Fat Lies Tuesday; or, Time to Love and Time to Hate

This is a day for disguises, and a night of unmasking. A time to let yourself go, and a time to let go of something. A night to make an ass of yourself, and a morning to mark yourself with ash. Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fastnacht. Back where I come from—Germany’s Rhineland—carnival is a major holiday, an interlude set aside for delusions, for letting powerless misrule themselves: laborers parading in the streets without demanding higher wages, farmers nominating mock kings and drag queens to preside over their revels; women storming the houses of local government to perform the ritual of emasculation by cutting off the ties that hang from the necks of the ruling sex. It is a riotous spectacle designed to preserve what is; a staged and sanctioned ersatz rebellion that exhausts itself in hangovers.

Sometimes, the disillusionment creeps up on you only gradually. Upon reflection, that wondrous “what if” begins to sound more like sobering “as if!” You may have had a good time—but, when it comes right down to it, you’ve been had.

As a political instrument, the radio is not unlike Mardi Gras. Tuning in after a day’s work is a carnivalesque experience—the partaking of a communal pancake made from the eggs with which you didn’t dare to pelt those who own most of the chicken. It is the allotted substitute for the half-forgotten voice that those content to listen tend to deny themselves. Broadcasting was, after all, an industry in the service of keeping things as they are or as they ought to be—according to those who operate (within) it.

Radio’s most prominent voices belonged to the fools and the tricksters—Ed Wynn, Baron Munchausen, and the irreverent, imaginary Charlie McCarthy; but during the lean years of depression and war, a period when the medium was at its most influential, radio also coaxed listeners into making sacrifices by driving home their frugality or fortitude could make a difference. One such Atwater-Lent offering was “The Women Stayed at Home,” first heard on this day, 24 February, in 1940. It was written by Arch Oboler, the medium’s foremost melodramatist. If one contemporary source is to be believed, Oboler penned more than four hundred plays between 1935 and 1940 alone. The bulk of his output may be classified either as schlock or as propaganda; except that much of his work is not either, it is both.

There is jolly little cheer in “The Women Stayed at Home,” starring Norma Shearer, whose 1939 screen success The Women may well have suggested the title. Not that, aside from the performer and the spurious message of female empowerment, there are any similarities between those two vehicles. The opening scene of the latter is the “wind-wept” coast of an unspecified country.

It is night. For once the sea is calm. It waits ominously upon the edge offshore where sits a woman and an old man. For a long time they have sat quietly, but now woman speaks to the old man, and her words lift out to the sea on the rush of the wind. . . .

The woman is Celia. The old man is one of us—a listener. Shortly after her wedding, Celia’s fisherman husband perishes at sea. When war breaks out, she feels that she has nothing for which to live or fight. Being refused a chance to be of use to the community, she decides to drown herself. In the attempt, she happens upon a body in the water, the body of a man yet living—a “man from an enemy boat.” Torn between her civic duty and her moral responsibility, Celia decides to be a nurse to Carl, the German stranger whose needs and gratitude imbue her with a sense of purpose that gradually turns into love. Aware of having placed Celia in a precarious position, Carl disappears; but Celia, no longer lonely, is convinced that he will return to her one day.

There was a market for such sentiment prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the isolationist lobby was still strong and outspoken responses to fascism were rarely heard on the air. In 1942, when the play was published, Oboler tried to justify its inclusion in This Freedom by arguing that “after a while, you find yourself hating too much”—a justification clearly tagged on since, back in 1940, even a prominent writer like Oboler could not get away with overtly opposing the policy of neutrality by inciting anger and directing it toward a foreign national target.

When the play was revived almost exactly four years later, in February 1944, the situation had long changed and the playwright was quick to adjust the message to suit the occasion that was Everything for the Boys, a variety program for American servicemen. Oboler had turned into a staunch advocate of hatred. That is, he argued it to be more effective to make Americans hate the enemy than love their own country. It was hate that got things done.

The pseudo-pacifist “Women,” now headed by Mercedes McCambridge, became a patriotic morale booster set in Norway under German occupation. The stranger washed ashore is now a British flyer (played by Ronald Colman). Celia’s dilemma: whether to hide the man or nurse him back to fighting form. After he is gone, a newly invigorated Celia declares:

I like to think that he knows I’m fighting now, too. For the good people. Some day the fighting will be over. It must end. He’ll come back to me. I’ll never be lonely any more.

