On This Day in 1949: US Listeners Are Transported to Mexico

Well, it might just make it after all. Our elm tree, that is. It was uprooted and replanted over a year ago and did not take kindly to the forced relocation. This morning, when I replenished the birdfeeder that dangles from its bare branches, I noticed a few tentative buds. Encouraged by those signs of life, I am going pay more attention to this horticultural casualty over the next few weeks. The uprooted and transplanted don’t always adjust well to their new environs. Sometimes, they seem altogether out of place. Take Miss Marple, for instance.

Last night, a new dramatization of Agatha Christie’s Sittaford Mystery premiered on British TV channel ITV1. Now, what was Miss Marple doing at Sittaford? She sure wasn’t sent there by her brainmother, who created Sittaford without Marple in mind. Nothing quite fits together in this adaptation, which tries to update Christie’s early 1930s séance mystery with noirish touches and hard-boiled wit. Transport the story into the 1950s, throw in an ex-James Bond (Timothy Dalton), a dash of Indiana Jones, a taste of not-so-sweet honey (an enigmatically skeletal Rita Tushingham), and some hints at lesbianism—and, voila (now I am being Poirot), you’ve got yourself a caper with a serious identity crisis.

I have always been driven by and torn between two impulses: to stick to what I know and try to stay away from it. The familiar can be comforting and reassuring. In my readings, for instance, or in my appreciation of drama, I tend to be downright Victorian in my tastes. As much as I was intrigued by the story of (or behind) Bennett Miller’s Capote, with which I caught up this weekend, I would have preferred it to be a little less analytical. I did not get to feel for or identify with any of the characters, as fascinated as I was by the situation in which they found themselves.

Miller seems to have taken a Terrence Rattigan approach by trying to concretize ideas rather than plots and characters. Such attempts are, perhaps, best left to essays, writings in which blossoming ideas are more likely to reach maturity and take root in the mind of an audience to whose efforts in abstraction any singled-out specifics might be distracting.

And yet, the familiar can also be stultifying and stifling, making the getting away from it seem a matter of life and death. On this May Day—the celebration of spring and renewal, that, not altogether inappropriately, shares its name with the internationally recognized distress call—I am looking westward, toward my former home, observing how the subject of immigration develops in the country of immigrants, and how US-Mexican relations received yet another blow, as millions are encouraged to stay away from work or refuse the purchase of US goods. However contentious the subject, it is not one to be avoided; and, rather than being a vehicle for escape, old-time radio, once again, serves as a reminder of some of Mexico’s other migratory misfortunes.

On this day, 1 May, in 1949, listeners of You Are There, a series of fictionalized radio documentaries, were given the opportunity to witness the assassination of emperor Montezuma, presumably by his own people. Among the voices from the past “interviewed” for the program, Canada Lee can be heard as an Aztec prince, the oppression of African-Americans being thereby likened to the life of the Aztecs under Montezuma.

Also on mike to give her views of the situation is the emperor’s daughter, who vows to leave Mexico with her husband, the invading Spaniard Cortez: “If the house of my father must be overthrown to deliver my people from hideous darkness, I say let it be overthrown.” That Cortez returns to Mexico to plunder its treasures is offered as a “footnote” at the conclusion of the broadcast.

On that same day, conceited skinflint Jack Benny went down to Mexico (or some Hollywood simulacrum of it, such as the above scene from Masquerade in Mexico) in hopes of a better life—one enriched by foreign gold or by a shiny Oscar—in an irreverent take on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He neither succeeded in the quest, nor in its dramatization, but delighted his audience as he died trying.

The radical tourism we label “immigration” has frequently been romanticized as adventurous or trivialized as opportunist; to criminalize it now will do still less to explain, let alone discourage, such wayward and often desperate acts of displacement. I, for one, have not set foot on my country of origin for nearly sixteen years. Anxious to fall away from the family tree, to take root elsewhere or rot, I migrated to New York City. A decade and a half (and some degrees) later, I moved on, to Britain, a country that seems stranger to me than I had anticipated.

Many who leave their native land are not unlike that elm tree in our garden, struggling and unstable; but I know that whatever it is that uproots us must be stronger than that which holds us in place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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