Radio at the Movies: Torch Singer (1933)

“Yoo-hoo, is anybody?” I guess that, from time to time, many of us amateur journalists feel compelled to ask the question so catchily phrased by the matriarch of the Goldbergs. At least Molly Goldberg could hope for a response from her friend and neighbor Mrs. Bloom, to whom her shouts into the dumb waiter shaft were directed. To Mrs. Goldberg, “anybody” was a certain someone. Many who approached the World Wide Web as their means of telecommuning have given up on waiting for a reply to their “Yoo-hoos,” or, instead, have taken the resounding silence for an answer equivalent to “nope.”

According to a 2008 survey conducted by Technorati (which, earlier this month, was referred to in a New York Times article on the blogging phenomenon), 95 percent of all online journals have been essentially abandoned. Tens of millions who saw blogging as an opportunity to cast their thoughts broadly and make their voices heard by the multitudes decided that, once this vast crowd of followers did not, well, immaterialize, their words were wasted on the one or another for whose arrival they would not be dumb enough to wait and to whose apparently exclusive tastes they would not lower themselves to cater.

Like broadcasting before it, the blogosphere lures those creative spirits who might otherwise be dispirited nobodies with that one-in-a-million chance at fame while its ability to connect us to the one-in-a-million willing to connect with us frequently goes unappreciated. As public performers, we won’t settle for “anybody”—but we seem more inclined to aim at the elusive everyone than the dependable someone. One of the most intriguing motion pictures to address our narrow-mindedness about broadcasting is the Depression-era melodrama Torch Singer (1933), one of those startlingly unconventional, non-classic Hollywood pictures referred to as Pre-Code.

Torch Singer stars Claudette Colbert as an unwed mother (that is Pre-Code for you) who, failing to find employment, is forced to give up her infant daughter. After that intimate bond is severed, the motherless child of a childless mother avenges herself on an impersonal, dehumanizing society by tantalizing those who made her suffer, selling the mere appeal of sex to the highest bidder. “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love,” she warbles, achieving neither. Her body having been robbed of its fruit and the warmth of nestling, she turns her voice into a commodity, first by making a(nother) name for herself a nightclub singer, then by accepting the offer to become a disembodied siren on the radio.

When a newly hired storyteller for a children’s program is struck dumb with mike fright, the reckless Torch Singer takes over as the fictitious “Aunt Jenny,” comforter by proxy, singing lullabies so far removed from any cradle that they are devoid of sincerity, all the while tickled by her own moxie as she promotes the sponsor’s kiddie beverage, long drink in hand.

This perversion of motherhood comes to an end when she realizes that it is possible to subvert the medium instead and seize the microphone to reach the child she gave up for adoption. Rather than performing for everyone and no one, she now sings directly to her daughter, devising a contest that would compel radio listening kids to call in and claim their birthday surprises, thereby revealing their identity to her. Once taken into her own hands, the very medium that seemed to have promised nothing but the belated fame for which she never cared becomes the means through which she can reestablish the intimacy she long believed to be past recapturing.

Its melodramatic shortcomings notwithstanding, Torch Singer serves as a compelling reminder that the media, as extensions or offshoots of telecommunication, have not lost—and should never be divested of—their potential to establish point-to-point connections far more meaningful than the often disappointing stabs at mass exposure in which we are apt to lose sight of one another.

Related writings
“Between You, Molly and Me: Should We Settle for Squirrels?”
“Wireless Women, Clueless Men (Part Five): Gertrude Berg, Everybody’s Mama”

Radio at the Movies: Golden Earrings (1947)

Placing Mitchell Leisen alongside Hollywood’s top flight directors is likely to raise eyebrows among those whose brows are already well elevated. Most others will simply shrug their cold shoulders in“Who he? indifference, a stance with which I, whose shoulders are wont to brush against the dusty shelves and musty vaults of popular culture, am thoroughly familiar by now. Respected for his knack of striking box-office gold but dismissed by his peers, the former art director was not among the auteurs whose works are read as art chiefly because it is easier to conceive of artistic expression as a non-collective achievement: something that bears the clearly distinguishable signature of a single individual. Their careful design aside, little seems to bespeak the Leisen touch, which is as light as it is assured. Stylish and slick in the best Paramount tradition, a Leisen picture stunningly sets the stage under the pretense of drama; otherwise, it has few pretensions.

