The wreckage left behind: Old-time radio listening, 9-10 May

Howard K. Smith: “The Most Massive Work of Concentrated Destruction . . .” (Combined American Networks, 9 May 1945)

Smith told an otherwise celebrating America just what was left in Berlin . . . and of the Third Reich. (Photo: CBS.)

Smith told an otherwise celebrating America just what was left in Berlin . . . and of the Third Reich. (Photo: CBS.)

The reporting team Edward R. Murrow assembled to cover World War II has earned a reputation for daring and often dangerous reporting. There was Murrow himself, traipsing the London rooftops at the height of the Blitz, then accompanying deep bombing runs. There was Eric Sevareid, lost in the Pacific when a military flight on which he was aboard during the Burmese-Chinese theater phase of the Pacific war went down with engine trouble, Sevareid parachuting to safety but unable to communicate for three days.

There were others, of course. But one of the team that came to be known as Murrow’s Boys has returned to Berlin, following a three-year absence insisted upon by Hitler’s regime. Howard K. Smith doesn’t have the London Blitz or being lost in the Pacific on his resume, but he has something—depending upon your point of view—either as glittering or as dangerous on it. During the peak of the Blitz, Smith was Murrow’s point man in Berlin. And he actually got to interview a small pack of the Third Reich’s biggest or at least most blustery wolves . . . including Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, SS boss Heinrich Himmler, and der Fuehrer himself.

The trouble came when Smith demurred, perhaps none too politely, from including Nazi propaganda in his dispatches, a demurral that invited the Gestapo to seize his notebooks and punch him a one-way ticket out of Germany. (Unfortunately, the Gestapo was as careless in this instance as they would prove in due course with Anne Frank’s diary: they forgot to seize Smith’s manuscript describing conditions in Germany prior to American entry into the war, a manuscript destined to become the best-selling Last Train from Berlin.)

Smith arrived in Switzerland for his new base of operations one day before Pearl Harbour. That was then, this is now, and—accompanying such Allied air commanders as Army Air Force legend Carl Spaatz—Smith delivers what may yet endure as the signature report of his long career, a jarring examination on the manner in which Hitler’s war—and ultimate eleventh-hour scorched earth policy, in hand with the Allied crush—devastated Berlin itself.

He lacks Murrow’s knack for letting a fact or picture speak for itself; he lacks Sevareid’s multi-minded analytical skill. But this Berlin report evokes both the best (his firm, sober description and analysis) and his worst (his inability to disguise his own self-importance, if not check it at the door), and the collision would continue within Smith’s work until 1961. (His otherwise on-the-money television documentary about civil rights battles in Alabama will get the man who refused to buckle to der Fuehrer and his henchmen his head on the proverbial plate—because Smith will be unable to remove from his closing analysis Edmund Burke’s famous phrase about what is necessary for evil to triumph; and, because he will refuse to back down from his none-too-thinly-veiled suggestion that not only does the country need real leadership, it needs the kind that only Howard K. Smith can provide by way of the CBS network.)

He will move to a solid enough second career at ABC News, even if he still proves unable to duck controversy for very long. (He won’t be entirely wrong, following Spiro Agnew’s infamous attack on broadcast news, when he suggests on air that a little more depth and objectivity certainly is called for, but he won’t exactly make many new friends in and out of his craft by his not very subtle implication that only one network newsman possesses such depth and objectivity—a man named Howard K. Smith.)

The shame is that the best of Smith keeps listeners gripped tight. Just try to avoid peeling away when he refers to a CBS reporter (Richard C. Hottelet, as it happens) who once spent a few hours locked in a German concentration camp. Reviewing the carnage wreaked upon Berlin in the final months of Hitler’s war, Smith keeps his own self-importance under tight control, for once in his career. You may yet believe someone else among Murrow’s Boys might have done it better, but you might believe concurrently that only one or two, at most, could have done so with this much raw power.

