Whispering Smith in TV & Film

Whispering Smith Film and Television
Lynnel Bryson-Davis

Whispering Smith’s title character was so popular that it has been adapted into seven feature films, a serial, and a television series. In some of these adaptations, the focus has been on the western; in some, the railroad; and in some, the detective aspect of the character.

Whispering Smith Silent Film Adaptations

The first film version of Whispering Smith in 1916 was ultimately released as two films: Whispering Smith, at the beginning of the summer, and Medicine Bend, in the middle of the summer. These silent films were released by Mutual and were starred in and directed by J.P. McGowan. In 1917, Universal released Money Madness, using the character of Whispering Smith, and ten years later, Universal serialized the Whispering Smith stories under the title Whispering Smith Rides. The 1926 film Whispering Smith was produced by Metropolitan and released by Producer’s Distributing Corporation. The film was directed by George Melford and stars H.B. Warner and Lillian Rich. This version is much closer to the novel by Frank Spearman as it includes most of the major characters as well as the double love story between Dicksie and McCloud and between Smith and Marion.

Whispering Smith’s First Sound Film 1935

In 1935, George O’Brien starred in a 20th Century Fox version appropriately titled Whispering Smith Speaks. This was not an adaptation of the novel but an original script by Frank Spearman. In it, Whispering Smith helps a destitute girl, Nan Roberts (Irene Ware), pay off her deceased father’s debts and shows his own wealthy father his worth on his own merits. Producer Sol Lesser controlled the rights for the story and later passed them to Julian Lesser who would go on to make the Smith films in Britain.

Whispering Smith 1948 Film

The most well-known version of the Whispering Smith story is the 1948 film starring Alan Ladd and Robert Preston. In this version, directed by Leslie Fenton, there is a stripped-down story, missing many of the main characters, including Dicksie Dunning. In the novel, George McCloud is a very prominent character, but in this film, he appears rarely. While this film is listed by most experts as Alan Ladd’s first film in Technicolor and his first western, he had appeared in many low-budget westerns for Paramount very early in his career. Many critics complained about the shift between novel and film. This adaptation eliminates the double love story and pares it down to a single love triangle among Smith, Marion, and Murray Sinclair. Frank Faylen’s depiction of Du Sang in the film is chilling, and Donald Crisp’s Barney Rebstock pushes Murray Sinclair to evil.

Whispering Smith is not the first film that Alan Ladd and Robert Preston were in together as both were contract players for Paramount. Early in Ladd’s career, Preston helped him prepare for an important audition that led to his being cast in This Gun for Hire. Preston was the lead and Alan Ladd an important supporting player. This film also starred Veronica Lake as the female lead. She and Ladd were later teamed in many Paramount productions. They looked good together because Lake was barely five feet tall and Alan Ladd was only five-eight. Preston made many westerns but is best known for the 1962 film, The Music Man, in which he played Professor Harold Hill, a con man who ultimately reforms in order to win the love of Marion. In Whispering Smith, Preston plays Murray Sinclair and is married to another Marion. Unfortunately, this Marion cannot seem to reform him. In the novel, Marion is married to Sinclair but she has made her own life as a milliner and lives separately from him. In the novel, she is George McCloud’s landlady and a former sweetheart of Whispering Smith. The novel notes Smith’s early connection with Sinclair, but the film focuses on the concept that they were best friends in their youth.

Whispering Smith was the last film that Ladd and Preston appeared in together. At the beginning of Ladd’s career, Preston was the bigger star and the lead. By this time, Preston had taken four years off for military service in World War II and was working on the last of his Paramount contract. He plays the antagonist in Whispering Smith. Most film fans today have no idea who Alan Ladd is, but in his time, he won many awards as “most popular performer.”  Beverly Linet’s biography of Ladd includes a 1953 photograph of Marilyn Monroe with Alan Ladd when both won the Photoplay award. Monroe won for How to Marry a Millionaire, and Ladd won for Shane, his most famous film (205).

Whispering Smith Hits London 1951

(Whispering Smith versus Scotland Yard – U.S. title)

RKO, in collaboration with Julian Lesser, brought Whispering Smith to London. In this version, Smith is played by Richard Carlson. This is an original story using the Smith character. Lesser had planned to make other Smith films: Calling Whispering Smith, Whispering Smith’s Challenge, and Whispering Smith and the Black Dragon. These would have been set in Japan, and though background footage was filmed for production, they were never completed (LA Times).