The epitome and pinnacle of Leisen’s dream factory output is Golden Earrings (1947), a sumptuously lensed romance that makes Nazi Germany look like fairyland, replete with quaint villages, enchanted forests, and lusty gypsies. It is a false image conjured up by the words of a paramour with pierced ears. For the darker side of the tale, nearly hidden from view, we are referred to McLuhan’s “tribal drum”—the radio.

One of those gypsies is played by German expatriate Marlene Dietrich, who approaches the brown-face role of Lydia tongue-in-famously-hollow-cheek. To Leisen, Dietrich “was the most fascinating woman who ever lived,” as he later told David Chierichetti, the chronicler of his career. Cast as reluctant lover, Col. Ralph Denistoun, is Ray Milland, whose lack of regard for his older co-star only enhances the screwball dynamics of this improbable coupling. Sheltered by and disguised as one of her kind, Milland’s Romani wry officer is on a perilous mission to evade his Nazi pursuers and get hold of a formula for poison gas, the kind of weapon that would exterminate thousands of gypsies.

Having previously been captured by the Nazis, Denistoun owes his escape to the master race’s slavish devotion to their master’s voice. He takes full advantage of a radio address by the Führer, guaranteed to distract his captors. The scene in which the Nazi officers rise to hear Hitler’s speech and fall at the hand of their prisoner is an apt metaphor for blind faith and mass-mediated control. Unlike those gypsy earrings, the silence of a people whose ears ring with the brass of Teutonic rhetoric is not golden. A mind closed to independent thought and voices at variance, Golden Earrings suggests, is readily silenced. To be sure, this is retrospective romance; and, its ersatz gypsies roaming quite freely, Leisen’s film shows nothing of the silencing perpetrated by the fascists.

Leisen was not about to denounce the medium he had romanced in two of his earlier revues, The Big Broadcast of 1937 and its 1938 follow-up. Instead, Golden Earrings confronts nationalistic, state-run radio with a distinctly American voice of commercial broadcasting. In the narrative frame, the English officer is seen relating his story to Quentin Reynolds (pictured here with Milland), a news commentator known for his on-air missives to Doktor Goebbels and Herr Schickelgruber.

Rather than spouting anti-Axis propaganda or post-war wisdom, Reynolds is shown as a receiver, a listener tuning in to the wondrous adventure of the strangely un-British Englishman who has come under the influence of a nomadic culture foreign to his people. It is a tall tale a commentator like Reynolds, who would later be libeled in the Hearst press for his alleged lack of patriotism, is not obliged to debunk.

The frame permits Leisen to construct Golden Earrings as a romance, told as it is from the perspective of an unconventional officer summoned by his gypsy love. It is all so fabulously escapist that the enormous gamble of glamorizing Germany so soon after the war paid off without causing much offense. That, in short, is the Leisen touch.

Radio at the Movies: Manslaughter (1922)

Radio was little more than a craze back in 1922; but the radio and the microphone were already prominently featured in Cecil B. DeMille’s Manslaughter, released in September 1922, some ten months after US Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover declared the medium to be useless for point-to-point communication, thereby paving the way for broadcasting while leaving hobbyists in the dust of centralized, scheduled entertainment and the big business it was meant to promote. That same year, comedian Ed Wynn made his first foray into radio, the first drama presentation went on the air, and the first commercial went out to anyone equipped with headphones and crystal sets.

