Friday, October 13, 2017

The Mystery of Robert Arthur

Robert Arthur once wrote that “suspense is that quality in a story which makes you want to keep on reading it to find out what happens. By this definition any good story, of course, has suspense in it. A love story can have suspense – does it end happily? A mountain climbing story can have suspense – does the hero get to the top of does he slip and fall over a cliff?” Such was the brief exploration in the mind of a writer who today is synonymous with The Mysterious Traveler radio program. Together with producer-director David Kogan, Arthur scripted more than half of the stories for the eerie program that was broadcast weekly over the Mutual Broadcasting System.

Robert Arthur’s accomplishments extended beyond a single radio program. Prior to his radio career he was a prolific writer of hundreds of short stories and novellas for pulp magazines. From science-fiction to detective fare, Arthur made a living hammering the keys of his typewriter and submitting stories to the editors of national magazines. Many of these stories were recycled for radio programs including Dark Destiny, Just Five Lines and Murder by Experts. He also recycled plots and characters from short stories for The Shadow, Nick Carter, Master Detective and Suspense. What adds to the confusion is deciphering which came first… the radio play or the short story?

“Death Thumbs a Ride” was originally published in the January 1942 issue of Weird Tales, then adapted into an episode of The Mysterious Traveler, re-titled “The Haunted Trailer,” for broadcast on June 3, 1952. The radio version featured a number of minor revisions when you compare the extant recording of that broadcast to the printed page. The radio version would later be re-written into short story form as “The Haunted Trailer” for Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery (Random House, 1962) and again in A Red Skel(e)ton in Your Closet (Grosset & Dunlap, 1965) and again in Red Skelton’s Favorite Ghost Stories (Tempo, 1970).

“Calling All Corpses,” published in the October 1948 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine, was an adaptation of an original radio play, “Welcome Home,” dramatized on both The Mysterious Traveler in 1943 and The Sealed Book circa 1945.

“Death Laughs Last,” broadcast on The Mysterious Traveler on the evening of September 24, 1944, was based on the short story, “The Dead Laugh Last,” published in the August 1942 issue of Detective Novels Magazine.

Also adding to the confusion is the fact that Arthur wrote under numerous aliases. Robert Forbes, John West, Anthony Morton, Andrew Fell, Jay Norman, Joan Vatsek (the name of his wife, incidentally), A.A. Fleming, Andrew Benedict, Pauline C. Smith, Andrew Saxon, John A. Saxon and Mark Williams have been verified. Further digging in the coming year may reveal a few more pseudonyms. The purpose of a pseudonym, by the way, was for writers to collect more money for their stories – including two or three submissions appearing in the same issue of the same magazine.

About half of his short stories have been reprinted in paperback and hardcover anthologies over the years, making it easier for curiosity seekers to find a copy without having to shell out $85 for a detective pulp magazine in the collector market. When The Mysterious Traveler branched into a series of five mystery magazines, Arthur was the editor and multiple short stories written by Arthur appeared within the same issue. During the mid-fifties, Arthur also ghost-wrote for Alfred Hitchcock for a series of hardcover and paperback anthologies. Besides the fact that one story in each of these anthologies were written by Robert Arthur, the copyright page always acknowledged “the invaluable assistance of Robert Arthur in the preparation of this volume.” This included Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do On TV (1957) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents: My Favorites in Suspense (1959).

Beginning in 1964, Robert Arthur began writing a series of children’s books in the hopes of cashing in on the success of such popular publications as The Hardy Boys and Rick Brandt. Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series comprised of 43 books. Arthur wrote the first nine, and the eleventh. Other authors assumed the task following Arthur’s departure.

He was twice honored by the Mystery Writers of America with an Edgar Award for Best Radio Drama; 1950 for Murder by Experts and 1953 for The Mysterious Traveler. Regrettably, recordings for the majority of his radio contributions do not exist in recorded form. No recordings are known to exist of his contributions for Adventure Into Fear (1945), The Teller of Tales (1950) and Mystery Time (1952).

On The Mysterious Traveler, The Sealed Book and other programs, Arthur and Kogan shared joint authorship but like Lennon and McCarthy, scripts were always written solo. This Halloween, when you take time to listen to an episode of The Strange Dr. Weird or The Mysterious Traveler, take a moment to remember that while those programs have an E.C. Comics feel of blood n’ thunder, the pulp style of science-fiction, fantasy and horror also have a pulp origin.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Too Marvelous For Words: Silent Slapstick Book Reviews

Four books arrived at my front porch recently, all published by Bear Manor Media, focusing on the actors and actresses who made silent movies and pre-code classics essential viewing. The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez by Dan Van Neste documents the life and career of the first actor to play the role of Sam Spade on celluloid. Beginning with his poverty-stricken childhood and stage work, the author progresses chronologically through Cortez's accomplishments. His triumphs, tragedies, loves and scandals, not to mention his film legacy, this book portrays a behind-the-scenes view of the "Latin lover." The author contacted Cortez's family relatives to dig up details never documented in print, and feature photographs you will not see anywhere else. With today's print-on-demand technology, anyone with a computer can type a biography about a Hollywood celebrity and have it published. Recent efforts have been nothing but hack jobs and I find many of them padded with extensive plot summaries of motion-pictures. Thankfully, Van Neste avoided this pitfall and instead focused on the life and career of Ricardo Cortez. If you ever wanted to know more about Ricardo Cortez, this 580-page book earns my seal of approval.

