Air and Grouses; or, 180 Seconds to Mark 90 Years

“Give’m that off-the-air smile”

When Radio Times magazine announced a few weeks ago that its 10-16 November issue would celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the Corporation largely in charge of the medium to which the pages of said venerable British weekly are nominally dedicated, I was very nearly all ears.  That I wasn’t ears entirely is owing to the skepticism I have developed when it comes to the wireless and its status in today’s mass-mediated society.  Sure enough, the Radio Times celebration fell as flat as my introductory sentence.  The promised “Anniversary Special” amounted to little more than a few pages of pictures designed to demonstrate that radio—or, strictly speaking, BBC radio—is very much alive.  Clearly, I haven’t kept my ear to the ground, as most of the personalities depicted are no more familiar to me in appearance or voice than the radio stars of yesterday whose images I put on display here to suggest that commemoration and oblivion are not mutually exclusive and that what is being marked by the “Anniversary Special” is not so much the birth or infancy or longevity of radio but its presence and relevance today.

“Remember what I said?”
“Print, they say, is dying,” news presenter Eddie Mair opens his commemorative Radio Times article, and television programs nowadays are “watched by a fraction of the numbers who used to tune in.”  The wireless, on the other hand on the proverbial dial, he argues to be in “rude health,” ninety years after the BBCs mics first went live” on 14 November in 1922.
No doubt, those words are meant to be eulogistically reassuring, albeit less so to the publishers of an ailing print magazine, in deference to whom Mair distances himself from his opening statement by injecting “they say.”  I might add—and shall—that if “they say” radio is thriving, then why isn’t there a radio on the cover of that ‘anniversary’ issue? It isn’t radio’s age, surely, that made editors decide against a shot of an historic wireless set, a glistening microphone, or any number of radio personalities, living or dead.  After all, the editors chose Sir David Attenborough as their cover boy—and he, at 86, is nearly as old as the BBC.
“Just who do they think we aren’t?”
Why Attenborough? Well, he, too, has a broadcasting anniversary worth celebrating; and, apparently, his sixty years of television are worth more to the BBC than its own ninety years of radio broadcasting, marked in the pages of Radio Times with a slim timeline of scant microphone highlights so miniscule that it, like the fine print in advertising, makes you feel what is really wanting is a microscope.  Could it be that the Corporation toned down its self-glorification in light of the scandal surrounding desanctified saint Jimmy Savile and the efforts to cover up or deal with his posthumously emerging history of pedophilia? While this may not be the time for airs and graces, it does not follow that any self-reflexive, critical history the BBC airs disgraces.
Sure if your face is red, you are not inclined to parade it in public; but that does not quite explain, let alone justify, the way in which the wireless anniversary is scheduled to unfold sonically this afternoon.  At 5:33 PM precisely—the exact time of the first BBC radio broadcast back in 1922—all BBC stations jointly air a newly commissioned composition of music and sound bites, the latter to be contributed by listeners.  However thrilling and noteworthy, the whole rather self-defacing event lasts about three minutes, less time by far than commercial television sets aside for a single block of advertising.
Not quite believing my eyes at the sound of that announcement, I flicked through the pages of Radio Times in search of further commemorative programming.  Alas, it is, for the most part, business as usual.  And even though the “usual” is usually quite satisfactory, the extraordinary sure has a deflated air about it.

She Said It in English: Olympe Bradna (1920-2012) on Men, Mikes and Milk

Olympe Bradna is a diplomat of the first rank!” So declared the editors of Cinegram in an issue devoted to Say It in French.  In that now largely forgotten romantic comedy, Bradna co-starred as a French student who impersonates a maid to be close to an American lover (played by Welshman Ray Milland) expected to marry a millionaire’s daughter (Irene Hervey) to save his father’s business.  

