A Letter to Three Wives and a Couple of Radio Executives

“Then heaven help the masses!” That’s what English teacher George Phipps exclaims in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) when confronted with the notion that soap operas were the “literature” of his fiercely commercial, communists fearing day. Alerted to this mock prayer by Leonard Maltin’s Great American Broadcast, I began to wonder what radio executives, whose business it was to take note when their line of business was threatened or questioned, would do with such a line if ever A Letter were to be read on the air.

To begin with, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning screenplay would have to be reduced to a memo, given the tight, commercials-cluttered slots allotted for post-World War II broadcast drama; but the Letter had already been severely edited, two of what had once been five wives receiving the pink slip in an economic downsizing of a property initially spread out on the pages of Cosmopolitan back in 1945. It was too prominent a missive not to be bottled anew and tossed into the airwaves. Sure enough, on this day, 20 February, in 1950, “A Letter” was posted by the prestigious, popular if highly conservative Lux Radio Theater, with Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas (pictured) reprising their screen roles. Would the wireless-defiant educator make the cut? Or would a radio rewrite mean “Goodbye, Mr. Phipps”?

The Lux producers were not generally concerned with aesthetics; but, Phipps’s disparaging remarks notwithstanding, the screenplay for A Letter is most radiogenic. After all, it depends on voice-over narration by an unseen character (played by Celeste Holm in the film version), a storytelling convention suited to—and appropriated from—radio drama, whose publicly confidential talks transported audiences straight into the mind of the speaker. The film version also makes excellent use of the aforementioned Sonovox, a device that could turn any sound into speech. In A Letter, it gets droplets of water to seep insinuations into receptive ears. What speaks volumes in the Lux production is that the Sonovox, largely relegated to advertising duty on radio, was being scrapped altogether. Its innovative props disposed of, its potentialities ignored, radio theater was frequently reduced to borrowing its material from the movies it had assisted in furnishing and shaping.

However impoverished, Sandy Barnett’s radio adaptation does take on the challenge posed by George Phipps, even though the teacher’s arguments have little bearing on the plot involving the two leads of the Lux production. And rather than being turned into a hausfrau, George’s spouse Rita is the soap opera writer she was on the screen. The scene for the assault on radio is set: Rita (played by Joan Banks) has invited one of “those radio people” to dinner. “You know what I like about your program?” her maid tells her, “Even when I’m running the vacuum I can understand it.” Besides, it keeps her “mind off [her] feet. George (Stephen Dunne) is not pleased having to entertain the entertainers; he is unwilling to serve them expensive liquor to make them feel at home:

Rita. People in show business, well you know what I mean. Those kind always drink scotch.

George. I know what you mean, dear, but I wish you wouldn’t say it in radio English. That kind, not “those kind.”

Rita. There are men who say “those kind” who earn a hundred thousand dollars a year.
George. There are men who say “Stick ‘em up” who earn even more.

Not surprisingly, given her husband’s attitude, Rita is concerned about the evening’s entertainment.

Rita. George, just one thing, please. No jokes about radio.

George. Oh, the time for joking about it is past. Radio has become a very serious problem now, like juvenile delinquency.

Rita. That’s just what I mean. Cracks like that.

The get-together does not go as smoothly as planned by Rita, who would like her self-consciously impecunious husband to quit teaching in favor of writing for the soaps. A debate about radio’s cultural offerings and the lure of the big money behind them ensues:

George. Look, Rita, let’s put aside my personal likes and dislikes. They’re not important. I am willing to admit that to a majority of my fellow citizens I’m a slightly comic figure: an educated man.

Rita. But nobody’s asking you not to be. Think of the good you could do. Maybe raise the standards.

George. And what’s even worse than being an intellectual, I am a schoolteacher. Schoolteachers are not only comic, they’re often cold and hungry in this richest land on Earth.

Rita. And thousands are quitting every year to take jobs that pay them a decent living.

George. That is unhappily true.

Rita. Then why not you?

George. Because I can’t think of myself doing anything else. What would happen, do you think, if we all quit? Who’d teach the kids? Who’d open their minds and hearts to the real glories of the human spirit, past and present? Who’d help them along to the future?

