Morse, Carlton E. (1901-1993)

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Morse, Carlton E. (1901-1993)

Carlton E. Morse was a unique figure in the world of old-time radio—a writer, director, and producer who managed to navigate the often opposing worlds of popular success and critical accolade while creating works of enduring dramatic depth on the one hand and blood-and-thunder adventure on the other. Like Steven Spielberg in more recent times, Morse was one of those very few creators of popular entertainment whose name above the title was as instantly recognizable as any leading actor or famous character. His principal creations, One Man's Family ("radio's preeminent serial," according to historian Gerald Nachman) and I Love a Mystery ("the most respected show of its type") spanned the entire heyday of radio drama; crossed over into the media of film, television, and comics; and helped establish genre conventions in all these forms which would continue to delight contemporary audiences throughout the rest of the century. No one familiar with Morse can see Spielberg's cozy suburban families without recalling the Barbours in One Man's Family, or watch Indiana Jones without thinking of the globetrotting adventures of Jack, Doc, and Reggie in I Love a Mystery.

Morse was a legend in the world of old-time radio not only due to the longstanding popularity of his creations but also because of the herculean work habits that enabled him to churn out daily episodes of I Love a Mystery, weekly installments of One Man's Family, and to produce and direct both of his creations while also writing short stories, novels, and philosophical essays in his spare time. Morse's diligence has invariably been attributed to his early upbringing on a farm in Oregon to which his family moved five years after his birth in Jennings, Louisiana, on June 1, 1901. His early life milking cows helped establish his lifelong habit of rising at 4 A.M. to begin work, and even after marrying and finding employment as a newspaper columnist in San Francisco, he continued to meet his writing deadlines for the rest of his life by getting up every day at the same time and, by his own accounts, "sitting in front of the typewriter, lost to the world, for as much as two and a half hours." When his newspaper was absorbed by the Hearst syndicate in 1929, Morse began hanging around the NBC studios and, in true Horatio Alger fashion, seized his moment by offering to rewrite another scribe's unusable scripts. Morse's quick work earned him a job penning everything from westerns to sports dramas to the mysteries that became his early trademark and that were usually based upon his experiences covering the newspaper crime beat.

Morse's early radio experience brought him into contact with a group of performers who would ultimately form an acting company which provided the core cast of both One Man's Family and I Love a Mystery and the inspiration for many of the characters as well—"writing fictional characters," he later recalled, "but also writing something of each of the actors into the part." The calm authority of Michael Raffetto, for example, could serve equally well as the voice of eldest son Paul providing solutions to knotty ethical dilemmas in One Man's Family or dishing out the two-fisted realism of Jack Packard against the ghouls and vampires of I Love a Mystery. Morse was shrewd enough to exploit the close relationship of all his central actors and characters to lend a unique reality to a medium beset by short rehearsal and writing times, and even allowed his One Man's Family clan to age right along with the actors who portrayed them over the nearly 30-year run.

The genre trappings of each of Morse's two principal creations often obscure the range of his unique contributions to the world of popular entertainment. One Man's Family may be accurately termed a "soap opera" and I Love a Mystery branded an "adventure serial," but each offers a depth and complexity belied by such labels. One Man's Family debuted on May 13, 1932, and from its inception, described Gerald Nachman, "it was an experimental concept, the first radio show to depict the day-to-day lives of a fairly normal family." As the extended Barbour family made its way through the trials of the Great Depression and World War II, Morse rarely resorted to the sensational plot devices associated with "the soaps" and instead told small, sometimes uneventful, stories that nonetheless touched on profound issues of love and marriage, birth and death. While One Man's Family represented Morse's contribution to the tradition of American domestic drama, his I Love a Mystery embodied the opposite form—a riproaring, take-no-prisoners adventure yarn celebrating the American faith in (male) individual freedom and regeneration through violence. Rarely has a single writer-creator produced classic works of enduring popularity in both these quintessentially American forms.

One Man's Family and I Love a Mystery were Morse's most important contributions to the world of popular culture, and while he also wrote and directed several other programs during his long career, most were merely lesser imitations of his two masterworks—e.g., His Honor, the Barber, exploiting Barry Fitzgerald's homespun wisdom to dispense the same sort of advice son Paul was dishing out daily in One Man's Family ; and Adventures by Morse, placing Captain Friday and his loyal sidekick Skip Turner in I Love a Mystery perils. Writing and directing so many programs at the same time often prevented Morse from knowing himself exactly how his stories would resolve themselves, a situation which Morse turned to his advantage to highlight the day-to-day doings of his domestic clans and to keep things unpredictable on his adventure offerings. Such characteristics were unique to radio's golden age, however, and when that era came to an end in the early 1950s, so did the period of Morse's significance as a preeminent figure on the cultural stage. Images could add nothing to One Man's Family's world of gentle talk, and no special effect ever invented was capable of conveying the outlandish horror and spectacle of I Love a Mystery. While recordings of his two leading creations remained highly prized commodities, Morse lived virtually in isolation for the remainder of his life in a rambling rustic mansion near Redwood City in Northern California. He died in 1993, surrounded by the hundreds of bound volumes of radio scripts which had once excited the American public to dream daily of both living room hugs and vampire shrieks.

—Kevin Lause

Further Reading:

Dunning, John. The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Harmon, Jim. The Great Radio Heroes. Garden City, Doubleday and Co., 1967.

Maltin, Leonard. The Great American Broadcast: A Celebration of Radio's Golden Age. New York, Dutton, 1996.

Nachman, Gerald. Raised on Radio. New York, Pantheon Books, 1998.

Sheppard, Walter. One Man's Family: A Dissertation. Ann Arbor, University Microfilms, 1965.

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Morse, Carlton E. (1901-1993)

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