Silents, Please!; or, How to Prepare for the World Cup Doldrums

Well, it is supposed to be busting out all over tomorrow. June, that is—the month during which television entertainment goes bust. In the US, at least, a generally enforced leave-taking from your favorites is a programming pattern that predates television. Looking through my radio files, I came across an article in the June 1932 issue of The Forum, discussing what Americans could expect to find “On the Summer Air.” It is an interesting piece, especially since it serves as a reminder that, during the early years of broadcasting, the summer hiatus was a response to technical difficulties. The shutting down of broadcast studios, like the closing of Broadway theaters, was directly related to the rising mercury, to the heat that made the asphalt buckle and urbanites escape to their vernal retreats.

“Formerly,” the reviewer remarks,

June marked the beginning of the radio doldrums, an enjoyable period lasting through three splendidly quiet months. Hot weather static raised so much hell with radio transmission that many sponsors permitted their public to amuse itself until September. But no longer! This year modern superheterodyne radio sets, the new pentode tubes, and more powerful, efficient transmitting equipment will help to put the Indian sign on summer static.

Did such technological advances improve matters for the home audience? Did static give way to ecstasy?

The gentleman from the Forum suggested that programmers made ample use of the re-conditioned air, but did not quite live up to the medium’s potential. There was Broadway legend Florenz Ziegfeld, for instance, who promised to widen the Great White Way with his Ziegfeld Follies on the Air. He also promised to present listeners with the lovely Lupe Velez. “We need television for a program like this,” the frustrated reviewer commented, and Ms. Velez was “the victim” of such a visual approach to sound-only broadcasting. “The microphone has yet to be built which will bring gestures and wriggles, no matter how seductive and amusing, to your front room.” The home audience was not likely to join in the applause with which the performers were greeted in the studio.

Even in its heyday, some two decades before television finally took off as a mass medium, radio was being compared to the supposedly superior medium that offered images and noise. Television, of course, is no less superior to radio than talkies are to silent films. The creators of art are called upon to explore the limitations and strength of the medium in which they work; but commercial radio rarely received such respect for the arts. In fact, the producers of broadcast entertainment often counted on its alleged defects.

Radio could be tantalizing by virtue of its inability to show, by hinting at rather than revealing. It could be tame or racy, largely depending on the imagination of the listener. Such teasing could be exploited, employed to draw listeners out of their homes and into the theaters, the lack of visuals reminding them that what they heard was a mere substitute, rather than the real thing. It was a concept ideal for advertisers, but at times frustrating to those who were hoping for free home entertainment.

Flicking through the Radio Times, anno June 2006, I was pleased to discover that television, though no longer free, occasionally offers programming that fits the medium as well as the moment: silent movies, the storytelling that is most purely vision. There will be quite a few silent nights in the next few weeks, UK television going eloquently speechless with moving pictures such as Chaplin’s The Immigrant, British classics like A Cottage on Dartmoor, Hindle Wakes, and Piccadilly, as well as Lubitsch’s Eternal Love, starring John Barrymore and Camilla Horn (which is shown on the digital channel artsworld). These small-screenings coincide with a series paying tribute to cinema’s Silent Clowns (Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, and Lloyd), as well as the biographical drama Stan (as in Stan Laurel), by the aforementioned writer/composer and silent film aficionado Neil Brand.

It is the calm before the storm, the madness that is World Cup soccer. If only the BBC offered an hour of silence for every shout of “Gooooooal.”

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