The recent passing of Academy Award winning actress Shelley Winters compelled me to inaugurate a new column, a recurring feature I shall call “What Those Who Remembered Forgot.” The title is meant to suggest that the obituaries of people active in Hollywood during the 1930s, ‘40s, or early to mid ‘50s, often omit references to their work on radio—the single most important source of home entertainment in the United States prior to the ascendancy of television. The BBC’s obituary of Shelley Winters is no exception. It informs readers that Winters’s “television appearances spanned several decades,” but has not a word to spare on the actress’s radio performances, eleven of which are listed here in David Goldin’s invaluable database of old-time radio recordings.
From Mary Pickford to Marilyn Monroe, every actress who made a name for herself in Hollywood made use of the promotional facility of radio to keep that name on the minds and lips of American moviegoers. Winters’s radio credits include appearances on notable dramatic programs such as Screen Director’s Playhouse (5 June 1949), Stars Over Hollywood (22 November 1952), and the Lux Radio Theatre (5 January 1953). In comedic turns, she was heard as a guest on the Martin and Lewis program (16 November 1951) and played an unlikely Valentine for Archie on Duffy’s Tavern (16 February 1950).
In what appears to be her first dramatic role in a piece written especially for radio—Family Theater‘s “Throw Your Heart in the Ring” (27 April 1949)—Winters plays Maggie, a city nurse who proudly claims never to have broken a rule, but at last breaks her own record when she finds herself torn between acting by the book and following her heart.
Told about a man in need of her assistance, she comes to the aid of an aloof, gun-carrying stranger apparently hiding from the law. He might be a killer; but Maggie decides to violate regulations by not reporting the case while she treats the initially ungrateful patient secretly in his hotel room. As the two get to know each other, and as she learns the truth about him, she manages to convince the disheartened man to face his own responsibilities.
A forgettable play? Perhaps. Yet it is the medium we are apt to forget along with such performances, thereby denying ourselves not only access to a marginal aspect of an actor’s career, but the appreciation of her craft as it unfolds beyond her physical presence. Here, Winters is all voice; and so strong is the hold images have over most of us that we find it difficult to engage in this disembodiment, as if a voice without a body were somehow not the real thing, artistically insubstantial—in a word, immaterial.
Five and a half years after the Family Theater broadcast, Winters participated in what may be labeled an assault on the integrity of audio drama by recreating the part of Mrs. Stevenson in “Sorry, Wrong Number”—the most famous of all American radio plays—for the competing medium of television. It does not follow, however, that her contributions to the aural arts should be entirely silenced in the process.