The reception was often poor; and critics were not enthusiastic either. One commentator, having just witnessed one of those early broadcast, remarked:

[W]e prefer to stumble downstairs and out again into the silent lanes to meditate on the civilization of 1930, when there will be only one orchestra left on earth, giving nightly world-wide concerts; when all the universities will be combined into one super-institution conducting courses by radio for students in Zanzibar, Kamchatka and Oskaloosa; when instead of newspapers, trained orators will dictate the news of the world day and night, and the bed-time story will be told every evening from Paris to the sleepy children of a weary world; when every person will be instantly accessible day or night to all the bores he knows, and will know them all; when the last vestiges of privacy, solitude and contemplation will have vanished into limbo.

It took a few decades longer for wireless technology to achieve what the reviewer predicted to happen by 1930; but it would not have surprised me if broadcasting had received a similarly unfavorable treatment in one of DeMille’s epics, in which the vices of modern society were frequently likened to the debaucheries of Rome in its fall. Not so.

Manslaughter, as told by DeMille, is a story of redemption in which both Lydia Thorne, the “speed-mad” socialite justly accused of the titular crime and Daniel O’Bannon, the principled District Attorney who sees to it that she pays for same are suffering the consequences of their actions. Rather inexplicably, O’Bannon has fallen in love with the selfish woman he is sending to jail, presumably because he can see her potential for good even though he accepts the duty of showing everyone how bad she really is.

Ultimately, the two are brought back together through the melodramatic expediency of fate and, having confessed everything else, confess their love. She has paid her dues to society and is thoroughly reformed; he has overcome self-destruction and despair. After all, this is a C. B. DeMille picture.

Before the lovers can run off together, the romance is delayed once more by an important announcement. This is where the radio comes in. O’Bannon has decided to run for governor; but one of his rivals for the hand of Lydia Thorne reminds him that she is a convicted criminal and won’t do as the wife of an elected official. Instead of being denounced and exposed by radio, in place to keep the public abreast of election results, O’Bannon grabs the microphone to broadcast a very personal decision.

It seems that DeMille was courting the new medium to prepare for his role as host and ostensible producer of the Lux Radio Theater, for which the story was adapted in 1938, with Fredric March reprising the role of O’Bannon he had played opposite Claudette Colbert, DeMille’s favorite leading lady, in the remake shot in the year so dreaded by the reviewer of that early broadcast back in 1922. Herbert Hoover’s comments notwithstanding, in DeMille’s Manslaughter, the radio is still very much a communication device. O’Bannon broadcasts unannounced and unrehearsed, just as he makes up his mind about Lydia Thorne. Unlike motorcars and their freewheeling owners, radio was fast without being loose.

Radio at the Movies: To Please a Lady

She played tougher than anyone else in pictures, and she was better at it. She could get a guy to fall for her and a fall guy to do anything for her, be it to lie, cheat, or kill. To please her was a dangerous game; but to displease her was a deadly one. She could make puppets of men; Charlie McCarthy was just target practice. I’m talking Barbara “Baby Face” Stanwyck, of course, the kind of social climber who pushed the ladder right into the face of those who lined up to give a gal a helping hand. In To Please a Lady (1950), Stanwyck proved that her very lips could kill. Well, as newspaper columnist Regina Forbes, Stanwyck had the means to do it properly: a microphone, a broadcasting studio, and a weekly radio program.

To Please a Lady makes you wonder just what Stanwyck could have done with a regular radio broadcast; she certainly could have out-Hoppered—and, out-Hoopered—Hedda, who just didn’t have the voice to match her name. “But you can’t go to Newark tonight,” her secretary exclaims as Regina Forbes rushes out to get a story that peeked her interest. Never mind that she already had an appointment with “Margaret.” “What about Margaret?” Forbes asks. “You know,” she is reminded, “the one who sings.” That, of course, was the aforementioned Margaret Truman, the President’s daughter. And Forbes had no qualms about standing her up to get the dirt on a disgraced speed racer (smug-as-ever Clark Gable), who, like Forbes, stops at nothing to be first at the finish line.

