Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Tired of the Everyday Grind? Go to Juarez with Jack Webb!

I've been meaning to blog about old-time radio, one of my other passions, so this seems as good a way as any to christen the first post of a new year, in addition to a raft of material I've recently acquired, been saving, or simply put off.

Anyway, let's all get close to that glowing dial, or your computer speakers, and give a listen to Escape, and in particular, the oddball entry of December 13, 1949, called "Border Town," presenting an odd-boiled view of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

Some background for anyone reading this blog who isn't named Ivan Shreve: The CBS anthology series ran from 1947 through 1954, and is often thought of as a sister show to Suspense; more than a few tales wound up on both shows, and Christine Miller has a maintains the nifty Escape and Suspense! blog devoted to both shows. One obvious separation between the two was the cast; S used big name Hollywood stars, and Escape, apart from several turns by Vincent Price and the occasional guest like Victor Mature (!), relied instead on veteran radio actors and a few movie character types for its leads and supporting roles. These were people with distinctive, adaptable, or otherwise impressive *voices* if not names, though to radio buffs or animation VO devotees, it's practically a who's who roster, many of whom went on to fame of one kind or another in other realms, as even "Border Town" reveals. Additionally, content was less crime oriented on the whole than Suspense, focusing more on tales of adventure in distant lands, dark alleys, in wartime, and the old west ("Wild Jack Rhett," the best known outing on the series, essentially set the precedent for radio's Gunsmoke), plus a few forays into science fiction (with a West Coast sound and different script approach to material done on Dimension X or X-Minus 1). Endings could be twist shockers or grim inevitabilities.

In the early years especially, the show delivered several top hole adaptations of classic authors and their modern counterparts; Kipling (of course, many times), Conan Doyle, Poe ("Fall of the House of Usher" received perhaps its best adaptation to *any* medium here), Joseph Conrad, and Ambrose Bierce rubbed shoulders with Irvin S. Cobb, Bradbury, and especially John Collier, whose unique world I discovered through Escape (though the scripts took license with a few stories, they were often improvements.) However, the show inevitably needed original scripts here and there to sustain itself all those years. Some, like James Poe's complex semi-stream of conscious "Present Tense" (anchored by a superb performance by Vincent Price) or the cross-and-doublecross tale "The Sure Thing" (by the husband and wife team of Gwen and Paul Bagni) hold up extremely well in this company as classics in their own right (and as such, were redone, either here or on Suspense). However, there were also more than a few "average person falls among unsavory parts in a vaguely exotic world" shows that either fall flat or are so overripe that they need to be placed in a secure ziplock bag before depositing. "Border Town," by the Bagnis, falls into the latter class in my opinion, and I'm perhaps more critical because it's exotic locale is just miles away from home and hearth. At the present, it's an unfortunate hotbed of murder, drug smuggling, organized crime, and mass death, from the still unsolved killings of many women beginning in the 1990s to a wave of terror (over 1,600 fatalities, including several police commanders) in the past year which has garnered national attention and inevitably led to very strained relationships between El Paso and its so-called sister city, with even missionaries unwilling to cross anymore. Apparently in 1949, however, it wasn't exotic enough for the Bagnis, who mostly ignored tamales and sultry senoritas and bullfighting, and Mexicans in general in fact, in favor of importing an eclectic assortment of cliches. Jack Webb's pronunciation of Spanish words and names doesn't help,

Anyway, time to get close to that glowing screen and give a listen to "Border Town". A partial, spoilerish breakdown for those otherwise inclined follows, beneath this very brave but poorly-phrased billboard urging El Pasoans, and Americans in general, to come back to Juarez:

Ah, the famous opening signature! This preamble (delivered by Paul Frees in this and countless other broadcasts, alternating with William Conrad frequently, and occasionally Lou Krugman and others), set the tone of, well, escapist literature, or listening in this case, often in a soothing "Does your spouse snore at night?" tone: "Tired of the everyday routine? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all?" Then cue the CBS announcer (usually Roy Rowan): "We offer you.... ESCAPE!" A little more from Roy ("designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half hour of high adventure!"), but instead of the bit of prose and explanation of the source story which generally followed, we leap right to the voice of Joe Friday (who Jack Webb had been playing for a few months at this point, with hardboild PIS Pat Novak and Johnny Madero in the past had the jazzy bluesman Pete Kelly to come). Webb narrates in his best sardonic, hardboiled first-person manner, riding on a bus and noting the fat guy who got on at Dallas, "overflowed into my side of the seat, and for sound effect, he ate one apple after another." Jack (his character identified as Evan in the closing, but otherwise unidentified) moans about his lot, an actor on his way to Hollywood but with an "insignificant stock contract with short options and shorter dough." He has a spudnut when they stop, by the way. Mmmm, potato doughnuts. I'd like to try one someday.

