Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review: From Radio to the Big Screen

So let’s get the full disclosure portion of this post out of the way.  In Harold “Hal” Erickson’s From Radio to the Big Screen: Hollywood Films Featuring Broadcast Personalities and Programs, I’m listed in the Acknowledgments…and Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is mentioned in the Bibliography section (under “Frequently Referenced Websites”).  I cannot, however, hammer home enough the point that I would have gravitated to this book regardless of my miniscule participation.  (I even paid for the Kindle copy—thanks to some generous Amazon gift card largesse I received from Facebook compadres and fellow bloggers Brandie and Christopher for my natal anniversary earlier this month.)  Hal is also one of the many Facebook denizens with whom I interact with on a frequent basis, since we share a mutual mania for classic movies and other forms of nostalgia.

Beginning with Rudy Vallee’s The Vagabond Lover in 1929 (though it’s more accurate to mention that the first “broadcast personality,” “Radio Girl” Ann Howe, was appearing in silent films beginning in 1926) and concluding with the silver screen take on A Prairie Home Companion (2006), author Erickson treats us to a staggeringly comprehensive look at how the motion picture industry mined a rich vein of film fodder making movies based on the popular radio programs of the day.  The material is presented in a chronological fashion, delving into films from the 1930s (Check and Double Check, Paramount’s “Big Broadcast” franchise), the 1940s (most of Columbia’s B-picture series, like Crime Doctor and The Whistler), and the 1950s (The Fat Man, Pete Kelly’s Blues).  The end of the road is arrived at with sections on the aforementioned Companion and Private Parts (1997); admittedly, I skipped over the chapter on the Howard Stern movie because a) I’d already seen it, and b) still don’t know what all the fuss was about.

What won’t you find in From Radio to the Big Screen?  Well, talents like Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope have been excised; Cantor was actually well-known as a stage personality and film star (Whoopee!, Palmy Days) before his appearance on the Rudy Vallee series and subsequent Chase and Sanborn Program in 1931.  The same applies for Hope, who had already established his Broadway bona fides before his successful show for Pepsodent debuted in the fall of 1938 (Hope had appeared in two-reelers as early as 1934, and his prolific film career was technically not jumpstarted by his radio show, but by his star-making role in The Big Broadcast of 1938).  (If you’re curious to examine the cinematic oeuvre of Hope in more detail, I highly recommend my Facebook amigo Jim Neibaur’s The Bob Hope Films—not available for Kindle, unfortunately.)  With rare exceptions (Hope’s in-joke joshing with Bing Crosby in the “Road” films, Cantor in Thank Your Lucky Stars), both comedians took special care to separate their cinematic vehicles from their radio shows by playing different characters in their films.  You will, however, find entries on Cantor stooges Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein and Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon, and the cinematic oeuvre of Hope regulars like Jerry Colonna, Brenda & Cobina (Elvia Allman & Blanche Stewart), and Vera Vague (Barbara Jo Allen) are also discussed.

The same Cantor-Hope principle is applied to aural medium funsters like Red Skelton and Abbott & Costello (who would have succeeded in the movies, Erickson argues, regardless of radio), plus you won’t find films in such franchises as The Falcon or Boston Blackie because they were already well-established literary properties and/or movies before they branched out to the airwaves.  Hal makes exceptions for series like Henry Aldrich (he had his origins on the Broadway stage, with What a Life!) and Scattergood Baines (whose short stories began publication in 1917) with the reasoning that those movies sprung from the success of their respective radio programs.  Hal isn’t quite as appreciative of the Aldrich films as I am, though he does note that “the films provide a farcical antidote to the sickly wholesomeness of MGM’s concurrently produced Andy Hardy films” (starring, of course, TDOY bête noire Mickey Rooney).  I’d be curious to check out some of the Scattergood Baines entries; if The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ does own the R-K-O library, it’s a shame they don’t feature one or two these whenever they have a “Guy Kibbee Day.”  Serials based on characters like The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet get the nod for this volume…other chapter plays featuring Buck Rogers or Terry and the Pirates (both well-established comic strip properties) do not.

Hal does present sections on Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy (even though Bergen was making shorts for Vitaphone before his radio program), Jack Benny (limiting those movie mentions to when Benny performed in his radio persona, such as Buck Benny Rides Again), and Fred Allen.  This is from the “Acknowledgements” in his book: “After screening my copy of the Fred Allen movie vehicle It’s in the Bag (1945) for an old-time radio fan club, I was surprised that the picture elicited very few laughs, and was blown off as a waste of time once the screening ended.”  (I don’t want to meet any of these people…ever!)  Erickson continues: “However, these same radio aficionados have no problem listening to radio adaptations of popular Hollywood films on such anthologies of the 1930s and 1940s as Lux Radio Theater and Screen Director’s Playhouse.  The only explanation I can come up with for this paradox is that fans of classic radio (or even modern-day radio) prefer to exercise their imaginations and conjure up images of their favorite stars and programs, and feel a bit resentful when these ‘word pictures’ are literalized on film by others, almost as if some enemy force had invaded their minds and imposed an alien set of images.”  I might also add here that while these same people might have little difficulty listening to these radio adaptations buying them is an entirely different matter, if what some folks who sell OTR for a living tell me is true about sluggish sales.

“Erickson is one of those select few writers who can always be counted on to produce a quality book,” writes a reviewer at Classic Images.  “His writing is informative, breezy, and most entertaining.  I never have to worry about the information contained in one of his books; in fact, I learn a great deal from his impeccable research…he also sprinkles his text with interesting tidbits.”  CI is pretty spot-on in their review of Hal’s book—I love what he writes and how he writes, and sorely miss his entertaining capsule reviews at AllMovie (he was a Senior Editor at that site for 15 years—when it was still—and seemed to be one of the few individuals who had actually seen the films he wrote about).  From Radio to the Big Screen isn’t completely error-free: Hal states that the December 30, 1936 broadcast of Town Hall Tonight—the spark that ignited the Jack Benny-Fred Allen “feud”—doesn’t exist but you’ll find the entire broadcast on the Radio Spirits collection Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen: The Feud (little shout-out to my employers there).  This is just a pin prick of a nitpick; the entries in his book are a delight to read, and he generously calls attention to movies that should be better known and appreciated (he and I share a mutual affection for 1952’s Here Come the Nelsons).

If you’re as ga-ga about old-time radio as your humble narrator, I would beseech you to walk, don’t run, to Amazon and pick up a copy of this pleasurable book.  Kindlemaniacs like myself can take solace that a number of Hal’s previous tomes are also available in e-book form, notably From Beautiful Downtown Burbank (a look at Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In) and Sid and Marty Krofft: A Critical Study of Saturday Morning Children's Television, 1969-1993.

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