From news to folklore, talking to and for ‘the plain people’

In addition to providing an oldtime radio dramatization of the life of newspaperman turned reteller of folktales Joel Chandler Harris, the Internet Archive has his works and biography, including the volume shown above.

His red hair is mentioned several times in his radio portrait on DuPont Cavalcade of America in 1941, which introduces Harris as a shy, stuttering and insecure young man, far from the brash, confident stereotype of a journalist.

Perhaps listeners also were reminded that 19th and 20th century newspapers provided a steady paycheck for writers whose literary interests were broader than page one news.

Radio writing served that function too: The script was by playwright Arthur Miller, who contributed more than a dozen profiles to Cavalcade. He also spent some time in the South making recordings for the Library of Congress (see this BBC interview) around the same time that he was writing this radio play about the 19th-century story collector. Were the two connected? My research into this continues and this essay will be updated if I find out more. (Thanks to radio historian Randy Riddle for pointing out the BBC story.)

The Cavalcade radioplay doesn’t preach about “cultural appropriation” or race relations in its portrayal of Harris’s “Uncle Remus” African-American folktales, but it does have a message of brotherhood and wartime internationalism, mentioning how widely accepted those Bre’r Rabbit stories were, translated into more than 20 languages.

When Harris meets a crowd of children at the White House, they are disappointed not to meet an old black storyteller. Harris, reflecting, says he is happy to have written himself out of the story, and that “America has got to remember her roots, the plain people.”

That those plain people come in all colors goes without saying. The closest the broadcast comes to discussing race relations is Harris’s plea for “good-neighborliness” and the “kindliness and comradeship” that allowed the friendship of “an old colored man and a little boy.”

Produced less than two years after “Gone with the Wind,” the radioplay makes no statements about the evils of slavery or the Civil War, and hints at a romantic “plantation” image of the South in its opening scene. Five years later, Walt Disney would produce his still-controversial “Song of the South,” based on Harris’s “Uncle Remus” stories, and criticized from the start for stereotyped black characters and dialect, and romanticized Reconstruction Era plantation life. (I haven’t seen the film in years, but its Wikipedia entry mentions that the father whose absence leads his young son to Uncle Remus is an “absent father” because of his newspaper job!)

In the radioplay, Karl Swenson plays Harris, and Juano Hernandez plays Uncle Terrell, his source for the Brer Rabbit tales, which Terrell tells him may have “come over on the slaver ships from Africa.”

When not preserving folk tales, Harris (1848-1908) rose to be an associate editor of The Atlanta Constitution, but his “Uncle Remus” stories were what made him an international celebrity — and guest of Teddy Roosevelt at the White House. Another former newspaperman, Mark Twain, makes an appearance in that scene, helping the shy Harris accept some of the honor due him.

While referring to “dialect stories” hints at stereotypes and the racist minstrel stage (the original Zip Coon and Jim Crow), Harris’s representation of dialect has been called “extraordinarily accurate” in a linguistics journal, and the African-American Registry online encyclopedia calls Harris “one of the first American authors to use dialect to provide an important record of Black oral folktales in the Southeastern United States.”

In 2019, the launch of Disney’s streaming video network prompted numerous articles about the racism of “Song of the South,” which was not included in the online service, including an in-depth “You Must Remember This” podcast that revisited Harris’s legacy as a recorder of folk stories who did not credit his sources by name.

W.E.B. DuBois offered his assessment of Harris in an interview that disclosed he passed up an invitation to meet him when he encountered a frightening artifact:

“I had a letter of introduction to him after I went to Atlanta,” he said. “One day I decided to present it. Walking to his office, I passed by a grocery store that had on display out front the drying fingers of a recently lynched Negro…”
“I saw those fingers…I didn’t go to see Joel Harris and present my letter. I never went!”

In that The Atlantic interview by Ralph McGill, DuBois said Harris and his turn-of-the-century Atlanta associates “had no question in their minds about the status of the Negro as a separated, lesser citizen. They perhaps were kind men… (But) They unhesitatingly lived up to a paternalistic role, a sort of noblesse oblige. But that was all. The status slowly had become immutable insofar as the South’s leaders of that time were concerned.”

For more on the Cavalcade series, see Martin Grams Jr.’s The History of the Cavalcade of America presented by DuPont.

For more about Harris, his biography at Wikipedia cites numerous sources.

For more about Arthur Miller as a radio writer… I think I will make some inquiries and do a little more research!

Posted in 1940s, 19th century, Brotherhood, columnists, editors, folklore, playwrights, Race | Leave a comment

Frontier People in the News

J. B. Kendall, 19th century American wild west correspondent for the London Times, had his fictional career cut short when the CBS Radio series Frontier Gentleman wrapped up at the end of its 1958 season.

But star John Dehner’s last episode was a marvelous example of the traditional newspaperman’s ability to “get out of the way of a story”… with Kendall concisely narrating a column of short scenes, what we would call “news briefs” or ” people in the news” items.

