|Cinegram No. 60|
|Bradna in Cinegram No. 60|
|Say It: A rickety vehicle for Milland|
|Cinegram No. 60|
|Bradna in Cinegram No. 60|
|Say It: A rickety vehicle for Milland|
So, there I was, at my grandmother’s side—a reunion twenty-one years in the making—when the phone atop the slippery hospital bed table rang us right out of our reminiscences. I reached over, handed Ella the receiver and, in an impulse of synesthetic kindness, turned to look out of the window, as if our ears could be as easily averted as our eyes. Unable to listen away, I could readily deduce the identity of the caller, both from my grandmother’s tone of voice and from the nature of her greeting. It was her daughter, my mother, on the line; and being so close to the phone made me wriggle in the chair I wished I had vacated instead of deputizing my eyes to take a hike.
I knew that, in a conciliatory gesture, grandmother would eventually pass the phone to me, and with it the onus to act polite in the absence of the kindness such an imposition was unlikely to inspire. You see, the last word exchanged between mother and myself had been a reference to the very spot of my anatomy I was now itching to shift.
During that fateful call, the relationship terminating vocable formed part of an expletive suggesting the inconceivable meeting of the listener’s glossa and the speaker’s gluteus maximus, as if what escapes us in our often less than choice utterances did not suffice to render the propinquity of kisser and keister conspicuous.
The posterior in question had been mine, or rather the figurative proffering of same. Thereafter, a silence lasting a quarter century, not counting the telling incommuniqués that are the occasional scratches on the surface of glossy picture postcards—those ocular proofs of our inability or unwillingness to hear out whatever say others might still be having it in them to impart.
My gut feeling was to sit still, now that the time to steal away had passed; but Oma had gone through enough, especially of late, to be made to endure such a display of filial disaffection. So, there in the impersonality of a hospital room, I talked to my mother for the first time in what amounted to nearly half of my father’s lifetime—except that the voice I heard did not sound like the one I thought of as my mother’s.
The momentary lack of recognition bespoke our estrangement. Now, I hardly expected the phone cord to reach right down into my navel; but, as it turns out, there is nothing intrinsically umbilical about a mother’s vocal cords, either. That I might one day struggle to match my aural memory of mother with the vocal presence of her had, barring dementia, never occurred to me before.
The regional Rhineland accent seemed far more pronounced to me who had been brought up by her speaking High German. The timbre, too, was altered. The voice was lower now, as if to compensate for the robustness that had once been wanting in the listener, her only son, whose androgynous adolescence had called traditional definitions of manhood into question years ago. The tone was as jovial as a pat on the back, a nudge, a kick in the ribs or some such gesture standing in for an embrace. The sense of the words I scarcely took in, so taken aback was I by their sound.
Had I really crawled that far from my cradle no longer to know by ear the woman who bore me? What was that, triumph? A validation of selfhood? Or was it an indictment? The conceit of “mother tongue” never sounded more foreign to me.
“42 Men Killed Every Week,” the headline read. Those who had already heard as much on the radio would likely have felt the impact of this crime wave; but, unless they were pining for the likes of Rudy Vallee, they would have relished it as well. Religious leaders, child psychologists, and a few popular entertainers aside, hardly anyone would have been the least bit alarmed. After all, the headline appeared in the 27 July 1946 issue of Billboard and the tally of fatalities was not meant to reflect the hebdomadal wrongdoings in one of America’s urban jungles. Instead, it referred to the “[l]opsided preponderance” of crime dramas that, after the killings at the front had come to an end, hit the airwaves so hard as to wipe out much of the competition.
Perhaps, “swallow up” might be a better way of putting it, as the zingers and songs previously heard elsewhere were subsumed by thriller programs that, in a desperate attempt not to sound cookie-cutter, were becoming increasingly kooky. Take Voice in the Night, for instance. Mentioned in the Billboard report as a contributor to the body count—yet rarely ever mentioned elsewhere or thereafter—it was one of the most baffling mysteries ever devised for the sightless medium, all the more so for having been green-lighted to begin with.
