Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Mary Jane Higby, Radio Raconteuse

Well, I am beginning to think like Miss Marple, the amateur sleuth whose exploits are currently being revived on UK television in a second season of Marple, with the well cast Geraldine McEwan in the title role. Mind you, I am not performing any feats of deduction. What I mean is that, like the old girl, I often draw on my mental store of images when confronted with fresh impressions, thereby discovering the familiar in the new. I encounter a person, in fiction or the flesh, and, all of a sudden, I am reminded of someone else entirely, and then begin to ponder the extent of the perceived likeness.

When I first read Agatha Christie’s Marple novels in my early teens, I found those exercises in trial-by-association rather unconvincing. Growing older, however, I realized that there are only so many faces and stories. Now I frequently draw such parallels myself, especially when I allow my mind to wander, instead of lavishing my attention exclusively on the person, image or text before me.

Last night, for instance, I was watching the Rogers and Hammerstein musical State Fair. I was less than engrossed in the tepid story, enlivened only too infrequently by a memorable tune. So, when redhead Vivian Blaine appeared on the screen, I was reminded of Bree Van De Kamp and her basket of muffins, Desperate Housewives being the only serial drama I follow these days.

Now there’s a classic movie starlet look—streamlined and polished to cartoonish perfection without being expressive enough to achieve thespian greatness. A plastic surgeon’s interpretation of Jessica Rabbit, Marcia Gross might have fared well in production-coded 1940s Hollywood. Even her voice has a certain gloss—just the vocal chords fit for a career in radio. And since I am already in serial mode, I might as well pay tribute to one of the busiest of those daytime serial actresses of American network radio: Ms. Mary Jane Higby.

A bit player in the Hollywood-originating radio theatricals of the early to mid-1930s, Higby got her big break when she moved to New York City, where she successfully replaced the lead actress in the relatively new but already ratings-troubled serial When a Girl Marries. She later recalled her career, and the radio business in general, in her gossipy but insightful autobiography Tune in Tomorrow:

Soap opera may well have been the lowest point ever reached by dramatic art, plumbing down deep beneath Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model and The Perils of Pauline, but make no mistake about it, as advertising it was just plain great. It developed a fanatically loyal audience of many millions; it was habit-forming (the polls showed that 54 percent of the nation’s housewives listened regularly); and it was cheap [. . .]. Dollar for dollar, it may well have been the greatest value the advertiser ever got for his money.

Before her successful audition for When a Girl Marries, Higby got some sound advice from fellow radio actress Barbara Weeks, who told her to “sound like a nice, nice girl.” The serial heroine must essentially remain sexless, no matter how many times she is being molested, manacled, or rematched at the altar. She is as clean as the soapsuds she is meant to promote can make her.

No wonder those “nice” girls got desperate or became, as James Thurber once observed, “subject to a set of special ills” like “[t]emporary blindness,” “dizzy spells and headaches,” or “amnesia,” whereas male characters were emasculated by way of “paralysis of the legs.” It was the daytime audience’s shared lament and vicarious revenge on the clueless spouses who got to go out into the world each morning, leaving them with the not so nice business of making the house look nice on a limited budget.

Even though Desperate Housewives sanitizes by way of comedy rather than sentimentality, the “nice” formula prevails to this day. Dirty laundry never looked this clean. The advertising machinery behind today’s serials operates differently, of course, since dramatic programs are not directly produced by advertisers to promote a particular sponsor’s wares (for which reason I avoid the term “soap opera” when referring to latter-day serials). We are not always sure just what we are being sold until we find ourselves at the DVD counter or downloading videos from iTunes, coaxed into spending sizeable amounts of money for the privilege of following stories that, in the age before cable boxes and broadband used to air free of charge. Today, you’ve got to pay to watch the commercials or pay more to have them removed.

Unlike the stories in which she was heard on radio, Higby’s inside story is refreshingly unsentimental. She was not in favor of referring to the 1930s, ’40s, and early ’50s as the “Golden Age of Radio,” a label that makes the big and rather vulgar business of hawking goods by telling lurid or lachrymose tales sound altogether too enchanting:

Nobody called it that then. It is only when a thing is dead that it becomes golden. If I had allowed myself to brood about what psychologists and sociologists were saying about radio in general and daytime serials in particular, I’d have been tempted to quit my job and go straight.

At least, Higby got a mink coat for all her assorted pains; it was her one great ambition.

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