You’ve Got Mail, Herr Hitler

As of this writing, various episodes of The Shadow have been extracted some four-hundred thousand times from that vast, virtual repository of culture known, no, not as YouTube, but as the Internet Archive. This seems encouraging. At least, the most famous of all radio thrillers is still being remembered or rediscovered today, in part due, no doubt, to the misguided efforts of bringing Lamont Cranston back to the screen that cannot contain or render him. It is rather disheartening, though, that what is being so widely regarded as classic radio, perhaps even representational of American culture, is not the kind of non-matter likely to induce anyone to consider the aural arts as . . . art. Sure, The Shadow has provided material for quite a few cultural studies, including this journal, and no history of popular entertainment in the United States ought to be called comprehensive, let alone complete, without at least a mention of this conceptually inspired if at times dramatically insipid neo-gothic phenomenon. Still, an injustice is done to a generation that had more on its mind and in its ears than vicarious thrills.

Few who rummage for old-time radio in the Archive appear to have been sufficiently intrigued by an item curiously labeled Dear Adolf. I, for one, was excited to find it there, having read the published scripts and discussed them in my dissertation without having come across those recordings. I argued against reading in lieu of listening; but, in the case of Dear Adolf, it would have been a mistake not to make a compromise and consider what I deem ersatz for ear play. The series, after all, was written by the aforementioned Stephen Vincent Benét, a once highly regarded American poet who has long fallen out of fashion. While it did not do much damage to the name of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the writing of radio propaganda may have discredited Benét, along with his insistence on telling stories or retelling history, rather than being lyrical, experimental, or elitist.

Dear Adolf is unjustly neglected by those who enjoy such ready access to recordings from radio’s so-called golden age. The six-part program, tossed into the hole left by shows on summer hiatus back in 1942, was commissioned by the Council of Democracy and designed to turn detached listeners into active contributors to the war effort. As the title suggests, Dear Adolf was a proposed as a series of open letters to the enemy, written, we are to imagine with the help of seasoned performers from stage, screen, and radio, by ordinary Americans seizing a rare opportunity to communicate their fears, their hatred, and their defiance to the German dictator.

On this day, 12 July, in 1942, it was Helen Hayes’s task to portray an American “Housewife and Mother.” Well known to millions of listeners, the previously featured Hayes was one of the few theater actresses to embrace radio early on, if mainly, by her own admission, to be able to devote more time to her family and her rose garden. The war suggested more urgent reasons for stepping behind the microphone, and the airwaves became a passage through which playwrights, poets, and performing artists could exit their ivory retreats and present themselves to the broader public for a cause worth the tempering of high art with an appeal to the lowest common denominator—the need for a clear image of what America stood for and was up against during a war whose objectives, it seems surprising today, were not appreciated or understood by a great many of its citizens. Their support—their money—was needed to provide the funds for a war of uncertain duration and, initially at least, less certain success.

Without becoming an outright fascist tool in a democratic society, radio needed to function as a unifier. In doing so, it had to address and engage a populace rather than assuming it to be homogenous. As I pointed out in my study, “Letter from a Housewife and Mother” is particularly interesting in this respect. Playing the part of a homemaker and part-time First Aid instructor, Hayes is meant to be—and her character insists on being—representative of free women everywhere. Rarely questioned, much less contested, in network radio, her white voice is being countered by that of a black woman, who protests:

Free women? What of me?
What of my millions and my ancient wrong?
What of my people, bowed in darkness still?

Despite her awareness that the enemy would further drive her people back to the “old slavery of whip and chains,” the speaker expresses her disillusionment with American democracy:

And yet, even today, we find no place
Even in war, for much that we could do
And would do for—our country.

However manipulative in its attempt to calm such unrest, the play is remarkable for its acknowledgment of such dissatisfaction with the status quo among those who felt themselves to be disenfranchised. It is a rare moment in American radio drama, far removed from the popular exploits of Amos ‘n’ Andy, which depended for its success on the general acceptance of conditions it refused to problematize. Minds not clouded by crowd-pleasing commercial fare like The Shadow might appreciate Dear Adolf as an experiment in leveling with the marginalized rather than assuming or declaring their differences leveled. While in the business of pleasing everybody, radio did not always reduce difference to the aural stereotypes of regional and ethnic accents.

4 Replies to “You’ve Got Mail, Herr Hitler”

  1. My Son John (1952) sounds pretty awful. I had not realized just how long it would take Hayes to return to pictures after a slew of films in the early to mid-1930s. This piece, apparently, is transitional; but on radio, the mature Hayes was not altogether typecast.

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