Consider the Poppies

Once more, I turn to some humble sort of verse to express my thoughts on Armistice Day. As it turns out, it is the same thought for the same occasion. Hailing from the land of the old aggressor, I was unfamiliar with the British custom of sporting paper poppies in honor of the fallen. That Germans do not observe the day with such a display of red is both obvious and telling. What is being recalled are past victories and triumphs, not the vanity, the ruin and the death that are the now of war, the wars that are now.

Consider the Poppies

Symbols they are, I know,
those poppies pinned on lapels,
on shirts and on sweaters and coats.
A sea of them, all over Britain.

Scarlet flowers that shout down
the labels of whatever fashion,
to bloom for a day or so.

Simple it is, you know,
pinning those poppies to dispel
the sweat, and the lump in your throats.
I see it all. I am in Britain.

Go get yours, yet note also:
the poppy, so well out of season,
returns before long, to scorn
like the wars you ignore
in the very moment of commemoration.

Officers’ Disagreement: Gregory Peck Prepares for Future Fights

“The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and death of all thy creatures. May I always see in the patient a fellow creature in pain. Grant me strength and opportunity always to extend the domain of my craft.” That is what was left of the Oath of Maimonides when it was uttered, on this day, 28 August, in 1945, on The Doctor Fights, a radio series dramatizing the challenges of physicians operating in the theater of war. Gregory Peck read those lines with a dignity becoming the profession; at the same time, he lifted The Doctor Fights above the dubious status of an infomercial for the pharmaceutical concern sponsoring the series.

The program was fast losing its edge, now that World War II had officially come to an end. The Doctor was fighting his last ratings battles; but the fight for dominance of the world market was just getting under way. “With the rest of America,” the sponsor, Schenley Laboratories, was looking “with great expectation toward the limitless afforded by peace. Opportunities for bettering the lot of all mankind.” As anyone knows who has watched The Third Man, war-devastated Europe was a crippled, corrupted, and cadaverous body aching for medical treatment; and announcer Jimmy Wallington spelled out where the opportunities lay for improvement and profit: “One of the greatest among these gifts of medicine is Penicillin. Born of war, this promising drug will contribute much toward making a peacetime world in which disease and suffering reach a new and all-time low.” No mention is made of the all-time lows in the field of advertising, which hit the airwaves for the first time on this day, 28 August, back in 1922.

The Oath of Maimonides, which may be of German origin, is uttered in many variations; but most of them argue the physician to have been appointed to “watch over the life and health” of the human race, not over its “life and death.” This is a peculiar phrasing, given the program’s sponsor. Should doctors merely stand by and “watch over” people’s death, or do their utmost to see to its prevention? Perhaps, the war had been turning the Oath into a curse, as doctors were called upon to heal those who were prepared and ruthless enough to cause them harm.

Such a story is the “Medicine for the Enemy,” the episode scheduled for 28 August 1945 (a recording of which is currently in my online library). Purportedly, it is the “true story of Lieutenant Commander Harry Joseph,” whom Peck portrays and who is interviewed at the close of the program. As a medical officer aboard the destroyer USS Osmond Ingram, Joseph is low on penicillin, but faced with the duty of having to care for the thirteen Germans who survived the sinking of their submarine. “What if one of our own men’s injured before we get back to port,” the doctor confides in the captain, “and the only medicine that can save him has been used up on enemy prisoners?” He is reminded that it is “up to [him]” to make such decisions. Clearly, the Oath has been revised for such occasions of watching “over the life and death” of “creatures” foreign and hostile.

Foreign and hostile they are, those Nazi prisoners, men who would rather die than be treated by a non-Aryan. “The first time since I’ve been a doctor,” Joseph tells the German commander, a man twice blinded, by hatred and acid, “I’m not sure I care.”

