Back in the X Factory; or, the Legacy of Major Bowes

Major Bowes in a contemporary publicity photo

Today marked the beginning of the second season of The X Factor on ITV1. It had pathos, it had romance, and it had its fair share of wackiness—just like Major Bowes’s Original Amateur Hour. The Major, pictured left in his lavish New Jersey home, was the first talent scout to enter broadcasting, to captivate and to make millions. According to radio historian John Dunning, the “rise of Major Edward Bowes in the summer and fall of 1934 led to a national rage of frantic and sometimes tragic proportions.” It offered hope to many a poor laborer and fueled the delusions of many a talentless wretch.

To get on Bowes’s programs, contestants were known to have sold their homes and hitchhiked to the studios of the Columbia Broadcasting System in New York City. Back in 1935, Bowes’s program attracted up to 10,000 amateurs a month, of which about 25% could audition each week.   Of these 500 to 700 hopefuls, twenty were chosen to perform on the Major’s weekly broadcasts, a ratio of rejection that, during the Great Depression, caused hundreds of homeless rejects to apply for shelter in the Big Apple.

The X Factor does not come close to such real life drama, of course—drama, that, back then, was not part of the program, but the harsh reality behind the scenes.  Still there were poignant moments of blind ambition on tonight’s X Factor premiere, snapshots that told of shattered dreams, thwarted ambitions, and years of therapy.  How dairy farmer Justin, who returned as drag queen Justine to win over the flabbergasted judges, got through the audition process must be attributed to the producers’ desire to stir up controversy and keep reality-show fatigued audiences watching and voting.

Simon Cowell may have claimed to be in search of someone “normal” this time around, but the producers certainly seem to be after amateurs with the F factor—freaks to be gawked at, fools to be ridiculed, and frumps to be pitied.  The Major, who cut off performers with his gong, was accused of setting up contestants for ridicule as well, even though he denied such charges.  Then as now, the audience went for the joy ride and flocked to the public beheading of swellheaded nobodies and self-awareness lacking airheads.

The major auditioned all sorts of wannabes, such as jugglers, tap dancers, and mimes—which, to be sure, did not make for the best in aural entertainment. On The X Factor, the moves, the make-up, and the general stage presence is all part of the act, to be appreciated or, if wanting in quality, deplored by those tuning in.  As in the case of 16-year-old Trevor, appearances and voice might be at odds, leaving viewers to decide whether vocal cords really matter more than personas in today’s celebrity business. 

Once the audition clip shows are over, contestants will be given a chance to call in their votes.  The Amateur Hour was interactive as well. Each week the program aired, an American town was chosen as a so-called “honor city,” which made its citizens eligible to cast their votes along with the NYC audience. Votes were phoned in or submitted in writing.

As is the case for programs like American Idol today, talent was later sent on tour across the country.   Yet whereas today’s instant celebrities are given the opportunity to make a fortune, the Amateur Hour, which made Major Bowes a millionaire, at best secured found talent a salary of $100 per week.

Today, even the William Hongs among the contestants get lavished with record contracts. Don’t remember William Hong? Well, I guess his 15 minutes of infamy were up last fall.  The main question for me as I tune in to The X Factor is whether there will be another Rowetta.  Don’t remember her either? Major Bowes’s gong sure is beaten faster these days.

Spotting “The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek”; or, The Free Company We Didn’t Keep

My headphones have been buried so deeply in the sands of time that I have only recently begun to pay attention to the mission of Cindy Sheehan, to the anti-war movement she seems to have reinvigorated, and to the controversy she is stirring by insisting on talking to the US president at his ranch down in Texas. The American home front is showing signs of battle fatigue. Well, perhaps the phrase “home front,” so commonly used during World War II, is inappropriate these days, considering the lack of universal support the Iraq-centered war on terror has been receiving.

Expressions of frustration, confusion, and anger seem to become more forceful and frequent as, after years of fighting, both the end of the war and the ends of it remain uncertain. Is it illusory or perhaps even misguided to hope for a voice of reason to unite the masses, a voice not strident yet unequivocal, not irate but assertive, not jingoistic but inspirational? Radio once seemed to have given nations such a voice, but was often in danger of becoming the medium of fascism.

Unlike those who go indifferently about their business while being mute beneficiaries of democratic freedoms, few protesters would deny that American ideals are worth fighting for in words and actions; indeed, people like Sheehan, a mother who lost her son in combat, are fighting for the realization of such ideals by insisting on publicly voicing their concerns, concerns that by now are shared even by many of those responsible for the reelection of the US president in 2004.

