“Ich weiss . . .”: The Certainties of Zarah Leander

“Es ist unmöglich, von Edgar Wallace nicht gefesselt zu sein,” the German translation of a famous publisher’s slogan goes. Never mind the author, whose name, to me, is synonymous with a long series of neogothic film shockers produced in Germany from the late 1950s to the early ‘70s, starring, the enigmatic Klaus Kinski aside, the by then soured crème de la crème of German cinema. It is not the author or the actors but the catchphrase that came to mind today. The original—the assertion that it is “impossible not to be thrilled” by said writer—is decidedly less expressive.

But then, English so often is, compared to the directness of the emotionally charged German language, whose dictionary, largely free from sterilizing Latin, lays meaning bare like a wound bleeding with the memory of deeply felt sensations. “Sehnsucht,” “Weltschmerz,” “Leidenschaft”—I know of no equivalent vehicle in the English lexicon with which to convey quite so forcibly the shattered frame of an agitated mind! The exclamation point, an expedient in punctuation to which I rarely permit myself the resorting, is meant here to imply at once the passion evoked by the German and the frustration of approximating it as my mother tongue sticks itself out at me.

Let us not get tongue-tied. “Gefesselt” loosely translates into “captivated” or, so as not to be loose about what is tight and binding, “tied up” and “enthralled.” What could be more enthralling than the timbre of Zarah Leander? Who could capture longing better than she? Enthralling, yes; but listening to Leander, I can feel rope burn—the sensation of struggling to loosen a restraint. A desire to put a name and voice to my feelings (described in the previous post) compelled me to go in search of her online, the internet being a lifeline for those who, like me, have struggled and failed to sever their ties from the culture into which they were born.

Leander, of course, was a leading lady in Third Reich cinema. As such, her voice and image are both riveting and repulsive to me. Like my present wavering and uncertainty, the figure of Zarah Leander, spellbinding as it may be, spells ambiguity and contradiction. To begin with, Leander was not German; she had Jewish ancestry; a homosexual friend wrote some of her best-known songs. And yet, she was in the service of fascism, implicated in song, as the jolly crowd of Nazis listening and swaying to one of her signature tunes, “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter” in this clip from Die Grosse Liebe (1942) drive home.

Knowing this, I still feel like the blond boy sitting by her side as she teases him that he could not possibly know the most basic sensations—the smell of hazelnuts or an icy wind against one’s cheeks (a song performed, no less, in in a film by the man who would be Douglas Sirk). Wrapped up in her presence, “Schatten der Vergangenheit” (shadows of the past) are crowding in on me.

Zarah Leander is telling me more about myself than I have had the guts to digest at times. By the 1970s, she had become a queer icon, appropriated by the crowd that the regime she tacitly endorsed used to send off to the camps. “Kann denn Liebe Sünde sein?” (Yet can love be sin?) she famously sang, which became—or indeed was conceived as—a song of gay longing. I did not want to be reminded of that liberation, either. In the confusion of a childhood spent in the awareness that I would be unlike the men who desire women sexually, there was no assurance in the taking possession of her in the name of the love then thought of as having to remain unnamed.

Tonight, Leander’s performances are strangely reaffirming. There is “something understood” in her voice, in the lyrics and their delivery. She knows, her character claims in this song, of a future miracle (“Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehn”), in her voice a conviction her tears seem to belie. I have no need of miracles. Instead, I glory in the wonder of feeling intensely, of being alive to my conflicting emotions, my fears and longings. Recognizing those feelings, I suddenly know myself again . . .

A Soundtrack for the Silent Era

Well, I am all ears again. After the visual assault described in the previous post, this constitutes a welcome reining in of the senses. Not that the experience is a tranquil one. I am listening to the sounds of war . . . the Great War. Presented by BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, “The Sounds of Flanders” (available here until 30 November), introduces listeners to a collection of rare phonograph recordings produced for the domestic market in Britain, the “first form of saleable audio propaganda”—patriotic speeches, rousing songs, and soundstaged re-enactments of warfare.

