Destinées Imagined: Film Stills and Storylines

The most recent additions to my collection of movie memorabilia – and of images featuring the likeness of stage and screen actress Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996) in particular – are stills for the 1954 motion picture Destinées.  The French-language film, released in Britain as Love, Soldiers and Women and in the United States as Daughters of Destiny, is one of the few works in the Colbert canon that I have not yet seen.  Rather than relying entirely on plot synopses provided by Colbert biographers William K. Everson, Lawrence Quirk, and Bernard F. Dick, I am imaging and imagining the film’s story, or, rather, the story told in one of the three vignettes that constitute Destinées.

Even before I determined on an order for the five film stills, what came across is that this is a story about absent men and relationships between the women they left behind.  From the image I chose to begin my stills-inspired version of the story, I can tell that Destinées is as much about the future as it is about the past: fate, fatality and a fatalism to be challenged.  The number of aligned grave markers, impersonal yet collectively inspiring awe, distinguish this site as a war memorial.  This woman might be a war widow.

What stands out in the field of Christian crosses is the prominently positioned star of David behind her, suggesting a memorial to those who were killed during the Second World War.  Either the narrative of this mid-1950s film is set in the recent past or Colbert’s character, for whatever reason, is only belatedly coming to terms with her loss.  She may have come to bury the past, or else to uncover it.  

Yet this is not the story of her loss and of her past only.  The flowers on the ground are not placed there by her hand, at least not at that moment.  They are dry and withered.  Someone else may have been at the site before her – someone else may be mourning the loss she is experiencing.

A sense of probing into a dark past is communicated by the still of Colbert holding a lamp.  Light of day makes way for dead of night, the open field for the enclosed space.  The rough and worn interior contrasts with the sophistication of the woman’s clothing but corresponds with her careworn expression.  The scratches on the wall suggest that smooth surfaces are being challenged: anger and despair are on display in this place.

The image that continues my version of the story is of Colbert and the boy.  In a dark and seemingly cheerless place, she comes face to face with innocence.  Colbert’s character seems to be reaching for the child’s hand; but they are not touching.  Her hands are encased in gloves.

The boy staring at her is clutching a toy.  At first I thought it was she who placed it in his hand; but the apparently hand-crafted object – a cheerful fantasy figure, not a mass-produced toy soldier – is too singular to suggest that she has bought it for him.  More likely, she has just learned of the child’s existence.

The image I chose to come next in this sequence is of Colbert sitting on the bed opposite a woman (played by Eleonora Rossi Drago) who is younger and plainly dressed.  What they have in common is grief, as their facial expressions and postures tell me.  Are they grieving for the same person? Are they sitting on a bed that was once shared by a man whom they both loved? This might be the site where the child was conceived.  These women are joined in yet separated by more than grief. 

The image to complete my story suggests reconciliation.  The two women are breaking bread, and the lamp on the table is the same light that, in the other image, communicated a desire for clarity that is now being achieved.  Colbert’s character remains reserved, even skeptical.  The clenched hand, with its wedding band on display, suggests her clinging to the claim of legitimacy, even though that legal right seems to provide no comfort besides financial security.

But the woman sitting next to her is so lacking in guile that she might ultimately convince her unannounced visitor that theirs is not a destiny of contest but a bond of love: the war that has separated one woman from her husband has created another love that, in turn, begot what used to be called a love child.

Close to the battlefield, a life was created, while far from the war zone – in the cosmopolitan setting of a remote metropolis, New York rather than Paris, suggested by the affluence, and the affront, even, of Colbert’s designer clothing – a woman being left by a husband-turned-soldier could only see loss.

Initially, my story unfolded somewhat differently.  I had Colbert’s character confront the lover of her husband first, then learn about the child and change her attitude as a result.  Then I noticed the gloves, which have not yet come off when Colbert’s character meets the boy that might be her dead husband’s son; and, looking again at that other image, I noticed the rough, barn-like setting of their encounter, which more closely corresponds with the scratched wall and the lamp shedding light on the issue of a heretofore hidden love.

However inconsequential Destinées might have been, in terms of box office or impact on Colbert’s waning career in film, these images are remarkable in their ability to make readable what matters about this common story – a story told without Sirkian melodrama but with the neorealism of post-Second World War European filmmaking.  

French-born Colbert who, years earlier on US radio, had proudly and publicly exclaimed “I Am an American,” may have embraced this assignment as an opportunity to return to her roots.  Instead, cast as a visitor in Destinées, she was obliged to rehearse her estrangement and uneasy reintroduction.  France and cinema were moving on, away from the Hollywood paradigm of It Happened One Night; this is not the ersatz old world of Colbert’s I Met Him in Paris or Midnight.  And yet, the destiny that the new Europe was forging in the 1950s remained inextricably intertwined with the United States.  As the dresses of the two women make plain on one side and up-to-date on the other, there were destined to be clashes in style as well as in substance.

Little Lady Hee-Haw; or, A Temple Fit for Goebbels

On my only trip requiring an overnight bag during this stay-at-home summer, my husband and I drove from our patch on the west coast of Britain to the thoroughly overcrowded Cotswolds and, upon my urging, made a stop-over at the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, an internationally renowned haven for second-hand book lovers.  Now, musty old volumes and COVID-19 do not quite go together – or so I thought – considering that retail spaces generally set aside for them are rarely supermarket-sized.  However, Hay, which depends on the trade, managed to make it work; and, meeting the moment by donning a mask, I got to enjoy an afternoon of socially distanced and sanitized hands-on browsing.

