My Vintage Life: Lux Radio Theatre

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Thank you all so much for the response to last week’s post on Norma Shearer and pre-Code Hollywood, as well as the introduction of My Vintage Life. It’s been a big week on Sew for Victory with this, plus the launch of the Sew for Victory Book Club. Your comments and support has been fantastic and I’m happy to know that you’re enjoying these new features!

I’ve had an incredibly busy week sewing-wise. On top of finishing the muslin for my wedding dress, I’ve now completed my version of the Baltimore Dress from Decades of Style – I’m planning on posting pictures of the muslin next week and a post about the Baltimore Dress should follow relatively soon after that! One of my secrets to productive sewing is having something great to listen to. An interesting podcast will usually motivate me to get to the sewing table, even when I’m really feeling a loss of motivation. It was on a hunt for something new to enjoy that I came across recordings of the Lux Radio Theatre. I had never heard of this grand radio production that ran from the mid-1930s through to the mid-1950s – this is particularly surprising given that recordings of the programmes are easily accessible online. I started working my way through the recordings and could not escape the feeling that such an incredible treasure trove needed to be talked about! So it’s to the story of the Lux Radio Theatre that we now turn…


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For those living in the 1930s and 1940s, radio provided an essential source of entertainment and information. It’s difficult to imagine, in our era of unprecedented technology, that there was a time when even radio was a luxury. In 1921, there were just five licensed broadcasting stations across the entire US. By 1924, this had increased massively to 500. A similar pattern shows the dramatic growth of radio ownership among American households, increasing from 40 percent in 1930 to 83 percent in 1940. Other than trips to the cinema, radio was everything in the way of entertainment. Comedies, dramas, musical performances – all were broadcast via radio to households across the US. Given these figures, it was perhaps natural that someone would seek to exploit the opportunity to bring together America’s two primary forms of entertainment – radio and film.

The Lux Radio Theatre began broadcasting on 14 October 1934, as one of the most ambitious radio productions in history. The project was a conceptualisation of the Lever Brothers, makers of Lux Soap, who sponsored the programmes for the duration of its production through to 1955 (if you listen to the productions, trust me when I say that you will hear more than you ever could have hoped to about soap and complexions). The show was a weekly hour-long radio broadcast, initially created with the purpose of adapting successful Broadway plays for radio. Each week, actors and actresses would perform these adaptations live in New York before a studio audience, broadcast via radio to – at the show’s peak – an estimated 40 million listeners. During the first two seasons of the show, a number of great Broadway plays were adapted – including Smilin’ Through Berkeley Square and Way Down East.

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The first two year’s of Lux Radio Theatre productions proved a remarkable success – a success upon which the show’s producers and sponsors were determined to capitalise. They decided to broaden the scope of the programme – and widen its audience – by relocating the entire production to Hollywood and, rather than adapt Broadway plays, produce adaptations of successful Hollywood films. From here, incredible success was almost inevitable. On 25 May 1936, the Lux Radio Theatre presented its first programme from its new base in Hollywood, with an adaptation of The Legionnaire and the Lady (based on the film Morocco), starring Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable. Listening to this first adaptation, it is easy to feel why the production was a remarkable coup for all involved. The listener is given the opportunity to hear the most famous Hollywood stars acting live in a condensed and radio-appropriate version of an incredibly successful film. There’s the odd fumbling of words from the actors but this just adds to the sense of being right there, watching these performers do what they do best. Nothing like this had been done before and, in my opinion, modern radio productions would struggle to evoke the same effect on their listeners.

