“. . . a dam’ good shake-up”: Death at Broadcasting House

“Snobbish nonsense!” says one shabbily dressed young Londoner to another as they observe a man in a starched shirt and dinner jacket enter Broadcasting House.  The man, they reckon, is an announcer about to go on the air, unseen yet meticulously groomed and attired.  At the sight of which pointless and paradoxical propriety they sneer: “That whole place wants a dam’ good shake-up.”  A “dam’ good shake-up.”  That, in a coconut shell (to employ the most sound-effective nut in the business of radio dramatics), is what Val Gielgud and his collaborator Holt Marvell (the fanciful penname of fellow broadcaster Eric Maschwitz) set out to perform in Death at Broadcasting House (1934), a murder mystery set in and temporarily upsetting the reliable, predictable and frightfully proper BBC.  Although I had know about it for quite some time, I just finished reading it;  turns out, it’s a “dam’ good” page-turner, and a compelling commentary on the marginality, the relative obscurity of radio dramatics besides.

“There’s not a drop of good red blood about the whole place.  Robots engaged in the retailing of tripe! That’s broadcasting!” one of the above sidewalk critics of the tried and generally trusted institution declares.  It is clear, though, that Gielgud and Maschwitz did not side with the two self-styled “communists.”  The authors were BBC employees and not about to stage a revolution.  The “shake-up” was strictly a matter of maracas, a means of making some noise for their own undervalued accomplishments rather than spilling the beans without which those maracas would become utterly useless as instruments of ballyhoo.

Sure, broadcasting plays—minutely timed, meticulously rehearsed and intensely scrutinized—were far more mechanic than any other form of dramatic performance.  Yet, as Gielgud insisted in one of his many articles on radio drama, “[i]n spite of [its] machine-like qualities” and “in spite of the lack of colour and applause, the work has a fascination of its own.” That the multitude for whom these performances were intended showed so little gratitude was frustrating to an actor-director like Gielgud, who sarcastically remarked a few years earlier that dismissive reviews in the press suggested, at least, that the broadcast play had “passed the first and most depressing stage of development—the stage of being entirely ignored.”  By 1934, it had clearly not advanced to a stage that could be deemed legitimate.

What better way to gainsay those naysayers than to spill some of that “good red blood” or to stir it properly and to make it run hot and cold by turns.  “A killing! In Broadcasting House, of all places! Good God!” is the response of General Sir Herbert Farquharson, the corporation’s fictional Controller.  He has just been informed that an actor was done away with during the production of a live broadcast.  “My god, sir,” the director of that play exclaims, “do you realize that everyone who heard that play must have heard him die? That makes it pretty unique in the annals of crime.”

That most folks tuning in thought little of it—that they believed it to be part of the drama—is owing to the fact that the murder was committed right at the moment when, according to the script, the character played by the victim was scheduled to breathe his last.  A crime at once prominent and inconspicuous—like most radio dramas, performed as they were without a studio audience.  After all, even the Controller, at the time of the murder, was attending a variety program staged in the specially designed Vaudeville Studio instead.

Death at Broadcasting House is the self-conscious performance of two radiomen, Gielgud and Maschwitz, fighting for the recognition that, for the most part, eludes those working behind the scenes—especially the folks behind the scenes of a largely invisible business.  Their book, as they so slyly state, was “dedicated impertinently … to those critics who persistently deny that the radio pay exists, has existed, or ever can exist.”  Radio plays existed, all right, but, for the most part, they died as soon as they were heard, if they were heard at all.

Unless, of course, they were blattnerphoned. “Blattnerphone?” the puzzled inspector exclaims.  “Yes,” the BBC’s dramatic director, Julian Caird, explains:

“It’s a way of recording a programme on a steel tape so that it can be re-transmitted.  We have to do a good deal of it for Empire work.” […]

“You mean we can hear that actual scene over again?”

“We can hear that scene,” said Caird, “not only over again, but over and over again.  As often as you like.  I wonder if the murderer thought of that?”

Probably not.  Unless he numbers among the initiated few, folks like Caird—and Gielgud—who have their fingers at the controls, conjurers who don’t mind revealing some of their tricks to demonstrate just how powerful they are.

“The curious thing about the case what that it was both extremely simply and extremely complicated,” the inspector wraps up the business of detection.  “It was extremely complicated only because it took place under very remarkable conditions—conditions which you wouldn’t find repeated anywhere else, and for which, of course, there was absolutely no precedent.”  The same applies to Gielgud and Maschwitz’s fiction. However witty and engaging, the whodunit is entirely conventional. It is the setting, the broadcasting studio, that makes it unusual.  The setting, thus, becomes the star of the production—a star without whose presence the show simply could not go on.

Indeed, the crime depends on the complexity of British radio production to be in need of detection.  In American broadcasting, by comparison, all actors gathered in the same studio, a congregation that would render the unobserved strangling of one of them not only improbably but impossible.  At the BBC, however, plays were produced using a multiple studios, a complex approach Gielgud’s stand-in explains thus:

[T]he chief reasons why we use several studios and not one, are two.  The first is that by the use of separate studios, the producer can get different acoustic effects for his scenes….  Secondly, the modern radio play depends for its “continuity” … upon the ability to ‘fade’ one scene at its conclusion into the next.  You can see at once that there must be at least two studios in use for these “fades” to be possible.  In an elaborate play, therefore, the actors require as many studios as the varying acoustics of the different scenes require, while … sound effects have a studio of their own, gramophone effects one more, and the orchestra providing the incidental music yet another separate one.

