The March of Time:
Pearl Harbour’s Aftermath: First Week at War
(NBC Blue, 1941)
It is the partial brainchild of Fred Smith, the station manager of Cincinnati’s WLW, who faced two frustrations when he conceived the idea’s seed in 1929—radio’s once lack of real news reporting capability, and a lack of access to the news wires, whose clientele at the time are newspapers and other print outlets exclusively. Seeking a kind of end-run around that obstruction, Smith hit on an idea: why not partner with Time, in a deal in which WLW would get a solid weekly news program and the magazine would get a little more powerful name recognition and, just maybe, a few new advertising dollars from the regions which listen to the show.
Which is precisely how Smith presented the idea, according to John Dunning, to Time circulation director Roy Larsen. Larsen pounces on the idea, and the original March of Time becomes a collaboration in which Time provides the scripts and WLW provides the voices. Initially, this operation—a simple, no-nonsense weekly news summary with occasional commentary—becomes widely imitated once the program becomes transcribed and syndicated to a reported one hundred stations.
That imitation has prompted Smith toward the idea that has graduated the show from a mere weekly news summary into old-time radio’s first known newsreel of a sort: Dramatised but actual news events, scripted, directed, and acted like a drama but produced on deadline and with accuracy and impact the tandem goals. If there is a radio precursor to television news magazines such as 60 Minutes, 20/20, or This Week with David Brinkley, though those programs hardly dramatised the news even if they could be accused of slanting it now and again, The March of Time is probably that precursor.
As with any seminal idea, it nearly didn’t happen: Larsen is said to have been leery about whether it was legal, as Dunning will recall, to impersonate living people in a format that isn’t even close to satire, as, say, Fred Allen has been doing with the popular news segments on his weekly Town Hall Tonight comedy exercise. (Indeed, when Allen modifies Town Hall Tonight slightly, he changes the “Town Hall News” segment’s name to a sharp enough poke at The March of Time, “The March of Trivia.”)
Smith countered with this argument: it would be a serious news show; there would be absolutely no fiction, no words taken out of context, no doctoring of the actual statements of the subjects. How could the newsmakers object unless they objected to what they themselves said?
That, apparently, convinced Larsen to go in on a closed-circuit audition program, for a small audience consisting of CBS executives and Time editors, aired right into Larsen’s home where he was joined by CBS mastermind Bill Paley and Time founder Henry Luce. The show got the proverbial green light in spite of more than a few qualms—from both CBS and Time people alike—about its “bellicose nature: it sounded like a midway event, with barkers and hustlers hawking the news. It seemed to fly in the face of journalistic integrity, causing many Time editors to remain skeptical even when it quickly caught on with critics and the public. The March of Time was a success whether Luce liked it or not.”
By tonight, The March of Time has moved long enough since to NBC’s Blue Network, and the show has shed no few of its former barkings and hustlings (though its usual signoff, “Time marches on,” has become a national catchphrase and will enter the language somewhat permanently); the Don Voorhees Orchestra has succeeded the Howard Barlow operation in providing its music; and, it can point to a considerable roll of top-of-the-line old-time radio talent having participated, including but not limited to Martin Gabel (Easy Aces), Karl Swenson (Lorenzo Jones), Orson Welles, Kenny Delmar (soon to become famed as “Allen’s Alley”’s Senator Claghorn and, concurrently, Fred Allen’s final and best-remembered announcer/foil), Agnes Moorehead, Bill Johnstone, Maurice Tarplin (a familiar character actor and due to become famed as the title narrator for The Mysterious Traveler, not to mention nemesis police sergeant Faraday to Boston Blackie), Peter Donald (the eventual Ajax Cassidy in the “Allen’s Alley” sketches), Ted Husing, Harry Von Zell, Everett Sloane, and Paul Stewart, just to name a few.
