|Cinegram No. 60|
|Bradna in Cinegram No. 60|
|Say It: A rickety vehicle for Milland|
|Cinegram No. 60|
|Bradna in Cinegram No. 60|
|Say It: A rickety vehicle for Milland|
“Take Back UR Power Now,” the letters on the marquee read. I am standing in front of the Music Box Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Whose power? I wonder. Who took it? Who lost it? And just who is telling me—or anyone else reading—to seize it? Take it from me, perhaps? Do I have it? Did I ever have it? Am I supposed to have it? If so, to do what with? Storm the box office? Take to the stage? Tear down the building and plant a tree? A windmill? Hold it. Is this one of those tiresomely postmodern Barbara Krugerisms? As my friend Clifton once put it, “I could look [it] up . . . but it’s more fun to speculate.”
The imperative “Now” intrigues me. It strikes me as incongruous, anachronistic. And, yes, antagonistic. It does not seem to denote the “Now” of 2011, my “Now” on this bright, sunny afternoon spent in one of the most frivolous locales in the western hemisphere. The look of the venue, the somewhat run-down surroundings, the slogan and its lettering transport me back to the early, bleak, violent, recession-shaken 1990s. Why am I thinking race relations? Could this not just as well be some hackneyed Tea Party catchphrase? Or else, a sign of things to come . . .
The time is ripe for warping. I’ve just been to Grauman’s Chinese, placing my palms into the imprints left by stars long gone out. I’ve been taking in all those names on the Walk of Fame, and it felt like treading on gravestones. And I arrived here, at the Music Box, transported by a longing, by the kind of nostalgia I am so wary of.
I did not expect to be reminded of the 1990s, to be taken aback instead of simply being taken back, if that were ever achieved ‘simply.’ Sure, I was prepared to be late. Seventy-five years late, to be exact. If it were in my power, I would be standing here, back in line with hundreds of other enthusiasts, to take a gander at Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Ruby Keeler, or Claudette Colbert. Not on the screen, mind, but live and in person. The Music Box, after all, was once the venue for the Lux Radio Theater, a Monday afternoon extravaganza hosted by showman-director Cecil B. DeMille. Merle Oberon, Marion Davies, Joan Crawford. Back in the summer of 1936, they were all here. I am in awe.
That is why I have come to this spot—on a Monday afternoon, no less, as I would later realize. I was dreaming. Now I feel tired out, and a little bit stupid, having caught myself chasing after ghosts. It is as if I had been hoping to get hold of the breeze stirred up by some wispy number long since mothballed. The spirit of the place does not “send me,” as swooning teenagers used to call it (the state of swooning, I mean). If anything, it sends me back to where I started this reverie. It takes me back into the ether, the mythical non-space I can fill, at will, with the voices of Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Ruby Keeler . . . as they were performing for millions of listeners, broadcasting live from the Music Box stage. It takes me back.
Wait. When was it again that I discovered these recordings for myself? The early 1990s. Well, what do you know! I guess, looking at that marquee, I have been forced to catch up with myself, and I find that self wanting, historically lost to the world. Years spent circling in representations of a past not alive to my being. Is it time to take back whatever I squandered? Is there still time? Do I have the energy to matter, the power to mean? I wonder . . .
Legend has it that, when asked what Cecil B. DeMille was doing for a living, his five-year-old grand-daughter replied: “He sells soap.” Back then, in 1944, the famous Hollywood director-producer was known to million of Americans as host and nominal producer of the Lux Radio Theater, from the squeaky clean boards of which venue he was heard slipping (or forcefully squeezing) many a none-too-subtle reference to the sponsor’s products into the behind-the-scenes addresses and rehearsed chats with Tinseltown’s luminaries, lines scripted for him by unsung writers selling out in the business of making radio sell.
No doubt, the program generated sizeable business for Lever Brothers; otherwise, the theatrical spin cycle conceived to bang the drum for those Lads of the Lather would not have stayed afloat for two decades, much to the delight of the great (and only proverbially) unwashed. For all its entertainment value, commercial radio was designed to hawk, peddle and tout; and although the spiel heard between the acts of wireless theatricals like Lux has long been superseded by the show and sell of television and the Internet, old radio programs still pay off, no matter how freely they are now shared on the web. In a manner of speaking, they still sell, albeit on a far smaller and downright intimate scale.