Anyone who has ever listened to an American radio play of the 1930s, such as the ones produced by the Columbia Workshop, knows that no such complex arrangements are needed for the effective use of multiple fades and changes in acoustics.  Death at Broadcasting House is a defense of the British system.  It turns the multi-studio approach into something to be marveled at—an arcane system fit for a mystery, a puzzle whose solution requires the expertise of the initiated and thus vindicates the existence of the men masterminding the business with their hands firmly on that most complex of all pieces of broadcasting equipment: the dramatic control panel, which, Gielgud enthused elsewhere, enabled the director “to move at will, both in time and space, as simply as if he were travelling on the fabled magic carpet, and to take his audience with him.”

A Voice in the Wave: Carl Brisson at the Golden Oriole

“42 Men Killed Every Week,” the headline read. Those who had already heard as much on the radio would likely have felt the impact of this crime wave; but, unless they were pining for the likes of Rudy Vallee, they would have relished it as well. Religious leaders, child psychologists, and a few popular entertainers aside, hardly anyone would have been the least bit alarmed. After all, the headline appeared in the 27 July 1946 issue of Billboard and the tally of fatalities was not meant to reflect the hebdomadal wrongdoings in one of America’s urban jungles. Instead, it referred to the “[l]opsided preponderance” of crime dramas that, after the killings at the front had come to an end, hit the airwaves so hard as to wipe out much of the competition.

Perhaps, “swallow up” might be a better way of putting it, as the zingers and songs previously heard elsewhere were subsumed by thriller programs that, in a desperate attempt not to sound cookie-cutter, were becoming increasingly kooky. Take Voice in the Night, for instance. Mentioned in the Billboard report as a contributor to the body count—yet rarely ever mentioned elsewhere or thereafter—it was one of the most baffling mysteries ever devised for the sightless medium, all the more so for having been green-lighted to begin with.

Folks tuning in to Mutual on Friday nights back in the summer of 1946 were told that Voice in the Night was something new under the moon—“a musical mystery story starring the internationally famous stage, screen and supper-club star Carl Brisson.” Never mind the hyperboles, the fact that Brisson had not appeared on the screen in well over a decade. At the time, he was indeed a successful act on the hotel circuit, although even favorable reviews would point out that “his pipes [were] no longer the same” and that he suffered from “a lapse of memory” (Billboard 30 March 1946). Indeed, such setbacks may have made crooning behind a mike with sheet music in his hand sound like an attractive alternative to the middle-aged baritone.

Not that Brisson would have appreciated being called an “Engaging Grandfather”—as a less than subtle Newsweek review had done two years earlier; but, if his voice or appearance did not suggest as much already, there was that prominent son of his (Rosalind Russell’s husband), then in his early thirties. Such telltale signs could be airbrushed away with the aid of a microphone. On the radio, by which even seasoned voices in the night penetrated many a chambre séparée, Brisson could yet be Carl Brisson, a detective who sang for his private suppers.

True, Brisson had experience playing romantic leads, having starred in two melodramas helmed by Alfred Hitchcock; but that was in the silent era, when his Danish accent posed no obstacle to a career in British or American film. In 1934, he had even mixed music and mayhem and “Cocktails for Two” in Murder at the Vanities (pictured above); but a duet with Kitty Carlisle could not have prepared him for the challenge of carrying anything other than a tune, least of all a dramatic radio series of his own. For, no matter how many times he would perform his signature song “Little White Gardenia” (“You may wear it if you care / Or toss it away”), a crime had to be related and solved within each half-hour allotted to Voice in the Night. And on this night, 14 June, in 1946, it was a case involving the theft of a necklace that “once cost two men their lives.”

We meet Carl Brisson at the Golden Oriole, a nightclub where he takes requests and performs standards like “All of a Sudden My Heart Sings” to an appreciative proxy audience, sit-ins for the listeners at home, some of whom would have seen Brisson in person and may well have resented being drawn in by the performer only to be short-changed as he, having invited the diegetic (or built-in) crowd to stand up and dance, walks over to one of the tables for a tête-à-tête with a female and no doubt attractive newspaper columnist whom he feeds his stories of crime and romance.

Old-time radio encyclopedists John Dunning and Jim Cox, who merely quotes and paraphrases the former without giving him proper credit, would have you believe that Brisson dashes off to solve a crime before resuming his nightclub act. Don’t take their word for it, though. In the only two extant episodes, at least, he merely takes a break to relate one of his adventures.

“You’re never more beautiful than when you’re angry to me,” Brisson tells his private listener. Now, I am not sure whether the script or the interpreter is responsible for the way this comes out, whether, as the linguists put it, the problem is structural (beautiful . . . to me”), or lexical (“angry at me”); but the performance is riddled with such incidents, which become rather distracting. Indeed, forget the largely frisson-free mystery of the stolen “neggless.” It is Brisson’s delivery that will puzzle you. Perhaps, Mutual had hoped for a second Jean Hersholt; but Brisson, though closer in age to his fellow countryman than he would admit, was not called upon to play another Dr. Christian here. Nor would he have been content to be a kindly old Mr. Keen with a trace of a hard-to-lose accent. The romance-filled mysteries were meant to be fast-paced—but the “Great Dane” kept tripping over his tongue.