The medical officer realizes that, in order to heal the body, he has to fight as well the ignorance and arrogance of the proud Nazis, applying “doses of truth, backed up by facts. That was the treatment used in combating the disease.” In dispensing this “anti-toxin for fascism” along with the Penicillin administered on behalf of the sponsor, Peck that was doing so, the actor who portrayed Joseph was preparing for the roles for which he became famous.

Little Noisemakers: Hedy Lamarr, Winifred Wolfe, and Lili Darvas

“Are you willing to undertake a dangerous mission behind the enemy lines, knowing you may never return alive.” Thus opens Cloak and Dagger, an early-1950s radio series dramatizing the experiences of OSS (Office of Strategic Services) agents during World War II, “ordinary citizens who to this question answered ‘Yes.’” On this day, 27 August, in 1950, Cloak and Dagger presented “The Black Radio,” a story “suggested by actual incidents” concerning an “OSS agent who broadcast allied propaganda from behind enemy lines.” A radio thriller about radio? I had to tune in, of course, but got distracted by a little incident very early in the story.

Narrated by Larry Haines as Major Mark Lange, “The Black Radio” opens in the “big gadget room” at the OSS headquarters in Washington. It is a quiet day when, all of a sudden, one of Lange’s colleagues grabs his arm and, warning him about an air raid, detonates a small device in his waste basket. Just a prank among co-workers. The latest OSS gadget, Lange learns, is “a little noisemaker” about the size of a lemon, “great if you are in a tight spot and want to start a riot,” his colleague laughs. “We call it the Hedy Lamarr.”

The real Hedy Lamarr, of course, was more than a “little noisemaker.” Not only was she an accomplished Hollywood actress, but an inventor as well. Together with theaforementioned composer George Antheil,, Lamarr (seen above with Ish Kabibble and Kay Kyser at a Command Performance broadcast) developed a patented radio control for torpedoes, based on the principle of “frequency hopping”; but the navy would not have anything to do with the invention . . . at least not until the patent had expired.

And yet, “The Black Radio,” along with a few other episode of Cloak and Dagger, is not the kind of he-man adventure you might expect from a series so titled. It was penned by short story writer Winifred Wolfe, who, aside from being for a time the head writer for the television soap opera As the World Turns, became known for her stories about career women. “Ask Any Girl”—she knew their stories. Perhaps, Wolfe was merely commenting on the sexism in the work field when she exploded that little crack about Lamarr. “The Black Radio” does have a formidable woman at its center.

Major Lange is sent to Germany to weaken resistance with black propaganda by cutting in on the local Nazi stations to tell the people of Freiburg the kind of stuff the OSS wants them to hear. This was to prepare for the US invasion of Germany. The “Black Radio” in that strategic region was already manned, Lange learns. Or, rather, it was womanned—and the agent, Lucille, has not been heard from in over three months.

Our narrator begins to fantasize about Lucille, imagining her to be young and beautiful. It is here that Wolfe plays a trick on the Haines and the audience—for Lucille has “neither been slim nor young for longer than [she] can remember.” She once “taught history in grade school; now she was “helping to make it.” For this, she is prepared to die.

A well-crafted episode in the Cloak and Dagger series, “The Black Radio” recalls Charles J. Rolo’s reports on the “pirate stations” broadcasting in “defiance of the Nazis.” In Radio Goes to War (1942), a signed copy of which is in my library, Rolo “recount[s] episodes in the melodrama” of what he calls “one of the most thrilling chapters in the history of underground movement.”

Ever since the outbreak of war, mysterious voices supposedly broadcasting from within Nazi-controlled territory have periodically been picked up by vigilant listeners. [. . .] If any of these stations was really operated inside of occupied Europe, it was a suicide venture. Modern technical equipment makes it an easy matter for engineers of the German radio to detect the whereabouts of a bootleg transmitter.

