Old-time radio dramas get their due in ‘Out of the Ether’ UCLA series at Billy Wilder Theater
There was a moment, before easy listening, drive time, Top 40 and the blandishments of Pandora, when radio was known for its affinity for the dark end of the street, for its ability to have you in its power and scare you stiff.
When you think about it — and the engaging new UCLA Film & Television Archive series opening Friday at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood will definitely have you thinking about it — radio once vied with film in its ability to place audiences alone and spellbound in darkness, to put voices in our heads that were frighteningly difficult to ignore.
As “Out of the Ether: Radio Mysteries and Thrillers on Screen” nimbly demonstrates, moviemakers saw this link as well. According to the archive’s Nina Rao, who programmed this groundbreaking series, possibly hundreds of films were made from radio dramas, either one-offs or long-running series, and UCLA has scoured the Earth to find more than a dozen to put on display.
Though Barbara Stanwyck was Oscar-nominated for her role in one of these (1948’s “Sorry, Wrong Number”), these raffish B pictures were hardly prestige items. Programs that privileged mood over plausibility and often lasted little more than an hour, they opted for melodrama at is most melodramatic in telling twisty tales that pack an energetic tabloid wallop.
Initially, the movies’ interest in radio was as an early 1930s example of synergy, a way to cross-promote content and get people into theaters as the lure of talking pictures started to wane.
Then, in the 1940s, radio became good source material for studios desperate for product for entertainment-hungry audiences. Friday’s excellent opening double bill features one film from each category.
Up first is 1932’s “The Trial of Vivienne Ware,” a brisk 56-minute whirlwind of a courtroom drama with whip pans frequently substituting for cuts and starring Joan Bennett as a wronged woman on trial for murdering her no-good fiancé. Adding to the broadcasting angle, ZaSu Pitts plays a radio reporter who is frequently heard “covering the trial from the feminine angle.”
Also on the bill is 1946’s noirish “Night Editor,” in which a veteran newshound tells the story of a tenacious cop (William Gargan) involved in an adulterous affair with a femme fatale (Janis Carter) he cannot stand. “You’re rotten through and through,” he tells her. “High grade, No. 1 rotten.” When the two of them witness a brutal killing on one of their clandestine assignations, complications ensue. And how.
Equally engaging is the March 11 double bill opening with “Sorry, Wrong Number,” starring Stanwyck as a bedridden woman who overhears a murder plot on the phone and fears she is intended to be the victim.
Beginning life as a radio drama, the material, the film’s trailer relates, “caused shock waves when it was broadcast over the CBS radio airwaves.” Rebroadcast a record seven times, the hype continues, “radio’s greatest suspense play becomes the most electrifying experience the screen has ever offered.” You have been warned.
Playing with “Sorry” is 1932’s “The Phantom of Crestwood,” which begins with an on-camera appearance by one of early radio’s legendary voices, Graham McNamee (who, though it’s not mentioned, is credited with inventing play-by-play sports announcing).
McNamee declares what movie audiences at the time likely already knew. An RKO Radio six-episode serial named “The Phantom” never revealed the name of the villain who had killed attractive blackmailer Jenny Wren. Now, through the magic of cinema, “you are about to see the mystery unraveled before your very eyes on the motion picture screen.”
Several of the films in the UCLA series center on the exploits of popular radio heroes, like the always-enigmatic “The Whistler,” who memorably introduced himself saying, “I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows.”
“The Whistler,” the first in an eventual eight-film series, stars Richard Dix as one such despairing individual, a man who takes out a contract on his own life only to have, yes, second thoughts. William Castle, later a renowned horror meister producer (“The Tingler,” “The House on Haunted Hill”), directs.
Also a renowned radio personality was “Chandu the Magician,” who got a delirious film debut in 1932. After spending years with a Hindu yogi learning how to cloud men’s minds, Chandu must take on the evil Roxor (Bela Lugosi just post “Dracula”), who has designs on a death ray designed by ... Chandu’s brother-in-law.
Stunningly codirected by nonpareil visual stylist William Cameron Menzies, “Chandu” is off the wall, including as it does poison pellets, an Egyptian princess, comic camels and a young women named Betty Lou who ends up auctioned off at a clandestine white slave market. Said the Variety reviewer at the time of its release, “Chandu carries the fantastic, the inconsistent and the ludicrous to the greatest lengths yet achieved by the screen. Were it to be taken seriously, there’d be no enjoyment for anybody.”
Memorable among the stand-alone dramas is 1945’s “Bewitched,” written and directed by top radio talent Arch Oboler. Starring Phyllis Thaxter as a young woman struggling with a disturbing split personality, it lives up to the contemporary review that called it “one of the oddest films to come out of Hollywood in many months.”
As an added treat, UCLA has arranged to play original radio broadcasts in the Billy Wilder Theater after the doors open. If you need another reason to attend this fine series, that might be it.
‘Out of the Ether: Radio Mysteries and Thrillers on Screen’
At the Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. For more information: (310) 206-8013 or www.cinema.ucla.edu.
All screenings at 7:30 p.m. except where noted.
Friday: “The Trial of Vivienne Ware,” “Night Editor”
Saturday: “The Whistler,” “The Power of the Whistler”
Monday: “The Shadow” serial, “Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome”
Feb. 7 at 7 p.m.: “Chandu the Magician,” “Chandu on the Magic Island”
Feb. 26: “I Love a Mystery,” “The Unknown”
March 11: “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “The Phantom of Crestwood”
March 20 at 7 p.m.: “Calling Dr. Death,” “The Frozen Ghost”
March 21: “Bewitched,” “Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt”
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