What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Betty Hutton (1921-2007) on the Air

Well, I guess that, too, “Comes Natur’lly.” I just learned of the passing of singer-comedienne Betty Hutton. The star of Hollywood cinema classics like Preston Sturges’s wartime romp Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), the screen adaptation of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and Cecil B. DeMille’s Academy Award-winning Greatest Show on Earth (1952) died yesterday at the age of 86.

Like her sister Marion, with whom she performed before embarking on a film career with The Fleet’s In (1942) (for which this is a radio trailer featuring Hutton’s “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry”), was often heard on radio variety programs, including the morale-boosting wartime shows Mail Call and Command Performance, belting out trademark numbers like “Murder, He Says.”

Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, the gal who couldn’t quite conquer television was also heard on most of US radio’s top-notch film and theater programs, including Theater Guild, the Lux Radio Theater and the Philip Morris Playhouse, performing in light comedies like “Page Miss Glory” (an old Marion Davies vehicle) or in adaptations of her own films, such as the Screen Guild‘s version of Stork Club or the Screen Directors Playhouse presentation of Incendiary Blonde.

Unfortunately, most of Hutton’s dramatic performances on radio have not been preserved. What can be appreciated online is the solidification of the Hutton image. She’s “like a dynamo . . . with a short circuit,” quipped ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy when, on 28 September 1947, Hutton was a guest on Edgar Bergen’s comedy program, singing “Poppa Don’t Preach to Me” from her latest movie, The Perils of Pauline. Rather than tampering with her successful tomboy persona, as attempted in Mitchell Leisen’s misguided box-office dud Dream Girl (1948), Hutton was given the opportunity to ridicule such efforts to make a lady out of her by agreeing and failing to act like someone “knee-deep” in culture (one of the “Boston” Huttons, a family “so old, it’s been condemned”). “Why,” she insisted, “I can be so refined, you wouldn’t even know it’s me.”

“She’s much too wild for you,” Bergen had warned his wayward puppet, complaining that there was “room for improvement” in Hutton’s conduct. “After all, girls are not boys.” Betty Hutton was the kind of “Incendiary Blonde” that could give a mischievous dummy like Charlie ideas without making a log fire of his wooden heart.

"The Party’s Over": Anita O’Day and Betty Comden

Well, by pronouncing the “Party” over I am not referring to Thanksgiving (which I only observed from afar this year), but to a popular song and two remarkable women closely associated with it: “The Party’s Over” from Bells Are Ringing, a musical revived on Broadway, if unsuccessfully, back in 2001, when I saw it with Faith Prince in the part made famous by Judy Holliday. Yesterday, lyricist Betty Comden, who wrote it, and singer Anita O’Day, who performed it, both passed away at the ages of 89 and 87, respectively. I spent some time this weekend researching their careers in search of a radio angle.

Being that Ms. O’Day was a popular singer in the 1940s, that angle was not hard to find. Here you may hear her sing the “Drum Boogie,” accompanied by Gene Krupa’s orchestra on the Command Performance program, broadcast 4 September 1942. “Brother, that is solid sending,” mistress of ceremony Tallulah Bankhead put it in the slang of the day.

The “fine little red-headed vocalist,” as Bob Hope introduced her, would return to the Command Performance microphone on 16 December 1944, this time singing “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine.” Together with bandleader Stan Canton, O’Day is heard reading the names (and the fanciful monikers) of the servicemen who requested the number and to whom it was dedicated.

Just a few days after this broadcast, the musical On the Town opened on Broadway, capturing the mood of a war-weary nation by following three marines on shore leave, out for fun in the “wonderful town” of New York, New York (which is where I caught the show in 1997, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park). On the Town was the first of many shows written by Betty Comden and her lifelong collaborator, Adolph Green, who started out with a comedy act in Greenwich Village, called “The Revuers.” As early as 1939, the team took their act to the airwaves. Fun With the Revuers, which featured Judy Holliday (then still performing under the name of Judy Tuvim), became a weekly series on NBC radio and ran until November 1940 (as I learned here).

