Monday, December 12, 2016

Radio Greats: Twelve Portraits of Marcia (The Whistler)

I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak!

The Whistler is one of the great series of the Golden Age of Radio. For thirteen very popular years, from 1942 to 1955, it presented weekly 'strange stories' with unexpected twists and poetic ironies about the darkness in the human soul, each one opened by that distinctive 13-note whistle, which I believe was whistled anew each week by Dorothy Roberts for all thirteen years. The show used a formula, but it was a very powerful and flexible one. The typical tale was a comeuppance tale, like a mystery, except we already know the perpetrator, and follow them through their plotting of evil deeds and the inevitable unraveling of it all. The perfect crime is laid bare by the one unknown thing. The act of vengeance is brought to light by the chance meeting. The clever criminal ties himself up in his own clever web. The evildoer finds himself evilly done. The means of undeserved success suddenly turns and becomes the means of a very deserved downfall. And through it all, The Whistler himself in the shadows talks the perpetrator through it, almost gloating, as the doom inevitably comes.

Done well, there is no kind of story that is more satisfying as a story. And The Whistler is often done well, which is remarkable given its astounding run. Not only did it last thirteen years, it was the only major radio series that never took a summer break. Except for preemptions and occasionally repeated favorites, it was a new episode each week, for a grand total of 692. Alas, probably about a third of these have vanished, but that still leaves a very fertile field.

"Twelve Portraits of Marcia" is one of the best of the typical Whistler tales, with a distinctive story and a nice balance between psychological thriller and ironic humor, a rather poetic style, and a twist different from what you might expect. Ralph is a painter, on his twelfth portrait of Marcia, the woman he has promised to marry. He is talented. All he needs is publicity to become a famous painter. And he has a plan for how to get it -- don't you, Ralph?

You can listen to "Twelve Portraits of Marcia" at the Internet Archive (number 204).

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