I don’t know I ever heard Robert Benchley performing with Groucho Marx before this


Among my weekly listening is the Radio Entertainment Network’s podcast. It picks an hour of old-time radio each week. The episode for the 21st of September had two half-hour episodes. The first of these is Columbia Presents Corwin, a 1945 sustaining series in which Norman Corwin got the chance to be all weird, in case that advanced the state of the art of radio programming.

This installment, “The Undecided Molecule”, was a comic rhyming court battle over what Molecule X shall do. It’s also got a heck of a cast: Groucho Marx as the judge, Robert Benchley as the interpreter for Molecule X. Vincent Price. Keenan Wynn. Also Sylvia Sidney, who had mostly dramatic roles in her career. It’s a heck of a comic lineup, though.

It’s the only time I can remember to have Robert Benchley and Groucho Marx trading lines. I can’t say it’s the only one, since there were a lot of radio shows like Command Performance that would toss together improbable sets of actors. But, like, Robert Benchley’s default screen persona is “ordinary guy overwhelmed by the mundane”. That’s not the sort of pomposity or self-absorption that Groucho Marx is needed to deflate. And it’s really hard to think of a reason for Vincent Price to act against either of those types. I’m impressed the thing comes together at all.

A quick content warning: there is a reference in here — I lost just where — to current events of summer 1945. It’s a reference to having beaten the “Hun” and going to beat a short way of referring to Japanese people. I’ve clearly decided that isn’t a gross enough problem to outweigh the value of hearing the episode, but did not want people who’d reason otherwise to be caught unaware.

The second show in this podcast, starting about 30 minutes in like you’d hope, is an installment of Arch Oboler’s Lights Out. This was a horror series, often dipping into the supernatural. This particular episode is about two typists who’re handling the script for Lights Out when things get unsettling. (If I’m reading things right, the script they’re typing up seems to be for the episode “The Dark”, about a strange fog that turns people inside-out. It got riffed on a Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons.) Whether the episode works for you at all probably depends on whether you can accept the acting conventions. Old-time-radio acting used a different theatrical style than we do today. And the characters have to tell each other things that they really should just see, like, lights going out. And, particularly, Arch Oboler had a wry humor, so there may be stuff you think is just laughable and not realize that he did too.

If you’re of a sufficient age you might remember listening to Bill Cosby routines without trouble. Also particularly listening to a Bill Cosby routine in which he tells of staying up to listen to a radio story that scares the pants off him. In the episode a chicken heart escapes from a lab and one thing leads to another and it kinda eats the world. This is a retelling of a different Lights Out episode. (And an episode only known to exist in a truncated, edited form, so Cosby’s telling is valuable for describing what the experience was like.) So, if you can find the right mood, you might really like this series. You’ll also see that this, one of the first horror series, taught Rod Serling a bunch of tricks.

Comic Strips: The Heart of Juliet Jones


I don’t wish to spend too much time doing snarky humor on this blog — not because it can’t be fun, but because there is so much of it already around — but I realized I’ve spent so much time giggling about this particular comic strip that I really ought to share it. The web site Dailyink.com runs, besides a bunch of the King Features Syndicate comic strips you can’t quite believe are still running (The Katzenjammer Kids Somehow Because It’s 2013, Right?), some classics from the old days (The Katzenjammer Kids Slightly Less Somehow Since It Was 1940 I Guess).

Among them is Stan Drake’s The Heart Of Juliet Jones, the long-running soap opera strip about how Juliet Jones does not get married. In a strip rerun just a couple days ago, originally printed the 28th of December, 1955, her engagement with Johnny the Civil Engineer certainly appears to have wrapped up its mild complications (Johnny was so into the chic of building bridges he hasn’t minded that he’s under-paid and under-promoted at work) when, well, here. You don’t really need even that much introduction to follow it.

The ruthlessness with which the potentially happy ending is crushed makes me laugh in a way that can’t have been meant — or could it?

I’ve listened to quite a few old-time radio mystery and suspense shows, with the arch, melodramatic acting and loud organ stings at every carefully highlighted moment building to the twist Rod Serling would later rip off; they can manage to be both tolerably suspenseful and utterly unbelievable at once, and I wonder if the original audiences were listening with the same mix of suspense and incredulity that I have. Remember that one of the great radio suspense shows of all time, really and truly, was — exactly as the Bill Cosby routine had it — an episode of Lights Out about a scientist whose biochemical experiments caused the beating heart of a chicken to grow until it consumed the East Coast. Scary? Yes. Too ridiculous to be scared by? Yes. (Unfortunately only truncated versions of the original radio broadcast seem to be available.)

How long have they coexisted? And were the great soap opera strips of the past living in the same intersection of reality and disbelief?