Take W-WOW! Radio. Now in its fourteenth season, the opening of which I attended last month, the W-WOW! Mystery Hour can be spent—heard and seen—on the first Saturday of every month (July and August excepting) from a glorified store room at the back of one of the few remaining independent and specialty booksellers in Manhattan: Partners & Crime down on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village. The commercials recited by the cast are by now the stuff of nostalgia, hilarity, and contention (“In a coast-to-coast test of hundreds of people who smoked only Camels for thirty days, noted throat specialists noted not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels“); but the readings continue to draw prospective customers like myself.
Whenever I am in town, I make a point of making a tour of those stores, even though said tour is getting shorter and more sentimental every year. There are rewards, nonetheless. Two of my latest acquisitions, Susan Ware’s 2005 “radio biography” of the shrewdly if winningly commercial Mary Margaret McBride and John Houseman’s 1972 autobiography Run-through (signed by the author, no less) were sitting on the shelves of Mercer Street Books (pictured) and brought home for about $8 apiece. The latter volume is likely to be of interest to anyone attending the W-WOW! production scheduled for this Saturday, 3 October, when the W-WOW! players are presenting the Mercury Theatre on the Air version of Dracula as adapted by none other than John Houseman.
As Houseman puts it, the Mercury’s “Dracula”—the series’s inaugural broadcast—is “not the corrupt movie version but the original Bram Stoker novel in its full Gothic horror.” Indeed, Houseman’s outstanding adaptation is a challenge worthy of W-WOW!’s voice talent and just the kind of material special effects artist DeLisa White (pictured above, on the right and to the back of those she so ably backs) will sink her teeth into, or whatever sharp and blunt instruments she has at her disposal to make your hair stand on end.
Rather more run-of-the-mill were the scripts chosen for W-WOW!’s September production, which, regrettably, was devoid of vamps. You know, those double-crossing, tough-talking dames that enliven tongue-in-cheek thrillers like The Saint (“Ladies Never Lie . . . Much” or “The Alive Dead Husband,” 7 January 1951) and Richard Diamond (“The Butcher Shop Case,” 7 March 1951 and 9 March 1952), a story penned by Blake “Pink Panther” Edwards and involving a protection racket. The former opened encouragingly, with a wife pretending to have killed a husband who turned out to be yet living, if not for long; but, as it turned out, the dame had less lines than any of the ladies currently in prime time, or any other time for that matter. Sure, crime paid on the air; but sex, or any vague promise of same, sells even better.
That said, I still walked out of Partners & Crime with a book in my hand. As I passed through the store on my way out, an out-of-print copy of A Shot in the Arm caught my eye and refused to let go. Subtitled “Death at the BBC,” John Sherwood’s 1982 mystery novel, set in Broadcasting House anno 1937 and featuring Lord Reith, the dictatorial Baron who ran the place, is just the kind of stuff I am so readily sold on, as I am on browsing in whatever bookstores are still standing offline—if only to give those who are still in the business of vending rare volumes a much-deserved shot in the open and outstretched arm.
Okay, so I’ve been cutting a few corners during my present, month-long stay in New York City; but I wasn’t about to cut Grover’s Corners. Our Town, that is, a new production of which is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. These days, there isn’t much on Broadway to tempt me into letting go of whatever is left in my wallet. I mean, Shrek the Musical? What’s next, Pac-Man of the Opera? A concert version of Saved by the Bell? Secret Squirrel on Ice? I am all for revisiting the familiar—a tendency to which this journal attests—as long as I feel that such recyclings are worth my impecunious (hence increasingly persnickety) while—and theatrical retreads of The Addams Family, 9 to 5 or Spider-Man are not. Come to think of it, I had never seen a performance of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, which I always thought of as the ideal radio play. Well, let me tell you, David Cromer sure made me see it differently.
