On This Day in 1942: Marlene Dietrich Receives Some Sound Advice

Well, they aren’t quite done with me yet. Yesterday’s remarks about barbarity and journalism, that is. The problem with expository writing, when approached in the conventional, western sense, is that essays are expected to make ideas fall into place even when the subject is utterly chaotic. This is the very paper logic I was going on about only to get trapped in it. There is something troublesome about getting frustrated by a long-winded “I don’t know” when a purposeful “That’s that” should strike us as so much more suspicious.

Anyway. Ending my day with the customary late-night movie, I was all prepared for a smallscreening of The Bad and the Beautiful, which aired last week on UK channel BBC2. Instead, I never got past the film to which it had been hastily and haphazardly appended: I Cover the Waterfront. So, I quite inadvertently—but rather fittingly—followed up The Front Page (and Are You Listening?) with another sordid tale of big news and small scruples. Like Hildy Johnson, no-name reporter Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is torn between a girl and a story; but in this case, the girl (Claudette Colbert) is the ticket to that byline-worthy scoop—and the determined newshound manages to get them both, even if it means doing away with his sweetheart’s father. How’s that for a lucky break!

Now, I’m not sure whether it was either a matter of luck or much of a break when, on this day, 10 May, in 1942, radio comedian Fred Allen announced: “[T]onight we have a scoop. One of Hollywood’s greatest stars.” The great one was German-born Marlene Dietrich, a leading lady willing to work hard—but being none-too successful—at remaining a favorite in the public’s eye. Stepping behind the microphone to prove her American patriotism was one of those attempts at salvaging her endangered career.

“You mean you brought me here to do a show just for you?” Dietrich confronted Allen, showing herself offended at his unpatriotic selfishness. “Where are the troops?” Dutifully pointing out that the star had been “touring the country for the Hollywood Victory Committee, giving shows at the various army camps and naval training stations,” Allen showed his appreciation by offering his guest “some fatherly advice about [her] movie career.” It wasn’t an offer the hits-missing actress could afford to ignore.

Dietrich assured Allen that she was perfectly “happy out in Hollywood,” to which the comedian replied: “Oh, but how long can it last, with those rough-and-tumble pictures you’ve been making?” During the shoot of her latest picture, The Lady Is Willing (released two-and-a-half months prior to the broadcast), Dietrich had tripped over some props and injured her leg; but Allen was referring to the star’s online slappings, administered by leading men like James Stewart, Broderick Crawford, George Raft and Edward G. Robinson.

“Give up pictures in Hollywood, Marlene. Come to radio,” Allen suggested, where you “can get beaten up and kicked around [. . .] and not even feel it”—the sound effects man “does everything.” Some noisy demonstrations of the soundman’s business followed. “Radio is wonderful,” Dietrich agreed and was promptly handed a script for a radio serial titled “Brave Betty Birnbaum.”

“Your part starts on page twenty-eight,” Allen informed his guest, who flicked through it in bewilderment: “But the whole script is only thirty pages.” “Well, I know,” Allen explained, “the first twenty-seven pages are a commercial.” At least the soundman was at hand when Dietrich was called upon to kiss her less-than-dashing co-star. “That’s radio, Fred,” she summed up her lesson.

Luckily for Dietrich, the big screen offers did not run out during the 1940s. Only a decade later, when she was getting rather too unsteady on her celebrated gams to keep kicking her screen partners around in scenes of rough-and-tumble glamour, she heeded Allen’s advice at last. It wasn’t exactly an act of desperation, considering that she was in the company of many Hollywood A-listers who found syndicated radio drama to be lucrative and convenient.

Still sultry and seductive in her 50s, Dietrich worked the magic of her vocal chords in the episodic adventure series Café Istanbul and Time for Love, proving that, with a little help from the soundman, it’s never too late for radio romance.

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