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Cecil B. DeMille

A large part of the Lux Radio Theatre’s success is undoubtedly owed to its long-time host – Cecil B. DeMille. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s worth going and doing a little digging. DeMille was perhaps one of the most interesting figures to work during the period we term ‘classic Hollywood’. He was an incredibly prestigious film maker and is often created as being the founder of American cinema. Lux Radio Theatre brought him on as host when they moved to Hollywood and he stayed with the production for almost a decade. As a man who would’ve been known to almost every movie-going American in the 1930s, DeMille added a definite level of authenticity to the production. When you listen to the episodes that he hosts, he often drops in anecdotes or converses with individuals with whom he has previously worked. At the end of The Legionnaire and The Lady, for example, DeMille introduces Clark Gable with this story:

Host: And now– And now a word about a certain young actor before he steps out on the stage. I want to tell you a little story of him. When I was casting “Madam Satan” six or seven years ago, I was looking for a villain. Somebody had given my script girl a screen test of a young man and she kept dinging the life out of me to see it. I asked her if he was a villain, and she said she thought he could do anything. Eh, so I looked at it and decided he was not a villain, but that he had definite possibilities. So I showed it to the other executives at the studio. When I asked them about the young man a day or so later, they said he never could succeed in pictures. I asked why not. They said, “His ears are too big.” … But evidently– Evidently, those ears were no obstacle to the triumph of Clark Gable.

These types of stories – with which every production is dotted – fantastically heighten the sense that you are listening to the ‘real’ Hollywood – hearing from those figures that stand at the very heart of this flashy, gaudy, and impenetrable metropolis of fame and fortune.

Over the course of its production, the Lux Radio Theatre adapted some of the best known Hollywood films and employed the most famous personalities in starring roles. Mostly, productions attempted to retain the original cast unless the stars were totally unavailable. In many instances, the production of films would be halted temporarily by the studios in order for the stars to be available for recordings of Lux Radio Theatre. Stars such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Gene Kelly, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Cary Grant, all starred at various points in Lux Radio Theatre productions. This list is only the tip of the iceberg. For many of these stars, however, appearing in the radio adaptations was no simple matter. To actors used to multiple takes for any one scene, the idea of acting live with no second chances was incredibly intimidating. However, the offer of $5000 for an appearance often quelled the fears. In addition, these radio productions offered an opportunity to promote any upcoming projects.

One of my favourite parts of the episode is right at the end, when the main stars of the adaptation come out to speak with the host. There’s typically a bit of back and forth conversation, sometimes a song if one of the stars is a singer, and a promotion of future films. Although these interactions are always scripted – and typically feel so – there’s something truly endearing about them. At the end of the adaptation of Burlesque, for instance, stars Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler talk with Cecil B. DeMille. Although this takes up perhaps just five minutes of the whole episode, it’s incredibly heartwarming listening to this husband and wife acting partnership interact with one another. This, more than anything, truly does give the sense that the listener is somehow penetrating those barriers traditional perceived to stand around Hollywood and its best and brightest.

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That fact that we have access to the recordings of every production of Lux Radio Theatre is incredibly fortunate. The archive of episodes provides potentially days of entertainment for those interested in classic Hollywood or classic radio productions. I can’t quite put across how impactful it is, for someone who is fascinated by the 1930s-1940s Hollywood era, to listen to these live recordings of radio adaptations based on Hollywood’s greatest triumphs. One of the biggest difficulties when researching those periods that we associate with the word ‘vintage’ is, I think, attempting to humanise and bring life to the people and events that we read about. Even watching classic films fails to bring this humanity – as with any actor who does a half decent job, the portrayal of a character on screen will always serve as a kind of wall between the audience and the person behind the actions and words. I read a lot of biographies with the explicit purpose of attempting to understand more of the ‘real’ Hollywood or the ‘real’ actors. The Lux Radio Theatre productions offer a different way of bringing some humanity to these people whose names we all know. The fumbling of words, the demonstrable nerves, and the genuine real-life moments that pervade almost all of the productions shine a new kind of light on the Hollywood of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.


If you want to listen to the Lux Radio Theatre broadcasts for yourself (which you absolutely should!), they are available via public domain from a number of sources. I have been listening via this archive.