“The Women Stayed at Home” is clearly of the ready-mix, on demand variety; but it takes a comparative taste test to expose both versions as sham. Real conflict is reduced to melodramatic opportunity; genuine emotion whipped up to achieve whatever was expedient. Sure, there was a time to love and a time to hate—and Arch Oboler had just the words to paint the sign of the times in whatever color suited the mood.

When anti-war laments were popular, Oboler taught them be mindful of how Johnny Got His Gun and what good it did him. He introduced Americans to a “Steel” worker ashamed of being in the service of making war. “The Women Stayed at Home” betrays the opportunist who knew how to keep the pot boiling, a trader in sentiment who did not hesitate to discard supposedly outmoded principles like so many rotten eggs.

Whatever you give up for Lent, keep your integrity.


Related recordings
”The Women Stayed at Home,” Everyman’s Theater (24 Feb. 1940)
“The Women Stayed at Home,” Everything for the Boys (22 February 1944)

Related Writings
“Senseless: One Soldier’s Fight to Speak Against War” (on Oboler’s adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun)
“Bette Davis Gives Birth to Arch Oboler’s ‘American’”
“‘. . . originally written for Bette Davis’: Arch Oboler’s ‘Alter Ego’”
“Hollywood Star Kay Francis Makes Paralysis Sound Like Paradise”
“Mercedes McCambridge, Airwaves Advocate”

Banks (for the Memories)

“How do you want it?” the stern-looking woman inquired. “In tens,” I said, because I needed it that way. She was a bank clerk behind a counter; and I was referring to the denomination in which a portion of my savings was to be returned to me. I sounded like a masochist saying it; but, stepping into the money market in tense times such as ours, you must really be a glutton for punishment. As someone who still counts his savings in tens, I am not among the afflicted. Still, what with that whiff of October 1929 in the air and Iceland at the center of an international incident, you’ve got to be in hysterics to be laughing all the way to the vault.

Could an economic bust be a boon for the sit-at-home, dim-the-lights medium of radio? Of all commercial enterprises catering to our need for news and entertainment, it was the wireless that experienced a boom during the Great Depression. Radio profited from the closing of Broadway shows and the demise of Vaudeville. And while programs on the air advertised plenty of products, they came to your home free of charge; unlike today’s cable and satellite receiver, the old cat’s whiskers did not require a subscription. Even the equipment could be assembled cheaply.

Be it Wall Street laying an egg or enemy planes dropping bombs, the poor cousin of television truly comes into its own when the world is in turmoil. To be topical, for once, I am listening to a few classic programs featuring assorted banking woes.

Jack Benny pinching a penny, safecrackers at work in an episode of Gang Busters, or hapless yokels like Lum and Abner offering financial services, radio gave the public an earful of what, for the most part, it didn’t have: money, and the trouble that comes it with, especially when it goes. Given the prudery of radio entertainment, it is probably safe to assert that misdeeds for dough outnumbered crimes of passion on the air, unless that passion exhausted itself in a peck on the cheek, however embellished it might get in your mind. Mr. Keen may not have been a Tracer of Lost Profits, but radio thrillers were nonetheless teeming with have-nots trying to get some without resorting to the legalized gambling known as the stock market.

“Please, would you come to the bank with me. Please,” a woman urges, with distress in her voice.

I, I’ve asked so many people, but they won’t listen to me. You, will you come to the bank with me? No, don’t turn your head. Please don’t go away. Listen, if I tell you very carefully why I want you to come to the bank with me, you will come, won’t you?

Another terrified investor? A demented clerk trying to get you to open an account? Well, wait and hear. It is the opening of a Lights Out! thriller cheekily titled “Come to the Bank” (17 November 1942). As playwright Arch Oboler explains, it is “the story of a woman who, for strange reasons soon apparent, is determined to get us to the bank.” These days, as empty bank vaults are about as spine-chilling a setting as a crowded morgue, the above plea makes for an intriguing premise indeed, especially if the concept of a presumably solid depository and a final resting place are being equated.

“Come to the Bank” is the account of a woman robbed of her savings as well as her sanity, insisting as she is that the missing man she cared for is “entombed” in the wall of the titular institution. “This is your last warning,” a psychiatrist tells her, “You are to stay away from the bank. You are to behave yourself as the good, intelligent citizen you normally are.” If he were alive today, shrewd Mr. O would milk his scenario for all it is worth.