Not that I walked away with any tomes of consequence.  While at the Cinema bookstore – a shop not limited to publications related to motion pictures – I discovered a nook stacked with a curious assortment of ephemera: German movie programs of the 1930s.  I am not sure how they ended up in a Welsh bookshop – but that dislocation may well have extended their shelf life … until a German such as I came along and took an Augenblick to sift through them.

The program pictured above, dating from 1937, left me puzzled for a while.  I am familiar with many of Shirley Temple’s features – but I did not recall any among them bearing a title remotely like “Shirley auf Welle 303,” or “Shirley over Station 303.” So, I picked up this fragile brochure, and a few others besides, if mainly to tap their potential as pop cultural conversation pieces.

The film being deemed worthy of commemoration is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, a DVD of which is gathering dust in my video library.  The title refers to an early twentieth-century children’s literature classic, although the movie version bears so little resemblance to it that it could hardly be considered an adaptation.  Not that the title of the novel would have resonated with German audiences. Meeting this challenge, the marketing people at Fox came up with a new one that might sound more relatable.

I suspect that the servants of the Nazi regime would have objected to the name of the titular character as well, being that Rebecca is Hebrew in origin, meaning “servant of God.” Shirley, on the other hand, was a household name, Ms. Temple having charmed audiences around the world since at least 1934. Like the titles of several other Shirley Temple vehicles released in 1930s Germany, the German version of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm therefore bears the first name of its star. Only Heidi stayed Heidi, rather than being translated into “Little Swiss Miss Shirley.”

A contemporary British program for the same film, also in my collection.

And yet, the effort to make the film seem more relatable to Nazi Germany’s picture-goers nonetheless resulted in a title that was out of touch with Fascist reality. In 1938, when the film was released in German cinemas, the idea of using radio transmitters for your purposes – or for the purpose of exploiting a child for your own purposes – was inimical to state-controlled broadcasting. On the air, it was always “Germany Calling,” a phrase famously used by the aforementioned Lord Haw-Haw beginning in 1939.

Germans would have struggled in vain to twist the dial and hit on a broadcast like Shirley’s, or they would have paid a price for such twisting.  Many of them listened via the Volksempfänger, a mass-produced receiver that was always tuned in to the Führer’s voice.  Imagine staying tuned to Fox News all day.  Then again, so many who do have the choice not to still do nonetheless, not unlike those who were complaisant during the rise of Fascism in Germany.

The change in title – and the recontextualization it achieves – is peculiar, and only a performer as innocuous as Shirley Temple could have gotten away with what otherwise would have been downright seditious: seizing the microphone and taking to the airwaves in a makeshift studio set up in a remote farmhouse.  Perhaps, the titular bandwidth – 303 – was to signal that Shirley’s broadcast had been sanctioned after all, 30 January 1933 being the date Hitler came to power. In the Third Reich, three was heralded as the charm.

For decades, the German film industry did wonders – or, rather, wilful damage – to international films with its dubbing of their soundtracks; voicing over and voiding the content of the source, there were many opportunities to ready a film more substantive than Rebecca for consumption in Nazi Germany.  I do not recall seeing this movie in my native language, although I do remember a festival of her films airing on West German television in the late 1970s.  Not that watching Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in the original is an experience I am eager to repeat, clobbered together a vehicle for an overhyped and overworked child star about to wear out her welcome that it is. Variety dismissed the film at the time as a “weak story,” “indifferently acted and directed,” while claiming its lead to be “at her best.”

The German program does little more than summarize the plot as well as state the principal actors and main players behind the scene of the production; I am sure someone checked whether producer Darryl F. Zanuck was Jewish, which he was not. What struck me about the program was that it mentions the word ‘propaganda’ twice in the first paragraph, where it was used as a substitute for advertising (in German, “Werbung” or “Reklame”).  Sending up the excesses of US consumerism while promoting the ostensible virtues of country living, this trifle of a film – distributed in Nazi Germany by the enterprising and accommodating “Deutsche” Fox – could serve as a vehicle for anti-American propaganda at a time when increasingly few US films were granted a release in Germany.

By making such trifles, and by marketing them for distribution in Nazi Germany, the US film industry contributed to the rise of Fascism, which, only after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hollywood films began to confront with a suitably glossy vengeance. By that time, US films were banned in Germany, and Shirley Temple ceased to be a leading lady – at least in motion pictures.

‘Mystique’ Isn’t the Word for It: The Cool Warmth of Claudette Colbert

‘In the Hollywood of the thirties and forties, dominated by elegance, glamour production expertise and lush escapism,’ the film historian William K. Everson wrote in the 1970s, ‘Claudette Colbert was one its most representative stars.  Despite her natural skills and theatrical background, she – or the images that came to be Claudette Colbert – was essentially a Hollywood product.’

The reference to her ‘theatrical background’ aside, this could be said about any number of Hollywood stars – male of female – of the studio era.  Colbert, who was born on this day, 13 September, in 1903, was a particular ‘product’ of an industry committed to generating lucrative multiples by manufacturing the one-of-a-kind: the unique personality that filled screens and auditoria of movie theaters around the world. So what, if anything, distinguishes Colbert from her peers?

Everson goes on to describe Colbert as ‘sleek, svelte, sophisticated and chic […].  But she was also warm, vivacious and possessed of both charm and a sense of humor – qualities that can’t be mass produced, no matter how complicated the machinery.’