Whispering Smith 1961 Television Series

World War II hero Audie Murphy starred in this series for NBC and Universal. Murphy had parlayed a Congressional Medal of Honor and many other field medals and commendations into a Hollywood career, frequently in westerns. Murphy had seen his film career slow down significantly by the early 1960s, and when he was offered the TV series, he gladly accepted. From the inception, this series had many problems, including injuries, inconsistencies, and network failures. Murphy called it “a kind of Dragnet on horseback” (Graham 283).  In the series, Murphy plays “Tom” Whispering Smith, a Denver police detective who uses the most up-to-date tools to catch criminals. This is much more a detective story than other adaptations of Whispering Smith. Murphy, who was accustomed to the pacing and quality of film, was ill-prepared for the speed and lack of continuity of early television (Nott 154). The network did not seem particularly supportive of this new venture. There were multiple directors and executives making decisions. It seemed that another western in the schedule was less than exciting for the network executives. The ultimate insult came on the scheduled opening of the series. Not only was it scheduled for May 1961, when most series were finishing, it was also preempted by a special NBC interview with astronaut Alan B. Shepard. This seems indicative of the way in which the world was moving—the western was the past, the astronaut was the future, and the network was moving into the future. Audie Murphy took it personally. It seems that the network and Murphy would never again connect. When Murphy died in 1971 in a tragic plane crash, NBC made a brief mention of it near the end of the news and did not cover the memorial service or interment at all. No mention was made of Murphy’s long acting career or the television series just ten years earlier. It only mentioned that he was a World War II hero (Graham 336; McDonald 127).

Audie Murphy is also connected to Alan Ladd. In 1948, the same year Ladd starred in Smith, Audie Murphy, in one of his first films, was in the Alan Ladd vehicle Beyond Glory, a film about West Point Military Academy. Murphy’s costar was Guy Mitchell playing Denver police detective “George Romack.” Mitchell was a long-time actor, signed when he was very young because of his potential. He made his name, however, in singing rather than acting. Murphy brought him onboard the series, but early on, Mitchell broke his shoulder on the set, and production had to be shut down for six weeks (Graham 284). Rehearsals on the series had begun in 1959, but by the time the series was to be released, it was behind schedule. The $45,000 price tag per episode gave the network executives further pause. Murphy had originally signed for eighty-six episodes but only twenty-five were shot (Graham 284). Murphy was critical of the series and the network, and he wasn’t happy with the finished product. He publicly said, “It’s like the Redstone rocket—obsolete, but they’re going to fire it anyway. NBC fired it …and it blew up in their faces” (Nott 154).  Many critics disliked the series, including U.S. Senator John Carroll of Colorado. It was considered too violent and inappropriate for children (Nott). One highlight of an otherwise dismal series was the appearance in the second episode of a very young Robert Redford playing “Johnny Gates.”  The episode, entitled “The Grudge,” tells the tale of a young man who is abused by his mother and forced to become a killer to avenge his murdering father, who is eventually killed by Whispering Smith. This complex plot line, featuring a naïve police detective might have done better as a made-for-television movie, where there is more time to weave a complex story.

Bibliography and Works Cited

Cohen, Hubert. “”Men Have Tears in Them”: The Other Cowboy Hero.” Journal of American Culture 21.4 (Winter 1998): 57–78.

Graham, Don. No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy. New York: Viking, 1989.

IMDb. n.d. July 2013 <http://www.imdb.com&gt;.

Jackson, Ronald and Doug Abbott. 50 Years of the Television Western. New York: Author House, 2008.

Larkins, Bob and Boyd Magers. The Films of Audie Murphy. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2004.

Linet, Beverly. Ladd, the Life, the Legend, the Legacy of Alan Ladd: A Biography. New York: Arbor House, 1979

McDonald, Archie P., ed. Stooting Stars: Heroes and Heroines of Western Film. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Munden, Kenneth W., ed. The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Producted in the United States, 1921–1930. New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1971.

Nachbar, J. “Seventy Years on the Trail: A Selected Chronology of the Western Movie.” Journal of Popular Film (1973).

Nott, Robert. Last of the Cowboy Heroes: The Westerns of Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, and Audie Murphy. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2000.

Pitts, Michael R. Famous Movie Detectives III. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2004.

Taylor, Jessica. “”Speaking Shadows”: A History of the Voice in the Transition from Silent to Sound Film in the United States.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19.1 (2009): 1–20.

“Whispering Smith.” Variety, 19 February 1936.

“Whispering Smith (The Grudge).” Variety. 17 May 1961.

“Whispering Smith Series Programmed.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 30 June 1951.

“Whispering Smith vs. Scotland Yard.” New York: Variety. 11 March 1952.

White, Tom. “From McCook to Whispering Smith.” Nebraska History (2006): 98–119.

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