Comden and Green understood how to maximize their exposure; not only did they perform in the plays they wrote, they also recycled their material for various media. One such piece was the operetta “The Baroness Bazooka,” which was shoehorned into the “Cliche Expert,” a radio comedy produced on 2 May 1944 by Columbia Presents Corwin (for a recording of which I am indebted to the keeper of BlogAdvance’s “Blog of the Month” for October 2006). Based on a character created by Frank Sullivan, “Cliche Expert” is a courtroom farce of sorts, with Comden and Green playing themselves, as “star witnesses” called in to testify to the titular character’s expertise on the subject of trite phrases. Being a burlesque, rather than cliche, “The Baroness” is rudely interrupted and stricken from the record.

This is not to say that Ms. Comden was not an expert in the matter; indeed, she wrote so many memorable lyrics that strike us as overly familiar today. “The Party’s Over” is riddled with cliches like “It’s time to call it a day,” “They’ve burst your pretty balloon” and “the piper must be paid.” Yet somehow such lines lose little of their pathos when delivered with conviction by an artist like Anita O’Day.

What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Robert Altman (1925-2006) on the Air

Well, news is spreading fast these days; and by now anyone within reach of a computer will have learned that film director Robert Altman has died on Monday, 20 November 2006, at the age of 81. Since my own web journal can do little to propagate this message, it will provide instead an addendum to the small number of long-prepared and oft-copied obituaries currently circulating in the blogosphere. I have attempted as much on previous occasions by sharing a lesser known aspect of the careers of Don Knotts, Shelley Winters, and composer Cy Feuer, all of whom had connections to the world of radio to which broadcastellan is largely dedicated. As it turns out, Robert Altman is no exception. Indeed, his debt to the medium was far more profound than that of the other artists aforementioned.

To be sure, Altman’s name is already being closely linked to the so-called golden age of radio by virtue of what would be his last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), a filmic realization of a world evoked by radio romancer Garrison Keillor. Altman was greatly influenced by 1940s radio. He revealed as much in a National Public Radio documentary broadcast in May 1995 (a recording of which you may find here). In a tribute to Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph,” Altman made the following statement:

“Anything I know about drama today comes more from Norman Corwin than anybody. If I had to list my mentors, I would say Norman Corwin, David Lean, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, and then a countless number of people whose names I forget where I learned what not do.”

Now, what could Altman have learned “about drama” from Corwin, America’s foremost radio playwright (whose first letter to me I cheered recently)? As a film director, Altman did not fare well on the stage. His production of Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues earlier this year was widely panned; indeed, the reviews were so unfavorable that, while in London at the time, I decided to pass on it, despite my interest in the career of Miller, a former radio writer (one of whose works I discuss here). Perhaps, what Altman did take from Corwin—and what he could do on film more readily than on a stage—was the idea of an ensemble piece comprised of a large cast, a sprawling drama of many voices (such as The Player and Gosford Park). Everybody‘s in it, you think, when you look at the cast for an Altman production.

The same can be said for the signature pieces written and directed by Norman Corwin—plays with a vast number of characters, their stories intersecting, their voices adding up to something, to an idea, a statement, about Hollywood, for instance, about politics, about the state of American society. Corwin’s seminal On a Note of Triumph was such a piece, a play for voices; not a choir, mind you, but a cacophony; not a traditional drama of linear storytelling, but a fictionalized documentary, a record of a moment. Of this play, Altman said, some fifty years after its initial broadcast: “I can recite 40% of On a Note of Triumph from memory,” having listened to it “time and time again.”

I had not been aware of Altman’s admiration of Corwin’s work, until today. Come to think of it, both Corwin and Altman were belatedly honored at the Academy Awards this year, Altman receiving a lifetime achievement award, and Corwin being the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary about the making of “On a Note of Triumph.” Now, when I watch Altman’s films, I will look for Corwin and “Anything” he might have brought to the craft of the late director.

What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Cy Feuer (1911-2006) on the Air

Well, the marquee lights of New York City’s playhouses will be dimmed tonight at 8 PM (EST) in commemoration of Tony Award-winning theatrical producer and composer Cy Feuer, who passed away this week at the age of 95. Active for well over half a century on Broadway and in Hollywood, Feuer produced shows like Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, wrote original scores for a great number of popular movies (including the much loved Adventures of Captain Marvel [1941], and served as musical director for numerous other motion picture projects.

