “I don’t think it is wise to kiss strange women in stations, son,” his mother warns him. “Have you still got your watch?” “I’ve got more than my watch, ma. I’ve still got her bag.” And thus, the “Pearl” gets rolling. Not the freshwater kind, mind you, but not such a bad piece of custom jewelry at that.

Less than sparkling was the other thriller series premiering that night: I Deal in Crime, starring William Gargan (whom I last spotted in The Devil’s Party, as well as the Claudette Colbert vehicles The Misleading Lady and Four Frightened People). The prominent lead notwithstanding, Gould showed himself unimpressed:

[. . .] Ted Hediger’s script, most of which is a monologue, creeps along at a snail’s pace and boasts more than the accepted quota of the stock situation for the detective field. The central character of Ross Dolan would make any self-respecting gumshoe cringe, and matters are not helped by a rather lackadaisical performance by Mr. Gargan.

Listening to Gargan’s I Deal debut I am inclined to agree with the critic. As a disillusioned post-warrior returning to his old haunts in Los Angeles, Gargan is emotionally detached to the point of never-mind-the script-as-long-as-there’s-a-paycheck indifference, sounding like a dead cousin of Sam Spade‘s Howard Duff. Being thrown the catchy phrase “So what!” in the opening monologue, listeners are likely to repeat it emphatically, if only to drown out Gargan’s less-than-ideal monotone.

In any case, it is a rare treat to come across such reviews, listen to the program in question, and engage in a debate, equipped with a history of each of these shows. ABC’s The Fat Man remained on the air until 1951 (the year it was readied for the big screen, with Smart in the lead), whereas Gargan’s Crime dealership closed in the late summer of 1948. The other two programs thrown into the mix that night, Paul Whiteman’s rather too confidently titled Forever Tops (a recording of which is available here) and the comedy Jimmy’s Diner, starring Jimmy and Lucille Gleason, fared considerably worse.

To be sure, what killed the Fat one was not a lack of interest in his cases, but the blacklisting of its ostensible creator. Hammett spelled commercial success one day and subversive threat the next, which explains why so few noted writers of the late 1940s and early 1950s would bother to Deal in Crime or self-punishment on the radio.

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