So Proudly We Hail(ed); or, Movies They Dare Not Make Today

Well, they sure don’t make them as they used to. I don’t know how many times you have uttered that line, indifferent to the rules of grammar, whether as a lament or a sigh of relief. Take So Proudly We Hail, for instance, the 1943 war drama I watched last night. Until I decided that doing so would be rather too self-indulgent (considering my love for a certain leading lady), I thought of discussing it yesterday, corresponding with the anniversary of the radio version in which stars Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake reprised their original roles (along with the long forgotten Sonny Tufts) on the Lux Radio Theatre.

So Proudly We Hail is a well-crafted, surprisingly unsentimental, and highly engaging melodrama about US army nurses serving their country in the battlefield that was the Philippines during the Second World War; as such, it is also unabashed wartime propaganda. I do not think that any producer in Hollywood today would dare to remake it, say, with Julia Roberts, Winona Rider, and Scarlett Johansson (to pick three contemporary actresses approximately of the respective ages of the three original leads). Why not? Allow me to speculate.

There’s a war on, lest we forget; but it doesn’t seem to reunite the West (or any Western nation) against a clearly defined enemy. Instead, we find ourselves in a war on terror—and the terror appears to be as much the cause as it is the effect, violence and violations being brought on by so-called anti-terrorist measures that continue to provoke it. This is not a time in which to express pride in one’s country or its elected representatives; and those making decisions in Hollywood today seem least inclined foster a sense of loyalty and regard. I don’t think, though, that widespread dissatisfaction and skepticism—a critical attitude only the thoughtless or unthinking ever entirely suppress—account for the current rejection of propaganda drama.

As the reception of Clint Eastwood’s latest film suggests, people are not lining up to see movies with a political message. They might accept a controversial documentary inviting us to take sides; but they no longer appreciate being manipulated or swayed by dramatic fare. Propaganda is a dirty word these days, dirtier by far than advertising, which is still being tolerated. However much we might groan, we tend to allow the promotion of a product, but get squeamish when it comes to the advancement of an idea. Corporations have taken a prominent place in—or even taken the place of—the government; and when peddling products, advertisers appeal to the individual, whereas propaganda seeks to motivate the community. It simply pays to stimulate division and selfishness, a targeting strategy generally marketed as choice. There no longer is a public, it seems; there are only people; and for advertising purposes, several million of these supposed individuals will do.

Unlike today’s conflicts, the Second World War was not endorsed by big business; companies were not eager to surrender sales or give up the production of consumer goods for a nation that needed to consolidate precious resources. So, I don’t think we’ll get to see Scarlett Johansson grabbing a hand grenade and blowing herself up for the sake of her country (as Veronica Lake’s character does) or picking up an empty can of soda for the benefit of the planet. Instead, she’ll grab that soft drink or lipstick or pair of designer shoes and fight for what she believes in . . . or what those placing the products in her hands want us to believe.

I did not grow up in a country or an age in which it was easy or felt right to be proud of one’s people; and, watching a film like So Proudly We Hail I sense that to be a profound loss. We so proudly hail individuality these days because corporations hand out the flags and buttons to match, knowing that we are at our most receptive and vulnerable when we are at our greediest.

We Now Resume Our Regularly Scheduled Life

It has been a week of local excursions here in Wales, days spent sunbathing and splashing in the radioactive sea, bookhunting in Hay-on-Wye (the world-renowned “Town of Books”), dining al fresco, stargazing outdoors and on screen, playing with Montague, our unruly terrier, and being among friends (even after having been critiqued with the candor I reserve for those who matter to me). The occasion of it all was a weeklong visit by my closest if mostly long distance friend, the fatherland I haven’t set foot on for seventeen years. It is to him that I owe the wonderful book pictured above, a splendid addition to my collection of Claudette Colbert memorabilia.

Whenever I venture out to Hay, I return home with a few treasures. This time, I added a book on Harold Lloyd (my favorite silent screen comedian, whose films The Kid Brother, The Cat’s Paw and Girl Shy we screened during the past few days), as well as a coffee-table topper on screwball comedies (a book which I had previously gifted to abovementioned best pal, but with which I was pleased to get reacquainted). However convenient and economic it might be to browse and shop online, the thrill of the hunt (as previously described here), is something a carnivore of a booklover like me does not like to go without.