I first heard the name Cy Feuer, who published his memoir in 2003, while listening to recordings of a late-1940s series of radio thrillers titled Escape. So, as I have done before in tributes to Shelley Winters and Don Knotts, I will provide a footnote to the obituaries you might find elsewhere.

Escape presented adaptations of adventure yarns, fantastic tales, and horror stories by noted authors like Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Among the stories rendered more exciting or eerie to the ear by Feuer, who composed the music as well as conducted the orchestra, were Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” John Collier’s “Evening Primrose,” and—the stand-out of the series—Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen Versus the Ants.”

The musical accompaniment for such high melodrama was generally less noticeable or noteworthy than the sound effects, and more often incidental rather than integral; unlike the terrifying animal sounds conceived and created by the Escape sound artists, music was employed mainly to set scenes or enhance atmosphere. It is only when you pay attention to those bridges and screens of sound that you appreciate them as being of some consequence.

Feuer—whose work was also featured on the Ford Theater program, the episodic thriller Case, Crime Photographer, and the short-lived adventure serial Shorty Bell, starring Mickey Rooney—was not given much of a chance to turn musical sounds into characters; like fellow Escape alumni Ivan Ditmars, Leith Stevens, and Wilbur Hatch, he had largely to content himself with producing the odd note to prop up or propel the plot, however odd or ordinary.

In order to fulfill their weekly assignments, radio composers commonly recycled stock music (like the musical crutches handed to The Lone Ranger when he came to television, for the supply of which Feuer is now being credited). Perhaps this is what compelled former radio composer Bernard Herrmann to emerge from the airwaves by making his music speak for and draw attention to itself, refusing to let film scores—such as the intense ones he created for Vertigo and Obsession—go under by pounding them into the viewer’s consciousness so as to let them take center stage in their minds.

On at least one occasion, however, Feuer was involved in something a trifle more ambitious, when, on 25 August 1946, he was called upon to conduct the orchestra assembled for the Columbia Workshop. Billed as “radio’s foremost laboratory of writing and production techniques,” the Workshop produced the experimental play “The Path and the Door” by newcomer Les Crutchfield (previously mentioned here), which boasted a score by modernist composer George Antheil, who had never before worked in or for broadcasting.

To intrigue audiences, radio producers were more likely to invite artists new or altogether alien to the medium, rather than permitting the reliable Girls and Guys Friday of the business to make a name for themselves. Making his escape from the radio (and B-movie thriller) mill, Cy Feuer eventually earned such distinction on the Great White Way, which will appear somewhat less dazzling during tonight’s 60-second salute to a man who managed to “Succeed in Business” these past six decades.

What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Don Knotts (1924-2006) on the Air

Last night, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Dr. Jack (1922), the chief passenger in an early but well-oiled Harold Lloyd vehicle, a sentimental comedy speeding up to some nimble last-reel slapstick. Within a few years of this outing, Lloyd reached the height of his silent screen career with classics like Safety Last (1923) and Girl Shy (1924), my favorite among his many fine films. Watching the genial and ingenious Dr. Jack as he rescued a girl’s doll from a well or cured a schoolboy of his feigned illness, I had a vision of this good physician attending to the aches and growing pains of Don Knotts, the late comedian who was born just about the time Girl Shy first flickered on American movie screens.

I cannot claim to have followed Knotts’s career on television and in motion pictures closely over the years. I never as much as sat through a single episode of The Andy Griffith Show, even though I enjoy whistling its catchy theme. Nor have I ever laid eyes on I Love a Mystery, the television adaptation of Carlton E. Morse’s previously discussed serial thriller “The Thing That Cries in the Night.” And I sure didn’t rush to hear him in Chicken Little, either. Such well-nigh disqualifying deficiencies notwithstanding, I can contribute here an “on the air” footnote to his otherwise well-documented career. In fact, researching Knotts’s early years on radio, I came across a rather remarkable echo.