“The Black Radio” and its operators do not escape detection. Featuring the voices of Barry Kroeger (as a Gestapo clerk), German-born Stefan Schnabel, and Adolf Hitler (in newsreel footage), the play is rendered particularly poignant by the casting of Lucille. Heard in the role is Hungarian-born stage actress Lili Darvas, the Tony-Award nominated wife of playwright Ferenc Molnar, with whom she was forced to emigrate to the United States in the 1930s. Wolfe’s play gave Darvas an opportunity to impersonate a freedom broadcaster making some noise from within.

As it turns out, Wolfe reserved a strong supporting role as well for “Hedy Lamarr. The “little noisemaker” ends up creating a riot in the place where most people would expect Lamarr to work her magic: in a crowded movie theater.

You’ve Got Mail, Herr Hitler

As of this writing, various episodes of The Shadow have been extracted some four-hundred thousand times from that vast, virtual repository of culture known, no, not as YouTube, but as the Internet Archive. This seems encouraging. At least, the most famous of all radio thrillers is still being remembered or rediscovered today, in part due, no doubt, to the misguided efforts of bringing Lamont Cranston back to the screen that cannot contain or render him. It is rather disheartening, though, that what is being so widely regarded as classic radio, perhaps even representational of American culture, is not the kind of non-matter likely to induce anyone to consider the aural arts as . . . art. Sure, The Shadow has provided material for quite a few cultural studies, including this journal, and no history of popular entertainment in the United States ought to be called comprehensive, let alone complete, without at least a mention of this conceptually inspired if at times dramatically insipid neo-gothic phenomenon. Still, an injustice is done to a generation that had more on its mind and in its ears than vicarious thrills.

Few who rummage for old-time radio in the Archive appear to have been sufficiently intrigued by an item curiously labeled Dear Adolf. I, for one, was excited to find it there, having read the published scripts and discussed them in my dissertation without having come across those recordings. I argued against reading in lieu of listening; but, in the case of Dear Adolf, it would have been a mistake not to make a compromise and consider what I deem ersatz for ear play. The series, after all, was written by the aforementioned Stephen Vincent Benét, a once highly regarded American poet who has long fallen out of fashion. While it did not do much damage to the name of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the writing of radio propaganda may have discredited Benét, along with his insistence on telling stories or retelling history, rather than being lyrical, experimental, or elitist.

Dear Adolf is unjustly neglected by those who enjoy such ready access to recordings from radio’s so-called golden age. The six-part program, tossed into the hole left by shows on summer hiatus back in 1942, was commissioned by the Council of Democracy and designed to turn detached listeners into active contributors to the war effort. As the title suggests, Dear Adolf was a proposed as a series of open letters to the enemy, written, we are to imagine with the help of seasoned performers from stage, screen, and radio, by ordinary Americans seizing a rare opportunity to communicate their fears, their hatred, and their defiance to the German dictator.

On this day, 12 July, in 1942, it was Helen Hayes’s task to portray an American “Housewife and Mother.” Well known to millions of listeners, the previously featured Hayes was one of the few theater actresses to embrace radio early on, if mainly, by her own admission, to be able to devote more time to her family and her rose garden. The war suggested more urgent reasons for stepping behind the microphone, and the airwaves became a passage through which playwrights, poets, and performing artists could exit their ivory retreats and present themselves to the broader public for a cause worth the tempering of high art with an appeal to the lowest common denominator—the need for a clear image of what America stood for and was up against during a war whose objectives, it seems surprising today, were not appreciated or understood by a great many of its citizens. Their support—their money—was needed to provide the funds for a war of uncertain duration and, initially at least, less certain success.

Without becoming an outright fascist tool in a democratic society, radio needed to function as a unifier. In doing so, it had to address and engage a populace rather than assuming it to be homogenous. As I pointed out in my study, “Letter from a Housewife and Mother” is particularly interesting in this respect. Playing the part of a homemaker and part-time First Aid instructor, Hayes is meant to be—and her character insists on being—representative of free women everywhere. Rarely questioned, much less contested, in network radio, her white voice is being countered by that of a black woman, who protests:

Free women? What of me?
What of my millions and my ancient wrong?
What of my people, bowed in darkness still?

