Many Happy Reruns: Joseph Cotten, Radio Actor

Well, I am finally done with Cousin Henry, the novel I was reading, soaking, drying and pressing, however intermittently, these past few weeks. I tend to read in the bathtub, you see, and my books get a fair dousing now and then. Cousin Henry is one of the shorter novels of prolific 19th-century author Anthony Trollope; and even though Trollopeans—those singing a Trollopaean to the less sentimental or melodramatic works of Victorian fiction—generally agree that Trollope’s shorter works are not nearly as satisfying as his enormous three-deckers, I thought Cousin Henry to be an engrossing portrait of a man riddled by guilt—a man too weak to enjoy the fruits of his own wickedness and too wicked to surrender them. Now that I have done with Cousin Henry, I might as well pay tribute to the man who played Uncle Charlie. Joseph Cotten, that is, who was born on this day, May 15, in 1905.

Sure, I can relate most anything or anyone to radio; but in the case of Cotten, there is no need to stretch. Not that it would be difficult to highlight the wireless connections of some of the other notable film and theater personalities born on this day, a list including actress Constance Cummings, who was heard in a radio adaptation of Alice Duer Miller’s narrative poem The White Cliffs on the anthology drama series Romance (22 May 1945); Clifton Fadiman, editor and book critic, best known to American radio 1940s listeners as the moderator of the literary quiz program Information, Please; and playwright-novelist Max Frisch, whose Biedermann und die Brandstifter (Firebugs) was originally written for radio back in 1952.

Joseph Cotten was a radio actor, first if perhaps not foremost. He started out in radio drama in the mid-1930s, acting in a play produced by the American School of the Air, during the production of which he met and befriended Orson Welles, who subsequently gave Cotten his big screen break by casting him in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. On the air, Cotten was heard on programs like the aforementioned Romance, on the thriller anthology Suspense, the patriotic Cavalcade of America, and the Lux Radio Theater (taking Cary Grant’s part in Penny Serenade, for instance), as well as being featured on Welles’s own showcases, the Mercury Theatre on the Air and its commercial re-establishment, the Campbell Playhouse.

Radio listeners had several opportunities to hear Cotten on his birthday, namely in the 15 May 1949 production of “Breakdown,” as soundstaged by the Prudential Family Hour of Stars and a “Salute to Eugene O’Neill,” broadcast on 15 May 1954. Undoubtedly the least of these occasions was “Halfway to Reno,” a romantic trifle that aired on 15 May 1947 as part of the Radio Reader’s Digest. The play was an adaptation of one of the stories from the pages of Reader’s Digest magazine; it involves a husband and father who falls in love with another woman and seeks a divorce—until he is reminded of the wonders of parenthood, of playing ball with and reading to his son. It is a thoroughly undramatic play, a glossy treatment of marital discord, prefixed by the reminder that, in 1946, one out of three marriages ended in divorce.

Interviewed (that is, reading the script prepared for him) during the introduction to the pay, Cotten assured radio listeners that he was happily married. As I learned today, flicking through an edition of Hollywood Album, he claimed to owe his acting career to one Lenore Kipp, his first wife, who played the piano Cotten was pounding during a local theatre production of “Paris Bound” as far away from Broadway as Florida. When Ms. Kipp said “goodbye” go to New York, Cotten followed and eventually married her.

Most Victorian novels, of course, are concerned with matrimony. Comedies are said to end in marriage, while tragedy begin with it. Trollope, at least, had little interest in the conventional happy ending when he penned his Cousin Henry—a story about a secreted will and its ultimate detection—which concludes refreshingly unsentimental: “As any little interest which this tale may possess has come rather from the heroine’s material interests than from her love,—as it has not been, so to say, a love story,—the reader need not follow the happy pair absolutely to the altar.”

Cotten’s voice had a rough edge, an edge wasted on romances going smoothly. Right now, I am picturing him as the frustrated and disillusioned husband in Niagara, a spouse “Halfway to Reno” making a detour to those deadly falls.

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