“. . . originally written for Bette Davis”: Arch Oboler’s “Alter Ego”

Get ready for a few bumpy nights. As anyone watching Turner Classic Movies UK is aware by now, Bette Davis is currently “on tour.” The expired thespian is even scheduled to make appearances at our local Arts Centre here in Wales, albeit not to account for her assault on Welsh culture in The Corn Is Green. Apparently, the announcement of a retrospective of her films, reels now making the rounds in Britain, did not strike promoters as being sensational enough to herald the coming-to-town of one of filmdom’s most celebrated melodramatic actresses. Even with our eyes shut and her trademark peepers out of the picture, Davis still wowed them on the radio, inspiring the medium’s foremost melodramatist, Arch Oboler, to write plays for her. One such collaboration, “An American Is Born,” I have already discussed here. An even greater tour-de-force was “Alter Ego,” a psychological thriller inspired, no less, by a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

“Alter Ego” was first produced by the Texaco Star Theater (5 October 1938), with Davis in the role of a young woman compelled by an inner voice to kill her lover. Retitled “Another World,” the psychodrama was subsequently presented on Arch Oboler’s Plays (28 July 1939), with radio actress Betty Garde in the lead. On this day, 22 April, in 1945, “Alter Ego” was once again soundstaged under its original title, this time around in a Your Radio Hall of Fame production (preserved here by Jerry Haendiges on Same Time, Same Station). The play was introduced by its grandiloquent author, whose ego was big enough for two. He pointed out that “Alter Ego” was “originally written for Bette Davis”; but since the Radio Hall of Fame paid “tribute to radio,” the play was cast for the occasion with “two of radio’s outstanding actresses”: Ann Shepard and Mercedes McCambridge (pictured above and previously commemorated here).

It is “definitely a play indigenous to the radio form,” Oboler commented on the published script. “In no other medium could the ‘two mind systems’ existing in the same body be portrayed as effectively.” That did not stop him from adapting “Alter Ego” for the movies, as was dutifully pointed out by Your Radio Hall of Fame host Clifton Fadiman (last mentioned here. The Oboler-directed Bewitched (1945), then in theaters, starred Phyllis Thaxter in the role of the tormented Joan and Audrey Totter lending her voice but not appearing onscreen as Joan’s alter ego, Carmen.

“Alter Ego” is a sensational play that, according to one contemporary critic, has all the subtlety of a sparring match. Before the duel can commence, Oboler sets the scene: a cell in a state penitentiary, where Joan is awaiting her execution. Having no one to talk to about the inner voices that haunt her, Joan addresses her dead mother, promising to tell her “everything that happened.”

Joan’s ordeal started with the “boy next door,” Bob. Soon after her father announced their engagement, Joan (Shepard) is tormented by a voice (McCambridge) commanding her to leave her husband-to-be and to stop fighting her impulses: “Give it up to me—your body, your mind. You must, you will. I won’t go back in the dark. I’ll live, I’ll live!”

Joan is at a loss to communicate even to Bob the strange urgings that she herself does not comprehend. When Bob refuses to let go of Joan, Carmen forces her to stab him to death with a pair of scissors by dictating the movements of the body she longs to possess. Joan is tried for murder. About to be acquitted, she confesses to the crime of which she believes herself to be innocent. Knowing no other way out, she determines to conquer the voice within by giving up the body they both inhabited. Joan faces the gallows. After the trap is sprung, a soft-voiced Joan triumphs from the beyond: “You were wrong, Carmen—evil one—you were wrong. . . . Now there is peace.”

Apparently, Oboler deems the morose Joan—or any woman taking to an inner twin or a mother in the imagined hereafter than to confide in a man to whom she is supposed to give her hotly contested body—altogether past cure, if indeed the desire to escape a sanctioned union is in need of one. Advocating suicide rather than therapy, the master of pop-psychology schlock shuts Joan up so as to keep her from speaking the mind she is argued to have been out of. I’m surprised Ms. Davis did not take those scissors and cut . . . the script to pieces. Then again, unlike the actresses who followed her, she did get to take on a dual role, duel with Joan, and rise to the challenge of upstaging herself.

Senseless: One Soldier’s Fight to Speak Against War

Well, how do you like that! We just got ourselves a DVD/VCR recorder, in hopes of upgrading our video library and phasing out the old tapes that are piling up all over the place. As it turns out, the cassettes I shipped over from the US, which had played fine on the machine that gave up the ghost a couple of days ago, are being rejected by the new, regionally coded, high-tech marvel. Is it any wonder I am such an advocate of the state-of-the-Ark, the marvels of old-time radio drama?