The question on the minds of many Americans and their allies today is, of course, whether the war in Iraq has in any constructive way contribute to the defense of their freedoms or whether it might not have further endangered them either directly (through increasing acts of global terrorism) or indirectly (through anti-terrorist measures curtailing civil liberties).

It is a mistake to assume, however, that, in 1942, US citizens were any more united about going to war then they are now, or that they had a clearer understanding of the stakes and aims of such an enterprise. As I learned from Gerd Horten’s book Radio Goes to War, a government survey revealed that half of those questioned just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor were not even sure what the war was about. Many had been convinced to embrace an isolationist position. Media tycoon Randolph Hearst was one of the most influential figures to warn Americans that war was bad because it was not good for business. And radio was big business.

Back then, noted American playwrights, journalists, and novelists spoke up against isolationist—that is anti-war—propaganda, reminding citizens that inertia could mean surrender to fascism, that there are nearly as many wrong reasons for not going to war than they are for engaging in it. One such group of artists who set out to inspire the American public in the months prior to Pearl Harbor was the Free Company, a “group of leading writers, actors and radio workers who had “come together voluntarily to express their faith in American democracy.” They were “unpaid, unsponsored and uncontrolled. Just a group of Americans saying what they [thought] about [America] and about freedom.” And they chose a commerce-driven medium like radio to bring their point across.

As Burgess Meredith told the radio audience of Marc Connelly’s play “The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek”: “Our freedom [ . . . ] has this meaning . . . that here, in our land, the truth may be taught, always.” He urged Americans to “resist all attempt to suppress truth or to distort it. Let us consider again,” he continued,

the most powerful words ever spoken against the enemies of man—the lightning-charged words of Lincoln at Gettysburg. And let us renew, in this threatening hour, his high resolve that the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Could a group like the Free Company—which consisted of Pulitzer Prize winners including Maxwell Anderson, Archibald MacLeish, Stephen Vincent Benét, Marc Connelly, and Paul Green—unite for a series of radio (or television) broadcasts today to unite a largely disillusioned people divided by confusion and cynicism, a people more eager to expose the mole on Lincoln’s cheek than to conceal it? Would they deem a continuation of the present war unjustifiable or argue a withdrawal from Iraq to be a surrender to terrorism? And just how open would a skeptical public be to any effort to “resist all attempts to suppress truth or to distort it,” how willing to accept any attempts to achieve a consensus?

Valentine Vox Pop; or, Revisiting the Un-Classics

It has come to my ears, from the lips of someone whose words matter much to me, that my recent journal entries were rather too disdainful of British culture, too shrill in my complaints about the poverty of television programming enjoyable to me or the media’s lack of regard for the old movies I cherish. Having studied British literature and culture of the 19th century, I have been dwelling here in spirit long before migrating; and whenever I travel in Britain, which I do quite frequently now, I find reminders of novels I read, films I have seen, and pieces of history I have studied and half forgotten. It might be, however, that by not engaging enough with 20th or 21st-century British culture as it surrounds me, I am having rather too much of a hankering after things made in or originating from the US. Am I being nostalgic after all?

Nostalgia. There are few words in the dictionary that offend me more. To be pining for the unattainable and imaginary seems to me such a waste of time. I’d much rather go after what is and make it my own, no matter how remote in time or culture it might be. So, I am forever in search of the old to be made present by wondering and writing about it.

The other night I recorded a British adaptation of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers after happening upon Bad Movies, a spot close on the dial and in spirit to the Horror Channel. When I discovered this satellite outpost not mapped by the Radio Times, I was treated to George Coulouris slumming it in a British cheapy titled Woman Eater (1959). A far cry from his days with Welles’s Mercury Players, to be sure; yet what a treasury of cultural trash.

So, a revision of my attitude toward the supposedly barren box is in order. It is a mistake to assume that “old” is a synonym for “classic.” A classic is merely something that happens to have survived or is revived in a later period. This is not simply a matter of quality, but depends on our ability and willingness to keep a certain work of art alive.

There are a great many agendas underlying such promotions. My only agenda is to give an old work some time to speak to me—and then to talk back. I am not particularly interested in arguing that a certain book or film or radio play ought to be considered a classic, even though this would greatly enhance its chances of becoming more readily available and appreciated by my contemporaries. To resist the label “classic” means to challenge the canon, to insist on giving neglected works another chance to work on and for us, of allowing them to tell us something about culture, about lives present and past, and about ourselves.

