East If With Eagle

For the reward of a single dollar, readers of Movie-Radio Guide used to send in “boners”—fluffed or unintentionally funny lines they had caught on the air. On 29 Feburary 1940, for instance, Olive Doeling of Petaluma, California, tuned in to station KGO and heard Benny Walker (Benny Walker?) say: “Wish you could see her, folks. She’s lugging a saxophone almost as big as she is behind her.” Another buck went to a listener from Jackson, Mississippi, who reported the following exchange between Major Bowes and a contestant on his Amateur Hour broadcast from 7 June 1936:

CONTESTANT. I was a dressmaker’s model and then I married.
MAJOR. Wholesale or retail?

Reading lines like these makes me want to tune in the original program, to find the recording and hear for myself.

The other day, when I read that Mary Livingstone was supposed to have giggled “Jack, I’ll never forget the look on that ski house when it saw your face,” I wondered whether that was indeed what she had said and how her husband, the cast, and the studio audience had responded. Listening to a recording of the 25 February 1940 broadcast of the Jell-O Program, I heard no such fluff. “I’ll never forget the impression on your face when you crashed in the ski house,” Livingstone said instead. Had J. N. Lawrence from San Diego earned that dollar? Was the “boner” bona fide or bogus?

Well, before accusing any of those tuners-in, I had to remind myself that many of the live programs of the past were staged twice—once for the East Coast, then for the West. What J. N. Lawrence had picked up on California was not what anyone living East could have heard—or anyone listening to a recording of the East Coast broadcast.

How different the two broadcast could be was demonstrated on 20 March 1940, when a certain Mr. Ramshaw caused a riot on the Fred Allen Show. Mr. Ramshaw was a celebrated Golden Eagle who toured the US with his British trainer, falconer Captain C. W. R. Knight. The Captain was encouraged by Allen to let the Mr. Ramshaw fly around in the studio; but, as it turned out, he had little success in convincing the bird to return to him as rehearsed—and not until he had left his mark on the members of the audience assembled in studio 8-H, Radio City, New York.

Actually, as Allen recalled in Treadmill to Oblivion, Mr. Ramshaw had narrowly “missed the shoulder of a student who had come down from Fordham University to advise [Allen] that [he] had won a popularity poll at the school.”

Responding to a complaint from the vice president of NBC, a less than apologetic Allen remarked: “i thought i had seen about everything in radio but the eagle had a trick up his feathered colon that was new to me,” to which he added: “i know you await with trepidation the announcement that i am going to interview sabu with his elephant some week.”

There was no getting back to the script that evening; and the commotion that ensued was another forceful reminder that, for all his talent as a writer, Allen was in even finer feather when he did not have to stick to the ink from his mechanized quill. Now, winging it, or flying by the seat of one’s pants, was not condoned by those who footed the bill of comedy-variety programs and kept an eagle eye on their production. Everything had to be performed as scripted—and strictly within the time allotted for each number, sketch, and broadcast.

So, when Allen had to repeat his program three hours later—at midnight—for the West Coast audience, the spokesperson of Young and Rubicam, the advertising agency working on behalf of the show’s sponsor, did not permit Mr. Ramshaw to make an encore. The segment was out, and, as Stuart Hample (author of “all the sincerity in hollywood” told Max Schmid in a 4 November 2001 interview over WBAI, New York, Allen was forced to revise the script and remove the offending segment.

Allen defended his feathered guest by claiming that Mr. Ramshaw had resented the censor’s “dictatorial order” and, “deprived by nature of the organs essential in the voicing of an audible complaint, called upon his bowels to wreck upon us his reaction to [Mr. Royal’s] martinet ban.”

The feather “l’affaire eagle” added to Allen’s cap never got to tickle his West Coast listeners. Network radio programs may have had a coast-to-coast audience; but, be it an eagle, a turkey, or a lark, some of what took off or managed to escape in the East could never fly or land in the West.

Related recordings
Fred Allen Show, 20 March 1940

What You Might Find While Down in the Mouth

If I’ve been keeping my trap shut lately, it’s on account of some festering crumbs in my cake hole. Sure, I can jaw away about most anything, but I’ve got to have the mind and the mandible to do so. For days now I have been plagued by mouth ulcers that are putting a muzzle on my spirits—not the kind of oral culture I generally engage with in this journal. My gums are following economic trends, making me feel ever longer in the tooth. My left cheek, in turn, might lead you to believe that, in an effort to dodge the downturn, I managed to squirrel something away for a day on which I may mercifully hide my mug under an umbrella. Meanwhile, my taste buds have started to sprout and my lower lip, Angelina Jolied out of all proportions, is suggestive of a law suitable botch or a risk taken by the likes of Maxie Rosenbloom.