Folks tuning in to Mutual on Friday nights back in the summer of 1946 were told that Voice in the Night was something new under the moon—“a musical mystery story starring the internationally famous stage, screen and supper-club star Carl Brisson.” Never mind the hyperboles, the fact that Brisson had not appeared on the screen in well over a decade. At the time, he was indeed a successful act on the hotel circuit, although even favorable reviews would point out that “his pipes [were] no longer the same” and that he suffered from “a lapse of memory” (Billboard 30 March 1946). Indeed, such setbacks may have made crooning behind a mike with sheet music in his hand sound like an attractive alternative to the middle-aged baritone.
Not that Brisson would have appreciated being called an “Engaging Grandfather”—as a less than subtle Newsweek review had done two years earlier; but, if his voice or appearance did not suggest as much already, there was that prominent son of his (Rosalind Russell’s husband), then in his early thirties. Such telltale signs could be airbrushed away with the aid of a microphone. On the radio, by which even seasoned voices in the night penetrated many a chambre séparée, Brisson could yet be Carl Brisson, a detective who sang for his private suppers.
True, Brisson had experience playing romantic leads, having starred in two melodramas helmed by Alfred Hitchcock; but that was in the silent era, when his Danish accent posed no obstacle to a career in British or American film. In 1934, he had even mixed music and mayhem and “Cocktails for Two” in Murder at the Vanities (pictured above); but a duet with Kitty Carlisle could not have prepared him for the challenge of carrying anything other than a tune, least of all a dramatic radio series of his own. For, no matter how many times he would perform his signature song “Little White Gardenia” (“You may wear it if you care / Or toss it away”), a crime had to be related and solved within each half-hour allotted to Voice in the Night. And on this night, 14 June, in 1946, it was a case involving the theft of a necklace that “once cost two men their lives.”
We meet Carl Brisson at the Golden Oriole, a nightclub where he takes requests and performs standards like “All of a Sudden My Heart Sings” to an appreciative proxy audience, sit-ins for the listeners at home, some of whom would have seen Brisson in person and may well have resented being drawn in by the performer only to be short-changed as he, having invited the diegetic (or built-in) crowd to stand up and dance, walks over to one of the tables for a tête-à-tête with a female and no doubt attractive newspaper columnist whom he feeds his stories of crime and romance.
Old-time radio encyclopedists John Dunning and Jim Cox, who merely quotes and paraphrases the former without giving him proper credit, would have you believe that Brisson dashes off to solve a crime before resuming his nightclub act. Don’t take their word for it, though. In the only two extant episodes, at least, he merely takes a break to relate one of his adventures.
“You’re never more beautiful than when you’re angry to me,” Brisson tells his private listener. Now, I am not sure whether the script or the interpreter is responsible for the way this comes out, whether, as the linguists put it, the problem is structural (“beautiful . . . to me”), or lexical (“angry at me”); but the performance is riddled with such incidents, which become rather distracting. Indeed, forget the largely frisson-free mystery of the stolen “neggless.” It is Brisson’s delivery that will puzzle you. Perhaps, Mutual had hoped for a second Jean Hersholt; but Brisson, though closer in age to his fellow countryman than he would admit, was not called upon to play another Dr. Christian here. Nor would he have been content to be a kindly old Mr. Keen with a trace of a hard-to-lose accent. The romance-filled mysteries were meant to be fast-paced—but the “Great Dane” kept tripping over his tongue.
Having performed “Bells of St. Mary” for a lovely young “corple” at the club, Brisson admits that he “may have lost Mary Morgan”—but the one he was supposed to pursue was a guy named Larry. Perhaps, it was that “lump on [his] head like the size of an egg” that caused Brisson to fluff his lines or else to render them all but unintelligible.
A few weeks later, an episode titled the “Case of the Worried Detective” self-consciously worked what was problematic about the program into a rather more light-hearted script. “I placed you by your accent immediately,” Brisson is told by a hotel clerk. “You are that new long distance runner from Sweden, aren’t you?” A “long distance singer from Denmark,” Brisson corrects. Neither fame nor ready money could get him a room, though, what with the post-war housing crisis going on. “Not even if I promise not to sing?” the performer inquires. If only he had promised not to speak.
