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.”

Death Draws No Line: Edgar Holloway (1914-2008) Remembered

It was an honor to write the farewell that, at last, appeared in The Guardian today. It was agony, too, this assignment to capture, in the scant space allotted, the likeness of an artist who told of himself in etched lines more lasting than those far from final words of mine. Indeed, what I had intended to be the last line was clipped by that dispassionate, faceless Atropos of the publishing world, the editor. It read: “Holloway was that rarest of prodigies: he lived up to his promise.” Edgar Holloway, who passed away at the age of 94 on 9 November 2008, was just that: a promising young artist who continued to share his gifts into old age, no matter how fickle the fortunes, how mutable the market.

It is this picture of success in adversity that I wanted to paint: a teenager without means and formal education who got to etch the portrait of T. S. Eliot and other illustrious sitters; a self-conscious young man who, afflicted with a skin disease, examined and displayed a face he often felt compelled to hide; a boy wonder born too late and raised in an age that seemed past miracles; a skilled chronicler of life denied the chance to serve his country at war by recording its devastation; a distraught teacher who went into the countryside to restore his health only to find his fortunes fall in the city that could keep his career alive; an artist who found a lover in the model of another; a young father who taught himself to be practical to provide for his growing family; a printmaker who sold his tools for scrap metal when the once lively trade appeared to have died; a mature man who returned to art after machines had put an end to the demand for his craft; a painter active in old age, whose gifts were unimpaired yet whose newfound acclaim was based chiefly on a likeness he had etched in adolescence—a likeness so unlikely to represent all that he had to share.

Being a relative newcomer to the British Isles, I was ignorant of Edgar Holloway’s accomplishments, as familiar as I soon became with the face that looks out at me from that handsome self-portrait on our kitchen wall. My partner, who has written extensively on him and who was privileged to befriend him, could tell me much about Edgar; but it was not until I greeted the man in our home that I learned more fully to appreciated the stories a portrait can tell and withhold: “Here I am,” it whispers, and “find me.”

Last April, when we visited Edgar and his wife Jennifer in their home in Sussex, England, I glanced over the artist’s shoulders as he browsed the catalogue of his oeuvre and recalled scenes and events of a long, rich life. His memory was fading; but many of his impressions remained strongly etched in his mind and could be reproduced for inspection. “My memory is not nearly as good as yours,” I told him when the task of recalling became more frustrating than rewarding; “but unlike you,” I added, “I have done so little that seems worth remembering.”

Thank you for being . . . Sophia Petrillo

Today, 25 July 2008, would have been the 85th birthday of Estelle Getty, who passed away last Tuesday. Since I was unable to share my thoughts here on that night, I shall do so now. The actress was on my mind that very night, before I even learned about her death. There is nothing uncanny about that, though. I often think, talk about—even talk like—Ms. Getty and the Girls. As I have related here previously, I owe much to Getty and her memorable television character, the feisty octogenarian Sophia Petrillo. To commemorate the anniversary of her birth, I have been going through old diaries to determine just when Sophia entered my life.

Picture it. New York City. The summer of 1989. I was on a six-month visit designed to delay my return to what I feared might be a lifetime of office work for which I, despite a three-year apprenticeship, was entirely unsuited. It would take nearly another year before I finally found the nerve to pack my scant belonging and move to Manhattan. Anyway. The Golden Girls were already in syndication when, staying at a friend’s place, I happened upon the series one morning while channel-hopping onto the fledgling Fox network.

I was unaware then, but nonetheless sensed, that Getty was a gay icon. She had played Harvey Fierstein’s mother in Torch Song Trilogy. Sophia wasn’t quite one of the Girls, who went off with their assorted beaux, shopped for condoms at the supermarket, entertained a lesbian friend, a closeted gay brother, or faced an Aids scare in their very midst. There was hardly room enough for that “fancy man” of a cook in Blanche’s kitchen, even though he, according to Sophia, was “an okay petunia.” Initially, I even mistook Bea Arthur for a drag queen.

While at the very center of it all, the Sicilian spitfire was, for the most part, a bystander who poked fun at the crazy going-on around her. Unless, of course, there was a Japanese gardener around, or Cesar Romero stopped by. “I’m tired of being the Tonto of the group,” she complained. She was like me, in that respect, wanting to be one of the girls.

