Well, I said as much yesterday: I am neither a poet nor a psychoanalyst. Such self-awareness does not deter me, however, from getting myself into some metaphorical tangle while going on about old-time radio or from trying my interpretative skills at my last and, as always, altogether unscientific poll. Now, last things first.
In my fifth poll I had invited readers to close their eyes and wander off—an invitation perhaps too readily accepted. “What image,” I had asked, “appears foremost in your mind when you read the term ‘old-time radio’?” The replies were pretty much divided between two responses, just as had I expected.
There are those more likely to picture a radio set and those who imagine a microphone. To borrow some Brechtian terminology, the former look at radio as a “distribution apparatus, as a receiver that spouts out information and entertainment to be appreciated, taken in, disdained, derided, or ignored. Those who imagine a microphone seem to conceive of radio as a site of creation, consider the processes involved in the act of broadcasting.
In McLuhan’s terms, the former seem to look at the message, whereas the latter image forth the medium as a generator of that message. To imagine radio as a microphone suggests to me a willingness to participate and create, to look beyond the contraption (the “furniture that talks”) and toward conception instead; to investigate, question, or challenge the source of what is being received. In short, to imagine the wireless and see a box of wires seems to bespeak the triumph of eye over the ear, the sort of short-sighted literal-mindedness that is the product of visual culture and that ultimately contributed to the demise of radio as a creative force.
I’m not sure what to make of the reply “Nothing at all.” It may signal an indifference or a want of imagination. Yet it also suggests quite the opposite: a thoroughly radiogenic mind—one that does not resort to translating thoughts into pictures, one that conceives of ideas as being non-material, one to whom imagination is not imaged.
Now, onto the first quiz. Over the next few weeks, I am going to pay tribute to some of the dames, gals, and ladies of the airwaves, from the Lux beauties to the “First Lady of Suspense,” from the stars of the American stage to the girls-next-door who went over big on the small screen.
Radio was a stopover for many movie, stage, and television actresses; during the 1930s and ‘40s, it was a welcome source of supplemental income. In the early 1950s, with the emergence of syndication and magnetic transcription, it became a lucrative sideline for actors who appeared in dramatic series or hosted variety programs in order to promote a specific film or remain generally heard and spoken of by potential moviegoers.
Whenever I hear an actress like Sandra Bullock or Neve Campbell or Scarlett Johansson, I am disappointed at their lack of diction. Their mumbling is not realism; it is a want of craft. Screen actresses are no longer required to hold a tune while parading in glamorous gowns, dancing with Astaire, or leaping into a technicolored pool. Instead, they are expected to have their expressiveness botoxically erased and appear before us in unchanging sameness. Radio, which carried the threat of invisibility and disembodiment, forced actresses to explore the power and pull of their voices, to distinguish themselves in speech and song.
So, if you would like to participate and take the quiz, you may also want to leave your answer in the comments section, along with the name of your favorite actress of the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s. Whether your answer is correct or not, I will feature your performer of choice—or her voice—in a future installment of this journal. Now, pardon me while I go in search of that lovely larynx, those thespians whose vocal chords ensnared and whose timbres did wonders for the voice box office.