While the tongue-in-cheek approach somewhat improved on the tedious double-cross romance contrived for the earlier episode, Brisson was less convincing as a wit than he was as a womanizer. He simply could not get his tongue around certain English words, at least not quickly enough to deliver snappy one-liners.
Besides, anyone alerting the “Voice in the Night” to his glossal obstacle may have received a response similar to the one Murder at the Vanities director Mitchell Leisen got when he tried to correct Brisson’s diction. The singer-actor “was supposed to say ‘She’ll’ and kept pronouncing it ‘Seel,’” Leisen told David Chierichetti.
I thought he was having language problems, so I enunciated it very carefully for him. He said, “Oh, I know how to say it, but don’t you think it’s cuter the other way?”
Rather than being called upon to talk sense or crack wise, Brisson should have been permitted to give his target audience—“the fair, fat and 40 trade,” as Billboard (5 April 1947) called them—what they really wanted, which is just what he did when he returned to his successful club routines. His Voice in the Night was an early casualty of radio’s post-war crime wave, the riding of which tempted and drowned many a hapless performer.
I don’t often indulge in morning afterthoughts. I might—and frequently do—revise what I said (or, rather, how I said it); but I generally just take time, and one time only, to say my piece instead of doling it out piecemeal. Unlike the producers of much of the (un)popular culture I go on about here, I don’t make a virtue of saying “As I was saying” or make my fortune, say, by milking the cash cow of regurgitation. To my thinking, which is, I realize, incompatible with web journalism, each entry into this journal, however piffling, should be complete—a composition, traditionally called essay, that has a beginning, middle and end, a framework that gives whatever I write a raison d’être for ending up here to begin with.
Although I resist following up for the sake of building a following, it does not follow that my last word in any one post is the last word on any one subject—especially if the subject is as inexhaustible as the Eurovision Song Contest, which festival of song, spectacle and politics compelled me previously to go on as follows: “It [a Eurovision song] is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.”
Diplomatic blunder, my foot. My native Germany did win, after all, coming in first for the first time since 1982, when Germany was still divided by a wall so eloquent that, growing up, I did not consider whatever lay to the east of it German at all. Apparently, this year’s German singer-delegate Lena Meyer-Landrut, born some time after that wall came down, did not step on anyone’s toes with her idiosyncratic rendition of “Satellite,” a catchy little number whose inane English lyrics she nearly reduced to gibberish.
Her aforementioned insistence on turning toenails into “toenates” intrigued a number of bemused or irritated viewers to go online in search of answers, only to be directed straight to broadcastellan. Perhaps, the United Kingdom should have fought tooth and nates instead of articulating each tiresome syllable of their entry into the competition, a song so cheesy that it did not come altogether undeservedly last, even if European politics surely factored into the voting.
Britain never embraced European unity wholeheartedly—and those in the thick of the economic crisis now challenging the ideal of Europe may well resent it. Is it a coincidence that the votes were cast in favor of the entrant representing the biggest economy in Europe, a country in the heart of the European continent?
While not content, perhaps, to orbit round that center of gravity, other nations may yet feel that it behoves them to acknowledge the star quality of Germany, which, according to contest rules, is called upon to stage the spectacle in 2011. After all, why shouldn’t the wealthiest neighbor be host of a competition some countries, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, declared themselves too cash-strapped even to enter this year.
I may not have been back on native soil since those early days of German reunification, but there was yet some national pride aroused in me as “Satellite” was declared the winner of the contest by the judges and juries of thirty-eight nations competing in Oslo this year along with Deutschland.
That said, seeing a German citizen draped in a German flag as she approaches the stage to take home a coveted prize, however deserved, still makes me somewhat uneasy. Given our place in world history, the expression of national pride strikes me as unbecoming of us, to say the least. I was keenly aware, too, that there were no points awarded to Germany by the people of Israel.
Will I ever stop being or seeing myself as a satellite and, instead of circling around Germany, get round to dealing with my troubled relationship with the country I cannot bring myself to call home? That, after the ball was over, formed itself as a sobering afterthought. And that, for the time being, is the beginning, middle, and end of it. Truth is, I take comfort putting a neat frame around pictures that are hazy, disturbing or none too pretty.
