Whispering Smith

Created by Frank H. Spearman

Cowboy and railroad detective GORDON “WHISPERING” SMITH first showed in in a 1906 novel by celebrated Western author Frank H. Spearman. Supposedly, Smith was modeled on real-life Union Pacific Railroad detectives Timothy Keliher and Joe Lefors (though his name was taken from another UPRR policeman, James L. “Whispering” Smith.

It turned out to be quite a valuable property over the years, inspiring at least seven films and a television series.

First out of the gate was a 1916 silent film (on which Harold Lloyd served as an assistant director, while the director, J.P. McGowan, also played the lead). It was followed by another silent film in 1926, which in turn was followed by yet another silent flick, Whispering Smith Rides (1927). Then, in 1935, Whispering Smith Speaks, was released — his first talkie. Each film wandered a little further from the source material, but the real oddity was 1951’s Whispering Smith Hits London, wherein Smith travels to England and tangles with Scotland Yard while trying to crack a particularly tough case involving blackmail and murder, not to mention a curious sexual ambiguity. Presumably, this is a modern-day Smith, not an 1870’s cowboy. From a script co-written by Steve “I Wake Up Screaming” Fisher.

But his most famous cinematic outing was the 1948 release, once again simply titled Whispering Smith. It caught Alan Ladd in one of his first starring roles as Luke “Whispering” Smith,  and was, by all accounts, a good ol’ shoot-em-up. In it, Smith is a by-the-book railroad investigator from Wyoming assigned to solve the mystery of a rash of train robberies, and discovers that the perpetrator is none other than his old friend Murray Sinclaire (played by Robert Preston). There’s a big showdown at the end, and an interesting romantic triangle of sorts with Sinclaire’s wife.

It was the success of this film that lead to the creation a TV show back in the early sixties, that tried to combine the then-popular genres of westerns and private eyes, much like Have Gun, Will Travel, The Man From Blackhawk and Shotgun Slade had all attempted recently.

This time, Smith was played by Audie Murphy, and once again he was a detective for a railroad company based in Denver, Colorado. His partner was played by Guy Mitchell and the police chief John Edwards was initially played by Sam Buffington.

Their job? To protect the railroad from fraud, scandal, robberies, and murder — pretty standard television turf for both cowboys and private eyes, actually. But if the setting was relatively familiar,  the list of guest stars was relatively impressive: a young Robert Redford, Harry Carey Jr., noir dame Marie Windsor, a pre-Kildare Richard Chamberlain, a pre-Peter Gunn Minerva Urecal and a pre-Gilligan Alan Hale Jr.

The show occasionally “borrowed” some of the more entertaining exploits of Allan Pinkerton, as it traced Smith’s attempts to bring “modern” police methods to the West. Supposedly actual cases from the files of the Denver Police Department provided the basis for many of the episodes.

But the show had its share of problems. Originally scheduled for the 1959-1960 fall season, they only had seven episodes in the can when co-star Guy Mitchell fell from a horse and broke his shoulder. Meanwhile, Murphy’s horse, Joe Queen, was so fast he outran all the other mounts, and Murphy had to use another horse. And then actor Sam Buffington, who played Chief John Richards, committed suicide.

“I guess he must have seen the rushes,” Murphy supposedly snapped. But by that point Murphy, already less than impressed with television, was all for scrapping the show completely.  “When they said this series could be made cheap my immediate reaction was that we wouldn’t make it cheap at all,” he complained to TV Guide. “I fought with them constantly.”

When the show finally aired as a summer replacement series in 1961, the Senate Juvenile Delinquency committee pounced, filing charges that the show was too violent, prompting SenatorJohn Carroll (D) of Colorado to remark that the show was “not only bad for children, it’s bad for adults.” The show aired its twenty episodes and was allowed to die a quiet death. Nobody complained, least of all Murphy, who told TV Guide “My contract is firm for something like 86 episodes. I just don’t think I could stand that.”

The concept had already been preceded by other, better shows, so that by the time Whispering Smith made it on air, it seemed dated and derivative. On the bright side, for detective fans at least, NBC replaced Whispering Smith on the schedule with Richard Diamond, Private Detective, which gave us David Jannsen and Mary Tyler Moore’s legs.