Publicity still, Private Worlds (1935)

To a Colbert enthusiast such as myself, this certainly rings true – and the attributes ‘warm’ and ‘vivacious’ are especially felicitous when applied to descriptions of the energy with which Colbert invests her roles – a kind of cocktail party gaiety that, whatever the state or root cause of intoxication, is rarely brash and, however much of an effort it may be, as written into a script or demanded by a director, is so transparently genuine and uncontrived that it makes me feel I am in the presence of the very life of the party, and of belonging, even if Claudette’s character just crashed one, as in Midnight.

The other night, I watched Sleep, My Love, a melodrama in which laughs are in short supply, and what struck me as most distinctly Colbert about an otherwise generic thriller of the Gaslight school was seeing her tormented character on a night out with an admirer, getting soused at a wedding, while her husband is plotting to drive her out of her mind by adulterating her cocoa. This woman will lose her man before she loses her marbles.

What Everson refers to as the ‘Colbert Mystique’ is really no ‘mystique’ at all.  The quality Colbert brought to the screen was approachability, a glamour that wasn’t a glare.  She is neither aloof nor in your face while out of reach in her improbable but never impossible elegance.  That approachability did not quite amount to vulnerability, however, as most of her performances – certainly most of her best, excepting Three Came Home – are subdued rather than raw.  When asked to lose her cool, to get what used to be called hysterical, as in her none too Secret Fury in the film of that title, she seems to be filling in for another actress; she is simply not Claudette. For the most part, though, when Colbert lets her hair down on the screen, or had reason to tear it out, her bangs require only minor adjustments to be put back in place – and Hollywood dictated that it, and the woman donning the do, had to be back there in that designated up-to-Production Code place before long.

Sure, there might be a wisp of straw in her hair, but we don’t get access to the hayloft where, her laugh suggests, it happened all right; and we are certainly not encouraged to feel entitled to an entire sheaf of evidence.  Growing up gay – and knowing I was gay when I was very young without knowing how to let it be known – I found Colbert’s subtlety more relatable than the sass of dames, the fire of Jezebels, or the lure of sirens whose appeal brought on awkwardness and shame rather than arousal in me.  This woman would not crack like Susan Hayward, snap like Bette Davis or claw for it like Crawford.  She would end up all right, and often owing to her strength, wit and endurance.  Granted, having Hattie McDaniel at hand to massage your tired feet doesn’t hurt.  But, hired help or none, Colbert’s heroines keep their cool while exuding a warmth that no flamethrower can supply.

There really isn’t any ‘mystique’ there; glamour, yes, and power, but no mystery.  Even in matters of sex, as I found most comforting watching Colbert while coming of age in the era of AIDS, Colbert suggests that there need be no mystery at all.  When Colbert insists that ‘sex has everything to do with it’ – as one of her characters does in The Palm Beach Story, she doesn’t coo it like West or croon it like Dietrich – she says it flat out, with a conviction born of experience.  She’s been there, done that, but she keeps the t-shirt neatly folded in a drawer reserved for her lingerie, which she teaches Miriam Hopkins to ‘jazz up’ in The Smiling Lieutenant.

To this day, I collect Claudette Colbert memorabilia, which I display online.  The latest addition to my collection is the above publicity still for Private Worlds (1935), for which Colbert received an Academy Award nomination.  This is not the portrait of a fallen woman.  We know Colbert’s character will get up, straighten her hair and return to work – as long, that is, as Hollywood permits her to have a career, as a ‘lady doctor,’ no less. Yes, that woman on the floor is a psychiatrist.

Colbert’s own private world was just that: private.  Back then, fellow stars could rely on the studio to provide them with a ‘private’ world to parade in public and a cover story to hide behind.  Today’s celebrities, unlike the stars of that bygone system, enjoy no such protection; nor, for the most part, do they seem to seek it.  We have surrendered our privacy, and having done so doesn’t make us feel more real to each other, much less to ourselves, more liberated or more loved.  The illusion Colbert pulls off on the screen is that we, or some of us, might have once had what I now sense lost: a kind of cool warmth that gets us through while drawing others toward us.

A Mighty Joe! But not without a plan …

Poster design by Neil Holland
using a 1940s concept drawing for Mighty Joe Young
As announced in my previous post, I am staging the exhibition Recapturing ‘Mighty Joe Young’ at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University (see poster for details).

This is my introductory text panel for the show:

From adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) to the latest installment in the Planet of the Apes saga, non-human primates have played a prominent part in the evolution of motion pictures. Ridiculous and sublime, they act as uncanny doubles of our uncouth selves.


Until well into the 1980s, silver screen simians were often aped by actors in hairy suits. A memorable exception is the original Kong, the uncrowned King of Skull Island. Mighty Joe Young (1949) is one of his descendants.

Joe was brought to life by the creative team responsible for King Kong (1933) and its sequel, Son of Kong (1933). The large volume displayed in the centre of the gallery is Joe’s baby album.

The album commemorates the collaborative efforts that earned Mighty Joe Young an Academy Award for Special Effects. Showing off the tools and tricks of the trade, it contains documentarian photographs as well as drawings and watercolour paintings by Willis ‘Obie’ O’Brien, the film’s ‘Technical Creator.’  The album also records the work of Obie’s apprentice, Ray Harryhausen, whose name became synonymous with pre-CGI fantasy film and stop-motion animation.

The album is on public display for the first time. It was compiled retrospectively, probably by a member of the crew.  Along with hundreds of books and journals, it was bequeathed to Aberystwyth University by the film historian Raymond Durgnat (1932–2002), to whose legacy this exhibition pays tribute.

