The various radio series that dramatized historical events sometimes sacrificed historical accuracy to tell a story, especially in the common 30-minute format.
In this broadcast, at least a newspaper reporter gets a happier ending out of the revisionist history.
“Mr. President” was an 1947-1953 ABC series in which Edward Arnold played a different U.S. president each week, disguising the president’s name until the end of what was usually a little-known story in that presidential life.
This tale of a president hiding a cancer diagnosis — and even a secret surgery on a yacht — includes more than one newspaper reporter. Only one gets the scoop early — so early that the president swears him to secrecy until after the operation, and even then the reporter has difficulty convincing his editor that he has the true story… and the president comes to his defense.
That’s quite a different tale from the one reflected in the subtitle of a more recent book, “The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery atSea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth, by Matthew Algeo.
In 2011, NPR interviewed the author, who among other things found a letter from Cleveland admitting his attempt to “deny and discredit the story,” which continued throughout his life.
The reporter is identified as “Holland” at the end of the “Mr. President” episode, which was the syndicated column pseudonym of reporter Elisha Jay Edwards.
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.
A national public radio profile today of actress Marsha Hunt at 100 years of age sent me browsing through her career, and I happily stumbled on the movie “Lost Angel.” She played the singer-girlfriend of newspaper reporter Mike Regan, whose interview with scientifically raised child prodigy “Alpha” turns into an adventure in the magic of childhood.
While his reporting technique may not be the greatest example of journalistic detachment, the result is still a sweet story. And there’s more than one mention of the reporter’s being a Harvard grad, which can’t hurt the image of the profession.
Neither can his having a significant other like Hunt’s character Katie, who explores the frequent theme of reporters’ letting their careers get in the way of their relationships… with help from Alpha and an escaped convict.
Lux Radio Theater had the original cast for the one hour adaptation broadcast in 1944 before an appreciative studio audience.
The precocious Margaret O’Brien, 7, is the real star, with James Craig, Hunt, and Keenan Wynn as the escaped convict who complicates matters.
A Facebook conversation just led me to check back and see if I had ever posted a blog item about the radio adaptations of the movie Gentleman’s Agreement, and it looks like I hadn’t, other than a paragraph in my overview of movie adaptations by radio anthology series like Lux Radio Theater.
Lux is the only one that I had found that brought the Gregory Peck film to a radio audience, but it did so twice, in 1948and1955. The player above should get you the 1948 version, or you can click on either year to download an MP3 file.
The film about a non-Jewish reporter going undercover to get a story on anti-semitism was based on a 1947 novel byLaura Z. Hobson and won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
In an opening scene, the reporter, trying to explain anti-semitism to his ten-year-old son, says some people hate Jews, some hate Catholics, and some hate Protestants.
“But no one hates us, because we’re Americans,” says the boy. His father explains the difference, then, in a way worth echoing today, “Religion hasn’t anything to do with the country; you get it?”
Other than the basic idea of a reporter immersing himself in a group identity to get a story, there isn’t a lot of journalism technique presented in the brief radio versions of the story. It’s a more anthropological technique, but in this case with a strong element of deception thrown in.
For comparison, the reporter mentions having worked in a coal mine while writing a story about coal miners. (He also did a story about “Okies,” but doesn’t discuss the details.)
In any case, working in a new occupation, even as an undercover reporter, is not the same as pretending to be of a different racial, ethnic or religious group… as he discovers.
“Not that it would make any difference to me…” — with a hint of hypocrisy — becomes a key phrase in the story, whether spoken by a co-worker or the reporter’s new girlfriend. That relationship, of course, is the center of the drama, with the girlfriend’s family, friends and neighbors in suburban Connecticut all at risk of opening closets full of skeletons.
Given the problems of compressing a novel into a movie, and the movie into a half hour radio show, the Gentleman’s Agreement broadcast was still pretty powerful for its day… listen to that audience applause at the end!
Leading man Gregory Peck appeared in the first Lux adaptation, with Ann Baxter as the leading lady. Peck’s role as Phil Green was taken by Ray Milland in the second production seven years later, with Dorothy McGuire recreating her original role, and radio’s ubiquitous William Conrad as the editor.
Although the story is about anti-semitism, the level of racial sensitivity as late as 1955 is reflected in a between-acts discussion of a new film about South Africa that, an announcer mentions, features “tamed” Zulus in the cast.