Now, the people of Film Pictorial, a British publication, are full of it. Legend, I mean, which is a term I much prefer to trivia when it comes to describing pieces of nothing from which to weave whatever your mind is up to at the moment. Trivia is for the mercenary; legend for the mercurial. I shall raid said volume from time to time here on these virtual pages. Where else might you learn whether or not you have a “Film Hand” from a writer who examines the “long little finger on the hand of Katharine Hepburn” or the “thickish fingers” of John Boles and Warren William to tell their temperament and acting skills?

The book also contains longer articles on “The Gallant Life of Norma Shearer” and takes readers to the homes of stars like Harold Lloyd, Bette Davis, and . . . Gordon Harker? Robert Montgomery, meanwhile, debates, along with Jeanette MacDonald, “At What Age Are Women Most Charming” and Myrna Loy reveals her “Own Ideas.” It’s all glossy but telling gossip, which I am looking forward to sharing, along with old news from , over the next few days.

Of course, my week was not without pain and what there is of sorrow in my life, among which my tumble down the slippery steps to my room and the breaking down of our car are the most dramatic examples. My lower back and my left toe still ache; the car might not be salvageable at all. In a matter of weeks, I reckon, such woes—which led to dipped feet in cooling springs and a ride through Wales in an Auto Club truck—will be nothing but cheerful anecdotes to be shared among chums. For now, they are inconveniences, at most.

As I have mentioned before, the weeks to come will be somewhat less than regular. On 7 August, I shall return, however briefly, to my old home in New York City. In the meantime, I resume my journal, hoping it will be appreciated by those who make it a habit to keep up with someone as gleefully out-of-date as yours truly, broadcastellan.

On This Day in 1937: Claudette Colbert Gets Her “Hands” on Lombard’s Part

Well, we’ve all got them, I guess. Those lists of favorite books, or blogs, or breakfast cereals, or some such itemized accounts of our current predilections. They are supposed to tell others something we deem important about ourselves at some point of our lives; but, looked upon in retrospect, they can become a revelation to us, confronting us with time capsules of our likes, longings, and limitations. Here, for instance, are the top three entries on a list of all-time favorite movies as I compiled it back in 1986:

Holiday (George Cukor; 1938)
Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Leisen; 1935)
Fade to Black (Vernon Zimmerman; 1980)

Now, I have not seen Fade to Black since the 1980s. It is a slasher movie for cinemaniacs, which is why I could identify with it back then. For reasons I did not yet fully comprehend, I was drawn, fairly early in my life, to the films and figure of Mitchell Leisen, a tremendously successful designer-director, but not a particularly well-remembered or highly regarded craftsman nowadays.

Hands Across the Table is a simple you-can-have-your-beefcake-and-eat-it romance starring Carole Lombard as a penniless manicurist, Ralph Bellamy as a rich invalid who’d like to get his hands on her, and Fred MacMurray as a carefree man-about-town with dubious work ethics who eventually sweeps her off her feet. That pretty much sums it up—unless, of course, I’d have to explain the feeling of being torn between having my nails polished by gorgeous Lombard and running my fingers through MacMurray’s hair.

On this day, 3 May, in 1937, Hands Across the Table went on the air in an adaptation produced by that most prestigious and popular of radio theatricals, the Cecil B. DeMille hosted Lux Radio Theatre. It was this series, along with my love for 1930s and early 1940s screwball comedies that got me interested in old-time radio.

Once you have exhausted the classics, you will find a worthwhile substitute in American radio programs like Lux, which give you not only an opportunity to catch a different reading of films so familiar to you that they play before your mind’s eye, but also allow you to re-imagine them with alternate casts. What, for instance, if Suspicion had starred Olivia de Havilland, rather than her sister, Joan Fontaine? How would Barbara Stanwyck or Ida Lupino fare in Merle Oberon’s role as Cathy in Wuthering Heights [thanks to André Soares for editing]? And what, if anything, could Loretta Young do when called upon to take over for Bette Davis in Jezebel? It all happened on the Lux program.