One of its critical secrets: the performers have had to work harder than usual not to sound like actors. In fact, if any performer does sound enough like an actor, Time dismisses them from the show. As many as seven hundred performers are on call to provide the realistic voices and inflections of anyone from Abyssinians and Hoosiers to Swedes and Scots. And no one ever really knows just how many performers aspired to catch even a single break by way of even a single appearance on the show. Especially given one of the absolute most crucial abilities the show requires: an ability to jump in, right on the spot, if big news happens to break even a minute before the show is due to begin live.
It must be doing something right above and beyond its dramatic virtuosity. Actual news reporters quake over its alleged hamming up of the news; the Communist Party’s organs hammer the show as fascist propaganda; William Randolph Hearst has denounced it as Communist propaganda, banning even its mere mention in his newspapers; Hitler’s Third Reich has banned the show from being beamed in. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt is leery of The March of Time—not because he objects to its content (which he does, every so often), but because the performers who portray the President on broadcasts in which he figures heartily enough in the week’s events are so good, according to Dunning, that “they were diminshing the impact of his Fireside Chats.”
But the show will affect its performers in empathetic ways, reviewed best, perhaps, by the revelation that Dwight Weist—who portrayed Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the entire length of the show’s coverage of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder, right up to the moment he had to portray Hauptmann in the electric chair—felt scared and sickened, as if he himself and not Hauptmann himself had gone to the chair. “I can’t explain it,” Weist has been quoted as saying, “but we all have it, when something happens to the people we impersonate. Ted de Corsia had it, too, when Huey Long was murdered. He’d been Huey for a long time.”
Tonight: The cast empathy will be put to the big test once again, when the show re-enacts the Pearl Harbour attacks that have brought the United States into World War II at last, and the events immediately following those attacks. If it may sound a little hokey and a lot more pokey to a 21st Century listener, that comes only in isolated portions. If you’re looking for a near-seamless dramatised summary of Week One following the Pearl Harbour attacks, you won’t find much of anything that tops this. Even with the lingering unintended filtering noises on the surviving recording, which somehow punctuate rather than dissipate the cool command of this performance. That it aired on the same day as Congress declared war officially against Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy
Cast: Probably Everett Sloane, Narrator: Westbrook Van Voorhis. Director: Lester Veil. Writers: Fred Smith, Dwight Cook, Ann Barley, Bob Tallman, Jimmy Shute, John Martin, Bob Richards, Ruth Barth, Paul Milton, Richard Dana, Carl Carmer, Garrett Porter, Brice Disque.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Lux Radio Theater: The Scarlet Pimpernel (CBS, 1938)—Leslie Howard repeats his film role from the 1934 classic about the seemingly effete aristocrat who doubles as an avenger rescuing nobles and others from the Terror in revolutionary France. Lady Blakeney: Olivia de Havilland (in the Merle Oberon film role). Host: Cecil B. DeMille. Adapted from the screenplay by Lajos Biro, based on the novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy.
Box 13: The Haunted Artist (Mutual, 1948)—A disbelieving troubled artist (Alan Reed), who fears his studio is haunted through something he didn’t add to one of his paintings, sends Dan (Alan Ladd) on a kind-of ghost hunt. Suzy: Sylvia Picker. Kling: Edmund McDonald. Additional cast: Betty Lou Gerson, possibly John Beal. Writer: Russell Hughes.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: The Baby Sitter (NBC, 1948)—That, God help us, would be Phil (Harris), with a little (we hate to use a four-letter word) help from, God help us further, Remley (Elliott Lewis)–they can’t find a babysitter for sponsor Scott (Gale Gordon), so they take the job on themselves . . . and mix it up and then some, when they botch the formula recipe Alice (Faye) gave them to feed the Scotts’ baby. Julius: Walter Tetley. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris Orchestra. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
Gunsmoke: The Cast (CBS, 1953)—Dillon (William Conrad) has to stop doctor-hating Sheely Tucker (Sam Edwards) from killing Doc (Paul Frees), after Tucker’s wife dies during surgery after an accident while he was out of town. Chester: Parley Baer. Kitty: Georgia Ellis. Announcer: Ken Peters. Music: Rex Khoury. Director: Norman Macdonell. Writer: John Meston.