The recordings, which include dramatizations of an air raid on an English coastal town and the attack on the RMS Lusitania made just weeks after the ship’s sinking, were unearthed by broadcast historian Tim Crook, who calls them the earliest surviving example of audio drama produced in Britain.

Not all of it was produced for the local market; apparently, some of these recordings were intended for an American audience in an attempt to rally support for the Great War. It clearly anticipates the shortwave transmissions of World War II, as described in Charles J. Rolo’s 1942 study Radio Goes to War (of which I am fortunate to have added to my library above copy signed by its author). As Rolo put it,

[radio]went to war on five continents shortly after the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. In eight years it has been streamlined from a crude propaganda bludgeon into the most powerful single instrument of political warfare the world has ever known. More flexible in use and infinitely stronger in emotional impact than the printed word, as a weapon of war waged psychologically radio has no equal.

According to Rolo, “Nazi tacticians, unhampered by the deadweight of outdated traditions, had taken to heart the lessons of the last war and were elaborating for the future a strategy of war waged psychologically.” As “The Sounds of Flanders” suggests, those strategies may well have originated in the United Kingdom, even though the audio recordings were apparently not made by any branch of the government (a point in need of clarification).

As in the case of the electrophone wirecasts from the London stage during the reign of Queen Victoria (discussed here), those phono-graphic records antecede the first experimentations in broadcast theatricals, which began in the early 1920s.

Programs like “The Sounds of Flanders” help to restore the soundtrack for a generation that today is largely thought of as silent.

Napoleon Solo Dynamite: Robert Vaughn “Behind the Iron Curtain”

Well, it wasn’t exactly the Summer of Love, back in 1968, when American film and television actor Robert Vaughn, then known to millions of Americans as “Napoleon Solo” came to Czechoslovakia to play a Nazi officer in The Bridge at Remagen. Four decades later, Vaughn got the opportunity to share his experience in Tracy Spottiswoode’s radio play “Solo Behind the Curtain.” The play aired last Monday on BBC Radio 4.

Now, Spottiswoode told me about “Solo” some 18 months ago when we sat in the kitchen of her Cardiff home (as mentioned here, in passing); by now, I had almost given up on ever getting to hear it, especially since I have visited Prague in the meantime and dined at the Cafe Europa on Wenceslas Square, where Vaughn enjoys a cool drink and the warmth of late spring as the play opens.

In a nod to Vaughn’s most famous role, “Solo” comes on like a 1960s spy thriller, with suave Vaughn feeling “pretty sure” that he

was being followed. In those days, there was nothing surprising in that. An American in an Iron Curtain country, during the Cold War. It would have been unusual not to be followed. What was surprising, though, was just how pretty she was.

Her name is Pepsi (wonderfully portrayed by Serbian actress Vesna Stanojevic), and she is used to being called “bubbly.” Perhaps it is her blood (Pepsi’s father was American communist who, in a moment of nostalgia, named his daughter after the soft drink he could no longer enjoy in his wife’s homeland of Czechoslovakia). The smart if malapropism prone young woman, who serves as the crew’s interpreter, is proud of her country’s relative freedom, but eager to leave with the Americans as those freedoms are being crushed.

Vaughn is an excellent narrator, as his father Walter had been, back in the mid-1940s, when he narrated wartime propaganda plays like “Assignment USA” for the series Words at War, aside from appearing on thriller programs like Murder at Midnight and Gangbusters.

Unlike his father, Vaughn was busy exposing propaganda, rather than delivering it. During the time of the filming, he was at work on his doctoral dissertation, which was later published as Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting. As you will hear, it very nearly got lost as a peaceful spring gave way to a bloody summer.

His is not the voice of a 35-year-old, to be sure; but Vaughn draws you into his story all the same as he recreates his experience shooting in Czechoslovakia . . . until the shooting began in the streets. In August 1968, a short period of reformed communism under Alexander Dubček, known as the Prague Spring, came to an end as Soviet tanks rolled into the city. Not that Vaughn was ready to say U.N.C.L.E. and get stranded in a country hostile to the west in general and a film crew in particular, engaged as it was in firing explosives and blowing up things to restage a war for maximum box office impact.