I suppose the impressionables of 1940s America have, for the most part, survived those radio days unscathed. Besides, the lessees of the airwaves awash with suds had learned to respond to the dirt on radio offered by its detractors by giving such criticism a good rinse and a clever spin. Sure, it got Fred Allen and fellow satirist Henry Morgan into trouble during the ’40s; but The Hucksters (shown here) had proven how profitable rants against radio could be. When “A Letter” was sent off by the renowned toilet soap promoters (having been delivered previously by the Camel-sponsored Screen Guild, without any references to the evil influences of radio), such attacks were as old hat as the consoles from which they occasionally sputtered.

By 1950, there was little need to suppress a memo critiquing what was becoming immaterial as its subject matter was being yanked from the broadcast schedules. Everyone was making eyes at television; and while Hollywood stars still flocked to the microphone to make a quick buck, the radio theater audience dwindled as Americans scraped together their savings for the set that would define our everyday in the second half of the 20th century. In a 21st-century update of the Letter, Rita Phipps would probably be designing interactive games or reality shows—the literature of today?

Based on Untrue Stories; or, When Jolson Sings Again

”Hooray for Hollywood!” The big-screenings over at our house have finally resumed. As shared here, the projector gave up the ghost last fall, during the climactic scene of I Want to Live!, when the bulb imploded with a bang. I inaugurated the arrival of its replacement with a screening of The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), two hugely popular Columbia Pictures that reportedly raked in a combined $15 million—a lot of dough in those days. Now, I’ve never much cared whether or not a movie is “based on a true story”; to me, such a claim is certainly not an endorsement. It reeks of Lifetime entertainment, or some such exercises in exploitation. That is probably why I wasn’t half as irritated as I might otherwise have been watching the suspect Jolson Story, which, dramatically speaking, is really not much of a story at all.

The Jolson Story is so bland and uneventful, it makes Till the Clouds Roll By look like an exposé. For anything compelling, one would have to turn to the real-life stories of Jolson’s stand-ins, Larry Parks and Scott Beckett, whose careers were subsequently nixed by dirty politics and personal turmoil. One of the few “true” incidents in the Jolson Story, allegedly the one that sold the project to Columbia president Harry Cohn, was the has-been treatment Jolson received from the Hillcrest Country Club in Beverly Hills, for whose benefit he was signed on as a closing act, scheduled at an hour so advanced that few members of the audience could have been expected to remain in their seats. It sort of makes for a made for Hollywood comeback story; but it is hardly given the Star Is Born treatment.

Never mind. At least you get to hear the real Jolson (whose image I previously appropriated for a picture of my own) sing much of his best-known material, for the delivery which he used to disguise his face anyway. What really puzzled me was the sequel. I am not sure just how to read it. Not that I mind reading it in several ways at once, which—its foreshadowing of Jolson’s death in 1950 aside—is the reason the sequel intrigues me more than the pale “original,” or however you want to call the 1946 version of a faked and faded copy of Jolson’s life story.

A biopic self-conscious about its dubiety, Jolson Sings Again is coy about its artifice. “Let’s agree on one thing at the start, boys,” the film’s Jolson character tells the Hollywood producers interested in turning his life into a movie.

I don’t think anybody cares about the facts of my life, about dates and places. I’ll give you a mess of ‘em, you juggle them any way you like. What matters is the singing a man did and the difference that made.

Now, is this inspired bit of reflexivity an apology or a proudly displayed poetic licence? How brazen of the sequelmakers to quell our disbelief by making up for the make-believe of the first film with a faked endorsement from a false Jolson. But then, the true Jolson—who starred in the Lux Radio Theater versions of Story (16 February 1948) and Sings Again (22 May 1950)—had agreed to the project and made a tidy $5 million profit. It seemed to me as if I had followed up the “true story” death row drama of I Want to Live! with Jolson’s last cry of “I want to live on like this.”

