“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep
(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)
Dick Powell was Johnny Dollar? Well, no, not exactly. Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, was a very successful radio show, which ran for over 800 episodes, covering thirteen years. It easily outlasted many competing programs, such as The Adventures of Sam Spade, and The (New) Adventures of Philip Marlowe. Dollar was “the insurance investigator with the action-packed expense account,” though he started out as more of a typical private eye. Which can also be said of Erle Stanley Gardner’s lawyer, Perry Mason.
In December of 1948, Dick Powell auditioned for the new show, recording the episode Milford Brooks III. With movies such as 1944’s Murder My Sweet, and 1947’s Johnny O’Clock, the popular song-and-dance man had carved out a niche as an unlikely hardboiled star. He’s actually my favorite movie Marlowe, and I wrote about Johnny O’Clock here at Black Gate. Here’s the episode, for your listening pleasure.
He had also spent the previous two years as Richard Rogue in the rather unusual PI radio show, Rogue’s Gallery. Like many shows of the time, Rogue’s Gallery had a lack of stability in network, time slot and even renewal, and Powell left after 1947, replaced by Barry Sullivan. This left him available to try out for Johnny Dollar. The original title was Yours Truly, Lloyd London, but was presumably changed to avoid trouble with the well-known insurance company.
However, it appears that Powell decided to pass on the part to pursue a different radio opportunity; Richard Diamond, Private Eye (another of my favorites). So, actor Charles Russell was given the part. This essay is going to talk mostly about Powell’s audition, but will go beyond that focus.
In this earliest incarnation, Powell plays a somewhat light-hearted version of Dollar, though he’s still more of a typical private eye than a distinctive insurance investigator. His witty patter is consistent throughout, and he even hums ‘Slow Boat to China;’ a tip of the fedora to his Hollywood musical background. In fact, Powell comes across as pretty similar to his next part, Richard Diamond.
Early on, a young man he’s dealing with bites him, which later lets Dollar make a cryptic comment that “Let’s just say, he put the bite on me.” That comes just after saying, “That kid’s liquor sure can hold him.” Very much like Diamond, Powell’s Dollar is quick with a quip. Which is fine. But it’s more prevalent here than it would be with other actors in the role.
Throughout the entire series, Dollar narrates the cases himself, and he works solo. There’s no ‘Watson’ helper. And thankfully, there’s no dingbat secretary. Lurene Tuttle’s bird-brained Effie Perrine was the worst part of Howard Duff’s Sam Spade show. It’s just Dollar every week, typically working with the local authorities. The private eye of the time was usually either a suspect, or one step ahead of the police on the trail. Dollar usually worked with them at least a little during each case. He wasn’t Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.
He’s a free-lance insurance investigator, ‘free, white, and thirty four’ in the audition episode. He’s based out of Hartford, Connecticut, but his cases take place all over the United States; and on some occasions, out of the country.
He is a genius at putting together his expense account. That’s really the gimmick for the show. Each episode is told in flashback, with Dollar recounting events, to justify his expense report. Throughout the case, he lists items for reimbursement, wrapping up each one by ‘signing off’ with “End of Report: Yours truly, Johnny Dollar.”
In the Powell episode, the first item on the report is one dollar for a taxi. The second is twenty five cents for a shoeshine, because his shoes got scuffed when he had an altercation upon walking into his client’s office. Dollar doesn’t miss an item for the report, even down to aspirin for a headache given to him on a case. The extent to which Dollar claimed ‘questionable’ expenses varied by actor. Charles Russell often included items related to his frequent romancing of women during a case. Bob Bailey was far less likely to do so. At least, as outrageously. Powell adds $318 to his list for a bracelet, which he gives to his girlfriend (of this case, anyways).
Dollar is hired by East Coast Underwriters to keep a client, Milford Brooks III, from killing himself. Brooks, a useless rich young man, has a two million dollar policy, with Harold Hatcher, a noted criminal, newly named as beneficiary. Upon being told that he couldn’t get a $500,000 loan against his policy, Brooks threatens to kill himself; which would trigger the payout. Austin Farnsworth, the General Manager for Eastern, wants Dollar to protect him – to give him ‘an interest in life.’ So Dollar turns to his little black book and finds Butter, a suitable female, living in New York City. The third expense item is a bottle of brandy to get Brooks plastered, and manageable, during the drive to NYC.
Brooks would be a perfect ‘Remittance Man’ from days gone by. Jimmy Buffett wrote a song with that title, which introduced me to the concept.
Dollar and Butter get reacquainted (drinking the aforementioned expensed brandy), while Brooks, having napped off his drunk, sneaks out the bedroom window. His coat, with a pack of matches initialed ‘HH’ is found on a ferry; apparently he drowned himself, which would result in the big payout to Harold Hatcher, who is the natural lead suspect.
Dollar has a reservation at Hatcher’s restaurant, which is an overpriced place with average food, watered-down drinks, and muscular goons. He is accosted there by a beautiful blonde named Janelle, who has been sent by Hatcher to check him out. They engage in sexy banter and she sends him upstairs to Hatcher’s office. Dollar pushes for answers from Hatcher, who denies knowing that he was Brooks’ beneficiary. Brooks owed him $200,000 and he wanted a live debtor, not a dead one. The police arrive and Dollar visits with Janelle while Hatcher talks to the inspector.