So, I woke up to those Girls every weekday morning, week after week, and learned about American culture, about Jerry Falwell and Harvey Milk, about Tammy Faye Baker and Anita Bryant. I will surely “sehr vermissen” the Girls when I’m back in Germany, I noted in my diary on 14 September, shortly before my return to the stultifyingly bourgeois world I was at once desperate and terrified to leave behind.

I recall the first time I got one of Sophia’s zingers. I was learning English back then and struggled with those one-liners, with words not in my pocket dictionary and proper nouns for which I had no image in my head, over which went many of the cultural references for the appreciation of which today’s viewers, like me back then, require a few footnotes. It was easier for me to pick up the odd noun watching Family Feud, which I did. Zsa Zsa Gabor, after all, was still enhancing her dictionary by following the spinning Wheel of Fortune. The words and phrases I picked up watching the girls were far more rewarding than those to be gleaned from whatever “survey says.” Slut. Yutz. Queen. Botchagaloop? And “Floozy.” Inexperienced as I was, I lived in constant hope of warranting such a moniker one day.

“Get some Windex!” Sophia exclaimed. It was her response to the vain, delusional, middle-aged Blanche, who thought it was “just like looking in a mirror” to see her niece, an oversexed adventuress half her age. Luckily, I had just come across a bottle of Windex somewhere in the bathroom cabinet while trying to get the thick coating of Aquanet from the floor to which my socks had gotten stuck. In my native Germany, references to commercial products were not permitted, which made the sarcastic remark all the more startling and memorable to me. Not permitted? That woman could say just about anything! And did. Ahh, to have her mouth, I thought. And that perfect excuse for saying anything you like.

Watching the Girls at times takes me back to those days in 1989, when I was anxious to arm myself with a few choice words from Sophia so as not to be tongue-tied when confronted with the wolves roaming the Big Potato (okay, that was Rose). New York wasn’t Disney World back then. I can still “picture it.” Batman and Indiana Jones ruled the box office, an African American Democrat was about to make history by taking office, and I was glad not to be stuck in an office. Hey, it’s like looking in a mirror. I know, I know, “Get some Windex!”

Do Bother to Knock: Richard Widmark (1914-2008) in the Broadcast Studio

“I can’t figure you out. You’re silk on one side and sandpaper on the other,” a puzzled Jed Towers tells the deranged young woman who caught his eye. The film, Don’t Bother to Knock (1952); the stars, Richard Widmark and Marilyn Monroe. Widmark, who died today at the age of 93, might have been describing his screen persona: abrasive and easily frayed if you rubbed him the wrong way. There is another side, as well, to Widmark’s career as an actor. He started out being all voice, invisible to his audience. He was an established radio actor who hit the big time in pictures with his breakout performance in 1947 with Kiss of Death (revived on the air in this Lux Radio Theatre production from 12 January 1948).

Widmark (shown here during a Theatre Guild broadcast, an image freely adapted from David R. Mackey’s Drama on the Air [1951]) entered broadcasting in the late 1930s. By the early 1940s, he had made a name for himself in daytime serials (Front Page Farrell, Joyce Jordan, MD) and proven his versatility in a number of plays produced by the prestigious Columbia Workshop. On Words at War, he was the narrator of “Gunners Get Glory” (9 May 1944), a dramatized account of a merchant ship torpedoed by a Nazi submarine. He was frequently featured on Cavalcade of America (here, for instance, in “The Man with the Cargo of Water” [12 September 1950]), Inner Sanctum Mysteries (in thrillers like “Make Ready My Grave” [23 April 1946]), and Suspense, where he was cast as “Mate Bram” (14 April 1952) in a chilling true-crime story of an amnesiac serial killer on the high seas who contemplates the horrors of the deed he cannot recall committing:

They put me in irons, locked in my own quarters. And here I’ll stay. There’ve been no more murders in the three days past, which does not stand in favor of another killer being aboard, and my being innocent. What I’ve written, my good friend, is the whole truth [. . .]. In my own mind, I am not convinced that I am guilty. For one reason, that however violent I’ve been, I have never killed before . . . before! Never . . . killed . . . before!

