Original image: Patrick Hoesly
Season of Disbelief
Author: Ray Bradbury
Originally aired: 17 February 1956
[This story formed part of a double bill with Hail and Farewell]
Plot synopsis: An elderly woman tries to persuade a pair of disbelieving children that she, too, was once young. Based on a short story first published in Collier's magazine, on 25 November 1950; and later as a chapter in Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, in 1957.
Favourite line: 'John was far out in the meadow country, dated and boxed and hidden under grasses ...'
Review: Even for Ray Bradbury fans - and I am one - a weakness of his work can be a tendency to indulge in nostalgia and sentimentality. These are accusations that can definitely be levelled at the composite novel, Dandelion Wine, in which the short story upon which this episode was based became a chapter. Yet the reason this story is such a compelling one is that it offers a decidedly ambivalent view of dwelling on the past, and holding onto the memories and possessions that connect us to it. As a meditation on ageing and identity, the episode also raises the question of whether the person we are today is even the same person as we were when we were younger; might the person we are now be, in a sense, an entirely different one? Although this is not a fantasy or science-fiction tale, unlike most of the stories for which Bradbury is famous, it does possess a certain fantastical quality, as it presents a dreamy, slightly eerie depiction of the main character's reminiscences. Moreover, the two children seem like they could almost be from a horror story - although they are, perhaps, not intentionally malicious, they are nonetheless quite monstrous in the way they torment the poor woman at the story's centre (making them reminiscent of other malevolent children in Bradbury stories, such as the ones in Zero Hour.) In any case, the ending - SPOILER ALERT! - is intriguingly ambiguous. In some respects, it appears to be positive and affirmative, a celebration of living in the now. Yet it is also possible to read it as highly tragic, as the main character is persuaded to reject her own past and to pretend that it had never even happened, that she had never been young or pretty; it is almost as if some mysterious, fantastical force had been at work, and stolen her memories from her. Whichever interpretation is put on the story, it is a memorable and haunting one. (Bradbury himself provides an introduction to the episode, offering some thoughts on its themes, though this doesn't add a great deal in terms of explaining the story; even so, an interesting addition.)
Rating: * * * * *
The Silent Witness
Original radio play: John Train
Originally aired: 14 July 1957
Plot synopsis: A District Attorney prosecutes a murder trial in which the key witness has suffered a stroke and is unable to speak.
Favourite line: 'The elevator begins its descent. But for William Bart, it is a descent to hell!'
Review: This episode is billed as an experiment since it features just a single performer, Raymond Burr - the story has other characters, but Burr's is the only voice that is heard. In all honesty, though, and despite Burr's abilities as an actor, I'm not sure what value there is in not having other actors in the cast (unless it was simply to save money ...) The story is not about a solitary individual - it centres on a criminal trial, after all - so giving the other characters their own voices would have been perfectly fine, if not in fact preferable. However, leaving the episode's 'gimmick' aside, the main problem with it is that the story itself is extremely weak and terribly clichéd. Frankly, I lost interest in the murder plot around halfway through, and the episode isn't even very long. The ending in particular is very poor: I won't reveal the surprise 'twist', but it is a tired, familiar one that has been used by countless thrillers both before and since.
Rating: * *
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Original script: George Faulkner
Originally aired: 2 November 1956
Plot synopsis: A part-dramatized documentary about the White House and some of its most famous occupants.
Favourite line: 'Let Mr. Jefferson have this - this cave of the winds!'
Review: Broadcast a week before the 1956 presidential election (spoiler: Eisenhower won), this episode offers a historical tour of the White House from when its construction began in 1792, right up until the 1950s. More than just an examination of the building itself, the episode is also a study of the presidency, offering brief discussions of many of the White House's most notable residents, including in some cases dramatizations of key moments of their lives. In many ways, then, this is an interesting and informative episode, with plenty of enlightening facts and anecdotes. However, there are also problems. First, some of the information presented is more myth than fact. For example, the episode repeats the oft-cited, but erroneous, claim that the reason the Executive Mansion is called the White House is because it was painted white to cover up the burn marks left when the British set it ablaze in 1814; yet in truth, the building had been referred to as the White House years prior to this date. Second, some listeners (particularly, though I wouldn't say exclusively, non-American ones) may find the degree of patriotic reverence hard to stomach. Okay, no one who listens to Old Time Radio is going to expect this to be a searing critique of US politics and society, but even so, the lack of any sort of critical perspective is disappointing. Could such an anodyne approach be taken with more recent presidents (say, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush or Barack Obama) given how divisive and controversial many modern ones have been? Perhaps, though it would probably be much harder to sustain this sort of outlook today. At any rate, listen to the episode by all means, but treat the contents with caution.
Rating: * * *
The Space Merchants (2 episodes)
Authors: Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
Originally aired: 17 and 24 February 1957
Plot synopsis: In a future dominated and controlled by advertising agencies, an executive in one of these firms is assigned the campaign to persuade people to move to Venus, despite its extremely harsh, hostile environment. Based on a novel of the same name first published in 1953 (adapted from a serial published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, as 'Gravy Planet', in 1952).
Favourite line: 'The 43rd Amendment to the United States Constitution - treason to any registered advertising agency is punishable by death.'