On this day, 9 March, in 1940, for instance, playwright Arch Oboler masterfully exploited the potentialities of the medium with his adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. As reworked by Oboler, this “most talked of book of the year” relates the experience of a soldier (portrayed by James Cagney) who lost his limbs, his vision, his hearing in combat. More than twenty years later, lying “alone in a room in a hospital close to your city,” having “no arms, no legs, no ears with which to hear, no eyes with which to see, no mouth with which to speak,” he yet learns to communicate what serving his country at once enabled and disabled him to say. He does not want a medal; he wants to speak up. It is a freedom for which he fought with the weaponry that is responsible for its loss.

According to Oboler, Trumbo’s story “has even greater emotional impact” on the air because, by virtue of being “transformed into living speech,” the soldier’s words attain an “almost unendurable reality.” Johnny does not address the audience, but is overheard in his desperate attempt to make himself understood by the hospital staff and visitors, the living beings he senses only through the vibrations of their movements.

Oboler was particularly impressed by the scenes in which the “blind, deaf and dumb soldier learns to recognize the approach of the nurse by the vibrations of her footsteps coming up through the bedsprings and reacting against his skin.” It is a cruel irony that appeals to the melodramatist: a man who nearly lost all his senses now tries to make others come to theirs.

Unlike the 1971 movie adaptation, however, “Johnny Got His Gun” was produced at a time when speaking up against war was neither daring nor idealistic. Indeed, most intellectuals warned against a false peace, whereas to isolationists, who didn’t mind dealing with fascists overseas, keeping out of it was literally good for business.

Oboler was no pacifist; soon he would distance himself from “Johnny” and advocate instead the stirring of “hate” as being instrumental in motivating the masses in wartime. “Do not tell me that the people are disillusioned because of our past sins, our ‘Johnny Got His Guns,’ and so on, and that they need a dream of the new world before they are going to fight,” Oboler argued; “anger is what people want. And they want hate, the hate of a determined people who are going to kill and must kill to win this war.” That mass of “living flesh” in the hospital bed had made his appeal in vain.

New generations of Johnnies are getting their guns. No one hands us a voice; that we have to find for ourselves and raise while we may.

“Dark World”: Arch Oboler Makes Paralysis Sound Like Paradise

Nothing ends a joyful gathering more abruptly than an emergency phone call. We were taking in the sun on this mild afternoon here in Ceredigion when one in our party was being told that her mother had a wasp in her tea and was rushed to the hospital. I refrained from relating the story I had been told a few months ago during our trip to Cornwall, where I heard that the same dietary supplement had meant the end of a beloved pet. Best wishes and hopes for a speedy recovery was all I could impart at parting. True, I prefer looking on the bright side and make light of dark matters—an approach to life it has taken me decades to adopt. Still, sometimes the bright side is downright garish and irritating, a neon artifice that cons or comforts none. Take the story melodramatist Arch Oboler shared with US radio listeners on this day, 3 August, in 1942.

The play was “Dark World” and was soundstaged for the anthology program This Is Our America. Heard in the leading role was screen actress Kay Francis, who is enjoying considerable critical attention these days and is being celebrated in one of my favorite webjournals, Trouble in Paradise. On that August day back in 1942, Ms. Francis had several million Americans in her spell—but what a dizzying one it was.

As might be expected, particularly given the title of the series in which it was featured, “Dark World” is a comment on the horrors of warfare. It certainly was a change from the jingoism of the day, delivered by the creator of the fiercely pacifist and similarly themed “Johnny Got His Gun,” adapted by the same playwright. And yet, Mr. Oboler was one of the chief advocates of hate as a motivator in wartime; and “Dark World,” which was first produced nearly two-and-a-half years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, is ambivalent, which is the academic term for murky and muddled.

