BEFORE TV: SPIES ON RADIO
By Wesley Britton
“The stories in this book are told by a former member of the United States Secret Service known as K-7. His adventures in the air as well as on land and
sea in many countries is a thrilling document of the intrigue and espionage that exists among the nations of the world. Modesty compels the hero to disguise
himself under another name, K-7. But only the principal actors in such gripping dramas could report them in such detail.”
(From the 1940 novelization, Secret Agent K-7 [Adapted from the Radio Scripts by Gene Stafford. Akron, OH: Saalfield Pub])
While researching Spy Television (2004) and Beyond Bond: Spies in Film and Fiction (2005), I discovered just how important old-time radio dramas were on the formative years of film and TV spies. For example, not only were television series in the 1950s based on radio series, but pioneer producers and writers in the 1960s were often veterans of radio serials.
As spy radio shows are explored in depth in Chapters of both Spy Television and Beyond Bond, what is provided here is a short annotated list of these shows as no such list exists elsewhere. Details about networks, years of broadcast, and stars are provided when known. I've also added brief notes that are either mentions of other sources to consult or facts to provide some glimmer into what each show was about. For those seeking much more comprehensive information, I suggest consulting John Dunning's On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio (New York: Oxford UP) 1998.
While many of these shows are no longer available for listening, many others can be found through many sources. There's plenty of entertaining hours in OTR (Old Time Radio), so I hope this list will inspire newcomers to give these classic spies a try.
Note: Many World War II dramas, especially those broadcast after the war, were anthology shows with no recurring casts. Series listed below without cast names were likely in that category. It should be noted that, especially during World War II, many radio dramas took on spy trappings, particularly counter-espionage in the U.S. Such shows included Superman, The Shadow, and Sherlock Holmes. Many anthology series featured undercover stories such as Three Sheets to the Wind (NBC, 1950) featuring John Wayne as a drunken secret agent.
Many dramas and serials described as crime drama, mystery, or romance also included espionage elements. For example, Jack French's Private Eyelashes: Radio's Lady Detectives (2004) claimed to not discuss any lady spies, but that is only true if the definition excludes counter-intelligence agents or detectives who occasionally go on secret missions for the U.S. government. In many cases, especially regarding shows of the 1930s, content of many series is unclear as few or no tapes or scripts survive for examination.
A short discussion of Hitchcock radio dramas follows this directory. Notes and addendum will be added when new information crosses my desk. Please send corrections or additions to
"Black warfare. Espionage. International intrigue. These are the weapons of the OSS. Today's story . . . is suggested by actual incidents recorded in the Washington files of the Office of Strategic Services. A story that can now be told."
(Opening narration to radio drama, Cloak and Dagger, 1950)
A DIRECTORY OF RADIO SPY SHOWS
Armstrong of the S.B.I. 1950. Formerly Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. For one season Jack was a counter-spy for the Scientific Bureau of Investigation.
Avengers, The. 1972. South African serial based on the TV program. Donald Monat, Diana Appleby. (See detailed review in "The Avengers on Radio" article posted at this website.)
Cloak and Dagger. 1950. Raymond Edward Johnson, Gilbert Mack. Behind the lines war operations loosely based on the book by Cory Ford and Alister McBain about Office of Strategic Services (OSS) missions.
Counterspy AKA David Harding, Counterspy. (NBC, CBS, Mutual, the Blue network)
1942-1957. Don MacLaughlin, Mandel Kramer battling Gestapo, Japanese, and criminals on American soil.
Dan Dunn, Secret Operative Number 48. (San Francisco) 1937. Lou Marcel. 15 min. serial. Featured character, Kay Fields, Secret Operative No. 185. Played by Lucille Meredith, 185 was the first female government agent on radio. Based on a comic strip, the show also inspired the first tie-in novels for young readers published by Big Little Books.
Dangerous Assignment. (NBC) 1948-1953. Brian Dunluvy as Steve Mitchell in fast-paced international stories. (Also a TV series--see "Secret Agent Television Shows" file at this website.)
Don Winslow of the Navy. 1937-1942. Raymond Edward Johnson. Children's serial with lead taking on enemy agents after Pearl Harbor.
Foreign Assignment. (Mutual) 1943-1944. Jay Jostyn, Vicki Vola. Created formula of reporters as spies fighting Gestapo.
Helen Holden, Government Girl. (Mutual) 1941. Nancy Boardway as agent in Washington DC. 15 minute serial aired six days a week. 300 episodes broadcast, none extant. (see note 1 below)
I Love Adventure. 1948. Spin-off of popular I Love a Mystery series. Jack Packard (Michael Laseto), formerly of American intelligence, went to London to work for the top secret "21 Old Men of 10 Gramercy Park" who met behind a large two-way mirror where Jack could hear but never see them. Jack was accompanied by his friends from I Love a Mystery, Reggie York (Tom Collins) and Doc Long (Barton Yarborough).
Intrigue. 1946. Anthology series with no recurring cast.