Brandishing the Pen: The War of “Seeing It Through”

Well, this is Guy Fawkes Day (or Bonfire Night) here in Britain. I am hearing the fireworks exploding as I write. Last year, I dragged Tallulah Bankhead into the Popish Plot; but it really seems an occasion to handle something explosive. To write about war and propaganda, or the war of propaganda, for instance. Bonfire Night coincides with the third anniversary of my move to Wales. So, I might as well write about something relating to the Welsh. And since this 5th of November is also the first day of the WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike that is intended to cripple the television and motion picture industry in the US, I might as well express my solidarity by turning a deaf ear to overseas media and lend a keen one to the voices of Britain. Propaganda, a Welsh Prime Minister (pictured), and a group of famous authors including H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, and Arnold Bennett—“Seeing It Through” promises nothing less.

“Seeing” is the latest radio play by Neil Brand—last seen here in Wales accompanying The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918). Dining with the writer, I remarked that, these days, the BBC seems most interested in airing biographical or historical drama. No exception is today’s Afternoon Play on BBC Radio 4, Tracy Spottiswoode’s “Solo Behind the Iron Curtain” (starring Robert Vaughn as himself, caught in revolutionary Prague anno 1968, and reviewed in my next entry into this journal). What sells these days are purportedly true stories, opportunities to eavesdrop on prominent, eminent or at any rate historical personages.

If it is to fly, the drama of the air is expected to have weight, especially now that such texts are generally being relegated to the footnotes of popular culture. Those in charge of allotting time for aural play try to salvage a dying art gasping for air by turning recorded sound into sound records and reducing storytelling into a substitute for oral history. A footnote-and-mouth disease is contaminating the airwaves, a corrupting influence in the theater of the mind for which there exists no talking cure. For the record, Brand has not so much caught the disease than braved it.

Cinematic in its architecture, in its designs on the mind’s eye, “Seeing It Through” opens like a house of worship, resounding with a hymn whose words are based on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, written in imprisonment: “He who would valiant be / ’gainst all disaster, / Let him in constancy / follow the Master.” The music gives way to the sounds of a crowded auditorium and the words of one of the most famous British writers of the late 19th and early 20th century. None other than the man who invented The War of the Worlds: “You know me. My name is H. G. Wells,” the novelist addresses a conservative crowd and is very nearly booed off the stage, clearly not the master of his domain.

Wells was hoping to lend support to Charles Masterman, a liberal politician to whom we are introduced as he tries to promote welfare reforms. A gifted orator, Masterman disappears from the public stage to become the mastermind or mouthpiece of the newly established War Propaganda Bureau, Britain’s response to German duplicity. “There is no such thing as a clean war,” future Prime Minister David Lloyd George warns the radical idealist. “Then, Masterman replies, “we should create one.”

Rallied to aid him are the leading novelists of the time, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Hardy, Galsworthy and Bennett. As Wells is heard expressing it: “The ultimate purpose of this war is propaganda, the destruction of certain beliefs, and the creation of others.” Unlike the radio propaganda penned by US playwrights, poets, and novelists in the 1940s (as discussed here), their activities in publicizing an unpopular war was being kept a secret until well after armistice was declared.

As is revealed in a well-soundstaged scene symbolizing Masterman’s struggle to navigate the moral maze of a publicly invisible office, the alcoholic in charge gets lost in the structure he is meant to control. Trying to find his way, he relies on the guidance of a suffragette who once dared to toss pig’s blood in his face and whose brother is facing a breakdown on the front that she assisted in putting up: “I’ve learned,” she tells Masterman, that “there is no truth where war is concerned, except one: that the greatest cruelty is to let it go on when it could be stopped.” She, too, operates under the influence, hers being Frances Stevenson, personal secretary, mistress, and future wife of Lloyd George, a woman Wells calls the “sphinx that guards the labyrinth of Whitehall.” It is in this nexus of oblique channels and hidden agenda that the lives of thousands are rewritten and expended.

