Bosley Crowther’s Phantom Brain

When I had to write papers on film at school, my stock opening gambit was to look up what Bosley Crowther had said about the movie in question in the NY Times, and then disparage him. Since Crowther always favored the most pedantic, literal-minded interpretations, his writing provided a kind of flawless Magnetic South against which to measure my own (correct) views.

To start off our Sonic Woolrich Geology, I’m reviving this move and updating it for the iPod generation. Dig if you will Crowther’s review of Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady:

Something was bound to happen when a former Alfred Hitchcock protégée and a former director of German horror films were teamed on the Universal lot—something severe and unrelenting, drenched in creeping morbidity and gloom. And that something, which Miss Joan Harrison and Robert Siodmak have evolved, is a little item called “Phantom Lady,” which came to Loew’s State yesterday.

Wait. This almost sounds favorable. Feeling a bit dizzy, I press on, hoping for the solid ground of banality beneath my feet:

We wish we could recommend it as a perfect combination of the styles of the eminent Mr. Hitchcock and the old German psychological films, for that is plainly and precisely what it tries very hard to be. It is full of the play of light and shadow, of macabre atmosphere, of sharply realistic faces and dramatic injections of sound. People sit around in gloomy places looking blankly and silently into space, music blares forth from empty darkness, and odd characters turn up and disappear. It is all very studiously constructed for weird and disturbing effects.

Still I am gravely troubled. Except for the pompous royal we, Crowther might almost be telling you what makes the movie so good. Is his faithful dog ghostwriting the piece? Don’t give up:

But, unfortunately, Miss Harrison and Mr. Siodmak forgot one basic thing—they forgot to provide their picture with a plausible, realistic plot. And this tale of a girl’s endeavors to prove her sweetheart innocent of a murder he didn’t commit grows wearisome and finally downright foolish when one lapse after another goes by. The tedium is also augmented by the monotonous pace which is generally set. You might almost think the director had gone to sleep there a couple of times.

Relax. This is the master at the depth of his powers. His instinctive misreading of the tone and pace of the film, the way he consistently sees virtues as blemishes, this is 100-proof Times Middlebrow. More intoxicating still is his belief that a Woolrich yarn would be improved rather than destroyed by a “plausible, realistic plot.”

None of this has anything much to do with the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of Phantom Lady, but when I saw that Crowther’s review was readily available online and ready for the cutting and pasting, I was overcome with nostalgia for the days when you needed to spool up microfilm in order to make fun of him.

Now on to the main dish. Since the last post pointed the way towards Ms. Miller’s writing on the Suspense versions of our Mr. Salty, I thought I’d start with another show, one that should be of particular interest to movie buffs: the Lux Radio Theater was not just the most expensive and prestigious radio drama of all, it was a giant commercial not only for silky smooth lather but for all of Hollywood. Hour-long audio condensations of popular movies, hosted always by a prestigious director, first the ineffably pompous DeMille, then William Keighley, who delighted in telling us of his world travels “with Mrs. Keighley” in just the same tone that used to make one dread a slide projector after a dinner party, then finally Irving Cummings, who lends support to the auteur theory by delivering intros as efficient and forgettable as his films.

Here’s a link to the show.

You’ll notice that Brian Aherne steps into the Franchot Tone role. Often the pleasure of Lux is in the curious recasting of familiar films. Sometimes these moves only confirm the wisdom of the original choices, as when Alan Ladd steps into Bogart’s elevator shoes in Casablanca. But occasionally the changes offer great insight: Edward G. Robinson is an exceptional Sam Spade, more faithful to the novel than Bogart. Enjoy the show, and remember that Andrew Sarris said in an interview that he “saw” many favorite films for the first time listening at home to the LRT.

Here is a half-hour version of the story done for Screen Guild Theater. SGT was a smaller scale version of Lux where the star’s fees were donated to the Motion Picture Relief Fund in order to support the creation and maintenance of the Motion Picture Country Home for retired actors. Usually, cutting a whole film down to 30 minutes made it totally incoherent, but in a Woolrich story the abrupt, random quality can seem authentic.

3 Responses to “Bosley Crowther’s Phantom Brain”

  1. […] Murphy has been hosting a Woolrich Week of his own over at his Electric Chair blog, looking at radio versions of Woolrich stories and radio […]

  2. I keep meaning to listen to more Lux shows. Sometimes the narrative compression works badly, but, occasionally, it leaves you wondering why you bothered sitting through the whole film the first time!

    I know you want to talk about lots of things on this here blog, but I hope you keep some sort of focus on old radio. As you say in another post, it’s a sort of neglected parallel world that people seem not to bother about. Part of the reason for that neglect might be because it’s quite hard to navigate through the tons of crap to find the good stuff. Even searching for things by people you like isn’t always helpful – Orson Welles’s Harry Lime shows are really great, but his Tales From the Black Museum are strangely flat and uninteresting, for example.

    It would be interesting to see some proper attention being paid to some of the old shows. The Bogart and Bacall show, Bold Venture, taken as a whole, is much better than some of the films that they made (although I don’t think it’s better than any of the ones that they made together), but it seems to have been broadly ignored by critics.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

    • Thanks so much. My first real comment!
      I think the blog may develop a focus on otr over time simply because there are lots of good film and music blogs but very few otr.

      you are absolutely right that it’s hard to navigate through the chaff of otr without a guide. For example the show that hooked me was Ellis` Frontier Gentleman, a one season wonder that got no attention at the time and that would shock people who think radio cowboy means lone ranger.

      You mention you like bold venture. check Calfkiller on the blogroll. he has been posting uncirculated episodes in good quality mp3. That show was written by Fine and Freidkin, who wrote extraordinary stuff for director Elliott Lewis, like Crime Classics, another wildly adult show that did nothing at the time and gets no attention from the Fibber McGee type listeners. Check out that and Broadway is my beat their noir police show. Worthy of Ulmer or Siodmak. Yet people are as likely as not to talk about a show like Boston Blackie, that I find to be 200 episodes of identical rubbish.

      If you like the Luxes, I think the 1-hr Screen Director’s playhouse are even better.
      Alias Nick Beal or Shadow of a Doubt are splendid, expensive productions with a gorgeous, involving sound.

      Keep visiting and spread the word. Tomorrow I’ll have a post on 2 versions of black angel.

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