Having performed “Bells of St. Mary” for a lovely young “corple” at the club, Brisson admits that he “may have lost Mary Morgan”—but the one he was supposed to pursue was a guy named Larry. Perhaps, it was that “lump on [his] head like the size of an egg” that caused Brisson to fluff his lines or else to render them all but unintelligible.

A few weeks later, an episode titled the “Case of the Worried Detective” self-consciously worked what was problematic about the program into a rather more light-hearted script. “I placed you by your accent immediately,” Brisson is told by a hotel clerk. “You are that new long distance runner from Sweden, aren’t you?” A “long distance singer from Denmark,” Brisson corrects. Neither fame nor ready money could get him a room, though, what with the post-war housing crisis going on. “Not even if I promise not to sing?” the performer inquires. If only he had promised not to speak.

While the tongue-in-cheek approach somewhat improved on the tedious double-cross romance contrived for the earlier episode, Brisson was less convincing as a wit than he was as a womanizer. He simply could not get his tongue around certain English words, at least not quickly enough to deliver snappy one-liners.

Besides, anyone alerting the “Voice in the Night” to his glossal obstacle may have received a response similar to the one Murder at the Vanities director Mitchell Leisen got when he tried to correct Brisson’s diction. The singer-actor “was supposed to say ‘She’ll’ and kept pronouncing it ‘Seel,’” Leisen told David Chierichetti.

I thought he was having language problems, so I enunciated it very carefully for him. He said, “Oh, I know how to say it, but don’t you think it’s cuter the other way?”

Rather than being called upon to talk sense or crack wise, Brisson should have been permitted to give his target audience—“the fair, fat and 40 trade,” as Billboard (5 April 1947) called them—what they really wanted, which is just what he did when he returned to his successful club routines. His Voice in the Night was an early casualty of radio’s post-war crime wave, the riding of which tempted and drowned many a hapless performer.

"You Were Wonderful," Lena Horne

When I heard of the passing of Lena Horne, the words “You Were Wonderful” came immediately to mind. Expressive of enthusiasm and regret, they sound fit for a tribute. However, by placing the emphasis on the first word, we may temper our applause—or the patronising cheers of others—with a note of reproach, implying that while Horne’s performances were marvellous, indeed, the system in which she was stuck and by which her career was stunted during the 1940s was decidedly less so. No simple cheer of mine, “You Were Wonderful” is also the title of a radio thriller that not only gave Horne an opportunity to bring her enchanting voice to the far from color-blind medium of radio but to voice what many disenchanted black listeners were wondering about: Why fight for a victory that, of all Americans, will benefit us least? As title, play, and cheer, “You Were Wonderful”—captures all that is discouraging in those seemingly uncomplicated words of encouragement.

Written by Robert L. Richards, “You Were Wonderful” aired over CBS on 9 November 1944 as part of the Suspense series, many of whose wartime offerings were meant to serve as something other than escapist fare. As I argued in Etherized Victorians, stories about irresponsible Americans redeeming themselves for the cause were broadcast nearly as frequently as plays designed to illustrate the insidiousness of the enemy. Despite victories on all fronts, listeners needed to be convinced that the war was far from over and that the public’s indifference and hubris could endanger the war effort, that both vigilance and dedication were required of even the most war-weary citizen. “You Were Wonderful” played such a role.

When a performer in a third-rate nightclub in Buenos Aires suddenly collapses on stage and dies, a famous American entertainer (Horne) is rather too eager replace her. “I’m a singer, not a sob sister,” she declares icily, thawing for a tantalizing rendition of “Embraceable You.”

The very name of the mysterious substitute, Lorna Dean, encourages listeners to conceive of “You Were Wonderful” in relation to the perennially popular heroine Lorna Doone, or the Victorian melodramatic heritage in general, and to consider the potential affinities between the fictional singer and her impersonatrix, Lena Horne, suggesting the story to be that of an outcast struggling to redeem herself against all odds.

One of the regulars at the nightclub is Johnny (Wally Maher), an seemingly disillusioned American who declares that his country did not do much for him that was worth getting “knocked off for.” Still, he seems patriotic enough to become suspicious of the singer’s motivations, especially after the club falls into the hands of a new manager, an Austrian who requests that his star performer deliver specific tunes at specified times. The absence of a narrator signalling perspective promotes audience detachment, a skeptical listening-in on the two central characters as they question each other while all along compromising themselves.

When questioned about her unquestioning compliance, Lorna Dean replies:

I’m an entertainer because I like it. And because it’s the only way I can make enough money to live halfway like a human being. With money I can do what I want to—more or less. I can live where I want to, go where I want to, be like other people—more or less. Do you know what even that much freedom means to somebody like me, Johnny?

However restrained, such a critique of the civil rights accorded to and realized by African-Americans, uttered by a Negro star of Horne’s magnitude, was uncommonly bold for 1940s radio entertainment, especially considering that Suspense was at that time a commercially sponsored program.

“[W]e are not normally a part of radio drama, except as comedy relief,” Langston Hughes once remarked, reflecting on his own experience in 1940s broadcasting. A comment on this situation, Richards’s writing—as interpreted by Horne—raises the question whether Horne’s outspoken character could truly be the heroine of “You Were Wonderful.”