That this is not merely a war of the words is demonstrated in noisy reports from the front and driven home in a sequence reminiscent of Howard Koch’s adaptation of Wells’s science fictional War: as London faces its first air raid, the weaponizers of words, Wells among them, look on and listen in the dark, Masterman speechless, his master’s voice overmastered: “If they’re smart, [the British public will] never trust any of us again.”

“Seeing” is a challenge to the audience. Instead of recounting an old if little known story, Brand puts listeners right a history in the making, thereby inviting us to draw parallels between the so-called Great War that was and the nominal anti-terrorism of the present, a war that some demand we see through while others struggle to see through it. Trying to make sense of the spin you will find yourself in, the acts of betrayal and false assurances you will overhear, you may feel yourself in need of another voice “Seeing [You] Through.” As in all history lessons that matter, this voice will have to be your own . . .

How Screened Was My Valley: A Festival of Fflics

Well, this is right up my valley, I thought, when I first heard about Fflics: Wales Screen Classics. That was back in 2005; but this month, the festival is finally getting underway here in Aberystwyth. We went into town this afternoon for the official launch; and whatever promotional boost I might give this event I am only too glad to provide, especially since it brings our friend, the silent screen composer Neil Brand, back into town to provide his musical accompaniment to a long-lost epic whose rediscovery (in the mid-1990s) film historian Kevin Brownlow termed “the find of the century.”

The four-day, thirty events spanning festival opens, rather safely and predictably, with a Hollywood behemoth, the Academy Award winning How Green Was My Valley (1941), based on the international bestseller by Richard Llewellyn. Also on the bill is the Bette Davis vehicle The Corn Is Green (1945), adapted from a stage drama by the aforementioned Welsh playwright Emlyn Night Must Fall Williams.

Williams features prominently in the festival’s offerings, whether as writer, actor, or director. He can be seen in King Vidor’s The Citadel (1938) and Carol Reed’s The Stars Look Down (1939), two mining disaster movies I watched earlier this year, but in his only directorial effort, The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949), in which he costars opposite Edith Evans and Richard Burton in his first screen role.

Unlike in the case of Dolwyn, the story of a village threatened to expire in a watery grave to make room for a reservoir, the Welsh connections are tentative, at times. Apart from those fanciful and historically questionable portraits of life in 20th-century Wales produced in Hollywood and England, any film written, inspired by or starring those born, raised or having been creatively active here seems to have qualified. Dead of Night (1945), for instance, happens to star Welshman Mervyn Johns and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is portrayed by Welsh character actor Roger Livesey (among whose supporting cast members numbers the leading lady saluted in my previous entry).

Entirely justified, and much appreciated, is the spotlight on Welsh matinee idol Ivor Novello, who can be seen in The Rat (1925), with Neil Brand at the piano, and the French production of The Call of the Blood (1920; pictured). Unequivocal Wales Screen Classics, too, are films like Y Chwarelwr (1935), the first feature length Welsh language sound drama, and Proud Valley (1940), starring the great Paul Robeson (pictured and mentioned here), who first came to Wales back in the late 1920s and remained closely connected to its people and culture, despite being denied the privilege of international travel by the US State Department in 1950s.

Fflics also offers rare documentary footage of Buffalo Bill touring the North Wales seaside town of Rhyl back in 1903, introduces today’s audience to “Jerry the Troublesome Tyke,” the first animated shorts to come out of Wales back in the mid-1920s, and provides a fascinating example of British wartime propaganda with The Silent Village (1943), a restaging or reimagining on Welsh soil of the 1942 razing of the Czech village Lidice by the Nazis, with a pictorial account of which I came back from the Jewish Quarter of Prague a few weeks ago (and a poetic response to which I discussed here a couple of years earlier).

Proud Valley, The Rat, and The Silent Village apart, the highlight of the festival is, for me, the screening of the Life Story of David Lloyd George, a 1918 biographical drama, boasting a cast of ten thousand, that never reached the public and disappeared from view for over seven decades. Directed by the prolific Maurice Elvey (whose Hindle Wakes [1927] I briefly discussed here), it features Hitchcock partner and screenwriter Alma Reville in her only acting role. I shall have to report back . . .