 

 

 

My Vintage Life: Norma Shearer and Pre-Code Hollywood

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Welcome to my new weekly post series – My Vintage Life! I’ve been deliberating for a while about how to streamline my vintage lifestyle posts and create something that is a predictable – but hopefully still super interesting – weekly feature. That’s where My Vintage Life comes in! This will be where I post about a whole range of topics related to vintage lifestyle, fashion, and history. I work hard outside of Sew for Victory to remain constantly learning – through podcasts, books, films, and anything I can get my hands on. To me, wearing vintage style is totally connected to a passion for the bigger ‘vintage’ picture. It’s impossible to separate the popular fashion of previous eras from the larger social and cultural dynamics at work – the interplay between all of these different bits and pieces of history is something that I find hugely interesting and love to talk about when I get the opportunity.

I’m hoping that My Vintage Life can serve as a place to write about all things vintage-related. Fingers crossed that these posts will spark an interest in you and perhaps send you into a Google hole for a while! If you have any suggestions for future posts – perhaps a film you’ve watched or a vintage icon you love – please shoot me an email or leave a comment. Alternatively, post on Instagram or Twitter using #myvintagelife and @sewforvictoryuk and I’ll be sure to see you pics!

Anyway, enough of introductions! This first post is dedicated to one of my current fascinations – Norma Shearer and Pre-Code Hollywood.


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Norma Shearer was, in many ways, the quintessential classic Hollywood actress. Beautiful, chic, and – at least in her later films – quietly seductive. She was born in 1902 and entered the film industry in the middle of the Roaring ’20s, while silent cinema still dominated. After a shaky start in the industry, Shearer worked hard to improve on her acting skills and accelerated to stardom following MGMs first official film production, He Who Gets Slapped. With the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927, the entire Hollywood film industry underwent a dramatic shift. Talkies became the new standard and a number of incredibly high profile silent stars struggled with the transition (Marion Davies, for example, who was plagued by a childhood stutter). An aside: if you’re interested in this particular period in Hollywood, definitely watch (or re-watch for the millionth time) ‘Singin’ In The Rain‘. I think it actually does a wonderful job of giving some insight into the high anxiety that talkies brought for both studios and performers. Plus, there’s Gene Kelly and a whole lot of dancing. Norma Shearer shifted to talkies with ease. In fact, it was in the early years of talking films that she made what I would argue are some of her best films.

Up until the introduction of the Hays Code (officially called the Motion Picture Production Code) in 1934, Hollywood was pretty well unregulated with regards to censorship. Local laws attempted to put some restrictions on the types of content that films could include, but it was relatively easy for studios to ignore these regulations without consequence. Between 1929 (when sound pictures became the relative norm) and 1934, this relaxed attitude to censorship was embraced by Hollywood which, in turn, churned out a number of films that included profanity, sex, and violence (although all of these films would seem pretty tame in comparison to what we see on screen today).  This was the period during which Norma Shearer came into her own as an actress portraying promiscuous and sexually liberated women. Her 1930 film The Divorcee is, in my opinion, her best. She is endearing, spirited, and incredibly convincing as a woman who discovers that her husband has had an affair. Her character counters her husband’s infidelity by sleeping with his best friend and, following their divorce, proceeds to really live it up with whole lot of partying and sex. It’s a fantastic film – not least because it is not a film that you would expect to come out of 1930s America. Shearer won the Academy Award for Best Actress as a result of her performance.

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The Divorcee (1930)

Another amazing pre-Code film starring Shearer is A Free Soul. She stars alongside both Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore and – again, in my opinion – totally outdoes both of them (although Barrymore won an Academy Award for his role and Gable’s performance is largely credited to have put his star on the rise). With regards to Shearer’s role, the clue is very much in the title. She plays another sexually liberated woman who gets involved with a gangster (Gable) – a gangster who her lawyer father has successfully defended in trial. The film doesn’t have the power of The Divorcee (perhaps because all of the mobster stuff just removes it from reality, while The Divorcee feels very rooted in real world emotion and reactions) but it’s still a fantastic watch. Not to mention it is a mine of inspiration for anyone interested in some beautiful 1930s women’s fashion!