A few months later, after his performance in ”How Long Is the Night” (13 October 1952) Widmark was presented with the first annual “Golden Mike” award, being named “best actor” of 1951 by his peers, the regular radio performers who supported the guest stars on Suspense.

Like most film stars of the 1950s, Widmark continued to make occasional return trips to the broadcasting studio in adaptations of Hollywood movies (such as this Hollywood Soundstage production of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” [24 January 1952]); but aside from such standard fare, he was also heard in prominent parts of literary distinction, including the roles of anti-hero Winston Smith in an adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on the Theatre Guild program (26 April 1953) and Iago in a two-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello that aired on Suspense (4 May and 11 May 1953).

In 1979, long after radio drama had become pretty much a thing of the past, or at any rate a marginal and neglected field of the performing arts in American culture, Widmark once more returned to the medium in which his acting career originated, performing in a number of plays soundstaged by the Sears Radio Theatre. Listening to his voice—”silk on one side and sandpaper on the other”—you can easily figure out why he was truly at home behind the microphone . . .

Songs, Lies, and Audiotape: Margaret Truman Daniel (1924-2008) on the Air

Having just learned of the passing of Margaret Truman Daniel, the former US President’s only daughter, I am going to conjure up her voice by listening to some of the radio programs on which she was featured. Truman made her broadcasting debut in Detroit, back in 1947; she started out as a pianist, then turned to singing. To most Americans, of course, she was, first and foremost, the First Daughter. Could she pull off a career on the strength of her vocal chords, people wondered, or was it all a matter of pulled strings? Fully aware of this debate, Truman was often in on the joke, an act that made her a welcome guest on what, in the early 1950s, was the biggest show on radio. Tallulah Bankhead’s Big Show.

On 3 December 1950, Truman faced the acerbic Bankhead for the first time. “I suppose you’re all a-wondering how we were able to get such a prominent personage as Miss Truman to be guest on our program,” quipped the celebrated hostess. “Well, really, all it took was a telephone call. I called a certain party, and that party called another party, who in turn called another party. Uh, naturally, these were all democratic parties.”

On the same broadcast, Truman was also confronted with Fred Allen. Sharing the microphone with the seasoned if semi-retired radio wit proved quite a challenge for the still inexperienced Truman.

Truman. How do you do, Mr. Allen?

Allen. Well, how do you do? It’s certainly a pleasure. But, please, don’t call me Mr. Allen. Call me by my given name.

Truman (imitating Bankhead). All right, Daaahling!

Bankhead. This girl has the makings of a Milton Berle.

Truman. Fred, I’ve been an admirer of your radio program for a long time.

Allen. Well, thank you. But where were you when my option came up back there in 1948?

Truman. In 1948, we were busy with an option problem ourselves.

Allen. Yes, but that option was renewed for another four years. You were lucky you didn’t have a quiz show running against you. And, by the way, Miss Truman, I’m surprised you don’t have a radio program of your own.

Truman. Oh, I can’t do anything well enough to have my own program.

Allen. Oh, on radio that’s no handicap.

When Allen insists that Truman ought to have her own variety program, Bankhead feels threatened:

Allen. Say, uh, this might be an idea, Margaret. Now, how about doing a big variety show, about an hour and a half program, and get the biggest names in show business. Why, you could be the mistress of ceremonies.

Bankhead. Just a moment! That’s my program. I don’t mind standing here without any lines, but I simply refuse to stand here without a program.

Truman. Oh, don’t worry, Tallulah. I wouldn’t dream of doing a program like that.

Bankhead (at her huskiest). And why not, Daaahling?

Truman. Well, I don’t think I’m old enough.

Bankhead. Whaaaaaaat!

Three months later, on 4 March 1951, recent Time magazine cover girl Truman was back on the Big Show. “Aren’t you Charlie’s Aunt,” Allen’s wife and sidekick Portland Hoffa inquired, mistaking Truman for the sister of Britain’s reigning monarch. “Love Is Where You Find It,” Truman trills after a confrontation with Ethel Merman, then learns about the harmonica from Herb Shriner.