Review: Move over Mad Men! Frequently cited as one of the greatest science-fiction novels of all time, the source novel for this two-episode story is a biting satire not only of the advertising industry, but of mass consumerism in general. For example, one of the best scenes in this adaptation is a presentation by an ad man for 'Coffiest', a coffee-based drink with an added addictive substance that makes it impossible for drinkers to give it up - as he enthusiastically highlights, although a 'cure' exists, it is so expensive that it is cheaper for consumers just to go on buying the drink! It is moments like this that make these episodes both funny and insightful, and though the methods employed by the advertising firm featured may be exaggerated for effect, there is a definite ring of truth about their depiction - it is not surprising to learn that one of the novel's authors, Frederik Pohl, actually worked in an advertising agency for a time, specifically to research the story. Overall, this is a much more subtle and interesting 'dystopian' future than is common in much science fiction, where unimaginatively presented dictatorships - generally, dumbed-down versions of Orwell's Big Brother - are too often the norm. Instead, this story shows us a world where 'oppression' occurs not through the heavy-handed repression of jack-booted policemen, but thanks to the gaudy promises of smiling businessmen, offering happiness through consumption. At the same time, in this adaptation at least, the plot itself isn't that compelling. Perhaps too much was left out from the original novel, even in twice the normal running time, but the plotting feels rushed, the characters are thinly drawn, and the portrayal of the 'conservationist' resistance movement lacks depth or detail. Nonetheless, there are enough clever ideas here to make this a superior tale, and the episodes well worth a listen. (For another science-fictional satire of the advertising industry, try the X Minus One episode The Parade; while a further episode centred on the difficulties of attracting colonists to Venus is The Merchant of Venus.)
Rating: * * * *
Speaking of Cinderella, or If the Shoe Fits
Original radio play: Ed Vertier and Don Clark
Originally aired: 6 April 1956
Plot synopsis: The classic story of Cinderella told in two ways: the traditional version and an updated modern one.
Favourite line: 'My Cinderella has moxie! She goes after what she wants - no fairy godmother nonsense about her.'
Review: A clever, funny episode, this is also one of the few CBS Radio Workshop productions to feature big-name stars - Vincent Price and Lurene Tuttle - which undoubtedly adds to its entertainment value. Still, the main draw is the story itself, which illustrates the perhaps surprising facts that there is nothing new about presenting a 'revisionist' take on fairy tales and that people did question the passivity, and downright sappiness, of traditional fairy-tale heroines long before the contemporary vogue for modern (or even postmodern) retellings. This episode was, after all, made in the 1950s, when many peoples' perceptions of such stories and characters were heavily shaped by the Disney adaptations, in which the female leads were far from the strong, 'feisty' characters of their more recent output. At any rate, this episode is a refreshing antidote to traditional fairy-tale tellings - indeed, it offers a useful contrast to both Disney's 1950 cartoon and its 2015 live-action versions of the Cinderella story. While Tuttle gives us the conventional 'romantic' take on the story, Price presents a more 'realistic' one (which, given the period, means lots of 'hip' slang along the lines of 'the joint was jumping' etc., which raises a smile itself). As Price asks of the traditional story, how is just one dance the basis for a solid, lasting relationship? And in terms of Cinderella's submissive meekness, he pointedly remarks: why doesn't she stand up for herself? In his version, she does just this, being a much more assertive, proactive lead, who makes things happen for herself instead of just waiting to be rescued by a dashing prince. There are lots of inventive touches along the way as well, reworking the famous fairy tale's details into more modern variants - for example, a safe that Cinderella breaks into to 'borrow' some jewellery for the party she intends to gatecrash has a time lock that activates at midnight, which is why she must leave by this time; the car she drives is pumpkin-orange etc. I would recommend playing this to any children who know only the Disney films!
Rating: * * * *
Original Radio Play: Henry Fritch
Originally aired: 27 July 1956
Plot synopsis: An adaptation of the Blackfoot Indian legend recounting how the Morning Star once came down to Earth and took a human wife.
Favourite line: 'There are two bright stars which sometimes rise together in our morning skies just before the great sun begins his daily journey to the land of the endless waters. One is the Morning Star, the other is Star Boy, the Morning Star's son.'
Review: Sometimes, one comes across the (highly patronizing) view that appears to assume that simply because a story originates among indigenous peoples, it must automatically be regarded as poetic and compelling and full of timeless wisdom. In some cases, of course, this may be true, but just like any other form of fiction, native storytelling covers the spectrum from great to terrible. This is a long preamble to my judgment that the story featured in this episode, based on Native-American legends, is, frankly, decidedly so-so. Perhaps it would come across differently in its original form, but at least as a radio drama, I found the tale of only minimal interest. Moreover, despite the generally sensitive handling of the material, it's obvious that the cast is composed entirely of white Americans, so it's not even as if the episode offers a showcase for Native-American performers.
Rating: * *
Author: George R. Stewart
Originally aired: 10 February 1956
Plot synopsis: A violent storm, called Maria, hits the west coast of America. Based on a novel first published in 1941.
Favourite line: 'Steadily, the great sphere of the Earth spun upon its axis and moved in its unvarying course around the sun … It gave no sign that storms or men disturbed its tranquil round. Bright against the black of midnight, or yellow in the dawn, the Earth hung in the sky - unflickering and serene.'
Review: The convention of giving names to storms is thanks to the novel upon which this episode was based, in which the storm featured is given the name Maria; after the book was published, this led to the practice being adopted for real storms. The story is significant for this reason alone, but it is the attempt at offering a realistic portrayal of one of nature's most destructive forces that makes it fascinating source material for a radio play. As in the novel, the main character is not a person, but the storm itself, and it is this unusual perspective that makes the story well-suited to being adapted by the CBS Radio Workshop, which specialized in unusual and experimental episodes. Music and sound effects are used to great effect - aided by William Conrad's rich, engaging narration - in bringing the storm to life, demonstrating that, if a production is done well, radio is a medium capable of portraying such phenomena, even without the aid of visuals. Some may find the lack of strong (human) characterization a problem, and the plot doesn't amount to much in the end, but most should still find this a compelling listen. (A similar - though inferior - episode, told in a similar way, is Fire at Malibu.)
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: TV - Walt Disney Presents, as 'A Storm Called Maria' (1959)]