Wednesday, December 7, 2011

PRODUCT REVIEW: "Old Time Radio's Greatest Westerns"

"Old Time Radio's Greatest Westerns"
Audio Cassette Album, 20 cassettes
Produced by Radio Spirits, Inc. (original issue June 1, 1999)
ISBN-10: 1570191980
ISBN-13: 978-1570191985
If you know me at all, you know I'm a great lover of Westerns.

As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, I was indoctrinated as a sagebrush fan early on in my small town Arizona boyhood. TV westerns, print westerns, big screen westerns... I loved them all... from THE LONE RANGER to Louis L'Amour to THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG

Born in 1964, I am in no way old enough to remember these radio shows, but when I saw this set offered on The Radio Spirits website back around 2003 or so, I couldn't resist buying the whole shootin' match.  As I recall, it ran me the astronomical sum of about 50 U.S. bucks at the time [less than a dollar a show, actually] but I assure you, I was in NO WAY disappointed.

The 60 shows that make up this marvelous collection of cassettes [I don't know if it was ever offered on CD or not]  easily divide into three types: 1) Westerns from anthology series,  2) so-called "adult" Westerns, and 3) "juvenile" Westerns.

Of these three categories, the Westerns drawn from the various old radio anthology series are uniformly the slickest, if not actually the best. The anthology series' represented in the collection are: "The Cavalcade of America," "Escape," "The Screen Director's Playhouse," and "Suspense."  I especially love the Daniel Boone episode of the Cavalcade starring Raymond Massey. Written by the great historian Marquis James, author of one of my favorite books [THE RAVEN,  a Pulitzer-winning biography of Sam Houston] it is one of the best half hours of narrative drama I have ever heard. [An interesting choice was including the adaptation of "Paleface" from "The Screen Director's Playhouse." A Bob Hope comedy nestled in among all these other somber, "first-nighter" type oaters was a lively and amusing diversion!]

The "adult" Westerns [at the time the label simply meant "non-kiddie" shows] included "Dr. Sixgun," "Fort Laramie," "Frontier Gentleman," "Gunsmoke," "Have Gun Will Travel," "Hawk Larabee," "Luke Slaughter of Tombstone," "Tales of the Texas Rangers," and my all-time favorite: Jimmy Stewart as "The Six Shooter." 

"The Six Shooter," in case you've never heard it, is a great story-driven western thought so highly of by star Jimmy Stewart that he performed in it for basic union wages just to save budget money [or so I have read anyway.]  I must say, I can see why he was so proud of that one: it is quite unlike any other western that you will ever hear.  Not only is the emphasis decidedly away from the standard violence of the traditional "shoot-em-up," but in the 30 or so episodes I have listened to at this stage I can only remember one time where the hero even fired a shot!  Great, offbeat little western drama.  [This show did go on to TV as something called "The Restless Gun" [with John Payne taking the lead role] but it was nowhere near as great as the original.]

"Luke Slaughter Of Tombstone" is a long forgotten '50s show that seems to me to have been an attempt to create an imitation of Matt Dillon and the "GUNSMOKE" saga, which were all the rage in that time frame.

"Hawk Larabee" seemed more like a sophisticated juvenile Western to me, but the enclosed booklet said it was squarely aimed at adults. I loved it, though... especially the gimmick of having a singing group perform bridges between the acts of the drama.  Great stuff... with great atmosphere!

"Have Gun Will Travel" and "Gunsmoke" have a production quality in keeping with their TV counterparts, but I must confess neither show does anything special  for me. I dislike the former because John Dehner [a very great voice and movie actor in his own right] always seems just plain wrong in the "Paladin" role that I so closely associate with the great Richard Boone [the TV version.].