Despite her awareness that the enemy would further drive her people back to the “old slavery of whip and chains,” the speaker expresses her disillusionment with American democracy:

And yet, even today, we find no place
Even in war, for much that we could do
And would do for—our country.

However manipulative in its attempt to calm such unrest, the play is remarkable for its acknowledgment of such dissatisfaction with the status quo among those who felt themselves to be disenfranchised. It is a rare moment in American radio drama, far removed from the popular exploits of Amos ‘n’ Andy, which depended for its success on the general acceptance of conditions it refused to problematize. Minds not clouded by crowd-pleasing commercial fare like The Shadow might appreciate Dear Adolf as an experiment in leveling with the marginalized rather than assuming or declaring their differences leveled. While in the business of pleasing everybody, radio did not always reduce difference to the aural stereotypes of regional and ethnic accents.

Hitler or Miss: When Nazis Take a D(r)ubbing

The last time I was greeted with ’Allo ‘Allo! (1982-92), I was stepping into the Carne Di Hall in Budapest. As the restaurant sign already warned me, I was in for the slaughter of languages and had to prepare for the Wurst. I was too busy though poring over the menu to ponder whether a British sitcom set in Nazi-occupied France might be in poor taste. Sipping my instant coffee this morning, I once again caught a few snippets of the show when I came across this item on the BBC News online. According to the report, Allo ‘Allo! has by now aired in forty countries—but I did not grow up in one of them. You see, was born and raised in Germany.

Before moving to the US, I was unaware just how popular The Sound of Music is elsewhere; I had never seen it. Before relocating to Britain, I had never even heard of The Colditz Story (1955), without a screening of which it would not be Easter in the United Kingdom. Coming of age in West Germany, I was being sheltered from words and images that would make my grandparents uneasy. I may not have gotten stuck behind the Wall, but the world’s views of my grandfatherland were being carefully filtered for me all the same. Some decade and a half after its last original episode aired in Britain, ’Allo, ‘Allo! is being readied for its Deutsch debut. Is it springtime for Hitler in Germany? Is it all right for the offspring of Hitler’s children to laugh at the extreme right? Are my fellow countrymen and women ready to redefine the “Camp” in Concentration Camp? I am not sure whether Germans find it difficult to laugh at caricatures of their former selves because they cannot make light of their past or because they so desperately want to feel proud of themselves.

Perhaps, the reception of Heil Honey, I’m Home! is going to be the ultimate test. Even the British considered that one too hard to stomach. Then again, so much depends on the dubbing; and when it comes to pop cultural imports, Germans do quite a bit of cleaning up.

I realized that when I first watched the Marilyn Monroe comedy The Prince and the Showgirl in its original version. The German translation does away with all the German, turning Monroe’s character into a French-American. ‘Allo, ‘allo? Whatever historical context there was in The Prince —the Balkan crisis leading to World War I—is being erased to leave nothing but a fairytale. Now, the original is mostly that, but you’ve got to wonder at the pains the German film industry took during the late 1950s to change the background of this innocuous piece of popular culture so as to keep from those who came to see a bombshell any memories of bombs and shell shock.

Germans get edgy when confronted elsewhere with language that recalls their past. I remember going to Coney Island with my sister. We walked past the famous rollercoaster; and when I told her its name, she thought it “geschmacklos” (“tasteless”). The word Cyclone reminded her of Zyklon B, the poison with which our grandparents’ generation had exterminated thousands of their Jewish neighbors, colleagues, and relations.

This afternoon, BBC 2 broadcast Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), the spy thriller whose premise it was that VE-Day had not taken care of the Nazis altogether. Not having seen it since the 1999 Hitchcock centenary screenings at the MoMA, I am going to revisit Notorious in a moment; and I shall keep in mind that, when the film premiered in Germany, it was reduced to the story of drug smuggling. To leave no doubt as to the kind of villainy depicted, Notorious was retitled “Weisses Gift” (“white poison”). How can a people get the picture if it does not get the sound to go with it?

