Monday, July 6, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Radio: The Blue Beetle

The inceptions of the Golden Age of Superhero Comics (Action Comics #1, April 18, 1938) and the Golden Age of Film Noir (Stranger on the Third Floor, August 16, 1940) come fairly close in time, only two years apart. Although the two trends went their own ways, it is certainly possible to argue that they had common roots in popular reactions to the Great Depression of the 1930s – indeed, it would be harder to argue that they did not have that in common – and they would continue to have some points of contact, notably the 17 Superman cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios/Famous Studios between 1941 and 1943, which are gorgeously noir in their look.

Technically speaking, there is a distinction to be made between true superheroes who possess superhuman powers, such as Superman and the Flash, and costumed crime fighters who have no actual superpowers but who do employ some fairly advanced proprietary technologies, such as Batman and Green Arrow. Costumed crime fighters have a slightly longer pedigree than superheroes, whose lineage effectively starts with Superman in 1938; earlier examples of costumed crime fighters include the Phantom, the Green Hornet, and the Clock, all debuting in 1936, and even they are pre-dated by Zorro (1919).

The original Blue Beetle, who first appeared just a few months after Batman in 1939, falls into the category of costumed crime fighters. (The Blue Beetle concept, like so many of these, has a long and complicated afterlife, with several incarnations of the character appearing in various comics universes right up until the present.) He was a Fox Comics property launched in Mystery Men Comics #1, and he continued to appear in that title, as well as a self-titled comic book up through 1950.

The Beetle begins as an ordinary rookie cop named Dan Garret(t) who, believing that desperate times call for desperate measures, undertakes to fight criminals in an extra-judicial way, first wearing just a mask, then donning a nifty bullet-proof costume made of chain-mesh “as flexible as silk, and stronger than steel.” He collaborates with local pharmacist Dr. Franz, who creates not only the costume but other enhancements as time goes along, including a mega-vitamin that starts to push the Beetle into superpowers territory.

The Blue Beetle character must have sold a lot of comic books, because fairly swiftly he got his own radio program, something which even Batman never did (although Superman scored one). It was short-lived, though, only broadcast for five months in the middle of 1940. The Blue Beetle ran as 15-minute segments, two of which made a whole story (unlike the more complex The Adventures of Superman radio series, which eventually ran stories of up to 33 15-minute episodes). There were 48 Blue Beetle episodes and 24 stories.

Every reference source I looked at indicated that Frank Lovejoy, who has no bigger fan than yours truly, played the Blue Beetle for the first 13 episodes, and was then replaced by an uncredited voice actor who has never been identified. Something about that seemed wrong: why would they change actors between episodes 13 and 14, which would fall in the middle of a two-part story? Fortunately, I was able to check this, since the majority of Blue Beetle segments, including #13-14, are available here:

Free Old Time Radio Shows - The Blue Beetle

My hunch was correct; Lovejoy was not replaced mid-story. He appears in #11-12 (“Death Rides on Horseback”), and the new actor takes over for #13-14 (“Death Strikes from the East”). The repetition of the error in different sources derives from the same simple fact that has always bedeviled encyclopedias: they are compiled mainly from other encyclopedias, not from original research. So once a non-obvious error appears, it circulates.

Having found a source for the Blue Beetle radio shows, I listened to #7-8, “Blasting the Dynamite Ring” (not “Blasting [the] Dynamite Gang,” as the reference sources have it).

Blasting the Dynamite Ring

A criminal gang headed by “the Octopus” is blowing up sites around Dan Garret’s unnamed city, leading Dan to comment to Dr. Franz: “I think it’s a diabolical plan of wholesale robbery, backed by terrorism and blackmail!...These men are desperate characters, and their chief is a cold-blooded fiend.”

Indeed, they will stop at nothing. Before we know it, they are demanding that the city shut down its electricity (the better for their looting), and threatening the widower mayor’s young son Tom, who does wind up being kidnapped. The mayor is quite naturally beside himself: “Now I must get back to my office and plan a campaign that will rid the city forever of this criminal scum!”

The Blue Beetle confronts the criminals, who, nonplussed that their bullets aren’t penetrating his chain-mail, just knock him out instead. He winds up imprisoned with plucky young Tom, who is excited as heck: “Me help the Blue Beetle! Gee!” Of course between them, they find a way to take the Octopus down. The climax illustrates one of the limitations of radio, which is that it can have a slightly hard time handling action sequences. So Tom has to report the action to us by talking to himself as the Blue Beetle out-swims the Octopus’s getaway motor-boat (neat trick). “Oh boy, can that Blue Beetle swim! Look at those strokes he takes!”

In the aftermath, Tom reminds the Beetle that as the rescuer of the mayor’s son, he’s in for a whopping big reward, which of course decent Dan gracefully declines: “The Blue Beetle seeks no reward, Tom. What he does, he does for humanity.” Instead, he’s off to his next adventure, to foil slot-machine racketeers who are preying on carnival-goers. The announcer solemnly asks, “Can the Blue Beetle protect amusement seekers against dishonest exploitation?” (Best of luck on that.)

It’s all quite a lot of juvenile fun, which ought to arouse nostalgic memories even for those of us who weren’t alive at the time! I particularly like the organ riffs for the scene transitions.

You can learn more about the Blue Beetle on these pages:

Blue Beetle Radio

Blue Beetle

No comments:

Post a Comment