"We will interrupt all programs": Radio Drops a Bombshell

It certainly threw a wrench into the well-oiled works of radio as a commercial enterprise. The attack on Pearl Harbor, that is. On this day, December 7, in 1941, American broadcasters had to find ways of accommodating the “word from our sponsor” to the considerably more “important message” that would alter—or end—the lives of people the world over. Comedians Edgar Bergen and Jack Benny were both on the air as scheduled that Sunday, entertaining the multitude with their commercially sponsored programs. Both broadcasts were prefaced by the following announcements: “Ladies and gentlemen. We will interrupt all programs to give you latest news bulletins. Stay tuned to this station.”

The bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war on Japan and its allies marked an uneasy transition of American radio as a source of advertising to one of propaganda, of information and indoctrination. As US President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in his public radio address on 9 December 1941, “free and rapid communication” needed to be restricted in wartime. It was “not possible to receive full and speedy and accurate reports” from all theaters of war, since even in those “days of the marvels of the radio” it was “often impossible for the Commanders of various units to report their activities by radio at all, for the very simple reason that this information would become available to the enemy and would disclose their position and their plan of defense or attack.”

Still, the medium that had long fallen into the hands of corporations, had an obligation toward the American public it ostensibly served, a duty to operate in the “public interest” that it might have neglected over the years, notwithstanding the President’s occasional and popular Fireside Chats. Necessary delays in reporting aside, Roosevelt vowed “not hide facts from the country” if such were known and the enemy would “not be aided by their disclosure.” He reminded “all newspapers and radio stations, “all those who reach the eyes and ears of the American people,” that they had a “most grave responsibility to the nation now and for the duration of this war.”

While “sudden” the “criminal attacks” were but the “climax of a decade of international immorality,” Roosevelt argued. From Japan’s invasion of Manchukuo, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Hitler’s occupation of Austria and his invasion of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Russia; Italy’s attack on France and Greece, the Axis domination of the Balkans, and the Japanese attacks on Malaya and Thailand, to the bombing of Pearl Harbor—each occurring “without warning”—the events were “all of one pattern.”

America had “used” their awareness of that pattern “to great advantage. Knowing that the attack might reach us in all too short a time,” the US “immediately began greatly to increase” its “capacity to meet the demands of modern warfare.” The war, Roosevelt cautioned, would not only be “long” but “hard,” warning of shortages and a general cutting down on consumerism. He expressed himself confident that businesses and individuals alike would “cheerfully give up those material things that they are asked to give up,” and that they would “retain all those great spiritual things without which we cannot win through.”

Those who recall the attack on and fall of the World Trade Center towers might recall the sudden change in significance of a medium that could be relied upon for its mindless and commercials-riddled entertainment one day and then, suspending all advertising and most regular programs, engaged in an image blitz on a stunned audience that, having had so little introduction to the events leading up to them, regarded them as unprovoked, inexplicable, and without any historical connection to the dramatically altered present.

The image bombardment and the relative blackout of comprehensive world news by a largely irresponsible commercial medium did much to get Americans in the mood for the war that is still being waged and lost to this day. By comparison, the broadcasting day following the attack on Pearl Harbor proceeded pretty much according to schedule; it was only gradually that commercials made way for—or merged with—public announcements, that comedians told topical jokes and soap operas dealt with the realities of war. Before one can fully understand what it means never to forget, one has a lot of catching up to do with the world.

Having spread this “important message” about the imperative of keeping up with and following up on the allegedly out-of-date and the seemingly unrelated or tiresomely repetitive news of the world, the broadcastellan journal will go on a brief hiatus and won’t resume regular day-to-day postings until the beginning of 2007, aside from a few scattered reports of cultural events and reviews of seasonal radio and television offerings. If you have glanced at, read, perhaps even enjoyed, a few of the roughly two hundred essays shared here throughout the year, I encourage you to drop me a line.

Election Day Special: Could This Hollywood Heavy Push You to the Polls?

