So did you catch The Whistler (1944) on TCM last Saturday morning? It's the latest in TCM's series of series entries to fill that Saturday am time slot. If you've gotten a kick out of other Columbia series such as The Lone Wolf, The Crime Doctor or Boston Blackie then there's a good chance that The Whistler is going to be for you too!
I'm new to this series myself, having just caught the initial entry for the first time last week. But as I've become a fan of the other series mentioned above and have always been a fan of Richard Dix, the actor who stars in seven of the eight Whistler entries, I really wanted to post something about The Whistler on the site.
I met Dan via Facebook where we initially spent several days discussing the wonderful Claire Dodd, whom Dan had published an article about in Films of the Golden Age magazine. Dan's article about Miss Dodd was so splendid that it has delayed me from posting anything on this site--after all, half of the fun for me is learning about the old stars, Dan didn't seem to leave me much wiggle room. In the space of several magazine pages he sketched an economical biography which answered all of my own questions.
So when I opened up my TCM Now Playing guide not very long ago to prepare my September preview and realized that The Whistler was coming, it was pretty obvious what I had to do! I was curious about The Whistler as I assume you are now curious about the series as well. Following are my brief questions, asked prior to first viewing The Whistler, followed by Dan's detailed answers.
For more about The Whistler please pick up a copy of The Whistler: Stepping Into the Shadows by Dan Van Neste with foreword by Robert Dix, son of Whistler star Richard Dix.
An Interview with Dan Van Neste
Q: Thanks again for helping us out with The Whistler on such short notice, Dan. First of all, could you tell us a little about the background of the series?
Dan Van Neste: The first Whistler movie was not made until 1944, but the story of The Whistler on film began with a pair of ax murders on the U. S. west coast two years earlier. The date was May 16, 1942. The grisly crimes were not real but part of a spine tingling radio script written for a new suspense program called, “The Whistler” on the CBS Network.
An anthology sponsored by The Signal Oil Company, the debut broadcast was an overnight sensation, the first of 692 west coast & 77 east coast episodes of one of the most successful and longest running (1942-55) radio programs of all time!
The debut broadcast resembled all which followed. It began with a hauntingly discordant 13 note whistle, and an eerie, other worldly voice saying, “I am the Whistler and I know many things for I walk by night . . .” Each episode involved individuals who wander outside the boundaries of law, propriety, and morality to achieve an unsavory objective. Just when it appears as if they will succeed each is ironically undone by their own greed, avarice, stupidity, and/or the hand of fate guided by the sinister Whistler character who like a Greek chorus narrates his tales, comments on the proceedings, and metes out punishment with vindictive delight.
The initial story entitled, “Retribution” was a tale of revenge and murder involving an evil man who hacked up his wife and stepson in order to lay claim to their money. His escape from prison and attempt to retrieve cash hidden in the old house he shared with his victims leads him to a ghastly fate overseen by The Whistler.
It didn’t take long for the immense popularity of The Whistler program to come to the attention of Columbia Pictures’ head, Harry Cohn. Cohn was looking for an idea for a new series to replace Ellery Queen which had ceased production in 1942. In 1943 Cohn purchased the film rights to The Whistler; and he and producer Rudolph Flothow began preparations to make a motion picture version of the popular radio show.
In order to ensure success they opted to closely adhere to the main elements of the program. They hired Whistler creator/writer J. Donald Wilson to provide a story and oversee the first film, secured the services of veteran actor Richard Dix to star, and young dynamic William Castle to direct.
The first picture simply titled, The Whistler was released in March, 1944. It’s surprising success with audiences and elite critics guaranteed there would me more Whistler films to follow. In fact just four months later Cohn was already busy producing a follow-up picture, thus giving birth to one of the most unique, and influential series in B movie history.
With that background from Dan, now seems a good time to share this trailer created by Dan's publisher, BearManor Media, for The Whistler: Stepping Into the Shadows:
More About The Whistler With Dan
Q: I’m a big fan of the Lone Wolf movies and recently immersed myself in the Crime Doctor series, but The Whistler is entirely new to me. What, if anything, makes the series different from some of the other Columbia crime series released during this period?