The cover of Cinegram No. 60, from my collection

Maybe that sounded better in French, in which the comedy was first staged under the title Soubrette. Never mind.  The “petite morsel of feminine allure,” so the Bradna legend goes, had “only been kissed by two men during her whole lifetime”—that lifetime amounting to eighteen years back in 1938. 

One year into her brief Hollywood career, Bradna had overcome her “anxiety and embarrassment” and forgotten about her vow that she “would never kiss” at all, “either on the screen or off, until she had a ‘steady’ beau.”  Having been teamed with both Milland and Gene Raymond (in Stolen Heaven), the actress was “all in favour” of on-screen romance; but, when asked whose lips she preferred, the teenager refused to kiss and tell. “If I did that, it would be, how do you say? ‘propaganda.’”

In the context of European pre-war clamour and the business of Hollywood glamour, the word choice is peculiar, especially since Cinegram was a promotional effort aimed at British audiences.  It is a telling statement, too, as it suggests Bradna’s questioning of the role she was expected to play in the propagation and exploitation of her own image.

Far from naive, the French-born performer knew all about the real world of make-believe, which is why, in her future pursuit of “real romance,” she was determined to “go outside the show business.”  In the early 1920s, her parents, Jeanne and Joseph Bradna, had a successful bareback riding act at the Olympia Theater in Paris, after which venue Olympe was named and where she made her stage debut when she was not quite two years old.  Hence, I suppose, her expressed need for security: “[A]ctors are fellows with uncertain jobs.  They’re generally honest, gay, intelligent and interesting, but they lack that quality of stability that is so important to a girl who wants to establish a home.”

Presumably, she said all this in English, rather than in her native tongue.  When she first set her dancing feet on the United States as a member of the Folies Bergère and subsequently performed at New York’s French Casino, she was so dismayed at her “lack of English that she determined to learn to speak the language properly.  She succeeded so well,” Cinegram readers were told, “that when it came to making this new picture she had to put in several weeks of hard work under a French tutor to get her French back to standard.”  A Hollywood standard, that is.  After all, in romantic comedy, a French accent was as desirable as a maid’s uniform.

Bradna in Cinegram No. 60

Bradna’s language skills were put to the ultimate test when, on 14 November 1938, she went behind the microphone for the Lux Radio Theater production of “The Buccaneer,” co-starring Clark Gable as French pirate Jean Lafitte; but her part was suitably Old-World, and all over the map besides, to account for any foreignness in her speech.  Bradna assumed the role of Gretchen, which had been played on screen by the Hungarian-born cabaret artist Franciska Gaal.  “Oh, I don’t know how I sound, Mr. DeMille,” Bradna said to in the nominal producer of the program during her scripted curtain call, “a Dutch girl with a French accent in an American play.”  Supported as she was by Gertrude Michael and Akim Tamiroff, both of whom enriched American English with peculiar accents and inflections, she hardly stood out like a sore tongue.

Not that Bradna, who appeared on the cover of the 27 July 1938 issue of Movie-Radio Guide, was a stranger to the microphone.  According to the March 1938 issue of Radio Mirror, Paramount Pictures “put her into five consecutive radio guest-spots for a big build up—but without giving her a nickel.”  Perhaps, DeMille would not have given her a nickel, either, for the privilege of making it into a Lux-lathered version of The Buccaneer, one of his own productions, nor given her an opportunity to promote her latest picture, Say It in French, had he known what British Cinegram readers gathered by flicking through their souvenir program for Say It.  Bradna, they were told, had “startled experts by announcing that the secret of her facial complexion [was] a daily buttermilk massage.”

The makers of Lux Toilet Soap could not have been pleased at Bradna’s insistence, fictive or otherwise, that buttermilk was “all” she needed: “My skin may be ever so parched and dry before the routine, but afterwards it is as fresh and smooth as I could want!