Steve Massa wrote a 600-page book documenting the funny women beloved by the audiences of their day, but have been "overshadowed by the boy's club," to quote the author. Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy features extensive biographies of such legends as Mabel Normand, Pearl White, Billie Rhodes, Ruth Stonehouse, Marie Dressler, Betty Browne, Merta Stering, Vera Steadman, Jobyna Ralston, Anita Garvin and many others. The author presents their stories both academically and through enjoyable prose, with the closing fourth of the book serving as an encyclopedia. Where many books about silent slapstick focus on 101 for the beginner, this book serves as Silent Slapstick 102. Some of these "Divas" were completely new to me and caused me to pull out a few of the silent slapstick DVDs from my shelf to view. Sprinkled with photographs and vintage advertisements, this is an essential book for those who thought they knew more about silent slapstick than the average fanatic. 

Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Career of Ruby Keeler by Ed Harbur serves as a valentine to one of the most beloved stars of the stage and screen. Known to film buffs as the wife of the great Al Jolson, I was pleased to see Ruby receiving her due considering she is often overshadowed by Jolson's larger-than-life career. She sacrificed her principals and refused to follow the dictum of Hollywood, and documents the details behind her recovery from a severe brain aneurysm. The first 128 pages focuses on her biography, loaded with archival photographs, followed by extensive documentary on each of her motion-pictures. If Keeler was nervous behind the camera, Harbur found evidence and documented it. This is the kind of book you pull off the shelf when Turner Classic Movies screens Ruby Keeler movies, so you can read the behind-the-scenes making-of before the movie begins. 

Within ten years of his 1906 arrival in the U.S., Henry Lehrman had achieved both fame and fortune in the fledgling film industry. It was Lehrman's guidance and creativity that ushered newcomer Charles Chaplin to international popularity at Mack Sennett's Keystone. Roscoe Arbuckle, Ford Sterling and numerous others benefited immeasurably from his direction as well. Author Thomas Reeder wrote Mr. Suicide: Henry "Pathe" Lehrman and The Birth of Silent Comedy, subject matter that only fans of silent slapstick would be familiar with before opening the book. At 800 pages you can be assured the author did his legwork. Does he cover the alleged rape and subsequent death of Lehrman's finance, Virginia Rappe, at the hands of his friend Arbuckle? He sure does. If a producer wanted to license this book into a documentary, the meat and potatoes are found within the first 400 pages. The second half documents all of Henry Lehrman's comedy shorts, complete with cast, production credits, plots, reviews and behind-the-scenes trivia. 

In a world where hack jobs and semi-decent reference guides contain grammatical cosmetics "borrowed" from Wikipedia, it is gratifying to know that Bear Manor Media has turned out four consecutive reference books focusing on silent slapstick and pre-code entertainers, all of them sure-fire winners, with authors to took the time to do the legwork and present us with more information than you can find on the world wide web. These are the type of books that win awards.    

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Recent Death of Red Ryder

Davis Saunders as Red Ryder
The recent deaths of Hugh Hefner, Anne Jeffreys and other celebrities probably overshadowed the recent passing of David Saunders. It was Saunders who brought the comic-strip cowboy hero Red Ryder to life in countless public appearances, ranging from Ed Sullivan’s television show to the New Mexico State Fair. Saunders died September 6 at the age of 84, at an Albuquerque rehabilitation center.

Saunders was born in Indiana in 1933 but moved to Albuquerque with his family when he was still young. A significant turning point in his life happened when he met Fred Harman, creator of “Red Ryder,” a newspaper comic strip about a good-guy Colorado rancher (Ryder) and his young American Indian sidekick, Little Beaver.

Little Beaver Town, circa 1961

Saunders struck a friendship with the comic artist and when Harman started planning an Old West-themed amusement park for Albuquerque, he asked Saunders to portray Red Ryder. When the park, called Little Beaver Town, opened in the summer of 1961, on a 44-acre site, Saunders became the gun-slinging hero known to millions of radio listeners, theater goers and readers of the newspaper comic strip.