58-11-16_Episode41_Random Notes –5.3 MB:

Kendall’s introduction: “It occurs to me that in this, my last report to the London Times, there are many incidents which I have omitted — things seen and heard during these several months on my journeys through the American West. Here then, some random notes.”

Some might have been worth a full story, if there had been time, and others may have been best suited to the brief splash of color format given here. For example, the Texas Othello item in the middle of the broadcast might have turned unbearable if given the full half-hour. But I may be wrong.

The “briefs” format was not uncommon for 20th century newspaper columns, including those of Walter Winchell, or even my first contribution to a college newspaper, and a daily “People in the News” feature I compiled for The Hartford Courant while segueing off to grad school about a century after the scene of “Frontier Gentleman.”

Posted in 1950s, foreign correspondents, reporters, westerns | Leave a comment

Will reporter uncover secret plans?

“The Lady Has Plans” has World War II’s favorite pinup Rita Hayworth (so described by host Cecil B. DeMille) in the role of a veteran newspaper reporter making a transition to radio news in Lisbon, and William Powell as her war correspondent boss — who assumes a new staffer named Sydney will be male.

Along with the brief 1943 battle-of-the-sexes mistaken-identity theme, there’s a spy plot involving secret plans that are supposedly tattooed on the new reporter’s back… And lots of laughs from the Lux Radio Theater studio audience when strange men keep wanting to unzip the back of her dress. Ah, the things independent women — actresses as well as reporters — had to put up with in the “good old days.”

As a reporter, Hayworth’s Sydney turns out to be brave and resourceful, even impersonating the tattooed spy who was supposed to be impersonating her. And she gets the drop on a Nazi spymaster before it’s all done, while her boss phones in a live broadcast from a Lisbon telephone booth. (I think that would have been stretching 1943 telecom technology a bit, but I haven’t researched the topic.)

Give a listen and see if you think the radio version is better than the movie, which New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called “straight, unmitigated flap-doodle” and a “thoroughly implausible tale.”

As a wartime broadcast, this also includes a war-bond sales pitch from Cary Grant, and mentions of Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper column and Rita Hayworth’s U.S.O. service.

As a 1942 Hollywood movie, “The Lady Has Plans” starred Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland, but Lux Radio Theater occasionally played the star-switch game. Here’s the Internet Movie DataBase page for the original.

The mp3 as-broadcast copy above is from the Internet Archive collection of 789 Lux episodes.

Finally, the picture of Rita Hayworth at the top of this page is from Wikipedia, which –appropriately enough– says it was used in a Lux soap magazine advertisement.

Posted in 1940s, foreign correspondents, international, radio, reporters, Uncategorized, women, World War II | Leave a comment

Reporting can be dangerous

In this 1953 episode of a popular crime series, a Daily Clarion reporter calls “Mr. District Attorney” with news that he has uncovered a “Mister Big” crime boss.

Gunshots heard over the phone and a visit to the newsroom by the D.A. follow … as well as more than one murder plot involving the paper in “The Case of the Dead Reporter.’

Memorable quote from the city editor, “I’m going to get that interview, Mr. Garrett, if I have to ram this gun of mine right down (the crime boss’s) throat!” Needless to say, this is not a technique suggested at most journalism schools.

I wonder whether “Mr. Walker,” the city editor, could be a sly reference to Stanley Walker, once city editor of the New York Herald-Tribune, later at the Daily Mirror, and author of the 1930s book City Editor.

An appropriate quote from Stanley Walker is preserved at his Wikipedia bio page

Its last sentence:

“What makes a good newspaperman? The answer is easy. He knows everything. He is aware not only of what goes on in the world today, but his brain is a repository of the accumulated wisdom of the ages.
He is not only handsome, but he has the physical strength which enables him to perform great feats of energy. He can go for nights on end without sleep. He dresses well and talks with charm. Men admire him; women adore him; tycoons and statesmen are willing to share their secrets with him.
He hates lies, meanness and sham but keeps his temper. He is loyal to his paper and to what he looks upon as his profession; whether it is a profession or merely a craft, he resents attempts to debase it.
When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days.”

Any more about the Mr. District Attorney episode would spoil the mystery, but it’s online with 83 other episodes in the Oldtime Radio Researchers collection at the Internet Archive.

Mr. District Attorney ran from 1939 to 1952 on radio, and jumped to movies, television and comic books. So far this is the only episode I’ve found where a newspaper and its staff play a big part.

Don’t miss the D.A.’s epilogue about a newspaper as a force for good or evil!

The MP3 copy of the program is from the Old Time Radio Researchers Library.

The OTRR Group also has a collection of more than 80 Mr District Attorney episodes at the internet archive.

