On This Day in 1949: The Radio Tells Americans All About “Eve”

Well, before I make an appointment with The Phantom President, another one of the lesser known motion pictures starring my favorite actress, Ms. Claudette Colbert, I am going to listen again to a radio adaptation of a story that was initially considered as a vehicle for Colbert, but fell into the lap of lucky Bette Davis instead. I am referring of course, to “The Wisdom of Eve,” a dramatization of which was broadcast on this day, 24 January, in 1949—thus nearly two years prior to the general US release of the celebrated movie version known as All About Eve.

This is another adventure in recycling, an exploration of radio’s mediating position in the every widening web of multimediacy. Like Eve Harrington, radio was a spider—a yarn-spinning upstart snatching a principal role from its respected elders. Talking itself into the confidence of promoters and audiences alike, radio not only surpassed the theatre and the press in influence and mass appeal, but continued to take advantage of the talent it lured away from those competing media.

“Radio, of itself, has developed almost no writers. It has appropriated almost all of them, at least all of those who could tell a good story.” This assessment of the so-called writer’s medium was made in 1939 by Max Wylie, a former director of script and continuity at US network CBS; he went on to work for the radio department of a major advertising agency and wrote several handbooks for writers or producers of radio drama and edited a number of radio play anthologies.

Wylie knew what he was talking about. Although original plays became more prevalent during the Second World War, when radio served as a major purveyor of propaganda packaged as entertainment, this observation remained essentially an accurate one and does much to explain the gradual decline of radio dramatics in the US during the 1950s, when television assumed this mediating, central position in American culture. Proving the infinite adaptability of popular culture, radio programmed its own redundancy.

“The Wisdom of Eve” first appeared as a short story in the May 1946 issue of Cosmopolitan; before it became All About Eve, author Mary Orr adapted her nearly forgotten piece of magazine fiction for the airwaves. And quite a radiogenic production it turned out to be when it was presented on NBC’s Radio City Playhouse.

“If you were listening to the radio last night,” a female voice addresses the audience, “perhaps you heard what [a certain] radio commentator had to say about Eve Harrington.” On a filter microphone, a device often used to recreate the distortion of voices on the wire or the wireless, the enthusiastic commentator spreads the word about the meteoric rise of one Eve Harrington, “the most-loved, most sought-after, most talented actress Hollywood has seen in a generation.”

Without contradicting or mocking this statement, the narrator takes over again, and her encounter with the “hauntingly lovely” Eve is played out for us in dramatic flashbacks. The speaker is not the bitter and disillusioned Margo, the aging diva, but her friend, Karen Richards, wife of the playwright of Margo’s latest stage success.

What unfolds is the familiar story of Eve’s progress, her seeming innocence, her ambition, and her successful scheming. For the sake of her husband, a man being “made miserable by a temperamental actress,” Karen sides with Eve, too late undeceived about the young woman’s character.

In this play, the radio (the voice of the gossip columnist) is complicit in the world’s deception about Eve. Forever the snake in the make-believe garden west of Eden, it tells us what we want to hear, rather than what we ought to know. Luckily, the listeners of the Radio City Playhouse got just what they wanted that day: a darn good story. What’s more, the motion picture people tuned in as well, and the little piece Orr had trouble selling for years was turned into box-office gold.

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