So there is that…



    (1916, Signal Film)
    Black and white
    Premiere: June 5, 1916
    Based on the novel by Frank H. Spearman
    Directed by J.P. McGowan
    Assistant director: Harold Lloyd
    Starring J.P. McGowan as WHISPERING SMITH
    Also starring Helen Holmes, Belle Hutchinson, Paul Hurst, Leo D. Maloney, F.M. Van Norman, Sam Appel, Walter Rodgers, Thomas G. Lingham, E. Howland, William Behrens, C.U. Wells
    Part one. The story continues in Medicine Bend.
    (1916, Signal Film)
    Black and white
    Premiere: July 3, 1916
    Based on the novel Whispering Smith by Frank H. Spearman
    Directed by J.P. McGowan
    Assistant director: Harold Lloyd
    Starring J.P. McGowan as WHISPERING SMITH
    Also starring Helen Holmes, Belle Hutchinson, Paul Hurst, Leo D. Maloney, F.M. Van Norman, Sam Appel, Walter Rodgers, Thomas G. Lingham, E. Howland, William Behrens, C.U. Wells
    Part two of Whispering Smith.
    (1926, Metropolitan)
    Black and white
    Based on the novel by Frank H. Spearman
    Screenplay by Elliott J. Clawson and Will M. Ritchey
    Directed by George Melford
    Starring H.B. Warner as WHISPERING SMITH
    Also starring Lillian Rich, Lilyan Tashman, Eugene Pallette, Richard Neill, Jim Mason, Warren Rogers, Nelson McDowell, Robert Edeson, Frank Coghlan Jr., Will Walling
    (1927, Universal Pictures)
    Serial, ten episodes
    Black and white
    Based on characters created by Frank H. Spearman
    Screenplay by Arthur Henry Gooden
    Directed by Ray Taylor
    Starring Rose Blossom, Clark Comstock, Frank Ellis, Willie Fung, Henry Hebert, Wallace MacDonald, W.M. McCormick, J.P. McGowan, Harry Todd
    (1935, Fox)
    65 minutes
    Black & white
    Tagline: Here’s the excitement of taking a death curve at ninety! Here’s the romance of open spaces! Here’s your favorite star in a new and surprising role!
    Based on characters created by Frank H. Spearman
    Screenplay by Don Swift and Daniel Jarrett
    Adaptation by Rex Taylor and Gilbert Wright
    Directed by David Howard
    Starring George O’Brien as JOHN “WHISPERING” SMITH
    Also starring Irene Ware, Kenneth Thomson, Maude Allen, Spencer Charters, Victor Potel, Edward Keane, Frank Sheridan, William V. Mong, Maurice Cass
    Whispering’s first talkie. Lots of trains in this one, boys.
  • WHISPERING SMITH | Buy this DVD Watch it now!
    (1948, Paramount)
    88 minutes
    Based on the novel by Frank H. Spearman
    Screenplay by Frank Butler, Karl Kamb
    Directed by Leslie Fenton
    Cinematography by Ray Rennehan
    Original music by Adolph Deutsch
    Song, “Laramie” by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston
    Produced by Mel Epstein
    Starring Alan Ladd as LUKE “WHISPERING” SMITH
    Also starring Robert Preston, Brenda Marshall, Donald Crisp, William Demarest, Fay Holden, Murvyn Vye, Frank Faylen, John Eldredge, Robert Wood, J. Farrell MacDonald, Will Wright, Don Barclay, Eddy Waller, Ashley Cowan
    (aka “Whispering Smith Investigates” and “Whispering Smith Vs. Scotland Yard”)
    (1951, Hammer-Lesser/RKO)
    77 minutes
    Black & white
    Based (allegedly) on characters created by Frank H. Spearman
    Screenplay by Steve Fisher, John Gilling and Francis Searle
    Directed by Francis Searle
    Produced by Anthony Hinds and Julian Lesser
    Starring Richard Carlson as WHISPERING SMITH
    Also starring Greta Gynt, Herbert Lom, Rona Anderson, Alan Wheatley, Dora Bryan, Reginald Beckwith, Daniel Wherry, Michael Ward, Danny Green, James Raglan, Stuart Nichol, Laurence Naismith, Christine Silver, Vic Wise
    Huh? Smith apparently shucks most of the] cowboy schtickand acts more like your typical hard-boiled detective in this one.


    (1961, NBC)
    26 30-minute episodes (6 un-aired)
    Black and white, mono
    Based on characters created by Frank H. Spearman
    Writers: Lawrence Menkin
    Directed by Edward Ludlum
    Theme by Richard Shores
    Starring Audie Murphy as TOM “WHISPERING” SMITH
    Also starring Guy Mitchell as George Romack
    and Sam Buffington as Chief John Richards
    Guest stars: Robert Redford, Clu Gulager, Harry Carey Jr., Les Tremayne, Richard Chamberlain, Forrest Tucker, Marie Windsor, Alan Mowbray, Minerva Urecal, Alan Hale Jr., Marjorie Reynolds

    • “The Blind Gun” (May 8, 1961)
    • “The Grudge” (May 15, 1961)
    • “The Devil’s Share” (May 22, 1961)
    • “Stakeout” (May 29, 1961)
    • “Safety Valve” (June 5, 1961)
    • “Stain of Justice” (June 12, 1961)
    • “The Deadliest Weapon” (June 19, 1961)
    • “The Quest” (June 26, 1961)
    • “Three for One” (July 3, 1961)
    • “Death at Even Money” (July 10, 1961)
    • “The Hemp Reeger Case” (July 17, 1961)
    • “The Mortal Coil” (July 24, 1961)
    • “Cross Cut” (July 31, 1961)
    • “Double Edge” (August 7, 1961)
    • “The Trademark” (August 12, 1961)
    • “The Jodie Tyler Story” (August 21, 1961)
    • “Poet and Peasant Case” (August 28, 1961)
    • “Dark Circle” (September 4, 1961)
    • “Swift Justice” (September 11, 1961)
    • “The Idol” (September 18, 1961)
    • Un-aired (on NBC) Episodes
    • “String of Circumstances”
    • “The Interpreter”
    • “The Homeless Wind”
    • “Trail of the Avengers”
    • “Prayer of Change”
    • “Hired to Die”


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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