Say It: A rickety vehicle

Wally Westmore, Paramount’s make-up chief, reputedly explained that the “secret”—an age-old French recipe for a youthful complexion perhaps not quite so difficult to achieve at the age of eighteen—lay in the rich oil content of buttermilk, which had the same “softening and freshening effect upon the skin as the most elaborate and expensive preparations used by the stars.”  That, of course, was just the claim Lever Brothers were making each week on the Lux Radio Theater, which might explain why Ms. Bradna was never again heard on the program, whose stars were handsomely remunerated for their implied or stated endorsement of the titular product.  Perhaps, Bradna was not “a diplomat of the first rank” after all . . .

Olympe Bradna died on 5 November 2012 in Lodi, California.

Some Like it . . . How? Youth, Vampires, and Marilyn Monroe

Del Coronado mirage

There I stood, in the shimmering sands of Coronado Beach, California. I had come, of course, to see the famous Hotel—and to share the views once taken in by Marilyn Monroe during the filming of Some Like It Hot. Marilyn was here. Now I was.

Footsteps. Sand. The old hourglass. I won’t indulge in such clichés here; but there is something pathetic about this kind of out-of-sightseeing, this belated catching up and impossible reaching out to which I am prone. The inclination to seek out what is long gone is more than morbid curiosity: it is an approach to life as a retreat from living in which even the here-and-now becomes dreamlike and chimerical. How did this get to be my way of not facing the world?

Marilyn Monroe died before I was born; yet her life and times became a fascination of my teenage years.  Mine were not erotic fantasies.  I did not long for her body.  Nor did I think of her as being gone.  She was never absent for long from the television screen, ever present on the iconic posters I pinned onto the wall above my bed.  Records spinning on the old turntable, her voice filled my room. I had no regrets about never being able to meet her in the flesh; rather, it was a relief.

The wonder of her incorporeal existence made living in the body I loathed more tolerable; and it made the physical relationships I dreaded easier to contemplate in the abstract.  Marilyn—and we call her by her first name because she is more familiar than famous, more girl than goddess—was not some facile paradox: “I Wanna Be Loved by You” and “I’m Through with Love” she sings in the same movie, expressing the hurt and hunger that are far from mutually exclusive.

Our teenage selves are preoccupied with the demands that both nature and society make on us, propositions and impositions captured in that horrible phrase haunting and taunting us until death: “grown up.”  As a response to and rejection of the implied threat—the finality and premature stunting of our infinite potentialities—Marilyn’s afterlife was as much a reproof of society as it was a society-proof alternative: a twilight life, expired and undying, bright though snuffed out, a fragile, indomitable spirit-presence in whose shadowy glow I could luxuriate, just as many a young person nowadays revels in the gothic gloom inhabited by zombies and vampires, except that my imaginings transported rather than dispirited me.

No doubt, this twisted bent of casting myself into times preceding my birth is born of a desire to bring forth alternate selves of mine without having to bear the vagaries of the present or the uncertainties of the future.  Like a life presumably squandered in reverie, bending the past to our will is a testament to a vestigial will power—or would-be power—in which the retrospective becomes invested with the prospect of an ever glimmering what if . . .

So Long, Onslow

Onslow? Why not!
One of my too few regrets in life is that I did not manage to inspire any of my fellow students to make up a nickname for me when I was in high school. Not counting “Battle of the Sexes,” that is. That was more of a cut than a nick, and all because I didn’t seem quite ready to shave—or perhaps even to be beyond shaving—at least not where man folk is supposed to. It was much later in life that I earned a moniker, one that didn’t make me feel I should be called Monica, and without having to do much or make an effort to look like much to deserve it, if deserve it I do. Onslow’s the name—a name that, to millions of television viewers, conjures up an image of a lazy slob in what is dead commonly referred to as a wife beater, a bad name given the kind of shirt I tend to don when the point of dressing up beats me, when reaching for a respectably casual shirt seems a waste of time, especially of daylight savings. Is it that shirt, or perhaps the silvery whiskers to the swift removal of which I do not always see soon enough now that I got them, at last? Else, it might just be those extra few pounds around my waist that just scream handle, luv! Handle, nickname, dishonorific, or what have you. It’s a name only an uppity so-and-so like Hyacinth Bucket would call a sobriquet.