A fine example of a cultural product that is Victorian without being classic is the once hugely popular novel The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist by Henry Cockton. It came to my attention during my doctoral studies, since it deals with the phenomenon of ventriloquism, a kind of pre-microphonic broadcasting in the flesh . . . and out of it.

Throwing a voice, disembodying, and finally re-embodying it, is ancient-time radio drama, and Cockton’s eponymous hero is an expert at amusing himself casting his voice broadly and confounding his listeners. He is both Edgar Bergen and Lamont Cranston—irreverent, mischievous, and eager to expose the follies and evils of the world he inhabits. Here, in a typical scene of Valentine’s exploits, Cockton comments on the wonders of sound effects, on the thrills exploited by later radio terrorists like the men and women behind Lights Out! and Inner Sanctum Mysteries:

“Ha! ha! ha!” cried Valentine [. . . ,] at melodramatic intervals throwing his voice [. . . ].  There is nothing in nature which startles men more than a noise for which they cannot account. However strongly strung may be their nerves: however slight may be the sound which they hear, if they cannot account for that sound, it at once chills their blood, and in spite of them, sets their imagination on the rack.

Cockton, too, is a ventriloquist. He uses Valentine to voice his own concerns about the legal system in Britain, a system that made it quite easy to do away with certain individuals by locking them up in lunatic asylums, a fate that befalls one of Valentine’s friends. “During the progress of this work,” Cockton claims in his Postscript, that a number of “influential journalists” objected to the “essentially humorous” treatment of the subject.  However, the author, thought otherwise, arguing

that to embellish fact with fiction would be to render truth more attractive; that, by surrounding those revolting scenes with scenes of harmless playfulness and gaiety, the contrast would be more striking, would take deeper root, and yield more extensive sympathy; that where dozens only would know of the existence of the evil if treated in a less popular style, thousands would become cognizant of it, and would exclaim, with feelings of horror, “Can such things be!”—that those thousands would ascertain if such a system were in existence, and, having satisfied themselves on this point, they would denounce it from one end of the kingdom to the other; the effect of which would be all-powerful, seeing that, in its sublime love of Justice and of Truth, the Voice of the People is indeed the Voice of God.

This might well have been a justification for a work of fiction at time frivolous and, on the whole, thoroughly commercial; yet Cockton’s bathetic piece of marketable propaganda is nonetheless worth revisiting. Aside from the to me intriguing connections to broadcasting, Valentine Vox reverberates strongly today as it deals with the endangerment of privacy, liberty, and identity as we sense it at the present time. There are many rewards in digging up something decidedly un-Classic.

“God and Uranium”: Corwin, VJ Day, and the Disorientation of American Culture

Today, August 14, marks the 60th anniversary of VJ Day—the supposedly glorious day ending the second World War, a day of triumph in the wake of terror and devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On US radio, poet-journalist Norman Corwin commemorated the event with this hastily composed script:

Congratulations for being alive and listening. 

Millions didn’t make it. They died before their time, and they are gone and gone, for the Fascists got them. . . .  

Fire a cannon to their memory!

[Cannon.] 

God and uranium were on our side.

And the wrath of the atom fell like a commandment, 

And the very planet quivered with implications. 

Tokyo Rose was hung over from the news next day 

And the Emperor, he of the august stupid face, prayed to himself for succor. 

Sound the gun for Achilles the Atom and the war workers: Newton and Galileo, Curie and Einstein, the Archangel Gabriel, and the community of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Jubilantly joining the concept of God and the reality of uranium as if blessing the killing of thousands of civilians by the US and their allies, the celebratory broadcast titled “14 August”—expanded and rebroadcast five days later as “God and Uranium”—is one of Corwin’s few artistic misfires; insensitive, smug, and crudely patriotic in its derision of the “stupid”-looking emperor and his nuked subjects.

Did Americans really need to commemorate the dead by “[s]ound[ing] the gun,” by firing yet another cannon? After all, it was US weaponry, not “the Fascist,” that “got them” over in Japan. Unlike the subdued “On a Note of Triumph,” “God and Uranium” is an unquestioning sanction of total warfare, of nuclear means justifying the end—the end of a culture: “The Jap who never lost a war has lost a world: learning, / This too is worth a cheer.”

The “very planet quivered with implications,” all right, but the broadcast does not acknowledge the potentially terrible consequences of nuclear armament. These days, the implications continue to make themselves felt as more and more nations join the “community of Oak Ridge, Tennessee” and aspire to becoming atomic superpowers.

