Radio at the Movies: Manslaughter (1922)

Radio was little more than a craze back in 1922; but the radio and the microphone were already prominently featured in Cecil B. DeMille’s Manslaughter, released in September 1922, some ten months after US Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover declared the medium to be useless for point-to-point communication, thereby paving the way for broadcasting while leaving hobbyists in the dust of centralized, scheduled entertainment and the big business it was meant to promote. That same year, comedian Ed Wynn made his first foray into radio, the first drama presentation went on the air, and the first commercial went out to anyone equipped with headphones and crystal sets.

The reception was often poor; and critics were not enthusiastic either. One commentator, having just witnessed one of those early broadcast, remarked:

[W]e prefer to stumble downstairs and out again into the silent lanes to meditate on the civilization of 1930, when there will be only one orchestra left on earth, giving nightly world-wide concerts; when all the universities will be combined into one super-institution conducting courses by radio for students in Zanzibar, Kamchatka and Oskaloosa; when instead of newspapers, trained orators will dictate the news of the world day and night, and the bed-time story will be told every evening from Paris to the sleepy children of a weary world; when every person will be instantly accessible day or night to all the bores he knows, and will know them all; when the last vestiges of privacy, solitude and contemplation will have vanished into limbo.

It took a few decades longer for wireless technology to achieve what the reviewer predicted to happen by 1930; but it would not have surprised me if broadcasting had received a similarly unfavorable treatment in one of DeMille’s epics, in which the vices of modern society were frequently likened to the debaucheries of Rome in its fall. Not so.

Manslaughter, as told by DeMille, is a story of redemption in which both Lydia Thorne, the “speed-mad” socialite justly accused of the titular crime and Daniel O’Bannon, the principled District Attorney who sees to it that she pays for same are suffering the consequences of their actions. Rather inexplicably, O’Bannon has fallen in love with the selfish woman he is sending to jail, presumably because he can see her potential for good even though he accepts the duty of showing everyone how bad she really is.

Ultimately, the two are brought back together through the melodramatic expediency of fate and, having confessed everything else, confess their love. She has paid her dues to society and is thoroughly reformed; he has overcome self-destruction and despair. After all, this is a C. B. DeMille picture.

Before the lovers can run off together, the romance is delayed once more by an important announcement. This is where the radio comes in. O’Bannon has decided to run for governor; but one of his rivals for the hand of Lydia Thorne reminds him that she is a convicted criminal and won’t do as the wife of an elected official. Instead of being denounced and exposed by radio, in place to keep the public abreast of election results, O’Bannon grabs the microphone to broadcast a very personal decision.

It seems that DeMille was courting the new medium to prepare for his role as host and ostensible producer of the Lux Radio Theater, for which the story was adapted in 1938, with Fredric March reprising the role of O’Bannon he had played opposite Claudette Colbert, DeMille’s favorite leading lady, in the remake shot in the year so dreaded by the reviewer of that early broadcast back in 1922. Herbert Hoover’s comments notwithstanding, in DeMille’s Manslaughter, the radio is still very much a communication device. O’Bannon broadcasts unannounced and unrehearsed, just as he makes up his mind about Lydia Thorne. Unlike motorcars and their freewheeling owners, radio was fast without being loose.

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