As a radio performer, Knotts is undoubtedly best known as sidekick Windy Wales—teller of tall tales—in the revival of the Bobby Benson adventures, which had begun in the early 1930s as the kind of juvenile radio serial Irwin Shaw mocks in his short story “Main Currents of American Thought.” Such quasi-folk antics aside, Knotts was given an opportunity to play the brother of a true American storyteller: Samuel Clemens, the writer still better known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain.

Heard on the Cavalcade of America program, the play was an adaptation of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and starred Raymond Massey as the grown-up author recalling his life story. As Twain’s brother Henry, Knotts was heard in a brief but pivotal scene dramatizing an incident that changed the life of the reluctant author.

Sam and Henry (the Clemens brothers, not Gosden and Correll’s Amos ‘n’ Andy precursors) worked together on the Pennsylvania, a Mississippi riverboat on which Sam was being trained as a cub pilot. The captain instructed Henry to tell the pilot to stop at a certain landing; but the hateful, irascible man denied having been informed. Sam defends his brother, engages in a fight with the pilot and knocks him down; but even though he is being congratulated rather than punished for his assault on the man, Sam thinks himself unfit to be his replacement. Leaving the boat, he bids farewell to Henry, who stays aboard. Before they part, Henry once more urges Sam not to squander his talent as storyteller.

Shortly thereafter, Henry, along with some 150 others, loses his life after an explosion aboard the Pennsylvania. Yet his voice remains alive in Twain’s mind, and Henry’s hopes for his brother are being realized at last. “Life on the Mississippi” was broadcast on 24 February 1953—exactly fifty-three years prior to Knotts’s own death last Friday.

What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Shelley Winters (1920-2006) on the Air

The recent passing of Academy Award winning actress Shelley Winters compelled me to inaugurate a new column, a recurring feature I shall call “What Those Who Remembered Forgot.” The title is meant to suggest that the obituaries of people active in Hollywood during the 1930s, ‘40s, or early to mid ‘50s, often omit references to their work on radio—the single most important source of home entertainment in the United States prior to the ascendancy of television. The BBC’s obituary of Shelley Winters is no exception. It informs readers that Winters’s “television appearances spanned several decades,” but has not a word to spare on the actress’s radio performances, eleven of which are listed here in David Goldin’s invaluable database of recordings.

From Mary Pickford to Marilyn Monroe, every actress who made a name for herself in Hollywood made use of the promotional facility of radio to keep that name on the minds and lips of American moviegoers. Winters’s radio credits include appearances on notable dramatic programs such as Screen Director’s Playhouse (5 June 1949), Stars Over Hollywood (22 November 1952), and the Lux Radio Theatre (5 January 1953). In comedic turns, she was heard as a guest on the Martin and Lewis program (16 November 1951) and played an unlikely Valentine for Archie on Duffy’s Tavern (16 February 1950).

In what appears to be her first dramatic role in a piece written especially for radio—Family Theater‘s “Throw Your Heart in the Ring” (27 April 1949)—Winters plays Maggie, a city nurse who proudly claims never to have broken a rule, but at last breaks her own record when she finds herself torn between acting by the book and following her heart.

Told about a man in need of her assistance, she comes to the aid of an aloof, gun-carrying stranger apparently hiding from the law. He might be a killer; but Maggie decides to violate regulations by not reporting the case while she treats the initially ungrateful patient secretly in his hotel room. As the two get to know each other, and as she learns the truth about him, she manages to convince the disheartened man to face his own responsibilities.

A forgettable play? Perhaps. Yet it is the medium we are apt to forget along with such performances, thereby denying ourselves not only access to a marginal aspect of an actor’s career, but the appreciation of her craft as it unfolds beyond her physical presence. Here, Winters is all voice; and so strong is the hold images have over most of us that we find it difficult to engage in this disembodiment, as if a voice without a body were somehow not the real thing, artistically insubstantial—in a word, immaterial.

Five and a half years after the Family Theater broadcast, Winters participated in what may be labeled an assault on the integrity of audio drama by recreating the part of Mrs. Stevenson in “Sorry, Wrong Number”—the most famous of all American radio plays—for the competing medium of television. It does not follow, however, that her contributions to the aural arts should be entirely silenced in the process.