David Saunders in recent years

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Hugh Hefner, Film Preservationist, Dead at 91

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
A lifelong champion of film preservation and restoration, Hugh Hefner, passed away yesterday at the age of 91. No doubt the news will focus primarily on the founding of Playboy, a men’s lifestyle and entertainment magazine, which played an important role in the sexual revolution, many failing to mention how the magazine showcased the works of Harvey Kurtzman, Jules Feiffer, P.G. Wodehouse, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Gore Vidal, and exclusive interviews with public figures. The news media (being what it is) will no doubt focus on the controversy of the magazine’s liberal editorial stance with photographs of Playboy Playmates, rather than the untold millions he donated to film preservation.

For the record, Playboy rarely featured full frontal nudity for the first two decades. The cheesecake photos were to simulate “the girl next door” with teases of suggestive nudity, but competition in the field it founded – especially from Penthouse and Hustler – caused Hefner to apply a more cultural relevance. Amidst battles with the United States Postal Service, Congressmen and anyone who sought publicity by going up against him, Hefner prevailed and his magazine established him a very wealthy man. There will no doubt be those who speak ill of the dead and choose to judge a man by what the public manifested over the years, an image of wild pool parties and sexual conquests... and then there will be those who defend the man who literally changed the landscape of society – one page at a time.

Hugh Hefner's favorite movie was Casablanca (1941).

At his prime, the best-selling issue was the November 1972 edition, reaching a circulation of 7,161,561 copies. Playboy became the first gentleman’s magazine to be printed in braille. Hefner used the magazine to help lead the civil rights movement in the 1960s, advocate equal pay for women, and fight against draconian drug laws. He used his short-lived Playboy After Dark television program to highlight the talents of black entertainers. (The series had to be syndicated because none of the major networks would consider airing a program where blacks and whites partied casually.) He was an advocate of jazz music and invested money for the annual Playboy Jazz Festival. Ray Bradbury’s critically-acclaimed novel, Fahrenheit 451, was first published in serial form within the March, April and May 1954 issues. The magazine became notable for the exclusive interviews with Martin Luther King, Jr., Fidel Castro, Malcolm X, American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell, and was responsible for the famous quote delivered by the then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in the November 1976 issue, in which Carter stated, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

The Big Sleep (1946)
But what the major news outlets will forget to mention is the fact that Hefner spent millions restoring vintage Hollywood motion-pictures. A big fan of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies, he was dismayed when he learned that most of the archival negatives were in poor condition. Some of the 1993 Key Video releases featured the wrong closing credits, missing scenes and inferior picture and sound. From 1993 to 1995, Hefner funded fifty percent of the cost to the UCLA Film Archive to restore all 14 of the Sherlock Holmes films. "Worth every penny," he proudly told me. If you have those MPI DVD releases and admired the superior picture and sound, you can thank Hugh Hefner for that.

In cooperation with UCLA’s film preservation efforts, Hefner wrote check after check to cover the expenses for dozens of movies including the three Warner Oland Fu Manchu movies (1929-1931), Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep (1946), Pandora's Box (1929), and many others. In 2005, he endowed the on-going Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program, to assure classic movies would be screened for the benefit of Los Angeles audiences for years to come. At USC, the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive preserves student films, vintage newsreels and tons of silent motion pictures.
Pandora's Box (1929)

Return of Fu Manchu (1930)
His personal interest in crooner Al Bowlly, who died in 1941, led to the preservation of films featuring the under-appreciated singer. This led to Hefner executive-producing several documentaries about silent screen actors, including a critically-acclaimed documentary about Louise Brooks (pictured above in Pandora's Box), and another about Clara Bow. Discovering the 'It' Girl was responsible for re-introducing Clara Bow to a new generation, myself included. When asked why he chose to preserve her legacy, Hefner remarked: "Nobody has what Clara had. She defined an era and made her mark on the nation." The documentary was released on DVD through Kino on Video many years ago and has since gone out of print. Just try to find a copy on DVD at an affordable price today.

Mary Pickford at the camera.
He donated millions for the restoration of classic movies because, in his opinion, they were historically and culturally significant. This includes movies with Mary Pickford, Olive Thomas, Marion Davies, Lon Chaney, Theda Bara and Rita Hayworth. Devoted followers of the Vitaphone film shorts can thank the man for underwriting restoration and preservation costs for numerous musical band shorts. Many of Mary Pickford's silent movies were restored and released on DVD and Blu-Ray. The most recent release featured restoration funded by Hugh Hefner. 

Not only did he donate millions for film preservation, but also for the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign. Featured prominently along the hillside, Hefner saved and restored that sign – twice. In the 1970s he started a campaign to restore the sign that was crumbling and falling apart. Years later he started a campaign to save the land surrounding the sign. For his efforts, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

So the next time you watch an old movie, including a Sherlock Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, remember the man who made a fortune with the Playboy empire was responsible for the restoration. Thank you, Mr. Hefner.