“I’m an actress now,” Truman declared upon her return to the Big Show on 6 May 1951. A week earlier, she had played opposite James Stewart in a Screen Directors Playhouse production of Jackpot (26 April 1951), a satire on the excesses of commercial radio. Bankhead condescended to give Truman the title role in “Advice to the Little Peyton Girl,” a dramatic sketch based on a story by Dorothy Parker. Yet the emphasis was decidedly on the “Advice” and the one proffering it, not on the “Girl”; as the young woman’s “older, wiser, and oh-so-understanding confidante,” Bankhead devoured the scene.

Sharing the microphone with experienced performers, Truman was not so much propped up as shown up by them. The following year, for instance, the successful recording artist was called upon to sing opposite Gordon MacRae on the Railroad Hour in the operetta “Sari” (17 March 1952), an adaptation of Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet. The words “Pretty boys, witty boys, you may sneer” come to mind. Perhaps, Truman, or Bankhead’s script writers, had been right. She did not quite have it in her to be a radio personality. Guesting five times on the Big Show, however, she proved herself a genial team player.

Being shown up by your hostess is bad enough; worse still is when you are the hostess and the guests don’t show up. This misfortune befell Truman on the premiere of her next radio venture. Along with Mike Wallace, the gal from Missouri was to host Weekday, a six-hour, five-day-a-week daytime variety program also starring Martha Scott and Walter Kiernan. Imitating the successful Monitor, Weekday promised drama, music, and chat.

On the opening program, back in 1955, Truman announced Eddie Fisher, her “star companion” for the day. “Hi Eddie!” she opened; but Fisher did not respond. As Slate and Cook recall in It Sounds Impossible (1963), the chats were partially recorded. That is, Truman did not get to talk to her guests, but was expected to simulate her scripted interviews, with the control room feeding her a recorded voice, an experimental technique called “‘stop-start’ taping.” Eddie was not stuck up; he was just a tape getting stuck.

Such difficulties notwithstanding, Truman stuck with the show until 1956, picking up a regular television assignment nearly a decade later. She may not have hit the Jackpot, but she maintained her media presence long after her father and his party had been voted out of office.

No Headstone, No Regrets

How do you survive the ordeal of executing the killing of some 140,000 people and counting. Perhaps, by counting on facts and figures to counter or discount any accounts of fatality and disfigurement; by recounting to myself, for decades to come, that I could not be held accountable, having merely carried out orders as someone to be counted on; or by counting the praises bestowed upon me by those of my countrymen I would be pleased to encounter, for having been instrumental in ending a war that, without my precise handling of the instruments, might have ended the lives of countless more.

Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr., the commander of the Enola Gay, whose idea of a loving tribute was to name after his mother the B-29 out of whose womb “Little Boy” dropped onto the roofs of Hiroshima, insisted that he had “no regrets” about the outcome of his mission, that he slept “clearly every night.” Clearly, he won’t be counting sheep, or charred bodies, tonight. Mr. Tibbets, the world took note, died today at the age of 92.

When I came across that announcement, I was reminded of “14 August,” a radio play by poet-journalist Norman Corwin (previously discussed here to mark the 60th anniversary of VJ Day). With it, Corwin sought to assure Americans that “God and uranium” had been on their “side,” that the “wrath of the atom fell like a commandment,” and that it was “worth a cheer” that the “Jap who never lost a war has lost a world; learning, at some cost, that crime does not pay.”

Broadcast on VJ-Day, “14 August” asked listeners to remember those Americans “dead as clay” after defending “the rights of men,” after “fighting for “people the likes of you.” No mention was made of the Japanese whose lives were turned to ash in the streets of Hiroshima; no words uttered to suggest that achieving peace at such “cost” might, too, be considered a “crime” for which someone other than the dead might have to pay.

I am reminded, too, of the aforementioned radio writer-historian Erik Barnouw, who, upon learning that the US government had “seized and impounded” reels of film shot in Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) by Japanese cameramen (headed by Akira Iwasaki), the reported return of which to Japan in 1968 led Barnouw to produce the documentary Hiroshima-Nagasaki, 1945 (1970). Reviewing the long-suppressed footage, Barnouw commented (in Media Marathon [1996]):

The material we saw had been organized in sequences, which included “effects on wood,” “effects on concrete,” “effects on internal organs,” and so forth, as though scientific questions had determined the shooting. Other sequences showed grotesque destruction of buildings and bridges.

