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WIFE DOTTIE fears I might be enjoying too many old-time radio shows. You know, Nero Wolfe, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Boston Blackie. Shamuses who treat their molls tough. Dolls who move with whispers of silk.
Maybe she’d like I should talk like Miss Marple?
Yes, I can do that too because I have A Dictionary of the Underworld, British & American, by Eric Partridge.
Its full title gives an idea of the scope of Partridge’s classic work. If you’re curious about Spivs, check out “Molls, Spivs and Goody Two-Shoes,” an earlier discussion at this website. Today, I concentrate on a less familiar pair of rascals, Pat Novak and Rocky Fortune.
Many people remember Jack Webb as the steely voiced down-playing Sargent Joe Friday of Dragnet on radio and TV. But, in the lingo, Webb “has a prior” as Pat Novak, for Hire. Novak wasn’t a detective per se. Rather, his San Francisco Pier 19 boat shop got him caught up in skullduggery of one sort or another.
Typically, Novak is hired to help someone who exhibits subsequent symptoms of death. Novak is inevitably the patsy, accused by Police Inspector Hellman (portrayed by Raymond Burr, of Hitchcock’s Rear Window and TV’s Perry Mason and Ironside). The charm of it all is in Novak’s over-the-top cracking wise. Examples follow.
“The neighborhood was run down—the kind of place where the For Rent signs look like ransom notes.”
“She was at least 50, because you can’t get that ugly without years of practice.”
“She was kind of pretty, except you could see somebody had used her badly, like a dictionary in a stupid family.”
On the other hand: “She sauntered in, moving slowly from side to side like 118 pounds of warm smoke.”
On being paid $200 to follow a woman: “How do I spot her, read it off an ankle bracelet?” After the chit leaps to her death, Novak says, “Too bad her name wasn’t Jill….”
Rocky Fortune, aka Rocco Fortunato, is a tough little guy from New York City (y’know, across the river from Hoboken, New Jersey). In what passes for real life, its star Frank Sinatra had already been a big-band singer with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. He had been a pre-Beatles object of screaming-fan idolatry.
However, Sinatra’s career was in stagnation. MGM nixed him in 1950 after he cracked wise about Louis B. Mayer’s relationship with singer Ginny Simms. His platter sales were soft, Columbia Records and MCA Talent Agency dropping him in 1952.
But 1953 was the turnaround year for Sinatra. He was developing a more mature singing style, which was to soar once it caught on. And Sinatra’s portrayal of radio’s Rocky Fortune coincided neatly with his movie role (and Oscar-winning performance) as Private Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity.
The radio program Rocky Fortune lasted only from October 1953 to March 1954, “sustained” by the network; i.e., it ran without a sponsor. On the other hand, Sinatra’s Best Supporting Actor award on March 25, 1954, resuscitated his film career. Yet to come were starring roles, some comedic, some musical and others dramatic. These included The Man with the Golden Arm, Guys and Dolls, The Tender Trap, Some Came Running, High Society, Ocean’s Eleven and The Manchurian Candidate. A significant film career, quite independent of Sinatra’s prominence in the Great American Songbook.
Rocky Fortune had only 26 odd jobs from the Gridley Employment Agency. Yet he got entangled in adventures as oyster shucker, process server, museum tour guide, truck driver, companion to a chimp, and almost ended up being launched into space. As the show approached the end of its run (coinciding with Sinatra’s Oscar nomination and win), its writers worked the phrase “from here to eternity” into Rocky’s quips.
The show’s narrator described Rocky as “footloose and frequently unemployed,” kinda like Sinatra at the time. He did just fine, thanks. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015