On This Day in 1943: Peter Lorre Gives Voice to "A Moment of Darkness"

Well, I am generally slow to catch up. As the broadcastellan maxim—”Keeping up with the out-of-date”—suggests, I am forever belated in my response to the news of the world, food for thought I tend to chew more slowly than the dinner on my plate. Having just learned from a fellow web-journalist that the mind of ousted American Idol finalist Mandisa might be considerably less broad than her frame, I thought of other occasions on which the message of a voice seems out of tune with the messenger, moments in which timbre and text, sound and image, appear to be at odds. One such occasion was “A Moment of Darkness,” a radio play by noted mystery writer John Dickson Carr that aired on this day, 20 April, in 1943.

“A Moment of Darkness” is one of Carr’s ambitious but far from satisfying attempts to make up for the inadequacies of the medium by complicating the kind of plots that radio is least successful in rendering: the “whodunit.” The murder mystery is a genre best suited to novels, page-turners that permit the confounded to do just that: turn the pages, forward and back. On the air, such puzzles are often marred by a lack of pieces, or red herrings, due to the limited number of suspects and clues a listener can be expected to tell apart and pick up within the short time allotted for the drama.

In the fall of 1942, when Carr became the head writer for a fledgling US radio program titled Suspense, he devised alternate ways of mystifying his audience, of casting doubt about the outcome of his thrillers.

As I discuss it in Etherized Victorians, my study on so-called old-time radio, Carr not only asked listeners “whodunit,” but “how done,” by presenting posers involving locked rooms, less-than-obvious weapons, as well ingenious acts of committing and concealing crime. Unlike the reader, the listening audience is rarely equal to this double challenge of guessing the “who” and “how,” considering that there is no chance to recap or retreat in order to evaluate the (mis)information provided. The likely response is that of utter dumbfoundedness, a puzzlement of the least intellectual sort that, in turn, may trigger feelings of exasperation or indifference.

Later Suspense dramatists well understood and expertly solved this problem by emphasizing the “most dangerous game” of the manhunt or exploring the mental state of criminal and victim. Determined to trick his audience with surprises rather than tease them with suspense, Carr decided to heighten the element of doubt and suspicion, to exploit the prejudices of the listener in ways that sounded entirely radiogenic: foreign accents suggesting fiendish acts. In “The Moment of Darkness,” as in Carr’s “Till Death Do Us Part,” such a foreign-tongue twist was delivered by the enigmatic Peter Lorre.

During World War II—and for many years thereafter—harsh Germanic tones often sufficed to taint or undermine a speaker’s message, to make listeners question the sincerity of the utterance or the motives behind it. His Teutonic tongue made Lorre a formidable wartime villain; and his voice, which could be disconcertingly oleaginous, sly, or sinister, inflected with hysteria and madness, only fueled the imagination of Americans prejudiced against foreign influences.

Given the diversity of US culture, however, the networks did not altogether endorse the exploitation of accents—particularly European accents—as reliable signposts of a certain, unmistakable nationality, a mother tongue bespeaking the fatherland of the enemy. Radio writers like Carr were advised not to use voices as a means of identifying—and disqualifying—a speaker as un-American. According to the logic of pre-Political Correctness, Lorre’s character, a sham shaman, is not at all what he sounds, a vocality/locality mismatch that not so much teaches the audience to question their prejudices but to distrust their ears altogether.

There is no such thing as accent-free speech, of course; but those, like me, whose first language is not the one in which they primarily speak are often self-conscious about the sound of their voice, or at least keenly aware of the doubt and derision it might provoke.

Thneaking Up on "Thubway Tham"

Thubway Tham, as he appeared in Detective Story magazine, 25 Jan. 1934

The other day I called detective Ellery Queen to the rescue when I found myself in need of some pop-cultural assistance while dealing with a certain case of bigotry in the blogosphere. Searching for a visual aid to prop up my improbable prose, I dug up my copy of Ellery Queen’s Rogues’ Gallery, a 1945 anthology of crime fiction containing radio scripts by Dannay/Lee and John Dickson Carr. It occurred to me that, aside from those two scripts, I hadn’t read any of the other pieces in said volume. So, leafing through, I happened upon a story about a small-time crook with a big-time speech impediment, a lisp so thick that it earned him the nickname “Thubway Tham.”