That I learned to live with—since that is so much easier than having to live up to anything else—can be readily demonstrated by the above shot taken on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star thus honored is, in truth, character actor Onslow Stevens; but I put my foot down to give the underachieving Onslows of this world their due, especially since I had already shed my shirt in the midday sun and was undressed for it.

Onslow, of course, was, like Ms. Bucket, a character in the Britcom Keeping Up Appearances, and Geoffrey Hughes was the actor who played the part, filling that undershirt better than I could ever hope or fear to do. Hughes died at the age of 68. And while I only knew him as Onslow—or Twiggy on The Royle Family—the fact that his passing topped news about the Olympics on the BBC website well before fatigue about that event set in even among High Jump (or Canoe Slalom or Trampoline or Water Polo) fanatics shows just how big a name he made for himself.

Ascent to the Gods: The Odyssey of Norman Corwin (1910-2011)

Obituaries often begin like this: The world (the art world, the theater world, the world of miniature golf, or what have you) has lost one of its leading, brightest, most prominent so-and-so’s. But that won’t do. Not if the so-and-so is Norman Corwin. The formula would not be worthy of him, for one. Stylistically alone, it would be un-Corwinian; it would be Hummertsian. Nor would it fit the occasion of commemorating his life’s work since the formula cannot contain it. The application would lead instead to inaccurate, misleading statements such as this one: The world of radio drama lost one of its greatest writers.

True, Norman Corwin, who died on 18 October 2011 at the age of 101, was a leading light in that dark theater of the mind. But he was also a journalist, a teacher, a screenwriter, a director, a producer, and, what has yet to get into the heads of those who assemble the anthologies of American Literature, a poet. He inhabited and enriched many worlds—and yet, for the past sixty years or so, Corwin has not been known the world over. You might say that we, most or millions of us, lost Norman Corwin decades ago because we, or some somebodies we permitted to act in our stead—though not on our behalf—decided that the world Corwin helped create and never forgot should be written off, abandoned, and depopulated of its talent like the ghost of a mine whose ore is no longer deemed worth our digging . . .

In the United States, the world of radio drama is such a lost world—and those, like cretaceous me, who keep on living in this world even if we can no longer live by it, might as well be dwelling on some dark star in a parallel universe. Unlike today’s listeners, radio writers did not have that choice back in the late 1940s, unless they were content, as Corwin put it in retrospect, to be “apolitical except for strong support of home and motherhood,” “inoffensive to the world in all its parts (although in radio practice, exceptions are often made in the case of minority-opinion groups which cannot possibly reply)” and prepared to “keep within the pale of clichés of character and situation so traditional there is a mellow patina on them.”

“I believe that artistic radio, whether commercial or otherwise, will not develop without a willing and interested leadership on the part of those who control programming, budget and time,” Corwin exclaimed in 1947. “That is all.”

That was all. One year later, Corwin felt compelled to remind those in control that he was still there, waiting and willing to take on another creative assignment—another Twenty-Six by Corwin, perhaps, another One World Flight. “I Can Be Had,” he announced; but those in “control” would not have him back.

“The artists are around, and there is nothing occult about the process of dialing their telephone numbers and talking it over.” Apparently, no one bothered to touch that dial. After years of restraint, commercial radio was eager to get richer even it that meant becoming culturally less enriching. It was a short-lived strategy of cashing in before television would take over and pretty much close the theater of the mind for good. Never again would a single play written for the ear reach and move an audience of sixty million in no more than two performances—as Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph” did in 1945.