 

Thomas Cadett: “There Was the Body of Goebbels . . .” (BBC, 9 May 1945)

The British Broadcasting Company has been no slouch in war reporting itself, and—like many of their best reporters—Thomas Cadett lacks the sense of self-significance that compromises Smith. Perhaps that is why Cadett, in a shorter report, damn near equals the harrowing Smith in describing what remains of Hitler’s Berlin bunker, not to mention Hitler’s longtime propagandist and never-questioning acolyte: Joseph Goebbels—for a single day Germany’s chancellor, until Grand Admiral Doenitz assumed what was left of power in the Third Reich’s final days—has had his children poisoned before he and his wife commit suicide.

Thomas Cadett certainly lacks the sense of self-significance that compromises Smith. Perhaps it is that by which Cadett, in a shorter report, damn near equals the harrowing Smith in describing what remains of Hitler’s Berlin bunker . . . and, for that matter, what remains of Joseph Goebbels.

Hitler’s longtime propaganda minister—and, for one day, until Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz assumed what could be called power in the Third Reich’s final days, Germany’s chancellor—had his children poisoned before he and his wife committed suicide.

Cadett’s report is problematic in one sense: his description of a reputed Hitler double found amidst the ruins. This may make it hard to isolate whether his report inadvertently ignites a decades-long speculation over whether Hitler and others (Martin Bormann most notoriously) actually escape the fall of the Third Reich, ending their lives even further on terms they denied their fellow Germans and millions more.

But Cadett’s sober, equally matter-of-fact description of the Goebbels discovery should have dispelled the rumour machinery post haste. Nothing if not slavishly devoted to Hitler, Goebbels’s diaries will reveal his explicit wish—begun with a striking refusal to join the Doenitz government to stay, as Hitler requested, the only time Goebbels could ever bring himself to disobey der Feuhrer—to end his life (and, grotesquely, that of his family) rather than live it without Hitler to serve.

 

FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .

Adventure

10 May

Escape: The Vessel of Wrath (CBS, 1953)—A near-exact adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham story finds Baptist missionaries (Jeannette Nolan, Parley Baer) petitioning the Dutch controller of the Alas Islands to discipline a particularly hedonistic island resident (Alan Reed)—with whom they’re forced to share a boat six months later on a medical emergency and spend one night alone on an uninhabited island in the group, which may prompt a reassessment of the man. Considered one of the series’ best adaptations, and it won’t be hard to hear why. (Warning: recording cuts short after 20 minutes.) Additional cast: Eric Snowden, Dave Young. Narrator: Eric Young. Announcer: Roy Rowan. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Writer/director: Antony Ellis.

 

Comedy

9 May

The Goldbergs:Ed and Leah Refuse to Tell (CBS, 1941)—Ed and Leah await a visit from Molly (Gertrude Berg), who’s bent on getting to the truth of why Sammy (Alfred Ryder) disappeared rather than marry Sylvia (Zina Provendie); and, Sammy tells Jake (John R. Waters) about the lies from Sylvia—including one involving Ed—that really drove him away. Announcer: Clayton (Bud) Collyer. Writer/director: Gertrude Berg.

The Burns & Allen Show: George’s Door-to-Door Radio Campaign (CBS; rebroadcast: Armed Forces Radio Network, 1944)Running for the city council has its pratfalls (and certainly lacks the pizzazz of his wife’s earlier gag run for the presidency), as George (Burns) won’t learn if Gracie (Allen) can help it—she’s determined to bump up his ratings after a neighbourhood poll doesn’t, and she hears Ray Milland won’t vote for George’s opponent. The Happy Postman: Mel Blanc. Additional cast: Elvia Allman, Jimmy Cash, Hans Conreid, Lawrence Nash. Announcer: Bill Goodwin. Music: Felix Mills Orchestra. Writers: George Burns, Paul Henning, possibly Hal Kanter.

Duffy’s Tavern: Men’s Fashion Lecture (CBS, 1944)—“You remember Theda Bara? Well, uh, Menjou was a fashion plate when she was still a dish.” Also sprach Archie (Ed Gardner) to Duffy on the blower, before guest Adolphe Menjou makes a valiant attempt to deliver a men’s fashion lecture to the local gendarmerie . . . written by Archie, of all people. (“Da well dressed man must watch out how he garbs himself, ’cause he is always judges by his garbiage”) Finnegan: Charles Cantor. Eddie: Eddie Green. Miss Duffy: Possibly Florence Halop. Music: Peter Van Steeden Orchestra. Writers: Ed Gardner, Abe Burrows.