“Dark World” opens as two nurses lean over and contemplate the body of a dead patient, the paralytic Carol. “I just don’t get it!” one nurse tells the other. “All the time you’ve been on the staff, I’ve never seen you act this way over losing a case! And especially this one—blind—paralyzed—helpless . . .” “That’s just it!” her colleague responds. “For twenty-five years—from the hour she was born—Carol Mathews had nothing but loneliness and misery! And then to die like this—never having known anything but darkness—it isn’t fair—it isn’t fair!” Has Carol’s existence been worthless? Is her death a relief? It is the dead woman herself who has the last word on the matter:

Hello, Amy. . . . Hello, Amy. . . . No, you can’t hear me, can you? And yet I must speak—while I’m still here close to you. You said I’d never known anything but darkness. . . . You’re very wrong, Amy. There was never any darkness in my world. How cold there be? The skies that I saw never clouded. The flowers never faded. The trees were always green and fresh. I saw a lovely world in my darkness, Amy—lovely. . . .

It was a world inhabited by the words of Victor Hugo and Joseph Conrad, “and all the rest,” Carol insists; “theirs weren’t just words printed on white pages as you read them to me! They were white, flaming magic that carried me so far away from here—to the sea. . . .” It was a “world of space and freedom, where each man had a dignity of self so great the he could not bear the hurt of other men who are all as himself.” Carol’s friends were the “Brownings—oh, such charming people—and Shakespeare—I used to argue with him! And Keats”; and “Walt Whitman—yes, he was here, too. . . . He taught me not to be afraid!” and “Schubert and Brahms and Mozart and Tschaikowsky—all of them—my friends!”

Carol claims to have “made a world” in her” darkness,” a world “where everyone walk in loveliness—where things were as they might some day be.” Thanking the nurse for her pity, she reminds her that “pity is for those who have nothing—and I had a world where all was beauty.”

Is “Dark World” advocating isolationism? Is it a perverse escape fantasy in which passivity, however involuntary, is deemed preferable to resistance and strife? In the triumph of mind over matter, Oboler’s play celebrates the medium; and in its sentimentalizing of inaction, it takes the side of the radio audience, those having stories read to them, stories that take on a life in the imagination of each receptive listener. It was the very passivity and solitary play that most propaganda drama, including Oboler’s own, worked hard to combat.

Dark is the world in which a case of paralytic blindness may be presented as a prelapsarian vision.

Bringing It Home: Arch Oboler’s "Visitor from Hades"

There will be seven of us tonight. For the first time since I moved into the small house halfway up in the Welsh hills (back in the autumn of 2004), these walls and the hedge surrounding the garden will encircle something approaching a crowd. Unless, of course, one subscribes to the view that three suffice to form such a gathering, an adage suggesting that any two people enjoying each other’s company will find a third party to be an intrusion on their happiness—or their private misery. The American melodramatist Arch Oboler played around with this idea in “The Visitor from Hades,” a thriller broadcast on this day, 13 July, in 1943.

“The Visitor from Hades,” which is no comment on the reception of that noted (and, some think, notorious) world leader during his stopover in Germany today, tells the story of a married couple who are less than embracing of each other. They have quarrelled too much in quarters too close not to be visited by doubts about their relationship. On the day Mr. Oboler chose to dramatize, the two are ready to murder one another, or at least threaten as much in their fierce argument.

Now, you might expect that some such attempt will be made in the course of the play. Whether to clarify positions or simply to captivate its audience, relies on violent confrontations, on concrete manifestations of differences that, in many a radio thriller, were settled with guns—the implement eight out of ten sound effect artists recommend. Okay, so I made up that piece of statistic; but firearms sure were popular in dramas depending entirely on sound—on speech, noise, and silent intervals just long enough to make you wonder who among the duelling debaters went down and who might have succeeded in making this most definite of statements.

“The Visitor from Hades” forgoes such a connubial shootout. The violence is audible, all right; but it is the sound of smashed glass that puts an end to the name calling between Dora and her husband, Sam. In a domestic dispute, anything handy may serve as a missile when remarks seem to miss the mark. Has Dora been hurling something more tangible than insults? Has Sam beaten her to it? Or has some third party, fed up with the bad-neighborly bickering, smashed one of their windows? Perhaps, as is so often the case in the deus-ex-machinations of the melodramatist, the intervening force has been coincidental to this fight. Just what kind of story does this sound tell?

The listener is given some time to speculate about this turn of events, ambiguities that generally make for the most thrilling moments to be enjoyed in the theater of the mind. Two things are certain at this stage in the play: the couple have heard something crash and, as a result of this disruption, have stopped confronting each other. You might say, if such puns are acceptable to you, that they have been soundly defeated. Now, they are forced to face the intruder, the titular “Visitor.”