Finding only a “few sequences of people at improvised treatment shelters,” Barnouw was “troubled” by the “paucity” of what he referred to as “human effects footage.” Who could be counted on to tell the stories so often unaccounted for in the records of history?

The Allies’ fight against the Axis was a worthy cause; what is unworthy of those who lost their lives on either side is a victor’s sweeping dismissal of any consequences other than victory and the suppression or outright erasure of documents suggesting trauma rather than triumph.

VJ Day was hardly an occasion to show compassion for the defeated enemy, you might say, and that it is understandable that relief about the end of the war expressed itself in levity (as heard on the Fred Allen Show from 25 November 1945, a clip of which is featured in the above video [since then removed]). To consider it appropriate, some thirty years later, to restage the Hiroshima bombing for a Texas air show; to insist, another thirty years on, that it is a “damn big insult” to acknowledge the sufferings of those who were killed for however worthy a cause, as Mr. Tibbets has done, strikes me as a failure to rival the inhumanity that is the success of Hiroshima.

Having long refused to draw attention to the death of thousands, Mr. Tibbets decided to make his own farewell a gesture of self-erasure. He had the foresight to request that no headstone be placed on his burial site, predicting that his contempt or disregard for others might tempt those ignored by him to turn his final resting place into a stage for protest. Mr. Tibbets, it seems, was one to shun debate. Perhaps, a remarkably headstrong patriot like he deserves nothing more than our respect for his final wish: a vanishing act in keeping with a life of denial, a grave as unmarked as those of the victims unremarked upon.

“No regrets.” It is these words, and the words of those who call resolve what is a lack of compassion and an unwillingness or inability to countenance doubt, that we must mark, lest we are prepared to mark the occasion of another Hiroshima . . .

Hit and Run: Allan Stevenson (1918-2007)

You have probably never heard of Allan Stevenson, the dead man whose voice is now in my ear. I am quite used to hearing the dead speak. Listening to recordings of old radio melodramas is not unlike attending a séance in which the voices of the departed are being made audible by means of a powerful medium. Mr. Stevenson, though, has not long been what is generally thought of as permanently silent. He walked among the living only a few hours ago, an old man, propped up by a cane and blind in one eye. I may have passed him by on one of my many walks downtown to nearby Hunter College or on my way to see a friend who lived in Stevenson’s neighborhood on East 72nd Street. Absorbed in thoughts, I am often dead to those around me, which is why I feel compelled to lend an ear, however belatedly.

According to an indifferently penned article in the New York Daily News, the retired actor who had performed on Broadway in Maxwell Anderson’s long-running Anne of the Thousand Days starring Rex Harrison (1948-49) and the Phil Silvers success Do Re Mi (1960-62), was killed at 2:36 AM by a hit-and-run driver while trying to cross First Avenue in an attempt to get a cup of coffee, a last friendly gesture to a doorman on his block.

Playing in the theater of the mind some six decades earlier, Stevenson was faced with many perilous situations on both sides of the law; and some of his lives were spent before the conclusion of a thirty-minute broadcast. He had supporting roles on programs like Crime Fighters, a dramatic series promising listeners “master manhunters to match master criminals,” and John Steele, Adventurer. In an episode of the latter, Stevenson played a crooked jockey who has his hopes for a life on Easy Street dashed after riding “The Long Shot” (18 April 1950). It is the story of a man “trapped in the bitterness of the past and [put] face to face with the future,” a man who “learned too late that no one can live alone.”

On NBC’s Radio City Playhouse, best known for staging what would later turn into the Academy Awards behemoth All About Eve (as discussed here), Stevenson was cast in the Runyonesque “Betrayal” (30 August 1948) and, more prominently, in the murder mystery “The Wine of Oropalo” (18 December 1949), in which he played the victim of a deadly manipulation.

