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.

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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.

The Forecast is. . . Murder

Posted in Hitchcock, Radio Drama on April 13, 2010 by pfmurphy

Following up on the Nick Ray post, another little note about Forecast and the many links between radio drama and classic film. The most famous episode was the audition for Suspense, the famous anthology show that ran for over 900 episodes and was one of the last two dramas on the air, at the end of the period when, as silken-voiced actor Larry Haines put it, radio shows were being “taken outside and shot.” But this adaptation of the Lodger was also an indirect pilot for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The original idea was for Hitchcock to host the show and present stories that were, you know, Hitchcockian, but negotiations fell through, and the show wound up achieving great success under director William Spier, who had a facility for self-promotion that rivaled AH’s own. He even got the media to call him “The Hitchcock of the Airlanes,” at a time when radio directors and producers were even more anonymous than filmmakers.

So here’s Herbert Marshall as the Lodger in the first Suspense tryout. Amusingly, “Hitchcock” is played by an actor, Joe Kearns, who acquits himself well even though he has to compete with our memories of Hitch playing Hitch in so many shows, trailers, and records.

Forecast 1940 July 22 Suspense

Nick Ray on Radio

Posted in Nicholas Ray, Radio Drama on April 13, 2010 by pfmurphy

One of the blogs that inspired me the most is Shadowplay, where a learned Scotsman named David Cairns writes about film with a mixture of wit and severity all his own. In the comments to a discussion of Cornell Woolrich, I mentioned how often and well Woolrich was adapted for radio in the classic days of network radio drama. David asks if any of Nicholas Ray’s work on radio is in circulation.

Since Ray is my favorite director on those days when Altman or Lubitsch are not, I had an answer. One program survives. It’s an episode of CBS’s Forecast, a sort of tryout series, a weekly anthology of what TV folks call pilot episodes and radio referred to as “audition programs.”

It’s only known today for giving us the first tastes of both Suspense, longest running of all anthologies, and of the phenomenally successful comedy Duffy’s Tavern. But some of the shows that failed to find a permanent home were no less fascinating, and one of them was Ray’s effort, a folk music show that gives us a taste of those days when a relatively clean and accommodating version of American vernacular music was an indispensable part of every stylish leftist’s cultural wardrobe.

Give a listen:

Forecast 1940 August 19 Woody Guthrie

Are you ready, Hezzie?

Posted in General Business on April 12, 2010 by pfmurphy

Everyone’s blog needs a first post, and this one is mine.

This is going to be a place to talk about writing, movies, and contemporary music. I also plan to post some of my poems and excerpts from a novel-in-progress called THE CRAVE. If everything comes up boxcars, I’ll find time to touch on some older sonic experiences that I find indispensable, like classic radio drama and old blues and jazz.

I expect to use foul language quite a bit.

Don’t get me started on politics.

Welcome.

(The post title is a phrase used at the beginning of every tune by The Hoosier Hot Shots, a zany washboard-driven country band big in the 1930s)