Archive for the Cornell Woolrich Category

Double Down on Doom

Posted in Cornell Woolrich, Radio Drama on April 25, 2010 by pfmurphy

Woolrich Audio week limps to a close with two adaptations from series we have not covered before.

I don’t know that Wardrobe Trunk was ever adapted into a film, but it’s an exemplary Woolrich short: fast-moving, arbitrary, frightening, and implausible. This Radio City Playhouse is also the first New York-based radio show we’ve covered. The difference between L.A. and New York radio drama is like Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: it’s hard to say exactly what it is, but you know it when you hear it. Perhaps it’s the difference between the California actors also working in Hollywood movies, and the New Yorkers spending nights working in live theater.

Certainly, RCP, with its “theatre” setting and relatively somber acting by David Gothard and Joe DeSantis, allows Woolrich to unfold without the pervasive delirium that we’ve gotten used to.

1949-04-04 Radio City Playhouse Wardrobe Trunk

Now, this is a classic. Escape, radio’s great anthology of high adventure, presents Frank Lovejoy in a demented stew of voodoo curses and lunatic prejudices about jazz.
Lovejoy had a fine career as a Hollywood second lead, in In A Lonely Place and The Hitchhiker among others, but he seemed rather stolid much of the time. But on radio, he was possessed of a great gift of intimacy.

If you only listen to one Woolrich on radio, make it this one. If Edgar Ulmer had made radio shows…

Escape 1948-01-21 Papa Benjamin

Thanks for sticking around for my first blog project. Stay tuned. . . .

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Unsafety Curtain

Posted in Cornell Woolrich, Radio Drama on April 19, 2010 by pfmurphy

David Cairns Woolrich Week has ended, but for those of you feeling an acute shortage of confusion and misery in your life, I still have a couple more radio dramas for you.

The Black Curtain is a classic episode of Suspense, well received enough that they performed it three times. It’s a perfect radio story, the abstraction introduced by the listening experience is a great match for Woolrich’s signature absurdity and narrative violence. Plus, it has an amnesia plot.

People who defend audio drama often say things about how it “involves you right in the story,” or “makes the listener do the work of imagining the scene.” All true as far as it goes, but it fails to measure the difference between feeling oneself immersed in something pleasant and predictable like a Lone Ranger story, and Woolrich’s worlds of confusion and obscurity.

Black Curtain also shows why Woolrich was in some ways even more successful on radio than film. No matter how many shadows, crossfades, and fog machines a movie director employs, narrative cinema is an incorrigibly realistic medium; we are watching someone else who has been photographed doing stuff . But the important stuff in audio drama really is unseen and overheard, and this creates an element of irresolvable uncertainty.

Plus, no Woolrich movie could have counted on a hero as urbane and classy as Cary Grant. Mr. Leach starred in the first two versions of the story, and listening to two versions of the same script can give us a sense of how Suspense was evolving in the first years of its long run.

Suspense Black Curtain 1 1943 Dec 12 with Cary Grant

Suspense Black Curtain 2 1944 Nov 30 with Cary Grant

The third and final version was the first of the one hour episodes hosted by Robert Montgomery. In this show, Montgomery also plays the lead. Though he doesn’t match Grant’s performance, the longer story is powerful, and Lurene Tuttle is a marvel as the female lead. One of the joyous surprises of listening to vintage radio for the classic film lover is getting to know the elite group of professional radio actors, people like Tuttle, Cathy and Elliott Lewis, Jack Kruschen, and many more, and hearing how often they match and even outdo the great Hollywood stars before the microphone.

Suspense Black Curtain 3 1948 Jan 3 with Robert Montgomery

That’s the Short and Long of It

Posted in Cornell Woolrich, Radio Drama on April 17, 2010 by pfmurphy

Now we get back to Woolrich, with two versions of his Black Angel, both from Suspense. They share only the broadest outlines with the film of Black Angel directed by Roy William Neill and starring Dan Duryea and June Vincent. Remember, there is a distinction between a show like Lux, adapting the movie adaptation for radio, and something like Suspense, that began either with original radio plays or literary works. Lux’s job was to be as much like a movie for the ears as possible, but Suspense could develop its own medium to a high degree.

The first version (1944) is eminently Woolrichian in it’s extreme rapidity. Not only was it a 30 minute slot, but the show ran short and was padded out with a long preview of next week’s program. The whole story unfolds as a few shockingly intimate and abrupt conversations between three actors, movie star Nancy Kelly and omnipresent radio stalwarts Wally Maher and Lou Merrill. The terrifying pace causes normal character development and human motivation to be elided. Yes, there is a demented twist ending.

Eve (the Black Angel) starring Nancy Kelly

Version two is from the one season, in 1948, when the show expanded to an hour and was hosted by Robert Montgomery, playing a fraudulent “producer’s” role influenced by that of C.B. DeMille on Lux.

Montgomery’s intros are civilized and insinuating, and the extra length does create a feeling of depth and richness that I have only found elsewhere in Welles’ Mercury Theaters.

June Havoc plays Eve, and you’ll hear Bill Johnstone, a tireless actor best known for taking the thankless job of replacing Welles as the lead on The Shadow

Eve starring June Havoc, hosted by Robert Montgomery

Havoc may have had the inside track on this gig: she married Suspense producer William Spier. There is a great 1970s interview with both of them, part of the wonderful series produced out of WTIC in Hartford. Check it out, and stay for some of the other priceless interviews, like Vincent Price.

Bosley Crowther’s Phantom Brain

Posted in Cornell Woolrich, Radio Drama, Siodmak Bros. on April 13, 2010 by pfmurphy

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.

How much more Black. . .

Posted in Cornell Woolrich, Radio Drama on April 13, 2010 by pfmurphy

David Cairns over at Shadowplay and a couple of his esteemed readers have expressed some interest in the radio adaptations of Cornell Woolrich’s “prose.”

Since I admire David’s writing and his erudite reader/contributors more or less without reservation, and because I’m badly in need of a theme to start off the blog, I thought I might cash in on his Cornell Woolrich Week and declare this “Cornell Woolrich is made of sound week here at the sparsely appointed Chair.

So, for the next few days, I’ll be posting links to mp3 files of Woolrich radio adaptations with a bit of tersely verbose commentary. Mayhap we can also give some information about radio drama geared towards classic movie buffs who aren’t familiar with the eerie parallel world of broadcasting that flourished along with the movies at the time when American sound film established itself as a classical art.

RadioGoldIndex, the indispensable tool for online research into what classic radio survives in circulation, lists no fewer than 49 episodes adapted from Woolrich’s work. About half of these are from the two CBS anthologies Escape and Suspense. Fortunately for my lazy ass, there is a wonderful blog devoted to those two shows that has covered many of their Woolrich adaptations in detail. The author not only provides fine discussions of the episodes, often summarizing the differences between versions in all three media, she makes the programs freely available for download.

So go over there and read about some programs, listen until you feel nightmares coming on, leave gracious comments, and by the time you get back I may have the first of my own efforts up.

Also, I expect everyone to be able to sing “I Cover the Waterfront,” including the verse.