Talking in the see-if-I-care twang of a 1930s gang moll, Lorna is becoming increasingly suspect, so that the questionable defense of her apparently selfish behavior serves to render her positively un-American. When told that her command performances are shortwaved to a German submarine and contain a hidden code to ready Nazis for an attack on American ships, she claims to have known this all along.

The conclusion of the play discloses the singer’s selfishness to have been an act. Risking her life, Lorna Dean defies instructions and, deliberately switching tunes, proudly performs “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” instead.

About to be shot for her insubordination, Lorna is rescued by the patron who questioned her integrity, a man who now reveals himself to be a US undercover agent. When asked why she embarked upon this perilous one-woman mission, the singer declares: “Just to get in my licks at the master race.”

“You Were Wonderful,” which, like many wartime programs was shortwaved to the troops overseas, could thus be read as a vindication of the entertainment industry, an assurance to the GIs that their efforts had the unwavering support of all Americans, and a reminder to minorities, soldiers and civilians alike, that even a democracy marred by inequality and intolerance was preferable to Aryan rule.

Ever since the Detroit race riots of June 1943, during which police shot and killed seventeen African-Americans, it had become apparent that unconditional servitude from citizens too long disenfranchised could not be taken for granted. With “You Were Wonderful,” Horne was assigned the task of assuring her fellow Negro Americans of a freedom she herself had to wait—and struggle—decades rightfully to enjoy.

Had it not been for this assignment, Lena Horne may never have been given the chance to act in a leading role in one of radio’s most prominent cycles of plays. Yes, “You Were Wonderful,” Lena Horne—and any tribute worthy of you must also be an indictment.

They Also Sell Books: W-WOW! at Partners & Crime

Legend has it that, when asked what Cecil B. DeMille was doing for a living, his five-year-old grand-daughter replied: “He sells soap.” Back then, in 1944, the famous Hollywood director-producer was known to million of Americans as host and nominal producer of the Lux Radio Theater, from the squeaky clean boards of which venue he was heard slipping (or forcefully squeezing) many a none-too-subtle reference to the sponsor’s products into the behind-the-scenes addresses and rehearsed chats with Tinseltown’s luminaries, lines scripted for him by unsung writers selling out in the business of making radio sell.

No doubt, the program generated sizeable business for Lever Brothers; otherwise, the theatrical spin cycle conceived to bang the drum for those Lads of the Lather would not have stayed afloat for two decades, much to the delight of the great (and only proverbially) unwashed. For all its entertainment value, commercial radio was designed to hawk, peddle and tout; and although the spiel heard between the acts of wireless theatricals like Lux has long been superseded by the show and sell of television and the Internet, old radio programs still pay off, no matter how freely they are now shared on the web. In a manner of speaking, they still sell, albeit on a far smaller and downright intimate scale.

Take W-WOW! Radio. Now in its fourteenth season, the opening of which I attended last month, the W-WOW! Mystery Hour can be spent—heard and seen—on the first Saturday of every month (July and August excepting) from a glorified store room at the back of one of the few remaining independent and specialty booksellers in Manhattan: Partners & Crime down on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village. The commercials recited by the cast are by now the stuff of nostalgia, hilarity, and contention (“In a coast-to-coast test of hundreds of people who smoked only Camels for thirty days, noted throat specialists noted not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels“); but the readings continue to draw prospective customers like myself.

Whenever I am in town, I make a point of making a tour of those stores, even though said tour is getting shorter and more sentimental every year. There are rewards, nonetheless. Two of my latest acquisitions, Susan Ware’s 2005 “radio biography” of the shrewdly if winningly commercial Mary Margaret McBride and John Houseman’s 1972 autobiography Run-through (signed by the author, no less) were sitting on the shelves of Mercer Street Books (pictured) and brought home for about $8 apiece. The latter volume is likely to be of interest to anyone attending the W-WOW! production scheduled for this Saturday, 3 October, when the W-WOW! players are presenting the Mercury Theatre on the Air version of Dracula as adapted by none other than John Houseman.

As Houseman puts it, the Mercury’s “Dracula”—the series’s inaugural broadcast—is “not the corrupt movie version but the original Bram Stoker novel in its full Gothic horror.” Indeed, Houseman’s outstanding adaptation is a challenge worthy of W-WOW!’s voice talent and just the kind of material special effects artist DeLisa White (pictured above, on the right and to the back of those she so ably backs) will sink her teeth into, or whatever sharp and blunt instruments she has at her disposal to make your hair stand on end.

Rather more run-of-the-mill were the scripts chosen for W-WOW!’s September production, which, regrettably, was devoid of vamps. You know, those double-crossing, tough-talking dames that enliven tongue-in-cheek thrillers like The Saint (“Ladies Never Lie . . . Much” or “The Alive Dead Husband,” 7 January 1951) and Richard Diamond (“The Butcher Shop Case,” 7 March 1951 and 9 March 1952), a story penned by Blake “Pink Panther” Edwards and involving a protection racket. The former opened encouragingly, with a wife pretending to have killed a husband who turned out to be yet living, if not for long; but, as it turned out, the dame had less lines than any of the ladies currently in prime time, or any other time for that matter, Sure, crime paid on the air; but sex, or any vague promise of same, sells even better.

