Monday, November 25, 2013

Raymond Chandler Hated This TV Private Eye

by Stephen J. Gertz

“Television's perfect. You turn a few knobs, a few of those mechanical adjustments at which the higher apes are so proficient, and lean back and drain your mind of all thought. And there you are watching the bubbles in the primeval ooze. You don't have to concentrate. You don't have to react. You don't have to remember. You don't miss your brain because you don't need it. Your heart and liver and lungs continue to function normally. Apart from that, all is peace and quiet. You are in the man's nirvana. And if some poor nasty minded person comes along and says you look like a fly on a can of garbage, pay him no mind. He probably hasn't got the price of a television set” (Raymond Chandler).

A one-page, signed typed letter from Raymond Chandler on his personal letterhead to his Hollywood literary agent, H.N. Swanson, is coming to auction at Bonham's Fine Books and Manuscripts sale December 11, 2013. Dated August 8, 1952, and sent from Chandler's home in La Jolla, CA, within he scorns TV private eyes and a particular detective show. It is estimated to sell for $1,500-$2,500.

Here, Chandler, his prose always a fine rustic wine with acidic finish, allows the vino to turn into pure vinegar as he discusses a TV private-eye series that he considers the worst show ever, dips its lead actor into carbolic acid without the sweet smell, excoriates the crass commercialization of the show's sponsor, and denigrates the sponsor's product, apparently the worst of its kind to have ever been foisted upon the public.

TV is so bad he wants a job writing for it.

The letter's a doozy and grand fun. It reads in full:

August 8, 1952

Mr. H.N. Swanson
8525 Sunset Blvd.
Hollywood 46, Calif.

Dear Swanie:

Thanks for your wire and good wishes, etc. What's with the TV situation nowadays? Don't' we ever get any offers? There isn't a decent private eye show on the air. I read in the paper where Lee Tracy had made Martin Kane over into something fresh and beautiful, so I tuned it in last night, if that's the correct expression for TV, and if television has done anything worse, I am so happy to have missed it. Between the commercials I tried to study Mr. Tracy's approach to his art but was handicapped by having to look at his face, which on television seems to consist of some doughy substance or perhaps a soft white wax. His talent as an actor is considerable in the right time and place and would have dwarfed the rest of the cast, esthetically speaking, had they not already been dwarfs. He lights a pipe full of Dill's Best with enough enthusiasm to make you think the stuff is tobacco which, if my recollection serves me, it is not. One of these days they ought to try playing the whole program at the tobacconist's counter. I wouldn't be a damned bit surprised if they did, since the obvious destiny of this sort of cheap program is to be one long continuous commercial.

Yours ever,


Martin Kane, Private Eye was television's first detective series. Its roots in radio, it ran from 1949 through 1954.

"Private detective Martin Kane worked in New York solving crimes. Depending on the year, Kane was either smooth and suave or hard bitten and the cooperation he received from the police depended on the year. The only constant was Happy McMann's tobacco shop where Kane hung out" (IMDb).

This was the era in TV when sponsors owned the programs and called the shots. Product placement was the norm and overt promotion of the product within the program was standard. What a coincidence that Happy McMann always has plenty of smoking products from United States Tobacco Co. in stock and that Martin Kane asks for its Dill's Best pipe tobacco by name while he and Happy shoot the breeze and exposition between plot points. Might as well call the show Happy Hour with Dill's, Martin Kane and the story thrown in to fill time between pipe-fulls.

Hollywood Golden age actor Lee Tracy, who, along with William Gargan, Mark Stevens, and Lloyd Nolan, portrayed Martin Kane on radio and TV, took over the role on television in 1952. If his face looked like a  "doughy substance or perhaps a soft white wax," it was likely due to early television's poor lighting highlighting a visage aged in booze; Tracy was an "unapologetic bad boy, notorious for drinking, missing work, and being flippant to interviewers" (Bright Lights).

Early in his film career he perfected the manic man-on-the-make with moxie character that Hollywood and audiences loved during the 1930s. "Tracy was the definitive brash, wily, fast-talking, stop-at-nothing operator. He skated around in perpetual overdrive, jabbing the air with his fingers, spitting out his lines like a machine-gun, wheedling and needling and swearing you can take out his appendix without ether if he's lying (he's got you there — he had it out already.) He was homely and scrawny with a strident nasal voice, but you can't help rooting for his brazen, devious hucksters and reveling in his shameless moxie. He's a jolt of pure caffeine; watching him in action is like gulping a couple of double espressos. Audiences in the early thirties loved his snappy style and irrepressible irreverence; they loved him because he was nobody's fool" (Ibid.).

Dill's Best shag was, apparently, at best strictly from rugs and Raymond Chandler wanted to ream Martin Kane, Private Eye with one of Dill's Best Pipe Cleaners to clear out the gunk. But at this point in Chandler's career his career had gone into hiding. The year before writing this letter, his final screenplay, for Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, was produced.  He and Hitch fell-out during the production and Hollywood never called again. Chandler wasn't getting any offers, was in the midst of writing The Long Goodbye (1953), and, strapped, needed green shag in his pipe to keep pests away from his door.

It's interesting to contemplate Chandler writing a detective series for TV. Never an ace with plotting - his novels are almost incoherent in that department - he wished to write for a medium that, at least in its early years, was plot-driven. And then the sponsors: he would, without a doubt, have been subject to their whims and interference. I think it safe to say that if Chandler had ever actually written for television it would have been a personal and professional disaster.

MARLOWE, Episode 3, The Case of the Bottle Blonde

INTERIOR: Happy McMann's Beauty Supplies

Happy, from thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away. She was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket. I'm running out of quotes from my novels here, can you help me out, Hap?


You sure it was a real blonde, Phil?


Only her hairdresser knows for sure. 
I'm going over there and put her on the grill.


ESTABLISHING SHOT: EXTERIOR: Irma's Salon de Beauté on Hollywood Boulevard.

MARLOWE (Voice-Over)

It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in...


INTERIOR: Irma's Salon de Beauté. 

Irma is sitting on a grill.

MARLOWE (voice-over)

...I had her in the hot seat. 
I'd brought a bottle along for spiritual purposes 
and poured her a drink.




Only my bartender knows for sure.

(after downing a long gulp)

It's like butterscotch. Goes down nice n' easy.


It should.
 It's Clairol Nice N' Easy Natural Butterscotch Blonde, 
permanent with 100% gray coverage. 
Tones and highlights in one easy step.


You got me, gumshoe.
 I thought I could cover it up.


Not in this town.
The streets are dark with something more then night.
But not that dark.
Now, spill. And don't leave any highlights out.

(Panicked, shaking her hair)

I can't. They're permanent!

(Grabbing her by the shoulders)

Take it easy!

CUT TO: C/U on Marlowe


 Nice N' Easy. From Clairol.

And now, an episode (alas, not the one with dwarfs) from the show Chandler scorned, Martin Kane, Private Eye starring Lee Tracy. Kane doesn't show-up until 5:42 into the program. He is lighting his pipe, full, of course, with Dill's, the better to solve this pickle.


Letter image courtesy of Bonham's, with our thanks.

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