Archive for the Siodmak Bros. Category

In the Kingdom of the Blind, the Auteur is King

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

No Woolrich this time. I’m resting up for Black Angel, but a few words about another competitor to Lux Radio Theater in the audio-movie game.

Screen Directors Playhouse was NBC’s Lux ripoff, and it existed in both 30 and 60 minute versions. The longer episodes are of course more satisfying, but they all shared a unique hook. The director was always mentioned almost as prominently as the stars, and was usually brought up at the end of the play to answer a few questions. The banter was tightly scripted, just like the disconcertingly stiff attempts of the actors to simulate rapport with “Mr. DeMille” at the end of each Lux. But it does allow us to know the voices of some great directors who we might never otherwise hear speak, and it shows that late 1940s and early 50s moviegoers could be expected to know and care about directors. It can even sadden us, as when Billy Wilder talks on behalf of the late Lubitsch on Cluny Brown.

So here’s Robert Siodmak, who appeared four times, part of a good hour long adaption of Thelma Jordon with Stanwyck that is elevated, like hundreds of other shows, by the voice of William Conrad.

An excellent set of this series is available for free download at Internet Archive.

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.