by Bob Stepno“It’s a Wonderful Life” had no newspaper characters to give me an excuse to include the seasonal favorite here, so I’ll make a holiday present of another Frank Capra classic: It Happened One Night appeared on the silver screen in 1934, swept the Academy Awards, then showed up at least two more times on radio. Here’s the first radio replay of “It Happened One Night.” That was March 20, 1939 — Clark Gable apparently took a night off from making “Gone With the Wind” to be a newspaper reporter again — presenting a live on-stage re-creation of “It Happened One Night” with several members of the original cast. It was that week’s episode of the Lux Radio Theater, with its regular host, producer Cecil B. DeMille, tipping his hat to Capra’s creation.
The live audience must have had a great time watching stars Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns on stage re-enacting their original roles (as the reporter, the heiress, her father and an annoying travel companion, respectively).
“Told to the tune of a roaring bus motor, it’s the fast-moving story of a runaway society girl and the reporter who helped her run,” the announcer explains.
The “fast moving” was true. The Lux crew and script-writer George Wells fitted introductions, some soap-selling, a brief interview with an actual long-distance bus driver, and brief bios of the two main stars into a 55-minute broadcast adaptation of the already fast-paced 105-minute Hollywood film. (Radio archivist J. David Goldin provides cast and crew information at his RadioGoldIndex.com)
It’s one of at least 50 “newspaper movies” that were adapted for radio broadcast during the golden years of both Hollywood and radio drama.
Continuing with my theory that radio portrayals presented newspaper reporters as more positive characters than they sometimes appeared in the movies, the Lux production version of Gable’s reporter Peter Warne isn’t the stereotypical boasting drunk you may remember from the film.
When we first see him in the movie he’s in a phone booth surrounded by other inebriated gentlemen of the press with a bottle in his hand, trading insults with his editor by long distance, collect. Long after the editor has fired him and hung up, Warne continues a monologue pretending to quit his job, then get’s a hero’s escort to his Greyhound “chariot” to leave town — after another snort with the guys.
At Lux, the reporter’s story is somewhat cleaned up — he’s not fired for being a drunk, but simply for missing the story of the runaway heiress. His boasting about being the paper’s best reporter doesn’t sound as much like false bravado without the bottle, slurred speech and gaggle of drunken reporters. We go straight into the scenes of the road-wise reporter taking charge of bratty runaway Ellie Andrews, then negotiating the right to tell her story in exchange for his assistance getting from Florida to New York.
Of course they still fall in love.
Another hero of the newspaper industry is added to the plot as a radio storytelling device: An unnamed newsboy Warne interrogates to get a summary of the runaway-heiress story between buses. The boy clearly has read enough headlines and leads to fill the role of 1930s equivalent of a blogger, delivering a snappy summary of the bored-little-rich-girl bio. Warne jokes about not buying a paper, then gives the boy a healthy tip.
Along with skipping the phone-booth-and-bottle scene, other visual gags in the movie get converted to dialogue, including the “Walls of Jericho” hanging of a blanket to add some propriety to the couple’s shared tourist cabin, his lesson in donut dunking, and their shared attempt to hitchhike — without the visual of Miss Colbert’s stockinged leg as an improvement over Mr. Gable’s thumb.
Gable/Warne even sounds a bit like a newspaperman waxing poetic when he’s composing descriptions of himself as a whippoorwill singing in the night, or verbally diagramming the blanket-hanging process with clothesline from nail A to B and it’s woolen barrier between her ” bed x” and his “bed y.” He also makes two references to things he should “write a book” about. (The donut-dunking and hitch-hiking.)
As a journalist, Warne demonstrates some of the profession’s ethical gray areas often presented by Hollywood. He’s a smart aleck, a fast talker and a master of deception, convincing detectives that he and Ellie are a squabbling married couple and convincing the fast-talking Karnes that he’s a kidnapper with a couple of machine guns in his bag.
But his bad-boy image and the hitching scene must have been fun for the radio audience, judging by the audible chuckles.
“I’m going to write a book about it, call it ‘The Hitchhiker’s Hail.'”– Peter Warne
When Ellie’s come-hither look stops a car, she convinces the driver to take Peter along, even though the driver says he doesn’t like his looks, some dialogue added for the radio version.
“He’s my uncle, he can’t help looking like that,” says Colbert’s Ellie. “He used to be a newspaperman.”
For some reason, they get the ride.
On the radio or on screen, Lux’s 1939 production of “It Happened One Night” is still a good trip. As a bonus, the Internet Archive’s Lux collection for 1939 also has a live rehearsal recording, minus the audience reactions, but enhanced by a gender-bending all-male reading of a “Lux your undies after every wearing” commercial.
It Happened Again
If you haven’t had enough, and don’t mind a less likable newspaper hero, try a somewhat different production of “It Happened One Night,” from Orson Welles’ Campbell’s Playhouse, the successor to his Mercury Theatre of the Air of “War of the Worlds” fame. The program was originally broadcast January 28, 1940.
The Lux and Campbell’s scriptwriters made different choices of what to include and how to compensate for the lack of sight-gags.
Welles, on the eve of his movie role as millionaire newspaperman Charlie Kane, cast himself in Walter Connolly’s role as the millionaire father of the runaway bride. The reporter, his name inexplicably changed from Peter Warne to Peter Grant, was played by guest star William Powell. The heiress is Miriam Hopkins, who gets to play the escape-from-father’s-yacht scene that was edited from the Lux version. The return of the yacht also gives Welles another exuberant scene as her father, although I wonder whether the sponsor appreciated the reference to her throwing a bowl of soup at a steward.
“The Thin Man” star Powell had plenty of experience playing gentlemen under the influence, and the drunks-in-phone-booth alcoholic reporters scene is back in this version, along with a stereotypical Southern black accented bus depot porter that May sound offensive today.
In resigning, this version of Peter says he’s quitting the newspaper business all together. He reconsiders only after finding out that Ellie is a story. But his ambivalent attitude toward journalism is hinted at when Ellie asks what he does for a living. His response is: “Nothing, if I can help it…. Whatever is the least work.” Later, he adds to his independent man-of-the-road philosophy, “Life’s all right if you don’t try too hard.” He doesn’t mention writing books, even about hitch-hiking technique or donut-dunking.
In the end, producer Welles gets a big scene as father of the ambivalent bride, encouraging her switch from the aviator she had eloped with to the sometime-newsman she met on the bus.
In this version, Peter’s editor still thinks he’s a “drunken bum.” And Peter only seems interested in writing “the biggest story of the year” to get enough money to marry Ellie. Until the deal falls through, he tells his editor he just needs to cover the wedding expenses “until I can find something to do.”
It’s too bad Welles didn’t decide to expand the part of Peter’s editor and deliver a “Charlie Kane” soliloquy about the significance of tabloid stories about the idle rich. But comparing the two versions is still fun.
For more about “Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film,” see USC professor Joe Saltzman’s 2002 book by that title and my growing page of links about other Capra-newsies in radio adaptations. The book’s forword, by media historian Loren Ghiglione, former dean of the Medill School of Journalism, is online at Saltzman’s Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project.
Inevitable Capra Christmas Bonus
Finally, if two Capra-adaptations of a non-Christmas movie didn’t set the proper holiday mood, the Internet Archive does have Lux’s production of his “It’s a Wonderful Life,” despite its lack of journalist characters. You’ll find it on the Internet Archive’s Lux page for 1947.