Instead, rather too sure about a peaceful future, Corwin’s salute to the victors asserts that the “peoples have come a long way since the time of Cain.” He claims that, “[e]ffective 15 August, peace, its care and handling, becomes our ward.” It appears that the US still fancies itself to be such a “ward,” imposing its views onto the world, jeopardizing the lives of thousands of civilians in a quest for a Western-centric conception of peace.

“14 August” was “written overnight, alas,” Corwin remarked somewhat apologetically shortly after the war; it was a project he did not want to accept at the time. A mere two and a half months later, on October 29, 1945, he offered far more sobering reflections of atomic power with “Set Your Clock at U235,” a broadcast that contributed to the appearance of his name in Red Channels:

Now we are in it together:

The rich with their automatic comforts, and the family bunkering seven in a room. 

The highly trained, who understand the poems and the engines; and those whose culture measures five hundred words 

across the middle: Old people tired of wars and winters, and children who do not yet know they are made of matter: 

The famous face in four colors, nationalized on the cover of the magazine; and the crowd face, the background face, gray, nameless, out of focus: 

Now we are in it, in it together.

The secrets of the earth have been peeled, one by one, until the core is bare:

The latest recipe is private, in a guarded book, but the stink of death is public on the wind from Nagasaki: 

The nations have heard of the fission of the atom and have seen the photographs: skies aboil with interlocking fury, mushrooms of uranium smoke ascending to where angels patrol uneasily.

As if coming to his senses after having toasted victory rather too shrilly, Corwin encouraged listeners to “reset the clock.” No longer was 15 August proposed as a ringing in of peace, but as the beginning of a new age of terror. As such it now behooves us to consider the legacy of VJ Day—the ticking of the atomic clock, the spiral of retaliatory actions, and the fallacy that a war well waged could end all wars. 

After all, we are still “in it together. . . .”

Hope on the Bottom Shelf; or, What to Do When the Cable Box Seems Barren

Moving to the UK from the movie junkie heaven that is New York City meant having to find new ways of getting my cinematic fix. Gone are the nights of pre-code delights at the Film Forum; no more silent film matinees at the MoMA (which is just concluding a Gregory La Cava retrospective); and no more browsing at J&R Music World—and all just a cab ride away. And yet, judging by who is posting reviews at IMDb, it becomes obvious that cineastes are not exclusively city dwellers (a review of the rarely screened talkie The Hole in the Wall may serve as a case in point). Just don’t count on UK television.

The commercial-free BBC 2 has proven the most reliable source of classic Hollywood fare, even though the screenings of old movies are generally relegated to the after-hours or late-morning time slots. There have been a number of pleasant surprises, such as a Val Lewton series (including the literate horror of The Dead Ship), the film adaptation of the Suspense radio drama “To Find Help” (reworked, not altogether successfully, as Beware, My Lovely) and several Claudette Colbert films (including Texas Lady, which I had never seen in the US).

Silent movies are unheard of, however; nor do pre-1940s films get much airtime (the team efforts of Astaire/Rogers and Laurel/Hardy being a notable exception). Still, this beats the advertisement-riddled offerings at TCM Britain, whose one-shelf library even infrequent viewers are likely to exhaust within a few months.

Since I am not an online shopper and still enjoy hunting trips per pedes, I have been checking out the DVD sections of the major music/video retailers here in the UK. Virgin is least attractive, stocking mainly recent titles at largely unacceptable prices. It is little more than a snazzy second-run theater where all the so-called blockbusters are dumped and repackaged as soon as they are pulled from the movie houses. Rather better are HMV and MVC. With some luck, DVDs of classics like All About Eve, Sunset Blvd., or The Third Man can be had for under £10, while lesser-known titles may be spotted (and left behind) sporting higher price tags bespeaking their exclusivity. At HMV, for instance, Tod Browning’s Freaks bears the label “An HMV Exclusive.”

And then there is FOPP. A smarter store with a larger number of classic or literary films, it boasts £5 and £7 DVD shelves. It’s a good place to set out from for anyone interested in setting up a library of essential Hollywood films. Many Hitchcock features can be had here for £5, and most DVDs are authorized studio releases, rather than the cheap transfers that end up in supermarket bargain bins. These copies are so washed out that it often difficult to distinguish the features of the players; even the rugged male leads seem to be getting the Doris Day treatment, as if shot through layers of gauze. The problem is exacerbated if the DVD image is projected onto a screen, as I am wont to enjoy my movies whenever possible.