Our Town was produced on the air at least three times, even though the Lux Radio Theatre version (6 May 1940) is a reworking of the screenplay, replete with a tacky, tagged-on Hollywood ending and ample space for commercial copy between the acts. Wilder’s 1938 play is decidedly radiogenic in its installation of a narrator (or Stage Manager) and its insistence of doing away with props or scenery. The Barrow Street Theater production seemed to be in keeping with the playwright’s instructions; and I was all prepared to watch it with my eyes closed.
There are two tables on the small stage; and the props do not amount to more than a hill of string beans. The Stage Manager points into the audience, inviting us to envision a small town in New Hampshire, anno 1901:
Along here’s a row of stores. Hitching posts and horse blocks in front of them. First automobile’s going to come along in about five years belonged to Banker Cartwright, our richest citizen . . . lives in the big white house up on the hill.
Here’s the grocery store and here’s Mr. Morgan’s drugstore. Most everybody in town manages to look into those two stores once a day.
Public School’s over yonder. High School’s still farther over. Quarter of nine mornings, noontimes, and three o’clock afternoons, the hull town can hear the yelling and screaming from those schoolyards.
Some eyes followed the pointed finger in my direction, faces in the crowd briefly looking past me in hopes of making out the Methodist and Unitarian churches just behind my back. Now, I’m not saying that the actors were not worth looking at, Jennifer Grace as Emily Webb being particularly charming. Still, at the end of the first act, I could not figure out what Frank Scheck of the New York Post referred to as “revolutionary staging.” Two tables, eight chairs, string beans?
By act three, I understood. David Cromer defies Wilder’s instructions (“No curtain. No scenery”)—and to startling effect. I never thought that the smell of bacon could be so overwhelming, so urgent and direct. Sure, it has often made my mouth water—but my eyes? Whether or not you are a staunch vegetarian, there is reality in the scent, just as there is a revelation behind that curtain. Our Town may be a wonderful piece of pantomime; but Cromer deserves some props.
“Oh, Mama, just look me one minute though you really saw me,” the dead Emily implores the unseeing childhood vision of her mother. “Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” Seeing this fragrant scene acted out made me realize anew the importance of coming to all of one’s senses, of partaking by taking in, of grabbing hold of the moment (which we Germans call an Augenblick, a glance) by beholding what could be gone at the blink of an eye.
that the two recent performances emanating from Hollywood have lifted it in a new elevation in public esteem. Personally, listening to these famous actors under the direction of Cecil De Mille, all of them broadcasting almost from their own front yards, gave me a new thrill.
was in its mediation between the ordinary and the supreme that a middlebrow program like Lux served to promote network programming as a commercially effective and culturally sophisticated hub for consumers, sponsors, and related entertainment industries.
Well (I am saying “well” once more, for old times’ sake), broadcastellan is entering its fourth year today. It all began on 20 May 2005, when I decided to keep an online journal devoted to old times, good or bad, to the culture that, however popular, is no longer mainstreamed, but, as I explained it in my opening post, marginalized or forgotten. Looking at broadastellan through the lens of the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine,” you will notice a few changes; but, overall, things are just as they were when I set out. Except that I am much more at ease and far less concerned about my online persona, its definition and reception, more fully aware of my status and the consequences of casting myself in the role of marginalien as I have come to accept and embrace it. No, it wasn’t this way right from the start.
Having earned my doctorate and relocated from New York City to Wales, I felt the want of continuity. I was reluctant to immerse myself in Welsh culture, let alone its language, for fear of not being able to recognize myself as the cosmopolitan I had impersonate with some success for most of my adult life. The dissertation was placed on the shelf; and my career alongside it. Still, I was not done with American popular culture as I had rediscovered it during years of research.
Not having been able to ride my hobbyhorse all the way to the bank, I thought I’d start parading it here on this busy commons. I sure wasn’t ready to put it out to pasture and wash my hands of it with the soap derived from its carcass. Initially, I might have been confused about the purpose of such a vanity production. I wanted this mare to be petted, even though I was prepared to take it out for others to deride. Nowadays, I am mainly writing for myself, for the kick I get out of being kicked by it into the thicket of research and the paths of (re)discovery.