Janelle tells Dollar that Hatcher was going to cancel Brooks’ debt if he made him his beneficiary. She even tells him where to find a note verifying that, up in the office. As Dollar narrates, “Whatever her reasons, Mister Harold Hatcher’s little female playmate was trying awful hard to send him up on a murder wrap. And I was going to try awful hard not to let her down.” He finds the note, and he finds something else in all of Hatcher’s suits. He doesn’t reveal this clue, but it’s an important one for Dollar.
Item four on the expense report is the nightclub trip. Item five is $10 for a taxi. He follows his ‘favorite suspect,’ though it’s not specified who came out of the restaurant. We’re to assume it’s Hatcher. Dollar sneaks up the stairs to the living quarters above a garage and he hears someone talking: “That voice sounded awfully dry to be coming from a guy who supposedly had spent most of the night snoozing at the bottom of the Hudson river.” It’s Brooks.
And as Dollar bursts in, we discover he’s talking to Janelle, not Hatcher. The two, at Janelle’s instigation, faked Brook’s suicide, framing Hatcher along the way. The clue which Dollar found in the office was that every one of Hatcher’s suits had a lighter in it – He never used matches. Janelle had planted the matchbook to point the finger at him: poorly.
Hatcher arrives for a frantic finale. He’s going to take Brooks and dispose of him from the ferry. Brooks makes a run for it and Hatcher shoots him. Dollar tackles Brooks, and grabs the gun, which was knocked loose, and pistol whips Hatcher down. The police arrive and clean up the mess.
Brooks is not dead, though Dollar couldn’t care less about him. He leaves the hospital to buy Butter that bracelet. He goes back to the hospital and gets a statement from Brooks, admitting to fraud, which voids the policy. Brooks and Janelle wanted to get rid of Hatcher so they could live happily ever after. She was the brains of the pair – but not smarter than Johnny Dollar.
The total amount of expenses for the case are $1,182.23, which Dollar says isn’t bad, since he saved the company $2 million. I’ve mentioned that Sidney Greenstreet was Casper Gutman playing Nero Wolfe in The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe radio show (that’s not a compliment). Dick Powell was Richard Diamond playing Johnny Dollar (albeit, there was no Diamond yet). Even the way he signs off “Yours uh….mmm mmm, truly, Johnny Dollar” is Diamond-esque. Everybody else gives a straight delivery.
This script was used for the sixth episode of the show (or fifth, if you discount this unaired pilot), with Charles Russell as Dollar. So, you can compare the two. The script was tightened up a little bit (Butter gets a real name), and Russell drops the light-hearted tone Powell had. The humor is more the typical, wise-cracking PI talk. Russell is more of the standard private eye from the era. There’s still humor, but the delivery is very different from Powell’s. And instead of brandy, they cozy up over root beer…
Russell was followed by Edmund O’Brien, and then John Lund. Gerald Mohr, who played a very good radio Philip Marlowe, recorded an audition episode. Mohr was one of several Archie Goodwins opposite Greenstreet’s Nero Wolfe. It was a poorly written part which even he couldn’t salvage.
Then there was Bob Bailey, by far the most popular Dollar. I will likely do a follow up essay, focusing on his tenure. When he refused to relocate with the show from Hollywood to New York City, Bob Readick replaced him, and finally, there was Mandel Kramer.
We are fortunate that most episodes have survived. This website has 721 of them available for online streaming, from each of the different actors who played Dollar. Alan Ladd’s Box 13 vies with Yours Truly Johnny Dollar as my favorite radio mystery show. But that show only lasted one year, with 52 episodes. There’s a LOT more Johnny Dollar available to listen to, so for me, it gets some separation because of that.
Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2020 Series (8)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled May on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Some Hardboiled streaming options
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled June on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bullets or Ballots (Humphrey Bogart)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Phililp Marlowe – Private Eye (Powers Boothe)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Cool and Lam
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: All Through the Night (Bogart)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2019 Series (15)
Back Deck Pulp Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Will Murray on Doc Savage
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hugh B. Cave’s Peter Kane
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Paul Bishop on Lance Spearman
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: A Man Called Spade
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hard Boiled Holmes
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Duane Spurlock on T.T. Flynn
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew Salmon on Montreal Noir
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner on The Bad Guys of Pulp
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Steve Scott on John D. MacDonald’s ‘Park Falkner’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Murray on The Spider
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: John D. MacDonald & Mickey Spillane
A (Black Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis goes West(ern)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bill Crider on The Brass Cupcake
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2018 Series (31)
With a (Black) Gat: George Harmon Coxe
With a (Black) Gat: Raoul Whitfield
With a (Black) Gat: Some Hard Boiled Anthologies
With a (Black) Gat: Frederick Nebel’s Donahue
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Walsh
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – January, 1935
A (Black) Gat in the hand: Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: D.L. Champion’s Rex Sackler
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Dime Detective – August, 1939
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #1
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Day Keene
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – October, 1933
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #2
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – Spring, 2017
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner’s ‘Max Allen Collins & The Hard Boiled Hero’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Campbell Gault
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: More Cool & Lam From Hard Case Crime
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Parker’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part One)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part Two)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Maynard’s ‘The Yellow Peril’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew P Salmon’s ‘Frederick C. Davis’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Rory Gallagher’s ‘Continental Op’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #3
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #4
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #5
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw on Writing
A (Black) Gat in Hand: Back Deck Pulp #6
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: The Black Mask Dinner
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.