Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Majesty Over Melodrama

You could see the prematurely craggy grille squeeze just so to amplify the empathetic severity in the voice, as Lionel Barrymore's Mayor Russell tried to reason with his friend, Judge Jim Williams, whose son decided to enlist in the Navy as World War II ramped up toward the bristling battles of the Pacific.

"He's got plenty of time ahead for fighting," father pronounced. "Right now, he's gonna finish law school."

"The boy feels it's his duty to go, and he's right," the mayor rejoined.

"Wellllll," replied the father, "he shall go, someday, if necessary---but not yet." It was an exclamation more than a declaration. "Not just yet. Let him finish school."

"Aaaaaugh," began Barrymore's mayor, in a groaning but not necessarily exasperated sigh. And then he sank into his homilitic persuasion.

Do you remember the Cummins boy who used to deliver groceries? Well, he's gone. Charlie Jackson's son from Harvard, and the young D.A. in your own court? Why, confound it, man, this is a last, desperate war for survival. The country has to be defended and held at any cost. Oh, I'll grant you raised the boy well, Jim, you taught him pride in country, pride in himself. Today, you should say, 'Thank God. Thank God for this son who's got enough honour and honesty to face the facts that his country is in a death struggle and needs him.

Then the mayor asked the judge whether he would have less courage than his son, to which the judge replied he would go himself, if he could. "It's easier to die yourself than to see someone you love die." After which the son and his bride-to-be persuaded the mayor to marry them post-haste. "We're the ones making the sacrifices," cooed the bride-to-be (played by Lurene Tuttle, freshly minted as niece Marjorie in The Great Gildersleeve), "and we have the right to whatever happiness we can get."

The mayor married them. A newsboy ballyhooed a midnight extra detailing a big Naval battle a few months hence, after which came a telegram to the mayor's office, leaving Barrymore's mayor the harrowing job of telling three town families their sons died in action in the Coral Sea. Including and especially the son whose father the judge Mr. Mayor had so recently convinced to let his duty-driven son go off to war.

Thus began Mayor of the Town, which spent four episodes on NBC before moving to CBS a month after its 1942 premiere. It's been classified a situation comedy, but with more situation than comedy it anticipated such coming radio and television exercises as Father Knows Best, where the laughs if any were the doing of the laugh track more than the often mawkish script. Except that The Mayor of the Town at its best was lower on the artificial sweeteners and slightly higher on the elemental believability scales, even if creator and primary writer Jean Holloway seemed prone enough to dulling the line between small town reality and Hallmark card surreality.

Barrymore's casting probably did the most to overcome that dulling, even if you've probably bypassed The Mayor of the Town running straight to snap up any of his various annual radio turns as Scrooge in someone's interpretation of A Christmas Carol. (Usually, but not exclusively, it would be Orson Welles's.) He brought precisely the weary dignity to Mayor Russell that you might have expected of a man who made a film with Joan Crawford and lived, and he kept even the most soap-operatic passages from sinking too deep into the suds.

But one only guesses at the thespian separation Barrymore made to play his Mayor Russell in the face of a Judge Williams lain soul deep by the death of the son he intended his professional heir. "How is it possible that you don't understand how this has gone with me?" Russell rejoins to Williams's seething, accusatory grief. "Why, I taught Tom how to hold his first baseball bat. I taught him to swim. A few months ago I officiated at his wedding."

"Yes, you officiated at his wedding," answered Williams, in a low voice through implicitly clenched teeth. "And tomorrow you will hold further ceremony for him, and his comrades. You will make a speech about patriotism and expect to fill our hearts with your words." A pause, before a half-shouted cry. "Well, the devil take your words! Couldn't you even leave me in peace in my sorrow? Did you have to impose even on my grief?"

"I thought we were almost brothers," answered the mayor, Barrymore's voice in a battle between wavering and whittling. "I thought what came to one of us came to both." The following day, after having endured a comparable searing of gried from the widowed young bride, he did indeed deliver the speech of which he was accused of preparing. And you heard Barrymore's voice amplify enough from a well to which a microphone is only an echo.

Believe me, I know the personal grief of each and every one of you. I who have no sons of my own blood have shared the lives of yours. I've known the progress of teeth and broken legs, and baseball teams and romances. I've heard them sing at football games and insult the baseball umpires. And now I've seen them march away to play a deadlier game. Still singing, still insulting, some of them are not to return.

Some of them have already given their lives in the name of America. And you who saw them go ask me, 'Is it right? Why did they go? What did they die for?' And I must answer you in this manner. They died for Patrick Henry. Nathan Hale, and John Paul Jones. They died for schools and movie houses and summer picnics, country roads, woods in Maine, the lakes in California, for the right to say what they like, and to like what they like, and debunk what they don't like, all those things that became suddenly sacred to them when they were threatened.

A plea for the nobility of some childrens' deaths, spoken through the actor's craft by a father whose own two children fell to disease, not in battle, before they were even old enough for school. It's as impossible to know which rends a parent more deeply as it is to know whom beside Lionel Barrymore could have kept such a homily from substituting melodrama for majesty entirely. (He had, in fairness, a certain augmentative training a year earlier: he was part of Norman Corwin's landmark We Hold These Truths, commemorating the Bill of Rights's 150th birthday. Walter Huston, Marjorie Main, Edward G. Robinson, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles joined that party.)

But the widowed bride took the old mayor's arm to escort him home, and the grief-shorn judge congratulated him for a fine speech, before harrumphing his way into a checkers invitation. And the widowed bride saved it from bathos by asking permisson to watch, "just to see that you don't cheat." Both of them.

Mayor Russell may have had no sons but he had a widowed daughter, Margaret (Bea Benaderet, I think), whose first appearance in the second show came by way of an anxious telephone call from Philadelphia. Seems the mayor's granddaughter, en route to Grandpa by train (Agnes Moorehead as secretary Marilly was dispatched to meet her), had plunged full into the old tradition of the weekly crush. "It was all right when it was Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor," warbled Mom, "but last week she was going to elope with the insurance man."

Barrymore's mischievious two-syllable snicker said what the script didn't put into his mouth. It could have been worse.


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