Always one to self-diagnose and over-the-counter medicate rather than to seek the professional opinion of someone who, like a satirist with a stethoscope, makes a career out of scrutinizing us at our most unsightly, I have been pondering my condition and its causes. Though I cannot rule out trauma resulting from vigorous brushing recently recommended by my hygienist, I am not inclined to blame my current state on the stress produced by our impending move; if I were quite so readily distressed, I would hardly have survived my previous transplantations. Besides, I have always resented being thought of as a mere tangle of nerves in need of careful rewiring.

I have a long history of allergies, though; and given that my symptoms began to occur following a dinner outing last week, it might well be that my sores are a reaction to something passing my lips that night. Heretofore, my catalogue of allergens has been limited to felines, grass, and dust. Now, that hasn’t kept me from cat-sitting, of which you can make a career in New York City, or from relocating to one of the grassiest spots on the planet; and it certainly did little to convince me to take out the feather duster more often than the snot rag or the inhaler.

I was told early on by the still extant half of the temporary connubial unit responsible for my coming into being—and for getting the heck away from whence I hail—that allergies are an aberrant mental state and that cycling to school through the cornfields or mowing the lawn were activities I could handle if I only put my mind to it. True, I have always been mildly allergic to physical labor; but that was in part due to the damage I saw it inflict on the body, the mind, and the spirit.

My father’s religion was social Darwinism, in the practicing of which he drank himself to death. It would have been futile to convince him that an undistilled grain could be as lethal as a distilled one and that what doesn’t kill you instantaneously does not necessarily make you any stronger in the long run.

I had not planned on delving into my personal history, medical or otherwise. As is often the case, such memories are squeezed out of me by the mere twisting of the dial. Listening to Fred Allen’s 1937 St. Patrick’s Day broadcast, I was reminded of the kind of book I would have liked to have thrown at certain parties aforementioned.

Fred Allen is always good for a few laughs, however painful their elicitation. Annotating his quips can prove more rewarding still. Well before the hosts of our present day chat shows, satirist Allen raided the daily news for his weekly radio programs. In his Town Hall News (“sees nothing, shows all”), Allen commented on the goings-on in New York City, on politics, the economy, on culture high and low. Here is the first of the 17 March 1937 Town Hall News bulletins:

New York City, New York. Dr. R. P. Wodehouse, speaking at the American Institute of General Sciences, claims that hay fever and asthma are increasing in this country. Dr. Wodehouse says clearing up of native vegetation and its replacement by alien plants will add to number of victims.

Allen’s reading of this news item is followed by a skit demonstrating the wide-ranging effect the predicted rise of allergic reactions might have on the afflicted urbanite. This time, though, I was more interested in Allen’s source than in his take on it. My curiosity being immune to ulcers, I soon caught up on R. P. (no relation to P. G.) Wodehouse and his endeavors to “win the secret of a weed’s plain heart” (a quotation prefacing his 1945 study on Hay Fever Plants).

I wish R. P. Wodehouse had been a household name where I grew up; but, as the good doctor reminds me, by quoting John James Ingalls, “grass” is the “forgiveness of nature.” I’ll have to learn to let it grow over my own family plot—and concentrate instead on finding out how to avoid another catastrophic invasion of my oral flora. To cure my foul mood, a generous dose of Fred Allen is indicated . . .

That “tie of sympathy”; or, Five for the Dardos

“Today, the real humorist is fast disappearing.” The “Today” here is 30 January 1949. The voice is that of satirist Fred Allen, who made the claim when called upon to expound on “The State of American Humor” for the benefit of folks tuning in to NBC’s Living 1949. “Yessir,” Allen declared, “the average comedian is a mouth that speaks the thoughts of others’ brains. Machine age humor, like the automobile, is turned out on the assembly line.” As a wordsmith who preferred to live by his own wit, Allen was the free spirit in a machine that increasingly generated shoddily assembled audience participation programs, the temporary demand for which ran him out of business that year—a dead giveaway that executives were not in it for laughs.

Fred Allen

What Allen in his dread of the mechanical and the mercenary could not foresee is that, sixty years on, the “[m]achine age” would give those determined to publish the thoughts of their own brains an instrument with which to bypass the assembly lines and make a beeline for the byline that would otherwise be hard to come by; a forum in which freely to exchange ideas instead of turning out commercial copy in exchange for a few pay-per-click pennies; and a means of reaching out to the “real” among the virtual whose minds are not of the assembly line persuasion.

One way of acknowledging such commercial-free souls and inspiriting kindred is to bestow the Dardos. It might sound like some post-apocalyptic cult; but in truth it is a token

given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.

I am certainly grateful to the two journalists who saw it fit to stamp me thus. After all, Ivan (Thrilling Days of Yesteryear) and Jeff (The Easy Ace) are among the few who share my enthusiasm for broadcast history and historic broadcasts—the kind of kilorecycling that has been going on here for nearly nigh on four years. In felicitous low-fidelity, they are committed, as I am, to re-popularizing the post-popular, to tracing the mainstream that has dried up or run its course into a sea of indifference. Their work “adds value to the Web” all right; but that is rather too prosaic a way of putting it—and, as far as my web experience is concerned, an understatement besides.