The Fred Allen Show: Break the Contestant (NBC, 1948)—After lamenting a week for the apple and a mere day for the mother, suggesting reasons there should be a Be Kind to Humans Week, and gauging the Alley’s satisfaction with the year’s Pulitzer Prizes, here comes another gleeful barb in the craw of the metastasising meatheaded quiz show presence . . . and one of the absolute best of such Allen barbs, aided and abetted by Don McNeil, an enduring radio presence with The Breakfast Club. With Portland Hoffa. Sen. Claghorn: Kenny Delmar (announcer). Titus Moody: Parker Fennelly. Mrs. Nussbaum: Minerva Pious. Ajax Cassidy: Peter Donald. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the Five DeMarco Sisters. Writers: Fred Allen, Harry Bailey, possibly Nat Hiken, Bob Weiskopf.

Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: The Murder of the Missing Eavesdropper (Three Guesses, 1960)—Such, among others of the usual cheerful insanities, is the case to be solved by “Mr. Trace, Keener than Most Persons.” Writers, such as they are: Bob Elliott, Ray Goulding.

 

10 May

Texaco Star Theater Starring Fred Allen: The Courting of Nasty and Nell (CBS, 1942)—This is not quite Marlene Dietrich’s first old-time radio appearance, but it will hold up as one of her best, as she ponders some “fatherly” career advice from the medium’s master satirist—including how much less frequently she will be clobbered on the air than on the screen. (Come into radio . . . in radio, there is no violence or rough stuff . . . you can get beaten up and kicked around in radio and not even feel it!) As a matter of fact, said master satirist will shoo both his boy tenor and his second bananette to one side (This is a moment I want to share with me) to savour the interlude alone, which should have taught him . . . With Portland Hoffa. The Mighty Allen Art Players: Minerva Pious, John Brown, Alan Reed. Announcer: Jimmy Wallington. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, Kenny Baker. Writers: Fred Allen, Roland Kibbee, Nat Hiken.

My Friend Irma: Bon Voyage (CBS, 1948)—Jane’s (Cathy Lewis) hope of a romantic sendoff as Richard (Leif Erickson) boards the Queen Mary for a business trip to England gets sunk when Richard politely invites Irma (Marie Wilson), Al (John Brown), Professor Kropotkin (Hans Conreid), and Mrs. O’Reilly (Gloria Gordon) to his bon voyage party, which gives scheming Al an idea. You just know how this one’s going to be torpedoed . . . Announcer: Frank England. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Director: Cy Howard. Writers: Parke Levy, Stanley Niss.

Fibber McGee & Molly: A New House for Foley (NBC, 1949)—The Wistful Vista Elks Club janitor receives an eviction notice, and the town swings into action to build him a new home on another lot he owns—led by the Swinger of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan), who thinks the group can build a five-room house before sundown under his command . . . assuming the crew can get it done without hammering or nailing themselves. The Old-Timer: Bill Thompson. Doc: Arthur Q. Bryan. La Trivia: Gale Gordon. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writers: Don Quinn, Phil Leslie.

The Adventures of Maisie: The Universal Elixir; a.k.a. The Quackenbush Elixir (Syndicated, 1951)—That’s the concoction being peddled by a slightly eccentric old doctor (Hans Conreid) who offers Maisie (Ann Sothern) a lift early one morning, prompting her to suggest herself as his attention-grabbing shill, and yes you’ve probably seen and/or heard this one a few million times in a few thousand vintage film shorts—unfortunately, even with the unexpected marriage proposal she receives as a possible side effect: Lucy’s Vitametavegamin commercial it ain’t. Additional cast: Johnny McGovern, Virginia Gregg, Sidney Miller, Peter Leeds. Announcer: John Easton. Music: Harry Zimmerman. Writer: John L. Greene.

Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: One Fella’s Family—Moving Day (It’ll Come to Us, 1960)—From Book Eye Eye, Chapter Eye, page 14, 15, and the bottom of page 27. Also: Wally Ballou (Bob Elliott) awaits the arrival of a European entertainment troupe, and the show staff (actual or alleged) answers a few listener questions. Writers, so they’d have you believe: Bob Elliott, Ray Goulding.