Folks flicking through the May 25-30 issue of Radio-Movie Guide back in 1941 were told about a “New Song Sensation,” a novelty number written by Ted McMichael (of the Merry Macs), Jack Owens and Leo V. Killion. The identification of the tunesmiths aside, this was probably no news at all to America’s avid dial twisters. Published only a few weeks earlier, the “Sensation” in question had already “featured on the air by Kate Smith, Bob Hope and Alec Templeton.” In fact, as early as 23 April, listeners to Eddie Cantor’s It’s Time to Smile program would have been exposed to what was tongue-in-cheekily billed as a “Swedish Serenade” overheard by an illiterate boy who “should have been in school”:
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.
According to Radio-Movie Guide, Benny Goodman was so keen on the ditty that he wanted to “buy an interest in its profit for five thousand dollars.” It is easy to see the attraction of such novelty nonsense at a time when news from Europe were similarly bewildering yet decidedly less diverting. And before we tut-tut a nation at war for going gaga over a trifle such as “The Hut Sut Song” while being gleefully indifferent to—or woefully ignorant of—the world, we might consider the musical offerings conceived for the current Eurovision Song Contest, an annual agit-pop extravaganza that, in this, its fifty-fifth year, is playing itself out against the somber backdrop of the European fiscal crisis.
Much of Europe may be cash-strapped and debt-ridden, but the thirty-nine nations competing in Oslo this year have it yet in their means to bestow points and favors upon one another—or to withhold them. Even the least affluent countries of greater Europe may take comfort as well in the potentiality of turning freshly minted tunes into pop-cultural currency. Europe is less concerned, it seems, with the phrases it must coin to achieve such a feat.
The emphasis on rhyme over reason is apparent in traditional Eurovision song contest titles—and winners—like “Boom Bang-a-Bang” (United Kingdom, 1969), “Ding-A-Dong” (Netherlands, 1975), and “Diggi-loo, Diggi-ley” (Norway, 1984). It is an orchestrated retreat to the banks of a mythical “rillerah,” a clean plunge into a stream of pure nonsense beyond the realities of the Babel that is Europe. Might an agreement to be agreeably meaningless be a key to intercultural understanding?
“The Hut Sut Song” came with its own dictionary:
Now the Rawlson is a Swedish town, the rillerah is a stream.
The brawla is the boy and girl,
The Hut-Sut is their dream.
By comparison, most Eurovision entries, which, in the past, included “Volare,” “Waterloo,” and some inconsequentiality or other performed by Celine Dion, do not make much of an effort to render themselves intelligible. While by and large performed in some approximation of English, today’s Eurovision songs are, for the most part, incomprehensible rather than nonsensical, as if members of the vastly, perhaps inordinately or at any rate prematurely expanded union were determined to avail themselves of the English language as a means of keeping apart instead of coming together, inarticulate English being the universal diversifier.
Eurovision songs have always suffered—or, you might well argue, benefited—from less-than-sophisticated lyrics. Take these lines from this year’s Armenian entry, performed by one Eva Rivas: “I began to cry a lot / And she gave me apricots.” Which begs the question, I told a friend the other day: if she had only laughed a little, might she have gotten . . . peanut brittle? Well, perhaps not. Apricots are a symbol of Armenian nationality.
In its well-nigh incomprehensible delivery, “Satellite” takes the cake, though. According to British bookies and the internet downloads on which they rely to establish the odds, the quirky, bouncy little song representing my native Germany—where it became an instant success—is second in popularity only to the entry from Azerbaijan (which, as the contest rules have it, lies within the boundaries of Europe).
A Danish-German-American collaboration, “Satellite” scores high in both the “bad lyrics” and “strange accent” categories, proving, as only a Eurovision song can, that those categories are not mutually exclusive:
The singer, Lena Meyer-Landrut hails from Hanover. Not that this should lead us to expect any pronounced British connections in her house. Still, being a graduating high school student, she ought to have a firmer grasp on the English language. At least, her origins and education cannot account for—or explain away—references to painted “toenates” and underwear “thay blue.” Since, after weeks of tryouts and rehearsals, she still can’t, er, “nate” those undemanding lyrics, her accent is clearly an affectation. Could it be anything else?