Forced to exit network radio because executives no longer commissioned verse plays, dramatic documentaries or travelogues in sound—three genres that are quintessentially Corwinian—Norman Corwin began travelling between worlds, the worlds of film, journalism, and the academia. Television, at least initially, was too small, too restrictive a realm to attract, let alone accommodate an imagination as vast as his. To Corwin, the audiovisual upstart was but a “poor bastard among the arts, having the benefit of neither the full scope and mobility of cinema, the immediacy of the legitimate theatre, nor the powerful suggestibility of radio’s unillustrated spoken word.”

The American theater of the mind may have been shut up, but Corwin’s mind stayed open. For over sixty years, he kept on journeying, searching and yearning. That’s the spirit that sustains you until you’re 101. Lucky are those who encountered him along the way. I prize the words of encouragement he wrote to me when, a few years ago, I dusted off my obscure dissertation on the American play to share my chapter on Corwin with the very man. I think of those words whenever I feel that, not being quite as eager as he to venture elsewhere, I lost my way; that I am lost to most of the image-minded world, untravelled, unraveling, yet all the while revelling in the “unillustrated spoken word.” I got the words, all right; Corwin had the wisdom as well.

I shall leave this entry in my otherwise image-filled journal “unillustrated.” I imagine Mr. Corwin appreciates the gesture . . .

(For those ready to catch up or on, the entire run of Twenty-Six by Corwin is currently being rebroadcast by John and Larry Gassman of Same Time, Same Station.)

Brown Study

I am often too lost in whatever thoughts go through that absent mind of mine to take note of what goes on in the world or who among the world’s notables have departed it of late. Else I am too slow to gather those thoughts in time for anything approaching timely. Enter fellow web journalists Ivan Shreve, on whom you can depend for the latest in great names to have joined the parade of late lamented.

Himan Brown, Raymond Edward Johnson and Claude Rains

As I learned catching up with The Thrilling Days of Yesteryear this morning, one of the most prolific producers of radio drama in the United States passed away last Friday at the age of ninety-nine: Himan Brown (pictured here, to the left of Raymond Edward Johnson and Claude Rains, during a no doubt brief script conference for Inner Sanctum Mysteries).

Why “no doubt brief”? Well, Brown was not only one of the busiest men in radio, he was also one of the thriftiest—which, his skills and personality aside, is how he got so far so fast in a business that valued performers over producers. According to an article published in the July 1943 issue of Tune In magazine, Brown, then thirty-three, already had some fifteen thousand radio programs to his credit, and, at one time, “had thirty-five of them going each week.”

If he “almost ha[d] a corner on radio horror programs,” it was due largely to his reputation as the medium’s “champion corner cutter,” which is how radio actor Joseph Julian describes the “fabulous Himan Brown” in his memoirs.

For starters, Brown was a “one-man operation.” As Julian points out, the “fabulous” one

produced, cast, and directed of all his shows himself.  He never even had an office. He’d make his phone calls from home, or use a phone at one of the studios.  He had shrewd understanding of script values and an outsize charm that seduced performers to work for him for less than they would for anyone else.

Brown was involved in all aspects of radio production, and understood them in both dramatic and economic terms. “We must write our scripts with the constant vision of a dollar sign before our eyes,” he told the editors of The Microphone. Interviewed for the magazine’s 14 July 1934 issue, he deplored the industry’s insistence on

employing only the most microphone-experienced actors, who, as Julian points out, “could deliver quickly, thus saving on rehearsal pay and studio costs,” Brown was able to “sell a program at a lower price than his competitors.”  Those who assisted him to beat the competition by reading their lines without much instruction appreciated that Brown provided them with steady work, made fewer “demands on their time,” which, in turn, created a “pleasant working atmosphere.”

Julian claims that Brown had made “a million dollars by the time he was twenty-four.” In later life, Brown made a donation in excess of that amount to Brooklyn College, where he taught radio drama. Even on his way up, the enterprising producer opened doors, creaking or otherwise, for young New York writers like Irwin Shaw, who, as Michael Shnayerson recounts in his biography of the noted playwright-novelist, owed his career in radio to Brown, however much Shaw came to resent the experience.