Whenever I see a show, watch a movie, read a book, or listen to a radio program, broadcastellan encourages me to make it relevant to myself, to investigate and connect—and on the double at that. Right now, I have eight books before me, all designed to warrant my title. After all, it was the aforementioned Eve Peabody who declared that “[E]very Cinderella has her midnight.”
Eve Peabody, the self-proclaimed American blues singer who arrives penniless in Paris, posing as a Hungarian baroness, no less. I’ve always related to this Cinderella’s identity crisis—and admired the sheer ingenuity with which she made it all happen all over again. In the words of Ed Sikov, she proves “tremendously elastic,” a quality that prompted New York Times DVD reviewer Dave Kerr to remark on the “unpleasant degree” to which writer Billy Wilder was obsessed “with the theme of prostitution.”
“I thought that Eve Peabody was a very interesting character,” director Mitchell Leisen remarked. “You see, there’s a bit of good and a little bit of bad in all of us.” Yes, Leisen’s Midnight, like all proper Cinderella tales, has an edge; and, at last, it is being brought into digitally sharp focus. Earlier this month, the screwball comedy Elizabeth Kendall referred to as the “ultimate girl-on-her-own fairy tale” was released on DVD, perhaps in anticipation of the by me dreaded remake starring one Reese Witherspoon.
Since Britain has not caught up with this gem, it shall be one of my first purchases next week when I shall once again (and probably again and again) take the train down to J&R Music World. What with our UK DVD/VCR recorder refusing to accept my US tapes, I have long waited for this moment to catch up with what Ted Sennett has called “one of the best and brightest romantic comedies of the [1930s].” Of course, there’s always the radio.
On this day, 20 May, in 1940, stars Claudette Colbert (pictured above, in an autographed magazine cover from my collection) and Don Ameche reprised their roles in this Lux Radio Theater adaptation (>which you may enjoy by tuning in the Old Time Radio Network). Perhaps, though, the wireless is not the proper medium in which to appreciate a Leisen picture, distinguished as his work is for what James Harvey calls “that look of discriminating opulence.”
Still, you get to hear some of the best lines in romantic comedy, albeit soften at times to appease the censors. For instance, when confronted with a cabbie eager to take her for a ride, even though she confessed to having nothing but a centime with a hole in it to her name, she offers to pay him for driving her around town while she goes hunting for a job. “What kind of work do you want?” he inquires. “Well, look,” Eve replies, “at this time of night and in these clothes I’m not looking for needlework.”
Like Eve, I have gone round in circles (apart from the proverbial block). The ride may not amount to much to many, but this is not why I keep on mounting this hobbyhorse of mine. It is the sheer pleasure of taking my mind for a spin. And, to answer my own question, there is still time for a few jaunts. After all, it is not quite midnight . . .
Starting next week, I shall once again take in a few shows on and off Broadway. In the meantime, I do what millions of small-townspeople used to do during the 1930s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s—I listen to theater. Since the 1920, such makeshift-believe had been coming straight from the New York stage, whether as on-air promotion or educational features. Aside from installing an announcer in the wings to translate the goings-on and comings-in, it took the producers of broadcast theatricals some time to figure out what could work for an audience unable to follow the action with their own eyes. When that was accomplished, in came the censors to determine what could come to their ears. The censors were in the business of anticipating what could possibly offend a small minority of self-righteous and sententious tuners-in who would wield their mighty pen to complain, causing radio stations to dread having risked their license for the sake of the arts.
Few established playwrights attempted to re-write for radio. One who dared was Kenyon Nicholson, whose Barker, starring Walter Huston and Claudette Colbert delighted Broadway audiences back in 1927 (and radio audiences nearly a decade later). On this day, 19 May, in 1946, the Theater Guild on the Air presented his version of Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, with John Garfield as Joe, Leo Carillo as Tony, and June Havoc (pictured) as Amy.
Now, I have never seen a stage production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning They Knew; nor have I read it. Like most tuning in that evening, I would not have known about the tinkering that went on so that the story involving a doomed mail-order May-December romance could be delivered into American living rooms—were it not for Nicholson’s own account of what it entailed to get They Knew past the censors.