That said, I still walked out of Partners & Crime with a book in my hand. As I passed through the store on my way out, an out-of-print copy of A Shot in the Arm caught my eye and refused to let go. Subtitled “Death at the BBC,” John Sherwood’s 1982 mystery novel, set in Broadcasting House anno 1937 and featuring Lord Reith, the dictatorial Baron who ran the place, is just the kind of stuff I am so readily sold on, as I am on browsing in whatever bookstores are still standing offline—if only to give those who are still in the business of vending rare volumes a much-deserved shot in the open and outstretched arm.


Related writings
“Shoes Across the Table”
“Murder in the Backroom; or, No Place for a Lady”
“Mary Margaret McBride, Commercial Correspondent”
“Orson and the Count: The Man Cast as The Shadow as the Man Who Cast None”

Related recordings
“Ladies Never Lie . . . Much,” The Saint (7 January 1951)
“The Butcher Case,” Richard Diamond (7 January 1950)
“The Butcher Case,” Richard Diamond (9 March 1951)

” . . . the way of all flesh, material or imaginary”: Conan Doyle at 150

“Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.” That is how Arthur Conan Doyle, not long before his own death in 1930, announced to his readers that he would put an end to his most robust brainchild, the by now all but immortal Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, the figure continues to overshadow every aspect of Dr. Doyle’s career, literary or otherwise. Perhaps, “upstage” is a more precise way of putting it, considering that the venerable sleuth was to enjoy such success in American and British radio drama from the early 1930s to the present day.

“One likes to think that there is some fantastic limbo for the children of imagination,” Doyle assuaged those among his readers who found it difficult to accept that Holmes’s departure was merely “the way of all flesh.”

To be sure, the earlier incident at the Reichenbach Falls suggested that Holmes was impervious to threats of character assassination, that he could reappear, time and again, in the reminiscences of Doctor Watson. Still, Doyle’s intention to do away with Holmes so early in the detective’s literary career had been no mere publicity stunt. Rather than feeling obliged to supply the public with the puzzles they craved, the author felt that his “energies should not be directed too much into one channel.”

One of the lesser-known alternative channels considered by Doyle has just been reopened for inspection. Today, 22 May, on the 150th anniversary of Doyle’s birth in 1859, BBC Radio Scotland aired “Vote for Conan Doyle!” a biographical sketch “specially commissioned” to mark the occasion. In it, writer and Holmes expert Bert Coules relates how, in 1900, Doyle embarked on a career in politics. He decided to stand for parliament; but the devotees of Sherlock Holmes would not stand for it.

Coules’s play opens right where Doyle had first intended to wash his hands of Holmes—at the Reichenbach Falls. No matter how sincere Doyle was in improving the Empire’s image and the plight of the British’s troops during the Second Boer War, the push hardly met with the approval of the reading public. “How could you!” “How dare you!” “You brute!” the public protested.

Although it was not this perceived case of filicide that did him in, Doyle proved unsuccessful in his campaign—and that despite support from Dr. Bell, who served as an inspiration for Holmes. After his defeat, Doyle “bowed to the inevitable—and back the man came.”

When the The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1927, Doyle dropped the man once more, albeit in a gentler fashion. To assuage loyal followers, he fancied Holmes and Watson in some “humble corner” of the “Valhalla” of British literature. Little did he know that the “fantastic limbo” in which the two were to linger would be that in-between realm of radio, a sphere removed from both stage and page—but nearer than either to the infinite “O” between our ears.

It hardly surprises that, Radio Scotland’s efforts to get out the “Vote for” and let us walk “In the Footsteps of Conan Doyle” aside, most of the programs presumably devoted to Doyle are concerned instead with “The Voice of Sherlock Holmes” and the “Game” that is “Afoot” when thespians like Cedric Hardwicke, John Gielgud, Carleton Hobbs and Clive Merrison approach the original. It is not Doyle’s life that is celebrated in these broadcasts, but Holmes’s afterlife.

True, to the aficionados of Doyle’s fiction, Sherlock Holmes has never been in need of resuscitation. Yet, as Jeffrey Richards remarked in “The Voice” (first aired in 1998),

[r]adio has always been a particularly effective medium for evoking the world of Holmes and Watson. The clatter of horses hoofs on cobbled streets, the howl of the wind on lonely moors, and the sinister creaks and groans of ancient manor houses steeped in history and crime.

The game may be afoot once more when Holmes returns to the screen this year; but, outside the pages that could never quite contain him, it is the “fantastic limbo” of radio that kept the Reichenbach Falls survivor afloat. It is for the aural medium—the Scotland yardstick for fidelity in literary adaptation—that all of his cases have been dramatized and that, in splendid pastiches like “The Abergavenny Murder,” the figure of Sherlock Holmes has remained within earshot all these years.


Related writings
“‘What monstrous place is this?’: Hardy, Holmes, and the Secrets of Stonehenge”
“Radio Rambles: Cornwall, Marconi, and the ‘Devil’s Foot’”
Old Sleuth Re-emerges in New Medium for American Ho(l)mes

Blind Justice; or, ‘1000 for Verdicts’

“It does not matter whether your verdict is ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’ If your reasons for it are good enough you will share in the prizes.” With this peculiar invitation, millions of Americans were lured to their radios, tuned in to WJZ, for a trial in which they, the listening public, were called upon to act as jurors. As previously mentioned here, it all began on this day, 25 November, in 1930. The judge in the case was none other than New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, lending gravitas to a spectacle that was, in more sense than one, a trial broadcast: Would the listeners find society beauty Vivienne Ware guilty of the murder of millionaire architect Damon Fenwicke, a crime for which she could be sentenced to the electric chair? And would they leap out of their armchairs to boost not only their own circulation but that of their local paper be rereading what they heard on the air?

