When Ah, Wilderness, Eugene O’Neill’s comedy-drama about coming of age, was adapted for radio, Walter Huston starred as the newspaper-owner father whose poetry-besotted son is tempted by what passed for the wild side of life in 1906 Connecticut.
Theatre Guild on the Air broadcast the program in 1945, but the show is still set in 1906, when that Connecticut wild life — or the amount of it suited for a 1945 family radio audience — consisted of beer and a blind date arranged by the lad’s older brother’s Yale classmate, who knew “a couple of swift babies from New Haven.”
The radio production made no reference to the 1935 film with Wallace Beery, previewed above via YouTube, Lionel Barrymore and Aline MacMahon, but tipped its hat to George M. Cohan‘s year-long star turn as the father and editor in the play on Broadway and for two years on the road.
The Theatre Guild program had Eugene O’Neill Jr. provide narration for the radioplay. In addition, Huston not only had played another O’Neill father in “Desire Under the Elms,” but was married to newspaper reporter Rhea Gore Huston.
His character, Nat Miller, is owner-publisher of the paper in a “large small town” — the Barrymore role in the movie — who stands up to an irate advertiser whose daughter is being pursued by his son, Richard, writing letters full of quotations from Swinburne and Omar Khayyam.
Reading about socialism as well as romance have led the 17-year-old son to make family-table speeches about “liberty,” and “wage slaves” and July 4 being a farce. But the father defends him against charges of being “dissolute and blasphemous” and corrupting his advertiser’s daughter.
We never get to the newsroom in this domestic drama, but we do learn that the editor has his own copy of the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” at the office, even if he lets his son know that Swinburne’s sensuality is “a little strong” to be sending to a nice girl.
The bottom line, as a portrayal of a journalist, the play is pleasantly free of negative stereotypes. With one son at Yale and another headed there in the fall (even though he might rather dive right into a newspaper job), the editor is presented literally as a father figure, educated, practical, family-oriented, ethical and thoughtful. He’s not infallible, at least on the subject of bluefish. But, significantly, he is not the alcoholic in the family, one of Hollywood’s favorite cliches about newspapermen. (In fact, the inebriated uncle is less of the story in the radio adaptation than he was in the movie, where Wallace Beery received top billing over Lionel Barrymore as the father.)
Note: Some sources of information on the radio program spell its name “Theater Guild,” but the parent organization uses the “Theatre Guild” spelling. I have never seen a printed script, “U.S. Steel Hour” press release, or transcription disc label to determine whether the radio industry departed from that spelling.