In Lux‘s audio version of Hands Across the Table, Carole Lombard’s role was performed by Claudette Colbert, who would later be Leisen’s leading lady in Midnight (1939). It was Colbert’s fourth appearance on the show, whose sponsors not only paid handsomely for such brief encounters with the microphone (up to $5000 for top-notchers), but also promoted the stars’ movie careers (by mentioning, in Colbert’s case, the upcoming releases I Met Him in Paris and Tovarich). Heard in the Fred MacMurray part is Colbert’s Palm Beach Story co-star Joel McCrea (pictured above, with Colbert, reading the “Hands Across” script). Introducing the two leads, showman DeMille credited himself with their discovery:

Greetings from Hollywood. Tonight’s event, with its glittering stage, its scientific wizardry that carries our voices to all corners of the earth and its audience of millions is a thing that I couldn’t have predicted when I first knew Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea.  The Lux Radio Theater was then as remote from Hollywood as the moon. But I predicted the eventual triumph of these two young people and was privileged to contribute to it.  I gave Joel McCrea his first motion picture contract.  Claudette was not then the favorite of millions, allowed to choose her stories, directors, and writers. The studio insisted I give her a dialogue test before casting her.  I did—and starred her in The Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra.

For the privilege of putting her hands on Lombard’s part—and the generous remuneration on the table—Colbert was obliged to declare that they had touched nothing but Lux toilet soap ever since her first appearance on the New York stage (in the 1920s). As I put it in my study of old-time radio, it was all a matter of one hand washing the other.

Stripping on Camera, Teasing on Air: Cecil B. DeMille, Four Frightened People, and the It of Radio Trailers

I’ve just returned from the steamy jungle adventure that is Four Frightened People; it’s one of the lesser-known—and lesser—melodramas directed by Cecil B. DeMille, maker of epic spectaculars and master of sensational showmanship. Before I compose myself and submit my review of this early 1934 pre-code effort to the Internet Movie Database, I am going to discuss it here in relation to, what else, old-time radio. I was fortunate to have come across an on-air trailer for the film, a rare recording from the archives of WFUV in New York.
Introducing his latest motion picture on the Paramount Movie Parade, DeMille began to set up his persona as the swanky pimp of Tinseltown, an image so skillfully exploited during his tenure as host of the well-oiled and powerful advertising engine that was the Lux Radio Theater. DeMille sure knew how to hawk his salacious wares, even as Hollywood was facing the pressure of the Production Code, which was responsible for timed kisses and screwball cheek.

An expert at unwrapping his leading ladies for public display, and at packaging such lowbrow peepshows as high art, DeMille found a great extension to his lure in radio. On the air, he could stimulate his potential audiences to picture in the dirtier recesses of their minds what they just had to go see for themselves at the theaters.

We have “a surprise for you,” the Paramount Movie Parade barker promises the listener. Instead of disembodying another heartthrob, the program brings before us one of Hollywood’s invisible VIPs—”a celebrity never seen in the films, but a man whose artistry nevertheless has been manifested on the screen many times. He’s one of the real pioneers of the motion picture industry, responsible for many of its history-making productions.”

The legendary director expresses his gratitude and is only too glad to seize the microphone: “It isn’t often that we who work behind the cameras have an opportunity to speak to those who view the results of our work on the screen.” That he has “just returned to Hollywood after months spent in the South Seas” where he “underwent many hardships, unexpected thrills, and even dangers” makes this an occasion for exciting storytelling.

What follows is a selection of snippets from the film’s soundtrack (rather than restaged scenes, as those heard on the Lux program) introduced and commented on by the director. We can readily imagine what might happen if four civilized people—two men and two women—get lost in a tropical wilderness. “They reveal just how rapidly the polite mold of civilization disintegrates under the influence of the jungle. These people shed civilization when they shed their clothes. They become like animals of the jungle, fighting and loving, like the beasts who terrify them.”

And shedding her clothes for him as she had done before (in The Sign of the Cross) was that favorite among DeMille’s leading ladies, Ms. Claudette Colbert. This time, however, the director did not use the context of antiquity as a pretext for showcasing her beauty; instead, he dwells on the film’s “authenticity” as a nature study.

DeMille has all the braggadocio of King Kong‘s Carl Denham; but with Colbert as his Ann Darrow, an awakening sex goddess pursued by two none too moral mortals (one married, no less), this Hollywood showman is not in need of a supersized ape to symbolize libido. It’s all in our minds already—and the radio trailer does its darndest to keep it burning within us until we are all fired up to see this Paramount paradise and follow Colbert, along with the boys, to that less than cooling waterfall in the deep woods.