Well, to FOPP I went last weekend; and, once again, hope lay on the bottom shelf: a copy of G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. So, tonight is going to be spent looking at Lulu, our decidedly other Miss Brooks.

Lost Issue: US Television, Elsewhere

A really old issue of Radio Times

Yesterday, at the local supermarket, a line on the cover of Radio Times caught my eye: “The new Desperate Housewives is here!” Since Housewives was the last—come to think of it, the only—dramatic series I had been following since moving here to Britain from the US, I was sufficiently intrigued to do a double-take. Yes, that’s what it said. Then I scratched my head in momentary puzzlement: A new season already, I thought, how could that be? As it turns out (and I tend to read carelessly at times) the line referred to the series Lost, which is being touted, somewhat misleadingly, as the newest US ratings champ in search of a British audience.

Lost, indeed! That show had its US premiere in September 2004. What took Channel 4 so long to land it? This might have meant smooth sailing in the days of Gilligan’s Island; but in an age of online piracy and file sharing, when motion pictures are tossed into the market in near-global simultaneity to counter ticket sales erosion, eleven months at sea seems a dangerously prolonged journey. It’s already been regurgitated on the web and neatly logged for me over at TV.com. So, why hop aboard now?

I grew up with second-hand culture. A TV-crazed kid in my native Germany, I very rarely watched any locally produced programs. Cartoons aside, my earliest memories include watching Hoppla Lucy (Here’s Lucy), Familie Feuerstein (The Flintstones), Lieber Onkel Bill (Family Affair) Die Bezaubernde Jeannie (I Dream of Jeannie), Raumschiff Enterprise (Star Trek), and, somewhat later, Drei Jungen und drei Mädchen (The Brady Bunch). All shows were dubbed, of course, but the production values—the home of the Bradys alone—told me that these shows had not been thrown together in my backyard. Although the Bradys were notoriously unfashionable, I took these hand-me-downs gladly.

That didn’t change much during the shoulder-pads decade, when Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter vamped herself to the top of the ratings in Denver Clan (as Dynasty was known in Germany). What did change was that I began to realize I was looking at preserved goods not quite as fresh as they were advertised to me (no, I’m not talking Joan Collins here). The tabloids were already giving away plot developments and cast changes for the months to come and what was left for me to do was to speculate just how the convoluted storylines would end up where I knew they would eventually go.

Melodrama thrives on foreshadowing and you-know-it’s-coming signposting; but these inside scoops were no markers woven into the fabric of the plot. It was almost like watching Psycho after reading Truffaut’s seminal Hitchcock interview—it was impossible for me really to see it for the first time. The experience was second-hand and I was almost forced to be distant and analytic in my reading, rather than engrossed. The feeling that I was untouched by something millions elsewhere had reveled in began to irk me.

Watching US television in the US, I experienced a sense of sharing, of participating in broadcasting events as they were unfolded to the public, even though the fictions I followed were no longer televised live. Now, I once again get the impression that I’m being dealt seconds. Pouting, I decided that, next week, when Lost comes along I’m not going to stand on the pier to watch this inaugural-seasoned vessel dock or sink.

So, when I got home from the market, I put aside the Radio Times, picked up a DVD, and settled down to watch The Shanghai Cobra from my Charlie Chan collection. Old hat and third rate, to be sure, but at least it wasn’t peddled to me as dernier cri.

The Caterpillar and the Butterfly: Fantasy Metamorphosed, from Corwin’s “Curley” to Burton’s “Charlie”

When I dipped my toe into the cool Irish Sea yesterday afternoon, I thought to myself “How detached I am from the enveloping present, how remote from the surrounding world.” Sure, I dip into the currents of culture now and again, but little of what is current seems to have any grip on me. I just shake my mind like that wet toe and retreat. Not that the beach was any more comforting for being terra firma. I was chilled by a feeling of rootlessness, intensified, no doubt, by my relatively recent transplantation to the west of Britain. And yet, here I am, nowhere and anywhere, tending to my journal. Well, according to Technorati, there is one born every second.

Not permitting myself to become wistful, I slipped into the darkness of a movie theater to take on the latter-day mongrel that is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  What a reassuring experience it turned out to be. Once again, I know where I am—and why I am there and loving it. The “there,” of course, is nothing but the sanctuary of my confirmed biases.

