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Arch Oboler’s Plays for Americans

This blog post was written by Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section.

Arch Oboler, 194. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, [LC-USZ62-119952]. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c19952

At the time of the United States’s entry into World War II, Arch Oboler was one of a handful of radio writers whose popularity rivaled that of the medium’s star performers. Although he was best known for horror programs like the “Lights Out!” series, he had also made his mark with thought provoking political dramas such as “The Bathysphere.”

For the duration of the war, Oboler would add to his busy schedule a steady stream of new plays aimed at Americans on the home front, driving home anti-isolationist and anti-fascist messages. In 45 months, ending in September, 1945, he wrote and directed 90 such plays, twenty of them in the Plays for Americans series that premiered in a Sunday afternoon timeslot on February 1st, 1942 on NBC’s “Red” network. This was hardly prime time, but the show found its audience quickly, and its previously announced thirteen-week run was soon extended to twenty.

Three  plays: “Johnny Quinn, USN,” “Letter at Midnight,” and “Adolph and Mrs. Runyon” were made available on cassettes in the 1970s by arrangement with Oboler himself, leading some to conclude that no others survived. In fact, there are 13 complete programs in the NBC Collection at the Library of Congress, including “Johnny Quinn, USN” along with halves of three other programs. Scripts for all of the programs, including many drafts and copies marked-up by Oboler himself, are in the Arch Oboler Collection at the Library of Congress.

Oboler took no fee for creating, writing and directing the entire series. School and community groups often performed radio scripts in those days, paying a fee to do so. But when a Plays for Americans anthology was published in late 1942, it was announced that any of them could be performed for free for the duration of the war. Major film stars also volunteered their services to the series, such as Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland, Claude Rains and James Stewart. They joined the seasoned regulars in Oboler’s radio troupe.

One of them was 11 year old Tommy Cook, a child actor Oboler discovered three years earlier.

Elliott Lewis. Arch Oboler Collection.

Cook, now 90, recalled to this writer recently that Oboler “had the greatest collection of radio actors: Elliott Lewis, Byron Kane, Hans Conried, Lurene Tuttle, Mercedes McCambridge. He would star each one of them in different shows. Mercedes McCambridge was his favorite actress, and Elliott Lewis could do it all.” [1]

Oboler promised there would be “no preaching, no pomposity, no flag-waving in the crude sense of the phrase and no hollow oratory.” But he did not promise subtlety, and his Plays for Americans were often as audacious and provocative as they were well written, staged and performed, and the programs are by turns humorous, eerie or surreal.

On April 1, 1942, Hobe Morrison of Variety wrote of “Hate,” the ninth show in the series:

It didn’t attempt to tell the listener what’s to be done, or how. It was strictly emotional. The Nazis are a filthy, ruthless, bestial crew. We must kill them, with any weapon, by any means, if we are to survive. We must fight. We must hate.

Strong words, fired rather than delivered…A powerful story said to have been written by Oboler from actual facts supplied by an escaped Norwegian.

Even after Pearl Harbor, even two weeks ago, there would have been criticism of a program as violent as this. But so fast is the public reaction changing that the reaction now appears to be satisfaction.

At Ohio State University’s annual “Education by Radio” conference in May, 1942, Oboler, along with Norman Corwin, another leading radio dramatist whose play “We Hold These Truths” had celebrated the Bill of Rights in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, actually called for more outright hatred in wartime programs. “All the letters I receive demand with one voice—make them angry.”

Still, the recurrent theme in Plays for Americans was the responsibility of ordinary citizens during the war. The first program, “Johnny Quinn, USN” was fairly straightforward. Olivia De Havilland starred as a war bride recalling her husband’s journey from the self-centered isolationist she met in college to the committed Navy man he became.

Variety, 1942. Arch Oboler Collection.

The next, “Paul Revereski,” began with a humorous premise. Nine year old Paul Marszawski, played by 11 year old Tommy Cook, is determined to enlist and do his part for the war effort, but he’s laughed out of a succession of recruiting offices of different service branches. The play turns philosophical when the dejected boy meets a self-styled free thinker played by Hans Conried. His application for conscientious objector status has just been turned down, and he’s cursing his order to report to the draft board as a personal affront. Young Paul pleads for the letter, thinking he can enlist with it.

Tommy Cook had to carry most of the show himself, and his performance was praised in the press. Cook recalls today that Oboler “wouldn’t let me take a script home to woodshed. He knew I knew the character and he wanted it to be so natural.[i]

Oboler returned to his roots in a novel way with “Ghost Story,” which aired on February 22, 1945. In it, Elliot Lewis played a factory worker named Joe Dunham giving an interview to a reporter. “This ain’t one of the phony warnings like the mystery guys do” he declares at the outset. As a master mechanic, he’s been forced to work in a factory, but says “I don’t want a lathe, I want a tommy gun in my hand.” He decides to enlist under a phony name in another city.

On his way out of town, he stops by the factory after midnight to retrieve his pipe. There he finds an unfamiliar man working at his lathe.  The stranger, a Russian, says that he’s doing “Your work…all of us.” The sound of a room full of lathes is heard. The room is full of workers, but Dunham doesn’t recognize any of them. Each one say they are working for him, and tells him their country of origin. Dunham retorts “You guys talk like the League of Nations…who cares if you work?” They all stop and look at him.

A Russian says that they are working because each has committed a crime. The Pole says he ignored the rise of the Nazis: “Trouble in the world? I did not care, I had what I wanted.  That was my crime.” The Czech speaks next. He also worked in a factory, but while others did poor work and engaged in sabotage, he carried on as usual. “That was my crime.” A French metal worker speaks next. Dunham sees pain in all their faces. The Russian says that he left his post at the factory when the German army approached, “My crime was the greatest.”

The men declare “once we were workers,” and they have come back to do his work. They turn the lathes on. “The dead, working with their dead hands for me,” Dunham exclaims. “The dead, showing me what to do…The machines, running, for me!” The shift whistle blows, and suddenly no one is there, but there’s a pile of finished work at his station. “Dead men did my work for me,” he tells the reporter. “One of them said one worker at his machine gives strength to a hundred soldiers…now, if you don’t mind, go away. I got my work to do…”and the whir of his lathe blends into the closing theme of the program.

Movie Radio Guide, 1942.

Oboler’s Plays for Americans were also heard in South America NBC’s International Division, beamed to listeners via shortwave. A Spanish version of “Hate,” the ninth program in the series, survives in the NBC Collection. Though little known today, many of Oboler’s Plays for Americans rank alongside his best work and are also among the most interesting radio dramas produced during World War II.

Interested to learn more about Arch Oboler and other radio programs at the Library?  Don’t hesitate to contact the reference librarians at the Recorded Sound Research Center or through Ask-a-Librarian.

 

 

 

[1]  Tommy Cook, phone interview with the author, November 17, 2020.

[2]  Mary Gaunt West, “new Oboler Series to Start Sunday,” Louisville, KY.  Courier-Journal, January 27, 1942. p. 11.

[3]  Hobe Morrison, “Conrad Veidt in ‘Hate,” Variety, April 1, 1942, p. 34.

[4]  Herbert Whittaker, “Radio Propaganda is Examined by Radio Education Institute,” Montreal Gazette, May 8, 1942.  p. 6.

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