The First to Take Her Out; or, My Date with a Misleading Lady

It is increasingly rare these days to come across a star-powered American movie of the 1930s that hasn’t already been reviewed by at least one person submitting a review to the Internet Movie Database. I did not set out to dig up such an unexamined rarity, but was rather surprised—and pleased—to have unearthed one by dusting off The Misleading Lady, a comedy starring my favorite leading lady, Ms. .

Now, as those who have indulged me in sharing my passions and foibles may already be too keenly aware, I enjoy gathering and gazing at the likenesses of this sophisticated comedienne on posters, magazine covers, and, yes, paper dolls. As an undergraduate, I wrote a speech about her, which I sent to her home in Barbados—and received her autograph. Later, she became the subject of an honors paper titled “Ladies in Loco-Motion.” And later still, thoughts of her got me started on what turned into my doctoral study on radio drama (Etherized Victorians), which has its origin in my joyous discovery that Colbert not infrequently performed on the air.

Come Christmas time, I go so far as to insist on dangling cardboard replicas of the good woman from our tree—but that’s about as fanatical as I get. Still, there is nothing more gratifying than the real thing: to watch or hear Colbert act. Having missed the opportunity to see her perform on the Broadway or London stage, I find great consolation in the fact that she had starring roles in about sixty motion pictures.

While in New York City last, I packed a few more videos in my trunk; but there remained—and still remain—gaps in my knowledge of Colbert’s cinematic achievements (and occasional misfires). So, how wonderful was it to find under aforementioned piece of dislodged pine a number of films I had only read about until then: Secrets of a Secretary, The Man from Yesterday, The Phantom President, Four Frightened People, and The Misleading Lady. Having been ill (and ill-tempered) of late, I did not want to squander these flickering gems by heaping them onto my thick head; so I kept myself tolerably amused watching films like The Saint Strikes Back (a sly caper challenging one of my more simplistic conclusions about Hollywood law and order). Yesterday it was time at last to screen one of these five films, and the Lady took the lead.

The Misleading Lady is no classic, to be sure; few of the films are. Their construction and moral ambiguities render many of them incongruous or downright irritating. We expect such digressions from a contemporary independent film, but are still surprised to encounter it in an old—and therefore presumably stodgy—production of Hollywood’s studio era.

As my IMDb review, once approved, will tell you, The Misleading Lady is not without daring and rather disconcerting scenes involving a bored socialite being trapped in her own scheme to land a man. She doesn’t want the guy, mind you (not at first, at least); but he might just be her ticket to a starring role in a stage play. Once he realizes that he’s been had, he sets out to restore his pride and win the dame in the process. Too bad Colbert doesn’t get to wield the gun more often, but is being terrorized and tamed instead as the farce veers into something more akin to lurid melodrama.

There is a radio angle, of course. Clark Gable played the role of the macho dupe in a 1935 Lux Radio Theatre production of The Misleading Lady. Transcriptions of this broadcast (not starring Colbert, Gable’s partner in It Happened One Night) are unfortunately no longer extant—but I’ve always got this Lady to return to . . .

‘Tis the Season to Reappraise

Well, you know ‘tis the season when you are pleased to find the cardboard likeness of Ms. Claudette Colbert dangling from the branches of a chopped down evergreen. After all, ‘tis the season to revisit old favorites, living, dead, or imagined—the season when the prefix “re-“ becomes the hook on which to fasten our sentiments as we remember old tunes, reflect upon past times, and return unwanted presents. To be sure, it takes a bit of effort (and a want of respect for etymology) to respond to each wintry gale with the determination to regale; but as I am eager to rejoice even while battling a relentless cold with ever-diminishing resilience, I am applying any remedy I can get my hands, eyes, or ears on.

So, once I had finished decking the halls with belles of Hollywood, I caught up with the week’s worth of serialized Dickens I had recorded while still in London. I am referring to Mike Walker’s twenty-part radio adaptation of David Copperfield. Having given up on the BBC’s thrilling television series of Bleak House after missing a few installments, I was anxious to get my Victorian fix for the holidays.