The latter,"Gunsmoke," just grates on me, probably because of my whole Libertarian political outlook. I  just can't seem to warm up to any show that glorifies a big, bad-ass federal appointee throwing his weight around. It was VERY well done, to be sure... night-and-day better thasn the TV version.  I just never had much taste for either. Just me, I reckon... :) 

"Frontier Gentleman," also starring John Dehner, tells first-person tales of  a British journalist musing his way through the wild and woolly West. It is, in my opinion, a much better vehicle for Dehner and every episode I have ever heard has boasted a really well-written script.  The 3 included here are no exceptions.

"Fort Laramie" and "Tales of the Texas Rangers" also fall into the "adult" Western category, but they actually ably represent 2 separate and distinct sub-genres as well.

"Fort Laramie" (starring Raymond Burr) is a very good offering in the sub-genre of realistic war, or Cavalry stories. [Incidentally, the set also includes a great adaptation of a James Warner Bellah Calvary story from the "Escape" anthology show. Entitled "Command," it is a great character study of a young officer's first encounter with combat.]

"Tales of the Texas Rangers" is actually a police procedural show of the "Dragnet" variety, and a good one at that.  This show features plots that are fact-based and realistic, and the great Joel McCrea plays a likable hero who is both admirable and believable.  It's really more of a true crime detective series than a true western, and it is set in mid 20th Century Texas.

Oddly, I think I enjoyed the  juvenile Westerns the best. They were "The Cisco Kid," "Hopalong Cassidy," "The Lone Ranger," "Red Ryder," "Roy Rogers," "Straight Arrow," and "Wild Bill Hickock."

"Red Ryder" and "Roy Rogers" are very "kiddie" type shows to be sure, but the heroes are so likable and earnest that they manage to be just great fun all around.  My boy Gideon and I loved them. "The Cisco Kid" is well done, but hard to listen to, somehow.  Maybe the hokey accents are part of the problem.

"The Lone Ranger" is cool and iconic, but he's best taken in small doses, like the 3 decent episodes here. Don't get me wrong, I love the masked man, but on radio he comes on really strong. [Truth be told, the incessant "overture" music is main difficulty with this otherwise classic show.]

"Wild Bill Hickock" (with Andy Devine as Jingles providing comic relief) is a pretty durned  enjoyable show, even though the plots seem a little thin.

"Straight Arrow" is a show with a staggeringly inane premise that still manages to be very entertaining, albeit on a kid's level.  The title character is a super hero Comanche warrior whose secret identity is as "Steve Adams," a white rancher. Mr. Arrow is of course able to shoot his bow with remarkable accuracy from a variety or complicated horseback situations.  Like I say, its pretty stinkin' dumb... but also strangely cool. [This show also spawned some really great comic books, too... check around the scan blogs for samples!]

"Hopalong Cassidy" has to be the VERY best of the juveniles. The plots for this expertly crafted show were really just detective stories transplanted to the Old West.  However, William Boyd and Andy Clyde [as Hoppy and sidekick California Carlson] were both amazing voice actors, and the show is downright riveting. Great music, too.

All in all, this set is indispensable for any fan of American westerns or Old Time Radio.  I only wish it were even larger and therefore able to include some of the  shows I have only read about but have never actually heard.  If only, for example, they had put in the "Tom Mix Straight Shooters Show," which the late radio historian Jim Harmon claimed was as great as anything in all the medium's golden age; or the Juvenile "Tennessee Jed" about which childhood fans Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead wrote a great old song: or even a sample of  the radio original of  TV standard "Death Valley Days," which is always described in the  books as top-notch by the writers who remember it.  Some day I would really like to hear some of that stuff.

Still, beggars can NOT be choosers, right?

Anyway... I highly recommend this marvelous set, which also includes a nicely illustrated and very informative program guide.

Happy trails!

[Reviewed by Albie]


Toyin O. said...

Great review.

Lloyd said...

I really enjoyed reading the posts on your blog. I would like to invite you to come on over to my blog and check it out. God's blessings, Lloyd

Albie The Good said...

Thanks for commenting, friends :)