Surrounding the album are posters, promotional materials as well as 1940s concept drawings for animated movies produced by Walt Disney and Fleischer Studios. Also on show are prints by Gustave Doré and John Martin.  Their fantastic and awe-inspiring images were precursors of cinematic spectacles. Both O’Brien and Harryhausen referenced them in their work.

As a curator, educator and writer, I aim to promote interconnections between the arts as well as the creative industries and academic disciplines devoted to them. Instead of imposing a context in which our album might be contained, I let it take over the gallery to disclose its stories and open new associations.

The public is invited to shape this evolving display by sharing responses to Joe in animation workshops scheduled during the show’s run. Like the homage in Lego you encounter in our gallery, the videos created in those workshops will become part of this exhibition.

She Said It in English: Olympe Bradna (1920-2012) on Men, Mikes and Milk

Cover of Cinegram 60, Say It in French (1938) starring Ray Milland and Olympe Bradna
Cinegram No. 60
“Olympe Bradna is a diplomat of the first rank!” So declared the editors of Cinegram in an issue devoted to Say It in French.  In that now largely forgotten romantic comedy, Bradna co-starred as a French student who impersonates a maid to be close to an American lover (played by Welshman Ray Milland) expected to marry a millionaire’s daughter (Irene Hervey) to save his father’s business.  Maybe that sounded better in French, in which the comedy was first staged under the title Soubrette. Never mind.  The “petite morsel of feminine allure,” so the Bradna legend goes, had “only been kissed by two men during her whole lifetime”—that lifetime amounting to eighteen years back in 1938.  One year into her brief Hollywood career, Bradna had overcome her “anxiety and embarrassment” and forgotten about her vow that she “would never kiss” at all, “either on the screen or off, until she had a ‘steady’ beau.”  Having been teamed with both Milland and Gene Raymond (in Stolen Heaven), the actress was “all in favour” of on-screen romance; but, when asked whose lips she preferred, the teenager refused to kiss and tell. “If I did that, it would be, how do you say? ‘propaganda.’” In the context of European pre-war clamour and the business of Hollywood glamour, the word choice is peculiar, especially since Cinegram was a promotional effort aimed at British audiences.  It is a telling statement, too, as it suggests Bradna’s questioning of the role she was expected to play in the propagation and exploitation of her own image.
Far from naive, the French-born performer knew all about the real world of make-believe, which is why, in her future pursuit of “real romance,” she was determined to “go outside the show business.”  In the early 1920s, her parents, Jeanne and Joseph Bradna, had a successful bareback riding act at the Olympia Theater in Paris, after which venue Olympe was named and where she made her stage debut when she was not quite two years old.  Hence, I suppose, her expressed need for security: “[A]ctors are fellows with uncertain jobs.  They’re generally honest, gay, intelligent and interesting, but they lack that quality of stability that is so important to a girl who wants to establish a home.”
Autographed portrait of Olympe Bradna from the pages of Cinegram 60 (1938)
Bradna in Cinegram No. 60
Presumably, she said all this in English, rather than in her native tongue.  When she first set her dancing feet on the United States as a member of the Folies Bergère and subsequently performed at New York’s French Casino, she was so dismayed at her “lack of English that she determined to learn to speak the language properly.  She succeeded so well,” Cinegram readers were told, “that when it came to making this new picture she had to put in several weeks of hard work under a French tutor to get her French back to standard.”  A Hollywood standard, that is.  After all, in romantic comedy, a French accent was as desirable as a maid’s uniform.
Bradna’s language skills were put to the ultimate test when, on 14 November 1938, she went behind the microphone for the Lux Radio Theater production of “The Buccaneer,” co-starring Clark Gable as French pirate Jean Lafitte; but her part was suitably Old-World, and all over the map besides, to account for any foreignness in her speech.  Bradna assumed the role of Gretchen, which had been played on screen by the Hungarian-born cabaret artist Franciska Gaal.  “Oh, I don’t know how I sound, Mr. DeMille,” Bradna said to in the nominal producer of the program during her scripted curtain call, “a Dutch girl with a French accent in an American play.”  Supported as she was by Gertrude Michael and Akim Tamiroff, both of whom enriched American English with peculiar accents and inflections, she hardly stood out like a sore tongue.
Back page of Cinegram 60, Say It in French (1938) starring Ray Milland and Olympe Bradna
Say It: A rickety vehicle for Milland
Not that Bradna, who appeared on the cover of the 27 July 2 August 1938 issue of Movie-Radio Guide, was a stranger to the microphone.  According to the March 1938 issue of Radio Mirror, Paramount Pictures “put her into five consecutive radio guest-spots for a big build up—but without giving her a nickel.”  Perhaps, DeMille would not have given her a nickel, either, for the privilege of making it into a Lux-lathered version of The Buccaneer, one of his own productions, nor given her an opportunity to promote her latest picture, Say It in French, had he known what British Cinegram readers gathered by flicking through their souvenir program for Say It.  Bradna, they were told, had “startled experts by announcing that the secret of her facial complexion [was] a daily buttermilk massage.”  The maker’s of Lux Toilet Soap could not have been pleased at Bradna’s insistence, fictive or otherwise, that buttermilk was “all” she needed: “My skin may be ever so parched and dry before the routine, but afterwards it is as fresh and smooth as I could want!”
Wally Westmore, Paramount’s make-up chief, reputedly explained that the “secret”—an age-old French recipe for a youthful complexion perhaps not quite so difficult to achieve at the age of eighteen—lay in the rich oil content of buttermilk, which had the same “softening and freshening effect upon the skin as the most elaborate and expensive preparations used by the stars.”  That, of course, was just the claim Lever Brothers were making each week on the Lux Radio Theater, which might explain why Ms. Bradna was never again heard on the program, whose stars were handsomely remunerated for their implied or stated endorsement of the titular product.  Perhaps, Bradna was not “a diplomat of the first rank” after all . . .
Olympe Bradna died on 5 November 2012 in Lodi, California.