” . . . same again? Only a little different?”: Cary Grant and the Radio

Well, this being the anniversary of the birth of the man everyone including Cary Grant wanted to be, I decided to listen to a Lux Radio Theater production of “The Awful Truth,” originally broadcast on the actor’s 51st birthday in 1955. By that time, the program was transcribed (that is, recorded), so that Grant did not have to spend this special evening (previously commemorated here) behind the microphone entertaining a vastly diminished crowd of far-flung radio listeners. Not that the early to mid-1950s had been a particularly busy period in the actor’s career. Aside from its intriguing air date (unacknowledged by the host of the program), the 1955 version constitutes the first reteaming of Grant with his original co-star, Irene Dunne, even though both had shared the Lux soundstage for “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” (10 October 1949), which would serve as the premise for Grant’s own radio sitcom, co-starring wife Betsy Drake (who also wrote some of the scripts for the series).

Prior to their Awful reunion, Grant and Dunne reprised their roles in the mascara hazard Penny Serenade (16 November 1941) for the Screen Guild Theater, appeared together in a Screen Directors Playhouse production of My Favorite Wife (7 December 1950), as well as the Screen Guild’s original radio play “Alone in Paris” (30 April 1939).

Nearly two decades of Grant’s life in picture are echoed on the air, in radio dramatizations ranging from Lux’s 8 March 1937 broadcast of ”Madame Butterfly” (adapted from the 1932 film) and the comparatively obscure (if recent DVD release) Wings in the Dark (1935), reworked for the aforementioned Silver Theater to classics like His Girl Friday (1940) and Suspicion (1941). Radio also invites speculations as to what a difference Grant might had made in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and I Confess.

Equally at home in melodrama and comedy, Grant guested on a comedy-variety programs like Pepsodent Show, starring Bob Hope (much to the delight of hundreds of screaming WAVES and nurses in the all-female studio audience), and the drama anthology Suspense (in which he was cast in a number of memorable thrillers, including two plays—“The Black Curtain” and “The Black Path of Fear”—based on stories by Cornell Woolrich). On the big screen, in turn, Grant was given the opportunity to star in an adaptation one of the best comedies written for radio, Norman Corwin’s “My Client Curley” (previously discussed here), even though the sentimental film, titled Once Upon a Time (1944), does not manage to capture the magic and wit of the original.

Listening to the actor’s radio performances through the years, it was interesting to hear the changes in Grant’s voice—a voice as distinctive as the cleft in his chin—divorced as it is on the air from the features that became rather more distinguished with age. Truth is that Grant, never known for passionate emoting, sounded awful staid in the 1955 rematch with Dunne, his next to last performance in radio drama. He had been heard once before in a Lux presentation of Leo McCarey’s raucous romance; but his sparring mate that night—the opener of the program’s fifth season on 11 September 1939—was Claudette Colbert, whose character in Without Reservations would write a role assigned to Grant (for the 10 March 1941 Lux broadcast, the role of Jerry Warriner was tailored to Bob Hope, with second fiddle Ralph Bellamy as the only original cast member in that production).

Back in 1939, there was zap and brio in his voice, which, in the sound-only medium, had to make up for the loss of some wonderful slapstick. Nearly sixteen years later, in a reading of the same if somewhat condensed script, what had once come across as carefree and devil-may-care sounded an awful lot like “who cares.” The by then all but defunct genre of screwball with its unsentimental take on love as war (from courting to court case) demanded more energy than either Dunne or Grant were willing (or able) to bring to their connubial tussles. Indeed, the loudest laughs in the studio audience are generated by the less than convincing barks of Mr. Smith, the couple’s pooch (granted, somewhat of a scene-stealer in the film as well).

After experiencing episodes of puerile madcap in Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business (1952), which did little to rejuvenate his career, Grant was finally slowing down. Unfortunately, he appeared to be rehearsing for An Affair to Remember with material not designed to make us forget that his days of cheeky indiscretion lay in a livelier past. Perhaps it is just as well that adaptor George Wells cut Jerry’s final speech in The Awful Truth. It might have sounded too much like an aging actor’s apology, his plea to an audience expecting lively antics: “So, as long as I’m different, don’t you think things could be the same again? Only a little different?”