The first five chapters of Walker’s serial faithfully dramatize David’s birth and childhood, bringing before us the acquaintances of his youth—shapeless Peggotty, little Em’ly, hopeful Micawber, and the ever-willing Barkis were all there. Only David was missing, or his point of view, at least. Instead of retaining the first-person narration, Walker decided to install Dickens as the teller of this tale, rather than David, whom the author appointed partly as a stand-in for himself.

The charming, well-remembered opening was chopped in favor of some well-nigh inarticulate blather: “When you care greatly about something or someone . . . well, this is a story about a lot of things and a lot of people. It is a story, . . . but it is my story?” A rather bumbling, awkward start, isn’t it, especially considering that the narrator was not only a first-rate storyteller, but a celebrated orator and performer of his own material.

This is how the real Mr. Dickens, who still wrote in complete, structurally sound sentences, had David introduce himself: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.” And these are pretty much the lines Richard Burton utters at the opening of the US Theatre Guild’s radio adaptation of the novel back on 24 December 1950. The BBC may be a refuge of radio drama—but it frequently blunders where US commercial broadcasting used to succeed.

Is anyone else tuning in? The last broadcastellan poll suggested that radio drama is not quite as doornail dead as I may have made it out to be. I guess I ought not to infer from the silence of cyber- space that no one is familiar with the culture I chose to recover here. And yet, while researching for my dissertation, I realized just how many plays by noted American novelists, playwrights, and poets have been kept out of earshot by those who have us believe that radio drama is neither remarkable nor marketable. It is the act of refusal that turns art into refuse, and it takes some digging to resist it.

My latest poll is meant to draw further attention to this neglect. Few of these plays are still are heard on radio today, and fewer still are in print. Are these works really any worse than the television offerings that spawn glossy companions and trivia books?

But I am being prickly, aren’t I? And ‘tis the season to be otherwise . . .

On This Day in 1940: Burns and Allen Are Regretfully Un(G)able

Reflexivity in art is like a comb-over—a self-conscious cover-up that only draws attention to itself. Like the follicle-challenged pate, a reflexive work of art betrays a failure of growth, the inability of an existing but sickly lingering form to rejuvenate itself. It is generally believed to be a post-modernism affliction; but American radio comedy suggests that it was an airborne disease.

It is hardly surprising, considering that commercial radio went out of its way to sidestep modernism. Elitism paired with experimentation simply spelled bad business for broadcasting. One way of ignoring the modernist movement was stagnancy, a retreat into Victorianisms comforting to bourgeois audiences, sponsors, and network executives alike. Another means of circumventing modernism, ideally suited to comedy, was to acknowledge, tongue-in-cheek, the limitations of the broadcast medium, to dwell on everything radio artists were unable to do.

In short, working in radio required a choice between old hat and obvious comb-over; anything to keep artists from letting their hair down. Take George Burns and Gracie Allen, for instance, who, on this day in 1940, gleefully overdosed on the postmodern formula.

On 16 September 1940, listeners to the Spam-sponsored George Burns and Gracie Allen Show learned that George was in trouble with his sponsors, who were “at a board meeting discussing [his] option.” The new season was off to a shaky start. Intruding on the show in the spirit of reflexivity, the program’s soundman offered his assistance, claiming to having once been a Shakespearean actor. After some quarreling with the powers behind the scenes—acted out in an on-the-phone monologue—a threatened George is forced to book a guest star to boost ratings.

The smaller the numbers, the bigger the star, industry wisdom dictated. Apparently, the numbers added up to a major headache, since George and Gracie were called upon to fetch just about the biggest male lead in Hollywood—none other than Clark Gable. Gable was currently starring opposite Spencer Tracy, , and Hedy Lamarr in the box-office smash Boom Town, which got plenty of on-air promotion from the comedy couple that night. That Gable was virtually a radio no-show—a fact mentioned by Burns and known to listeners—complicated matters considerably.

What made them still worse was the task of adapting the scenario of Boom Town, which, as George and Gracie drove home with a truckload of atrocious puns, would never get past the customs of radio’s overeager censors. They couldn’t convey the “hustle and bustle” of Boom Town, since a bustle was never to be mentioned on the air; and they couldn’t say that “sacks of TNT were lying in an angle” because they had to leave out the . . . “sacks angle.”