Thrilling is what Inner Sanctum’s Lipton Tea lady might have termed “brisk” entertainment. It is entirely without additives or artificial sweeteners, which makes taking refreshment there a guiltless pleasure. Ace, meanwhile, tells it “The Way It Was”; in his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,” he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine, which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past. To relate to them both has been at once “Easy” and “Thrilling.”

The same can be said for the task at hand. In keeping with the “rules,” I

1) accept the Dardos by displaying it here, along with the names of those who bestowed it and a link to their respective journals; and

2) pass it on to another five blogs I deem worthy of this acknowledgement, contacting each of them to let them know they have been selected.

The five journals I single out here have kept this niche in cyberspace from feeling like a padded cell or isolation ward to me. They are all eligible for the “Helen Trent” award, far from mute testament that because a blogger is “thirty-five or more,” an active life online “need not be over,” that blogging “can begin at 35.” The Dardos I bestow upon them because I appreciate their wit, their ebullience and their tenacity; because they do as they please and, by doing so, make me say, “please, keep doing it.”

As Emerson put it, the ‘perception of the comic is a tie of sympathy with other men, a pledge of sanity, and a protection from those perverse tendencies and gloomy insanities in which fine intellects sometimes lose themselves.”

A fine intellect not in danger of gloomy insanities is Doug, who keeps Waking Ambrose. Ambrose Bierce, that is, whose Devil’s Dictionary he translates and updates for the 21st century. What’s more, Doug invites all of us to do the same, and, having acknowledged our contributions, regales us with stories and verse, then finds time to make the rounds and drop us a taut line. In all this interactivity, he is a paragon among bloggers.

There are journalist on the web with whom I keep having imaginary conversations. With Elizabeth of Relative Esoterica, whom I picture as a Myrna Loy unencumbered by a William Powell, I discourse on film noir and biography as we listen to the jazz about which she is not only knowledgeable but passionate. We agree that, while it is unwise to be fanatic about anything, it would be wretched not to feel enthusiastic about something or other.

With Clifton of Canary Feathers I converse about the radio programs that enriched his childhood—be it One Man’s Family or Kaltenmeyer’s Kindergarten—and years in broadcasting as he plays an old but beautifully restored church organ surrounded by cats who flit in and out of a scene brightly lit by . . . a leg lamp. In my daydreams, I can readily dismiss the fact that felines make me sneeze.

With fellow expatriate Fred, he of The Synchronicity of Indeterminacy, I go on about Quiet, Please and the Columbia Workshop as he persuades me to open my mind and ear to contemporary sound artists and aural storytellers. His own stories are a popular and critical success. He might be fascinated by automatons—but is living proof of that the imaginative thinker need not fear extinction. His journal(s) would have put his aforementioned namesake at ease.

With John, the “urbane pagan” of Enchanté, I have had many a conversation; I see him whenever I am back in New York City. A few years ago, he expressed to me his intention of starting a web journal. He finally got underway, and what a way he’s got, casting imaginary musicals—On the Fritz! (“A sparkling new musical about Prussia’s gayest prince [and greatest king]”—or musing about the state of his follicles.

With all of them I feel a certain “tie of sympathy.” That those ties are machine-knit does not make them synthetic. Otherwise, I would hardly be one-hundred percent woolgathering about them . . .

On the Effects of Beholding the Kaaterskill Falls

Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Catskill Mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country. Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains, and they are regarded by all the good wives, far and near, as perfect barometers. When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory.

Thus opens a most curious tale related by the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, a New York historian whose papers have been passed on to us by one Washington Irving. As Mr. Irving comments in his preface to “Rip Van Winkle,” the story in question, the Knickerbocker records of Catskills lore have long since been “admitted into all historical collections as a book of unquestionable authority.”

The astonishing incident in the life of Rip Van Winkle need hardly be recounted here, famous as it has remained to this day. Besides, it has already been retold and dramatized on numerous occasions (such as this 30 November 1949 broadcast of the Family Theater), albeit not always with the respect and fidelity due to a chronicle of such historical significance. The producers of the 26 December 1948 presentation of “Rip Van Winkle,” starring an uncommonly tired Fred Allen, had the decency, at least, to prefix their bowdlerization with the disclaimer that “Any similarity to Washington Irving’s original is purely accidental.” They ought to have called it Knickerbocker’s original, of course—but we should not expect such scholarly attention to detail from the purveyors of popular entertainments, especially when their tongues are so firmly lodged in their cheeks as to render them barely intelligible. Arch Oboler even went so far as to appropriate the legend for one of his propaganda performances, none too subtly titled “Rip Von Dinkel of Nuremberg.”

Earlier this week, while travelling through the ancient Catskill Mountains—which, truth be told, are not nearly as shadowy and mysterious as the Welsh countryside—we happened upon the Kaaterskill Falls, the very sight of the extraordinary episode in the life of the legendary idler. We retraced his steps, stumbling over the rocks and trees that nature has so liberally and carelessly strewn upon this secluded spot. The hike was tiring enough; but that could hardly account for the fatigue I have been experiencing ever since our return to Wales. A long forgotten lecture by a venerable physician appears to provide the answer.