In Top Secret, a series of World War II espionage thrillers written and directed by Radio City Playhouse producer Harry W. Junkin, Stevenson was twice cast opposite “gorgeous Ilona Massey” (previously mentioned here). In “The Unknown Mission” (30 July 1950), he played a French baron of considerable wealth and charm whom Massey’s glamorous spy is called upon to eliminate.

“I wish we had proof that he is an enemy agent,” she sighs, “It is hard for a woman, without knowing why, to murder.” The hit-noblewoman seems ideally equipped to carry out the assignment. After all, the young Frenchman has “only one weakness,” she is told. “Women.” His grace, however, is well prepared for the attack. He, too, has murder on his mind; until, that is, he permits himself to wonder whether she might care for him. The two assassins find it impossible to follow their respective orders . . . but the duke’s days are numbered all the same.

A week later, Stevenson was again heard on the program in an episode titled “Disaster in London” (6 August 1950), this time portraying a British intelligence agent who is to assist the baroness to thwart enemy plans to poison and kill the entire population of the metropolis. As is made plain to the listener in one of those Shakespearean asides so effective in audio drama, the Englishman is a traitor, himself involved in the chemical warfare plot.

After learning that recordings of his private conversations bespeak his double-agency, this son of a false hero breaks down to disclose his less-than-ideological motives. “There is no dignity left for you but silence,” the traitor’s mother remarks, only to demand an explanation for her son’s actions.

Programs like Top Secret seem an unworthy memorial to an actor who may have hoped for a rather more distinguished career in the theater. And yet, it is the indignity of his death that calls for an outcry, a voice to expose the infamy of his silent killing . . .

From Here . . . to Eternity: Deborah Kerr (1921-2007)

It was only two weeks ago that I celebrated her 86th birthday and caught up with her early career by watching Major Barbara (1941). Today, the world learned about the death of Deborah Kerr, who passed away on 16 October 2007 after a long illness. While her name is on everyone’s tongue, I am going to keep her voice in my ear, listening to some of her radio performances of the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s, a busy time in the life of the British actress gone Hollywood.

“I just wasn’t destined to be a homebody,” Kerr told the readers of The Fan’s Own Film Annual back in 1960, providing her British audience with a glimpse of her peripatetic existence, her life in Hollywood, the challenges of ploughing “through the jungle on an adventurous safari” (for King Solomon’s Mines, shot in Africa), or going on a coast-to-coast tour (thirty-five weeks, forty cities) to play Laura Reynolds in Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy, having starred in its successful Broadway run, which began on her 32nd birthday in 1953.

Yes, Kerr’s life was “one long round of packing luggage and then more or less living out of it for anywhere from four to fourteen months at a stretch.” Yet, through the wonders of the wireless, she still managed to enter the homes of millions of Americans who tuned to Jack Benny, the Screen Guild Theater, or the Hollywood Star Playhouse.

Now, I have never had the chance to see Kerr on stage, where she appeared, for instance, in a West End revival of Emlyn Williams’s The Corn Is Green, the film version of which (starring Bette Davis) I am going to catch at the Fflics film festival here in Aberystwyth next week. To me, radio, not film, is the next best thing to the theater. True, Kerr made her US radio debut at a time when live performances gave way to taped ones; but, even when its sounds are canned, radio still has the kind of intimacy not achieved on celluloid, no matter how small the image you are watching on your personal computer or television set.

Beginning in 1947, the year she moved from Britain to Hollywood, Kerr appeared on a number of popular or prestigious radio programs. Even though she is better known for starring in a film based on a sensational bestseller that, like few others, attacked the radio industry of the late 1940s, Frederic Wakeman’s previously mentioned The Hucksters, Kerr did go on the air, contaminated as it was, to promote her films and meet her audience.

In 1947, 1951 and 1952, she stepped onto the soundstage of the Lux Radio Theatre, starring in “Vacation from Marriage,” an adaptation of Alexander Korda’s Perfect Strangers, in which she had starred opposite Robert Donat back in 1945. For Lux, Kerr also reprised her roles in Edward, My Son (1949) and King Solomon’s Mines (1950).

As previously mentioned, Kerr played the title role in the NBC University Theater an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (3 April 1949). She went on Tallulah Bankhead’s Big Show to recreate a scene from The Women (17 December 1950), and was heard on the long-running Suspense program in a thriller titled “The Lady Pamela” (31 March 1952).

