Last night, watching BBC 4, I was in for a cinematic treat: Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947). Cinematographically stunning and compellingly told, it is not unlike Reed’s best-known film, The Third Man, particularly in its investigation of that most dangerous game, the manhunt. Both films are 20th-century updates of novels like Caleb Williams or Les Miserables, stories of pursuit that challenge readers to distinguish between what is right and what is just, between law and ethics. The backdrops are often dark and seedy—the slums, dumps, the sewers. Contrasted with the dwellings of the elite, they serve as reminders that the dregs of society are not commoners but discarded ideals.
Welles found himself trapped in the sewers in both Les Miserables and The Third Man; and both stories were adapted for radio, starring Welles. On this day, 18 October, in 1942, Welles made another descent into the muck of humanity, this time to have his revenge on Fred Allen, the radio wit who had mocked him once too often.
The confrontation between Hugo’s Javert and Jean Valjean, the clash between ethics and law, was reduced to a mismatch of lowbrow and highbrow art as played out by two quintessential middlebrow artists, radio comedian Fred Allen and Shadow graduate-turned-thespian Wunderkind Orson Welles. Could radio and literature be reconciled? Could the airwaves be a purveyor of high culture?
Presumably, Welles had come to the realization that he was “getting along in years” and that he could “no longer carry on alone.” In search of a co-star “with a flair for the buskin,” he turned to Allen and offered him the role of Javert in Les Miserables.
As it turns out, however, Welles was not prepared to share the stage. He had to remain in charge of every aspect of the production and could not bring himself to letting Allen utter even a single line. Flattery soon turned into humiliation, and Allen began to protest:
ALLEN. Now look, Orson, I don’t want to hog the whole thing. But in two acts all I’ve done so far is knock on a door and blow a whistle. Now, after all, I’m an actor, not a soundman. When do I get to read some lines?
WELLES. The next scene is all yours, Fred. Your speech is the climax of the entire play.
ALLEN. Well now we’re getting some place. What’s next?
WELLES. In this final scene you trail me through the sewers of Paris.
ALLEN. Oh, the sewers.
WELLES. You finally corner me single-handed. There we stand, face to face. I have just a few words and then you speak.
ALLEN. I speak. Well, that sounds good. Let’s go.
(Music: heavy, then fades.)
WELLES. Mon Doo! Alone in this sewer! Trapped like a rat who nightly crawls through this hideous muck of the city. The gloomy darkness, this narrow archway above me head, these two slimy corridor walls. (Hysteric laugh.) Oh, but hark! That sloshing through the muck. Javert! At last you’ve cornered me, Javert! Don’t talk, Javert! Before you seal my doom, I would speak for the last time. You will never take Jean Valjean alive, Javert. (Laughs.) The water in this sewer is rising, Javert. I am six feet nine. You, Javert, are five feet two. The water rises, Javert. There is no turning back. The water! Higher, higher. Now, Javert, you have Jean Valjean at your mercy. Pronounce my doom. Speak, Javert. Speak.
Thus, the wit of Fred Allen, radio’s smartest satirist, is drowned in a display of misguided aspirations. As I put it in Etherized Victorians, the promise of radio as a purveyor of great literature is “exposed as so much hogwash.” US radio artists were often reduced to ridiculing that which neither sponsors nor network executives were willing to touch: so-called high art (including popular literature of the past that, like Hugo’s novel, had just enough patina to appear precious).
It was easier for producers and audiences alike to deride and dismiss as affected anything that might effectively challenge the status quo or the intellect. In the best games of pursuit, the lines between wrong and right become blurred; in the radio game, at its commercial best, the distinctions between what is wrong and right for the greater American public were always made with comforting clarity.