"Chained" to the Mike: Joan Crawford Goes Live Reluctantly

Well, they come to the remotest of spots, spreading their words—or the word—undaunted by the indifference or hostility with which they are greeted. Jehovah’s Witnesses, I mean. This morning, I’ve been listening for about an hour to two of these travelling preachers, one of whom likened our lack of receptiveness and knowledge to sitting in front of a broken television set. Actually, the two reminded me of radio announcers: hawkers with a mission who come into your home (or as near as you let them) to sell you ideas and convince you to tune in tomorrow—a tomorrow so protracted it might have been conceived by a soap opera writer if it weren’t quite so blissful.

Radio announcers, of course, were being paid for delivering promotional messages they did not compose; and it sufficed for them to feign conviction and enthusiasm in their pushing of ideas, services and products. Rather than turning the dial or twisting the doorknob on those Witnesses and their ill-concealed prejudices, I kept listening to their mythological broadcastings, even though my life at present is so serene that I do not long for another or any hereafter.

We are being sold so many mass-marketed keys to happiness that, when one of them finally fits into the lock, the confounded peddlers and their less-than-satisfied customers importune us to question whether we’ve got the right door. Once achieved, happiness is reduced to a token of stupor or proof of lacking ambition, a mark missed rather than hit. After all, there is business in creating desire and none in realized contentment.

Now, the elusive happily ever after is an illusion often smashed to great effect. The creators of , the theater of the contested status quo, turned the struggle for a joyous or secure future into a chief generatrix of storylines. The characters of melodrama often seek happiness by looking for something not belonging to them and find it by discovering that what they want is close by, however obscured by conventions or removed from their everyday by the chains of society. In all this strife, melodrama often insists on destiny, on a path chosen not by us, but for us, a path to be discovered instead of forged. On this day, 27 July, in 1936, Joan Crawford stepped behind the microphone she dreaded to struggle against such conventions—and succumb to others—by recreating her role of Diana (or Dinah) Lovering in Chained, which was adapted for a production of the Lux Radio Theater.

Diane is a secretary of a well-to-do, “middle-aged, but attractive steamship magnate.” She vows to marry him—once his wife consents to set him free. In the meantime, she falls in love with a younger man, played by Crawford’s husband, Franchot Tone, a man who poses a challenge, rather than showering her with affections. There is little excitement in the triangle, a routine love affair in which Crawford is blandly smooth, rather than edgy. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Crawford’s performance is that the actress, reputedly uneasy about speaking live before an invisible audience of millions (as previously mentioned here), displays no audible signs of mike fright.

Setting the scene with an apposite if contrived Hollywood legend, Lux Radio Theater host Cecil B. DeMille explains that Crawford and Tone, whom he had never before met professionally, were meant for each other by virtue of their ancestry. “Their romance, which began in 1933, was more than a courtship,” he suggests. “It was a coincidence which had its beginnings in 1798, when an undecided Corsican named Bonaparte was lighting the fuse that was to explode all Europe and an Irish patriot named Wolfe Tone was enlisting French aide in a revolt against England.” Sure, Ms. Crawford, who married the descendant of said Wolfe Tone, was born Lucille LeSueur; but the “little French girl” was born closer to Paris, Texas, than to the French capital.

Aided by the continuity writers of the Lux Radio Theater, DeMille was able to craft a compelling theme out of such historic strains, even if it meant to strain historic facts in the crafting. For all his vision, though, DeMille was no seer. Between the second and final acts of “Chained,” the famed director introduces Helen Burgess, one of his recent discoveries for the screen. She might have been groomed for stardom, but, as Billips and Pierce remind us in Lux Presents Hollywood, the on-air promotion was futile. The promising starlet died on 7 April 1937, shortly before her twenty-first birthday.

Crawford, meanwhile, kept returning to the microphone, relieved, no doubt, when the era of live radio drama came to an end in the late 1940s.

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