“. . . a dam’ good shake-up”: Death at Broadcasting House

“Snobbish nonsense!” says one shabbily dressed young Londoner to another as they observe a man in a starched shirt and dinner jacket enter Broadcasting House.  The man, they reckon, is an announcer about to go on the air, unseen yet meticulously groomed and attired.  At the sight of which pointless and paradoxical propriety they sneer: “That whole place wants a dam’ good shake-up.”  A “dam’ good shake-up.”  That, in a coconut shell (to employ the most sound-effective nut in the business of radio dramatics), is what Val Gielgud and his collaborator Holt Marvell (the fanciful penname of fellow broadcaster Eric Maschwitz) set out to perform in Death at Broadcasting House (1934), a murder mystery set in and temporarily upsetting the reliable, predictable and frightfully proper BBC.  Although I had know about it for quite some time, I just finished reading it;  turns out, it’s a “dam’ good” page-turner, and a compelling commentary on the marginality, the relative obscurity of radio dramatics besides.

“There’s not a drop of good red blood about the whole place.  Robots engaged in the retailing of tripe! That’s broadcasting!” one of the above sidewalk critics of the tried and generally trusted institution declares.  It is clear, though, that Gielgud and Maschwitz did not side with the two self-styled “communists.”  The authors were BBC employees and not about to stage a revolution.  The “shake-up” was strictly a matter of maracas, a means of making some noise for their own undervalued accomplishments rather than spilling the beans without which those maracas would become utterly useless as instruments of ballyhoo.

Sure, broadcasting plays—minutely timed, meticulously rehearsed and intensely scrutinized—were far more mechanic than any other form of dramatic performance.  Yet, as Gielgud insisted in one of his many articles on radio drama, “[i]n spite of [its] machine-like qualities” and “in spite of the lack of colour and applause, the work has a fascination of its own.” That the multitude for whom these performances were intended showed so little gratitude was frustrating to an actor-director like Gielgud, who sarcastically remarked a few years earlier that dismissive reviews in the press suggested, at least, that the broadcast play had “passed the first and most depressing stage of development—the stage of being entirely ignored.”  By 1934, it had clearly not advanced to a stage that could be deemed legitimate.

What better way to gainsay those naysayers than to spill some of that “good red blood” or to stir it properly and to make it run hot and cold by turns.  “A killing! In Broadcasting House, of all places! Good God!” is the response of General Sir Herbert Farquharson, the corporation’s fictional Controller.  He has just been informed that an actor was done away with during the production of a live broadcast.  “My god, sir,” the director of that play exclaims, “do you realize that everyone who heard that play must have heard him die? That makes it pretty unique in the annals of crime.”

That most folks tuning in thought little of it—that they believed it to be part of the drama—is owing to the fact that the murder was committed right at the moment when, according to the script, the character played by the victim was scheduled to breathe his last.  A crime at once prominent and inconspicuous—like most radio dramas, performed as they were without a studio audience.  After all, even the Controller, at the time of the murder, was attending a variety program staged in the specially designed Vaudeville Studio instead.

Death at Broadcasting House is the self-conscious performance of two radiomen, Gielgud and Maschwitz, fighting for the recognition that, for the most part, eludes those working behind the scenes—especially the folks behind the scenes of a largely invisible business.  Their book, as they so slyly state, was “dedicated impertinently … to those critics who persistently deny that the radio pay exists, has existed, or ever can exist.”  Radio plays existed, all right, but, for the most part, they died as soon as they were heard, if they were heard at all.

Unless, of course, they were blattnerphoned. “Blattnerphone?” the puzzled inspector exclaims.  “Yes,” the BBC’s dramatic director, Julian Caird, explains:

“It’s a way of recording a programme on a steel tape so that it can be re-transmitted.  We have to do a good deal of it for Empire work.” […]

“You mean we can hear that actual scene over again?”

“We can hear that scene,” said Caird, “not only over again, but over and over again.  As often as you like.  I wonder if the murderer thought of that?”

Probably not.  Unless he numbers among the initiated few, folks like Caird—and Gielgud—who have their fingers at the controls, conjurers who don’t mind revealing some of their tricks to demonstrate just how powerful they are.

“The curious thing about the case what that it was both extremely simply and extremely complicated,” the inspector wraps up the business of detection.  “It was extremely complicated only because it took place under very remarkable conditions—conditions which you wouldn’t find repeated anywhere else, and for which, of course, there was absolutely no precedent.”  The same applies to Gielgud and Maschwitz’s fiction. However witty and engaging, the whodunit is entirely conventional. It is the setting, the broadcasting studio, that makes it unusual.  The setting, thus, becomes the star of the production—a star without whose presence the show simply could not go on.

Indeed, the crime depends on the complexity of British radio production to be in need of detection.  In American broadcasting, by comparison, all actors gathered in the same studio, a congregation that would render the unobserved strangling of one of them not only improbably but impossible.  At the BBC, however, plays were produced using a multiple studios, a complex approach Gielgud’s stand-in explains thus:

[T]he chief reasons why we use several studios and not one, are two.  The first is that by the use of separate studios, the producer can get different acoustic effects for his scenes….  Secondly, the modern radio play depends for its “continuity” … upon the ability to ‘fade’ one scene at its conclusion into the next.  You can see at once that there must be at least two studios in use for these “fades” to be possible.  In an elaborate play, therefore, the actors require as many studios as the varying acoustics of the different scenes require, while … sound effects have a studio of their own, gramophone effects one more, and the orchestra providing the incidental music yet another separate one.