Tim Burton’s re-adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 story is a mongrel indeed. It is a cautionary tale for children playing itself out as a computer game. Curb your greed, your arrogance, and your precociousness, it tells children, or you will suffer the fate of obnoxious brats like Augustus, Violet, Veruca and Mike. Obey your elders, even a deranged manchild like Willy Wonka, and your humility will be amply rewarded. The eponymous kid is too much of a goody-two-shoes to make a compelling hero (and, given the lesson learned by Wonka himself, retaining the title of the 1971 adaptation would have made more sense).

The trouble with Charlie is not its muddled message about innocence and purity, however; it is that, in its now treacly, now quirky delivery, in its very conception, there is too much of Augustus Gloop and Mike Teavee to render it sincere.  Charlie is a self-conscious if diverting botch. It is eye candy with a cavity built in; it is at once a celebration and a negation of fantasy. Does not Dahl’s description of Augustus Gloop sound like a critique of Hollywood blockbusters, of the spirit of Disneyfication? Listen:

How long could we allow this beast

To gorge and guzzle, feed and feast

On everything he wanted to?

Great Scott! It simply wouldn’t do!

However long this pig might live,

We’re positive he’d never give

Even the smallest bit of fun

Or happiness to anyone.

So what we do in cases such

As this, we use the gentle touch,

And carefully we take the brat

And turn him into something that

Will give great pleasure to us all . . .

It is telling that Burton’s movie very nearly drowns out these words in its lavish production numbers. In time it will metamorphose into DVDs and computer games, into the videodorous playthings of Mike Teavee. Conveying the warning about being a guy like Burton’s movie once again drowns the message by dreamcoating it in Technicolor:

The most important thing we’ve learned,


So far as children are concerned,


Is never, NEVER, NEVER let


Them near your television set—


Or better still, just don’t install


The idiotic thing at all.

In almost every house we’ve been,


We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.


They loll and slop and lounge about,


And stare until their eyes pop out.


(Last week in someone’s place we saw


A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)


They sit and stare and stare and sit


Until they’re hypnotised by it,


Until they’re absolutely drunk


With all the shocking ghastly junk. . . .



IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD!


IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!


IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!


IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND


HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND


A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!


HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!


HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!


HE CANNOT THINK–HE ONLY SEES!

And what else, other than reading, “used the darling ones to do?” in the days “[b]efore this monster was invented?” Well (you may have guessed it, coming from me), they listened to the radio, that forgotten generator and amplifier of fantasy. Long before colorful butterflies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory dazzled kids with a flutter of images, there was “My Client Curley,” Norman Corwin’s madcap adventures of a boy, Stinky, and his dancing caterpillar.

Stinky has to learn what Charlie seems to know and Burton doesn’t quite remember: money talks so loudly at times, it threatens to mute happiness and muffle the imagination. Unlike Burton, who clutters his film with pointless references to popular culture (Busby Berkeley, Psycho, the Beatles), Corwin offers a poignant mass media satire, of a world of commerce, sensationalism, and mediocracy.

Throughout it all, the dancing caterpillar comes vividly alive without uttering nary a syllable. There he is, in all his terpsichorean splendor. I’m there, too, knowing why I love old-time radio. Not because it is past, but precisely because it is present whenever I put my mind to it. So, to appropriate Dahl’s words for a plea for the theater of the mind, “please, oh please, we beg, we pray, / Go throw your TV set away, / And in its place you can install /A lovely [radio] on the wall.” Well, okay, keep the TV—but do give Corwin’s “My Client Curley” a try.

In Bed With Orson; or, How I Got the Wandering Ear

Elsa Maxwell, Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles

What I didn’t get to tell in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral dissertation, is how I love to cuddle up with a good voice. Aside from being rather too intimate an aspect of my passion for old-time radio to be shared in an academic paper, the sensuality and sway of the human voice, regardless of the words it conveys—seemed to be decidedly beyond the boundaries of my vocabulary.

I am hardly one to shy away from lexical experimentation; but I felt that I could not approach the subject—the mystique—of the vocal with the clarity and precision I aim for in all my linguistic playfulness. How, for example, could I describe the lush, seductive performances of Ann Sothern (as Maisie) and Natalie Masters (as Candy Matson), the sinister melancholy and paroxysmal fury of Peter Lorre (on Mystery in the Air, for instance), or the tender, tattered quavering of Gertrude Berg (matriarch of The Goldbergs) as I listen to them burble, groan, hiss and whimper, as I hear them snarling at or whispering to me?

