Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ann Blyth on Radio: Three Performances

Ann Blyth appeared in 32 films over the course of a screen career that lasted 13 years.  She made possibly as many as 400 radio performances and appearances in her career, over a course of several decades.  Today we’ll talk about three of those performances, and about the peculiar sensation of sound and imagination that creates the so-called “theatre of the air.”

In the middle twentieth century, radio was the main entertainment vehicle, with access to far greater audience numbers than even the movie industry at its most popular.  Acting on radio required a different skill set than performing on stage, but it was like being on stage, especially for shows that were broadcast in front of a live audience. 

Radio required different acting than on screen, yet like film acting, it relied on the actors’ ability to emote and connect with an electronic device—in this case, a microphone instead of a motion picture camera—rather than to play to the audience, even if an audience was present.

As we’ve mentioned in this previous post on old time radio, and in this one on Ann Blyth’s appearance on the Studio One episode of “The Angelic Avengers,” some stars were more successful on radio than others, and some more prolific.  Ann, began her acting and singing career on radio when she was a child of six in New York City, had learned the ropes early on and by the time she was an adult, performed splendidly in a medium that required precise articulation, breath control, the ability to use accents, and most especially, the quality of intimacy with the listener that makes really fine old time radio performances so thrilling and appealing.

Our first show is a version of “State Fair” performed on General Electric Theater September 10, 1953.  This is the chestnut that had been made into a film three times over three decades, and popped up on radio from time to time.  Ann had performed in another version for the Hallmark Playhouse in 1948.

This script was adapted by one my favorite television writers, Kathleen Hite, and because of the half-hour time constraint, focuses on the problems of Ann’s character, Frake family daughter Margie and her experience at the state fair.

Tom Tully is her dad, Verna Felton is her mother, and features old radio and film standbys Sam Edwards, Joe Kerns, Dick Ryan, and Lamont Johnson.  Ken Carpenter is the announcer, who keeps reminding us how wonderful General Electric appliances are, and at one point Ann heartily agrees, as they contribute to “the ease of modern living.”  It seems we can get a standing freezer for $2.69 a week, plus a small down payment.

The show was performed before an audience, but then edited and prettied up before being broadcast on “transcription,” or recording.  There’s a lot of “fair” sounds to add and with some quick cutting, the show is well-produced.

Though radio shows, like stage and screen, were rehearsed beforehand, there is still an element akin to a “cold” reading because the actors are not playing to each other, not playing to the audience, not working with props, or costumes, or any of the usual devices that help them to get into character.  They must just stand before the mic and BE that character, only through their voice, yet performing in this situation is more physical than it seems. 

Listen to the mechanics of Ann’s expression of emotional turmoil: her irritability, her fight with her boyfriend, speaking her lines through tears, and later with her parents, sobbing on the car ride, sounding frustrated and brokenhearted.  We can’t see her, so she can’t rely on facial expressions, body movements, no trembling lip, hanky twisted in hands or dabbing at tears, no turning from the camera to hide the inability to manufacture tears behind heaving shoulders.  No glycerin drops in the eyes courtesy of the makeup man.

She’s got to sob, really.  Because the only thing that sounds like sobbing is sobbing.  She’s got to bring it up from the belly, and it’s got to be messy, nose-running, stomach-tightening sobs.  We have to HEAR her.  And then she’s got to be able to put on the brakes and stop it instantly because of the quick shifts in scene on radio. 

Ann also narrates the episode, voicing over scenes, in the interest of time constraint.  She tells us she is “full of feelings that I didn’t understand, that welled up quickly, soared and flew, and then slipped away into nothing.  Then I’d be all empty inside and lonely.”

The really fun scene is the roller coaster, where she meets the reporter who becomes her new love.  Listen to the roller coaster sounds, the carnival barker, the ratcheting of the cars on the cogs up the coaster slope, and then we can imagine, the car teeters for a moment at the top, then plummets, making us feel the lurching in our own stomachs.  Listen to her splendid, genuine screams, timed right at the moment of descent and the rush of speed.  The ride ends with their chuckling at the exhilaration, and her embarrassed giggle for having screamed.  Good radio sounds very natural, as if we are eavesdropping.

Listen to the episode here:

Or visit the Internet Archive website here and scroll down to "State Fair" where you can either listen or download to your computer.

Next, we have a darker mood and a sinister tale of SUSPENSE.  Suspense was a long-running program from 1942 to 1962 (its ending in September 1962, along with the final episode of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar would mark the end of the Golden Age of Radio), and featured the biggest Hollywood stars in top-notch scripts.  Harlow Wilcox is our pitchman for sponsor Autolite Spark Plugs.  I love that distinctive hollow two-note chime we hear as a show theme and feel in the pit of our stomachs.

