On This Day in 1949: Listeners Are Transported to Mexico

Well, it might just make it after all. Our elm tree, that is. It was uprooted and replanted over a year ago and did not take kindly to the forced relocation. This morning, when I replenished the birdfeeder that dangles from its bare branches, I noticed a few tentative buds. Encouraged by those signs of life, I am going pay more attention to this horticultural casualty over the next few weeks. The uprooted and transplanted don’t always adjust well to their new environs. Sometimes, they seem altogether out of place. Take Miss Marple, for instance.

Last night, a new dramatization of Agatha Christie’s Sittaford Mystery premiered on British TV channel ITV1. Now, what was Miss Marple doing at Sittaford? She sure wasn’t sent there by her brainmother, who created Sittaford without Marple in mind. Nothing quite fits together in this adaptation, which tries to update Christie’s early 1930s séance mystery with noirish touches and hard-boiled wit. Transport the story into the 1950s, throw in an ex-James Bond (Timothy Dalton), a dash of Indiana Jones, a taste of not-so-sweet honey (an enigmatically skeletal Rita Tushingham), and some hints at lesbianism—and, voila (now I am being Poirot), you’ve got yourself a caper with a serious identity crisis.

I have always been driven by and torn between two impulses: to stick to what I know and try to stay away from it. The familiar can be comforting and reassuring. In my readings, for instance, or in my appreciation of drama, I tend to be downright Victorian in my tastes. As much as I was intrigued by the story of (or behind) Bennett Miller’s Capote, with which I caught up this weekend, I would have preferred it to be a little less analytical. I did not get to feel for or identify with any of the characters, as fascinated as I was by the situation in which they found themselves.

Miller seems to have taken a Terrence Rattigan approach by trying to concretize ideas rather than plots and characters. Such attempts are, perhaps, best left to essays, writings in which blossoming ideas are more likely to reach maturity and take root in the mind of an audience to whose efforts in abstraction any singled-out specifics might be distracting.

And yet, the familiar can also be stultifying and stifling, making the getting away from it seem a matter of life and death. On this May Day—the celebration of spring and renewal, that, not altogether inappropriately, shares its name with the internationally recognized distress call—I am looking westward, toward my former home, observing how the subject of immigration develops in the country of immigrants, and how US-Mexican relations received yet another blow, as millions are encouraged to stay away from work or refuse the purchase of US goods. However contentious the subject, it is not one to be avoided; and, rather than being a vehicle for escape, old-time radio, once again, serves as a reminder of some of Mexico’s other migratory misfortunes.

On this day, 1 May, in 1949, listeners of You Are There, a series of fictionalized radio documentaries, were given the opportunity to witness the assassination of emperor Montezuma, presumably by his own people. Among the voices from the past “interviewed” for the program, Canada Lee can be heard as an Aztec prince, the oppression of African-Americans being thereby likened to the life of the Aztecs under Montezuma.

Also on mike to give her views of the situation is the emperor’s daughter, who vows to leave Mexico with her husband, the invading Spaniard Cortez: “If the house of my father must be overthrown to deliver my people from hideous darkness, I say let it be overthrown.” That Cortez returns to Mexico to plunder its treasures is offered as a “footnote” at the conclusion of the broadcast. On that same day, conceited skinflint Jack Benny went down to Mexico (or some Hollywood simulacrum of it, such as the above scene from Masquerade in Mexico) in hopes of a better life—one enriched by foreign gold or by a shiny Oscar—in an irreverent take on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He neither succeeded in the quest, nor in its dramatization, but delighted his audience as he died trying.

The radical tourism we label “immigration” has frequently been romanticized as adventurous or trivialized as opportunist; to criminalize it now will do still less to explain, let alone discourage, such wayward and often desperate acts of displacement. I, for one, have not set foot on my country of origin for nearly sixteen years. Anxious to fall away from the family tree, to take root elsewhere or rot, I migrated to New York City; a decade and a half (and some degrees) later, I moved on, to Britain, a country that seems stranger to me than I had anticipated.

Many who leave their native land are not unlike that elm tree in our garden, struggling and unstable; but I know that whatever it is that uproots us must be stronger than that which holds us in place.

2 Replies to “On This Day in 1949: Listeners Are Transported to Mexico”

  1. I actually liked Capote and felt it deserved the awards it got. Miller seemed less focus on character (as you mention) and more on relationship. Capote\’s relationship with Perry Smith including especially his need to understand him in light of his own childhood; Capote\’s relationship with his editor, Harper Lee; and to a degree his relationship with the policeman Alvin Dewey.Stir all of this up and focus on why this effete man would be interested in such a brutal deeply disturbing crime and I think the film works.Ironically, this same author created such a wonderful story as \”A Christmas Memory.\” I also find it interesting that after \”In Cold Blood\” he never published another novel and very little beyond that.

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  2. I didn\’t explain my response quite clearly enough in above essay, which I have modified somewhat after reading your comment. I am used to–and enjoy–being emotionally manipulated by movies. Watching Capote, I remained aloof, as if compelled to dissect the relationships, in cold blood. That some tears were shed by fellow audience members only exacerbated my feeling of detachment.

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