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by Bob Stepno
Joseph Saltzman’s pathbreaking book, Frank Capra and the image of the journalist in American film, has a title that tells the story. Capra returned again and again to newspaper men and women as characters — from loveable rascals to evil, manipulative publishers. As Boston University professor Ray Carney put it,
Saltzman convincingly demonstrates that the journalist in Capra’s films is the link between the public and private spaces of life — and that negotiating that gap between the heart and the mind, our souls and our jobs, the personal and professional realms, is the challenge of journalism.
Radio, I’d argue, took one more step across that gap — bringing the fictional journalists into living rooms throughout the nation for the 40 years in which it aired dramatic series. The “anthology” programs like “Academy Award Theater” included Capra favorites — trimmed to one-hour radioplays or mashed into half-hours. Not all are readily available as MP3 files, but radio logs for the programs show the following radio productions of, or related to, Capra films:
- Arsenic and Old Lace (IMDB), a hit play and Capra film, was done by several radio anthology series. Here it is by Screen Guild Players, with Eddie Albert as Mortimer Brewster, theater critic, and the original Broadway casting of Boris Karloff as family psychopath Jonathan Brewster. (Capra had Cary Grant as Mortimer and settled for Raymond Massey as Jonathan, but kept the original play’s line saying Jonathan looked like Karloff.) Are theater critics “journalists”? They certainly were on the minds of playwrights and film-makers, and are well-represented in the IJPC.org database. Mortimer Brewster says he is off to “cover a play,” so he might consider himself a reporter, even if his powers of observation and deduction leave much to be desired. (If an audio player is not visible, click the program name to download or stream it from the Internet Archive: Arsenic and Old Lace)
- Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Capra’s 1936 film about sudden wealth and publicity — and the ambiguous ethics of a woman reporter out for a hot feature, made it to radio at least twice: on Lux Radio Theatre in 1937 with the original case and on Orson Welles’ Campbell Playhouse in 1940.
- Campbell Playhouse’s Mr. Deeds cast Gertrude Lawrence alongside host Orson Welles in the title role in 1940. Welles described Mr. Deeds as “one of the nicest stories ever to come out of Hollywood.”
- In the 1937 Lux Radio Theater Mr. Deeds, Gary Cooper recreated his title role, while Jean Arthur is the ethically challenged reporter, and host Cecil B. DeMille had a chance to introduce two real-life journalists, neither of whom commented on the behavior of the ambitious newspaper woman in the story.
- “It Happened One Night,” the tale of a rascal reporter escorting a runaway heiress on a cross-country bus trip, also was broadcast by both Lux Radio Theater, 1939 and Campbell Playhouse, 1940.
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
- “Meet John Doe” was adapted for broadcast Sept. 28, 1941, according to the Screen Guild Theater series log at AudioClassics.com. The original stars are listed as appearing — Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. It was an episode of Philip Morris Playhouse with Melvyn Douglas in 1942, according to the newspaper listings collected by the encyclopedic Golden Age of Radio site DigitalDeliToo. Unfortunately, neither radio production isn’t available online, but the original full-length film is in the public domain and downloadable at archive.org)
Radio’s fictional journalists crossed paths with real-life ones at times. On Lux Radio Theatre, host Cecil B. DeMille’s special guests for “Mr. Deeds” were Sidney Skolsky, Hollywood columnist and Fay Gillis, introduced as “the noted aviatrix and foreign correspondent” and “one of the best known ladybirds in America,” the first woman to save her life by bailing out of an airplane. She also offered a unique Lux Flakes plug — telling DeMille and the live audience that she used it to wash her pet leopard.
(While her chatty visit on the program is mostly about Hollywood, which she was covering for the Herald Tribune at the time, she continued her dual career as a pilot and international journalist after marrying foreign correspondent Linton Wells, shifting from print to broadcasting and eventually becoming a Washington correspondent, one of the reporters who accompanied President Nixon to China in 1972.)
On the same broadcast, DeMille’s other guest, Sid Skolsky, talked a bit more about his craft, after giving the expected Lux plug. He read an extended collection of one-liners interspersed with his tagline, “But don’t get me wrong, I love Hollywood.”
First, DeMille introduced him:
“We in Hollywood respect Sidney Skolsky for a wit as sharp as his pencil, for his persistence in turning up news and turning down the merely sensational, and for his willingness to hold back a story if printing it would hold back someone’s career. “Sid and I have flung many a scorching syllable at each other, but this Broadway bantam, who keeps his finger on the Hollywood pulse for the New York Daily News, is always ahead of the headlines.”
Later, DeMille asked, “What is a columist?” — but before he could answer, offered, “You’re the perfect size for a columnist… just tall enough to reach the keyhole.”
Skolsky’s reply: “I liked that line even when I used it.”
Apparently no professional journalist visited the Lux stage for the broadcast of “It Happened One Night.” The archive.org copy is a rehearsal recording, not the live performance, but host and producer DeMille announced in the opening that his guest would be “a real-life cross-country bus driver.”