Now, Tham never hit it big in radio or talkies (with that voice, he had about as much of a chance to make it there as silent-screen siren Dolores Costello). Still, he was a rather popular pulp hero in his day, which is reason enough for me to make his acquaintance.

Thubway Tham was the brainchild of Johnston McCulley, creator of the recently if not altogether successfully resuscitated Zorro. According to McCulley (as retold by Mssrs. Ellery Queen), Tham first sprang into action during his author’s visit to New York City in 1919. Observing the crowds being “spewed out of the subway,” McCulley realized that those Big Apple commuters were a veritable herd of cash cows for a clever pickpocket. In need of a saleable story, he came up with “Subway Sam”; but, somewhat intoxicated at the time, McCulley found that his mouth would not cooperate in pronouncing the name and settled for “Thubway Tham” instead.

An artful little dodger who forever thumbed his nose at the luckless Detective Craddock, his arch-enemy, Tham kept appearing and disappearing in story after story (some 182 by 1945, according to his prolific father); yet the times were changing, and what might have been amusing in the prosperous 1920s or reassuring in the lean 1930s was no longer appropriate during the war years, when paper was too precious for the spreading of questionable romances of self-serving criminals and the glorification of devious individualism.

Even less-than upright characters, such as the Saint, were being recruited for the war effort. And unless Tham was satisfied to go underground for the duration, disappearing from public view along with other misfits like honorable, but propagandistically irredeemable Mr. Moto, he was expected to take his hand out of other people’s pockets long enough to lend it to Uncle Sam.

Here is how McCulley’s aging lawbreaker, anno 1944, saw his dilemma:

Thubway Tham found his favorite bench unoccupied, and sat upon it.  He was thinking of the war.  Many of his younger friends had enlisted or been drafted.  Familiar faces were missing.  Even certain of the gentry habitually under the eyes of the police had accepted honest toil in shipyards and factories turning out munitions and war supplies. 

Tham was sad.  A few days before he had tried to enlist and get into a uniform.  But there were several things wrong with him physically, the army surgeons found.  Tham had started the physical examination feeling rather fit, but by the time they got through with him he was wondering which hospital l would be the best when he unexpectedly collapsed on the street. 

He was contemplating now seeking work in some defense plant.  But, frankly, that did not appeal to him.  Tham was a creature of habit, and a part of that habit was to ignore manual labor.  Moreover, work in a war plant would keep him away from his beloved subway.

So, McCulley confronted poor Tham with “the lowest of the low,” with con artists whose prey were “hicks from the sticks,” the “real men” about to fight for their country. Tham could continue stealing, but, punishing those more selfish than he and redistributing his loot, morphed into some simulated Saint, a decidedly less daring and debonair Robin Hood of Modern Crimes. However valuable such sentimental propaganda might have been, the wartime heroics of turnabout Tham, as recorded in “Thubway Tham, Thivilian,” made for a rather dull and disingenuous Oliver! twist.

What might Thubway Tham be doing these days? Is he still trying his shaky hand at subway robbery? Or has he turned to that superhighway in the sky, where latter-day tricksters, unhampered by physical defects, find ample opportunity to keep their fingers busy and their pockets full. Don’t let me catch you again, Tham. You’ve pretty much worn out your welcome.

That Sarong Way to Do It, Ms. Lamour; or, When Sound Leaves a Bad Taste in Your Eyes

Well, it was time to close the first broadcastellan poll. The question I asked was: “If you had to give up one of your five senses, which one would it be?” Here are the results (25 votes): Sight (12% / 3 votes); Hearing (12% / 3 votes); Touch (4% / 1 vote); Smell (40% / 10 votes); and Taste (16% / 4 votes). Since I always insist on the opportunity to question a question, rather than accepting it outright, I added the (to me) facetious “So what, I’ve got a sixth sense,” a way out taken four times (16% / 4 votes). As I said before, I chose to give up my sense of vision; but last night, when it came to choosing an anniversary to go on about, I was reminded of the havoc the sound of a voice can wreak on a vision of beauty. Dorothy Lamour’s, for instance.

On this day, 28 October, in 1948, Ms. Lamour was heard as host and star of the Sealtest Variety Theater, chatting with Jack Carson, singing a few chirpy tunes, and camping it up with Boris Karloff in a pre-Halloween sketch. Only a few days earlier, Karloff had been given a chance to prove his versatility to the American radio audience by playing the lead in an NBC University Theatre adaptation of H. G. Wells’s comic novel The History of Mr. Polly. Now he found himself reduced once more to parodying his monster image, even though his avuncular voice was not the least bit intimidating. Nor, for that matter, did the famous lady in the sarong sound to me anything like her screen image.

