Tuesday, December 9, 2003

”Lux presents Hollywood!”

Things were sort of hectic last night at what I laughingly refer to as my job, but I managed to squeeze in a couple of Christmas OTR shows—both of which are classic holiday-theme films adapted for old-time radio’s most prestigious dramatic anthology program—The Lux Radio Theatre.

During its nearly twenty years on radio, Lux was the outlet for prime radio drama, regularly presenting Hollywood’s top stars in lavish audio recreations of top films—like Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny and Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, to name a couple of examples. The top-rated, hour-long broadcast originated every week from Hollywood’s Music Box Theatre, playing to a live audience of more than 1,000 people. Lux premiered over the Blue Network on October 14, 1934; originally broadcast from New York and spotlighting Broadway’s top stars in radio adaptations of popular plays. It wasn’t until the program moved to Hollywood in June 1936—and adding legendary motion picture director Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments) as its host that Lux Radio Theatre struck prime-time ratings gold.

Lever Brothers and Lux paid the bills for the program, and we’re talking bills big enough to be Williams. Top Hollywood stars—like Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Bette Davis—received close to $5,000 for an appearance; DeMille himself was pulling in $2,000 to host each episode. (Emphasis on host; although the Lux people liked to put forth the illusion that the famed director oversaw every aspect of the broadcasts, he was really nothing more than window dressing, reading a prepared script every week.)

DeMille once boasted that he “wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience I’ve had in radio,” but in January 1945 his tenure as host of Lux Radio Theatre came abruptly to an end when the director stubbornly refused to pay a $1 union assessment to battle a “right to work” ballot proposition. After a series of guest “directors,” William Keighley took over the hosting chores in November 1945, to be replaced by Irving Cummings in 1952, who played ringleader until the show left the airwaves on June 7, 1955.

The first of the Lux broadcasts I sampled yesterday eve was a nice adaptation of the classic 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, broadcast December 22, 1947 and showcasing four of the film’s stars: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, and Edmund Gwenn (who deservedly won a 1947 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role). (I don’t want to leave out some of the great radio vets who appear on this broadcast: pros like Joseph Kearns, Alan Reed, William Johnstone, and Herb Butterfield.) Classic movie lovers know the plot by heart: a man (Gwenn) claiming to be the real Kris Kringle is hired by O’Hara to be the official Santa Claus for Macy’s Department Store. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies; a wonderful, satirically tongue-in-cheek film in which faith ultimately triumphs cynicism—it’s an absolute crime that airings of this film on television have given way to the abominable 1994 remake. Every year I watch the film I scoff at myself, saying “I’m too old and too manly to cry at this film”—and then when Natalie Wood runs through that house at the film’s climax yelling “There really is a swing!” well, that’s when the waterworks start. Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Miracle’s director, George Seaton, has an interesting OTR legacy—he was the first actor to portray (as George Stenius) the legendary Lone Ranger.

The second show was originally broadcast on March 10, 1947, and it’s an adaptation of the other holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, with two of the film’s stars—James Stewart and Donna Reed—participating in the Lux festivities. This immortal film classic, about a small-town man who gets the opportunity to see how radically different life would have been had he not been born, now makes a yearly appearance on network television over the holidays on NBC—although I am sure many of us can recall when the movie was shown morning, noon and night during the Yuletide season. There are some interesting casting changes in the Lux Radio Theatre production as well; comedian Victor Moore takes the part of Clarence, the angel who is anxious to help Stewart and win his wings, originally played by Henry Travers in the film version. Of the two broadcasts, I think Miracle comes off a little better; the Life broadcast is fine if you’ve not seen the film but it seems a little rushed (although I have also heard the program in a half-hour format, as broadcast on Screen Director’s Playhouse May 8, 1949); also while listening I kept thinking “You know, I really need to sit down and watch this sometime this week.” This is, of course, a recipe for what the cab driver in Scrooged calls “Niagara Falls, Frankie”—I moisten up every year at this wonderful, faith-restoring film. (A friend of mine from Florida once refused to take a girl he was dating to see the movie because he didn’t want her to see him bawl like a baby.)

Ordinarily, I’m not a huge fan of The Lux Radio Theatre; not because I don’t think it’s a well-done show, but simply because when listening to it I can’t shake loose the feeling that I’d rather be watching the entire movie. Some of the Lux adaptations do feature comedians in radio versions of their films (a good example being Bob Hope and Lucille Ball in Fancy Pants from September 10, 1951); those are kind of neat especially if they get some good ad-libs going. But I will admit I was pleasantly surprised by the treatment given Miracle on 34th Street, and I will give the thumbs-up to this production. Now, if you’ll excuse me—I have a couple of movies on DVD that I need to dig up…

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