Drama/Dramatic Anthology

10 May

Arch Oboler’s Plays: Holiday (Mutual, 1945)—A couple (Norman Field, Bea Benaderet) don’t want their children to suspect their family cruise is more than just a vacation, despite their father’s anxiety over the Chinese production project that’s the journey’s real impetus. Additional cast: Bill Christy, Rhoda Williams, Lou Merrill, Irene Tedrow, Joseph Granby, Mary Jane Croft, Raymond Severn, Bruce Elliott. Writer/director: Arch Oboler.

Fantasy

10 May

Quiet, Please: There are Shadows Here (Mutual, 1948)—A man (Ernest Chappell, who narrates) can’t remember the name of look of a woman seeking him at his regular watering hole, and with good enough reason—no one sees her, except in shadow. Classic understatement. Esther: Aline Sparrow. Paddy: Ed Latimer. The Unnamed Writer: Sid Cassell. Frankie: Frank Thomas. Music: Albert Buhrmann. Writer/director: Wyllis Cooper.

 

Mystery

10 May

Suspense: Reprieve (CBS, 1945)—Learning the hard way that there’s more than one hazard to being a stand-up guy in the underworld, death row inmante Steve Hannibal (John Garfield in a rock-solid performance) reflects on how he got there—taking the proverbial rap for a killing done by another of his payroll-theft gang, because he believed he could beat it by pleading self-defence, and fighting off sensational pre-trial press . . . while succumbing to a comely reporter (Cathy Lewis) who wants to print his side of the story, until another hood kills her and he kills the hood promptly. Additional cast: Wally Maher, John McIntire, Joseph Kearns. Announcer: Truman Bradley. Music: Lucien Morowick, Lud Gluskin. Writer/director: William Spier.

 

Western

10 May

Gunsmoke: Jalsicoe Pete (CBS, 1952)—A dying boy (Johnny McGovern) staggers into Dillon’s (William Conrad) office to tell him his family’s home was burned, his father and sister murdered, and his mother barely alive, and Dillon discovers the attackers tried to make it look like an Indian attack . . . while finding a very specially-made spur, next to one of the dead women, belonging to a crewman on a particularly aggressive ranching team with a taste for running off homesteaders—and perceived turncoats—violently. A little busy but worth the stay. Mary Thompson: Vivi Janiss. Ben: Lou Krugman. Colonel: Harry Bartell. Chester: Parley Baer. Kitty: Georgia Ellis. Doc: Howard McNear. Additional cast: Jack Kruschen, Barney Phillips. Announcer: Roy Rowan. Music: Rex Khoury. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Writer: Les Crutchfield.

 

WORLD WAR II

A Prime Minister Resigns (BBC, 1940)—Following two tumultuous years since the Munich concessions (“peace in our time,” he called it with optimism soon lain waste)—two years which have brought Great Britain into what was becoming World War II after the Third Reich forced its hand by attacking a Poland whose independence he pledged to defend, not to mention an Allied retreat during the effort to re-claim critical Norwegian assets taken by the Nazis—Neville Chamberlain resigns as prime minister, after two days of parliamentary debates that result in the Labour Party declining to join a united government under him. Chamberlain announces both his resignation and Winston Churchill’s succession. He will join Churchill’s War Cabinet until a battle with cancer forces him to step away, dying of the illness in November 1940.

The Attack on Holland (AVRO, 1940)—While Chamberlain bows to what enough Britons believe the inevitable, the Nazis invade Holland and Queen Wilhelmina proclaims her resistance . . . a resistance that proves futile, as just days later the queen will be forced to accept an offer of refuge from British King George VI. She will preside legendarily over the Dutch government-in-exile, earning the respect of the world (Winston Churchill will call her the only real man among the governments-in-exiles’ heads), not to mention becoming the first monarch ever to address the U.S. Congress. But Wilhelmina will abdicate her throne post-war, in September 1948, when she cannot abide the Netherlands’ apparent return to the kind of politics she came to despise before her country’s invasion and occupation.

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