One of Knickerbocker’s contemporaries, the now entirely forgotten Augustus Ohrenauf, had much to say about the effects of the Kaaterskill waters in a lecture entitled “Ansichten über das Betrachten von Wasserfällen,” which, soon after its publication in 1817, was haphazardly translated into English as “Falls Deductions.” Having perused the original treatise, I am now convinced that my fatigue, commonly known as “jet lag,” is due to that jet of water emanating from the Kaaterskill Falls. According to Dr. Ohrenauf, it was the fall (and not the flagon of gin from a party of ghosts) that brought on Van Winkle’s decades-spanning slumber and all that befell him thereafter. Without any concern for etymological niceties, the good doctor insists that metaphorical expressions like “to fall asleep” (or the German “Augen fallen zu”) are directly related to the sensation of beholding cataracts and cascades. He argues further that the German expression of “einen Kater haben” (literally, having a tomcat, but meaning, “having a hangover”) is derived from that more than catnap-inducing Catskills ravine.

Entering the trail to the falls, we were instructed to sign a register (shown above), a precautionary measure, no doubt, to prevent visitors from getting lost in the woods due to the somnolent effects of the natural water feature they have set eyes on they are not likely to keep open for long. Dr. Ohrenauf thus advises sightseers to keep their ears peeled for the sounds of falling waters, lest they are prepared for a hazardous exposure to Lethean influences. Meanwhile, I hope to stay awake for my subsequent entries in the broadcastellan journal, in which I shall continue to expound on the matter.

“. . . that same young man in that same brown suit”: A "Jackass" Takes a Bow

For the life of me, I can’t turn a phrase. At least, not at a speed that would encourage anyone to keep up with me. I can’t seem to cut a line short enough to make it worthwhile anyone’s time or spin it fast enough to lasso in the crowds. By the time I’m done editing myself, everyone else has left the spot I failed to hit. As a matter of fact, I am still editing what you are reading now. I would have failed miserably in the days when radio demanded rapid-fire gags at a rate that prematurely aged funnymen like Lou Holtz, who had drawers full of them, and wrecked the nerves of his assistants (among them, the young Herman Wouk, aformentioned). “Take all the words in all the full-length pictures produced in Hollywood in a year,” Erik Barnouw calculated in 1939, “and you do not have enough words to keep radio in the United States going for twenty-four hours.”

Comedians and the largely anonymous writers who fed them their lines sure had to work fast; yet, energy aside, they also needed stamina to sustain an act through the seasons. Sure, you can get almost anyone to “Wanna buy a duck”; but to make it something other than a lame one and not to end up with egg on your face after a few weeks, let alone decades, requires some convincing.

That said, quite a number of comedians, most of them seasoned vaudevillians, enjoyed a long career on the air, a durability that, with a few exceptions, is foreign to today’s short-attention-spanned YouTubeans whose mental databases have been outsourced and replaced by all sorts of gadgetry (or re-call centers) designed to make us forget anything other than to heed those reminders of how to pay dearly, if conveniently, for our carefully nurtured deficiencies. Their mental faculties scattered along the hard drive, future generations may well be on too short a term with the world even to get a running gag. (As I was saying, my syntax just wouldn’t do for broadcasting.)

Celebrating his seventh year on the air, on this day, 30 April, in 1939, was Jack Benny, that perennial middle-age dodger from Waukegan. “Exactly seven years ago today a young man walked into a small New York broadcasting studio and spoke into a microphone for the first time,” announcer Don Wilson (pictured, above, to the right of comedian Jerry Colonna) told those tuning in to the Jell-O Program. There he stood, “that same young man in that same brown suit,” still shaking before every broadcast. “And that’s what worries me,” Benny confessed, “Now I shake and I’m not nervous.”

From the opening tune, “Man About Town”—the title of Benny’s latest film—the broadcast was to be a half-hour of . . . depreciation, an invitation for Benny’s writers to go to town at the man’s expense. That, in shorthand, is the Benny formula, an instantly recognizable persona that contemporary critics Jack Gaver and Dave Stanley termed the “whipping boy of the airwaves.” Benny’s first words on the air (uttered on 2 May rather than 30 April 1930) already signalled the fashion, but it also reminds us how successfully “that same young man in that same brown suit” retailored his act over the years:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking, and making my first appearance on the air professionally. By that I mean I’m finally getting paid, which of course will be a great relief to my creditors. I, uh, I think you don’t know why I’m here. I’m supposed to be a sort of a master of ceremonies and tell you all the things will happen, which would happen anyway. I must introduce the different artists who could easily introduce themselves, and also talk about the Canada Dry made-to-order by the glass, which is a waste of time as you know all about it. You drink it, like it, and don’t want to hear about it. So, ladies and gentlemen, a master of ceremonies is really a fellow who is unemployed and gets paid for it.

