Rosalind Russell and James Stewart Entertain with Cheap Silverware

The first cut is the deepest.  Less profound words have been said and sung about love and longing. Even so, to call a new line of cutlery “First Love” doesn’t strike me as such a sharp idea. That’s exactly what Rosalind Russell was hawking on the radio, though—and it was purportedly all her idea, too. Some time before she discovered the magic of “Jungle Red,” Ms. Russell was slicing the baloney rather thickly when, on this day, 3 October, in 1937, she stepped behind the microphone to sell cheap silverware. Granted, there was a little more to this knife-throwing act. Ms. Russell was parting the curtain for a new and ambitious series of radio theatricals called The Silver Theater—and a young James Stewart was hand-on-mike to assist her.

Unlike the flatware, the new program was aptly named The Silver Theater, considering that it was sponsored by the International Silver Company, makers of 1847 Rogers Brothers, billed as “America’s finest silver plate.” Undoubtedly inspired by the success of the Lux Radio Theater, the “Silver Company” went for radio advertising in a major way. It sponsored a weekly drama anthology featuring some of Hollywood biggest stars, players like Cary Grant and Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Bette Davis. The stories were, for want of a better word, original. They were written for radio, that is, regardless of their merit as audio-only plays.

For the premiere of the program, heard on this day in 1937, the sponsors secured the talent of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Grover Jones, who penned an all too familiar story of a girl trying to strike it rich in cutthroat Hollywood. The girl, of course, was Rosalind Russell, and the guy she settles for, James Stewart. Nearly two decades after this outing, Stewart would star in his own radio series, The Six Shooter; but back in 1937, the comedic mumbler was not yet cut out for radio. Russell, on the other hand, was in fine voice. She sure knew how to talk both fast and clearly, a talent that would serve her well in His Girl Friday.

For the premiere of the Silver Theater, Russell agreed to play Girl Friday to the sponsors. That is, she not only committed herself to play, live, in a four part series, to be aired Sunday afternoons from CBS’s West Coast studios; she also became a spokesperson for International Silver. According to the announcer, she happened upon the name of the company’s new line of flatware, “First Love,” which the savvy producers rendered more prominent still by turning it into the title of the opening play. Why, when she saw the cutlery, Ms. Russell professed, she “just fell right in love with it. Any woman would. You see, well, what I mean to say is, if you saw it. . . .” At this point the announcer graciously cuts in, so to speak, relieving Ms. Russell from the well rehearsed task of peddling flatware . . . until next week.

One year later, Russell would return to the Silver Theater, once more playing opposite James Stewart; she was heard again on the program in 1941 and 1943. Her cut was apparently substantial enough to warrant a return engagement. The Silver Theater, while never reaching the fame or popularity of the Lux program, continued to raise its curtain until 1947. In radio dramatic terms, its most distinguished writer was playwright True Boardman, who later referred to the business as a “prison,” the “thickness” of whose walls and the “strength” of whose “bars” would “vary with different sponsors,” but whose “four walls” would always remain.

Hearing your lines come out of the mouth of Rosalind Russell? I guess even prison walls have a silver lining.

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 troops and that she, having just filmed a romance about a “girl flyer in the pre-war Pacific,” might “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.