It's A Crime, Mr. Collins. 1956. Two cast, one U.S., one in Australia. In U.S., Mandall Kramer was Greg Collins, married to Jane, and pair went on occasional secret assignments for government.
I Was a Communist for the FBI. 1952-1954. Dana Andrews. (See detailed discussion in "They Were Communists for the FBI" article posted at this website.)
Man Called X, The. 1944-1952. Herbert Marshall as Ken Thurston dealing with international intrigue. Leon Belasco was comic relief. (Also TV series--see directory of "Secret Agent Television Shows" posted at this website.)
Man from G-2, The. (AKA Major North, Army Intelligence). 1945-1946. Staats Cotswoorth. Based on character and short stories created by F. Van Wyck Mason.
Modern Adventures of Casanova, The. 1952. Errol Flynn as Christopher Casanova, working for Worldpol to live down the reputation of his famous ancestor.
Ned Jordon Spy Stories. (Mutual) 1938-1942. Jack McCarthy. Espionage on the railroad.
Secret Agent K-7. 1939. Unknown cast playing unknown agents for unspecified countries in 15 minute serial that preached evils of spying.
Secret Missions. 1948-1949. Based on a book of the same name by Rear Admiral Ellis N. Zacoriase who narrated the anthology series about adventures in Naval Intelligence. (An unrelated series with the same name was broadcast during the 1950s.)
Secret Service Spy Stories. (NBC) 1932-1933. Among the first network espionage series.
Spy at Large. (NBC) 1938. Writer, George Ludlam.
Spy Catcher. (BBC) 1960-1961. Based on the memoirs of Lt. Col. Oreste Pinto of Allied Counterintelligence Services.
Spy Secrets. (NBC) 1938. Producer, Himan Brown.
Stories of the Black Chamber. (NBC) 1935. Gale Gordon. Based on actual "Black Chamber" codebreakers headed by Herbert Yardley.
Tennessee Jed. (ABC) 1945-1947. Johnny Thomas. Children's serial set in Old West.
Third Man, The. 1951-1952. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Unrelated to film, Fairbanks was agent for Departments of Commerce, Immigration, Transportation, but mostly secret unnamed government agencies.
Time for Love. (CBS) 1953-54. Marlene Dietrich as singer/government agent for unspecified country. (see note 2 below)
Top Secret. (NBC) 1950. Hungarian actress Ilona Massey in very dark series set around WWII.
Transcontinental Murder Mystery. (Transcribed by Transco, syndicated, 1932). Irene Donley. (see note 3 below)
Stratosphere Murder Mystery, The. (Transcribed by Transco, syndicated, 1932). Irene Donley. (see note 3 below)
Wendy Warren and the News. (CBS) 1946-58. Unique blend of actual news with Douglas Edwards mixed with 7 minute adventures with Florence Freeman as Warren, reporter and detective. After 1949, Warren became involved with counter-espionage.
There were to adaptations of novelist John Buchan's 1915 The 39 Steps including Orson Welles 1938 version for his Mercury Theatre. Welles claimed his adaptation
was truer to the book than Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film version which was in turn adapted into a 1937 CBS "Lux Radio Theatre" broadcast starring Robert
Montgomery and Ida Lupino. A detailed discussion of this hour, and how it foreshadowed many espionage themes in films and literature, can be found in the first chapter of my Beyond Bond: Spies in Film and Fiction (Praeger Pub., 2005).
In 2002, "Radio Spirits" issued three CD sets featuring radio adaptations of Alfred Hitchcock films. One included the 39 Steps broadcast; another set included the January 26, 1948 "Lux Radio Theatre" adaptation of Hitchcock's 1946 film, Notorious. In that broadcast, Ingrid Bergman reprised her role from the film while Joseph Cotton played the part of Devlin, which had originally been played by Cary Grant. The third
CD set included the 30 minute July 24, 1946 House of Squib Academy Award adaptation of Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, which had been filmed in 1940.
While the star of the film, Joel McCrea, had been scheduled to reprise his starring role from the film, Joseph Cotton stepped in at the last minute as
McCrea had other obligations that week.
Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes was adapted for the Philip Morris Playhouse in 1940 starring Errol Flynn.
Notes from Jack French's Private Eyelashes.
1. Helen Holden was one of the first daytime serials with a war theme. She was "sworn to protect the homeland against enemy infiltration and aggression and faithfully carried out her tasks." According to French, Helen was the second of only two official female government agents on radio, the first Kay Fields in Dan Dunn.
2. French described Dietrich's character, Dionne LaVolta, as "akin to that of Mrs. Emma Peel, the associate of John Steed in television's superb '60s series, The Avengers." Meaning she seemed to have hidden and unspecified authority from the government. Other sources aren't so certain, saying her wanderings across four continents were private journeys that happened to get linked with crimes.
3. The occupation of Irene Donley--who used her own name as character--in the two limited series listed above is uncertain. She seemed to be an independent operator who investigated national crimes and classified government cases. But when she was on a secret mission for the "War Department" in Chicago, news reporters were seeking interviews with the famous investigator.
For more articles on espionage in the media, check out