Gradually, such self-consciousness would become tempered with no uncertain vaingloriousness, and Benny (and his writers) left it to fellow cast members and rival comedians to make the fall guy trip. On the seventh anniversary program, even Fred Allen sent a wire, which Mary Livingstone somewhat less than dutifully read to Benny:

Livingstone. Dear Jackass.

Benny. Gimme that wire. Mmm. That’s “Dear Jack. As this is your seventh anniversary . . .”

The joke, however slight when quoted out of context, depends for its punch on a listener’s familiarity with the Benny-Allen feud. Audiences expected an acerbic note from a rival—but to be hearing it from those who worked with Benny, and on the occasion of his taking a bow to boot, gave the line a certain kick, one that was always directed at Benny’s posterior and conveniently administered by those nearest to him. Jackass? Benny was a regular piñata. The more direct the hit, the more likely the chances of hitting the jack(ass)pot.

Meanwhile, the anniversary of that celebratory broadcast is past . . . and I am still editing.

“And then is heard no more”: Radio between Covers

As much as I dislike mathematics and however arithmetically challenged I am without a calculator, I very much enjoy compiling lists and studying figures such as box office statistics. I am less interested in watching contemporary film than in finding out how many others have. It gives me an idea of what is popular without having to subject myself to yet another sequel of an indifferently constructed CGI clones. My kind of picture is, on average, at least half a century old. Today, I considered the list of films I have screened of late and rated them, on a scale from one to ten, at the Internet Movie Database. It is not an easy task, this kind of opining by the numbers, as I remarked here previously; but I enjoy cast my votes all the same. You may follow my voting history here. This being the night on which western cinema is being celebrated—I also added a few titles to our own movie database containing the DVDs in our video library.

Not that I am entirely visual-minded on this my day of reckoning. Once again, I am cataloguing my library of books on broadcasting, a collection that has grown considerably since last I attempted to inventory it. While I am at it, I am scanning some of the covers, so aptly referred to as dust jackets and put them on display where they are more likely to tickle someone’s fancy rather than irritate throat and eye. Pictured are first editions of Francis Chase’s Sound and Fury: An Informal History of Broadcasting (1942), Charles Siepmann’s Radio’s Second Chance (1946), and fred allen’s letters, edited by Joe McCarthy (1965).

There is “no glory in radio,” Allen remarked in a letter to Abe Burrows (heard here) upon the future Pulitzer Prize winner’s retirement as a radio writer: in pictures, or in the theatre, you can work less, make as much money and acquire a reputation that will mean something. A radio writer can only hope for ulcers or a heart attack in his early forties. With few exceptions radio is a bog of mediocrity where little men with carbon minds wallow in sluice of their own making. for writers with talent and ideas, after it has served its purpose as a training ground, radio is a waste of creative time.

Chase’s title, borrowed, like my response above, from Shakespeare, echoes the attitude of those who ignored radio’s offerings as trivial. Not that they would have thought of the average soap opera as a “tale told by an idiot.” Rather, the tale was being delivered by calculating businessmen and women on behalf of those who sold the product that gave such fare its name. To them, radio signified nothing but what is measured in dollars and cents. Unlike Siepmann, however, Chase did not reject the system of commercial sponsorship that begot the trifles beloved by millions. To Siepmann, the “question” was whether those” salesmen of soap and food, drugs and tobacco, the most reliable interpreters of the kind of information and ideas on which a free, democratic people will thrive.”

In the service of commerce, radio writers often lacked self-respect or pride in their work. Even a gifted satirist like Allen denied the quality of his material, something he would not have done had it appeared in print, the medium to which he aspired without finding the time or strength to fulfil his ambition. In a wistful missive to novelist Herman Wouk, one of his team of writers who (as related here), quit the broadcasting racket to make a name for themselves in drama and literature, Allen concluded that

a radio program is not unlike a man. it is conceived. it is born. it lives through the experiences that fate allots to it. finally, the program dies and like man, is forgotten except for a few people who depended on it for sustenance or others whose lives had been made brighter because the program had existed.

To me, the “glory” of radio is that there was none in it. Going on the air was, quite literally, the business of self-effacement. The medium’s ephemera, albeit preserved to this day, are symbolic of our own inconsequentiality, our struggle to be heard before being silenced for good, better or worse.

Off on a Fields Trip

Last night, we unwrapped the newly released DVD set of seven films starring British icon Gracie Fields, whom I last saw opposite Monty Woolley in the charming upstairs-downstairs comedy Molly and Me (1945), released at the end of her screen career. Included in this present anthology of earlier, British films is Fields’s feature debut Sally in Our Alley (1931). It is directed by the prolific Maurice Elvey, whose long-lost silent epic The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918) I discussed previously. Although Elvey is not held in high regard by today’s critics—something that happens when you, like the radio, dispense a steady stream of popular entertainment, I had been favorably impressed by Elvey’s 1927 remake of Hindle Wakes (mentioned here), the story of a mill worker’s daughter lured into crossing class boundaries—at a terrible cost. Co-written by Hitchcock partner Alma Reville, Sally is a similar story, designed, it seems, to keep those boundaries intact by telling the working classes taking in such fare that it is best to stay with the folks you know and be content with what you are dealt.