“Ich weiss . . .”: The Certainties of Zarah Leander

“Es ist unmöglich, von Edgar Wallace nicht gefesselt zu sein,” the German translation of a famous publisher’s slogan goes. Never mind the author, whose name, to me, is synonymous with a long series of neogothic film shockers produced in Germany from the late 1950s to the early ‘70s, starring, the enigmatic Klaus Kinski aside, the by then soured crème de la crème of German cinema. It is not the author or the actors but the catchphrase that came to mind today. The original—the assertion that it is “impossible not to be thrilled” by said writer—is decidedly less expressive.

But then, English so often is, compared to the directness of the emotionally charged German language, whose dictionary, largely free from sterilizing Latin, lays meaning bare like a wound bleeding with the memory of deeply felt sensations. “Sehnsucht,” “Weltschmerz,” “Leidenschaft”—I know of no equivalent vehicle in the English lexicon with which to convey quite so forcibly the shattered frame of an agitated mind! The exclamation point, an expedient in punctuation to which I rarely permit myself the resorting, is meant here to imply at once the passion evoked by the German and the frustration of approximating it as my mother tongue sticks itself out at me.

Let us not get tongue-tied. “Gefesselt” loosely translates into “captivated” or, so as not to be loose about what is tight and binding, “tied up” and “enthralled.” What could be more enthralling than the timbre of Zarah Leander? Who could capture longing better than she? Enthralling, yes; but listening to Leander, I can feel rope burn—the sensation of struggling to loosen a restraint. A desire to put a name and voice to my feelings (described in the previous post) compelled me to go in search of her online, the internet being a lifeline for those who, like me, have struggled and failed to sever their ties from the culture into which they were born.

Leander, of course, was a leading lady in Third Reich cinema. As such, her voice and image are both riveting and repulsive to me. Like my present wavering and uncertainty, the figure of Zarah Leander, spellbinding as it may be, spells ambiguity and contradiction. To begin with, Leander was not German; she had Jewish ancestry; a homosexual friend wrote some of her best-known songs. And yet, she was in the service of fascism, implicated in song, as the jolly crowd of Nazis listening and swaying to one of her signature tunes, “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter” in this clip from Die Grosse Liebe (1942) drive home.

Knowing this, I still feel like the blond boy sitting by her side as she teases him that he could not possibly know the most basic sensations—the smell of hazelnuts or an icy wind against one’s cheeks (a song performed, no less, in in a film by the man who would be Douglas Sirk). Wrapped up in her presence, “Schatten der Vergangenheit” (shadows of the past) are crowding in on me.

Zarah Leander is telling me more about myself than I have had the guts to digest at times. By the 1970s, she had become a queer icon, appropriated by the crowd that the regime she tacitly endorsed used to send off to the camps. “Kann denn Liebe Sünde sein?” (Yet can love be sin?) she famously sang, which became—or indeed was conceived as—a song of gay longing. I did not want to be reminded of that liberation, either. In the confusion of a childhood spent in the awareness that I would be unlike the men who desire women sexually, there was no assurance in the taking possession of her in the name of the love then thought of as having to remain unnamed.

Tonight, Leander’s performances are strangely reaffirming. There is “something understood” in her voice, in the lyrics and their delivery. She knows, her character claims in this song, of a future miracle (“Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehn”), in her voice a conviction her tears seem to belie. I have no need of miracles. Instead, I glory in the wonder of feeling intensely, of being alive to my conflicting emotions, my fears and longings. Recognizing those feelings, I suddenly know myself again . . .