I guess you get the picture—but George and Gracie sure didn’t. Nor did they get Gable. They hired a sound-alike instead; but even he didn’t manage to go Gable. He did some mediocre impersonations of Lionel Barrymore and Ronald Colman instead, while Gable was assigned a non-speaking part in a hospital sketch that went nowhere. So, at their reflexive worst, George and Gracie never got their show started that night, at least not until Gracie got them both out of this self-conscious mess by attempting to sing a tune.

Hey, if you ain’t got it, flaunt it!

On This Day in 1903: A Girl Named Lily Enters a Nickelodeon-crazy World

The “On This Day” feature I inaugurated last Friday as an experiment in blog-streamlining turned out to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. To be sure, there is no lack of pop cultural fodder to be culled from various sources, even though I soon realized it would not suffice simply to delve deep into the pit of “unpopular culture” in order to conjure up something worthwhile and intriguing to me. Not that I minded having to read a Shakespearean tragedy or Victorian poetry to make it all work to my satisfaction. Nothing is less pleasing than the presentation of mere trivia. Trivia, after all, is everything about which one has nothing to say.

Matter is never trivial—minds are. Any tidbit is a tadpole out of which may grow a stimulating thought. As soon as a piece of otherwise useless information is brought into meaningful relationships, as soon as it becomes the plaything of the imagination, it ceases to be mere quiz piffle. As I discovered, however, it can become quite burdensome and tedious to let the calendar dictate what datum should be dusted off and taken for an airing. Unless, of course, the day happens to be 13 September—the birthday of my favorite motion picture actress, Ms. Claudette Colbert.

Today, nearly a decade after her death, the charming Parisienne born Lily Claudette Chauchoin is mostly remembered for her Oscar-winning performance in It Happened One Night, the only cinematic landmark in her long and lucrative career. I have ceased to be amazed how many well-educated people draw a blank when confronted with her name. She is not one of the untouchables, no larger-than-life goddess like Garbo or Dietrich. She has not inspired the cult following of queer icons like Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. She is no longer thought of as being among the accomplished or outstanding actresses of her day (that is, the 1930s and ‘40s)—probably because she was so decidedly of her day. 

During the Depression and the lean years of wartime rationing, Colbert represented the savvy and urbane gal who could make something out of next to nothing, who survived and thrived using her charm, her wits, and her gams. She wasn’t a gold-digger—she was an adventuress. Here’s a definition of the label, taken from Preston Sturges’s Palm Beach Story:

Colbert (about to run away from her husband): “I might not get married again. I might become an adventuress.”

McCrea (the befuddled husband): “I can just see you starting for China on a twenty-six foot sailboat.”

Colbert: “You’re thinking of an adventurer, dear. An adventuress never goes on anything under three hundred feet with a crew of eighty.”

Instead of waiting to land a husband, she was on her way to make a living. Her characters were rarely tawdry or shrill, rarely timid or severe, which rendered her inoffensive and commendable to audiences of both sexes. The quintessential Colbertian heroine got into precarious situations in order to get out of untenable ones. Standing the test of nonsensical commotion, she was the epitome of common sense. Accessible and admirable at once, she was always Practically Yours.

One biographer attributed her transient stardom to her inability to gauge which projects would translate into cinematic events of lasting brilliance, as well as her failure to forge long-term professional relationships with renowned directors or remarkable actors, connections that worked wonders for comparatively colorless actresses like Myrna Loy. Instead, worked most frequently with artists who, however commercially successful, are for the most part considered second-rate today (such as director Mitchell Leisen or actor Fred MacMurray).  While overstated, there is some truth in this observation.

Now, I don’t generally hold with the what-would-have-happened-if school of thinkers; but if you ever wondered what Colbert might have done with the parts played by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams, Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth and Magnificent Obsession, or Margaret Sullavan in Shop Around the Corner, consider tuning in to the Lux Radio Theatre, where she was also heard revisiting the stage role that brought her fame long before Hollywood claimed her: Lou in The Barker.

Even when dealing with stage and screen, radio can often be relied give us a fuller picture; in this case, a fuller picture of an enterprising adventuress who made it her career to “paint the lily.”

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.

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?