12 December 2014

A Work of Genius: Orson Welles Mercury Theater on the Air: "Hell on Ice"


Orson Welles, the "Boy Wonder"

Lovers of classic film would do well to investigate another form of entertainment that blossomed in the 1930s and 1940s -- radio. Once upon a time it was pretty difficult to track down OTR (that just stands for Old Time Radio); but now the internet provides not just information about, but access to, thousands of programs from comedy to soap opera to sitcom to music to classic and contemporary drama, often starring performers known to us today as movie stars, but who were just as well-known and in some cases better known as radio stars. Many stage stars excelled in this medium as well. And radio did not in general talk down to its audience; you will hear many extremely well-written, groundbreaking and even iconic productions.

Many of the classic comedies are considered classic for a good reason -- they were just great in every way, concept, writing, performance, sound, everything. Even today the names are sort of familiar -- The Jack Benny Program, Lum and Abner, Fred Allen, and my favorite, Duffy's Tavern (which opened each week with a telephone ringing and being answered: "Hello, this is Duffy's Tavern, Archie speaking, Duffy ain't here!") Mystery, suspense, and westerns were well-represented, too; few people realize that classic TV westerns such as Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel started as radio programs, and darn good ones, too.
As far as drama goes, you can't get better than Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air. 

Welles, of course, was the "boy wonder" of the modern stage in 1938, when he was 23 years old and before he ever saw a movie camera. With a small repertory company of eager young actors, he had produced, directed, and starred in several extremely well-received stage productions, including a compelling modern-dress Julius Caesar, and had been hired by the New Deal's Works Progress Administration to put on shows using the talents of out-0f-work actors, stagehands, set decorators, and other theatrical professionals. The result of this was the famous Voodoo MacBeth -- Shakespeare's MacBeth set in Haiti, with an all-black cast -- and composer Mark Blitzstein's celebration of workers, The Cradle Will Rock, which was deemed too radical and banned before it opened. 

Welles work was distinguished by a talent for innovative stagecraft, a love of and thorough knowledge of the classics of stage and literature, an ability to work with actors and find more in them than they knew they had, and perhaps most importantly, the skill of connecting with an audience. And at an age at which most budding actors are just getting out of high school, he already had considerable stage experience. It sounds apocryphal, but is in fact true that he starred at the Gate Theater in Dublin at the age of 17 -- an opportunity he happened across touring Europe alone in his late teens. He was extremely well-read, but had no interest in producing art that was "lofty" or above people's heads; he loved and respected good theater in any form, be it comedy or ghost story, western or melodrama.
 Perhaps it was this last characteristic that prompted CBS to offer Welles an hour-long weekly radio program to pretty much do with as he pleased. First dubbed The Mercury Theater On The Air, then with the addition of a sponsor, The Campbell Playhouse, the program broadcast 73 hour-long episodes produced by Welles -- and usually written by and starring Welles, too. The casts included Mercury Theater stalwarts like Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorhead, Everett Sloane, and Ray Collins; but Broadway and Hollywood stars were frequent and often eager guests.  

 I have heard many of these programs, but not anywhere near all; some are apparently lost, and some have not been preserved in listenable condition. One, of course, is famous --  "The War of the Worlds" (hysteria aside, this is an excellent dramatization of H. G. Wells' novel.) There were certainly some misfires -- "Rebecca" was not particularly mysterious or involving, partly due to the sophisticated Margaret Sullivan not sounding in the least like a poor but genteel 22-year-old. "The Green Goddess" did not benefit from updating, and its final joke was flatly flubbed. But usually, the producer and his company came up with some superb drama, week after week. The quality of the scripts -- Welles' and others -- was extraordinary. 
The Maestro -- what else can you call him?
Recently I listened to one episode I'd never heard -- or heard of -- before. It was broadcast on October 9, 1938, and was entitled "Hell on Ice." Welles wrote the script from a memoir by a member of an utterly disastrous 1879 expedition to explore the North Pole, which resulted in nearly every crew member's death. The captain's logs, which he kept up until he was physically unable to write, were found with his body.

I have never heard anyone mention this program, but it is just brilliant in every aspect. First, Welles decided that a story so stark needed no embellishment. The script is a work of art in itself -- the way the story unfolds, the natural development of the characters -- shown not told -- the pacing, the brief but direct descriptions of action and physical reality, are astoundingly skillful (especially considering that he probably wrote in in about a week). Sound effects are sparingly used, but expertly created. An incidental score by Bernard Herrmann moves the story inexorably along. Welles' character, the expedition's chief engineer (who survived the fiasco). narrates, and the great cast included William Alland, Joseph Cotton, and Everett Sloane. The incredibly brave captain, the hero if there was one in this dreadful situation, was played by Ray Collins in a terrific performance -- hearing this strong man's voice weaken and fail as he speaks the final struggling entries in the logbook is completely gripping. 
Ray Collins
Many of these productions testify to Welles genius; I will discuss more of them in the future. But this hour shows so much of the great talent and skill he brought to this medium. If you're a Welles fan for his films, you will find his mind at work on these radio productions, too -- his amazing grasp of structure and the unfolding of a narrative, his skill with color and pace. As a lifelong, and indeed a hereditary Welles devotee, I can't recommend this hour highly enough.

 (NOTE: The Mercury Theater On the Air production of "Hell on Ice" is available through The Internet Archive, as well as many OTR sites and collections.)
 (A history of the expedition is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Jeannette_%281878%29)