“It is no part of your duty to decide whether or not she shall die,” Senator Wagner insisted. That, he told the listeners,

is the function of the Court and the Law. But you must remember that in endeavoring to secure a conviction of this young and beautiful defendant the District Attorney is but pursuing the business to which you, the people of this State, have set him. You will consider carefully all the evidence as it is presented for you from the witness stand.

Whether or not their voices could kill, those tuning in nevertheless derived their thrills from the importance of the interactive role granted to them. Tune in, have your say, all for a chance to win a substantial amount of dough—what’s not to love!

Leave it to a Hearst paper to conceive of a reality show like The Trial of Vivienne Ware—a trial that sold papers and bought the jury. Those who caught up with the daily broadcasts from the courtroom and read transcripts and analyses in their daily Hearst paper were rewarded for being informed enough to arrive at the verdict they were invited to mail in. No attendance, no deliberations with fellow jurors required. All that was needed, aside from a radio set and a few cents for daily tabloids, was curiosity, rhetoric, and greed.

You might say it was just fiction, this fictional call for justice; but the Hearst press, known to have started a war with mere words, was doing its utmost to make the trial seem as real the joined media of radio and the press could make it, all with the aim at a very real boost in sales through a cleverly manipulative marketing campaign.

More than a radio serial, The Trial of Vivienne Ware is one of the most fascinating media events ever staged. All that remains of it now are a number of newspaper articles and a book touted as “an innovation in both the radio and publishing worlds”—the “first radio novel.”

To be sure, Kenneth M. Ellis’s “novel”—a combination of faux news reportage and courtroom dialogue—has none of the thrills of the original experience. Its failure to excite and convince convincingly argues the power of the media to create a sense of reality through the realities we glean from sensation.

“Madagascar Madness”; or, It Takes a Houdini to Get Out of That One

Tickled by Canary Feather’s account of being an accompanist for silent movies, I was in the mood for another non-talkie. The term may be unhappy in its connotation of lack, yet seems preferable to “silent movie,” considering that, prior to the late 1920, the sound for motion pictures was supplied by those playing the piano or the organ; even sound effects artists and entire orchestras were not unheard. Having had my fill of non-talkie comedy of late, I chose a melodrama likely to wear out the most resourceful and nimble-fingered of pianists: The Master Mystery a 1919 thriller underscored by Stuart Oderman, whom I have often heard and seen playing the piano to movies screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Intolerance, Grandma’s Boy, and Caligari—Lillian Gish biographer Stuart Oderman has articulated them all.

In the case of The Master Mystery, the pianist must have been relieved that his accompaniment was being recorded, rather than performed live. However fragmentary, the film still runs an epic 238 minutes. With an attention span shortened by broadband and a clock ticking down the last minutes of the day, I was resolved to take in this thriller as it was conceived; that is, as a weekly chapter play.

From the first instalment, I expected little more than an exposition, an introduction of the main characters, and the obligatory cliffhanger. After all, The Master Mystery stars the famed escape artist Harry Houdini (previously encountered on a boat about to go over Niagara Falls).

Now, I pride myself in not readily throwing in the remote control; but The Master Mystery, with its secret identities, its corridors and hidden caves stalked by an pre-RUR automaton, and its cases of Madagascar Madness—proved too complex to master at that late hour. The opening title card should have been ample warning. The “Foreword” reads:

International Patents, Inc., is a firm whose vast fortune has been made by inducing inventors to trust the marketing of inventions to their care and after obtaining sole rights—they suppress the manufacture of these inventions—much to the financial gain of the owners of already existing patents.

However intriguing, this is hardly the most effective way of opening a chapter play. We have not yet been introduced to any of the characters, but are confronted instead with a corporation and with legalities not quite the stuff of melodramatic action. Equally frustrating is the introduction of characters by indirection, that is, as a name on a title card not referring to the character shown. The secretary of businessman Peter Brent, for instance, is identified as being “secretly in the service of Balcom,” before we are shown the latter.

My own shortcomings aside, was it writerly ineptitude that caused me to get lost in the muddle? Was it owing to the fragmentary state of the surviving print, segments of which have been “rearranged” to create the “illusion of completeness”? Or was it, perhaps, all part of a shrewd design? I was determined to fill in the blanks with whatever notes I could find. Notes? How about an entire book!

In May 1919, Masters of Mystery was published as a novelization co-written by Arthur B. Reeve, one of the scenarists credited as the “authors” of the serial. Yes, viewers lost in the maze from which only Houdini could extricate himself, were promised a key to it all in the form of a published book, replete with stills from the film. I wonder just how many resorted to a purchase in hopes of mastering this Mystery?

Here is how the opening title card is translated into some semblance of a narrative:

“I will see Mr. Brent,” insisted the new-comer, as he pushed past the butler. “Mr. Brent!” he cried, advancing with a wild light in his eyes. “I’m tired of excuses. I want justice regarding that water-motor of mine.” He paused, then added, shaking his finger threateningly, “Put it on the market—or I will call in the Department of Justice!”

Brent scowled again. For years he had been amassing a fortune by a process that was scarcely within the law. For, when inventions threaten to render useless already existing patents, necessitating the scrapping of millions of dollars’ worth of machinery, vested interests must be protected.