In the 1930s and ’40s, Grant’s vocal chords were as elastic as his vaudeville-tested sinews. A few day’s after his 35th birthday (on 22 January 1939, to be exact), the lad from Bristol surprised those tuning in to the Ronald Colman hosted Circle with a spirited rendition of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” What’s more, the tune is followed later in the program by Grant’s tuneful delivery of . . . the FCC’s regulations regarding station identification. Something different, all right. “No cackling,” Grant told Colman a few years later on the Command Performance (22 July 1944); but he could be persuaded, nonetheless, to sing a few notes. With the exception of his performance of Cole Porter in the disingenuous Night and Day (1946), there was nary a false one in Grant’s long and varied career on screen and radio.

“Could She Kiss and Kill . . . and Not [Be] Remember[ed]”

Well, it had been a few years since the movie-going public lined up for a helping of The Egg and I (1947), the back-to-the-farm comedy that proved to be Claudette Colbert’s last major screen success. Still in print today, the non-fiction bestseller by Betty MacDonald on which the franchise-hatching hit movie is based has just been selected as BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime (for a 1947 radio drama version starring Ms. Colbert and her co-star, Fred MacMurray, click here). Considerably less enthusiasm was generated by Mel Ferrer’s The Secret Fury (1950), a box office egg that, even upon delivery, was anything but farm fresh.

In 1944, Colbert left Paramount, the studio that had shaped and protected her image—spirited, smart and sophisticated, after initial siren turns in DeMille features. Despite being a shrewd businesswoman, the by then middle-aged actress stumbled from one middling project to another, playing roles emblematic of an identity in a state of crisis and a career in uneasy flux: a crime-solving nun, a terrorist-beset Planter’s Wife, a Texas Lady. Even her outstanding performance in Three Came Home (1950), for the ordeal of filming which she lost her chance at starring in All About Eve, had gone largely unnoticed.

The Secret Fury, the hysterical melodrama she starred in next, was filmed at a time when audiences were being swept away by a new wave of crime stories that were tough, gritty and low on frills. Unconvincing and anachronistic, it is an irritatingly contrived variation on one of those neo-gothic mysteries in which newlywed heroines distrust their brain much rather than those who stand to gain from addling it.

As if to compensate for the mediocre material or to suit her acting to the overwrought plot, the refined and often reserved Colbert was, for once, woefully overacting. Two years earlier, she had played a similar role in Douglas Sirk’s Sleep, My Love (1948)—the thrills-promising poster for which I acquired last fall—and audiences had reason to be less than embracing of mature (if immaturely acting) women who put their lives and careers in peril by marrying into the wrong families or listening to the advice of their Hollywood agents.

When The Secret Fury was sold to theaters in Britain, it was promoted with the help of the Exhibitors’ Campaign Book pictured above. The latest artifact to have made it into my collection of Colbert memorabilia, it affords a fascinating glimpse at the industry’s marketing machinery. Aside from offering cinema displays and providing advertising copy to be fed to the press, it encouraged exhibitors to adopt various strategies of getting a potential audience excited about the motion picture. Suggested activities were contests in which audiences were asked to match Colbert’s eyes, to share their wedding pictures, or accurately to recall recent events in their lives (something Colbert’s character struggles to do in the film).

Another “stunt” to create interest in the film was this “Visualised Brain Test Reaction, followed by the instructions:

Make an enlarged copy of this graph to serve as a teaser display in the theatre foyer, along with an explanatory caption and film credits. Lead off with a display caption: “Did these brain waves reveal the truth of her mysterious week-end?”

Meanwhile, my own head is gradually clearing after a recent fever; no longer content to feast on television sitcoms, I am going to take in one of Colbert’s earlier comedy triumphs . . . the wintersporting romantic triangle I Met Him in Paris (1937). As DeMille pointed out in his introduction to the radio adaptation another Colbert comedy, The Gilded Lily (produced by the Lux Radio Theatre on this day, 11 January, in 1937), the actress had been somewhat of a “starmaker.” Those who were allowed to throw their arms around her became leading men in their own right, as had Charles Boyer and Gilded Lily co-star MacMurray. Back then, Colbert had her pick of roles and other halves, and brains enough to go for the right ones.