Well, I don’t know how many voters turned out to re-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt on this day, 7 November, in 1944 because they had been listening to the radio the night before. Those tuning in to affiliate stations of the four major networks were informed that regular programming was being suspended for a “special political broadcast.” Stepping up to the microphone were Hollywood leading ladies Claudette Colbert, Joan Bennett, Virginia Bruce, Linda Darnell, and Lana Turner, composer Irving Berlin, radio personalities Milton Berle and “Molly Goldberg,” as well as the gangster elite of Tinseltown—Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, and James Cagney (pictured). Along with fellow Americans “from a great many walks of life,” Humphrey Bogart explained, they all had a “deep and common interest” in the outcome of the election.

Heading the parade of A-listers was Judy Garland, who burst into song with this “suggestion for tomorrow:”

Here’s the way to win the war, win the war, win the war
Here’s the way to win the war, you gotta get out and vote.
To get the things we’re fighting for, fighting for, fighting for,
To get the things we’re fighting for, you gotta get out and vote.
To clinch that happy ending,
On the Tokyo, the Berlin, and the Rome front,
The fellow with the bullet is depending
On the fella with the ballot on the home front.
Oh, we wanna have a better world, better world, better world,
Wanna have a better world? You gotta get out and vote.

There was no doubt just what kind of “suggestion” Garland and company had in mind. What radio listeners were treated to was an hour-long campaign ad for the Democratic party. Sing it, Judy:

Now we’re on the right track, right track, right track,
Now we’re on the right track, we’re gonna win the war.
Right behind the President, President, President,
Right behind the President for 1944.
The track ahead is clear now,
Let’s keep the engines humming.
Don’t change the engineer now,
‘Cause the ‘New World Special’ is a-coming.

Throughout the program, those fighting overseas or laboring at home for victory voiced their fears of a “Third World War,” presumably less likely under the current administration, expressed themselves grateful for Democrat bureaucracy (which, they held, kept the groceries affordable to everyone), or openly attacked a dangerous “amateur” of a Republican candidate by whom they claimed to have been “torpedoed.” Dewey was argued to have rigged the voting laws of New York State, making it “impossible” for “thousands” to go to the polls and cast their ballots for FDR. Even registered Republicans came out in support of the President, expressing themselves dismayed at or ashamed of the candidate representing their party.

It’s a rousing hour of radio electioneering, concluding with an address by the President—and his prayer. With all the microphones on the Democrats that night, the opposition (even if aided by Dewey’s decimating system) simply had none.

So Proudly We Hail(ed); or, Movies They Dare Not Make Today

Well, they sure don’t make them as they used to. I don’t know how many times you have uttered that line, indifferent to the rules of grammar, whether as a lament or a sigh of relief. Take So Proudly We Hail, for instance, the 1943 war drama I watched last night. Until I decided that doing so would be rather too self-indulgent (considering my love for a certain leading lady), I thought of discussing it yesterday, corresponding with the anniversary of the radio version in which stars Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake reprised their original roles (along with the long forgotten Sonny Tufts) on the Lux Radio Theatre.

So Proudly We Hail is a well-crafted, surprisingly unsentimental, and highly engaging melodrama about US army nurses serving their country in the battlefield that was the Philippines during the Second World War; as such, it is also unabashed wartime propaganda. I do not think that any producer in Hollywood today would dare to remake it, say, with Julia Roberts, Winona Rider, and Scarlett Johansson (to pick three contemporary actresses approximately of the respective ages of the three original leads). Why not? Allow me to speculate.

There’s a war on, lest we forget; but it doesn’t seem to reunite the West (or any Western nation) against a clearly defined enemy. Instead, we find ourselves in a war on terror—and the terror appears to be as much the cause as it is the effect, violence and violations being brought on by so-called anti-terrorist measures that continue to provoke it. This is not a time in which to express pride in one’s country or its elected representatives; and those making decisions in Hollywood today seem least inclined foster a sense of loyalty and regard. I don’t think, though, that widespread dissatisfaction and skepticism—a critical attitude only the thoughtless or unthinking ever entirely suppress—account for the current rejection of propaganda drama.