“Still another newspaper cartoon strip comes to the air,” Radio Guide for the week ending 16 February 1935 announced. The program in question was Dick Tracy. “The scripts are to be written by Erwin Shaw [sic] and produced by Himan Brown, who produces The Gumps and Marie, the Little French Princess.”

Clearly, the 1943 article in Tune In, which portrays Brown as a “lone wolf” who was “something of a mystery even within the industry,” is rather overstating it when asserting that the producer had remained “practically unknown to the listening public.” To avid dial twisters—those choosy enough to pick up periodicals like Tune In and its predecessors—the noted producer was already a household name in the mid-1930. How else could readers of the February 1935 issue of Radio Stars be presumed to care that, in November 1934, the “stork left a brand new young man at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Himan Brown”?

It was a rarity, though, for producers to be hailed as “Radio Stars,” among whom those reading the commercial were far more prominent than those preparing the scripts. Perhaps, it was Brown’s past that aided him here, as surely it did in his handling of his numerous programs. As the 1934 article in Microphone reminded me, the producer of series like Little Italy and Jack Dempsey’s Gymnasium was then still referred to as writer, director and “actor [. . .] of his plays.”

Brown himself played Papa Marino in Little Italy, and, if an article in the January 14-20 issue of Radio Guide is to be believed, studied the Italian accent of his Brooklyn neighbors so carefully that he was being mistaken for a paisan.

Given his full schedule and reliable troupe of performers, that ambition (his “greatest,” according to Tune In) remained largely unfulfilled. After all, even a “one-man operation” cannot be expected to be quite this self-sufficient . . .

Related recording

Himan Brown recalling the origins of Inner Sanctum Mysteries in a 1998 interview

Dunkirk 70 / Roosevelt 69

This week marks the 70th anniversary of “Operation Dynamo,” an ad hoc rescue mission involving small civilian ships coming to the aid of French and British soldiers who had been forced into retreat at Dunkerque during the for Allied troops disastrous Battle of Dunkirk. The operation, which became known as “The Miracle of the Little Ships,” was recreated today as more than sixty British vessels, sailing from Kent, arrived on the shores of northern France.

During the course of a single week, nearly 340,000 soldiers were brought to safety, however temporary. Many civilians who had what became known as “Dunkirk spirit” were recruited after listening to BBC appeals on behalf of the British admiralty for aid from “uncertified second hands”—fishermen, owners of small pleasure crafts, any and all, as the BBC announcer put it, “who have had charge of motor boats and [had] good knowledge of coastal navigation.”

Eager to maintain its neutrality prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was understandably lacking in such public “spirit,” frequent outcries against Nazi atrocities notwithstanding; but even long after entering the war, the US government kept on struggling to explain or justify the need for sacrifices and (wo)manpower to a people living thousands of miles from the theaters of war. On this day, 27 May, in 1941, one year after the operation at Dunkirk began, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came before the American public in another one of his Fireside Chats.

Although the nation was “[e]xpect[ing] all individuals [. . .] to play their full parts without stint and without selfishness,” the Roosevelt administration took considerable pains to explain the significance of the war, the need for “toil and taxes,” to civilians who, not long recovered from the Great Depression, were struggling to make a living.

If Hitler’s “plan to strangle the United States of America and the Dominion of Canada” remained unchecked, FDR warned the public,

American laborer would have to compete with slave labor in the rest of the world. Minimum wages, maximum hours? Nonsense! Wages and hours would be fixed by Hitler. The dignity and power and standard of living of the American worker and farmer would be gone. Trade unions would become historical relics and collective bargaining a joke.

Crucial to America’s freedom was the security of the oceans and ports. If, as FDR put it, the “Axis powers fail[ed] to gain control of the seas,’ their “dreams of world-domination” would “go by the board,” and the “criminal leaders who started this war [would] suffer inevitable disaster.”