Nicholson got to share his experience adapting They Knew, one of his “favorite plays,” in a foreword to his script, which was published in an anthology of plays produced by the Theater Guild on the Air. According to the inexperienced adapter, his “enthusiasm for the job lessened somewhat” as soon as he began to undertake the revision:
Radio is understandably squeamish when it comes to matters of illicit love, cuckolded husbands, illegitimate babies, and such; and, as these taboo subjects are the very core of Mr. Howard’s plot, I realized what a ticklish job I had undertaken.
After all, Messrs. Chase and Landry remind us, as the result of a single listener complaint about this adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon, which retained expressions like “hell” and “for god’s sake,” several NBC Blue affiliates were cited by the FCC and ordered to defend their decision to air such an offensive program. Nicholson was nonetheless determined “that there could be no compromise. Distortion of motivation as a concession to Mr. and Mrs. Grundy of the listening public would be a desecration of Mr. Howard’s fine play.”
It was with “fear and trembling” that Nicholson submitted his script. Recalling its reception, he expressed himself “surprised to find the only alteration suggested by the Censor was that Joe seduce Amy before her marriage to old Tony.”
The “only alteration”? Is not the “before” in the remark of the pregnant Amy—”I must have been crazy, that night before the wedding”—precisely the kind of “compromise” and “[d]istortion” the playwright determined not to accept? Nicholson dismisses this change altogether too nonchalantly as a “brave effort to whitewash the guilty pair!” Rather, it is the playwright’s whitewashing of his own guilt in this half-hearted confession about his none too “brave” deed.
The censors sure knew what they did not want those to hear who never knew what they did not get.
Now, what’s wrong with this picture? This is what I thought last night when I screened the Vincent Sherman-directed melodrama The Hard Way (1943). From the title credits, showing those diamonds and pearls, it seemed obvious what it takes to get rich in the fashion suggested by the title. The image is, however, somewhat misleading. While hardly an abject failure, The Hard Way somehow seemed too soft. It is essentially a draft for Mildred Pierce, or might have been.
A woman struggling and scheming behind the scenes so that a younger one may have the new dress, the big break, the easy life—but not the same man—does call Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth to mind; and, indeed, those two would have faired much better in this glossy, showy vehicle than the rather too young Lupino and the too plain Joan Leslie. I kept hoping that, instead of pushing her sister onto the boards, Lupino’s Helen Chernen would finally push her off them and take the lead herself. Who, I ask, would pick Leslie over Lupino, unless, perhaps, for a cow-milking contest?
Nor did I buy Jack Carson (who also co-starred in the aforementioned Mildred Pierce) as a suicide; robust and none too philosophical, his Albert Runkel struck me as too much of a trouper to call it quits in that way. The only player to be cast perfectly in The Hard Way is Gladys George as the washed-up, boozy Lily Emery (pictured opposite Lupino above, in what to me is the film’s most effective scene) . George brought to the show the sort of pathos an old-fashioned backstage backstabbing melodrama requires.
As I thought of a new set of stars for the film, I once again availed myself of the theater of the mind, being that radio dramatizations routinely recast plays made famous on stage and screen (as previously discussed here). The Lux Radio Theater version, presented on 20 March 1944, offers this alternative group of players: Miriam Hopkins as Helen, Anne Baxter as her younger sister, Katie, Franchot Tone as the man loved by both, and Chester Morris as the hapless Runkel.
Host Cecil B. DeMille sets the scene with the kind of intimacy for which Lux was famous. It truly brought the stars home:
The Hard Way is a drama of tempestuous emotion. We’ll go backstage, into the life of the theater, behind the scenes of glamour, to discover what one woman’s ambition can do to those she loves. There’s always a fascination for me in a story of the theater. All my life has been spent there. From the time I was six or seven years old and hung around backstage, watching my father and David Belasco at the business of staging plays.
