“Then heaven help the masses!” That’s what English teacher George Phipps exclaims in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) when confronted with the notion that soap operas were the “literature” of his fiercely commercial, communists fearing day. Alerted to this mock prayer by Leonard Maltin’s Great American Broadcast, I began to wonder what radio executives, whose business it was to take note when their line of business was threatened or questioned, would do with such a line if ever A Letter were to be read on the air.
To begin with, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning screenplay would have to be reduced to a memo, given the tight, commercials-cluttered slots allotted for post-World War II broadcast drama; but the Letter had already been severely edited, two of what had once been five wives receiving the pink slip in an economic downsizing of a property initially spread out on the pages of Cosmopolitan back in 1945. It was too prominent a missive not to be bottled anew and tossed into the airwaves. Sure enough, on this day, 20 February, in 1950, “A Letter” was posted by the prestigious, popular if highly conservative Lux Radio Theater, with Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas (pictured) reprising their screen roles. Would the wireless-defiant educator make the cut? Or would a radio rewrite mean “Goodbye, Mr. Phipps”?
The Lux producers were not generally concerned with aesthetics; but, Phipps’s disparaging remarks notwithstanding, the screenplay for A Letter is most radiogenic. After all, it depends on voice-over narration by an unseen character (played by Celeste Holm in the film version), a storytelling convention suited to—and appropriated from—radio drama, whose publicly confidential talks transported audiences straight into the mind of the speaker. The film version also makes excellent use of the aforementioned Sonovox, a device that could turn any sound into speech. In A Letter, it gets droplets of water to seep insinuations into receptive ears. What speaks volumes in the Lux production is that the Sonovox, largely relegated to advertising duty on radio, was being scrapped altogether. Its innovative props disposed of, its potentialities ignored, radio theater was frequently reduced to borrowing its material from the movies it had assisted in furnishing and shaping.
However impoverished, Sandy Barnett’s radio adaptation does take on the challenge posed by George Phipps, even though the teacher’s arguments have little bearing on the plot involving the two leads of the Lux production. And rather than being turned into a hausfrau, George’s spouse Rita is the soap opera writer she was on the screen. The scene for the assault on radio is set: Rita (played by Joan Banks) has invited one of “those radio people” to dinner. “You know what I like about your program?” her maid tells her, “Even when I’m running the vacuum I can understand it.” Besides, it keeps her “mind off [her] feet. George (Stephen Dunne) is not pleased having to entertain the entertainers; he is unwilling to serve them expensive liquor to make them feel at home:
Rita. People in show business, well you know what I mean. Those kind always drink scotch.
George. I know what you mean, dear, but I wish you wouldn’t say it in radio English. That kind, not “those kind.”
Rita. There are men who say “those kind” who earn a hundred thousand dollars a year.
George. There are men who say “Stick ‘em up” who earn even more.
Not surprisingly, given her husband’s attitude, Rita is concerned about the evening’s entertainment.
Rita. George, just one thing, please. No jokes about radio.
George. Oh, the time for joking about it is past. Radio has become a very serious problem now, like juvenile delinquency.
Rita. That’s just what I mean. Cracks like that.
The get-together does not go as smoothly as planned by Rita, who would like her self-consciously impecunious husband to quit teaching in favor of writing for the soaps. A debate about radio’s cultural offerings and the lure of the big money behind them ensues:
George. Look, Rita, let’s put aside my personal likes and dislikes. They’re not important. I am willing to admit that to a majority of my fellow citizens I’m a slightly comic figure: an educated man.
Rita. But nobody’s asking you not to be. Think of the good you could do. Maybe raise the standards.
George. And what’s even worse than being an intellectual, I am a schoolteacher. Schoolteachers are not only comic, they’re often cold and hungry in this richest land on Earth.
Rita. And thousands are quitting every year to take jobs that pay them a decent living.
George. That is unhappily true.
Rita. Then why not you?
George. Because I can’t think of myself doing anything else. What would happen, do you think, if we all quit? Who’d teach the kids? Who’d open their minds and hearts to the real glories of the human spirit, past and present? Who’d help them along to the future?
I suppose the impressionables of 1940s America have, for the most part, survived those radio days unscathed. Besides, the lessees of the airwaves awash with suds had learned to respond to the dirt on radio offered by its detractors by giving such criticism a good rinse and a clever spin. Sure, it got Fred Allen and fellow satirist Henry Morgan into trouble during the ’40s; but The Hucksters (shown here) had proven how profitable rants against radio could be. When “A Letter” was sent off by the renowned toilet soap promoters (having been delivered previously by the Camel-sponsored Screen Guild, without any references to the evil influences of radio), such attacks were as old hat as the consoles from which they occasionally sputtered.
By 1950, there was little need to suppress a memo critiquing what was becoming immaterial as its subject matter was being yanked from the broadcast schedules. Everyone was making eyes at television; and while Hollywood stars still flocked to the microphone to make a quick buck, the radio theater audience dwindled as Americans scraped together their savings for the set that would define our everyday in the second half of the 20th century. In a 21st-century update of the Letter, Rita Phipps would probably be designing interactive games or reality shows—the literature of today?