On This Day in 1944: Montgomery Clift Gets Lost in Radio’s “Wilderness”

Before heading out on this appropriately wild and gloomy evening to see a touring production of Gormenghast at our local theater, I am going to listen to one the lesser known drama programs of American old-time radio: Arthur Hopkins Presents (1944-45), which took its name from the noted Broadway producer-director who hosted the series. On this day, 24 May, in 1944, Mr. Hopkins presented an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s popular comedy Ah, Wilderness! starring Broadway legend Dudley Digges and featuring a young if experienced stage actor who’d become one of the most sought-after actors of 1950s Hollywood—Montgomery Clift.

In the spring of 1944, Arthur Hopkins took to the airwaves in hopes of introducing to radio a “people’s theatre and a repertory theatre.” Hopkins held that radio offered a temporary “solution to the unavoidable extravagance of the commercial theater in shelving a play when the immediate audience has been served,” and to the “economic encumbrances” that made repertory “impractical” in a Broadway venue. By reprocessing recent stage successes, Hopkins sought to “create adult theatre audiences for them and
eventually for Broadway.”

The series premiered promisingly that April with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, whose use of a narrator makes it one of the most radiogenic of stage dramas. Subsequent plays were not nearly as ideally suited to the airwaves; at least, they were not suited to the demands of the one-dimensional (that is, sound only) medium. Hopkins was vehemently opposed to making changes to the original scripts. He insisted that the “two pillars on which dramatic productions stand are identical in theater and radio. They are text and cast.” Rejecting the addition of a narrator and keeping both music and sound effects to a minimum, Hopkins deemed the challenge of adaptation to be no more than a matter of sagacious cutting.

As a result of such ill-advised fidelity, “Ah, Wilderness!” begins in medias res and ends in somewhat of a muddle. The mind receiving no assistance in setting the scene—help provided by a guiding narrator like the one installed in Arthur Arent’s Theater Guild version of the same play—what is left of O’Neill’s nostalgic recreation of small town Connecticut in the year 1906 is a Babel of voices, a sonic jungle that at times suggests a forest of microphones behind which performers, whose scripts you can hear rustling, rush to and fro in a frantic attempt to recite as much of the original text as possible within the allotted fifty-five minutes.

For all their shortcomings, such transcribed theatricals are living records of a tradition we can otherwise only glimpse at in a couple of still photographs. Digges (as Nat Miller) and Clift (as his young son Dick) turn in fine performances, Clift being most convincing in the scene at the notorious Pleasant Beach House, where he is easy prey for one of the “swift” dames who prefer cash over matrimony. The young man, we readily believe, doesn’t understand what is going on; nor is he corrupted by it. His father is pleased to forgive a son who has been naïve rather than wayward. “I don’t believe in kissing between fathers and sons after a certain age,” Nat remarks, having just received such a token of filial love; “seems mushy and silly—but that meant something.” To Nat, it meant that his son was “safe—from himself.” In Cliff’s case, it might have meant something else altogether.

Surprisingly, the man responsible for this Arthur Hopkins adaptation was none other than Wyllis Cooper (pictured above), whose thriller programs were the finest and most literary ever to be soundstaged for American radio. Now, there was a man who’d done well bringing a Gothic nightmare like Gormenghast to the public’s ear. I wonder how the visualization of Mervyn Peake’s 1950 novel will succeed tonight. But more about that tomorrow . . .

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