My headline is about as strange as the introduction to this premier episode of “Bright Star,” which billed it as a genre-crossing “gay new exciting comedy adventure.”
You should know this first episode, “The Oil Swindle,” was broadcast in 1952, when “gay” meant happy and carefree, and the other adjectives meant — whatever the writers wanted them to. The most important word in this series, however, was “Star” — both as the title of the newspaper in this weekly series and as its reason for existing.
Like a movie marquee with stars’ names at the top, “Bright Star” was introduced by the announcer as “The Irene Dunne, Fred MacMurray Show…” even before he gave the title. The top-billed Dunne made her stage debut in 1922 and had been one of Hollywood’s greatest leading ladies for two decades, as any quick IMDB or Google search on her name will assure you. She was nominated for “best actress” Academy Awards five times. If you prefer printed books, the title of Wes Gehring’s biography of her says it all, “Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood.”
On radio, Dunne recreated many of her movie roles, her speaking and singing voice barely aging over the decades. She could play the young bride Sabra Cravat— also a newspaper publisher — in 1931 in the movie “Cimarron” and play the same role in 1941 and 1948 radio adaptations.
While ages aren’t mentioned in “Bright Star,” the 54-year-old Dunne appears to be playing a character in her thirties — Susan Armstrong, an unmarried newspaper publisher carrying a torch for her paper’s star reporter.
This episodic radio series began the year that Dunne made her last major film. While she chose to wind-down her movie career, on radio she was able to continue appearing in whatever image her fans carried in their minds.
Here, Dunne is “lovely, attractive, headstrong Susan,” the editor and publisher who inherited the paper from her father.
MacMurray is George Harvey, the Star’s star — if not always starry bright — reporter. The actor, whose film and TV career kept going well into the 1970s, made his first movie appearances in 1929. He was born in 1908, but easily voiced the part of a relatively young and naive reporter for this radio series in 1952.
As for lessons in journalism practice or ethics, let’s just say “Bright Star” was a romantic situation comedy.
The intrepid reporter gets knocked out by a gangster in his first scene of the first episode, and is invited for a romantic evening by his publisher shortly thereafter. While waiting for her housekeeper to make dinner, “Susan” literally gets to sing a chorus of, “It’s so nice to have a man around the house…”
“George” seems more romantically involved with the idea of a free meal. As a reporter, he admits to a “nasty, suspicious mind” and is ready to write an expose without much in the way of facts. He’s not as suspicious of a “visiting heiress” who adds a jealously theme to the episode. The Hillsdale Morning Star office boy seems more mature and imaginative, when it comes to romantic advice.
By the second episode, Susan is running for mayor. In later episodes, the editor supports community service projects while the reporter complains that she is neglecting the paper, the reporter becomes the high school football coach on the side, and attractive women from the editor’s cousin to Miss America complicate the romantic-misadventure plots. A “Whistleblower” episode does have a bit of Cold War paranoia and investigative reporting, and a “New Homemaker Page Editor” episode would be great for a discussion of the media business, sexism, and 1950s roles for men and women. I’ll get back to them in future episodes of this blog.
None of this is very serious, but both Dunne and MacMurray let a little of their star-quality shine through in “Bright Star,” and it will be fun to hear what students in 2012 think of the silly innocence of 1952.
For more about the stars and series, see the Digital Deli Too Bright Star page.
For more than 30 of the original 52 episodes, see the Old Time Radio Research Group Bright Star collection at the Internet Archive.