There is a pall over tonight’s Lux Radio Theater production of this classic light-to-medium comedy.
It may not become evident until the broadcast’s end, when host DeMille addresses it directly, but Hollywood, and much of the world, is mourning the unexpected and premature death of one of the film industry’s genuine early giants.
Irving Thalberg has earned a reputation for choosing and marrying the right scripts, performers, and directors, to produce an enviable volume of film hits and legends, from 1922′s Foolish Wives through A Night at the Opera (1935), the comic classic that has afforded the Marx Brothers a spectacular film comeback after their career at Paramount faded earlier in the decade.
He may have wearied of making epics—he had done Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Good Earth (1937) when he spurned a chance to produce Gone with the Wind shortly before his unexpected death—but with A Night at the Opera he hit upon a daring idea: he had the Marxes, now minus Zeppo (who left the team to become a Hollywood agent a la the non-performing brother, Gummo), road-test the planned material in a tour of stage shows before committing them to the film. Scholars and Marxophiles alike would debate whether that kind of refinery hindered or helped the film and the brothers, though they’d stay with that idea for the rest of their MGM lives.
Thalberg has taken ill with pneumonia unexpectedly, after a brief Labour Day vacation with his wife, actress Norma Shearer, at Monterey, where they’d spent their honeymoon a decade earlier. A home oxygen tent could only aid but not relieve him and he dies this morning—at 37.
He is mourned by just about the entire film industry, even MGM emperor Louis B. Mayer, with whom Thalberg often clashed on subject matters, Thalberg preferring classic literature and sophisticated comedies to Mayer’s taste for glitz and splash, but with whom he continued a lifelong friendship. “[He was] the closest friend a man could have,” a grief-smothered Mayer says upon Thalberg’s death.
Tonight on Lux: J.M. Barrie’s hit play, made into a silent film classic with Marion Davies, gets a simple, oddly dignified treatment tonight: Phoebe Throssel (Ruth Chatterton), who built a school for “genteel children” with her sister after losing her intended husband (Brian Ahern) to Europe’s battles against Napoleon, forges a new, more flirtatious alter ego, Miss Livvy, when the man returns from the battles, but she’s annoyed when he seems far more taken by the alter ego who becomes a regular interest of gossips in the bargain.
At broadcast’s end, over a soft passage from the house orchestra, DeMille offers the Thalberg tribute.
Today the motion picture industry suffered one of its greatest losses, Irving Thalberg. The Lux Radio Theater joins Hollywood and the entire nation in extending deepest sympathy to his wife, Norma Shearer, and his family. To Irving Thalberg, who has brought so many hours of happiness to people the world over, we dedicate—these ten seconds of silence.
You dare to think Thalberg, a master of the pregnant pause even when it came to the Marx Brothers, would have appreciated a tribute such as that.
Susan: Kathleen Lockhart. Additional cast: Mervyn LeRoy. Host: Cecil B. DeMille. Announcer: Melville Ruick. Music: Louis Silver.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Vic & Sade: Working off Hank Gustop’s Debt (NBC, 1944)—The calm of Russell (David Whitehouse) reading aloud from an ardently dry war novel is disrupted when Vic (Art Van Harvey) awakens from a nap and a dream of Hank’s plan to work off his debt to Vic—a plan that doesn’t exactly trip Sade’s (Bernadine Flynn) trigger in the way Vic has in mind. Writer/director: Paul Rhymer.
The Life of Riley: Peg’s Job (NBC, 1946)—When a friend’s engagement breaks off over the fiancee’s earning more than he does, Peg (Paula Winslowe) reminisces about taking her old job back in the early years of the Riley marriage—against Riley’s (William Bendix) advice, since he remembers what a revoltin’ development it was when the boss’s son had more than eyes for Peg. Gillis/Digger: John Brown. Additional cast: Unknown. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Music: Lou Kosloff. Director: Don Bernard. Writers: Alan Lipscott, Reuben Shipp.
Lux Radio Theater: This Above All (Season premiere; CBS, 1942)—Tyrone Power re-creates his film role, in “the first great love story to come out of this war,” playing Clive Briggs, who has survived the fighting in the Battle of Dunkirk to fall in love with Prudence Cathaway (Barbara Stanwyck, in the Joan Fontaine film role) despite their too-apparent class differences. Additional cast: Unknown. Announcer: John Milton Kennedy. Host: Cecil B. DeMille. Music: Louis Silver. Adapted from the screenplay by Eric Knight and R.C. Sherriff; based on the novel by Eric Knight.
Suspense: You’ll Never See Me Again (CBS, 1944)—The Cornell Woolrich novella gets a certain twist in the end: Ed and Janet Bliss (Joseph Cotten, Lurene Tuttle) have their first major argument since their marriage three months earlier, inspiring Janet to go home to mother . . . and Ed to go hunting at the bus station, for openers, after discovering Janet never got to her mother’s home. Additional cast: Wally Maher, John McIntire. The Man in Black: Joseph Kearns. Announcer: Truman Bradley. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Sound: Berne Surrey. Writer/director: William Spier.
Suspense: Over the Bounding Main (CBS, 1950)—Unemployed Marty Evans (Dan Dailey) agrees to a weekend getaway tuna fishing off the Catalinas, but a suspicious accident sets him to wonderhing just why his wife (possibly Cathy Lewis)—with whom he’d been bickering over their hardships before the weekend—really urged him to take the trip. Captain Moran: William Conrad. Additional cast: Unknown. Music: Lucien Morowick. Director: Elliott Lewis. Writers: James Barnett, Gloria Elmore.
Frontier Gentleman: A Horse for Kendall (CBS, 1958)—Sojourning in Deadwoods, buying a horse at last to make his travels simpler, Kendall (John Dehner) is disturbed and amazed when the horse becomes the target of massive wagering, after agreeing to let the horse run in a challenge race provoked by fuming rivals of the dealer who sold him the nag in the first place. Squatty Reynolds: Ralph Moody. Additional cast: Jack Moyles, William Allen, Will Wright, Vic Perrin. Announcer: Bud Sewell. Music: Wilbur Hatch, Jerry Goldsmith. Writer/director: Antony Ellis.
World War II
Special Report: Chamberlain Offers to Meet Hitler (BBC, 1938)—“With a view toward trying to find a peaceful solution” to the Sudetenland crisis, the British Prime Minister offers to meet der Fuehrer in Berlin.
© 2012 Jeff Kallman