Sitting in my office, listening to the radio drama of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and realizing once again just how much the world has changed. Back in the 40s, when no one had a TV, movie studios would do a radio broadcast of the movies they were bringing out. It wouldn’t be a word-for-word copy of the movie, more like a Reader’s Digest version of the movie … with commercials.
These recordings would have the actually stars from the movie—or some of them, anyway. For “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed reprise their famous roles as George Bailey and Mary Hatch. For the radio version of “Casablanca”, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are on hand for their voice roles and Cary Grant and Myrna Loy play their parts for the radio version of “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.” Beside character actors filling out the rest of the voices, the dramas are backed up by sound effects and music.
This was standard operating procedure inHollywoodin those days, seen as a way to interest the public in going to the movie house and seeing the story they just heard on screens six stories tall. Maybe it worked because—as a percentage of the population—about ten times as many people went to the movies back then as will go now even to the “blockbusters”. Then television came along and people stopped going to the movies so much and radio started switching to mostly music and the radio dramas faded away.
I love listening to them, though, and other old-time radio dramas, because they are about the imagination. You see the story in your mind. Granted, when the story is based on a movie I know well, I’m seeing the movie in my mind, but it’s fun to have the imagination sparked like that. For stories I’ve never “seen” I love a good radio drama that conjures up the gunfights or the stealthy cat burglar or the unrequited love. It’s almost the next best thing to a book for putting the mind to work.
And one of the great things about out modern age is that there are thousands of hours of these old shows available for free on the web. You can “stream” or download-to-listen-to-later classics like “Gunsmoke” and “Jack Benny” or dig around and find old soap operas, seemingly endless hours of westerns, or even some wonderfully ridiculous sci-fi.
I don’t think any of these would work for radio nowadays. Not on a large scale. There will always be a niche for listeners (people like me, long-haul truckers who need something to help pass the miles, Supreme Court justices who aren’t paying attention) but most people these days don’t want to sit down and just listen to a story. They want to see it on the big screen (even if that big screen is “just” a72 inchLCD TV in their home) and feel the bass lines of the music pulsing through them. They want perfect—and perfectly believable—special effects and the idea that the special effects are all created by one guy with a microphone and a hammer sounds childish to them.
I’m a fan of movies myself, and I don’t go so far as to say that the world would be a better place if more people listened to radio dramas. I do say though that these little recorded flights into storytelling are great springboards for the imagination and it might do a lot of us some good to stretch ours in this way now and then.