Just what kind of “Hut-Sut” are European “brawla” dreaming of these days as they insist on diving, seemingly pell-mell, into the turbid “rillerah” they make of English? Not of a unity achieved through universality, I reckon. Perhaps, they are simply getting back at the native speakers by twisting their tongue in ways that are as likely to alienate as to amuse, and are having the last laugh by turning this recklessly appropriated language into Europop gold with which to pay back the British for steadfastly refusing to adopt the sinking Euro. The apricot stones-filled cheek!
Whether “Satellite”—or Germany—wins this Saturday has perhaps more to do with the recent bailout of Greece than with the merits of the song or the quality of the performance. Then again, a Eurovision song, however frivolous, is generally looked upon as something larger than its number of bum notes and odd intonations. It is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.
K A M M A N. I am sure a lot of readers of Radio Guide magazine would have found “Bruce ___, ‘Professor Kaltenmeyer’ as easy a crossword puzzle clue as “Jane ___, comedienne” or “___ Wallington, announcer.” From 1932 onwards, Bruce Kamman played the good-natured and much put upon teacher of the gang at Kaltenmeyer’s Kindergarten, a weekly comedy program that originiated from WMAQ, Chicago. Kaltenmeyer’s is one of those popular programs that have all but disappeared into thin air, the exception being the 12 December 1936 broadcast (which you may access on Jerry Haendiges’s invaluable “Same Time, Same Station” site). Reminiscent of and anticipating German schoolboy comedies like Heinrich Spoerl’s Feuerzangenbowle or Erich Kästner’s Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer (both 1933), Kaltenmeyer is a winsome trifle of a show. Each week, the Kindergarten opened with the catchy signature “Just for Fun”:
Let’s all go to school.
In this kindergarten,
Where nonsense is the rule.
Indeed, much of it is nonsense, some of it song. Fibber McGee and Molly team Jim and Marian Jordan were featured on the program; until the fall of 1936, they were among the Professor’s international crowd of poopils. The 12 December 1936 broadcast (an excerpt of which was later rebroadcast on Recollections at Thirty) includes the somewhat incongruously wistful “Sweetheart, Let’s Grow Old Together” and offers at least one memorable pun involving the definition of the word “indisputable,” which one Kaltenmeyer’s rambunctious kids (adults all) manages to put into the following sentence: “Indisputable weather we’re having.”
It is Bruce Kamman’s voice, though, that adds “indisputable” charm to the nonsense. It is the kind of Sig Ruman-Frank Reichert voice—warm, avuncular, and too Jean Hersholt to be altogether ridiculously, let alone threateningly Teutonic. According to Francis M. Nevins’s The Sound of Detection, the Cincinnati-born Kamman, who entered radio as early as 1920, would continue his broadcasting career off mike, namely by producing and directing episodes of the Ellery Queen mystery-cum-celebrity quiz program.
Kamman’s days as Kaltenmeyer came to an end once the Germans began to wage war in Europe. In 1940, well before the United States entered the Second World War, Kaltenmeyer stopped saying “Auf Wiedersehen.” The character was removed from the Kindergarten, and what was left of the show folded soon thereafter.
I guess, when you make a career of sounding like Sig Ruman, you were expected to start shouting “Sieg Heil!” or hiss sinisterly and subsequently expire, rather than be permitted to send kindly greetings like “Bleiben Sie wohl und halten Sie sich munter” (“stay well and cheerful”) to the American people, whatever their heritage or dialect. Clearly “good old days” recalled in the theme song were over.
Now, let’s all go to back to the school that was radio and solve the puzzle . . .