How could I intellectualize the suave and mannered cadences of Vincent Price as the Saint or the hammy bluster of Orson Welles as Harry Lime? Some passions are not to be explained, to be argued out of existence. They are to be reveled in, secretly, in the shelter of darkness.

There are many such pleasures to be had listening to recordings of US radio broadcasts of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, a period during which voices were trained for and attuned to the special demands of the microphone. For me, they can be found and felt when encountering a friendly and well-groomed speaking voice of an announcer like Harry Bartell; a distinguished, eloquent recital like Ronald Colman’s (as in his D-Day reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army”); a tough, noirish delivery like Joseph Cotton’s (on Suspense); an unsentimental everymanliness like Joe Julian’s (on Corwin’s An American in England); a glamorous, sultry purring like Marlene Dietrich’s (as the peripatetic adventuress of Time for Love), Ilona Massey’s (as a spy-catching baroness in Top Secret) or Tallulah Bankhead’s (in her memorable role as hostess of the Big Show); a warm, avuncular drone like Nigel Bruce’s (as Sherlock Holmes sidekick and narrator Doctor Watson), a smart and charming lilt like Claudette Colbert’s (frequently heard on the Lux Radio Theater; above, in bed with Welles and etiquette maven Elsa Maxwell) or a queer pomposity like Monty Woolley’s (in his role as the Magnificent Montague).

Quite often, these voices had to convey lines better left unspoken, words unworthy of the actor’s talent. Yet through the magic of timbre and intonation, gifted performers could imbue almost any line with feeling, subtlety, or sly innuendo. And I’m not even talking about the suggestive reading Mae West lent to her characterization of Eve that got her banned from the airwaves. Last night I went to bed with Dane Clark. I didn’t quite get through his performance of John Andrews in a NBC University Theater production of John Dos Passos’s “Three Soldiers,” but his voice still lingers in my mind’s ear this morning.

Ever since I got my first radio, as a child, I have gone in search of voices, soothing, thrilling, enticing. I was eavesdropping on a hidden realm the passage to which was the canal of an eager ear pressed close against the speaker. It was my keyhole to the world about which I knew yet little, a world to which I did not yet belong. It was a levitating grown-up table, an off-limits chamber made of air and furnished by my imagination. Today, these disembodied voices come to me mainly by invitation. Whom, I wonder, am I going to take upstairs with me tonight?

The Eyes Have It: A Case of Overruled Aurality

Mary Pickford, from silent screen to radio

Eye or ear—which sense organ do you value more? Which one would you more willingly relinquish? Do we rate or trust our perceptions according to a hierarchy of the senses? I frequently ask myself these questions as I lie there listening in the dark, as I set out to get lost in an imaginary landscape only to switch on the light once more in order to return to what is real and to focus my mind’s eye on the screen of my computer. Ours is such a visually conceived, mapped, and organized world—a world demanding and indeed dependent on “ocular proof”—that I gather most of us would rather part with our hearing than with our sight.

Our lexicon provides clear signs of how we “see” ourselves and “look” at our world; it makes plain, “at a glance,” that we have more “regard” for the icon than for the echo. We say “I hear you” when, in commiseration, we find a mirror image of our thoughts in the words of another; we say “I see what you mean” to signal that we have gained understanding, to show that we have gleaned “insight” from such communications. The ear merely confirms what the eye alone can truly demonstrate; and the ability to see clearly is of such significance to us that we tend to believe that a picture is worth more than a thousand words. Were the radio listeners of the pre-TV era—audiences in the true sense of the word—more likely to give up their eyes and to lend an ear?

To be sure, in the 1930s and ’40s, radio listening was America’s favorite pastime; according to one survey, more Americans were willing to forgo moviegoing and reading than go without their radios. The ways in which Hollywood attempted to catch up with or cash in on radio—after a decade of distrust, rivalry, and neglect—seem to attest to radio’s formerly central role in American culture.

The other night I was watching Look Who’s Laughing, a 1941 trifle starring a number of well-known radio players including ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, his puppet Charlie McCarthy, Jim and Marion Jordan (of Fibber McGee and Molly fame), Harold Peary (the Great Gildersleeve), as well as radio announcer Harlow Wilcox. Although carelessly tossed together, this production proved to be RKO’s most profitable production that year.

Radio personalities sure could sell a picture. And yet, rather than showing how powerful broadcasting was at the time, films like these suggest instead how dependent on visuals American audiences truly were. Not satisfied to imagine, they wanted images of the voices on the air. They bought radio magazines, flocked to studio broadcasts, and paid money to find on the big screen what the radio promised to deliver free of charge. Radio only delivered promises. It teased listeners with messages like “if you could only see us now” or “come and get it,” titillations ideally suited to commerce: to have means to behold.