In the title role, Fields gets to sing loudly and be of good cheer, while her character is being exploited, betrayed and abused by those around her. She is told that her lover, George (Ian Hunter), has died during the Great War. It is he who made up that story in hopes of not burdening his sweetheart with the physical impairments he sustained in battle. When he recovers, at last, and returns to London a decade later, other men having designs on his girl try to convince her that George has been unfaithful and married another. Such hard luck notwithstanding, Sally, never sings the “Lancashire Blues” for long, even if her performance of “Fred Fannakapan” at a posh ball ends in humiliation.

Sally is the kind of movie Fields, who had her own US radio program during the 1940s and ’50s, got to sing about when she joined Fred Allen in the Texaco Star Theatre back on 15 November 1942, when she, aside from demonstrating the differences between British and American broadcasting, performed “I Never Cried so Much in All My Life”:

Oh-oh-oh-oh, it was a lovely picture and I did enjoy it so
Oh-oh-oh-oh, I never cried so much in all my life
When the villains seized the maiden everybody shouted “oh”
Oh-oh-oh-oh, I never cried so much in all my life.

In her autobiography, Fields relates how she choked and broke into tears singing her signature tune “Sally”; the cause, though, was the air on stage, which, the scene being the coffee shop where Sally serves and entertains, was filled with the smoke generated to produce the atmosphere of an old-fashioned establishment.

Nearly stealing the show from Fields, which is difficult enough given her musical numbers, is Florence Desmond. I did not recognize her as Claudette Colbert’s fellow prison camp inmate in Jean Negulesco’s harrowing Three Came Home (1950), one of only four films Desmond made after a movie busy career in the early to mid-1930s. In Sally, Desmond plays Florrie, a girl who wants to get out—and, according to the conventions of melodramas that defend the status quo—is duly punished for her attempts at transgression until she finds salvation in fixing things so that Sally gets her man.

Florrie is flighty and wouldn’t mind being a floozy; she is also a consummate fibber and faker. After all, she is caught up in the world of Hollywood (not British film, mind you); and in the to me most intriguing scene of the movie (pictured above), she rivals Marion Davies in impersonating screen siren Greta Garbo. Just how to seduce and betray she seems to have gotten right out the movie magazines she devours; and if seduction is not quite her forte, she proves an expert at spreading malicious rumors about Sally, who had it in her tremendously roomy heart to take Florrie in and shelter the girl from her abusive father.

It seems to me that the British film industry was trying to get back at Hollywood, having largely failed to copy its successes. That said, I am going to continue my Fields trip tonight with Elvey’s Love, Life and Laughter (1934) . . .

Songs, Lies, and Audiotape: Margaret Truman Daniel (1924-2008) on the Air

Having just learned of the passing of Margaret Truman Daniel, the former US President’s only daughter, I am going to conjure up her voice by listening to some of the radio programs on which she was featured. Truman made her broadcasting debut in Detroit, back in 1947; she started out as a pianist, then turned to singing.

Fade to black: Margaret Truman Daniel

To most Americans, of course, she was, first and foremost, the First Daughter. Could she pull off a career on the strength of her vocal chords, people wondered, or was it all a matter of pulled strings? Fully aware of this debate, Truman was often in on the joke, an act that made her a welcome guest on what, in the early 1950s, was the biggest show on radio. Tallulah Bankhead’s Big Show.

On 3 December 1950, Truman faced the acerbic Bankhead for the first time. “I suppose you’re all a-wondering how we were able to get such a prominent personage as Miss Truman to be guest on our program,” quipped the celebrated hostess. “Well, really, all it took was a telephone call. I called a certain party, and that party called another party, who in turn called another party. Uh, naturally, these were all democratic parties.”

On the same broadcast, Truman was also confronted with Fred Allen. Sharing the microphone with the seasoned if semi-retired radio wit proved quite a challenge for the still inexperienced Truman.

Truman. How do you do, Mr. Allen?

Allen. Well, how do you do? It’s certainly a pleasure. But, please, don’t call me Mr. Allen. Call me by my given name.

Truman (imitating Bankhead). All right, Daaahling!

Bankhead. This girl has the makings of a Milton Berle.

Truman. Fred, I’ve been an admirer of your radio program for a long time.

Allen. Well, thank you. But where were you when my option came up back there in 1948?

Truman. In 1948, we were busy with an option problem ourselves.

Allen. Yes, but that option was renewed for another four years. You were lucky you didn’t have a quiz show running against you. And, by the way, Miss Truman, I’m surprised you don’t have a radio program of your own.

Truman. Oh, I can’t do anything well enough to have my own program.

