Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ides Marches On

On June 15, 1953, Crime Classics was first heard over the airwaves (on the Columbia Broadcasting system).

Crime Classics was a unique little show (running for two seasons), dramatizing historical crimes ("from every land and every time"). It was produced and directed by Elliott "I know a guy" Lewis, one of radio's best triple threats, a man who at the time was doing similar experiments on Suspense. The writing team of Morton Fine and David Friedkin (many great radio dramas, and later TV fare such as "I Spy") provided the scripts, based on "court reports and newspaper accounts of the time" (more difficult when dealing with ancient Rome, and nigh impossible when treating the story of King Arthur as a historical event.) Music was composed by Bernard Herrmann (frequent collaborator of both Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock).

Much of the history was accurate, or reasonably enough, and side facts and quotes from historians or newspaper blurbs helped. These nuggets were provided by our host, the wry Thomas Hyland, "connoisseur of crime, student of violence, and teller of murders." Mr. Hyland was "portrayed on radio" by radio great Lou Merrill, a credit almost suggesting that he was indeed a noted antiquarian in his field who was only represented in proxy (like the police chiefs and mayors on Gangbusters). In fact he was entirely fictitious, a man who checks his copious files for facts and delivers them with many a dry "And..." and typically opened his accounts with "Listen. Hear that? That's the sound of a Victorian gentleman about to be coshed" (or the suitable equivalent).

I could say much more about Crime Classics (and some day, I probably shall), but for now, let us turn our attention to the installment of Feb. 10, 1954: "Twenty-Three Knives Against Caesar." While I usually prefer a purely audio source, here's a YouTube option to follow along.

Thomas Hyland, who apparently has a nice copy of Plutarch's Lives handy, opens our narrative. Caesar is played by Edgar Barrier, a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater troupe on stage and radio and character parts on Gunsmoke, Escape, and numerous others. He had previously played Caesar opposite Orson's Brutus on a 1939 Columbia Masterworks LP record. His voice, almost always dry and aloof but cultured and articulate, was an excellent fit for the emperor.

For contrast, in one scene Caesar basks in the compliments and toying attentions of Cleopatra (although he wishes she wouldn't play with his hair so much; he's going bald!) And Cleopatra is played by Betty Harford, practically a Crime Classics regular as assorted tarts, temptresses, coquettes, and parts such that I personally classified her as "The Minx." Usually with a Cockney touch (particularly well suited as Blackbeard's 4th wife, who was no good to him), she retains it as Cleo. Later, we meet Calpurnia, Caesar's wife, who speaks with grace and dignity (but less sex appeal, perhaps) courtesy of Irene Tedrow (who played Lizzie Borden in other Crime Classics, and later was Mrs. Elkins on TV's Dennis the Menace, disapproving of how Mr. Wilson treats that poor innocent Mitchell boy).

Of the famed conspirators, only two are heard: Brutus played by Harry Bartell (Gunsmoke, Escape, and the youthful Lt. Seiberts on Fort Laramie, a favorite of mine) and Marvin Miller (announcer and actor on tons of shows, secretary Anthony on TV's Millionaire, voice in UPA cartoons, etc.) as Cassius. Herrmann uses bells and drum rolls to give an ancient and at times portentous sound to the tale. But the real surprise here is the use of a "man in the street" approach, two average Romans asking questions like "Are you going to take a slave?" They're played by Hy Averback (announcer, director, etc.) and good old, dry voiced Lou Krugman (a frequent bad guy on Gunsmoke and others). They get the best lines, like "I've seen your son Cassio. He waxes with each day."

The soothsayer warning against the Ides of March (encountered first in a dream by Caesar, and then in reality) is played by Marvin Miller (again), in his most dramatic, deep tones. Mr. Hyland of course intervenes and comments periodically. As for the outcome? Well, the title gives it away. Twenty three knives against Caesar was not a close contest, after all.