Having spent a week traveling through Wales and the north of England—up a castle, down a gold mine, and over to Port Sunlight, where Lux has its origins—I finally got to sit down again to take in an old-fashioned show. That show was My Fair Lady, a production of which opened last night at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, where each summer a musical is put on for the amusement of the locals and the visitors to the seaside town a few miles east of which I now reside. These productions, the aforementioned Oliver!, Fiddler on the Roof, and West Side Story among them, tend to be quite ambitious in their choice of Broadway and West End fare, titles likely to raise expectations higher than any theatrical curtain falling on them, whether to the relief or regret of the assembled crowds. The present Lady is no exception.
According to lore shared by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon in Broadway: The American Musical, even Oscar Hammerstein gave up on the idea of showtuning Shaw’s Pygmalion, advising fellow songwriter and radio alumnus Alan Jay Lerner against it. “Just You Wait,” the librettist thought and, to the delight of millions, he and his partner, Frederick Loewe, got on with the show that not only opened on Broadway in 1956 but refused to close for several seasons, proving an enduring popular and critical success.
Now, I did not expect a performer equal to Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn when I took my seat and glanced at the program. Indeed, I was never fond of the former or of the film version starring the latter. I had read in the local paper that two leading ladies were taking turns during the month-long run and that the show’s director, Michael Bogdanov, was yet to determine which one of them would perform on opening night. The Lady in question was Elin Llwyd, a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Sure, a Welsh lead for a part requiring a Cockney accent transformed into an English that would both please and fool high society as being the genuine article. I’m a far more “Ordinary Man” than Professor Higgins professes to be; but, having lived among the Welsh for some time now, I can tell a Cymru tongue from an English one when it is stuck out at me from a reverberating stage.
“The English have no respect for their language,” the Irish playwright (heard here introducing himself) deplored in his Preface to Pygmalion. Neither have theatrical directors, it seems; or, rather, they do not appear to have much respect for the ear by which they mean to drag audiences into the realm of make-believe. Mind you, the production is being coy about the filiations of Eliza, casting fellow Welshman Ieuan Rhys as her father and throwing in a few self-conscious references about the culture and language. Still, no matter how ably supported and otherwise capable, the slate-hewn Galatea taking center stage faces the well-nigh impossible task of faking not one accent, but two; and, as her acting became more energetic and engaging during the second act, Welsh got the better of the flower girl from the slums of Lisson Grove, London, whom a conceited gentleman scholar wagers to unveil as one of his kind by chiseling at her accent. “By George, she’s got it”? By David, she couldn’t get rid of it!
“Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo!” A few years ago, I was incapable of discerning what now spoke so clearly against the effort to suspend my disbelief. I have spent most of my adult life being cast as a foreigner based on the sound of my utterings. Often, I was made to feel like an imposter, earmarked as one supposedly pretending to be American or English while invariably exposed by a slip of my wayward Teutonic tongue. Given my accentual trials, I am drawn to stories like Eliza Doolittle’s . . . or Elin Llwyd’s.
Patois may be less restricting and defining these days; but, for a play like Pygmalion or its tuneful remake to ring true, phonetic distinctions should not be leveled along with the social discriminations they beget. In this case, equal opportunity spells a missed one. Besides, it just ain’t fair to the memory of the vernacularly challenged ladies and lads whose speech was not equal to their ear.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. The Lady Astor Screen Guild Players have a surprise for you tonight.” Such a promise may well have sounded hollow to many of those tuning in to the Guild program broadcast on this day, 27 March, back in 1944. That it was grandiloquently voiced by the avuncular-verging-on-the-oleaginous Truman Bradley, whom American radio listeners knew as a voice of commerce, hardly imbued such a potential ruse with sincerity. And yet, the program is indeed a surprise, and a welcome one at that. The broadcast is a rarity in scripted radio comedy: one of those occasions when ham is not only sliced generously but consumed with gusto. Granted, I may be somewhat of a hypergelast, the kind of fellow Victorian poet-novelist George Meredith denounced as a fool who laughs excessively. Still, believe me when I say in a voice that has nothing to advertise but its own taste, poor or otherwise: this is one is a riot.