Is That a Barrymore Behind the Mike?

Well, it isn’t C. B. DeMille, folks. Those tuning in to the Lux Radio Theater on this day, 30 November, back in 1936, were in for a surprise. DeMille, host and nominal producer of the program, briefly addressed the audience from New York, rather than uttering his customary “Greetings from Hollywood.” For the “first time” since taking on his role, he was going to “join the Lux Radio Theater‘s legion of listeners” instead. There was just enough time for him to mention his latest picture, The Plainsman, which he was currently previewing coast to coast, and to announce his substitute:

The show you and I are about to hear has been prepared by one who is certainly on speaking terms with our microphone: Lionel Barrymore. To one so familiar, and so beloved, the mention of his name is the most glowing introduction I could give.

Barrymore was on hand to ring down the sonic curtain and narrate “Polly of the Circus,” a sentimental comedy starring Loretta Young in the role played on screen by the all too infrequently mentioned Marion Davies (whose Lux anniversary yesterday, the 1937 production of “Peg o’ My Heart” I neglected to acknowledge). Barrymore assured the audience that he did not intend to take the place of the celebrated director:

That, as you and I both know, is something no one could do. I am here, anyway, highly flattered and slightly uneasy, hoping to keep things in order until Miss DeMille, er, Mr. DeMille resumes the reins next week.

The busiest of the Barrymores in broadcasting had no reason to be coy or ill at ease. He had previously been heard on the program and, beginning in 1942, would delight listeners as star of his own dramatic radio series, The Mayor of the Town. Dr. Kildare went on the air in 1950. Subsequently, he served as host of the drama anthology Hallmark Playhouse. Now, the producers and sponsors of a live show like Lux may very well have felt uneasy to let go of their star voice for the first time. The show had to go on.

Exactly five years later, on 30 November 1941, the producers of Behind the Mike suggested an answer. On that program, dedicated to the broadcasting industry and its players, listeners once again heard Barrymore . . . but the voice was that of impersonator Arthur Boran, who also offered his best Eddie Cantor. Which makes me wonder: just how many of those famous voices on the air are mere vocal illusions?

My own voice will be heard less frequently on broadcastellan next month, as I am going to pay return visits to New York and London, from which locations I shall only occasionally file my reports. Sorry, no Barrymores.

"Isn’t she nice?": Laraine Day (1913-2007) on the Air

Well, the first thing I thought of when I heard about the passing of screen actress Laraine Day on 10 November 2007 was this remark by Alfred Hitchcock, who directed her in Foreign Correspondent (1940): “I would have liked to have a bigger star.” He could not have been faced with a brighter one. Best known in the 1940s for her recurring role of nurse Mary Lamont in a series of Dr. Kildare movies, Day (seen left in a picture taken from my copy of the 3-9 January 1942 issue of Movie-Radio Guide) was as bright as her name suggested. There seemed to be no edge from which to push to her into more ambitious performances. She was just so darn nice . . . at least until she was forced to give back that pretty Locket.

In The Locket (1946), Day’s cheerful personality is being cleverly exploited to make audiences wonder whether her character, Nancy, is really as charming and uncomplicated as she seems. “She is nice,” a woman attending Nancy’s wedding observes. “She’s lucky,” another guest replies. “If you’re nice, you have to be lucky,” the first one counters, only to be dealt with the riposte that “[i]f you’re lucky, you can afford to be nice.”

Nancy can afford to be nice, however little happiness being a good girl managed to get her as a child; but is she just Mrs. Lucky to have landed such a well-to-do husband, or has her not being quite so nice something to do with it? The Locket, in which Day stars opposite Robert Mitchum, Brian Aherne, and Gene Raymond, is Hitchcock’s Marnie without the sex angle. It is a dark, labyrinthine thriller that casts welcome shadows on the brightness of Ms. Day.