To Please a Lady is a contrived story, and one that is told none too well. So, as the camera follows Gable for another spin around the track, you get to fantasize about Stanwyck’s voice and the radio and . . . hang on, there’s Ted Husing. Best known for his sportscast, the CBS announcer was also heard on an early Eddie Cantor program and its successor Rhythm at Eight, starring Ethel Merman; an excerpt of a routine for the latter is reprinted in Husing’s book Ten Years Before the Mike (1935). Of the “grand trouper” Merman, Husing says:

While admitting that television will double her value as a radio performer, I still think she is radiates personality over the air. Her speaking voice is vibrant with health and youth, and is highly individual, while her singing tones are thrilling. What more can you ask of a radio personality?

Television doubling the value of a radio performer? Obviously, this was written before radio took the corner around which it was assumed to be lurking all those years. And when it got there, round that bend, it crushed the competition. While radio was still not yet quite defeated as a dramatic medium back in 1950, there are signs of an impending crash in To Please a Lady. Forbes may still have her radio program, and Gable as an avid listener, but she gets her news from television, which introduces her to Gable’s mug and convinces her to rush out to interview him. She may still be in a position to knock them dead with the lashings of her tongue—inducing one of her victims to commit suicide—but it is television that is giving her ideas.

Voices like Husing’s were fast becoming a mere adjunct to the flickering images on the small screen, filled as it was with the dust in which it left the art of giving you a mind’s eye view of it all through speech alone. You know, the thousand-and-one words it presumably takes to approximate a single picture. My Eyes Are in My Heart, Husing told his former listeners in his second autobiography. And so they were. The book was written after he had gone blind.

Radio at the Movies: Black Legion

Bogart and Moore tuning in

Sure, the radio has got me by the ears. That is old news to anyone who ever glanced at these pages or took a gander at my bookshelves. Truth is, I also make eyes at the old box whenever it catches them. Last night, I was in for an audio-visual treat. While not one of those 1930s productions designed to promote the ancillary medium (vaudeville extravaganzas like The Big Broadcast or its sequels), Archie Mayo’s Black Legion (1937) nonetheless makes great narrative use of the wireless, which plays a central role in telling the story of a workingman’s social decline and deviation. Let me give you a few “for instances.”

When we are introduced to Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) as a family man, we get to see him with his son (Dickie Moore) at the console, sharing the thrills of a juvenile serial. Mother (Erin O’Brien-Moore) stands by, enjoying the spectacle of father and son happily glued to the set, a family ritual fit for a household strapped for cash. As Taylor, frustrated about his position, finds an outlet in blaming his hardship on immigrants who presumably cost him his promotion, he ignores junior and switches the channels, eager to hear an angry voice echoing his sentiments.

Staring at the radio

Rather than being portrayed as a purveyor of innocent entertainment, the radio is also shown to be an insidious force, a noisemaker spreading potentially noisome messages. Making headlines back in 1937, when Black Legion was filmed, was the story of a boy turned killer after listening to crime programs (like Gangbusters, for example). In this case, it is the adult who is susceptible to broadcast rants from invisible demagogues exploiting the inclusive medium of radio for the dissemination of their exclusive missives. Even when they materialize, those hatemongers remain invisible, shrouded in the hoods of the Klan. They are radio creatures, reaching the multitude while remaining impersonal and shielded from attack.

When Taylor joins the legion and turns to a life of hate-crime, the radio is indirectly responsible for his capture. It’s not quite The Tell-tale Heart, but the wireless sure gives the guilty and conscious-stricken man away when, at a diner, he listens to a news broadcast about a crime in which he was involved. Noticing the reactions of their fellow listener, the police officers taking a break immediately spring into action and apprehend the stranger in their midst.

Broadcasters then turn Taylor’s story into a fictionalized newscast, a semi-factual and far from objective dramatization akin to The March of Time, in which the part of the accused is being played by an actor, the judge’s gavel being the baton of the conductor as the music underscores the immensity of the crime. Once able to relax at the console, Taylor has become the next instalment of Gangbusters. Better remain the mute receiver of broadcast entertainment, Black Legion advises, than to become news fodder or the stuff of melodrama.

Movies like this remind me how ubiquitous and influential radio used to be in American culture, not merely as a source of entertainment, but as a former of public opinions and a forger of personal destinies.