Edmond O’Brien, with whom Ann starred in the film Another Part of the Forest (1948), discussed here, is the lead in “Muddy Track”, broadcast November 11, 1948.  He’s a mug down on his luck, and takes a job for a bookie.  He finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ends up being a hunted fugitive.  Ann plays a damsel in distress…or is she?

This is a studio-produced show, with no live audience.  The intimacy is controlled, and every sound is intimate in this show, wonderfully evocative of mood and location.  The tinkling of glasses, a lazy plunking of a piano tells us we’re in a bar.  The sound of someone writing on a notepad in a heavy hand, scratching the pen across the paper.  All the soft sounds of life going on all around us that we usually do not notice in the din and cacophony of our world today, where attention deficit syndrome is as common a diagnosis as obesity, and as much a product of our society.

Edmond O’Brien’s resonant voice is made for radio, his cynicism, his worry, his panting panic as he narrates his actions.  He discovers a dead body, and then realizes he is being set up as a fall guy.

Ann’s first entrance is a sharp, gasp of terror when she discovers O’Brien in the compromising situation.  He pretends he is a cop investigating the murder, and he hustles her away to a hole-in-wall restaurant to question her.  She’s rattled, recovering from the shock, drinking a cup of tea he’s ordered for her.  Ann, still teary and upset, delivers her plot exposition while swallowing sips of liquid—again, the mechanics of acting before a microphone.

Later, when they are on the run together in a city park, in order to hide from a cop strolling by, they kiss each other quickly, pretending they are lovers.  The technique used here to illustrate the urgency of the situation—which then becomes a moment of true passion—is for Ann to say her line to the point her words become mingled into a kiss.  Though we next have O’Brien’s voice-over narration describing his feelings, it is not the explanation of the kissing that thrills the imagination; it is the actual muffled sound of the kiss interrupting the line and the following moments when we are allowed to hear them only breathing.

It’s like G-rated phone sex.

At the end of the episode, were are told Ann Blyth can now be seen in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, which we discussed here.  Have a listen to “Muddy Track”:

Or visit the Internet Archive website here and scroll down to "Muddy Track" to listen or download to your computer.

Finally, we have another mysterious outing in the popular “Shadow of a Doubt,” a version of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film that was produced on radio by several different programs.  This one is from Hollywood Sound Stage, a Screen Guild Players incarnation that raised funds in support of the Motion Picture Relief Fund.  It was broadcast January 10, 1952.  (Ann Blyth had previously performed another version for Ford Theater in 1949 with Ray Milland.)

Here her co-star as the sinister Uncle Charlie is Jeff Chandler, another superb radio voice, and our favorite Mr. Boynton on Our Miss Brooks.

Ann is on almost the entire show. She narrates in a smooth, controlled voice, and she plays the intelligent niece whose hero-worshiping of her uncle melts into disillusionment and terror.

One fun aspect to the production is that she gets to hum “The Merry Widow Waltz” during the dishwashing scene.  While her mother and Jeff Chandler speak, we hear the clatter of plates in the background.  Ann’s lovely voice hums the waltz behind the other two actors, and she frequently interrupts herself to say her own lines, then back to the tune.

Later, in the moment where she trips on the broken wooden step, we hear a sickening thud, punctuated by her gasp and shriek, “Mother!”  It requires very quick and precise timing. 

In the final scene with the struggle on the moving train, we hear the rush of the increasing speed of the train, and her scream dies off in a kind of aural “fade to black”.

Listen to “Shadow of a Doubt” here:

Or visit the Internet Archive website  and scroll down to "Shadow of a Doubt" to listen or download to your computer.

I sometimes think in our fast-paced world of media, especially portable media, exploding all around us, that we really don’t listen enough, or listen well.  It’s hard when there are so many distractions, and much of what we see and hear in the media today is less entertaining than it is a mere distraction.

To be fully engaged, we need to be quiet sometimes, very still, and listen.  Sounds have textures, most especially the human voice.

Come back next Thursday when we cover a tale of two stage dramas:  Ann’s roles in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1950, and in Wait Until Dark in Chicago in 1967.

Publicity photo, credit unknown at this time.

THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and also available in eBook at:

 You can also order it from my Etsy shop. 

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at and I'll get back to you with the details.


Caftan Woman said...

It's a noisy old world, it's true. I appreciate the stillness you mentioned as a requisite for really getting into the exciting medium of radio. (Whenever my family asks what I want for Mother's Day my stock answer is always "I just want everyone should be quiet".)

I find your description of Ann's versatility and technique invaluable in enjoying not only hers, but other performances.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, CW. I find OTR can be a lot of fun, especially on long car drives. It's a funny paradox that it took the computer age to make more of those shows accessible to us.

Chris said...

Hi Jacqueline, I'm just stopping by to say how delightful your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Chris, and thank you for following. Best wishes with your blog.

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