Another “Wrong Number,” a False Start for Marilyn, and the Right Answer at Last

For the past three weeks I have been commemorating the dames, gals, and ladies of the airwaves; but now, the correct answer to the question posed in first broadcastellan quiz can finally be revealed. Thanks to all those who guessed or knew or couldn’t care less—and told me so. Tallulah Bankhead, Doris Day, Mary Pickford, Helen Hayes, Marlene Dietrich, Agnes Moorehead, and Dorothy Lamour—they were all radio regulars at some point in their careers,
whereas others, including Ginger Rogers, the lady in question (as guessed by three readers), limited their air time to occasional guest appearances on dramatic programs like the Lux Radio Theatre. And others still, Marilyn Monroe among them, started out in commercials.

On this day, 24 February, in 1947, more than five years before she became a major star, a noticeably nervous Monroe, having waited months for her first movie role while already under contract at Fox, was pushed before the microphone to appear in a commercial break for the Lux production of “Kitty.” Within the few seconds allotted for her radio debut, Monroe was faced with the task of initiating her career (by mentioning her first Technicolor screen test), plugging Betty Grable’s The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (whose costume she got to wear during the test shoot), and peddling Lux “flakes” (which ostensibly kept those costumes fresh and colourful). However alluring her timbre, Monroe fumbled. She could not even get the name of the announcer straight; her voice was rarely broadcast thereafter, even as her film roles remained scarce and undistinguished.

A pleasant voice, while an asset, was not a radio requisite. As I mentioned previously, Louella Parsons did quite well without one, notwithstanding her consternation when being told she had to do without the larynx of Ms. Rogers, who allegedly insisted on getting paid to be interviewed. The giggles and high-pitched screechings of comedy actresses aside, the most celebrated woman’s voice on American radio was the less than pleasing one emanating from Agnes Moorehead. Her virago vocals, by which Joseph Cotton’s character in Since You Went Away claims to have been haunted across the Atlantic, was ideally suited to the role of irate Mrs. Stevenson in that most famous of original old-time radio plays, Lucille Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number.”

On this day in 1944, Moorehead, shown left during a performance of “Sorry,” once again starred in the role she had originated on the radio thriller anthology Suspense in May 1943. The part was subsequently translated for motion picture audiences and television viewers (by Barbara Stanwyck, Mildred Natwick, Ida Lupino, and Shelley Winters); but, however bitter Moorehead might have been losing the role to Stanwyck on the big screen, no actress would snatch the original from the “First Lady of Suspense.”

It was not until long after Moorehead’s death that Claire Bloom (recently seen on UK television in the last of the second season of Marple), made an attempt at superseding the “First Lady,” not only by recreating the role for radio in 1999, but by starring in a sequel of sorts.

While she had nothing to do with that sequel, radio dramatist Lucille Fletcher was responsible for the 1948 film adaptation. Her involvement did not, however, assure the aesthetic success of the latter, which, for all its high melodrama, has little of the tension generated by the original play. With its numerous flashbacks, the film destroys the intensity of a drama unfolding in real time. Like Allan Ullman’s novelization of Fletcher’s screenplay, it fails to approximate, let alone recreate, the excitement of eavesdropping on someone in mortal danger, someone whose life, like the live broadcast during which it plays out—runs on a decidedly tight schedule beyond our control and influence.

“I wanted to write a show that was ‘pure medium,'” Fletcher remarked about “Sorry, Wrong Number.” She succeeded so well that any adaptation would amount to nothing short of mediocre impurity.

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