The two are terrified by his presence. It is a voiceless, soundless presence that prolongs the listener’s sense of uncertainty about what exactly is happening between or to them. The shocking experience of discovering an intruder in their none-too-happy home, the play suggests, is teaching Dora and Sam a lesson about their marriage; confronting the depth of their hatred is helping them to rekindle their love.

I have never been an admirer of Mr. Oboler’s work, partly because he was so immodest about its artistic merits and social significance. Such pretensions aside, he was an efficient craftsman and propagandist whose plays succeeded in the aural medium precisely because they were made for it. “The Visitor from Hades” is one of Oboler’s smarter performances. It goes beyond the claptrap of many of his sonic potboilers, whether they were written, like this particular piece, for the thriller series Lights Out! or for one of his more sober anthologies of propaganda dramas. Its premise, at least, is perfectly suited to the medium; it is entirely radiogenic in its conjuring up of a menacing presence that is not only invisible but soundless (and as such difficult to contain and conquer).

It is a play in which an idea can take center stage. Despite its perfunctory dialogue and an insistence on doing away with its intriguing ambiguities in a rather graceless and overstated manner, it generates something else besides mere surprises and is more lasting in its effect on the listener’s imagination.

To my mind, however, it also generates some doubt as to the sincerity of its sentiment. After all, it was Oboler who, during those war years, insisted on raising the spectre of hatred and unleashing it in the living rooms of America. It was the hatred toward what might destroy us that Oboler argued to be essential to victory, an approach to wartime propaganda that made him quite a few influential enemies and, according to him, caused the sudden cancellation of one of his play cycles. Oboler counted too much on American’s potential for hatred to be demonstrating the triumph of love.

On This Day in 1942: Bette Davis Gives Birth to Arch Oboler’s “American”

The retrograde activity of keeping up with the out-of-date seems generally ill-suited to blogging. I doubt whether to keep looking back—and looking forward to doing so as I do—is such a forward looking thing to do. A blog signifies little to most readers if it cannot bring them up-to-date on its declared subject matter, be it popular culture, politics, or fly-fishing. I have often felt compelled—and more often been compelled by others—to defend my engagement with the outmoded; indeed, the first comment left for me in the Blog Explosion directory was a terse “why?”

The answer, if I felt obliged to dignify such a monosyllabic and misologic remark with a reply, would be a simple one: because I enjoy the challenge of discovering the relevance of a work of art, a cultural artefact, or an obscure piece of writing not created with me in mind, of debating how much I might be a creation of the mindset behind such products. Not being able to relate or connect to the bygone is a personal loss, and often a dangerous one at that.

Now, it would require some degree of mental obduracy or lack of imagination not to be able to relate to “An American Is Born,” a radio play that aired on US radio on this day, 19 January, in 1942. It deals with persecution and immigration in wartime, which makes it eminently topical. It is also an obvious and deliberate work of propaganda, composed at a time when the word did not yet carry quite as negative a connotation as is attached to it these days. And yet, just how accepting would today’s audiences be of a play like “An American Is Born”? How likely would they find it produced and propagated by the mass media?

“An American Is Born” was adapted by radio playwright Arch Oboler from a novella by Peter Jefferson Packer and Fanya Lawrence Foss. Written at a time when the US had not yet entered World War II, and first soundstaged in late 1940 with Elisabeth Bergner in the lead, it was again produced a little over a year later for the Cavalcade of America program, with Bette Davis heading the cast.

One of Oboler’s favorite leading ladies, Davis played opposite the highly regarded and versatile radio actor Raymond Edward Johnson. Johnson and Davis took on the roles of Czech immigrants Karl Kroft and his pregnant wife Marta. Their US visa having expired, the young couple cross the border to Mexico, where they wait for their quota numbers to come up. “With the left foot first,” Marta insists as they touch Mexican soil. “That means we’ll be back soon.”

Marta, whose father fought for democracy in her native Prague, desires nothing more than for her child to “be an American from his first cry.” In a “world gone mad with the ravings of little men, he should be born in a country that remains sane and firm. A country that believes that man, as an individual, has certain inalienable rights.”

Initially as idealistic and hopeful as the speech Oboler puts in her mouth, Marta is confident that their stay will only last a few days, but is soon undeceived about the process of immigration. For those waiting, the weeks and months across the border are filled with uncertainties, threatened by corruption, extortion, and political persecution.