Allen. Oh, on radio that’s no handicap.

When Allen insists that Truman ought to have her own variety program, Bankhead feels threatened:

Allen. Say, uh, this might be an idea, Margaret. Now, how about doing a big variety show, about an hour and a half program, and get the biggest names in show business. Why, you could be the mistress of ceremonies.

Bankhead. Just a moment! That’s my program. I don’t mind standing here without any lines, but I simply refuse to stand here without a program.

Truman. Oh, don’t worry, Tallulah. I wouldn’t dream of doing a program like that.

Bankhead (at her huskiest). And why not, Daaahling?

Truman. Well, I don’t think I’m old enough.

Bankhead. Whaaaaaaat!

Three months later, on 4 March 1951, recent Time magazine cover girl Truman was back on the Big Show. “Aren’t you Charlie’s Aunt,” Allen’s wife and sidekick Portland Hoffa inquired, mistaking Truman for the sister of Britain’s reigning monarch. “Love Is Where You Find It,” Truman trills after a confrontation with Ethel Merman, then learns about the harmonica from Herb Shriner.

“I’m an actress now,” Truman declared upon her return to the Big Show on 6 May 1951. A week earlier, she had played opposite James Stewart in a Screen Directors Playhouse production of Jackpot (26 April 1951), a satire on the excesses of commercial radio. Bankhead condescended to give Truman the title role in “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl,” a dramatic sketch based on a story by Dorothy Parker. Yet the emphasis was decidedly on the “Advice” and the one proffering it, not on the “Girl”; as the young woman’s “older, wiser, and oh-so-understanding confidante,” Bankhead devoured the scene.

Sharing the microphone with experienced performers, Truman was not so much propped up as shown up by them. The following year, for instance, the successful recording artist was called upon to sing opposite Gordon MacRae on the Railroad Hour in the operetta “Sari” (17 March 1952), an adaptation of Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet. The words “Pretty boys, witty boys, you may sneer” come to mind. Perhaps, Truman, or Bankhead’s script writers, had been right. She did not quite have it in her to be a radio personality. Guesting five times on the Big Show, however, she proved herself a genial team player.

Being shown up by your hostess is bad enough; worse still is when you are the hostess and the guests don’t show up. This misfortune befell Truman on the premiere of her next radio venture. Along with Mike Wallace, the gal from Missouri was to host Weekday, a six-hour, five-day-a-week daytime variety program also starring Martha Scott and Walter Kiernan. Imitating the successful Monitor, Weekday promised drama, music, and chat.

On the opening program, back in 1955, Truman announced Eddie Fisher, her “star companion” for the day. “Hi Eddie!” she opened; but Fisher did not respond. As Slate and Cook recall in It Sounds Impossible (1963), the chats were partially recorded. That is, Truman did not get to talk to her guests, but was expected to simulate her scripted interviews, with the control room feeding her a recorded voice, an experimental technique called “‘stop-start’ taping.” Eddie was not stuck up; he was just a tape getting stuck.

Such difficulties notwithstanding, Truman stuck with the show until 1956, picking up a regular television assignment nearly a decade later. She may not have hit the Jackpot, but she maintained her media presence long after her father and his party had been voted out of office.

Anything They Can Do . . . to Make You Feel Better

Well, leave it to a couple of old troupers to make me feel a little less sorry for myself. This New Year’s cold is making me feel miserable, cranky, and just about as fresh as a Jackie Mason standup routine. As those subjected to my groanings and whinings will only be too glad to corroborate, I am not one to suffer in silence. Mind you, I groan and whine even without an audience, of which I was deprived this afternoon (save for our terrier, Montague, who showed no signs of interest, let alone compassion). I reckon those noises serve chiefly as a reminder to myself that I am still numbering among the living.

On days like this, when the food tastes stale, I resort to a few extra doses of comfort culture. I seem to derive the greatest pleasure watching or listening to the old. Exposure to youth, in those moments of premature decrepitude, seems rather too cruel to endure.

After a reassuring hour or so with The Golden Girls, I needed to give my burning peepers a rest; so, I quickly went through my old-time radio log and came across this episode of the Big Show, originally aired on this day, 7 January, in 1951. Among Ms. Bankhead’s guests were Fred Allen, joking about his retirement and health problems, Edward G. Robinson, who was heard in a digest of Cornell Woolrich’s After Dinner Story and lamenting years of typecasting, as well as the fabulous Marlene Dietrich, with whose Scarlet Empress I caught up last month at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (a few days ago, I reencountered her in Stage Fright). Now, Dietrich was even older than the hostess of the Big Show—and Bankhead and her team of writers did not let her forget it for a minute.

Marlene, in turn, was permitted to mock Tallulah’s age-imposed invisibility (“I hear so little about you since you have hidden yourself away in radio”) while rubbing it in that she had just been interviewed by the Woman’s Home Companion. “Are they changing the name to Old Woman’s Home Companion?” Bankhead retorted. “Now let’s face it, darling,” she went on to tear at Dietrich’s glamorous persona, “false eyelashes, mascara, powder, rouge, lipstick . . .” “Yes, darling,” Dietrich purred, “but the rest of it is all me.”

