Classic Movies On the Radio

When radio was king, adaptations of popular movies were all the rage. An hour or half an hour would be devoted to a streamlined script of Jezebel or A Star Is Born, for instance, and broadcast over the airwaves.

Movie stars - great and near-great - would stand before the microphones (sometimes playing their original film roles) and perform in front of a live studio audience. I enjoy the audience reactions. Sometimes an actor will deliberately play to them -  make some gesture or ad lib a line that will elicit a gasp or a laugh or, in the case of Frank Sinatra or Al Jolson (!) squeals of carnal ecstasy. 

As I listen on my Zune in total isolation (as opposed to family gathered around a radio, as was the custom), I wish for a second that I could be in that audience just to find out, for instance, what exactly Cary Grant does  in Lux Radio's "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer" which causes that "thump" sound  and elicits high laughter and applause during his Zoot Route greeting.

But you don't have to be a fanboy to enjoy these aural diversions. It's a good way to introduce people to classic movies. An acquaintance of mine who usually doesn't like pop culture B.B.E. - before the Britney/Beyonce era - listened to "Meet Me In St. Louis" during a road trip and was absolutely enthralled with demented little six-year old Tootie who buries her dolls. ("She's like totally emo. Pre-goth goth.")

From the early to mid- 20th century, there were so many radio theaters, one pretty much like the other, that they struggled to distinguish themselves from their competitors. One Show would feature 30 minutes of only Oscar-winning stories or Oscar-winning actors.  Another 30-minute show  was performed exclusively by SAG members who forfeited their radio show salaries to fund charities for indigent movie industry people.   Yet another was just like the rest except it had an hour-long format with several commercial interruptions for a prominent car company. There was even one radio program which performed only streamlined broadway plays, before or after they had become films.

Then there's the, arguably, most famous one -  Lux Radio Theater - which was initially directed by Cecil B. DeMille. It ran for about 20 years, survived 3 directors and provided a TV spin off - Lux Video Theater.

All the radio programs would feature commercials for various sponsored items (soap, cigarettes, petroleum). These interruptions were probably annoying at the time (just as TV and internet advertising is today), and were no doubt mocked by a lot of people [Mankiewicz famously makes fun of radio and its commercials in A Letter To Three Wives (1949)] but for me, they are history lessons in marketing. The advertising often sought to make the customer discontent until they have product X, and that method hasn't changed.  I must admit, though, that I prefer the humor of today's commercials; the radio ones back then are relatively grave.

Along with the products, ad spots might promote the actors. At the beginning of the episodes (especially in the hour-long shows) the presenter gives a little background of the stars or how the show was put together this week or some related movie news. At the conclusion, there might be an interview with the performers who plug their next film (a precursor to late night TV shows). In between the acts, a young starlet who isn't performing in the radio play might be trotted out to plug her name.

Although these Hollywood programs are self-referential (they are selling movies, after all), it's not completely self-contained. Every once in awhile you get a sense of daily life beyond Tinseltown. During one show a producer urges listeners to continue taking used bacon grease to the local butchers so that they can send it off to make bullets for "The Emergency." One presenter announced that the episode would be cut short to make way for a radio broadcast by the President - Franklin D. Roosevelt.  In a November broadcast in 1944, Cecil B DeMille claims at the beginning of "It Started with Eve" that the film version was the first American movie shown to the U.S. troops after they had stormed the shore in Normandy. (Wow! That totally gives my favorite Deanna Durbin film a sobering historical context that this light comedy didn't have before.)

In addition to the historic references, I enjoy comparing various versions of the same story. Not only contrasting the radio adaptation with its screen parent (Did you know that Judy Garland played in a radio version of A Star is Born  more than a decade before her Oscar-nominated performance in 1954?), but also comparing the many rehashed radio scripts among themselves.(Someone has too many husbands.)

I suppose somewhere there is still radio theater, but I'm not holding my breath for it to come to my neck of the woods. Sure, radio is no longer the leading purveyor of  up-to-date information and entertainment, and that's OK. Were it not for the internet, I would never have found these gems of cinematic history.


  1. Hey!

    That’s a great post. I think radio theatre is an important part of Hollywood history apart from being (at least, in my opinion) hugely enjoyable. Many of them are now available as free podcasts and I love listening to some of them now and again.

  2. Actually, Cecil B. DeMille -- though billed as the "director" of "Lux" from when it moved to Los Angeles in June 1936 (it had begun in New York two years earlier, with a Broadway rather than Hollywood orientation) until leaving in 1945 over a union fee dispute with AFTRA -- was actually merely a host. Other people, radio veterans, handled the duties of running the program, which at its peak in the late 1930s and early 1940s was one of radio's most popular series.

    One of the fascinating things about these programs is that sometimes the original stars didn't act in the adaptations, leading to some intriguing "what ifs." For example, it's Claudette Colbert, not Carole Lombard, in "Hands Across The Table"; Lombard, meanwhile, can be found in Margaret Sullavan's role in an adaptation of "The Moon's Our Home" (opposite James Stewart, not Henry Fonda).

  3. Juan - In the evenings when I want to slow down after a hectic day, sometimes a radio theater play is just the ticket (especially if I do not have the actual movie on hand). I also use them as a sample to determine if I want to buy the DVD.

    VP81955 - I didn't know that DeMille didn't actually direct (How do you direct a radio play anyway?). They were just cashing in on his famous name, then?

    I love the "what ifs." Sometimes, however, I'm glad of a movie version that "never was." For instance, Loretta Young makes for an insipid Julie in the radio production of JEZEBEL.

  4. Good post. I bought a disc full of the Lux Radio Theater broadcasts on MP3 a while back and have been making my way through them (currently up to March 1938 - a looong way to go!). I've written a couple of things about the shows on my blog (quick plug! - I find the titbits of information by the Hollywood insiders used as guests pretty interesting. As you say, the adverts for Lux, though annoying are a window into another time and very illuminating regarding tastes and marketing, though it's always amusing when they have a guest who clearly sends up the idea of having to mention soap every couple of minutes. I'm also fascinated by the gravitas that DeMille brings to it all as "director", constantly talking about radio drama challenging the "legitimate stage". So far, some shows have been good, a few very good and all have been at least entertaining. It also lets me hear a lot of stars that I had previously ignored. From his many appearances on the show I've become a big fan of Hernert Marshall, for instance.

  5. Russell,

    You are much more disciplined than I am. I started at the begining, intending to plow my way through in chronological order, then promptly became impatient and skipped around through the different decades looking for titles I recognize or just seem like fun.

    There are still plenty I haven't listened to yet... oh, well. :)

    Thanks for following and welcome to Java's Journey.

  6. i saw a movie when i was a kid called "The Naked Jungle," which scared me out of my wits: Charlton Heston vs a zillion army ants out in the jungle. The other day I was listening to some old Escape shows on my ipod, and heard the first radio version of the story, based on "Leiningen Versus the Ants." Suspense theater did another version later. Very effective.

  7. Joem18b,
    Sounds thrilling!
    The only Suspense Theater show I've heard was of Myrna Loy as a frumpy librarian (!) who solves a mystery or something.

    Thanks for the recommendation.


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"Java's Journey: A really fun, informative well-written blog that explores all of the things - and I mean all - I love about classic films."-- Flick Chick of A Person In The Dark Email:


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