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August Radio Days: The Fat Man (1951)

This month we pay tribute to the great programs and characters created on radio in the days before the abbreviations DJ, FM and TV. Today Rodney and Samantha examine The Fat Man from 1951.

RODNEY: Meet Brad Runyon. The poster for this movie will tell you that he’s radio’s great detective and also radio’s original “fat man” (a sly dig at Nero Wolfe, which starred Sydney Greenstreet). He’s just hanging out, doing things that fat men do (eating a lot according to this movie).

SAMANTHA: There are lots of fat jokes which aren’t especially funny. Can he fit into a little car? Can he get out of the phone booth? Can he dance? It’s like he’s a monkey doing tricks for the camera. It is amazing that a man who weighs 260 pounds could be called out as a fat man. Although he is rotund, he is by no means obese by today’s standards.

RB: Meanwhile, a dentist is found dead, hurled from a window in his hotel. A set of dental records are missing, and there is a note in his pocket noting an appointment with Runyon. With that, we’re off to the races in a cross-country mystery with plenty of stops in seedy nightclubs and a circus.

“You’re the first thing I’ve seen in California that lives up to the advertising.”

SG: There is no one to latch onto and root for in this movie. Smart is pleasant but he isn’t charming enough to make the audience care about the outcome of the case. Rock Hudson and Julie London are charming but they aren’t in the film enough to carry us through.

RB: J. Scott Smart was already known to audiences in 1951 as Runyon, thanks to a moderately successful ABC radio series that ran from 1947-1951. Only 10 episodes exist today, but that’s enough to get the flavor of the show, which I, frankly, think is much better than this movie.

SG: I agree. When I imagined the title player in this film prior to seeing it, I pictured Sidney Greenstreet. According to Showmen’s Trade Review in July of 1949, he was being considered for the role. However by the summer of 1950, Variety reported that Jack Smart of the radio rendition would be playing the lead.

RB: The one perk that the film has is a really solid supporting cast, including Rock Hudson in his first credited role. Julie London and Jayne Meadows (pre-Bob and Ray and Honeymooners) also pop up, and make the proceedings more bearable.

SG: Marvin Kaplan is full of personality as a garage man witness.

RB: Emmett Kelly is the real standout here. I found him very effective and kind in this, his first and only dramatic performance in a film. It’s a shame that he didn’t do more because I would’ve appreciated seeing him turn up in additional films. He’s really good.

SG: Kelly reportedly did his own stunts. Harrison Reports said, “The story, which unfolds through a series of flashbacks, is rather far-fetched and somewhat complicated, what with flashbacks within flashbacks, but it moves along at a steady pace and holds one’s interest well...” Photoplay reviewer Liza Wilson said the movie was, “Not good, not bad.”

RB: Part of the problem with this movie is that it just came out too late. Five years earlier, this would’ve probably launched a successful series of B films, but there just wasn’t much of a market for that sort of thing in 1951. Additionally, Dashiell Hammett, who created the character had been blacklisted in 1950. While he had no direct relation to the radio program, aside from his name being used in the credits, the whole McCarthy hullabaloo turned up the heat, and like so many others, he was off limits. The radio program (along with Sam Spade and The Thin Man) was cancelled, and savvy viewers of the movie will note that Hammett’s name appears nowhere in it.

SG: They didn’t commit enough to a genre. The facts of the case are pretty grim and violent, but they constantly try to infuse comedy, and the two tones don’t gel.

RB: I should be the target audience for this movie, but the proceedings have left me cold on two separate viewings. An earlier one, a few years ago, put me promptly to sleep and I found myself fighting those same old tendencies again. Inexplicably, a sturdy cast, a decent plot and competent direction leaves me completely cold. Ah well, they can’t all be winners. Two and a half stars.

SG: I give this a paltry two stars. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t particularly like it either.

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