Episode 1 Two Years Before the Mast
Adventure Ahead! was a brilliant Summer feature for 1944. Comprised of fourteen stirring adventure novels and stories from among America’s greatest fiction writers, its somewhat more masculine orientation may have kept some of the young females of the era listening to Frank Sinatra that summer instead of Adventure Ahead!.
But it was indeed billed as ‘famous stories for young people’, not ‘famous stories for young men’. And yet, how any rational programmer at NBC-Red could have construed the slant of this project to young people is anyone’s guess. There’s no discernible love interest, there are female protagonists, nor any female authorities or mentors for that matter. Of course this was the 1940s after all, still in the throes of the fight for equality on many fronts. It’s just quite obvious that NBC-Red programmers were simply completely out of touch with their era.
That having been said, each of these literary choices did have a uniting theme–defending Freedom, domestically and abroad. To be fair to NBC’s programmers, there were several jingoistic, over the top, almost fascist ‘public service programs’ geared toward every facet of domestic population at one time or another during the World War II years and the Cold War Years that followed. So overlooking the slant for the time being, let’s focus in on the selected stories and their themes.
Virtually all of these stories were male-oriented, ‘coming of age’ tales of one type or another. Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast was one of the books virtually any father would expect his son to have read by the time he was eleven. A stirring tale of independent thinking, the courage to act on it, and the satisfaction of correctly asserting one’s convictions is always a satisfying read for boy and man alike. For young ladies, even during the 1940s, not so much. All it would have conjured up was more of the status quo the Rosie the Riveters and their daughters across America were fighting against, sweating to defeat, and earning the right to overturn. Sadly this same theme can be set forth in the other twelve selections as well.
Suspending belief a bit further, The Arrival of The Lily Bean, ostensibly the one female oriented theme in the entire run, stems from Walter Dumaux Edmond’s compilation of short stories that appeared over several installments in The Saturday Evening Post and Atlantic Monthly entitled simply, Young Ames. The fact that this is one of the two exemplars of the series not in circulation doesn’t help. But from what I can recall from the Saturday Evening Post installment of the same name, The Arrival of the Lily Bean was yet another male coming of age story as well–but in the romantic arena.
T.B. Aldrich’s The Story of A Bad Boy–as adapted–was a greatly abridged version of the original novel, which basically traced the entire life of the author at various critical ‘coming of age’ junctures throughout his life. What survives in the Adventure Ahead! installment is a series of vignettes of the ‘bad behaviour’ of the protagonist. The ‘bad behaviours’ are a series inspired pranks which, in the final analysis were instigated with the best of intentions. It’s just that most of them backfired in one way or the other.
Inside The FBI is a stirring tale of the inner workings of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Clearly fascinating fodder for the imagination of any young male. Reportedly blessed by J.Edgar Hoover himself, it doesn’t take much thought to imagine how the piece is slanted. With most of the emphasis on FBI scientific procedure and analysis, there’s plenty here to fire the imagination of any young man.
Robinson Crusoe is a classic of American literature. Even abridged, it’s easy to understand how naturally this selection sprang to mind when developing the project. Daniel Defoe’s classic exists here in skeleton form only, but it’s a good listen to this day. And if it prompts you to reach for your own copy from the library shelf, so much the better. It’s an amazing read–and re-read.
A Tooth for Paul Revere is one of Stephen Vincent Benét’s most enduring short stories. It’s been adapted and readapted in hundreds of productions over Radio, Animation, Television, and Film. If you’ve never read it yourself, then don’t miss the opportunity to listen to the Adventure Ahead! rendition. It captures all of the key elements of Benét’s original story.
Toby Tyler . . . is pure young male adventure fantasy, both delightfully spun and poignantly punctuated. One of the more realistically and sensitively portrayed productions, we found it one of the more enjoyable of the existing eleven exemplars.
Waldo Fleming’s Talking Drums is pure male juvenile escapism very much in the Jungle Jim or Tarzan mold, but with a bit more cerebral moral dilemmas interwoven into the script. One of the better recorded examples from this run, the foley work is wonderfully evocative and contributes to the many turns in the script.
The Biscuit Eater by James Street is a wonderfully charming story of a boy and his dog, a useless ‘biscuit eater’ of a pup, saved from the drowning well by the boy who fell in love with the pup at first sight. It’s one of the more enjoyable and inspirational programs of the thirteen. A wonderful little morality play, the touching interaction between a boy, his faith in his dog, and his love for his own father resolves itself in a wonderfully satisfying manner.
Mabel Leigh Hunt’s Have You Seen Tom Thumb is one of the two missing episodes from this production. It’s still very easy to see why it was included in this anthology. The original story the fictionalized account of the famous dwarf, Charles Sherwood Stratton, who, as General Tom Thumb became a living legend in the Circus world, and eventually made a wonderful life for himself and his family in the process. From performing for the crowned heads of Europe saving P.T. Barnum from bankruptcy to meeting President Abraham Lincoln himself, Tom Thumb’s life story is both a fascinating adventure and a tale of great inspiration to any young person with a physical limitation of any kind.
Hubert Skidmore’s Hill Lawyer is a wonderful adventure in small town human relations and interaction. Both inspirational and well-grounded in basic American decency, there’s no question that this program left an impression on its young listeners–and perhaps a few of it’s older listeners as well.
G.A Henty’s One of the 28th and Greenmantle, the wonderful espionage story by John Buchan round out the last two installments of this adventure series. Very similar in their militaristic slant, they’re both wonderful period adventures in their own right. The former, a rousing vignette of the Battle of Waterloo, is perhaps the one exemplar in circulation that provides a heroine as a protagonist. Greenmantle, by contrast, is a riveting tale of spycraft and espionage at the turn of the century. Espionage adventures almost always build far more anxiety and anticipation in the course of the script and this one is no exception.
The series closed prematurely with Alexander Dumas’ stirring The Three Musketeers, the classic adventure story of four loyalist Musketeers, D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis who take a mission to England to retrieve a wooden box full of diamonds and eventually take down Cardinal Richelieu. Their motto, “one for all, all for one” becomes a popular rallying cry of enduring friendship and loyality for millions of youngsters throughout the world for two centuries.
The series was overtaken by events with the NBC-Red-wide broadcast of the Sixth War Loan Drive on November 11, 1944, effectively ending the series.
The better encodes of this remarkable Summer series are wonderful reminders of the type of inspirational fare of the 1940s during a world at War. Not preachy, not particularly jingoistic, but clearly selected and adapted to act as both a comfort and inspiration to the thousands of young people anxiously awaiting resolution of the War and the return of their brothers, fathers and uncles. In this respect alone, this gem of a short series is a definite keeper from The Golden Age of Radio.