Movies turned radio performers into stars or prevented former vaudevillians like Edgar Bergen from becoming invisible. Many movie stars (like Mary Pickford, above) stepped up to the microphone and were paid handsomely to address or perform for the masses. Radio—live entertainment for the living room—kept many an actor alive during the depression; but it was screen and press exposure that assured a larger-than-life star status. Hollywood’s supplementality, its ability to augment or substitute reality, to make us see and believe, tells us much about the tyranny of vision. Now excuse me while I close my eyes . . .

Anodyne Thrills, Abject Thraldom: Broadcasting “fear itself”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted in his 1933 inaugural speech. These days, as bombs are going off again in London (and, for that matter, in many other places east and west) and as people are being victimized both by terrorism and the measures taken to control it, this famous aphorism seems particularly poignant. What is to be feared, certainly, is the abject thraldom of fear, the suspicion it breeds, and the potential it has to quell the spirit of humanity, to diminish our ability to act within reason and with understanding. As is the case with all epigrams, however, FDR’s becomes shorter on wisdom the longer it is pondered.

What might this be, “fear itself”? Is fear not always a reaction, whether reasonable or not? As a response to stimuli or surroundings, it is neither to be feared in “itself” nor as part of our being. The avoidance of conditions potentially harmful to us is an instinct it would hardly behoove us to conquer in our efforts to become more civilized, less primal. I lived in New York City when the World Trade Center towers crumbled in a cloud of asbestos-filled dust. What impressed me most during the immediate aftermath was that those living in fear and trembling were reminded of their mortality, encouraged to examine their everyday lives in order to find ways of making themselves useful to others. Even heroes were publicly shedding tears.

While often admired, warriors who prefer fight over flight are often less civilized than the worriers who respond to threats by trying to avoid them or void them with circumspection. In any case, fear is hardly the “only thing” to be dreaded, no matter how dire the situation. Recklessness and heedless indifference of dangerous consequences beget more horrors than caution, awe, or diffidence. What is to be feared most, perhaps, is fearmongering—the deliberate provocation of fear, the manufacturing of fear for profit or political gain. The media are open, the masses vulnerable to such designs. Yet when the fears are real and not sensed keenly enough, imagined terror may assist in making true horrors apparent.

The 7 December 1941 broadcast of Inner Sanctum Mysteries‘s “Island of Death” suggests just slow the radio industry was to react to the terror that had finally hit home. The show, however inappropriate, had to go on, for the sake of the sponsors. The titular island is not, of course, Hawaii; but it is doubtful that either this “strange and terrible tale” of black magic or the sponsor’s product, “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” (the “best friend to your sunny disposition”) could do much to get people’s minds off the topic of the day or alleviate the anxieties the news—or lack thereof—must have produced.

The government could not afford radio drama to remain escapist. Within a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, fear became a weapon aimed at mobilizing the homefront. In Arch Oboler’s “Chicago, Germany,” for instance, listeners were confronted with the dystopia of an America annexed and governed by the Nazis. With nightmarish fantasies like these, the Treasury hoped to raise millions for defense.

It is too simplistic to argue that audiences then were more gullible or less sophisticated than today’s consumers of popular culture. Certainly, the 1940s, when millions of civilians perished or faced irreparable losses as the result of global warfare, were not “innocent” times, as those pining for nostalgia might opine. They were times of uncertainty like any “now” any time, times of suffering, hardship, and frustration—times during which those tired of threats or numbed by pain needed to be reminded that a present free from fear might bring about a future without freedom, that to stop fearing might well mean to stop living.

The weekly blood-and-thunder anthologies were deemed particularly suitable to the awakening of real terror through imaginary thrills. Underlying the tension of such melodramas, wrapped up neatly within less than 30 minutes, were the anxieties of war, which were often driven home with a final curtain call appeal. Even shortly before the end of the war in Europe, when those listening to the tales of The Mysterious Traveler were invited to rejoice as ”Death Comes for Adolf Hitler” (24 March 1945), a mere month prematurely, they were cautioned that the dangers of Nazism were still very much alive. So, rather than being purely escapist, the terror of the airwaves provided anodyne thrills to impede abject thraldom.

Today, the uses of fear are well understood by the terrorists, that new breed of indiscriminals holding the world hostage; but the weapon that once was the thriller is too rarely being honed to prepare us for them.