Just what or who was “The Lady Pamela”? Not your Richardsonian heroine, to be sure. The name conjures Silver Spoon romances; but the spoons all end up in the lady’s pockets. Shamela’s more like it. Written by the prolific radio playwright Antony Ellis, the play opens as Pamela Barnes lays her eyes on a tiara, browsing in a New York antique shop that is promptly held up.

As it turns out, the “Lady” was in on the robbery. A tough, no-nonsense crook, she takes $500 out of the cut of her partner in crime for slapping her rather too realistically during the holdup. The police are soon on her case and “Lady Pamela” lands in the slammer; but the loot remains missing. Released nearly three years later, she returns to New York in search of the stolen goods and the guys who got away with it.

Always the “Lady,” the “first thing [she] did was to get [her] hair done,” to restore the old front. She meets a charming if hardly perfect stranger, one Mr. Wylie, who promises to assist her in finding her former collaborator—for a price:

Pamela: In other words, before you tell me where he is, I have to agree to help you kill him. Is that the idea? 

Wylie: If you want your dough. That’s the idea. 

Pamela: I want my dough, Mr. Wylie. Where is he?

“You’re quite a girl,” Wylie tells her, after she reveals to him that she was the mastermind behind the robbery. “And are you ‘quite a boy’?” she asks, before she slaps him, too. “You are much too emancipated,” she is told by the one who got away, now a “very top dog in black market,” whom she tracks down in London and confronts over cocktails. “I think I would have killed him there,” she confides in the audience, the play being written in the first person. “If I had had a gun, or a knife, I would have killed him.” Would she? You bet!

Billed as a “dramatic report,” “The Lady Pamela” is a sly playing against type for the generally dignified and often reserved Kerr, who gets her chance to play an American, rather than a British version, of a dame. It is Anna gone Warner Bros., a heroine stripping her period costumes and sipping her Long Island Ice Tea without sympathy. Only on the wireless, folks—Kerr like you’ve never seen her . . .

“Whistle a Happy [Birthday]”

Heaven Knows why we assume half a century to be a period spanning From Here to Eternity and think that anyone active or prominent back in the late 1950s must have long since departed. It might be the lack of respect Western cultures have for maturity that renders our elders invisible. No doubt, it is our own fear of old age that makes us close our mind’s eye to the kind of changes over which we have less control than we would like to believe. It is awkward to begin a birthday tribute with such a confession; but, truth be told, I was unaware that Deborah Kerr is still in a position to celebrate this anniversary. In the case of Ms. Kerr’s (previously featured here), birthdays were not always a joyful occasion. “I’m thinking of my birthday in Tobago, in the British West Indies” the actress once recalled for the readers of The New Film Show Annual:

We were on location there for Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.  John Huston, our director, knowing it was my birthday, decided to give me a party the day before, as it was a day off for the company. It was a wonderful party.  Next day I thought, “There will be a cable from Tony [Bartley, Kerr’s husband],” but by lunch time nothing had arrived from England where he was on business.  I was feeling very neglected, but cheered up a bit when I found Mr. Huston had given orders for the whole unit to have lunch with me at the Blue Haven Hotel instead of on the set.  After a while the company, led by Bob Mitchum, sang ‘Happy Birthday.’  A guitar was heard—it was “Skipper” playing it; he is the famous Calypso singer of the Islands and had been brought from Tobago especially for the occasion.  He started to sing about my husband and children. “Skipper” for some reason transposed [daughter] Francesca’s name to “Manchester” which brought a good laugh from us all.  I was still feeling dispirited behind the show of gaiety I was putting up, when a waiter appeared carrying a gaily decorated tray, while he intoned “with love from Mr. Bartley.”  Now I was all smiles—real ones—and I know everyone felt relieved that I was not forgotten on my birthday.

Bartley later joined Kerr on location, on a day when she was playing a scene in a swamp and, “covered with mud,” was sure she “looked like Dracula’s wife.” Now, Kerr never got to play the bride of the bloodthirsty count; but, aside from appearing in films like The King and I, An Affair to Remember, or Separate Table (a stage production of which I discussed here), Kerr did get to star on Suspense and play the heroines of 19th-century fiction in adaptations of Persuasion and Jane Eyre.