Dan Van Neste: Although The Whistler films resembled Columbia’s other B crime/mystery series in many respects they were distinct.
Certainly one of the key differences was the anthology format. With the exception of the title character (who essentially functions as a spooky narrator), each Whistler film contained completely different characters.
Another distinction was the protagonists. While The Crime Doctor, The Lone Wolf, and Boston Blackie had their faults and run-ins with the law, they were essentially heroic. Not so with many of the protagonists of the Whistler films. In fact several were out and out villains whose punishment was death.
Another main difference was contained in the stories. Unlike the other series, from the outset of each Whistler film audiences knew who the culprit was. The mystery was how he would be caught, and justice served. I could go on and on.
Suffice it to say The Whistler series was unique in many ways.
Q: How many films were in the series? Was Richard Dix always the star and did each entry have anything to do with the others?
Dan Van Neste: There were eight Whistler pictures in all, two per year (1944-46), then one in 1947, and 1948. Dix starred in seven of the eight.After filming was complete on the seventh entry, The Thirteenth Hour (in October, 1946), he was forced to retire from acting due to deteriorating health. He died three years later in 1949.
Dix was eventually replaced by young Columbia contract player Michael Duane, who starred in the last film, The Return of the Whistler (1948).
The eight movies had multiple common elements. Each contained The Whistler character, each was a ‘crime does not pay’ morality tale with an ironic ending. All had noir elements, memorable performances, etc., etc.
Q: Richard Dix had been around for a long time. He was a star in silent films and made a hit in the talkie, Cimarron. While I’m a fan of most of his early 1930’s work Dix seemed to decline in popularity as the years rolled by. Did The Whistler series do anything to revitalize his career?
Dan Van Neste: Dix was a major star of silent films and the early talkie period. His bravura performance as bigger-than-life Yancy Cravat in RKO’s Oscar winning western adventure Cimarron (1931) was the highlight of a career which encompassed 4 decades, over 100 motion pictures, and many peaks and valleys.Dix was experiencing one of the valleys when he made Cimarron which earned him an Oscar nomination but turned out to be a double-edged sword. It boosted his career; but after its release he became forever associated with the western/action adventure genre.
He gradually drifted into B movies in the latter 1930’s; and was very unhappy with the type of film roles he was playing by the early 1940‘s. To break free he accepted the part of a psychotic sea captain in Val Lewton's creepy melodrama, The Ghost Ship (1943). His performance in an overtly villainous role surprised and impressed many including Harry Cohn who offered him the lead in the first Whistler film, then signed him to a contract to do the series.
Although the Whistlers were B movies made quickly and cheaply to fill the bottom half of a mandatory double bill, they were uncommonly well made, winning acclaim from elite critics.
They certainly gave Richard Dix a chance to show his versatility as an actor; and he did not disappoint. If for no other reason, The Whistler films are worth watching for Dix’s exceptional lead performances which demonstrated once and for all what a fine, versatile actor he was. Robert Dix told me his dad was very proud of his work on the series and glad he signed on to star.
Q: Were any other actors regularly featured in the The Whistler series? Did Columbia use it like it did the aforementioned series to introduce any new talent?
Dan Van Neste: Outside of Richard Dix there was one who was regularly featured, an unknown actor by the name of Otto Forrest who portrayed the shadowy Whistler character in all the films. For some reason he remained uncredited through the entirety of the series.
While I don’t believe there were any notables actually introduced in the Whistler films, the casts were loaded with gifted young actors and filmmakers who pooled their talents with seasoned veterans. Among them was young Michael Duane, who gave good performances in the sixth entry, The Secret of the Whistler (1946) and in the final film, The Return of the Whistler (1948); beautiful Leslie Brooks who left quite an impression as a golddigger in The Secret of the Whistler (1946); and William Castle who memorably directed four of the eight Whistler features.
Among the veteran actors who contributed compelling performances were several striking leading ladies like Karen Morley, Gloria Stuart, Janis Carter, and Lynn Merrick, and many great character players such as J. Carrol Naish, Porter Hall, Kathleen Howard, Joan Woodbury, Regis Toomey, Trevor Bardette, Paul Guilfoyle, and Jeff Donnell.