The strident, temperamental Ms. Hopkins, well remembered by many Lux listeners from her most recent success opposite Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance (the 2007 Broadway revival of which I reviewed here) brings to the role of Helen what the brainier, more sophisticated Lupino withheld. It is convenient to observe in hindsight that the scheming big sister backstage, fighting for the kind of parts she could never get, was more ideally suited to Hopkins, whose career as a leading lady was pretty much over. Hopkins would not make another movie for half a decade, and take either supporting roles or appear in B-picture thereafter. Still, Hopkins has the kind of intensity that, in the close-up medium of film, can appear shrill and overbearing, but that works well on the stage, where she starred during those days in plays like The Skin of Our Teeth (1943) and The Perfect Marriage (1944). True, Ms. Lupino comes from an old theatrical family; but in The Hard Way, her performance seems rather too understated for the kind of histrionics fit for that toothsome stew of the sensational and the sentimental, the kind of potboiler once known as a woman’s picture.
Not that the Lux production is flawless. Its major fault lies in the narration. No longer is it Helen who recalls past sins after having so desperately attempted to drown them; instead, the teller of tales is Mr. DeMille, the omniscient director, who sets the scene for the ladies to inhabit (until the next commercial break, that is). Of course, anyone hoping to rework the established structure of a slick, commercial program like Lux would, like Helen Chernen, try and fail The Hard Way.
“Last night, I couldn’t sleep, and lit the light to read. I saw the bulb go out. It faded out, as though the power went off by slow degrees.” This is one of the voices describing the disconcerting events that occurred “At Midnight on the 31st of March.” It is the dramatization of a story in blank verse by Josephine Young Case (published in 1938) which, the result of fortuitous timing or a bad case of literal-mindedness, was broadcast on this day, 31 March, back in 1943. It was one in a series whose literary aspiration was signalled by its title Author’s Playhouse (just where to place the apostrophe I am not quite sure). A transcript of the broadcast may be perused here; while an excerpt of the original work has been shared and discussed here by a fellow webjournalist). “At Midnight” is a peculiar, disturbing look at a small-town community dealing with the disappearance of the world its members knew or thought to have known, had created for themselves, learned to accept as binding or let shape them without questioning its nature.
“Our lights went out at midnight,” another speaker recalls how the end of their world began. “And the radio programs died out, too. And I’ve got a battery set. But I couldn’t get nothin’ but static.” A third one marvels that, beyond their village, there were no “towns at all. Not any house or road. Only the river, and the creeks, and the trees.” “At Midnight” offers no solutions, no explanations. It is the vanishing of a world with which those who used to inhabit it are forced to deal.
Tuning in, I was not only reminded of our current spell without a drop of heating oil or my remoteness from the city I once called home, but of a threat to all I knew or wondered at when, as a child, I overheard my parents talking about a prediction that the world would come to an end before dawn, leaving me to ponder an unfathomable chaos. “And what will come to us?” another voice “At Midnight” echoes the distant fears none but a thoughtless adult would call childish. “Yes, where will we be?”
“At Midnight” encourages us to rethink what we generally consider the end of the world—the end and the ends of our life. The show, an adage has it, must go on, as it had to on 1 April, back in 1946, when Noah Beery, scheduled to appear with two of his family members in a Lux Radio Theater production of Barnacle Bill, died shortly after the rehearsals. Producers of the well-oiled Lux program found an immediate replacement, with brother Wallace and niece Carol Ann clinging like the titular organism to their comedy vehicle so that it could take off as scheduled. Noah Beery’s voice now speaks to us from the beyond as, in this rare case, an transcription disk, unaired and long-forgotten, has given it a now public afterlife.
“Yes, where will we be?” I keep thinking as I go on making a largely unheeded record of the lives I know, and lead, and dream of . . .
Her name was Lola Lola. She was a showgirl. Never mind yellow feathers in her hair. Her dive wasn’t exactly the Copa. She was a practical kind of dame who worked up a sweat making those drool who followed her curves as she did her “Head to Toe” number over at the Blue Angel. She wasn’t the “Angel” . . . at least not until Paramount took her under its ample wing and transformed her into a goddess, a Blonde Venus whose heavenly body was beyond the touch of mortals. It was certainly beyond the thought of body odor.
I am from head to toe
Ready for love
Since that is my world
And else nothing.