Rosalind Russell, ace fast-talking newshound of “His Girl Friday,” was back in a journalism-related movie a few years later in “What a Woman!” — but this time she was the one under the reportorial magnifying glass.
“I’m not a cub reporter chasing headlines,” the dapper magazine writer Henry Pepper tells her, “I’m an associate editor; my assignment is you.”
Lux Radio Theatre brought Russell back to present the story as a one-hour broadcast in 1949 and again in 1954.
The journalist is from “The Knickerbocker” magazine, which sounds a lot like “The New Yorker,” and he practices an immersive, fly-on-the-wall style of reporting. He has already profiled her father, a senator, but she is something special — the nation’s top press agent, able to turn a shy professor’s first novel into a best seller, and planning to turn the tall, athletic and handsome literary scholar into a movie star.
Unlike most “newspaper movies,” this could be a textbook for both the public relations executive and magazine-writing majors at your School of Communication, as well as providing a 1940s caricature of the academic life.
The professor wrote the somewhat steamy novel “The Whirlwind” as a break from his serious literary studies. At first he says he values his dissertation and its three copies more than the thousands of sales of his novel, published under a pseudonym. He intended to keep his identity a secret — until Russell’s character came along, intent on making him a star, and collecting her 10 percent .
The movie — sometimes available on Turner Classic Movies or YouTube — does a good job of showing an immersive “‘New Yorker’ profile” style of reporting. That is, Pepper, especially in his opening scenes, mostly sits in the background with his hat, bow-tie and pipe, observing.
Erudite, insightful, confident and witty, he manages to get in wherever needed, but without being pushy or aggressive like his 1930s Hollywood newspaper counterparts, whose suits were never as well pressed. However, he shares their habit of wearing a hat indoors, even if his is in better shape.
Pepper is intent on learning what makes “the other 90 percent” of her tick — an unsubtle hint that 1943 Hollywood rarely portrayed a business career as fulfilling to a single woman, no matter how successful. Pepper literally takes his hat off to the publicist’s professional skills as a manipulator, but he immediately sees through her fake story about a supposedly tragic first romance, dismissing it so quickly that she begins to take him seriously. Later, she even likes the first installment of his article about her.
He has more in common with Hollywood’s “Front Page” style reporters when he employs an evening at a bar (and a hangover cure at a Turkish bath) to loosen up the professor and convince him that the movie-acting idea, and Russell, are worth pursuing.
The question is how long it will take Pepper’s in-depth reporting to convince himself of the same thing. Not long, it seems… as the professor starts to assert himself. It’s not one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic triangles, but it will do for light entertainment.
In the film, Pepper was played by Brian Aherne, with some of the wryness and understated efficiency of William Powell’s “My Man Godfrey.” In both the radio adaptations for Lux Radio Theater, Robert Cummings played Pepper, perhaps sounding more smug than insightful, without the non-verbal characteristics that help Aherne’s screen portrayal of the journalistic observer. (Or perhaps I can’t help hearing echoes of the ladies’ man photographer from Cummings’ TV days on “Love that Bob” — more “Look” than “The New Yorker.”)
In any case, the adapted script gets the story told, even if you have to read a lot between the lines.
The actor playing tall handsome Elizabethan scholar Professor Michael Cobb was Willard Parker in the film, Leif Ericson in the 1949 radio production. But the reporter is the real leading man, hence Ahearn’s and Cummings’ star billing. Russell and Cummings were about to release a new film together at the time of the 1949 broadcast.
Lux broadcast a remake of the radioplay in 1954, when the movie’s director William Cummings (no relation to Bob, he points out) was host of the series:
(The audio files are from the Old-Time Radio Researchers collection of Lux episodes at the Internet Archive. The screen capture of Russell and Aherne is from a clip of the movie posted to YouTube.)