Appellate Judge James A. Stewart recalls those thrilling days of yesteryear when Radio Verdict handed down the word on the serials, comedies, and dramas on the big box in everyone's living room.
"Radio will never die. It's like killing the imagination."
Remember back in ancient times when TV was CBS, ABC, NBC, and PBS, with a couple of independent stations showing old movies and reruns if you were lucky?
Radioland Murders goes back even further—to prehistoric 1939, when television was still an experiment. Drama and comedy were done for the ear, with stars like Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Fibber McGee & Molly coming into people's homes each week. Just one year before, Orson Welles had fooled people into believing in an alien invasion with some sound effects and the magic of his voice in his famous War of the Worlds broadcast. These were all broadcast on radio—yes, R-A-D-I-O—since Internet podcasts were a couple years off back then.
George Lucas (Star Wars: A New Hope) came up with the story for this loving tribute to the Golden Age of Radio. When it was released in 1994, it only took in $1,316,865, according to Box Office Mojo. As his original Star Wars Trilogy goes into re-release yet again, this movie comes out with a new title: Star Wars: Radioland Murders. Just kidding.
Facts of the Case
Radioland Murders opens, appropriately enough, on a radio tower, with excerpts from old-time radio shows playing. The tower here belongs to fictional WBN, the flagship station of a new network which goes national that very 1939 night. (The backstory about the network startup bears a little resemblance to the 1934 startup of the Mutual network with WGN as one of its flagships, by the way.)
Though the broadcast is looming, Roger Henderson (Brian Benben, Dream On) isn't worried about it. He's got other things on his mind, like his crumbling marriage. "My life has no meaning without you," Roger says as he tags along behind wife Penny (Mary Stuart Masterson), who can't stop moving long enough to be moved. Penny wants a divorce, because she believes Roger was sleeping with sultry singer Claudette (Anita Morris).
Meanwhile, the sponsor's angry about the scripts, demanding last-minute rewrites. The angry scriptwriters have trashed the bullpen—or maybe it's always that messy. Dangerously klutzy Zoltan (Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future) is perfecting a sound effect by swinging a microphone into a woman's head. Add a panicky director (Jeffrey Tambor, The Larry Sanders Show) who actually is messing around with Claudette and you've got a first-class disaster brewing.
You wouldn't even need a trumpet player to collapse and keel over dead on stage to ruin this evening, but that's just what you get. When the cops turn up and Penny helpfully blurts out that she ran into Roger just before she saw a second body, he becomes the prime suspect. As the body count rises, he races to catch the real killer. All the while, the show goes on …
Radioland Murders could have been a great movie. There's fast dialogue, such as when Penny tells the frightened director, "You're the director. This is no time to panic," and he shoots back, "Can you think of a better time?" There are lovingly recreated parodies and spoofs of old-time radio, with offbeat stuff like one character reading from a soap opera while another reads from Tom Adventure, that'll make a forties aficionado laugh out loud. There's also good chemistry between Mary Stuart Masterson and Brian Benben as the couple caught up in a murderous chain of events, evoking the best of screwball comedy. To top it off, you get cameos from comedian George Burns (The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which started on radio) and singer Rosemary Clooney.
How, then, does the movie fall down? I'll give you an example: The first time Roger found himself dangling outside the building, it was funny, although the scene went on too long. By the third time he found himself dangling, it was two times too many. As I was writing the previous two sentences in my notes, Roger found himself dangling yet again.
In short, the movie is too frenetic. Someone slams into just about every door or microphone sticking out, and there's too much of the running around looking busy that permeates this type of story. Mary Stuart Masterson delivers the sort of believable performance that grounds a good farce, regardless of the lines she's delivered, and Brian Benben comes across as likeable, even when he's literally breathless from all the running and crashing around, but most of the performances are broad and ridiculous. It looks like the actors are having fun hamming it up, but it doesn't always come across on the screen.
There's something else that might strike you as odd, if you're remotely sentient. Most of the performances for that opening-night radio broadcast have visual elements that don't fit in: The Black Whip, a Western hero, wears mask and carries a whip, for example. While it makes a good gag as he goes nutso on Roger over a late script, it doesn't make sense. It's also hard to believe that the dance performances that fill the show would have gone over well on radio; it seems too much like an experimental Stan Freberg bit, and he came along a few years later. These things do, however, resemble the ridiculously elaborate nightclub production numbers in Technicolor musicals from the time, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt; chances are a 1939 movie would have gone over the top on these as well.
The look of the picture is very stylized, full of vivid colors that keep everything candy-colored bright, except for a few nods to noir, such as a scene in the shadows of the slats from window blinds cover the principals. A few scenes get lost in shadow, though. The sound fares well here, too, so you'll get to hear songs like "In the Mood," "That Old Black Magic," and "Let's Face the Music and Dance" like you've never heard them before.
As for extras, all you get is the trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If Radioland Murders had toned down a notch—and maybe even just eliminated the murder plot, it could have been the perfect affectionate tribute to radio days. By trying too hard, it falls from great to adequate.
The new technology of the Internet might help a movie like Radioland Murders find an audience, since enthusiasts now keep alive the culture of the Forties and podcasts keep the classic radio shows alive while allowing creative people to experiment with audio. If you've checked out a few episodes of The Shadow or Mercury Theater of the Air, you might want to take a look at this flawed but fun flick.
As a fan of old-time radio broadcasts, I'll have to admit that I liked this one, in spite of its overkill (in more ways than one), so I'll have to say not guilty. If you're more into MTV than swing, though, you probably won't care much for this one.
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