Affable character actor Jean Hersholt, then President of the Motion Picture Relief Fund and star of his own sentimental radio series (Doctor Christian), takes over from the announcer to introduce the players for the evening. You can buy a line from a man like Hersholt. His is a thick, honest-to-goodness accent that sounds trustworthy compared to whatever slips from the trained tongues of promotion. Tonight, he tells us, “we have Barbara Stanwyck, Basil Rathbone, and director Michael Curtiz, three of filmdom’s outstanding personalities who will offer. . . .” At this moment, Hersholt is cut short by the one who generally occupies that spot, the man entrusted with the dearly paid-for delivery of cheap assurances.
“Uh, just a minute, Jean,” Bradley interjects, “I thought that Jack Benny was supposed to be one of the guests here tonight.” This exchange sets up the slight comedy known as “Ham for Sale,” a fine vehicle for Jack Benny, the master of comic deflation, the jokester known for his largely unfulfilled aspirations as a thespian and classical musician.
According to Hersholt, Benny got “a little temperamental”; so he will not be heard on the program. Hersholt’s recollections give way to a dramatized account of Benny’s response to the proposed broadcast. “I haven’t got anything against you, Jack. But you’re a comedian; and, frankly, I don’t think you have enough dramatic ability to play the lead opposite Miss Stanwyck.” Upon which the slighted comedian sets out to win the part.
The hilarity generated by “Ham for Sale” is not so much scripted than delivered. Greatly responsible for the kicks you’ll get out of this broadcast is the highly regarded, Oscar-winning director of Casablanca, whose Hungarian accent is so pronounced and to radio listeners’ surprising, that it causes Benny to ad-lib and Stanwyck to scream with utterly infectious laughter. According to Herbert Spencer’s “The Physiology of Laughter” (1860), mankind (or, homo ridens) response in this way when expectations are suddenly disappointed and an excess of energy in our nervous system is discharged in the muscular reflex of laughing. It seems that, as an actress, Stanwyck expected Curtiz to have a great, controlling presence; instead, while to some extent in on it all, he became the hapless brunt of Benny’s jokes: “Between Hersholt and you, I don’t understand anything.” Perhaps, it is the kind of “sudden glory” Thomas Hobbes denounced as a “sign of pusillanimity.” But it sure feels good to salt this “Ham” with your own tears.
It wasn’t exactly a fresh cut. The sketch had already been presented once before (on 20 October 1940), with Benny trying the patience of Edward Arnold, Ernst Lubitsch, and Claudette Colbert. Yet Colbert appeared to have been too controlled an actress to let anything interfere with her live performance that evening; nor did Lubitsch’s accent trigger as many not altogether intentional laughs as that of his fellow director. It is Stanwyck’s reaction to Curtiz’s line readings (just hear him exclaim “stop interrupting”) and Benny’s extemporising to the occasion that makes “Ham for Sale” such an irreverent piece of Schadenfreude. Relentless and immoderate, laughter here is a response to the “mechanical” (in Bergson’s sense), to the orderly and overly rehearsed—the minutely timed, predictable fare that so frequently went for on-air refreshment.
I guess we have all been exposed to them, no matter how quickly our fingers move to stop our ears. Sounds that drive us up the wall and get us to scream, shiver, and wince. For some, it is the screeching of a piece of chalk on a blackboard (perhaps already one of the “endangered” sounds aforementioned; for others it might be a creaking door swinging on rusty hinges. Fiddlesticks (however annoying they might be), that’s nothing compared to the noise Agnes Moorehead has to endure in the Suspense thriller “The Thirteenth Sound,” first broadcast on this day, 13 February, in 1947.
It is a battle of sounds, mind, considering that Moorehead had one of the most grating voices in the business, which is just what makes “The Thirteenth Sound” (written by writer-actor team Cathy and Elliot Lewis) such a frightfully clever—and cleverly frightful—vehicle for the “First Lady of Suspense (previously mentioned here).
Crime dramas can be divided into head-scratchers and nail-biters; the former being the whodunit, the latter the kind of thriller I shall call the will-they-won’t-they, in which a character, hero or villain, is placed in a shaky situation or shown to be in an unstable frame of mind. Will they get out of it, or won’t they. This is stuff in which Suspense, which started out as a series of detective mysteries written by the aforementioned John Dickson Carr, came to specialize after the success of “Sorry, Wrong Number,” also starring Ms. Moorehead (and featured in one of my podcasts. Improving on both the head-scratcher and the nail-biter, “The Thirteenth Sound” might justly be called a nail-scratcher.
