Saturday, January 31, 2004

”…RCA Victor, world leader in radio…first in recorded music, first in television…”

Radio added another big-time Hollywood dramatic anthology to its glut of similar programs in 1949 with The Screen Directors’ Playhouse, which debuted over NBC Radio as a sustained half-hour series January 9. OTR historian John Dunning is laudatory in his On the Air entry for the show, praising its writing and commenting: “Though the material had a familiar sound, it was made fresh.” Though I agree that the show was better written than some of its radio cousins, I don’t believe the show is anything that will set the world on fire. Admittedly, programs that dramatize Hollywood movies are among my least favorites—it’s not that they’re not well-done, it’s just that I prefer watching the original source material instead.

Screen Directors’ Playhouse picked up a sponsor in July 1949 with Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, which paid the tab until September; it was later sponsored by RCA Victor, Anacin, and Chesterfield. The program’s half-hour format sort of handicapped the show at first—by having to shoehorn the movie adaptations into a thirty-minute time frame, the productions lost a great deal of their nuance. I once listened to a Playhouse presentation of It’s a Wonderful Life (courtesy of Victor Ives and The Golden Age of Radio Theater) that zipped by so fast I thought Jimmy Stewart’s character had married Evelyn Wood instead of Donna Reed.

Screen Directors’ Playhouse expanded to a full hour beginning November 9, 1950 and it improved the series considerably; last night’s listen to the November 16, 1950 broadcast of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film Lifeboat is a pretty good example, since the original movie relies more on dialogue rather than visuals. It features Tallulah Bankhead, who reprises her starring role as reporter Constance (Connie) Porter, and Jeff Chandler as Kovac (played by John Hodiak in the original), telling the tale of a group of survivors whose ship has sank after being attacked by a German U-boat. The production eliminates one of the movie’s characters, “Sparks,” (played by Hume Cronyn) but otherwise remains faithful to the film, and features a capable supporting cast in Wilms Herbert, Anne Diamond, Henry Roland, Barbara Eiler, Sheldon Leonard, and Roy Glenn.

At the time of this broadcast, Chandler was just beginning to make noise on the silver screen as a big box-office draw—the show’s announcer, Jimmy Wallington, even plugs his latest release, Deported (1950), during the program’s end. Chandler was a long-time radio veteran, often performing under his real name, Ira Grossel and appearing on programs like Suspense and Lux Radio Theatre. Chandler was immortalized in OTR as the “bashful biologist” Philip Boynton in the hit situation comedy Our Miss Brooks, which allowed his previously hidden comedic talents to shine. He's also remembered by old radio fans for a syndicated series in which he played Michael Shayne, the fictional detective created by author Brett Halliday.

Lifeboat’s leading lady, Tallulah Bankhead, was also burning up the airwaves as the “mistress of ceremonies” of NBC’s The Big Show, a Sunday night big-budget variety spectacular (it was estimated that the show cost around $300 a minute). It debuted November 5, 1950 and despite a top-flight guest roster (Jimmy Durante, Fred Allen, Ethel Merman) it limped along for two years, never managing to make a dent in its competition on CBS (which included The Jack Benny Program). Both The Big Show and The Screen Directors’ Playhouse were examples of the hard-working efforts of radio at this time to stay viable as its audience dwindled, falling under the seductive, hypnotic spell of the boob tube. Had Playhouse premiered earlier during Radio’s Golden Age, it might have shared the longevity of programs like The Lux Radio Theatre and The Screen Guild Players, but instead it made a graceful exit at curtain on September 28, 1951.

I did notice one curious thing while listening to this broadcast—a plug for 20th Century-Fox’s All About Eve starring Bette Davis. Curious in that Bankhead made no secret of her disdain for the picture (she nicknamed it “All About Me”) because she felt that much of the movie was cribbed from her fascinating history of her many years on the stage. I’d be interested to know as to how she felt about the plug at the end of the show.

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