But it did get produced for radio, by Studio One in December 1947. Geraldine Fitzgerald plays the heroine, a Montreal newspaper writer courted by a young Jewish lawyer over her father’s objections. However, unlike “Gentleman’s Agreement,” the topic of prejudice isn’t a crusade for her social-department newspaper job — the movie’s drama is about its impact on her personal life. She does do some fact-checking with a news source when her father fabricates a lie about the business practices of a Jewish company in the city. But fortunately there was never a hint of the lie getting into print.
The 1943 movie “No Time for Love” and this 1944 radio adaptation both starred Claudette Colbert as a society-gal photojournalist and Fred MacMurray as her leading man.
I have found no radio history book that reveals whether he kept his shirt on for the Screen Guild Theater radio broadcast, playing a macho “big, brawny and good-looking” sandhog digging a New York tunnel… and brawling with co-workers, which she captures on film, costing him his job. So she hires him to lug her photo gear around… and gets carried away herself.
Be prepared for more lessons in 1940s-era caveman romance than journalism.
MacMurray never turns into Clark Kent here, but he does get called “Superman” more than once. (Come to think of it, I remember reading somewhere that MacMurray was the muscleman-model for the Superman-alternative comic book character Captain Marvel. Hard to believe if you grew up with the 1950s “My Three Sons” and Disney-comedy era MacMurray.)
Real-life gossip columnist Hedda Hopper also is included in the cast, as Colbert’s character’s sister, already called “Hoppy” in the movie script.
I wound up listening to this after being reminded that Colbert and MacMurray filled the Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns roles in one of the radio adaptations of “His Girl Friday.”
While Colbert didn’t get to play journalists often, she was the romantic interest for reporters in a couple of newspaper-movie classics, “It Happened One Night” and “I Cover the Wayerfront.” She also got to play a newspaper editor-in-chief in a movie I’ve never seen, “Texas Lady,” slightly reminiscent of “Cimarron,” about a woman editor in frontier Oklahoma.
[Ida B. Wells portrait from the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, via Google Arts and Culture]
Her New York Times obituary — 87 years after her death — called Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) “one of the nation’s most influential investigative reporters,” part of the newspaper-of-record’s 2018 attempt to set the record straight by publishing biographies of women whose lives and deaths had been under-covered in the past.
The Chicago black history radio series “Destination Freedom” dramatized Wells’ life earlier — in its episode 41, titled “Woman With A Mission,” broadcast April 10, 1949.
The program opens with scenes of her strength and courage — establishing a lifelong pattern of fighting for people’s rights — when she was raising seven siblings after her parents died of yellow fever, and then (at least for a while) winning an early suit against segregation laws, as well as launching her first careers in teaching and writing.
Actress Weslan Tilden narrates, speaking as Wells herself.
“My mission was to resist tyranny wherever I found it,” Wells summarizes in the broadcast, preparing to expose graft and corruption in the Memphis schools and segregation in business.
“I found trouble, but I also found the truth,” she says. That night, the Klan deposits a corpse at her door. (Was that scene supposed to be literally true, or an acceptable way to make a point dramatically in a short radio play? Her pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch law in all its phases” provides more detail of what may be the case in question.)
Undeterred, Wells worked for almost 40 years as a journalist and activist, which included launching a major anti-lynching campaign with “Southern Horrors,” as well as writing for black-owned newspapers, and becoming editor and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight in 1889.
Her somewhat belated obituary in the New York Times called her ahead of her time in both journalism and civil rights: “She pioneered reporting techniques that remain central tenets of modern journalism. And… took on structural racism more than half a century before… the 1960s civil rights movement.”
Here’s a Green Hornet episode I haven’t written about yet: The 1948 tale’ s title “The Hornet Bats for a Pitcher” sums it up…
A pitcher sent back to the minors keeps losing, leading a Daily Sentinel sports reporter to suspect something is wrong involving gambling.
That leads his boss, publisher Britt Reid, to put on his Green Hornet mask and investigate …
Unfortunately, the reporter jumps to obvious conclusions and doesn’t catch on that the ballplayer is being framed… no great journalism tips here.
Even the eavesdropping Britt Reid reaches the wrong conclusion from an overheard phone call … but shows up just in time to help out the real heroes of the day — the young man’s pals from the baseball team.