Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Mercedes McCambridge, Airwaves Advocate

Last night, I watched The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), a seedy but glamorous rags-to-riches-to-rags melodrama starring Joan Crawford. Crawford was a perfectionist on screen, even though producers like Jerry Wald determined that, by the mid-1940s, her physiognomy was less than ideal and called for that extra layer of gauze in front of the lens to soften her mature looks (because most leading roles in Hollywood are, to this date, a little too young for anyone over forty). No doubt, Crawford’s need for control contributed to what those in the radio business called mike fright. When Crawford went on the air, starring in dramatic programs like Suspense, she insisted on being recorded for later broadcast rather than going on the air live. Apparently, to someone as protective of her persona as Crawford, any screw-up in radio insinuated something tantamount to crow’s feet on screen. Not to Crawford’s Johnny Guitar (1954) co-star and rival, though, the radio-trained and true Mercedes McCambridge.

Her career in film and on stage notwithstanding, McCambridge was a genuine radio actress; and unlike many aspiring thespians, she would not have objected to the term. Sure, her voice was so distinct that even the hearing impaired could not fail to spot her in any of her many notable radio roles; but, however obvious her vocal disguises, McCambridge, whether performing in night-time thrillers, daytime soap operas, or wartime propaganda plays, rarely did less than throwing herself, larynx and soul, into each and every part she accepted to play.

On this day, 8 February, in 1950, for instance, McCambridge was “Jack Dempsey,” the rambunctious teenage daughter of a prize-fighting crazed rancher. Determined to get married to a man of whom her father does not approve, she convinces a trio of adventurers to defend her rights in what was billed as “The Battle of the Century.” That was just one of the adventures in which McCambridge played a part in 1939—and again a decade later—in a thriller serial called I Love a Mystery. The program, and McCambridge’s role as the maniacal Charity in “The Thing That Cries in the Night,” has been discussed at some length in previously in this journal.

She was also heard in many other Chicago-originating drama broadcasts, including episodes of the legendary horror program Lights Out!. My favorite among those is an episode in which McCambridge plays a spoiled teenager on a school trip to Paris. Abducted by a man who claims to know her family, she is dragged into the sewers, where she is forced to make necklaces out of the bones of those killed by her capturer. It’s Grand Guignol, all right—ghastly melodramatics that don’t require images to conjure up unimaginable horrors.

To moviegoers, McCambridge is best known as the demon voice in the The Exorcist, a performance she attributed to a fortuitous bout with childhood bronchitis. McCambridge thought of this role, in which she is never seen, as a radio performance. Until the 1970s, when radio enjoyed a renaissance, she returned to the airwaves with former colleagues, enjoying the freedom that radio afforded the performer, notwithstanding the limitations imposed by producers and sponsors.

“In radio you had to be a tiger or you didn’t last,” McCambridge wrote in her autobiography, The Quality of Mercy, “If you didn’t keep your toes curled under, you would fall of the edge of that marvelous world. For me, nothing in films, or theater, or certainly TV as ever touched the magical kaleidoscope of radio.” Most television and film producers may have been clueless about radio; but you sure got us, tiger! I consider myself mauled.

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