How Cecil B. DeMille Delivered Air Mail for Hawks’s Angels

Without being aware of it at first, I continued my engagement with the movies of 1939—Hollywood’s greatest year—last night, as I followed up a previously mentioned screening of Drums Along the Mohawk by projecting Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings onto my small big screen. Well, I must agree with cinema critic Ted Sennett, who held that the two leads were unfortunate miscasts. The suave Cary Grant (as flying ace Geoff Carter) does indeed cut a “faintly ludicrous figure, and Jean Arthur [as Bonnie Lee] is nobody’s idea of a showgirl.” Such sensory obstacles and prejudices are immaterial, of course, when listening to a radio adaptation. So, today I improved upon my viewing experience by listening to the mercifully shorter Lux Radio Theatre production of Angels, which aired 29 May 1939. Clipped and satisfyingly swift, the air treatment added a touch of self-reflexivity to Bonnie’s exclamation “Say, things happen awful fast around here.”

Timing itself, by which I mean the date of the broadcast, is significant for two reasons. Unlike most Lux presentations, the airwaved “Angels” took flight shortly after the 15 May 1939 release of the motion picture upon which it was based. Coinciding with—and thus capable of promoting—Hawks’s aviation melodrama, it boasted no fewer than eight members of the original cast, including Grant, Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, silent screen star Richard Barthelmess, and newcomer Rita Hayworth. Even for the lavishly produced Lux program, such screen presence was unusually extravagant. Yet Lux‘s promotional services for Columbia Studios went even further.

As Cecil B. DeMille, host and ostensible producer of the program pointed out during the show’s second intermission, there was a “real-life parallel” between Hawks’s drama of airmail daredevilry in South America and a recent “history-making flight.” Two days prior to the broadcast, Pan Am inaugurated a regular airmail service to Europe. Its pilot, Captain Arthur E. LaPorte was called before the CBS microphone to tell of the “tremendous strides” in aviation: “We have at last conquered the Atlantic.” After all, the clipper crossed the ocean in a mere twenty-five hours.

Picked up by about twenty-five million listeners each week, Lux was capable of delivering its fan letters to the movies with considerably greater speed and efficiency. Its timeliness dramatically underscored and confirmed, Hawks’s film could hardly have received a more prominent stamp of approval. It’s high time I got my hands on one.

On This Day in 1942: Tyrone Power Slips Out to War on a Bar of Soap

In the days before television and video, Americans who felt like taking home a movie tuned in Monday nights to CBS radio and took in the Lux Radio Theatre, a lavishly produced and highly popular dramatic program on which Hollywood stars performed in audio versions of motion pictures old and new. The Lux listeners did not expect political drama or social commentary, but an hour of romance, gossip, and soap commercials. On 14 September 1942, however, as the Lux Radio Theatre returned from its customary summer hiatus to raise the curtain on its eighth season, the audience was greeted by host Cecil B. DeMille (pictured here with Loretta Young and Fred MacMurray) with the following announcement:

“Once more it is opening night in the Lux Radio Theatre; but a new kind of opening night. Without benefit of searchlights or brightly lit marquees. Like Broadway’s White Way, Hollywood Boulevard’s Neon Lane is dimmed out for the duration.”

There was a war on—and the producers of radio entertainment were learning how to carve a handgun out of soap and to turn bubbles into ammunition. Not to offend the war-weary, the famed producer-director quickly added: “But there’s no dim-out on glamour and adventure inside the Lux Radio Theatre tonight.”

The play presented live that evening was “This Above All,” a wartime melodrama based on the 1941 movie and novel of the same title. The “first great love story to come out of this war,” DeMille declared, it’s “what the critics call an important drama and what the public calls great entertainment.” Sure, it was “the story of two people. A man and a woman from different worlds. One reared in poverty in the slums of London [dashing Tyrone Power, mind you], the other a child of England’s aristocracy [Barbara Stanwyck, miscast in the Joan Fontaine part].” But it was “also a story of England today, an England in which social barriers are forgotten in the united effort of all her people to fight this war.” Above all, it was the story of radio propaganda itself.

“This Above All” begins with war news, brought, via radio, into the home of the class-conscious Cathaways. “Well there’s one good thing about the wireless,” remarks the haughty aunt of heroine Prudence Cathaway. “You can always turn it off.” Prudence is tired of such talk and ashamed of her family’s high-toned isolationism: “When you talk I seem to hear words oozing through the holes of a moth-eaten sofa,” she tells her shocked elders. “I’m in 1940 and you’re in 1880. Your kind of thinking is more dangerous to us than Hitler is.”

Having joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Prudence meets and falls in love with a private who, confused about the aims of the war, decides to desert. She gives a passionate speech about why England is worth fighting for, but is unable to sway her war-torn lover. On the run from the military police, the deserter is exposed to several speeches about duty and faith, but is ultimately converted by the experience of rescuing some of his fellow citizens during an air raid. He realizes what he could not quite see when told of it by the aristocratic Prudence, his superiors, and a priest: he is one of millions drawn together in the common cause that make commoners out of all.

The Lux broadcast underscores this message by reminding listeners that Rosalind Russell was going to entertain the troups and that she, having just filmed a romance about a “girl flyer in the pre-war Pacific,” “may even tour the Pacific in reality.” That stars were real folks—and that radio brought all folks together was further driven home in DeMille’s curtain call:

“And now ladies and gentlemen, I must to tell you that this is the last time we’ll be able to have Tyrone Power in the Lux Radio Theatre for months or perhaps years to come. He’s made a contract with Uncle Sam; and within the few two weeks, he’ll report to the United States Marine Corps as Private Tyrone Power.” Thundering applause from the studio audience follows.

The conflicting or, at least, competing aims of selling soap, promoting Hollywood, and delivering propaganda may have resulted in a confusion of disingenuousness at odds with the Shakespearean motto referenced in the title of that night’s story and read by Prudence to her lover:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Somehow, though, the long-running Lux program escaped a wartime identity crisis and, on that night, managed to tell a compelling story justifying its own existence.