Bookshelf Cowboy

Well, howdy. His handsome mug is before me whenever I grab a book from my shelves. Randolph Scott, Series two, Number 385 of Zuban’s “Bunte Filmbilder” (a German line of cigarette cards, issued in 1937). I caught a glimpse of Scott this afternoon when I turned on TV, switching channels for an update on the stock market, the Heath Ledger autopsy, and whatever else made news today. Rage at Dawn (1955) was playing on Channel 4. Checking the Internet Movie Database, I realized that it might have been shown in commemoration of Scott’s birth, on this day, back in 1898. Now, my frequent encounters with him in my library notwithstanding, I rarely come across his appealing phizog. This is mainly because I don’t care much for the genre in which Scott made his mark. Stagecoach aside, which to me is more of a small-scale Grand Hotel on wheels, I rarely watch Westerns (even though a certain—if unlikely—Texas Lady is prominently displayed in my bedroom). True, Scott co-starred in My Favorite Wife and played opposite Marlene Dietrich on two occasions; but otherwise, there isn’t much on his extensive resume that appeals to me. So, I am once again twisting the dial, the ether being Hollywood’s parallel universe.

Sure enough, apart from recreating his roles in Pittsburgh and Belle of the Yukon, Scott can be heard co-starring aforementioned Texas Lady, Claudette Colbert, in an adaptation of Preston Sturges’s ”Palm Beach Story” (15 March 1943), filling the shoes of Joel McCrea. He was to do so again, a few months later, when McCrea did not appear, as scheduled, on the Cavalcade of America program, starring in the propaganda drama ”Vengeance of Torpedo 8” (20 September 1943).

While he did not get much to do or say in the rather dull rehash of Palm Beach Story, Scott was given a chance to prove his comedy skills on a number of occasions. Opposite Gene Tierney, for instance, he was cast in “A Lady Takes a Chance” on the Harold Lloyd hosted Old Gold Comedy Hour (unfortunately no longer available in the Internet Archive). For more laughs, Scott joined Paulette Goddard for a parodic “Saga of the Old West” on Command Performance (21 June 1945). Assigning the parts, Goddard declared: “Randy, you play yourself. A real, two-gun cowboy.”

Turns out that Scott got a chance to play the Ringo Kid, after all. On 4 May 1946, he took on John Wayne’s role in the Academy Award production of Stagecoach. Sharing the microphone with him to reprise the role of Dallas was Claire Trevor, radio’s original Lorelei Kilbourne of Big Town (whom I recently saw in Born to Kill).

To me, the more intriguing performances were Scott’s curtain calls, during which he got to address the audience. Having delivered his lines in the digest of “Palm Beach Story,” the actor was called upon to put his southern charm to work for the war effort, reminding the women on the home front that

it’s men like your own sons and brothers, your husband or sweetheart whom the Red Cross is serving. This year, don’t measure by ordinary standards. Make your contribution to the Red Cross War Fund just as generous as possible.

“For most of us the war is a distant terror,” he told listeners of the Cavalcade broadcast, “until it is brought forcefully home by those very close to our own lives. Let’s match their effort at the front with ours at home. Back the attack with War Bonds.”

Of course, Scott’s commitment to the war effort went further than those appeals; he was, after all, a veteran of the first World War. And, like many of his fellow actors, he went on tour with the USO (an experience he shared with listeners of Hollywood Star Time).

Meanwhile, the gentleman from Virginia has gone back on the shelf. I shall see him again soon enough, as I reach for another volume on old-time radio. For this spur-of-the-moment tribute to him, Scott made me round up Cavalcade of America and Radio Drama by Martin Grams, as well as John Dunning’s On the Air.

". . . between the zodiac and Orson Welles": A Play Scheduled for Pearl Harbor

Well, it wasn’t exactly business as usual on this day, 7 December, back in 1941. Mind you, lucre-minded broadcasters tried hard to keep the well-oiled machinery of commercial radio running. There were soap operas and there was popular music, interrupted in a fashion rehearsed by “The War of the Worlds,” by updates about the developments of the attack on Pearl Harbor (previously commemorated here). Unlike on the day now known as 9/11, when advertising came to an immediate standstill to make way for propaganda and regular (that is, commercial) programming ceased for hours and days to come, radio back then was slow to adapt. There was no precedent; and, having ignored the signs of the time, not much preparation.