The President’s address—broadcast at 9:30 EST over CBS stations including WABC, WJAS, WJAS, WIBX, WMMN, WNBF, WGBI and WJR—departs only slightly from the script, published in the 31 May 1941 issue of the Department of State Bulletin. Whatever changes were made were either designed to strengthen the appeal or else to prevent the urgency of the situation from coming across as so devastating as to imply that any efforts by the civilian population were utterly futile.

The address, as scripted, was designed to remind the American public that the US navy needed to be strengthened, alerting listeners that, of late, there had been “[g]reat numbers” of “sinkings” that had “been actually within the waters of the Western Hemisphere.”

The blunt truth is this—and I reveal this with the full knowledge of the British Government: the present rate of Nazi sinkings of merchant ships is more than three times as high as the capacity of British shipyards to replace them; it is more than twice the combined British and American output of merchant ships today.

In address as delivered, this passage was rendered slightly more tentative as “The blunt truth of this seems to be,” a subtle change that not so much suggests there was room for doubt as it creates the impression that the great man behind the microphone was weighing the facts he laid bare, that the devastating and devastatingly “blunt truth” was being carefully considered rather than dictated as absolute.

No mention was made of the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” that remarkable demonstration of spirit and resilience. More than a flotilla of “little ships” was required to defend the US from the potential aggression of the Axis powers. The challenge of American propaganda geared toward US civilians was to make the situation relevant to individuals remote from the battlefields, to motivate and, indeed, create a home front.
In Britain, where “ignorant armies clashed” just beyond the narrow English Channel and where the battlefields were the backyards, there was less of a need to drive home why the fight against the Axis was worth fighting.

In the US, the driving home had to be achieved by breaking down the perfectly sound barriers of that great American fortress called home, by making use of the one medium firmly entrenched in virtually every American household, an osmotic means of communication capable of permeating walls and penetrating minds. Radio served as an extension to the world; but it was more than an ear trumpet. It was also a stethoscope auscultating the hearts of the listener. As FDR, who so persuasively employed it in his Fireside Chats, was well aware, the most effective medium with which to imbue the American public with something akin to “Dunkirk spirit” was the miracle not of “little ships” but of the all-engulfing airwaves—and the big broadcasts—that helped to keep America afloat.

“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.

A Room With a View-Master; or, Four-Eyes in the Third Dimension

What the Bwana Devil! I’ve been trying on various kinds of glasses to take in Channel 4’s 3D fest—but none transport me into the third dimension. Turns out, viewing the weeklong series of films and specials, culminating in a “3-D Magic Spectacular” and a clipfest of “The Greatest Ever 3-D Moments”—requires special goggles that can only be obtained from a certain chain of supermarkets whose reach does not extend to Mid Wales. By the time we got around to driving some 100 miles down south, the glasses had already been snatched up. The thought of having a digital recording of “The Queen in 3-D”—contemporary film footage of the 1953 coronation—without being able to take it in makes me want to jump out and hurl flaming arrows at whoever devised this regionally biased marketing scheme.

Had the coronation taken place only a year or two later, this experimental and previously unseen documentary might never have been shot right at you. After all, 1953 was a big year in three-dimensional filmmaking; but it proved little more than a fad. By the time Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder was released in the spring of 1954, the novelty had already worn off and, to this day, few viewers get to experience the climactic scene in the way it was re-conceived for the film.

I caught up with the stereoscopic movies of the 1950s—among them It Came from Outer Space, House of Wax, and Miss Sadie Thompson—when they aired on German television back during the early 1980s 3D craze, which was similarly brief yet decidedly less distinguished: Parasite, Metalstorm, Spacehunter, and the inept Indiana Jones knockoff El Tesoro de las cuatro coronas.

Ever since I got my first stereoscope, known as a View-Master, I have been enthralled by three-dimensional images, or at least by the idea thereof. Rather peculiar, this, considering that those of us fortunate enough to have a set of matching peepers get to experience the same effect without having to sport ill-fitting, nausea-inducing eyewear.

