Wrapping up a Story “Too Early”: Bold Venture (Stories for the Ear #11)

What if someone told you that Leonardo DiCaprio was making a TV series? How would you feel about that? Excited? Confused as to why he was doing that? Well, that’s not happening, so don’t worry about it. But the equivalent did happen sixty years ago when Humphrey Bogart (star of CasablancaThe Maltese Falcon, and The African Queen, among many other influential films) and his wife Lauren Bacall (a top actress herself) decided to star in this series, which employed a unique technique that worked every time. So let’s take a look at what that technique was in this old-time radio show, “Bold Venture”. 

“Bold Venture” (BV for short) premiered in 1951 and aired 78 half-hour episodes (only 57 of which still survive) over one season, ending in 1952, the success of which produced an unsuccessful television series of 39 half-hour episodes from 1958-1959. The radio series starred Bogart as Slate Shannon, an American hotel-owner in Havana, Cuba, who ran his business with his girlfriend (of whom he was also her guardian), Sailor Duval (played by Bacall). The only other help was from a Havana native and life-long friend and mentor of Slate’s, King Moses. Somehow, Shannon’s Place (the name of the hotel) always managed to attract criminals or shady people who would wind up getting Slate and Sailor involved in a suspenseful mystery to figure out what was going on. On several occasions, the mystery would involve using Slate’s boat, the Bold Venture, hence the name of the show. Sounds pretty typical for old-time radio, right? So why does it stand out from any other old-time radio show?

“Bold Venture” often relied heavily on witty banter between Slate and Sailor, and between them and the villains of a given episode, to carry the story, and it worked. The two of them weren’t afraid of anything, and they ran their mouths whenever they felt like it, even in the face of death. While there was a fair amount of comedic jabs, the drama was also definitely present, between victims of crimes, people dying, or, once in a while, villains going insane. It was a neat balance of lighthearted and dark or at least intense that the show needed to pull off a Bogart/Bacall mystery series.

But what I really wanted to talk about was what I put in the title of this post. Why did I put the words “too early” in parentheses? Well, the show was divided into two acts, each one about twelve and a half minutes. That’s how shows used to be, with one commercial break in the middle, not these twenty-minute, four-commercial-break shows that we get today. But I digress.

The story progression of BV was hugely improved by the way the writers split up the two acts. Typically, in act one, there was a run-of-the-mill mystery, and Slate and Sailor would have to solve it. By the end of the act, the two would have usually figured out the majority of the mystery: how the crime was done, how the various characters were connected, and so on. The only thing they were left with was either who was the big boss (or who committed the actual crime), or they would know who it was but not how to find him or her. This would leave almost nothing for the second act, except that a wrench would always be thrown in as a mid-way cliffhanger. Either new evidence would be found, a good guy (especially Slate) would be framed for something related to the crime, or some new character would come to deliver previously unknown information, only to be killed. This left so much to wait for in act two, because then the audience had no idea what was going on or what to do next, leaving all kinds of open possibilities. In other words, act one was a typical structured mystery, whereas in act two, it’s revealed that the mystery’s not over and that there’s no more usual structure to the story. This made the show incredibly engaging and suspenseful, and a great new take on the mystery genre.

I haven’t found any reason why the show ended (my best guess is that it may have been Bogart’s 1952 film Deadline– U.S.A. which took him away from BV, as the movie was a noir film), but while the show was on, it was a great example of a balanced mystery-action-lighthearted-dark-suspenseful radio show. I’m not sure why it’s never been reconsidered for a film or even television series, as it’s got the level of wit and intensity that a mystery show would have to have today, and Slate’s past is a guarded secret, although the show pokes and prods at it from time to time, briefly mentioning Slate’s family, how he’s feared and revered throughout Havana, or how certain situations or people trigger emotions in correlation with something or someone of Slate’s past. Sailor has only really been living with Slate since the show began, or shortly before. King Moses is the only one who knows all of Slate’s deep secrets, and he guards them out of a grandfatherly love for Slate. Can we please get this show back on television!?

At the end of the day (or rather, of the year it was on the air), “Bold Venture” is a refreshingly unique radio program with lots to be had for all audience types. I’d highly recommend listening to it, so try it yourself! All 57 surviving episodes can be found online, on YouTube, the Internet Archive (archive.org), or a myriad of other places! There are even apps and podcasts that contain the show! The show is not serialised, so you don’t need to listen to them in any particular order, and there aren’t any recurring characters other than Shannon, Sailor, King, and LaSal the police inspector. So hop on in, and if you happen to hear it, let me know what you think in the comments below! Happy listening!

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