Before making her frequent US television appearances, hosting her own program Daydreaming with Laraine (1951) and starring in a number of Lux Video Theater productions, Day was heard on the Lux Radio Theater in recreations of her screen roles in Mr. Lucky(1943) and Bride by Mistake (1944). She was also cast in a number of original radio plays produced by the Cavalcade of America (such as in “The Camels Are Coming,” opposite her Foreign Correspondent co-star Joel McCrea).

On Biography in Sound, Day let listeners in on the home life of her husband, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, with whom she also appeared on Tallulah Bankhead’s Big Show (4 February 1951), in which Day’s clean image was contrasted with that of her irascible husband:

Bankhead: Well, I must say, Laraine, that being the wife of a stormy baseball manager doesn’t seem to have changed you very much. You still have that fresh, lovely, scrubbed look.

Day: Why shouldn’t I look scrubbed? Every time we have an argument, Leo sends me to the showers.

Considering that Day’s projected identity resembles an ad for toilet soap, it is not surprising that she made several return visits to the Lux Radio Theater. Introduced as “ever lovely” by Mr. DeMille, Day enjoyed a rather more interesting vehicle than her own comedies in the mystery “The Unguarded Hour” (4 December 1944). Here, Robert Montgomery, playing the husband of Day’s character, a valiant wife of whose efforts to protect him from scandal of which he is unaware, captures what is the persona of his co-star:

How do you think I came to worship you? Because you’re so pretty? Because you win large silver cups jumping horses or play good bridge? No, darling. You have what’s called quality. It’s kindness, it’s generosity, that makes all the rest of us feel just a little shoddy.

It Might As Well Be Maytime

Well, I neither know nor care whether it is still considered a gaffe in some circles, but this was the kind of post-Labor Day that makes me want to wear white, or less. Mind you, I was just lounging in our garden, a rare enough treat this year. I am not among those who look toward fall as a fresh and colorful season, marked and marred by decay as it is. In New York City, my former home, September and October come as a relief from the stifling heat, a cooling down for which there is generally no need here in temperate and meteorologically temperamental Wales. Pop culturally speaking, to be sure, autumn is a time of renewal. In the US, at least, there is the fall lineup to look forward to as the end of an arid stretch in which fillers and (starting in the late 1940s) repeats convinced folks of the pleasures to be had outdoors.

No doubt, the producers of the Peabody Award-winning Lux Radio Theater were trying to stress this sense of a vernal rebirth when it opened its tenth season on this day, 4 September, back in 1944. Here is how host Cecil B. DeMille welcomed back the audience to what then was, statistically speaking, the greatest dramatic show on radio:

Greetings from Hollywood, ladies and gentlemen. At every opening night in the theater, for a thousand years, there’s been a breathless feeling of expectancy, a sense of new adventure. And tonight, as the light to on again in our Lux Radio Theater, there’s the added thrill of knowing that the lights are going on all over the world. With the liberation of France, the torch of Freedom burns again in Europe, and tonight we have a play that expresses something of the bond between song-loving America and music-loving Paris. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s screen hit Maytime, with Sigmund Romberg’s unforgettable music, and for our stars, those all-American favorites, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

Leave it to the spokesperson of Lever Brothers (last spotted here with the Lord of toilet soaps) and the continuity writers in their employ, to link historical events of such magnitude as D-Day, the establishment of a French provisional government and its relocation from Algiers to Paris a few days prior to the broadcast with an escapist trifle like Maytime (1937), which, as Connie Billips and Arthur Pierce pointed out in Lux Presents Hollywood, bears little musical resemblance to Romberg’s original operetta, begot in the dark days of the Europe of 1917, before the US entered the first World War.

Commercial interests were anxious to reclaim the airwaves, after a period of restraint that we living in the 21st century have not witnessed since the attack on the World Trade Center back in September 2001. During his curtain call with co-star MacDonald (whose 1930 effort The Lottery Bride was released on DVD today), the aforementioned Mr. Eddy was further making “light” of the situation in the European war theater by plugging his new radio program. By expressing that “the lights were going on again all over the world,” Nelson remarked as he dutifully read from his script, DeMille had put him “on the spot.” After all, his sponsors were “160 leading electric light and power companies.” Houselights, please!