Coming across as an efficiently cheerful salesperson or a routine-hardened night club performer putting on a pair of comfortable shoes while waiting in line to cash her paycheck, Lamour did not get her timbre into temptress mode and, aside from a few charming if not always genuine laughs, made few efforts to enhance a clunky script littered with more or less appalling gags. Her voice sure took the G out of Glamour that night.

The “sarong formula” (mocked above in a 1942 Movie-Radio Guide cartoon by Jimmy Caborn), did not work on the air. Some screen sirens or Hollywood hunks are decidedly less rousing when forced to rely solely on their vocal chords to make us swoon or convince us to buy whatever product the radio show in which they starred was peddling.

Such a smelly chestnut of a radio show should overwhelm the sense of nostalgia lingering in anyone’s nostrils, I thought, and aired my listening disappointment in a new poll. Say, when would you rather be, if not today?

In Bed With Orson; or, How I Got the Wandering Ear

Elsa Maxwell, Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles

What I didn’t get to tell in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral dissertation, is how I love to cuddle up with a good voice. Aside from being rather too intimate an aspect of my passion for old-time radio to be shared in an academic paper, the sensuality and sway of the human voice, regardless of the words it conveys—seemed to be decidedly beyond the boundaries of my vocabulary.

I am hardly one to shy away from lexical experimentation; but I felt that I could not approach the subject—the mystique—of the vocal with the clarity and precision I aim for in all my linguistic playfulness. How, for example, could I describe the lush, seductive performances of Ann Sothern (as Maisie) and Natalie Masters (as Candy Matson), the sinister melancholy and paroxysmal fury of Peter Lorre (on Mystery in the Air, for instance), or the tender, tattered quavering of Gertrude Berg (matriarch of The Goldbergs) as I listen to them burble, groan, hiss and whimper, as I hear them snarling at or whispering to me?

How could I intellectualize the suave and mannered cadences of Vincent Price as the Saint or the hammy bluster of Orson Welles as Harry Lime? Some passions are not to be explained, to be argued out of existence. They are to be reveled in, secretly, in the shelter of darkness.

There are many such pleasures to be had listening to recordings of US radio broadcasts of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, a period during which voices were trained for and attuned to the special demands of the microphone. For me, they can be found and felt when encountering a friendly and well-groomed speaking voice of an announcer like Harry Bartell; a distinguished, eloquent recital like Ronald Colman’s (as in his D-Day reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army”); a tough, noirish delivery like Joseph Cotton’s (on Suspense); an unsentimental everymanliness like Joe Julian’s (on Corwin’s An American in England); a glamorous, sultry purring like Marlene Dietrich’s (as the peripatetic adventuress of Time for Love), Ilona Massey’s (as a spy-catching baroness in Top Secret) or Tallulah Bankhead’s (in her memorable role as hostess of the Big Show); a warm, avuncular drone like Nigel Bruce’s (as Sherlock Holmes sidekick and narrator Doctor Watson), a smart and charming lilt like Claudette Colbert’s (frequently heard on the Lux Radio Theater; above, in bed with Welles and etiquette maven Elsa Maxwell) or a queer pomposity like Monty Woolley’s (in his role as the Magnificent Montague).

Quite often, these voices had to convey lines better left unspoken, words unworthy of the actor’s talent. Yet through the magic of timbre and intonation, gifted performers could imbue almost any line with feeling, subtlety, or sly innuendo. And I’m not even talking about the suggestive reading Mae West lent to her characterization of Eve that got her banned from the airwaves. Last night I went to bed with Dane Clark. I didn’t quite get through his performance of John Andrews in a NBC University Theater production of John Dos Passos’s “Three Soldiers,” but his voice still lingers in my mind’s ear this morning.

Ever since I got my first radio, as a child, I have gone in search of voices, soothing, thrilling, enticing. I was eavesdropping on a hidden realm the passage to which was the canal of an eager ear pressed close against the speaker. It was my keyhole to the world about which I knew yet little, a world to which I did not yet belong. It was a levitating grown-up table, an off-limits chamber made of air and furnished by my imagination. Today, these disembodied voices come to me mainly by invitation. Whom, I wonder, am I going to take upstairs with me tonight?