Monday, October 14, 2013

Radio Greats: "The Callicles Matter" (Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar)

If you were to ask what was the most successful of all the great classic radio series, there are a number of possible candidates, depending on the exact measure of success, but there is no question that one of the candidates would be "the transcribed adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account — America's fabulous freelance insurance investigator," as its introduction went: Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Looking from the outside, the show was highly formulaic: the story is told by Johnny Dollar, in the form of a letter (hence the title) to the insurance company for which he had been doing some investigating. The main part of the story was structured by Johnny Dollar's expense account, the items of which are sprinkled through the story in a matter-of-fact manner, like: "Expense Account Item 1: $200.05: Air Fare and Incidentals, Hartford to Los Angeles." (Sometimes a joke item would be thrown in, in which the expense is actually just a dollar item he puts on his feelings at the time.) At the end he would sum up expenses, and add some various remarks. The content would consist of Johnny Dollar interviewing various parties to get the background story. And at the end he would solve the case, getting down to the bottom of whatever problem had worried the insurance company that hired him. Several different people played Johnny Dollar over the years, each with a somewhat different style, but the overall impression sought for was noir-ish detective: lots of tough guys, beautiful women, usually some tense life-or-death situation. The title would be something like "The Callicles Matter", "The Burning Desire Matter", or "The Forbes Matter". Despite all the formula, every story is very different. The expense account gimmick is wonderfully successful -- it's a perfect way to sum up what's going on, and is sometimes interesting just in its own right.

The actual series had more than one run. The original series ran for about six years, from 1948 to 1954, and starred Charles Russell, then Edmond O'Brien, then John Lund as Johnny Dollar. It was a pretty standard detective series, popular but not much different from everything else. Then in 1955 CBS decided to bring Johnny Dollar back, rebuilding the show in a different way. The format was now set up so that episodes were usually only fifteen minutes long, and the stories came in five-episode arcs, just enough to fit a week, each episode usually starting with a teaser involving Dollar speaking to someone on the phone. Ironically, going from thirty minutes to fifteen minutes made it possible to give the story much greater depth: it was a way that CBS could justify giving nearly 75 minutes a week to a single story, especially since they were producing it on a sustaining basis -- it was not advertising-supported. That's a lot of faith for a network to put into a show: CBS was betting that people would tune in to listen to the show and keep listening (and it turned out to be a good bet). And the actor who played Johnny Dollar was Bob Bailey, who had experience in the detective genre, and managed to bring an extraordinary mix of tough-guyness, humor, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role. Bailey was Johnny Dollar in the five-episode format for thirteen months -- and in those thirteen months he became the Johnny Dollar. CBS then decided to return the episode to a once-a-week thirty-minute episode in 1956, but Bailey continued to be Dollar until 1960, when CBS moved its radio headquarters from California to New York and Bailey refused to move with it. Bob Readick and then Mandel Kramer played Johnny Dollar after Bailey, and the series continued until September 30, 1962. If you ask a solid classic radio fan when the Golden Age of Radio ended, that's the date that will usually be given: the day Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense, two of the most popular and long-running powerhouses of the Golden Age, ended, and radio drama never fully recovered.

I have wanted to do a post about "The Callicles Matter" for something like two years now, in part because it is an excellent five-parter starring Bob Bailey, and in part because of its philosophy theme -- there's a reason that the story is named after a character from Plato's Gorgias. Dollar is investigating the apparent disappearance of a young man named David Parsons, Jr. He talks to Parsons's father and wife of fourteen years, and finds that, contrary to what one would expect, they are not very cooperative -- they hardly seem to care. And then Johnny Dollar is involved in a terrible car accident. It's a story involving ruthless corporate maneuvering, imposters, the death of an innocent, and a Greek whose name keeps coming up who said something once about a man shaking off his chains....

The total expenses for Johnny's investigation sums up to $1100.59, including items like:

$200.05 Air Fare and Incidentals, Hartford to Los Angeles
$4.55 One Long Distance Phone Call
$0.26 Pack of Cigarettes
$14.95 One Night in the Hospital
$25 Car Rental
$100 Legal Retainer
$0.10 One Newspaper

There are lots and lots of Johnny Dollar episodes, so there's probably no story of the series that would get universal acclaim as the best of Johnny Dollar. But this episode, while involving less actual mystery to solve than most (but there is still a mystery there), has a great many of the elements that made the series popular. And a philosophy reference.

You can listen to "The Callicles Matter" (episodes 383-387), and many others, at My Old Radio.

2 comments:

  1. MrsDarwin9:59 AM

    The three big ones and I listened to this last night (I'm putting off the horror dramas for sometime after Thursday, when Darwin gets back from a conference and I won't be home alone at nights, because I'm chicken that way), and they said that they found it scary because of the music. I wonder what effect it would have had if the underscoring had been light and comedic? We did talk about what Callicles meant when spoke of throwing off chains and how that related to the disappearance of David Parsons.

    I wasn't entirely buying the plot -- what parent would be so overtly callous? -- and then I read this article about controlling parents and thought, Dear God, people are creepy in all walks of life.

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  2. branemrys6:27 PM

    I don't normally think about the music of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, but now that you mention it, the music does often go a long way in setting up a mood, and I can see how it might give a sort of ominous feel to it all.

    That was an interesting article; I suppose a lot of people just get tunnel vision about what they are doing.

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