Well, Tallulah Hallelujah! How could I pass up the chance to pass on this anniversary double treat? On this day, 16 November, in 1950, Tallulah Bankhead grabbed the microphone to entertain the multitude, first in a recreation of her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Two year later, she was heard in the part that might have gone to Claudette Colbert (had she not given her all to make sure that Three Came Home) but is now almost exclusively thought of as belonging to Bette Davis: All About Eve (previously discussed here in its pre-filmic radio version). When I featured clips from these performances in first adventure in podcasting, I was unaware that both “Lifeboat” and “All About Eve” were broadcast on the same day, two years apart.
Now, la Bankhead is more often thought of as a legend than an actress; that is, she is foremost a star, and only secondarily a performer. We generally do not have access to the stage appearances of Hollywood stars of the studio era, a couple of stills and reviews aside. Radio theatricals, however, can give us an inkling of those ephemeral performances. So, once again, I am conjuring up the Tallulah spirit, as I did when last I placed her image on my Quija board.
Bankhead’s performance in the Screen Directors Playhouse production of “Lifeboat,” broadcast on this day, 16 November, in 1950, serves to remind us how good an actress an icon can be. As an uncommonly humble Alfred Hitchcock tells the audience in the introduction to the play,
. . . I think you should know that Lifeboat is not what we call a director’s picture. There are no trick sets, no camera tricks, in fact, no tricks at all. When the director approaches such a picture, he offers up a little prayer and delivers himself wholly into the hands of his actors. Since they are very good actors, the result is just as you should hear it now.
Indeed, the production is very fine, with Bankhead serving as narratrix of her character’s experience aboard that ill-fated vessel. That time around, there were no calls for “Wardrobe, make-up, or hair,” no matter how many times the eccentric star uncrossed her legs.
The Theater Guild adaptation of “All About Eve” was more in keeping with the Bankhead persona in those Big Show days. “Thank you, Mr. Brokenshire,” Bankhead seizes the microphone from her announcer,
and good evening, darlings. The play we are performing for you this evening on Theater Guild on the Air is called—and I never could understand why— All About Eve. All About Eve. True, there is an Eve in it, and what a part that is. There is also a glamorous and brilliant leading lady of the theatre whose true identity has been kept a secret too long. Tonight, darlings, tonight baby intends to do something about that.
What a bumpy night it turned out to be. Those two years sure made a difference. You might say, that the campy “Eve” is an extension of or promotional vehicle for the Big Show and the Tallulah image in general. Character had given way for caricature.
How odd it is that such camp is so personal to me; and yet, when I think of Bankhead, I am inevitably reminded of my years in New York City. Sitting in my favorite local park by the East River while preparing for my dissertation on radio drama by listening to a few programs (oh, the hardship a doctoral candidate has to endure), I got to talk to a fellow sun worshipper who, learning about my uncommon soundtrack, asked whether I had come across the name of Florence Robinson, who was an old friend of his. No, I could not say I had; but I soon discovered that Robinson had been Tallulah’s co-star in “All About Eve.”
Just about that time, in those early days of the 21st century, I got to see the Tallulah Hallelujah! starring Tovah Feldshuh in the title role (no, not Hallelujah). A few years later I became friends with the “producing associate” of the show. So, listening to Bankhead, however outré or larger than life she might sound, triggers many a personal memory.
Then again, listening is always personal, as sounds pass the threshold of my ears, entering my body in a way images never could, and keep reverberating in my mind. While no longer surprised, I am still disappointed when I flick through biographies like the one by Joel Lobenthal I am clutching above, accounts of an actor’s life that make so little of their roles on radio and the role radio played during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Sure, the The Big Show was not being ignored (even though George Baxt, who novelized Bankhead’s broadcasting experience in the volume shown here, barely gets a mention). Beyond that, though, Bankhead’s “many radio appearances” are summed up as involving “acting in sketches or trading patter with Hildegarde, Fred Allen, Kate Smith, and others.”
Given that recordings are now so readily available, the general disregard for the medium, expressing itself in a line like “[r]adio was Tallulah’s only medium for the next six months,” becomes an intolerable distortion of American popular culture. I wish more attention was being paid to the cultural force of the old wireless, a wish that, aside from all the nonsense and dross you might expect here, is the raison d’être of broadcastellan.