Anyone who has ever listened to an American radio play of the 1930s, such as the ones produced by the Columbia Workshop, knows that no such complex arrangements are needed for the effective use of multiple fades and changes in acoustics.  Death at Broadcasting House is a defense of the British system.  It turns the multi-studio approach into something to be marveled at—an arcane system fit for a mystery, a puzzle whose solution requires the expertise of the initiated and thus vindicates the existence of the men masterminding the business with their hands firmly on that most complex of all pieces of broadcasting equipment: the dramatic control panel, which, Gielgud enthused elsewhere, enabled the director “to move at will, both in time and space, as simply as if he were travelling on the fabled magic carpet, and to take his audience with him.”

Some Like it . . . How? Youth, Vampires, and Marilyn Monroe

Del Coronado mirage
There I stood, in the shimmering sands of Coronado Beach, California. I had come, of course, to see the famous Hotel—and to share the views once taken in by Marilyn Monroe during the filming of Some Like It Hot. Marilyn was here. Now I was. Footsteps. Sand. The old hourglass. I won’t indulge in such clichés here; but there is something pathetic about this kind of out-of-sightseeing, this belated catching up and impossible reaching out to which I am prone. The inclination to seek out what is long gone is more than morbid curiosity: it is an approach to life as a retreat from living in which even the here-and-now becomes dreamlike and chimerical. How did this get to be my way of not facing the world?

Marilyn Monroe died before I was born; yet her life and times became a fascination of my teenage years.  Mine were not erotic fantasies.  I did not long for her body.  Nor did I think of her as being gone.  She was never absent for long from the television screen, ever present on the iconic posters I pinned onto the wall above my bed.  Records spinning on the old turntable, her voice filled my room. I had no regrets about never being able to meet her in the flesh; rather, it was a relief.

The wonder of her incorporeal existence made living in the body I loathed more tolerable; and it made the physical relationships I dreaded easier to contemplate in the abstract.  Marilyn—and we call her by her first name because she is more familiar than famous, more girl than goddess—was not some facile paradox: “I Wanna Be Loved by You” and “I’m Through with Love” she sings in the same movie, expressing the hurt and hunger that are far from mutually exclusive.

Our teenage selves are preoccupied with the demands that both nature and society make on us, propositions and impositions captured in that horrible phrase haunting and taunting us until death: “grown up.”  As a response to and rejection of the implied threat—the finality and premature stunting of our infinite potentialities—Marilyn’s afterlife was as much a reproof of society as it was a society-proof alternative: a twilight life, expired and undying, bright though snuffed out, a fragile, indomitable spirit-presence in whose shadowy glow I could luxuriate, just as many a young person nowadays revels in the gothic gloom inhabited by zombies and vampires, except that my imaginings transported rather than dispirited me.

No doubt, this twisted bent of casting myself into times preceding my birth is born of a desire to bring forth alternate selves of mine without having to bear the vagaries of the present or the uncertainties of the future.  Like a life presumably squandered in reverie, bending the past to our will is a testament to a vestigial will power—or would-be power—in which the retrospective becomes invested with the prospect of an ever glimmering what if . . .

"Mike," for the Love of It

“What is there to say about what one loves except: I love it, and to keep on saying it?” Roland Barthes famously remarked. Sometimes, getting to the stage of saying even that much requires quite a bit of effort; and sometimes you don’t get to say it at all. Love may be where you find it, but it may also be the very act of discovery. The objective rather than the object. The pursuit whose outcome is uncertain. Methodical, systematic, diligent. Sure, research, if it is to bear fruit, should be all that. And yet, it is also a labor of love. It can be ill timed and unappreciated. If nothing comes of it, you might call it unrequited. It may be all-consuming, impolitic and quixotic. Still, it’s a quest. It’s passion, for the love of Mike!

“Mike” has been given me a tough time. It all began as a wildly improbable romance acted out by my favorite leading lady. It was nearly a decade ago, in the late spring of 2001, that I first encountered the name. “Mike” is a reference in the opening credits of the film Torch Singer, a 1933 melodrama starring Claudette Colbert. Having long been an admirer of Ms. Colbert—who, incidentally made her screen debut in the 1927 comedy For the Love of Mike, a silent film now lost—I was anxious to catch up with another one of her lesser-known efforts when it was screened at New York City’s Film Forum, an art house cinema I love for its retrospectives of classic—and not quite so classic—Hollywood fare.

Until its release on DVD in 2009, Alexander Hall’s Torch Singer was pretty much a forgotten film, one of those fascinatingly irregular products of the Pre-Code era, films that strike us, in the Code-mindedness with which we are conditioned to approach old movies, as being about as incongruous, discomfiting and politically incorrect as a blackface routine at a Nelson Mandela tribute or a pecan pie eating contest at a Weight Watchers meeting. Many of these talkies, shot between 1929 and 1934, survive only in heavily censored copies, at times re-cut and refitted with what we now understand to be traditional Hollywood endings.

Torch Singer, which tells the Depression era story of a fallen woman who takes over a children’s program and, through it, reestablishes contact with the illegitimate daughter she could not support without falling, has, apart from its scandalous subject matter, such an irresistible radio angle that I was anxious to discuss it in Etherized Victorians, the dissertation on American radio drama I was then in the process of researching.