So far this year I have put up with putting on special spectacles to see five 21st-century 3D movies, among them Coraline, The Final Destination, and Up (not counting the partially 3D IMAX presentation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince).  It seems that 2009 is even a bigger year for 3D than 1953. Yet while I rejoice in the prospect of further excursions into space, it strikes me that, as 3D goes mainstream at last, the technology has lost some of its rogue appeal. Movies like Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs do not exploit the potentialities of the medium with the abandon the added dimension invites. I mean, why throw money at 3D films if they don’t throw anything back at you? Maybe I’m wearing rose-colored glasses, but I am still hoping for a throwback to those 1950s throwaways. In the meantime, I’ll gladly return to radio drama, the invisible, immaterial theater whose action unfolds in the fourth dimension.

Not Quite the "Voiceless Sinatra": Van Johnson (1916-2008) on the Air

I am not sure who came up with the moniker “the voiceless Sinatra,” which is attached to virtually every obituary of and tribute for Van Johnson, the Hollywood actor who died on 12 December 2008 at the age of 92. Apparently, the coining of the phrase dates back to the mid-1940s and was meant to capture the boy-next-door’s appeal to teen-aged moviegoers (audible in the 11 December 1945 Theater of Romance introduction to Love Affair). It is a misleading label nonetheless, considering that Johnson was heard in musicals and had many a voice-only part in the so-called theater of the mind. Back in 1985, I saw him on the New York stage, when he starred in La Cage Aux Folles, the first Broadway musical I ever saw. Johnson’s show business career was long and diverse, if slow in becoming distinguished.

Many of his early roles were little more than featured bit parts designed to draw attention to the young hopeful on the MGM lot. As was the case with many a rising star, radio assisted in his promotion. Along with first-billed Edward Arnold and his co-star Fay Bainter, Johnson was given the opportunity to reprise his role in The War Against Mrs. Hadley for the in a Lux Radio Theater, in a broadcast commemorating the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor (7 December 1942). Introducing the players, host Cecil B. DeMille referred to Johnson as one of Hollywood’s “promising newcomers.”

Due to a severe accident, Johnson very nearly did not get a chance to make good on that promise. Barred from military action, he served his country on the home front, appearing in a string of wartime pictures, including The Human Comedy, A Guy Named Joe, and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. Last night, I saw him in The White Cliffs of Dover. In it, Johnson plays the hapless admirer of a young woman (Irene Dunne) who visits England shortly before the Great War, falls in love and stays. Johnson is seen in the opening scene, but has only one memorable moment thereafter when he gets to kiss his married sweetheart during a chance encounter. I suppose MGM had so many stars back then that it could afford such frivolous casting.

Throughout the Second World War, Johnson remained “one of the screen’s most rapidly rising young personalities,” as he was billed on the 2 November 1944 broadcast of Suspense. Since his fine performance in “The Singing Walls” is not available on the Internet Archive, where you will hear Preston Foster and Dane Clark instead (in a 2 September 1943 production of the play), I have temporarily made the recording available here..

Johnson returned to Suspense four times, namely for ”The Defense Rests” (6 October 1949), ”Salvage” (6 April 1950), ”Strange for a Killer” (15 March 1951), and “Around the World” (6 April 1953).

Aside from his numerous dramatic performances on the air, including the Theatre Guild’s non-musical presentation of State Fair (4 January 1953), Van Johnson was also heard singing “Pennies from Heaven” as a tribute to an ailing Bing Crosby on The Big Show (1 April 1951). “I haven’t been singing much since I’ve been in pictures,” the former “song-and-dance man” warned his hostess after performing in a scene from his upcoming picture Go for Broke (1951), “My voice might crack.” Well, whatever Bob Hope’s cracks, “Go for Croak” he did not. Van Johnson’s was not such bad record for someone allegedly “voiceless.”