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 . . .