Intent on presenting radio drama as a literary rather than historical or pop-cultural subject, I was particularly interested in published scripts, articles by noted writers with a past in broadcasting, and fictions documenting the central role the “Enormous Radio” played in American culture during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. I thought about dedicating a chapter of my study to stories in which studios serve as settings, microphones feature as characters, and broadcasts are integral to the plot.

Torch Singer is just such a story—and, as the opening credits told me, one with a past in print. Written by Lenore Coffee and Lynn Starling, the screenplay is based on the story “Mike” by Grace Perkins; but that was all I had to go on when I began my search. No publisher, no date, no clues at all about the print source in which “Mike” first came before the public.


Little could be gleaned from Perkins’s New York Times obituary—somewhat overshadowed by the announcement of the death of Enrico Caruso’s wife Dorothy—other than that she died not long after assisting Madame Chiang Kai-shek in writing The Sure Victory (1955); that she had married Fulton Oursler, senior editor of Reader’s Digest and author of the radio serial The Greatest Story Ever Told; and that she had penned a number of novels published serially in popular magazines of the 1930s. That sure complicated matters as I went on to turn the yellowed pages of many once popular journals of the period in hopes of coming across the elusive “Mike.”

Finally, years after my degree was in the bag—and what a deep receptacle that turned out to be—I found “Mike” between the pages of the 20 May 1933 issue of Liberty; or the better half of “Mike,” at least, as this is a serialized narrative. Never mind; I am not that interested anyway in the story’s other Mike, the man who deserted our heroine and with whom she is reunited in the end. At last, I got my hands on this “Revealing Story of a Radio Star’s Romance,” the story of the “notorious Mimi Benton,” a hard-drinking mantrap who’d likely “end up in the gutter,” but went on the air instead—and “right into your homes! Yes, sir, and talked to your children time and time again!”

“Mike,” like Torch Singer, is a fiction that speaks to Depression-weary Americans who, dependent on handouts, bereft of status and influence, came to realize—and romanticize—what else they lost in the Roaring Twenties when the wireless, initially a means of point-to-point communication, became a medium that, as I put it in my dissertation,

not merely controlled but prevented discourse. Instead of interacting with one another, Depression-era Americans were just sitting around in the parlor, John Dos Passos observed, “listening drowsily to disconnected voices, stale scraps of last year’s jazz, unfinished litanies advertising unnamed products that dribble senselessly from the radio,” only to become receptive to President Roosevelt’s deceptively communal “youandme” from the fireside.

Rather than “listening drowsily,” disenfranchised Mimi Benton, anathema to corporate sponsors, reclaims the medium by claiming the microphone for her own quest and, with it, seizes the opportunity to restore an intimate bond that society forced her to sever. These days, Mimi Benton would probably start a campaign on Facebook or blog her heart out—unless she chose to lose herself in virtual realities or clutch a Tamagotchi, giving up a quest in which the medium can only be a means, not an end.


Related writings
“Radio at the Movies: Torch Singer (1933)”
“Radio at the Movies: Manslaughter (1922)”

“Anyone we know?”: An Absentminded Review of The Royal Family

What a tramp my mind has turned into lately. I would like to think that I still got one of my own, to have and to hold on to, for richer or poorer, and all that; but every now and again, and rather too frequently at that, the willful one takes off without the slightest concern for my state of it. It used to be that I could gather my thoughts like keepsakes to store a mind with; these days, I wonder just who’s minding the store. And just when I feel that I’ve lost it completely, there it comes ambling in, disheveled, unruly, and well out of its designated head. With a little luck, the suitcase of mementoes with which it absconded turns up again, similarly disorganized, rarely complete if at times strangely augmented. Perhaps, minds resent being crossed once too often. That has crossed mine, to be sure.

Anyway, where was I going with this? Ah, yes. Straight back to New York City. The Biltmore Theatre. Make that the Samuel J. Friedman, as it is now called. Built in 1925 and steeped in comedy theater tradition, the former Biltmore is just the venue for the current revival of The Royal Family, of which production, scheduled to open 8 October 2009, I had the good fortune to catch the second preview a few weeks ago. Classic crowd-pleasers like Poppa (1929), Brother Rat (1936-38), My Sister Eileen (1940-42), and the long-running Barefoot in the Park (1963-67) were staged here, where Mae West caused a sensation in October 1928 with Pleasure Man, a play they let go on for all of two performances.

While Ethel Barrymore might have wished a similarly compact run for The Royal Family, the play amused rather than scandalized theatergoers who appreciated it as a wildly flamboyant yet precisely cut gem of wit set firmly in a mount of genuine sentiment—which is just what you’d expect from a collaboration of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Histrionics, theatrical disguises, a bit of swashbuckling—this screwball of a jewel still generates plenty of sparks, even if the preview I attended needed a little polish to show it off it to its full advantage.

Informed that her son may have killed a man, the matriarch of the family inquires: “Anyone we know?” Among the somebodies we know to have slain them with lines like these in the past are Broadway and Hollywood royals like Otto Kruger, Ruth Hussey, Eva Le Gallienne, Fredric March, Rosemary Harris, and . . . Rosemary Harris. As is entirely in keeping with the play’s premise—three generations of a theatrical family congregating and emoting under one roof—Ms. Harris is now playing the mother of the character she portrayed back in 1975. Regrettably, unlike Estelle Winwood in the cleverly truncated Theatre Guild on the Air production broadcast on 16 December 1945, Ms. Harris as Fanny Cavendish was not quite eccentric or electric enough, although she certainly possesses the curtains-foreshadowing vulnerability her character refuses to acknowledge.

