Well, there she was again, flitting across the screen . . . unexpected, uncredited—and gone within seconds. You know, the kind of walk-on out of narrative nowhere they call a cameo. How strange, I thought, when I saw her passing by, having just had her on my mind (and in this journal) a few minutes earlier. I could hardly believe my eyes. Yes (as I shared earlier today on Alternative Film Guide), Marlene Dietrich refused to get out of my head last night, even though the anniversary I had just commemorated (her guesting on the Abbott and Costello Show back in 1942) was hardly a memorable one. There were many other radio anniversaries to consider that day; but somehow it was Marlene’s name that caught my eye, my ear pricking up to the chance of hearing her voice, forced as it was to utter lines so utterly unworthy of her charms and talent. That was that, I thought, as I closed my computer.
Most nights, just before bedtime, I roll down the blind to screen old movies, all of which are duly recorded in the list to the right of this. I watch whatever I can lay my hands on, even though those hands of mine tend to reach for Hollywood fare of 1930s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s, British and German classics or contemporary film being rare exceptions to this rule of my thumbs.
Recently, I asked a fellow web journalist, the sharer of Relative Esoterica, what it is that makes her decide which movie to watch on any given night. It would not be easy for me to answer that question. When last I was in New York City, I purchased a collection of 100 Thrillers, neatly boxed and taking up no more space than a couple of hardcover novels. Many of the titles I watched this year come from out of that one box, however exasperating the quality of the print may be at times.
Going through that box as if it were filled with candy, slowly getting to those items you either don’t care for or are suspicious of (it might have one of those awful pink fillings), I dug up an item titled Jigsaw. I knew nothing about it, other than that it promised a reencounter with the aforementioned Franchot Tone, who was well past his prime when Jigsaw was shot.
As it turns out, Jigsaw (1949) was a veritable radio drama reunion party, being that it was directed by noted radio drama actor-writer-producer Fletcher Markle (previously mentioned here), and co-written by him and fellow radio writer Vincent McConnor, once known for adapting plays and novels for anthology series like NBC University Theater. The original story is by one John Roeburt, himself an expert on radio thrillers. I recalled his name from his 1940s article “Outlook for Radio Mysteries,” in which he remarked:
In its modern adjustment, the radio mystery show, all types and kinds, lives austerely, with a sharp frugality. The fat has been burned away; costs have been trimmed to the bone. Fees and salaries, for performers, writers, directors, are minimum scale only; musical backing is mainly dubbed in from royalty-free records purchased abroad. The mystery show seldom emanates live, as in halcyon years; the rule today is the mechanical taping of shows.
Jigsaw is not a big budget production, either, a trimming of costs to which Markle must have long been accustomed. In fact, he recruited many of his actors from radio. On hand were radio stalwarts like Myron McCormick, Brainerd Duffield, Hedley Rainnie (virtually a stranger to film), and the remarkable Hester Sondergaard (whose voice I last heard in one of Norman Corwin’s plays for radio). There was no getting away from the aural medium that evening. Not that Markle tried. He employed the device of interior narration, as one character commented on another, without uttering a syllable. It is a peculiar form of narrative that only a long career in radio can explain.
Jigsaw offers rather more than it is able to deliver. It wants to be Boomerang, say, or Arthur Miller’s Focus; but it soon gets lost in a romantic tangle that seems at once conventional and imposed. Still, Markle managed to rally quite a few noted figures from screen, press, and radio to lend their support for his directorial debut. And, yes, among those players was none other than Marlene Dietrich, who, in 1948, had twice been directed by Markle in radio productions of “Arabesque” (heard on Markle’s Studio One, co-starring Rainnie) and “Madame Bovary” (soundstaged by the aforementioned Ford Theater, adapted by Duffield).
So, had I read up on Jigsaw beforehand, I might not have been quite so bewildered by this reencounter with Dietrich. Yes, I can explain it now, citing my own ignorance as the source of my surprise; but I can’t quite explain it away. After what I said last night about her desperate attempt at self-promotion on the Abbott and Costello Show, the leading lady just passed me by, noiselessly, as I stared at the screen, gasping in puzzlement. Coincidence, my eye!