Dancing with Franchot Tone: Tenth Avenue Girl Gets to Be “Lady for a Day”

Fancy that, Florence Farley! You were one lucky teenager, when, early in March 1939, a photographer from the ever enterprising Hearst paper New York Journal American came to see a fashion show planned by you and the kids in your neighborhood—the none too fashionable Tenth Avenue in Manhattan. Subsequently, you were chosen to go to Hollywood and become a “Lady for a Day.” What’s more, on this day, 1 May, you got to tell millions of Americans about your experience, dutifully marvelling at the “simply swell” Lux toilet soap in return. After all, you were talking to Cecil B. DeMille, nominal producer of the Lux Radio Theater, and there had to be something in it for those who made you over, young lady, and made your day.

Mr. DeMille was in New York City for the premiere of his Union Pacific, while Leslie Howard took over as narrator and host in Hollywood; so, C. B. didn’t really have to go out of his way (or send you back, all expenses paid, to Tinseltown) to meet up with you. You had returned by then from your West Coast adventure, the title of “Lady” being bestowed upon you “with the understanding” that you would return to your “own workaday world.”

“I was just another girl,” you told the famous director, just as the script had it. “Gee,” you exclaimed, as anyone should, having had a break like yours. When prompted to do so, you told listeners of going to your “first nightclub,” where you met Dorothy Lamour and “danced with Franchot Tone.” He probably felt like dancing, too, considering that he was single again, his marriage with Joan Crawford having recently ended in divorce, which might not be as bad as going back to the tenements. By the way, I’m watching Harriet Craig tonight and wonder what it must have been like, living with Crawford. But never mind that now.

While in Hollywood, you also got to make a screentest, go for a “bicycle ride with Bob Hope,” and appear in a Paramount picture. Not that I could find your name anywhere on the Internet Movie Database. Who knows just how much of your dream come true is true, Florence Farley. Tell me, were you really glad to return to the tenements to live with your grandma and go out with boys who only dream of being Errol Flynn? Did you get to keep those “Cinderella slippers,” never having “paid more than $2 for shoes” before?

Yours was another thin slice of Hollywood baloney, a West Coast diversion from the butchery about to commence in the east to the east of you. It’s no coincidence, either, that the Lux Radio Theater presented an adaptation of Damon Runyon’s ”Madame La Gimp” (later aired under original title on the Damon Runyon Theater program and remade as Pocketful of Miracles starring Glenn Ford, who would have celebrated his 91st birthday today, had he not died last August). Nor is it surprising that your fairy tale fits so well into the scheme of selling things, of carving the mess of life into neat bars of soap.

You know, Flo, listening to your voice (more real than the hooey you were asked to repeat) and wondering about the life behind those lines of yours—the life behind the “human interest” story and the publicity act you were that spring—sure beats following the sentimental play on offer that night. Now let’s wash our hands of the whole affair, without so much as thinking about lathering with the sponsor’s product . . .

It Happened Another Night: A Return Trip for Colbert and Gable

Well, you can’t go home again; but that sure doesn’t stop a lot of folks from getting a return ticket or from being taken for a ride in the same rickety vehicle. And with pleasure! Before I head out to the theater for another meeting with Moll Flanders, who’s been around the block plenty, I am going to hop on the old “Night Bus” that took Colbert and Gable places—and all the way to the Academy Awards besides. On this day, 20 March, in 1939, the Depression era transport was fixed up for a Lux Radio Theater presentation of It Happened One Night. Whereas Orson Welles would try to shove Miriam Hopkins and William Powell into their seats for the Campbell Playhouse adaptation of Robert Riskin’s screenplay, Colbert and Gable (as Peter Warne) were brought back for Lux, reprising their Oscar-winning roles of runaway socialite Ellie Andrews and the reporter on her trail. Also on board that night were Walter Connelly as Ellie’s father and, “believe you me,” Roscoe Karns as the fellow traveler Ellie can stand even less than the arrogant newshound—”Yessir. Shapeley’s the name, and that’s the way I like ’em.”