As the reception of Clint Eastwood’s latest film suggests, people are not lining up to see movies with a political message. They might accept a controversial documentary inviting us to take sides; but they no longer appreciate being manipulated or swayed by dramatic fare. Propaganda is a dirty word these days, dirtier by far than advertising, which is still being tolerated. However much we might groan, we tend to allow the promotion of a product, but get squeamish when it comes to the advancement of an idea. Corporations have taken a prominent place in—or even taken the place of—the government; and when peddling products, advertisers appeal to the individual, whereas propaganda seeks to motivate the community. It simply pays to stimulate division and selfishness, a targeting strategy generally marketed as choice. There no longer is a public, it seems; there are only people; and for advertising purposes, several million of these supposed individuals will do.

Unlike today’s conflicts, the Second World War was not endorsed by big business; companies were not eager to surrender sales or give up the production of consumer goods for a nation that needed to consolidate precious resources. So, I don’t think we’ll get to see Scarlett Johansson grabbing a hand grenade and blowing herself up for the sake of her country (as Veronica Lake’s character does) or picking up an empty can of soda for the benefit of the planet. Instead, she’ll grab that soft drink or lipstick or pair of designer shoes and fight for what she believes in . . . or what those placing the products in her hands want us to believe.

I did not grow up in a country or an age in which it was easy or felt right to be proud of one’s people; and, watching a film like So Proudly We Hail I sense that to be a profound loss. We so proudly hail individuality these days because corporations hand out the flags and buttons to match, knowing that we are at our most receptive and vulnerable when we are at our greediest.

Spike Jones: The Man Who Found His Hit in Hitler

Well, this is a tough time for heroes. There might still be a need for them, but we stop short of worship. The nominal badge of honor has been applied too freely and deviously to inspire awe, let alone lasting respect. Even Superman is not looking quite so super these days, his box-office appeal being middling at best. And as much as I loathe the cheap brand of sarcasm that passes for wit these days, I am among those who are more likely to raise an eyebrow than an arm in salute.

Compared to the hero, the villain has proven a more durable figure. After all, it takes considerably more effort to forgive than to forget. Besides, we appreciate the convenience of a scapegoat, of a stand-in for our collective guilt; one hideous visage to represent what we dare not find within ourselves.

In government propaganda, the villain serves to remind us against (and, by indirection, for) what we are supposed to fight—a single face to signal what we must face lest we are prepared to face doomsday.

So, who is the next big thing in villainy—fading pop icons excluded? Is there any such person alive today who is as reviled or dreaded as the man who paved the career of one of the most successful US musicians of the 1940s? Adolf Hitler, I mean. That’s the villain. The musician, of course, was bandleader Spike Jones.

A California native born in 1911, Jones had his breakout hit in the early 1940s with the song “The Führer’s Face,” a merry war mobilizer of a tune that went something like this:

When Der Führer says, “We ist der master race”
We Heil! Heil! Right in Der Führer’s face,
Not to love Der Führer is a great disgrace,
So we Heil! Heil! Right in Der Führer’s face. 

When Herr Goebbels says, “We own der world und space.”
We Heil! Heil! Right in Herr Göring’s face.
When Herr Göring says they’ll never bomb this place,
We Heil! Heil! Right in Herr Göring’s face. 

Are we not the supermen?
Aryan pure supermen?
Ja we ist der supermen,
Super-duper supermen. 

Ist this Nutzi land not good?
Would you leave it if you could?
Ja this Nutzi land is good!
Vee would leave it if we could. 

We bring the world to order.
Heil Hitler’s world New Order.
Everyone of foreign race will love Der Führer’s face
When we bring to der world disorder. 

When Der Führer says, “We ist der master race”
We Heil! Heil! Right in Der Führer’s face,
When Der Führer says, “We ist der master race”
We Heil! Heil! Right in Der Führer’s face.

Are we still singing chart-topping songs like this about any one of our present-day (mis)leader? Should we? Is to laugh at them enough? Might the laughter perhaps be cheap and the joke on us? I don’t presume to have any answers. Listen to Spike Jones and his famous song on BBC Radio 4 this week, a song initially banned by the BBC. Don’t starting hitting your grandma with a shovel, even if yours, as mine, was working for one of Germany’s biggest names in fascism.