Update: Jan 11, 2020, the OTRR discussion group on Facebook included the cover of a DC Comics “Mr. District Attorney” cover (#8) as dramatic than anything in this radio story… Thanks to collector Larry Zdeb. On the cover, a drive-by machine gun strafes the ground-floor newsroom of the Globe-Herald through its front windows while reporters and the visiting D.A. dive for cover. A yellow-on-red text circle proclaims, “‘YOU CAN’T PRINT THAT!’ Wrote gangland’s guns. But read what happened when a fighting editor accepted this challenge to freedom of the press!”
Sounds like they borrowed a script from Big Town! I wonder if the comic story is anything like the radio script.

Posted in 1950s, crime, editors, newspapers, publishers, reporters | Leave a comment

A Century of Breaking the News

The historical radio series DuPont Cavalcade of America celebrated the first century of the Associated Press in 1948 by dramatizing scenes in the news cooperative’s past — from its first big error (signal flags were involved) through an effort of literally Biblical proportions to monopolize a telegraph line and relay European news from Halifax (did the Queen really ban the waltz?), to more significant news from Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, and the Johnstown Flood — over 2,000 dead, with the AP reporter filing his story despite a broken leg.

The compressed story takes the AP from its start as a cost-cutting cooperative effort by the six most important New York newspapers of 1848 into the new century, then jumps to its 1948 status as a million-words-a-day wire service with a membership of 4,000 subscribers.

The radioplay even manages to get in a few chuckles on the way, particularly when an AP agent has a telegraph operator transmit Bible passages to keep control of the wire for several hours.

(I thought I’d posted an essay about this episode long ago, but I don’t see it here. Perhaps it’s lurking on the backup disk from my old office computer. At least this blog post will remind me to do a more thorough write-up the next time I update my Cavalcade of America page.)

Posted in 1940s, 19th century, cavalcade, historical figures, wire services | Leave a comment

Not Lois — it’s Margo Lane, reporter

I’ve written in the past about the Shadow having his partner Margo Lane impersonate a reporter from time to time, but now I have found a Shadow episode in which Margo actually does take on a writing assignment.

It’s not hardcore news reporting of the Lois Lane variety, but a feature story for a women’s magazine, at least at first.

But when the society family Margo is about to profile turns out to have nasty secrets, the tale becomes what the chroniclers of The Shadow call “The Dragon’s Tongue Murders,” broadcast in 1941 and stored away as an MP3 file in the library of the Old Time Radio Researchers group, OTRR.org. (Click on the episode title to download the MP3 if the player icon below does not work properly.)

A fan also has posted the episode to YouTube, under the name of one of the pulp-magazine Shadow’s secret identities…

Back to Margo as reporter… In fact, I’ve read somewhere that the creators of the Superman comic strip took the name of Lois Lane from both Margo Lane and Lola Lane, one of the actresses who played the fiesty reporter Torchy Blane on a series of B-movies in the 1930s.

In a way, this Shadow episode is like the early Superman adventures on radio. The “reporting assignment” is what gets Margo Lane and Lamont Cranston to the peculiar family’s estate, before any crime has occurred. Then they get caught up in the mystery, and Cranston has to shift into his superhero role, at least briefly. That is reminiscent of some of the Superman radio serials, where Clark Kent and Lois Lane — as reporters — were the center of the plot for days of 15-minute episodes before Kent had to do anything superhuman.

Perhaps to get Shadow fans interested, the broadcast begins with a preamble about the family’s dark secrets, with the voice of the Shadow in a role I haven’t heard before — as an omniscient narrator. Then we jump to Margo and Lamont on their way to the estate. (In the car, Lamont, whom we and Margot know as the Shadow, has no knowledge of the events in that spoken preamble.)

According to Jay David Goldin’s RadioGoldindex to old-time radio show episodes and casts, William Johnstone played The Shadow for this one, and Marjorie Anderson was Margo Lane.

As for Margo’s story, it certainly doesn’t turn out the way she planned. But despite the multiple murders mentioned in the title, our freelance writer heroine does have her own somewhat happier surprise ending.

I recall reading that the Shadow was originally a mysterious sounding narrator who did not actually appear in the stories. That was before he evolved into a crime fighter with the ability to cloud men’s minds etc. I wonder if that opening scene with the shadowy voice over this was an homage to the early days, or an early transitional script being reused.

Now that I have listened to the and written this much about it, I’m going to dust off my copy of Martin Grams’ book about the Shadow, as well as a couple of other radio reference books to to refresh my memory about Shadow history and see if they shed any light on this particular episode.

Posted in 1940s, adventure, crime, Lois Lane, magazines, reporters, women | Leave a comment

Zola on the air

Today was the birthday of Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola (1840-1902), and the birthday of a former editor of mine, a coincidence that reminded me that I have never gotten around to posting about the 1898 Dreyfus case and Zola here.

Newspaper front page 1898

Thanks to the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and its Lux collection at the Internet Archive, we have easy access to the MP3 version of the 1939 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1937 Paul Muni movie

I am posting these links now to take advantage of the birthday coincidence, and will get back to writing about them sometime in the future. I accuse myself of procrastination.

Posted in 1930s, Europe, historical figures, journalism, movies | Leave a comment