It gets under our skin with a goose bumps inducing sound, a sound that could be the undoing of the play’s central character, slyly named Mrs. Skinner. She—and this is no mystery since we’re in on the act—has bumped off her husband, who doesn’t get a word in, but whose loud snoring and “nervous habit of grinding his teeth in his sleep,” the good woman claims, used to keep her up at night. Upon doing him in, she sleeps soundly for the first time in years.
And yet, in the effort of keeping a guilty secret, Mrs. Skinner’s nerves may not be up to scratch, old or otherwise. However strident, her voice may have met its match in the finger of suspicion pointing from beyond the grave. Like Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” before it, “The Thirteenth Sound” presses a stethoscope on a guilty conscience. It is the microphone that makes a public hearing out of the ordeal.
I can’t seem to get through this romance. It is tempestuous, steeped in mystery, and features a fierce heroine who bears a vague resemblance to Jane Eyre. Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, I mean, one of the novels I picked up to set the mood for my trip to Cornwall. That was in April—and I am still not done with Mary’s adventure among the smugglers. I do like Mary, though. She is not the fainting kind, despite the danger she’s in:
A girl of three-and-twenty, in a petticoat and a shawl, with no weapons but her own brain to oppose a fellow twice her age and eight times her strength, who, if he realised she had watched the scene tonight from her window, would encircle her neck with his a hand, and, pressing lightly with finger and thumb, put an end to her questioning.
Now, the woman who portrayed her Hitchcock’s film version of Jamaica Inn, Maureen O’Hara (pictured above, during the production of the 1938 film), was a few weeks from turning twenty-three when she played another character of that mettle. On this day, 6 July, in 1943, she was heard on the US radio series Suspense in a thriller titled “The White Rose Murders.” An adaptation of a story by Cornell Woolrich, it is the sort of yarn Suspense came to be famous for.
“You’ve been reading too many of those romantic stories,” Virginia tells her fiancé, a police officer with so little self-esteem that he thinks he needs a promotion to deserve a well-to-do debutante like the young woman who’s so devoted to him, she sets out to get what he thinks is in the way of their connubial bliss. This woman is serious about marriage. You might say that she’s dying to get hitched. To achieve just that, she sets out to catch the White Rose murderer, a serial killer who strangles young women, apparently incited or inspired by the “Beer Barrel Polka” (also known as “Rosamunde”). As a token of his perverse affection, he leaves behind the bud of a white rose, the symbol, Virginia explains, of “purity, loyality, devotion.”
Virginia carefully dresses to resemble the victims and “tours the low dives,” searching in each “dingy bar” where “Rosamunde” plays, hoping to attract the man the police has been looking for in vain. As it turns out, the tune is practically everyone’s favorite, just as roses prove popular with the men she encounters. She has to smell a lot of red herrings before she meets the one who is eager to offer her that certain rose. It’s the one she least expected, of course, who is out to do her in.
Despite the names attached to this project—O’Hara, Woolrich, and composer Bernard Herrmann—”The White Rose Murders” is less lurid than it is ludicrous. The situation is suitably creepy—the kind of tale of entrapment and prolonged peril fully deserving of the label Suspense. Even the cheerful “Rosamunde” begins to sound ominous as, in the mind of the listener, it becomes associated with impending horror. Yet instead of relying on a suspenseful mood, the producers of the series insisted on adding an element of surprise—a last minute twist meant to startle the audience. It is a surprise, all right, but one that is psychologically so unconvincing as to reduce the play to mere melodramatic claptrap.
Nor does O’Hara fit her voice to the performance. Perfunctory in her reading of the script, she sounds very much like a sophisticated businesswoman out to get a job done. Perhaps, Virginia’s only adventure was to put an end to all thrills by going through the mill of matrimony. Perhaps, O’Hara had “been reading too many of those romantic stories” not to know which ones were played strictly for the money.