“Dark World”: Arch Oboler Makes Paralysis Sound Like Paradise

Nothing ends a joyful gathering more abruptly than an emergency phone call. We were taking in the sun on this mild afternoon here in Ceredigion when one in our party was being told that her mother had a wasp in her tea and was rushed to the hospital. I refrained from relating the story I had been told a few months ago during our trip to Cornwall, where I heard that the same dietary supplement had meant the end of a beloved pet. Best wishes and hopes for a speedy recovery was all I could impart at parting. True, I prefer looking on the bright side and make light of dark matters—an approach to life it has taken me decades to adopt. Still, sometimes the bright side is downright garish and irritating, a neon artifice that cons or comforts none. Take the story melodramatist Arch Oboler shared with US radio listeners on this day, 3 August, in 1942.

The play was “Dark World” and was soundstaged for the anthology program This Is Our America. Heard in the leading role was screen actress Kay Francis, who is enjoying considerable critical attention these days and is being celebrated in one of my favorite webjournals, Trouble in Paradise. On that August day back in 1942, Ms. Francis had several million Americans in her spell—but what a dizzying one it was.

As might be expected, particularly given the title of the series in which it was featured, “Dark World” is a comment on the horrors of warfare. It certainly was a change from the jingoism of the day, delivered by the creator of the fiercely pacifist and similarly themed “Johnny Got His Gun,” adapted by the same playwright. And yet, Mr. Oboler was one of the chief advocates of hate as a motivator in wartime; and “Dark World,” which was first produced nearly two-and-a-half years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, is ambivalent, which is the academic term for murky and muddled.

“Dark World” opens as two nurses lean over and contemplate the body of a dead patient, the paralytic Carol. “I just don’t get it!” one nurse tells the other. “All the time you’ve been on the staff, I’ve never seen you act this way over losing a case! And especially this one—blind—paralyzed—helpless . . .” “That’s just it!” her colleague responds. “For twenty-five years—from the hour she was born—Carol Mathews had nothing but loneliness and misery! And then to die like this—never having known anything but darkness—it isn’t fair—it isn’t fair!” Has Carol’s existence been worthless? Is her death a relief? It is the dead woman herself who has the last word on the matter:

Hello, Amy. . . . Hello, Amy. . . . No, you can’t hear me, can you? And yet I must speak—while I’m still here close to you. You said I’d never known anything but darkness. . . . You’re very wrong, Amy. There was never any darkness in my world. How cold there be? The skies that I saw never clouded. The flowers never faded. The trees were always green and fresh. I saw a lovely world in my darkness, Amy—lovely. . . .

It was a world inhabited by the words of Victor Hugo and Joseph Conrad, “and all the rest,” Carol insists; “theirs weren’t just words printed on white pages as you read them to me! They were white, flaming magic that carried me so far away from here—to the sea. . . .” It was a “world of space and freedom, where each man had a dignity of self so great the he could not bear the hurt of other men who are all as himself.” Carol’s friends were the “Brownings—oh, such charming people—and Shakespeare—I used to argue with him! And Keats”; and “Walt Whitman—yes, he was here, too. . . . He taught me not to be afraid!” and “Schubert and Brahms and Mozart and Tschaikowsky—all of them—my friends!”

Carol claims to have “made a world” in her” darkness,” a world “where everyone walk in loveliness—where things were as they might some day be.” Thanking the nurse for her pity, she reminds her that “pity is for those who have nothing—and I had a world where all was beauty.”

Is “Dark World” advocating isolationism? Is it a perverse escape fantasy in which passivity, however involuntary, is deemed preferable to resistance and strife? In the triumph of mind over matter, Oboler’s play celebrates the medium; and in its sentimentalizing of inaction, it takes the side of the radio audience, those having stories read to them, stories that take on a life in the imagination of each receptive listener. It was the very passivity and solitary play that most propaganda drama, including Oboler’s own, worked hard to combat.

Dark is the world in which a case of paralytic blindness may be presented as a prelapsarian vision.