Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Novel Detective Series




Of all of the franchise detective series emanating from the 1920s and 1930s, few have been as successful across as wide a range of media as that of Ellery Queen.


Created in 1928 by a pair of cousins living in Brooklyn, Ellery Queen is both the name of a fictional detective and a pseudonym for the pair who wrote very popular mystery novels and short stories for more than 4 decades.


The two, Daniel Nathan, alias Frederic Dannay (October 20, 1905–September 3, 1982) and Manford (Emanuel) Lepofsky, alias Manfred Bennington Lee (January 11, 1905–April 3, 1971) parlayed Ellery Queen into a series of movies, four TV series, and several radio series making him perhaps America’s best known fictional detective.


The Ellery Queen novels, beginning with The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) all featured the same formula.   An unusual crime, copious suspects, complex clues, and a `Challenge to the Reader’ towards the end of the book, where Ellery declares that all of the clues needed to solve the mystery had been revealed.


And indeed, they had.  


The cousins were careful to play fair with the reader, providing all of the necessary information for them to solve the mystery before revealing the answer.


One of the earliest Ellery Queen movies was The Mandarin Mystery, which is available on The Internet Archive.  


Produced by the king of the serials - Nat Levine, for Republic pictures - this 1936 `locked room’ mystery strays a bit from the source novel , THE CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY but fares reasonably well for a short (53 minute) B movie.




The Mandarin Mystery - Nat Levine, Victor Zobel
This adaptation of an Ellery Queen mystery concerns the theft of a rare Chinese stamp (the Mandarin of the title), which takes place in a hotel with several shifty characters and an hysterical manager (the priceless Franklin Pangborn). The mystery, such as it is, concerns both the stamp theft and two murders, and shows Ellery and his father the Inspector as a team rubbing together just enough to solve the case.


The Ellery Queen movies of the 1940s, starring Ralph Bellamy and then William Gargan, while still `B’ movies, are probably more watchable today.  


While I’ve not found them on public domain sites, you may catch them on one of the classic movie channels.


Enemy Agents Meet Ellery Queen (1942) William Gargan

A Desperate Chance for Ellery Queen (1942) William Gargan

A Close Call for Ellery Queen (1942) William Gargan

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941) Ralph Bellamy

Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime (1941) Ralph Bellamy

Ellery Queen's Penthouse Mystery (1941) Ralph Bellamy

Ellery Queen, Master Detective (1940) Ralph Bellamy


From 1939 to 1948, The  Adventures of Ellery Queen appeared on radio, hop scotching across all three radio networks (CBS (1939-1940), NBC (1940-44), CBS (1945-47), NBC (1947), then finally ABC (1947-48)).



The Internet Archive has sizable number of old Ellery Queen radio plays, although the quality (and accurate identification) of these shows vary considerably.    


It’s an interesting, but mixed bag.


Some of these episodes feature (albeit minor) celebrity `armchair detectives’ who listen along with the audience and attempt to solve the mystery before Ellery does the ending summation.


The Ellery Queen `Minute Mysteries’ were not part of the 1940s run, but rather a short (1 minute) audience participation mystery run in the 1970s.


In 1950 Ellery Queen moved to Television, in a live show on the short-lived DuMont Network.   It was broadcast from 1950 to 1954, but moved to ABC for season’s 2 – 4.  


The original star, Richard Hart died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 35, during the first season.  He was replaced by Lee Bowman for the rest of the series' run.


Like most early `live’ TV shows, the production values are scant, and these are little more than filmed `stage bound’ radio plays.  While primitive, these are pioneering first steps in televised drama and have nostalgic, historic, and hopefully entertainment value.


These four examples come from the Internet Archive.   The picture and sound quality are regrettably less than stellar.  Comments are by the uploaders.


The Adventures of Ellery Queen - The Hanging Acrobat - DuMont Network - Irving and Norman Pincus

This is an episode of the DuMont Network's "The Adventures of Ellery Queen" (1950-54). This ran on the DuMont Network before moving to the ABC. The series was also shown in Australia, where it played on Channel 2 on Thursdays at 9pm throughout 1957. The actor who plays Ellery, Richard Hart, died part way through the series and was replaced by Lee Bowman. About 50 episodes were made over its two runs but only a small amount survive...


'The Adventures of Ellery Queen' - Man who enjoyed death (1951)
Episode "Man who enjoyed death" of DuMont's "The Adventures of Ellery Queen", originally broadcast "live" on 3/29/1951. Featuring Lee Bowman as 'Ellery Queen' and Florenz Ames as 'Inspector Richard



'The Adventures of Ellery Queen' - Murder to Music (1951)
Episode "Murder to Music" of DuMont's "The Adventures of Ellery Queen", originally broadcast "live" on 11/08/1951. Featuring Lee Bowman as 'Ellery Queen' and Florenz Ames as 'Inspector Richard Queen'. 'Kaiser Frazer' commercials presented by Rex Marshall. NOTE! To avoid undue distraction, I've cut off the badly distorted upper part of the frame.


'The Adventures of Ellery Queen' - Buck fever (1952)
Episode "Buck fever" of "The Adventures of Ellery Queen", originally broadcast "live" on 10/01/1952 on ABC. Featuring Lee Bowman as 'Ellery Queen' and Florenz Ames as 'Inspector Richard Queen'.



Sadly, very few episodes remain of this early series.


There have been three more TV series based on Ellery Queen. 


The second was  British series produced by Lew Grade’s ITC network (as Brits well know, the BBC didn’t produced everything!).

A third series, entitled The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, ran on NBC during the 1958-59 television season. 

And perhaps best remembered is the (NBC again) Universal Television production of Ellery Queen starring Jim Hutton, which aired in 1975-76.   



In addition to the books, movies, radio plays, and mystery magazine that sprang from the collaboration of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, `Ellery Queen’ was also a noted writer on the history of detective fiction.


One such tome, available online, is The Detective Short Story A Bibliography (1942).


For aficionados of `who dunnits’, Ellery Queen leaves an important, and well remembered legacy.

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