On This Day in 1942: Bette Davis Gives Birth to Arch Oboler’s “American”

The retrograde activity of keeping up with the out-of-date seems generally ill-suited to blogging. I doubt whether to keep looking back—and looking forward to doing so as I do—is such a forward looking thing to do. A blog signifies little to most readers if it cannot bring them up-to-date on its declared subject matter, be it popular culture, politics, or fly-fishing. I have often felt compelled—and more often been compelled by others—to defend my engagement with the outmoded; indeed, the first comment left for me in the Blog Explosion directory was a terse “why?”

The answer, if I felt obliged to dignify such a monosyllabic and misologic remark with a reply, would be a simple one: because I enjoy the challenge of discovering the relevance of a work of art, a cultural artefact, or an obscure piece of writing not created with me in mind, of debating how much I might be a creation of the mindset behind such products. Not being able to relate or connect to the bygone is a personal loss, and often a dangerous one at that.

Now, it would require some degree of mental obduracy or lack of imagination not to be able to relate to “An American Is Born,” a radio play that aired on US radio on this day, 19 January, in 1942. It deals with persecution and immigration in wartime, which makes it eminently topical. It is also an obvious and deliberate work of propaganda, composed at a time when the word did not yet carry quite as negative a connotation as is attached to it these days. And yet, just how accepting would today’s audiences be of a play like “An American Is Born”? How likely would they find it produced and propagated by the mass media?

“An American Is Born” was adapted by radio playwright Arch Oboler from a novella by Peter Jefferson Packer and Fanya Lawrence Foss. Written at a time when the US had not yet entered World War II, and first soundstaged in late 1940 with Elisabeth Bergner in the lead, it was again produced a little over a year later for the Cavalcade of America program, with Bette Davis heading the cast.

One of Oboler’s favorite leading ladies, Davis played opposite the highly regarded and versatile radio actor Raymond Edward Johnson. Johnson and Davis took on the roles of Czech immigrants Karl Kroft and his pregnant wife Marta. Their US visa having expired, the young couple cross the border to Mexico, where they wait for their quota numbers to come up. “With the left foot first,” Marta insists as they touch Mexican soil. “That means we’ll be back soon.”

Marta, whose father fought for democracy in her native Prague, desires nothing more than for her child to “be an American from his first cry.” In a “world gone mad with the ravings of little men, he should be born in a country that remains sane and firm. A country that believes that man, as an individual, has certain inalienable rights.”

Initially as idealistic and hopeful as the speech Oboler puts in her mouth, Marta is confident that their stay will only last a few days, but is soon undeceived about the process of immigration. For those waiting, the weeks and months across the border are filled with uncertainties, threatened by corruption, extortion, and political persecution.

When a fellow European offers to assist the young couple, Marta little suspects that he is a member of the Gestapo, and that Marta’s openness about her father’s political convictions endangers the lives of her parent and her unborn child. Another immigrant thus intimidated commits suicide, but not before doing away with the enemy in their midst. At the risk of her own life and that of her unborn child, Marta manages to convince Karl to make a dash for it. As the title suggests, the two make their way across the border to the US, where their child takes the first breath of freedom as an American citizen.

When was it that such an overtly propagandistic melodrama last reached a large American audience? The 1991 movie adaptation of the Reagan-era bestseller Not Without My Daughter comes to mind, a film in which even a Coca-Cola sign in a Turkish bordertown was greeted as a herald of American freedom. Are plays of this kind rarer now because Americans have less to be proud of as a nation or because today’s purveyors of popular culture, whether eyeing a hostile international market or banking on the suit-yourself consumerism of the complain-from-the-couch cynic prefer them to believe just that?

Radio did much to hold a nation together, both during the Depression and the Second World War. Clearly, it is no longer a role the media are prepared, willing, or expected to play.

5 Replies to “On This Day in 1942: Bette Davis Gives Birth to Arch Oboler’s “American””

  1. I think one of the issues you have to deal with when trying to determine if a nation such as America would react in a similar fashion to a way it did around presentations such as the play you highlight – is that we live in a different world. In the forties, America, like other countries, but especially America, was much more insular. We didn\’t have the flood of information from every part of the world then, we weren\’t forced to reckon with what was happening in Europe despite the best efforts of Edward R. Murrow and President Roosevelt, for example. Thus, our loyalties are much more homogenized. You just have to look at the long term reaction of this country after 9/11. We rose united and were willing in the beginning to give President Bush what he said he needed to fight such evil. It was only later – too much later for me – that we began to wake up and realize that Bush was perhaps taking advantage of the situation. In the forties, when our country was attacked by the Japanese – an action we saw as totally unprovoked and an action our insular society could not understand and thus rose and were willing to give lives to fight such tyranny. We didn\’t have as much access to life in Japan or Europe for that matter and found it much more black and white when looking at those societies.No longer.

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  2. That would be a positive development, if it were indeed true. I think Americans (and other technologically advanced consumer cultures) have become more fragmented, make less of an effort to connect to others as groups rather than individually, are less willing to take in popular culture not specifically geared toward them. We are becoming our own islands, living in computer game worlds, downloading movies and watching television online according to our own schedules. Radio listening was both public and private; it was a gathering at specific hours, a sharing of an experience. Its success was founded on a willingness to connect rather than to separate. It was not unusual for one quarter of the nation to hear the same program, together (or in two main groups, at least, East Coast and West). To say people listened by the millions because there wasn\’t anything else to do is to trivialize radio\’s potential and realized power as a nation builder.And, yes, that is a video iPod–a visual aid documenting my own isolation. I have not watched any videos yet. It\’s just great having my OTR library at my finger tips.

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  3. I was very interested in your comments about radio playwright Arch Oboler\’s production of \”An American Is Born\” which featured Bette Davis.You might want to take a look at my book, WORDS AT WAR (Scarecrow Press, 2003) which discusses Oboler at length. Among many other war related radio plays that he did during the era is another one also featuring Bette David entitled \”Adolf and Mrs. Runyan\” in which Davis picks up \”an interesting hitch hiker.\”Howard Bluewww.HowardBlue.com

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