On This Day in 1948: James M. Cain Authenticates a “Lovely Counterfeit”

Well, I’ve done my darndest here to spread the word about old-time radio. Before it became “old-time,” radio did this rather more effectively, of course; spreading the word, about itself that is. It had professional announcers who could make you buy, or at least desire, most anything, from a can of soup to a slice of soap opera. Sure, not everyone fell for the hyperboles of the air, especially when they fell on the deaf ears of journalists who made a living trashing the American pastime of listening to romantic serials, aural funnies, and gory thrillers; if they did not ignore radio drama altogether, as they do nowadays, the peddlers of the printed word tended to denounce and deride as gleefully and excessively as radio announced and applauded itself.

Unlike the feud between radio comedians Fred Allen and Jack Benny, this was an all too real confrontation. If listening to the radio continued to be a pleasure, it was increasingly thought of as a guilty one, much to the displeasure of the sponsors.

One way of countering the attacks of the press, of assuring listeners that radio drama was perfectly respectable, middle-class fare, was to drag noted authors before the microphone, especially when their works were being adapted for the broadcast medium. When Howard Koch’s dramatization of Rebecca opened the Campbell Playhouse on 9 December 1938—thus predating the premiere of Hitchcock’s film adaptation by well over a year—the legitimacy of the production was underscored by producer-host Orson Welles’s transatlantic telephone conversation with Daphne du Maurier.

Five months later (5 May 1939), when the Campbell Playhouse presented Wickford Point, author J. P. Marquand was also on hand to add prestige to the production. And when Edna Ferber was heard in the 31 March 1939 broadcast of Show Boat, she not only appeared for a curtain call, but joined the stock company of the Campbell Playhouse to play the role of Parthy in a non-musical adaptation of her 1926 bestseller.

Of course, such cross-promotions, which were likely to benefit authors and publishers even more than broadcasters, were no guarantors of excellence or authenticity. Agatha Christie’s previously discussed sanctioning of The Adventures of Hercule Poirot (22 February 1945) could hardly have deceived anyone about the spurious parentage of this anonymously penned and not surprisingly short-lived series. Christie spoke with dignity and authority, but could lend none to the production.

Quite the reverse can be said about the Suspense production of Love’s Lovely Counterfeit and its endorsement by author James M. Cain, heard over the US network CBS on this day, 17 January, in 1948. The play, headed by James Cagney and introduced by Robert Montgomery (who also read an excerpt from the novel, was the real thing: not mere dramatic snipped, but an hourlong presentation that could do justice to Cain’s short novel.

Its author, however, was little of help when asked to address the public: “briefly, I thought it was excellent.” In a rather unusual move, bespeaking the prestige of the Suspense program, Cain also congratulated the two men responsible for the adaptation. Missing his cue twice during his short scripted small talk with Cagney and Montgomery, he rendered his authentication disingenuous in the process.

Perhaps, a bit of fakery, such as Cagney’s enthusiasm about the “particular element that makes Cain the most powerful writer of true suspense fiction in America”—the “inevitable climax, an explosion of the energy” generated by “two people in love”—might have been more convincing. Most listeners would not have noticed if their favorite author had been impersonated by a professional actor, reading lines prepared for the occasion by the author; but so eager were producers to demonstrate that radio was no cheap substitute, that they felt compelled to sell the authentic at the cost of sounding phony.

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