Thus, Brent and his partner, Herbert Balcom, had evolved a simple method of protecting corporations against troublesome inventors and inventions. They had formed their own corporation, International Patents, Incorporated.

Their method was effective—though desperate. It was to suppress the inventor and his labor. They bought the sole rights from the inventor, promising him glittering royalties. The joker was that the invention was suppressed. None were ever manufactured. Hence there were no royalties and the corporations went on undisturbed while Brent and Balcom collected huge retainers for the protection they afforded them.

Thus Brent Rock had come to be hated by scores of inventors defrauded in this unequal conflict with big business.

While the perfunctory prose suggests that the book is not always better than the movie, I was at least caught up with the story and prepared to follow Houdini as he gets in and out of scrapes to a score by Stuart Oderman . . . next week.

Banks (for the Memories)

“How do you want it?” the stern-looking woman inquired. “In tens,” I said, because I needed it that way. She was a bank clerk behind a counter; and I was referring to the denomination in which a portion of my savings was to be returned to me. I sounded like a masochist saying it; but, stepping into the money market in tense times such as ours, you must really be a glutton for punishment. As someone who still counts his savings in tens, I am not among the afflicted. Still, what with that whiff of October 1929 in the air and Iceland at the center of an international incident, you’ve got to be in hysterics to be laughing all the way to the vault.

Could an economic bust be a boon for the sit-at-home, dim-the-lights medium of radio? Of all commercial enterprises catering to our need for news and entertainment, it was the wireless that experienced a boom during the Great Depression. Radio profited from the closing of Broadway shows and the demise of Vaudeville. And while programs on the air advertised plenty of products, they came to your home free of charge; unlike today’s cable and satellite receiver, the old cat’s whiskers did not require a subscription. Even the equipment could be assembled cheaply.

Be it Wall Street laying an egg or enemy planes dropping bombs, the poor cousin of television truly comes into its own when the world is in turmoil. To be topical, for once, I am listening to a few classic programs featuring assorted banking woes.

Jack Benny pinching a penny, safecrackers at work in an episode of Gang Busters, or hapless yokels like Lum and Abner offering financial services, radio gave the public an earful of what, for the most part, it didn’t have: money, and the trouble that comes it with, especially when it goes. Given the prudery of radio entertainment, it is probably safe to assert that misdeeds for dough outnumbered crimes of passion on the air, unless that passion exhausted itself in a peck on the cheek, however embellished it might get in your mind. Mr. Keen may not have been a Tracer of Lost Profits, but radio thrillers were nonetheless teeming with have-nots trying to get some without resorting to the legalized gambling known as the stock market.

“Please, would you come to the bank with me. Please,” a woman urges, with distress in her voice.

I, I’ve asked so many people, but they won’t listen to me. You, will you come to the bank with me? No, don’t turn your head. Please don’t go away. Listen, if I tell you very carefully why I want you to come to the bank with me, you will come, won’t you?

Another terrified investor? A demented clerk trying to get you to open an account? Well, wait and hear. It is the opening of a Lights Out! thriller cheekily titled “Come to the Bank” (17 November 1942). As playwright Arch Oboler explains, it is “the story of a woman who, for strange reasons soon apparent, is determined to get us to the bank.” These days, as empty bank vaults are about as spine-chilling a setting as a crowded morgue, the above plea makes for an intriguing premise indeed, especially if the concept of a presumably solid depository and a final resting place are being equated.

“Come to the Bank” is the account of a woman robbed of her savings as well as her sanity, insisting as she is that the missing man she cared for is “entombed” in the wall of the titular institution. “This is your last warning,” a psychiatrist tells her, “You are to stay away from the bank. You are to behave yourself as the good, intelligent citizen you normally are.” If he were alive today, shrewd Mr. O would milk his scenario for all it is worth.

Misinformation, Please: Earl Derr Biggers, Rex Stout, and Charlie Chan’s Sons

Earlier today, I added a few titles to our movie database, a list I try to keep up to date so as not to lose track of our collection. Yesterday, the fifth and final Charlie Chan box set arrived in the mail, containing the seven last entries into the 20th Century Fox series. Among them are some of my favorites: Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum, Castle in the Desert, and Dead Men Tell. Ever since I discovered these movies on German television—in German, mind you—I have been inordinately fond of the much-traveled sleuth, no matter how ramshackle his vehicles.

As I shared here a few years ago, I never enjoyed a close relationship with my father, long since departed, and the Chan pictures somehow made me, an introvert teenager, long for the kind of bond grown-up sons number one and two maintained with their gentle and generous pop. Charmed by the series, I picked up Earl Derr Biggers’s Chan novels . . . and was greatly disappointed. Biggers, whose Seven Keys to Baldpate was being presented on the Lux Radio Theatre on this day, 26 September, in 1938 (as already discussed here) may have been the father of Charlie Chan, but the brainchild, like Frankenstein before him, was passed around so often and given so many transformations that few recalled or bothered with his origins. After the author’s death, there followed such a long line of foster parents that hardly any of the family traits and characteristics can still be traced in the child. Shown above, for instance, is radio Chan Ed Begley (in a picture freely adapted from its source).