Of course, if you like ’em like Shapeley, George Wells’s rewrite of the Production-Coded tease that is It Happened One Night will be a disappointment. For starters, you won’t get to admire Colbert’s traffic-stopping gams or Gable’s retailer-headache of a bare chest. Capra’s down-to-earth comedy suffers badly from becoming airborne—if, indeed, it ever does.

On the airwaves, you won’t get to hear Ellie’s liberating plunge into the ocean; her story picks up at the bus terminal, with Peter getting fired while the “Extra, Extra” of a newsboy alerts him to the scoop that could revive his career. Before we quite get why Ellie is out of her element, Peter is already in his, as the elements of screwball are beaten to the pulp of romance.

The old bus sputters along as if someone had slashed its tires. Gone, too, are many of Riskin’s censors-defying innuendos. Still, if you got a mischievous mind, you can tear down the Walls of Jericho or any barrier that might keep you from imagining what is really happening between Ellie and Peter. “You haven’t got a trumpet by any chance, have you?” Luckily, I always carry a spare.

“These Three”: Gay Lovers Straightened through Air-conditioning

Simeon Solomon, The Sleepers and the One who Watcheth (1870; detail)

The history of taboos sure is a shocking one. I mean, it is shocking to realize what once was banned from our discourse. Interracial marriages. Gay unions. Gender reassignments. While denial can be as harmful as our tendency to designate, you would have to have been living under that proverbial stone formation or been petrified by the religious fundamentalism that passes for faith these days to regard such realities as unmentionable. They may not be widely understood or tolerated, let alone embraced, but as the facts of life in its complexities they are too much in the public eye to be ignored.

While often argued to be responsible for foisting a liberal education on the masses, Hollywood has played an important role in keeping quiet about many aspects of what is now the gender debate. In the mid-1930s, and for several decades thereafter, the Production Code curtailed what could be shown or talked about in motion pictures. It was on this day, 6 December, in 1933, that James Joyce’s Ulysses was ruled to be “not obscene,” lifting the ban on its sale in the US; but that, aside from its narrative structure, hardly made Ulysses a hot property in Tinseltown. Writers who wanted a share of the profits to be made by selling stories or streamlining them for the silver screen had to deal with the strictures of the code and learn to rework their material accordingly. One who accepted this challenge was playwright Lillian Hellman, whose 1934 stage success The Children’s Hour was brought to the ears of American radio listeners on this day in 1937.

The Children’s Hour tells the story of two women whose teaching careers are wrecked when one of their students accuses them of having an intimate relationship.  Like Hellman’s 1936 screen version of The Children’s Hour, titled These Three, George Wells’s radio adaptation tones down the accusation by throwing a man into the mix.  Wedged between Stanwyck and Mary Astor that night was the presumably irresistible Errol Flynn.

Hollywood had long specialized in triangular romances, although they were rarely as ambiguous as in the above painting by the aforementioned Simeon Solomon.  Indeed, the three-cornered plot constitutes the first new genre of production-coded cinema—the screwball comedy, which often confront lovers of the same sex in the conquest of an opposite-sexed other. Considering that These Three concentrates on libel rather than love, on words rather than actions, the instalment of a male love interest becomes all the more astonishing in its faint-heartedness.

As if determined to remove any doubts as to the straightness of “These Three” and all those associated with the production, Lux host Cecil B. DeMille opens the program by letting listeners in on a secret, a story that had “completely escaped the headlines.” It amounted to little more than the announcement of a recent marriage. According to DeMille’s anecdote, the unconventional Ms. Stanwyck had just attended the wedding of her stableboy, danced with the hired hands, and “made them all forget” that she was the “groom’s boss.” The Lux theater presented itself as clean, not stuffy.

What is more irritating to me than Hollywood’s silent treatments is the subsequent silencing of the history of such taboos. A description of the Lux broadcast in a 1995 reference text, for instance, keeps mum about the past of “These Three” by alluding to “[c]ertain aspects of the stage production’s plot” that “made a straight film version out of the question.” Rather than the readily furnished “straight” version, it is the straightforward answer that has often been “out of the question” in Hollywood and the culture it shaped.