Q: Why did Columbia end the series?
Dan Van Neste: There were many factors which combined to doom The Whistler series.
Dix’s retirement from acting in 1947 was the first of several blows. His performances had always been the heart of the Whistler films, so his absence was sorely felt. Cohn briefly considered abandoning the series at that time but being the skinflint he was, changed his mind primarily because Columbia still owned the rights to the Whistler name and the films were still making money.
Cohn initially selected veteran actor Otto Kruger as a replacement for Dix but switched to 33 year old Michael Duane after producer Rudy Flothow purchased the rights to film a Cornell Woolrich story about a young bridegroom’s search for his missing bride. The resulting film, The Return of the Whistler (1948), had redeeming qualities, contained excellent performances, and made a modest profit, but it disappointed many.
This combined with the demise of the double bill, the decline of low budget program pictures, changing tastes, and the advent of television to sound the death knell for The Whistler films and many other series’ favorites including Charlie Chan, Boston Blackie, The Falcon, The Crime Doctor, The Lone Wolf, and even Blondie. By 1951 all had disappeared from the big screen.
Q: What especially drew you to The Whistler?
Dan Van Neste: I remember really enjoying The Whistler films when I first saw them on television when I was a kid, but to tell you the truth I almost didn’t write The Whistler: Stepping Into the Shadows.
When I signed on to write a series book for BearManor Media, I had my pick. I initially selected another film series as my subject but changed my mind at the last minute when I began watching the Whistlers on Turner Classic Movies in 2008. I hadn’t seen them in years and had forgotten how atmospheric and unusual they were. They were program pictures with some of the familiar weaknesses of B’s, but still grabbed my attention and held it.
In addition, they contained noir elements which I found fascinating. To me these 8 B movies are special; and I’m not alone. They have fans in many quarters. The legendary director Robert Wise called them, “examples of budget filmmaking at its very best”.
Q: Tell us about your book, The Whistler: Stepping Into the Shadows.
Dan Van Neste: It’s the culmination of three years of work. There were lots of frustrations along the way; but I’m glad I persevered.
It’s actually three books in one. It is a companion to the series and tells readers anything and everything they want to know about the eight Whistler films, but also tells a detailed story of how movies like the Whistlers were made by Columbia.During the 1940’s Columbia Pictures was an incredible B movie factory which employed scores of talented, hardworking people who churned out low budget films at an astonishing pace. They didn’t receive Oscar statues and much if any encouragement; but to me they were heroes.
The last half of the book is devoted to them. It contains profiles of 50 of these gifted, unsung actors, directors, writers, and craftsman who worked on the Whistler films (among many others).
A highlight of the book is the lengthy, 32 page bio of Richard Dix which includes unique reminiscences from his actor son Robert who also wrote the book’s Foreword. Bob Dix tells me it’s the best, most complete profile of his dad he’s ever read, and I’m proud of that.
Another interesting part of the volume was contributed by noir expert, historian Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, (author of two wonderful noir books and editor of the terrific noir newsletter, The Dark Pages). She analyzes the noir elements of each of the Whistler films.
Thank you so much, Dan! For even more on The Whistler series of films be sure to pick up Dan's book The Whistler: Stepping Into the Shadows available on Amazon.com HERE.
Be sure to catch The Whistler series on Turner Classic Movies over the next several Saturday mornings beginning at 10:45 am EST through October 6.
About Dan Van NesteA native of Michigan, author, biographer, film historian Dan Van Neste has penned over 40 major movie related articles for various newspapers, magazines, and film journals during the past two decades. Best known for his star profiles in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age magazines, his work has merited seven cover stories. Many of his articles have included original interviews with vintage filmmakers.
His first book, The Whistler: Stepping Into the Shadows is a salute to the influential, groundbreaking suspense film series produced by Columbia Pictures (1944-48).
The 421 page film reference volume featuring 114 photos traces the history of the series and its radio origins, provides vital background details on each of the 8 Whistler motion pictures, and features 50 rare profiles of Whistler filmmakers highlighted by an in-depth look back at the life and career of series' star Richard Dix.
Pick it up on Amazon.com HERE.