On 17 December 1950, she was cast in a telescoped production of The Women, which was soundstaged on 17 December 1950 for Tallulah Bankhead’s Big Show (the premiere of which I celebrated here). Kerr plays Mary Haines (portrayed by Norma Shearer in the 1939 film adaptation) opposite Dorothy McGuire (as Peggy) and Ms. Bankhead (as Sylvia).

I am going to catch up with Ms. Kerr by watching Major Barbara (1941), the film that started her career in pictures; it was shown somewhat prematurely last Friday on Britain’s Channel 5. In her article for The New Film Show, Kerr (or an appointed amanuensis) expressed her gratitude for having been given the chance to play “the little Salvation Army girl,” a role that led to “bigger and better parts.” As said girl, Shaw’s Jenny, would have put it: “Oh dear! How blessed, how glorious it all [was]!”

The Life of Radio: Norman Corwin Turns 97

Well, I just cast my two votes in the National Election here in Wales. It is the first time I’ve been given such a voice in a country not my own, and the first I am asserting my right to raise it since leaving Germany for New York City back in 1990. It is an important election, too, considering that, beginning this month, the National Assembly for Wales is enjoying new legislative powers and can henceforth pass laws (or assembly measures) affecting everyday living in the principality. Now, I won’t divulge just where I placed that X on the ballot sheets; but—caveat: creaky transition—I am going to tell you who gets my vote for “Most Underrated and Ignored American Poet of the 20th Century.” That would be Norman Corwin, who on this 3 May 2007 celebrates his ninety-seventh birthday.

He has been called the “poet laureate” of American radio, even though that title was never officially bestowed. As writer, director, and producer, he created some of the most eloquent, witty and stirring plays ever conceived for listening. He was the life of the medium at a time when it was alive (if not always well) as an artistic forum, and is ready to reach out to those, including myself, who refuse to turn a deaf ear to it. As The Easy Ace reminds us, he had a profound influence on the lives and careers of creative minds (like the aforementioned Robert Altman) who turned on the radio and turned on to his works.

What is the life of radio? Is it the voice, the word made sound, or sound itself? Are the airwaves the domain of the bard who writes for recital or the journalist who listens and records? When asked (by Douglas Bell, in a published interview titled Years of the Electric Ear) whether he thought of himself as a “creative, imaginative writer or as a sociologist or documentarian,” Corwin declared himself to be “definitely” the former. Perhaps, he was rather too accepting of the dichotomy. After all, many of his most compelling pieces for radio are at once reportage and poetry.

It was not by choice that he assumed the role of a radio documentarian, that he achieved fame for commemorative specials like “On a Note of Triumph” and “We Hold These Truths” or acclaim for series like An American in England and One World Flight). He enjoyed being witty and whimsical, writing satires and fantasies in verse disclosing “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas” or opening the case of “The Undecided Molecule”; but, once his powers of engaging the mind became known, he was being “importuned by radio entities” to speak on behalf of the American people in moments of sorrow, cheer, and sheer confusion.

The height of Corwin’s radio career—the heyday of the medium—coincides with the period of the Second World War; indeed, radio’s influence and status during those years was largely due to that global conflict, as the airwaves connected the home front to the theaters of war, however careful the filtration. For purposes of propaganda, radio recruited a great many authors who otherwise would have had little to do with the commerce-corrupted mass medium. In Corwin, broadcasters and government officials found an artist who not only knew the medium but loved and respected it, who could exploit it (rather than its listeners) while exploring its potentialities.

Corwin never turned his back on broadcasting, even when commercial radio in the US began to abandon the production of dramatic programming, already rendered largely inconsequential during the 1950s as a result of anti-Communist hysteria. Unlike many former radio playwrights, Corwin did not consider the airwaves to be a path to ostensibly bigger and better projects in other media. And if his writings are not nearly as well known today as they once were and deserve to be now, we should fault neither the topicality nor the transient nature of his work in sound, but cite the neglect of the stage on which it had been brought into existence.