For those feminists among us (hopefully everyone reading this), things take something of a downward turn after the introduction of the Hays Code. The Code was created as a response to both the uncensored nature of many Hollywood films and a number of scandals that had plagued Hollywood off-screen – the rape, and subsequent death, of Virginia Rappe and the implication of acclaimed actor Fatty Arbuckle in the crime was perhaps the most notable scandal. The Code introduced a strict set of ethical criteria that all films must follow. Among these were prohibitions of “pointed profanity…this includes the words ‘God,’ ‘Lord,’ ‘Jesus…,” “any inference of sex perversion,” and “any licentious or suggestive nudity.” The Production Code Administration enforced the Hays Code strictly and Norma Shearer’s film roles began to reflect the censorship that now dominated Hollywood productions.

That’s not to say that she didn’t make some great films. She received critical acclaim for the performances in many of her films and was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award six times in total – two of these nominations, for Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette, came after the enforcement of the Code. But where Shearer had dominated films as the sexually liberated ingenue during the pre-Code period, she was now consigned to playing somewhat more subdued and conventional female roles. The best example of this is her character in The Women (1939). Let me begin by saying that I adore this film. It’s one of my favourites. An all female cast including Joan Crawford – what could be better? If you are able to overlook the fact that literally (and I’m using that word in the correct sense) every conversation is about men, it’s a fantastically progressive film for its time.

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The Women (1939)

It’s actually through The Women that I developed an interest in Norma Shearer. I came to the film after listening to the You Must Remember This podcast series on Joan Crawford (if you haven’t listened to it, you must!). Joan Crawford undoubtedly steals the show in this film. But, looking around for more information, I was amazed to read about Norma Shearer’s cinematic history. In The Women, Shearer plays another wronged wife. Rather than seize her independence in the face of her husband’s pretty shameless infidelity, however, Shearer’s character seems to limp reluctantly towards a divorce. It feels as though the divorce is a consequence of her twisted sense of loyalty (that she must allow her husband to make his choice and give him the freedom to pursue his affair in the hope that he’ll end up coming back to her), rather than a purposeful decision to move forward as her own person. The fact that every scene in the film revolves around the situation between Shearer’s character and her husband only adds to the sense that she is playing subordinate to his will and desires the whole way through. In contrast, Joan Crawford’s character is powerful, ruthless, and awful. But she reflects far more of Shearer’s pre-Code roles than anything subsequent to the enforcement of the Hays Code. And Joan Crawford’s character is by far the most memorable and interesting part of The Women.

I think Norma Shearer is easily one of the most fascinating figures from the period that we’re talking about when we mention ‘classic Hollywood’. But what’s most interesting about her is how dramatically her story represents the shifts that Hollywood went through during the 1920s and 1930s. She saw out the transition from silent films to talkies and continued to make her own successes as Hollywood moved from the pre-Code to the post-Code era. When you watch her films, you’ll see that her talent speaks for itself. But it’s difficult to work through her filmography without feeling that something dramatic was lost after 1934. This is a woman who best dominated the screen when handed the complicated characters – women with obscure motives and muddy pasts, whose men were generally secondary to some bigger picture or larger determination to be free. These types of female characters didn’t disappear completely – Joan Crawford in The Women is a great example. But it took a while for such complex and (at the time) controversial women to once again assume the role of heroine.


If you’re interested in learning more about Norma Shearer or pre-Code Hollywood, there are a number of places that you can look. I’d definitely recommend working through her filmography but, in addition, make sure to check out Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle. It’s a great survey of pre-Code Hollywood in general but it gives special focus to Norma Shearer. Gavin Lambert’s Norma Shearer: A Biography is also a great read!

Check back in next Friday for another My Vintage Life. And remember to direct any suggestions for future posts my way – @sewforvictoryuk on Instagram and Twitter or email me: laura@sewforvictory.co.uk