Down These Mean Streets (Old Time Radio Detectives)

Down These Mean Streets (Old Time Radio Detectives)

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Presenting the best detectives from the Golden Age of Radio. Each week, we’ll bring you an episode starring one of Old Time Radio’s greatest detectives and the story behind the show. Join us for adventures of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Johnny Dollar, and many more.

The idea of the gentleman detective conjures up images of smoking jackets and walking sticks: characters like Philo Vance who were as handsome as they were insightful. Captain Hugh Drummond broke that mold. Created by H.C. McNeile, the detective and adventurer is a powerfully built hulk of a man with a face that led to his nickname – “Bulldog.” A veteran of World War I, Drummond was a crack shot, good with his fists, talented at poker, and hungry for thrills and excitement. He became one of the most popular sleuths of early Hollywood and the success he enjoyed led to a stint fighting evildoers on the radio – a stint that began on April 13, 1941.

McNeile introduced Drummond first in a story in The Strand. He later reworked the character for a 1920 novel. Like George Valentine, Drummond found post-war life to be dull and took out an advertisement in search of adventure wherever it could be found. His ad memorably read: “Demobilised [sic] officer, finding peace incredibly tedious, would welcome diversion. Legitimate, if possible; but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection. Excitement essential.” The ad is answered by a young woman concerned for her father’s safety, and she leads Drummond to a Communist plot to take over England. His client, Phyllis Benton, became Mrs. Drummond, and the mastermind of the plot, Carl Peterson, became Bulldog’s arch nemesis. McNeile went on to write ten Drummond novels, five short stories, and three plays before his death in 1937. McNeile’s friend Gerald Fairlie picked up the mantle and wrote an additional seven Drummond novels between 1937 and 1957. The character proved very popular in England and influential to boot: Ian Fleming stated that James Bond was Bulldog Drummond from the waist up and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer below.

After two silent films in the early 1920s, Bulldog Drummond was released as a talkie in 1929. Ronald Colman earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Drummond (years before he’d take home an Oscar for A Double Life), and the film was hailed by critics. Colman’s portrayal of Drummond as debonair and dashing eventually supplanted the rougher around the edges character of McNeile’s books; the subsequent films (including a second turn by Colman in 1934) continued the characterization of Drummond as a more sophisticated gentleman adventurer. Ray Milland, another future Oscar-winner, starred in 1937’s Bulldog Drummond Escapes before John Howard made the role his own in seven B-movies for Paramount.

It was the success of the film series that spurred interest in a radio series. Producer Hiram Brown (Inner Sanctum Mysteries, as well as another series about a dapper British sleuth – The Private Files of Rex Saunders) packaged the series. Captain Drummond came to radio in 1941 and was originally played by George Coulouris. Coulouris was a veteran of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and he’d appeared with Welles in Citizen Kane. He starred as Drummond until March 1942 when he was succeeded by Santos Ortega. Ortega was a busy radio character actor; he played Inspector Queen on Ellery Queen, Commissioner Weston on The Shadow, and was also heard as Charlie Chan and in supporting roles on The Adventures of Superman, usually in villainous roles. Ortega stayed with the series for a year, and his replacement was another actor with a track record at radio crime-solving.

Ned Wever stepped into Bulldog Drummond’s shoes with the March 15, 1943 broadcast and he stayed with the show until 1949. Wever was a regular player on The Adventures of Superman; he played Jor-El in the series’ premiere episode and he appeared as “The Wolf,” the first villain the Man of Steel encountered on radio. Coincidentally, in another early serial, he and fellow radio Bulldog Santos Ortega played crooked mine owners who swindled their investors. Later, he played a Nazi agent (more than slightly inspired by Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman) during the program’s memorable “Atom Man” story arc. On the right side of the law, he played Dick Tracy on radio, and his clipped, authoritative delivery was perfect for the dapper British gentleman detective as he’d been reinvented on screen and on the radio.

The McNeile novels had introduced the character of James Denny, Drummond’s wartime batman and landlord of Drummond’s apartment building. Denny made the jump to radio, where he was reworked as Drummond’s valet and sidekick. Everett Sloane (another Mercury Theatre veteran) played Denny for much of the series, alongside Coulouris, Ortega, and Wever. The supporting casts included several great radio actors, including Jackson Beck (Philo Vance) and Mercedes McCambridge (Defense Attorney). In his radio adventures, Bulldog Drummond tackled all manner of crimes – hijackers, atomic spies, gangsters, and killers all went up against the poised captain…and lost.

Despite the character’s popularity at the time (the radio series ran until 1954, with Cedric Hardwicke in the role for the final year), Bulldog Drummond has been left behind by popular culture. Aside from a brief James Bond-inspired revival in the late 1960s, the character remains a war-years relic. It’s too bad; the B-movies (many of them available on public domain collections of mystery films) are enjoyable romps, and the radio series is a good listen. Hopefully you’ll enjoy rediscovering Bulldog Drummond or meeting him for the first time as he steps out of the fog.

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