Some folks, though, remember. One of them was mystery writer Rex Stout. On this day in 1939, Stout appeared on the quiz program Information, Please! (discussed here) and, along with his fellow panelists, was called upon to answer a number of mystery related questions. In a task posed by a listener from Morristown, Pennsylvania, the panelists were to name heroes of crime fiction who were aided in their detective work by their fathers, their offspring, and their secretaries.

Clearly, this was a subject of which mystery writer Rex Stout could be expected to be familiar. Sure enough, the father of Nero Wolfe was quick to identify Ellery Queen’s paternal helpmate. “I’d hate to ask you to mention the actual titles of books by one of your rivals,” host Clifton Fadiman remarked, “but could you name, er, one or two of Mr. Queen’s books?” He should have said, Messrs. Queen, of course; but never mind. At any rate, a straight answer from the competitor was not forthcoming, aside from the sly reply “The Adventures of Ellery Queen,” the title of the radio series based on the character but not penned by its creators.

When it came to naming a crime-solving father being assisted by his son, Stout shrouded himself in silence. It’s a “series of books,” Fadiman assisted, that had been successfully adapted for the screen. “Charlie Chan,” fellow panelist Carl Van Doren replied. “Quite right,” said Fadiman. To be sure, the word “assisted” is rather questionable; for, as Chan remarked in Murder over New York (also part of the abovementioned collection), “many cases would have been solved much sooner” had son Jimmy not insisted on getting involved.

Fadiman was ready to move on; but Stout voiced his disagreement. “Pardon me, Mr. Fadiman,” he interjected, “not in any of his books was he aided by his son, except that his son laced up his shoes or something for him.” “That’s a help,” said the host, brushing aside the objection without giving it any consideration. “Korrektur bitte,” Chan’s German alter ego might well have protested, however mildly. Stout was right. The father-son relationship was created for the movies so as to give the rather austere Chan his Watsonian sidekick.

And very glad I am for this infidelity and the wayward child thus begot. “Does anyone help Nero Wolfe in your own series of stories, Mr. Stout,” Fadiman inquired. “I do, pretty often,” he quipped, missing out on a chance to give Archie Goodwin his due. Not long after the Information, Please broadcast, at a time when even Charlie Chan was enlisted into the Secret Service, Stout turned “lie detective” to expose the misinformation, spread through enemy propaganda, in a series titled Our Secret Weapon.

An Ear Against the Blue Wall

I tire easily of Henry James and can countenance only so much blue. If I got a kick out of being cryptic, I’d say that about explains why this journal contains only a single reference to Dragnet, the influential crime drama that, between 1949 and 1957, caught the ear of millions tuning in to NBC radio. As much as I enjoy detective stories, I don’t warm readily to cop shows. Or cops, for that matter, the sight of whom is rarely a comfort to me. Let me give you a “for instance.” One sunny afternoon in September, I was sitting on a bench in Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It being the beginning of a new semester, and the beginning of my career as a doctoral student, I had a backpack full of books to pore over so as not to fall behind right from the start. I was—and am—a slow reader; and, when it comes to American and British fiction, a non-native one at that.

So, I took out the library copy of James’s Princess Casamassima, a tome so long and somnolent that I struggled to keep my eyes open. The next thing I know is that an officer addresses me from a police car several yards behind me, insists that I had broken a law, and hands me a ticket. I was very nearly speechless; but, after cautioning a few old ladies on the verge of dozing off over their cross-stitching that they would do so at their own peril, I betook myself, past the crowds gathered in the area for the annual German-American Steuben Parade, to the nearest precinct, where I protested against the treatment I had received. At that point I ran into what is commonly known as the blue wall. There was no alternative but to appear in court, a prospect likely to make the non-immigrant even more uneasy than the citizen.

However trifling, this experience made me think of those who had been abused in the name of the law, in the name of all the laws the breaking of which does not mean the least bit of harm or inconvenience to anyone, but whose enforcement provides those in uniform with the opportunity to intimidate, demonstrate their might, and put a few coins into government coffers. My case was ultimately dismissed; but the whole affair caused me no slight irritation. Is it any wonder that I prefer my Friday on a desert island?

Still, the chance of placing an ear on that blue wall and listening in on the workings of the force has an undeniable appeal. The one radio program to cater to spies like me was Night Watch (1954-55), billed as “the actual on-the-scene report of your police force in action.”

“You’re gonna ride with us tonight,” the narrator promised those tuning in to CBS on this day, 25 September, in 1954. “And remember, the people you meet are not actors. What happens to us, happens to you; because this is it. This is real. This is Night Watch.

This early reality show was presented with the cooperation of the police department of Culver City, California, and took listeners straight to the scene of conflict. In the 25 September 1954 installment, the cases involve stolen motel towels and a disagreement between a mother and her fourteen-year-old daughter whose unrehearsed, unscripted words and untrained voices leave no doubt as to the authenticity of the recorded incident, careful editing notwithstanding.

While Night Watch did not feature the sensational crimes that listeners came to expect from fictional programs, the reporter accompanying the officers was attacked, shot and stabbed, on at least two occasions while serving as proxy witness to scenes of juvenile delinquency, prostitution, domestic abuse and suicide.

No matter how diligent, courteous, and compassionate the officers, the star attractions of the series are the average, anonymous folks of whose lives the audience gets an earful as if being handed a glass to press against the walls behind which dwelled the neighbors to whom our doors are closed. Having been kicked off that bench, I can meet them with something else besides idle curiosity.