Seeing Jungle Red; or, Arthur Godfrey’s Sneeze

The Latvian National Opera had not yet reopened for the fall season. Little more could be said in our defense. Having enjoyed another organ concert in the Dome, followed by a Russian meal at Arbat, we once again made our way through the old town to pay a visit to the city’s Forum Cinemas, a multiplex boasting the largest screen in Northern Europe. By the end of our stay, we had pretty much exhausted its late-night offerings (the overrated Dark Knight, the enjoyably featherweight Mamma Mia, the horrific Midnight Meat Train featuring Lipstick Jungle’s Brooke Shields, the enchanting art house fantasy The Fall, and the daft but tolerable Get Smart). Not ready to head back to our hotel, situated none too conveniently in a remote spot of the run-down Russian quarter (seen above, beyond the cinema and the market, an area towered over by a block of bricks known as Stalin’s birthday cake), we decided to spend a few more Lats, the local currency, on . . . Disaster Movie.

Little did I know that what we were about to behold is now deemed the worst film ever made. Disaster Movie makes the average Saturday Night Live burlesque look like a penetrating commentary on the human condition. It is Airplane! operated by Alitalia. Bankrupt and ramshackle, it doesn’t just run on empty, it never gets off the ground into which it runs the genre. Without much hesitation, I added my lone star to the IMDb jury’s near unanimous verdict. Having paid to watch, I can hardly lay claim to standards. And yet, I am determined not to throw money at The Women, the long-in-the-works remake of the Cukor classic, a so-called update starring (if you can call it that) a line of Hollywood A-list dropouts including Annette Bening and Meg Ryan. Who, I ask, is content to substitute the nail-polished treat of a lifetime for what looks like a Lifetime treatment of same?

On this day, 21 September, in 1939, radio personality Arthur Godfrey was called upon to promote the original on the Sun Dial, a morning program originating from the studios of WJSV in Washington, DC. The at that time not so “Old Redhead” alerted listeners to a midnight screening of The Women. And “how about the women treating the men to this show?” Godfrey dutifully added. Glancing at the advertising copy before him, the antemeridian plate spinner continued in a drone suggesting somnolence and stupefaction:

It says, talking about style: wait till you see that gorgeous $250 nightgown that is part of the Technicolor fashion show in that new picture The Women. Fancy that, paying $250 for a nightie [. . .]. Mine costs a dollar and a half, and I bet I sleep better than she does, I bet you. [Chuckle]. Well, anyway, MGM has screened Clare Boothe’s malicious, delicious play that’s a riot of revelations about our own sex. You know, men is what I’m talking, men. Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell head a 100 percent female cast.

That historic lineup was hardly anything to sneeze at. Yet Godfrey did just that—letting out what is a rare enough sound in radio. Perhaps he was allergic to women’s pictures or rebelling at the thought of touting what did not match his persona; perhaps it was merely the effect of sleeping in that five-and-dime nightgown, a garment out of which many of those tuning in on that Thursday morning were jumping at what was the most surprising and lively sound in Godfrey’s lazy chatter. Coincidence or commentary, what a time for a sneeze!

After all, Godfrey told listeners that he had a “hunch” he was being recorded. Indeed, he was. The 21 September 1939 broadcast emanating from or transmitted by CBS affiliate WJSV has been preserved in its entirety, providing today’s listener with the opportunity to experience the pastime of a past generation, from serial dramas like the Angelus Lipstick-sponsored Romance of Helen Trent (aforementioned) to news presented by the recently departed George Putnam.

No matter how nonchalant, Godfrey was aware that his words were being captured for posterity. As pop-cultural waste like Disaster Movie drives home, such knowledge does not translate into an effort to deliver memorable performances. Fast cash is more practical than lasting fame. Meanwhile, if another take on The Women is your fancy, stay put for Jack Benny’s 5 November 1939 send-up or listen to Tallulah Bankhead’s 7 December 1950 portrayal of Sylvia Fowler on The Big Show. Instead of settling for a bromide, you might as well “put some gin in it.” It’s a little trick I learned from the Countess De Lave.

4 Replies to “Seeing Jungle Red; or, Arthur Godfrey’s Sneeze”

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