Anyway, fat guy is arrested (leaving Jack/Evan's coat on the floor) and the plot finally moves, as does the bus, into El Paso! Standard radio gossipy woman talk about the man, with Bea Benaderet in faux-snob mode informing all and sundry that the man is a notorious counterfeiter. So it's pretty clear where this is leading now. Evan gets off and an El Paso bellhop (Jerry Hausner, aka Magoo's nephew Waldo and lots of baby cries, notably on I Love Lucy) suggests he spend the night at Juarez (mispronounced differently throughout, heard here as "Wha-Res"). Evan discovers "the dough" has been planted on him. Now stirred up and with nothing to do, he decides to go over into "War-Ez," taking a funny fifty with him. The Bagnis at least include tequilla and those vendors who come up to you with little dolls and the like.

Around this point, having tried to pass the bill at a dive called "El Serape" (!!), the sleazy American owner Chuck Rice (Tony Barrett) warns our hero "This is Bordertown," presaging Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson by several decades. We get some "Yeah yeah, sure sure" talk before Rice points Evan (via a cabby he calls "Mi-gell," in what sounds like a Judy Canova drawl) to the mysterious Nieves. He finds Nieves, a canny woman played by Jeanette Nolan (our second genuine fake Mexican!), after stumbling past pigs and chickens in front of a broken-down hacienda. (Geeze, these places went to pot once Zorro grew tired of defending them!) She wants no part in the dubious dinero but directs him to another possible buyer named.... O'Toole! O'Toole turns out to be "a handsome Chinese in a dinner jacket smoking a long black cigar," and played by British actor Ben Wright, who specialized in dialects and gives out with a slightly sub-Warner Oland accent. After the payoff, we delve into more intrigue, a seemingly sympathetic floozy (Bea again), mickey finns, "squint-eyed" thugs, and Bing Crosby, Burns and Allen, and Jean Hersholt as the beloved Dr. Christian! (Oh wait, that's a CBS promo).

Now Evan wakes up, having been pressganged (next to a mostly unconscious Mexican, that makes three; this one makes William Conrad groans and murmurs) after being rolled first. For the first time, we almost get into a realm which could easily have taken place in Juarez (then and now), though most such smuggling of unwilling persons goes the other direction. Here's Mexican number four, still outnumbered by los gringos y hombres de China: a fellow-sufferer named Gonzalez explains that this is what happens "when you fall drunk." The part is played, in drunken Spanglish, by Ted de Corsia, an old hand at Mexican accents who later appeared on TV's Zorro;though playing the stereotype of the drunken Latino, De Corsia does invest "muy feo" with proper pronunciation and feeling. They're taken to yank foreman Jake (Conrad again) who uses the captives as a road gang (thus saving the expense of actually hiring workers for Hensler Construction). The rest is mostly more narration and lead-up to the inevitable fugitive from a chain gang escape, Evan gets back to "Wore Ez" for some more tough talking and a fairly lame "twist." I should probably note here that I can't roll my r's properly and my Spanish pronunciation in general can be wonky at times, but even I can do better than that. It seems like nobody involved in this show had been anywhere near El Paso or Juarez, which isn't a surprise, but still jarring; a friend of mine has the same reaction whenever people speak alleged Russian on US sitcoms.

It's not the worst thing I've ever heard on radio, but if I never hear Jack Webb mispronounce Juarez again, I'll be happy. Also, as far as I can determine, men of Chinese-descent with Irish names have never been a significant underworld force in Juarez. Maybe I'm still miffed that nobody mentioned tamales, though.


Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Even though I am Ivan Shreve, I still enjoyed reading this. Outstanding post, Mr. Leal.

Andrew Leal said...

Heh. I meant that in terms of needing backstory on Escape. Thanks for the compliment, though!

Kip W said...

Richard Collier? I was expecting it to be John Collier, the writer. Did "Ride the Pink Horse" take place in Juarez? I can't remember. How about TOUCH OF EVIL?

Andrew Leal said...

Good catch, Kip. I meant John, but I mentally swapped his first name with that of Richard "Boston Blackie/Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick" Kollmar!

"Ride the Pink Horse" was set in New Mexico and "Touch of Evil" in Tijuana. Though I finished a Law and Order PC game in which a character moved to NY from Juarez, and the Cartoon Network website for the new "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" series makes note that the newest Blue Beetle (Jaime Reyes) hails from El Paso!