“Let’s stop pretending and tell the truth,” Dietrich declared.

There’s no use denying it. I am not quite as young as I used to be. Everybody knows that I am a mother, and now I’m a grandmother. The silly idea women have that they must lie about their age is ridiculous. I don’t care if everybody knows how old I am.

Upon which Dietrich admits to 32 and Bankhead to 31. That cleared up, Dietrich (who performs such “miracles in numbers”) is invited to sing “Falling in Love Again” . . . “just the way [she] sang it 35 years ago,” before she was born.

Culminating in a rendition of “Anything You Can Do,” the Bankhead-Dietrich face-off is another exercise in self-effacement, which quickly became the trademark of The Big Show. Just the kind of kick in the old pants I needed . . .

No Headstone, No Regrets

How do you survive the ordeal of executing the killing of some 140,000 people and counting. Perhaps, by counting on facts and figures to counter or discount any accounts of fatality and disfigurement; by recounting to myself, for decades to come, that I could not be held accountable, having merely carried out orders as someone to be counted on; or by counting the praises bestowed upon me by those of my countrymen I would be pleased to encounter, for having been instrumental in ending a war that, without my precise handling of the instruments, might have ended the lives of countless more.

Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr., the commander of the Enola Gay, whose idea of a loving tribute was to name after his mother the B-29 out of whose womb “Little Boy” dropped onto the roofs of Hiroshima, insisted that he had “no regrets” about the outcome of his mission, that he slept “clearly every night.” Clearly, he won’t be counting sheep, or charred bodies, tonight. Mr. Tibbets, the world took note, died today at the age of 92.

When I came across that announcement, I was reminded of “14 August,” a radio play by poet-journalist Norman Corwin (previously discussed here to mark the 60th anniversary of VJ Day). With it, Corwin sought to assure Americans that “God and uranium” had been on their “side,” that the “wrath of the atom fell like a commandment,” and that it was “worth a cheer” that the “Jap who never lost a war has lost a world; learning, at some cost, that crime does not pay.”

Broadcast on VJ-Day, “14 August” asked listeners to remember those Americans “dead as clay” after defending “the rights of men,” after “fighting for “people the likes of you.” No mention was made of the Japanese whose lives were turned to ash in the streets of Hiroshima; no words uttered to suggest that achieving peace at such “cost” might, too, be considered a “crime” for which someone other than the dead might have to pay.

I am reminded, too, of the aforementioned radio writer-historian Erik Barnouw, who, upon learning that the US government had “seized and impounded” reels of film shot in Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) by Japanese cameramen (headed by Akira Iwasaki), the reported return of which to Japan in 1968 led Barnouw to produce the documentary Hiroshima-Nagasaki, 1945 (1970). Reviewing the long-suppressed footage, Barnouw commented (in Media Marathon [1996]):

The material we saw had been organized in sequences, which included “effects on wood,” “effects on concrete,” “effects on internal organs,” and so forth, as though scientific questions had determined the shooting. Other sequences showed grotesque destruction of buildings and bridges.

Finding only a “few sequences of people at improvised treatment shelters,” Barnouw was “troubled” by the “paucity” of what he referred to as “human effects footage.” Who could be counted on to tell the stories so often unaccounted for in the records of history?

The Allies’ fight against the Axis was a worthy cause; what is unworthy of those who lost their lives on either side is a victor’s sweeping dismissal of any consequences other than victory and the suppression or outright erasure of documents suggesting trauma rather than triumph.

VJ Day was hardly an occasion to show compassion for the defeated enemy, you might say, and that it is understandable that relief about the end of the war expressed itself in levity (as heard on the Fred Allen Show from 25 November 1945, a clip of which is featured in the above video [since then removed]). To consider it appropriate, some thirty years later, to restage the Hiroshima bombing for a Texas air show; to insist, another thirty years on, that it is a “damn big insult” to acknowledge the sufferings of those who were killed for however worthy a cause, as Mr. Tibbets has done, strikes me as a failure to rival the inhumanity that is the success of Hiroshima.

Having long refused to draw attention to the death of thousands, Mr. Tibbets decided to make his own farewell a gesture of self-erasure. He had the foresight to request that no headstone be placed on his burial site, predicting that his contempt or disregard for others might tempt those ignored by him to turn his final resting place into a stage for protest. Mr. Tibbets, it seems, was one to shun debate. Perhaps, a remarkably headstrong patriot like he deserves nothing more than our respect for his final wish: a vanishing act in keeping with a life of denial, a grave as unmarked as those of the victims unremarked upon.

“No regrets.” It is these words, and the words of those who call resolve what is a lack of compassion and an unwillingness or inability to countenance doubt, that we must mark, lest we are prepared to mark the occasion of another Hiroshima . . .