When a fellow European offers to assist the young couple, Marta little suspects that he is a member of the Gestapo, and that Marta’s openness about her father’s political convictions endangers the lives of her parent and her unborn child. Another immigrant thus intimidated commits suicide, but not before doing away with the enemy in their midst. At the risk of her own life and that of her unborn child, Marta manages to convince Karl to make a dash for it. As the title suggests, the two make their way across the border to the US, where their child takes the first breath of freedom as an American citizen.

When was it that such an overtly propagandistic melodrama last reached a large American audience? The 1991 movie adaptation of the Reagan-era bestseller Not Without My Daughter comes to mind, a film in which even a Coca-Cola sign in a Turkish bordertown was greeted as a herald of American freedom. Are plays of this kind rarer now because Americans have less to be proud of as a nation or because today’s purveyors of popular culture, whether eyeing a hostile international market or banking on the suit-yourself consumerism of the complain-from-the-couch cynic prefer them to believe just that?

Radio did much to hold a nation together, both during the Depression and the Second World War. Clearly, it is no longer a role the media are prepared, willing, or expected to play.

How the Blind Medium Immaterialized Coward’s Blithe Spirit

I guess I am still too wrapped up in US culture to have given British cinema its due. So, last weekend, while on a DVD shopping spree in Manchester, I made an attempt to rectify this cultural lopsidedness. Among my purchases was a copy of David Lean’s Blithe Spirit. Or is it more appropriate to call it Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, even after a noted director has . . . transubstantiated it? Generally, stage plays are treated like the brainchildren of their authors, while motion pictures are attributed to their directors.

How many classic films could you trace back to their screenwriter parentage without resorting to the Internet Movie Database? Anyway, it is an irksome inconsistency I grappled with when I needed to decide how to present and define radio plays for my dissertation (the aforementioned “Etherized Victorians”). Far from being a dead issue, the question arose anew when I followed up my screening of Blithe Spirit (1945) by taking in two radio disincarnations of Coward’s 1941 play.

The first one, soundstaged for Everything for the Boys on 16 May 1944, preceded the world premier of Lean’s feature by a year. Its adaptor was none other than Arch Oboler, probably the biggest name—and not the smallest ego—in US radio drama. Whether daring Americans to turn their Lights Out! or to put on a pair of 3D glasses, Oboler was hardly a subtle craftsman; he certainly was ill-suited to deliver the wit of Noel Coward.

Not surprisingly, Oboler’s rewrite of Blithe Spirit is a humorless affair, a tepid romance rather than a wicked romp. Presented to a live studio audience, the reconstituted comedy elicited only one laugh and a few mild chuckles; nor did it deserve more. The soundman was permitted to break a few dishes—flung by the two ghostly wives of the “hag-ridden” protagonist—but the damage was done largely by eraser, as hardly any of the play’s celebrated witticisms survived the adaptor’s indiscriminate airbrushing.

The challenge seems a formidable one when the play to be radio-readied involves ghosts visible and invisible, audible and inaudible, as well as the flesh and fancy of a decidedly material psychic. A filter microphone and a few hints from The Shadow will not suffice when wit is what is wanting.

Aside from a clipped and colorless script, the casting of Madame Arcati—the robust medium with a penchant for sandwiches, physical exercise, and dry Martinis—made matters worse: fluttery and frazzled, she lost much of her comic weight when portrayed by Edna Best. The Theater Guild on the Air, at least, had access to the original New York cast. It also had the benefit of thirty-five extra minutes, and a script that retained much of the sparkle of Coward’s virtual sex comedy.

On 23 February 1947, nearly two years after Oboler’s inept dabbling in Coward’s froth, the Theater Guild revived Blithe Spirit with considerably greater success. It also broke a few dishes too many (to the audible delight of the studio audience to whom following the job of the soundmen had all the relish of an inside joke); but it kept both the spirit-flesh dynamics and civility-vulgarity dialectics relatively intact.

Sure, Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati fudges a few good lines, and the attempt to explain the fact that Elvira, the irreverent revenant, is visible only to the tormented male and not to his second wife is almost as clumsy as my prose here. Still, having missed the recent London revival of the play , this was a more than tolerable substitute.

However much it tickled me to watch the redoubtable Margaret Rutherford (captured above in an ethereal fade) as she throws herself into the role of Madame Arcati, the Theater Guild adaptation brought the wit of Coward’s lines home to me like no coating of Technicolor ever could.