Not too long ago, in a signal act of wanton and ignorant destruction, the Los Angeles Unified School District tore down the old KEHE Radio Building to make room for a grade school. The television networks began as radio networks, which invented the situation comedies and crime dramas and works of high moment and everything else. Lux Radio Theater would do a recent movie in an hour live on the air, sometimes with a varied cast (Alan Ladd as Rick Blaine, for instance, saying with superb insinuation to Victor Laszlo, “ask your wife”). More than one writer (Ray Bradbury, for example) started selling jokes as a kid outside NBC at Sunset and Vine to Bob Hope, say, as he walked by. In those days, actors harried up parts in the morning they’d learn and create by evening, usually in a soundproof studio with a director (and the crew in a booth), but frequently with a live audience in a studio auditorium. The best writers, directors and actors worked in the business.
It’s all the stuff of putterers and buffs now, which is to say it’s precisely in the dilemma of Elizabethan theater for centuries before the twentieth dragged Shaw kicking and screaming into an understanding of it.
Radioland Murders hits the ground running with a ploy guaranteed from experience to work (Hogan’s Heroes is a good example), inserting as much comic genius as the thing will bear without flying apart altogether. So here you have Jack Sheldon as the band’s trumpeter foully murdered on stage and lurching across the music stands in a last blaring agony while Harvey Korman and Robert Klein and Michael Lerner and Candy Clark and Christopher Lloyd and Michael McKean and Robert Walden and Jeffrey Tambor and Ned Beatty, among others, look on from the broadcast booth or the wings or what have you.
The various acts of this premiere night go on, Bo Hopkins is skillfully placed in the studio audience to represent the Steinbeck truth of things, Rosemary Clooney herself brings down the virtual house by singing “That Old Feeling”, there’s a great deal of hilarity to be had.
Frank Capra has his famous picture of a live coast-to-coast broadcast with a studio audience in Meet John Doe. Another kind is represented in Joseph Sargent’s The Night That Panicked America, just the Mercury Theater giving a performance of Mars attacking Earth for the microphones (you speak into a coffee cup to achieve that special effect of modulated tones). George Marshall’s Pot o’ Gold gives you the business end of New York radio, there’s even The Phantom Broadcast, a curious film about murders in radioland. You may settle for yourself the question of how much erudition is reflected in Radioland Murders. There is Larry Miller as Herman Katzenback, who favors a monocle, and Anita Morris as his wife Claudette, the scarlethaired bombing raid.
The basis of the understanding promulgated is Robert Venturi’s statement in the early Sixties that all architecture since Michelangelo is “a mistake”. This is coupled with the analysis offered by Terry-Thomas (and Dick Shawn) in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World of Americans’ mother-fixation, to give Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother primacy in the composition. It is treated in such a way as to suggest first Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning and then Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q.
Other architects are exposed to ridicule as well. Meier’s Getty Center and Isozaki’s MOCA are combined to form the Grierson Gallery, whereas Gehry’s funfair on Santa Monica Pier is seen to be believed.
The abstruseness of the material is handled deftly. The portrait of an American family is that in Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, and the daughter’s cure not only echoes the Gospels but Rimbaud as well. “I believe in yesterday,” her father sings pursuant to the theme, adding, “I wish I’d never been born.”
Dr. Bean’s art lessons are fairly terse and akin to those you find among the many works of The Three Stooges, which all aspirants to artistic knowledge should be thoroughly versed in.
When the good doctor has established Whistler’s Mother as a graven image of sorts, he skateboards away, ringing the gong of a Calder mobile as he goes. His speech at the unveiling is an analysis rather in the manner as you might say of a Sister Bendy Weckett.
This is much leavened with low comedy, and Los Angeles is also used to hold the mirror up to London, where Sir James Stirling is highly regarded. Whistler found London drowned in treacle and rescued it, Bean returns the favor.
The Downtown Fartocracy, however, is a Fagocracy, cp. Rising Sun (dir. Philip Kaufman) and Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (dir. Simon Wincer) and Sketches of Frank Gehry (dir. Sydney Pollack) etc.