Minding the business of its sponsors, broadcasters had no master plan for a response to the masterminds behind the plans for the master race and its allies. It was, however briefly, overmastered; or flummoxed, at least. For an industry relying on minute timing, the attack and subsequent declaration of war were most inopportune. Big business was, for the most part, not behind a war that would translate into major financial losses.

Until that day, broadcasters had counted on being inconsequential; it was the commerce stimulated by the sales talk punctuating the chatter and musical interludes proffered “in the public interest,” that mattered.

The Screen Guild was fortunate. After previous crowd pleasers like “Penny Serenade” and “If You Could Only Cook,” the Gulf Motor Oil sponsored Hollywood-rehash factory had scheduled a play that just fit the bill. For that fateful night it had prepared a live production of Norman Corwin’s “Between Americans,” previously staged in June 1941. “By one of those mystic and infallible arrangements between the zodiac and Orson Welles,” the playwright would recall, this broadcast was the

first uninterrupted half-hour on the CBS network after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. All afternoon the news had come pounding in—comment, short-wave pickups, rumors, analyses, flashes, bulletins. Programs of all kinds were either brushed aside or so riddled by special announcements that they made no sense. But by 7:30 PM EST all available news on the situation was exhausted, and the Screen Guild, which had long ago scheduled “Between Americans” and Welles for this date, was given clear air.

According to Corwin, the greatest living American radio dramatist, indeed the greatest radio playwright of any time anywhere (whose 97th birthday I celebrated here), the “staggering news of the previous hours made the show far more exciting than it had any right to be.” The studio audience reacted enthusiastically, a response the playwright attributed to the moment, rather than to anything of moment in his play.

A war only four hours old is an emotion, an intoxication, a bewilderment [. . .]. People felt reassured by it. They heard the piece as a statement of faith. They were moved; they laughed extra loud; they applauded like mad when the show was over. I am certain it was Pearl Harbor that made the show so electric that night, and not so much the work of Welles, Corwin, or Harry Ackerman, who directed it.

“Between Americans” had not been prepared for the day; indeed, it had been produced five months earlier, with actor Ray Collins (whose voice Welles regarded as the best in the business) as narrator. According to Corwin, who is none too fond of the play, there were some 22,000 requests for scripts and rebroadcasts. No wonder, with lines like these:

You ever asked yourself what America means to you? Does it mean 1776? “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean”? Big business? The Bill of Rights? Uncle Sam? Chances are it means none of these things. Chances are it means something very personal to each of you. Something close to your heart, which you’d miss like the very blazes if you were stranded abroad. It might have nothing to do with quotes from Madison or Acts of Congress. It might be just the feeling of crisp autumns in New England and the smell of burning leaves. It might be the memory of the way they smooth off the infield between the games of a double-header. It might be a thing as small as your little finger [that is, a cigarette].

“Big business” and personal memories. They merge at the moment of listening. Big business counted on that.

The 7 December 1941 program is a fascinating record of an industry coming to terms with the role it was called upon to play. The commercial structure remained remarkably intact; but the play was being shrewdly exploited as “one of the most timely programs ever heard on the Gulf Screen Guild Theater:

Broadcast at any time, we believe this program would make every American’s heart beat a little faster, make him hold his head just a little higher. But since the tragic and foreboding news that came today, this program, “Between Americans,” now becomes an American Odyssey. In just a moment, our story will begin.

“But first,” listeners had to hear the words from the sponsor, who had this topical message prepared for the occasion:

Right. And here is an easy way to change from a pessimist into an optimist. If you are wondering now how long you may have to keep your present car, and wondering too if it will last, if it will stay in good condition, just look on the bright side of the picture. Remember, when you give the wearing parts of your car good protection that helps it stay young and act young a long, long time. So, give your automobile the modern method of lubrication . . .