Decidedly more energetic and Barrymore or less ideally cast were the other members of the present production, which includes Jan Maxwell as Julie, Reg Rogers as Tony, Tony Roberts as Oscar, John Glover as Herbert Dean and Saturday Night Live alumna Ana Gasteyer as Kitty. Whenever the pace slackened and the madcap was beginning to resemble a nightcap or some such old hat, I could generally rely on Ms. Gasteyer’s gestures and facial expressions to keep me amused.

There was a moment, though, when my attention span was being put to the test—and promptly failed. I looked at the fresh though not especially fascinating face of Kelli Barrett (as Gwen) and found myself transported to the 1920s, those early days of the Biltmore. I started to think of or hope for a youthful, vivacious Claudette Colbert performing on Broadway at that time, a few years before she left the stage to pursue a career in motion pictures. Why, I wondered, was my mind walking off with her?

Well, eventually it all came home to me—my mind sauntering back in with a duffle bag of stuff I didn’t remember possessing—when I perused the playbill to learn about the history of the Biltmore. Colbert, I learned, had performed on that very stage back in 1927, the year in which The Royal Family was written, enjoying her first major success in The Barker. Decades later, she returned there for The Kingfishers (1978) and A Talent for Murder (1981). So, there was something of a presence of Ms. Colbert on that stage, even though she never played young Gwen.

Today, researching a little to justify what still seemed like a mere digression in a half-hearted review of the play, I discovered (consulting the index of Bernard F. Dick’s recent biography of Colbert) that the actress did get hold of a minor branch of the Royal Family tree when she seized the opportunity to portray Gwen’s mother in a 1954 television adaptation of the play. That version, the opener for CBS’s The Best of Broadway series, was broadcast live on 16 September—which happens to be the day I stepped inside the Biltmore to catch up with The Royal Family.

Perhaps it is just as well that I give in and let my mind go blithely astray. For all the exasperation of momentary lapses, of missed punch lines, plot lines or points my thoughts are beside of, the returns are welcome and oddly reassuring. Besides, the old tramp wouldn’t have it any other way . . .

Radio at the Movies: Torch Singer (1933)

“Yoo-hoo, is anybody?” I guess that, from time to time, many of us amateur journalists feel compelled to ask the question so catchily phrased by the matriarch of the Goldbergs. At least Molly Goldberg could hope for a response from her friend and neighbor Mrs. Bloom, to whom her shouts into the dumb waiter shaft were directed. To Mrs. Goldberg, “anybody” was a certain someone. Many who approached the World Wide Web as their means of telecommuning have given up on waiting for a reply to their “Yoo-hoos,” or, instead, have taken the resounding silence for an answer equivalent to “nope.”

According to a 2008 survey conducted by Technorati (which, earlier this month, was referred to in a New York Times article on the blogging phenomenon), 95 percent of all online journals have been essentially abandoned. Tens of millions who saw blogging as an opportunity to cast their thoughts broadly and make their voices heard by the multitudes decided that, once this vast crowd of followers did not, well, immaterialize, their words were wasted on the one or another for whose arrival they would not be dumb enough to wait and to whose apparently exclusive tastes they would not lower themselves to cater.

Like broadcasting before it, the blogosphere lures those creative spirits who might otherwise be dispirited nobodies with that one-in-a-million chance at fame while its ability to connect us to the one-in-a-million willing to connect with us frequently goes unappreciated. As public performers, we won’t settle for “anybody”—but we seem more inclined to aim at the elusive everyone than the dependable someone. One of the most intriguing motion pictures to address our narrow-mindedness about broadcasting is the Depression-era melodrama Torch Singer (1933), one of those startlingly unconventional, non-classic Hollywood pictures referred to as Pre-Code.

Torch Singer stars Claudette Colbert as an unwed mother (that is Pre-Code for you) who, failing to find employment, is forced to give up her infant daughter. After that intimate bond is severed, the motherless child of a childless mother avenges herself on an impersonal, dehumanizing society by tantalizing those who made her suffer, selling the mere appeal of sex to the highest bidder. “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love,” she warbles, achieving neither. Her body having been robbed of its fruit and the warmth of nestling, she turns her voice into a commodity, first by making a(nother) name for herself a nightclub singer, then by accepting the offer to become a disembodied siren on the radio.

When a newly hired storyteller for a children’s program is struck dumb with mike fright, the reckless Torch Singer takes over as the fictitious “Aunt Jenny,” comforter by proxy, singing lullabies so far removed from any cradle that they are devoid of sincerity, all the while tickled by her own moxie as she promotes the sponsor’s kiddie beverage, long drink in hand.

This perversion of motherhood comes to an end when she realizes that it is possible to subvert the medium instead and seize the microphone to reach the child she gave up for adoption. Rather than performing for everyone and no one, she now sings directly to her daughter, devising a contest that would compel radio listening kids to call in and claim their birthday surprises, thereby revealing their identity to her. Once taken into her own hands, the very medium that seemed to have promised nothing but the belated fame for which she never cared becomes the means through which she can reestablish the intimacy she long believed to be past recapturing.

Its melodramatic shortcomings notwithstanding, Torch Singer serves as a compelling reminder that the media, as extensions or offshoots of telecommunication, have not lost—and should never be divested of—their potential to establish point-to-point connections far more meaningful than the often disappointing stabs at mass exposure in which we are apt to lose sight of one another.


Related writings
“Between You, Molly and Me: Should We Settle for Squirrels?”
“Wireless Women, Clueless Men (Part Five): Gertrude Berg, Everybody’s Mama”