Yes, radio was a well-oiled machine . . . until the rationing of its parts set in.

A Soundtrack for the Silent Era

Well, I am all ears again. After the visual assault described in the previous post, this constitutes a welcome reining in of the senses. Not that the experience is a tranquil one. I am listening to the sounds of war . . . the Great War. Presented by BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, “The Sounds of Flanders” (available here until 30 November), introduces listeners to a collection of rare phonograph recordings produced for the domestic market in Britain, the “first form of saleable audio propaganda”—patriotic speeches, rousing songs, and soundstaged re-enactments of warfare.

The recordings, which include dramatizations of an air raid on an English coastal town and the attack on the RMS Lusitania made just weeks after the ship’s sinking, were unearthed by broadcast historian Tim Crook, who calls them the earliest surviving example of audio drama produced in Britain.

Not all of it was produced for the local market; apparently, some of these recordings were intended for an American audience in an attempt to rally support for the Great War. It clearly anticipates the shortwave transmissions of World War II, as described in Charles J. Rolo’s 1942 study Radio Goes to War (of which I am fortunate to have added to my library above copy signed by its author). As Rolo put it,

[radio]went to war on five continents shortly after the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. In eight years it has been streamlined from a crude propaganda bludgeon into the most powerful single instrument of political warfare the world has ever known. More flexible in use and infinitely stronger in emotional impact than the printed word, as a weapon of war waged psychologically radio has no equal.

According to Rolo, “Nazi tacticians, unhampered by the deadweight of outdated traditions, had taken to heart the lessons of the last war and were elaborating for the future a strategy of war waged psychologically.” As “The Sounds of Flanders” suggests, those strategies may well have originated in the United Kingdom, even though the audio recordings were apparently not made by any branch of the government (a point in need of clarification).

As in the case of the electrophone wirecasts from the London stage during the reign of Queen Victoria (discussed here), those phono-graphic records antecede the first experimentations in broadcast theatricals, which began in the early 1920s.

Programs like “The Sounds of Flanders” help to restore the soundtrack for a generation that today is largely thought of as silent.


Well, what do we mean when we say that a story (a book or movie or play) is “graphic”? Do we refer to the mode of depiction or to the matter depicted? Does it describe a work of art that is especially vivid or particularly morbid? These days, the term is both a warning label and a genre marker. It is designed to signify horror, which, distinct from terror, details rather than insinuates violence. When applied to print media, it signals a superior kind of picture story, something set apart from the comic by virtue of its mature themes or adult language (regardless of how immature “adult” language may often be).

The first picture book I came across that warrants the label “graphic” in both respects is Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It is a biographical account of Jewish life in fascist Germany, the horrors of the concentration camps, and a storyteller’s struggle to grapple with such memories as recalled by a close relative.

To depict the Holocaust in drawings of half-human animal figures is a daring project to begin with. It takes on the tradition of the fable and renders concrete what constitutes the dehumanization suffered under totalitarianism. On the one hand, Maus de-Disneyfies the fable, which, for centuries, had served as a coded moral tale not restricted to children or petty lessons in table manners. On the other, more bloody hand, it takes the figures of the fable out of their abstract realm and places them into concrete historical settings.

I was reminded of Spiegelman’s Maus last night when I went to see Die Fälscher (2007), a German film set in a concentration camp. Die Fälscher (translated as The Counterfeiters, tells the story of Jews forced by the Nazis to forge foreign currencies in an attempt to ruin the enemy’s economy and finance the ruinous Wirtschaft at home. For the conscripted Jews, foremost among them a highly talented criminal, it means survival and relative safety as well as an act aiding the system that has isolated, degraded and singled them out for extinction . . .

Like Maus, Die Fälscher deals with the guilt of those who forge a future for themselves in a world that insists on their pastness; it is a graphic story of craftsmanship drawn upon for the art of survival. The pen is mightier then the sword, Bulwer-Lytton famously remarked; its true test, however, lies in countering an army of erasers . . .