Our grandparents may have lived through the Depression, the horrors of World Wars I and II, primitive medicine, and institutionalized racism and sexism on a scale the modern mind can scarcely comprehend, but they had fantastic radio, and that must have made up for a lot. See, in the days before the radio dial was clogged up with hip-hop and Britney Spears and Steely Dan rock blocks and John and Ken and bad news on the hour, on the half-hour and when it breaks, radio was kind of like TV is now, except better. All day long, there were radio programs of every genre, from highbrow dramas to goofy comedies to trashy sci-fi to even-trashier soap operas. Everybody listened to the radio, and everybody's ears were very happy.
Flashforward half a century, and you can't turn on the radio without being subjected to noxious stuff that makes your soul ache and twitch. So thank the deity or deities of your choice for "Radio Goes to the Movies," a fantabulous show going on this week at the Egyptian Theatre way the hell up in LA. This three-day event features screenings of four classics of film noir (Sorry, Wrong Number; The Whistler; He Walked by Night; and The Maltese Falcon), each presented with a live re-creation, with full sound effects and all the trimmings, of the original radio shows upon which these films were based. Kill yourself next week; this week, you've got something to live for.
Of the bunch, The Maltese Falcon is the most famous—and justly so. This cracking John Huston yarn features a splendidly typecast stable of players: Bogart as the cynical, sentimental gumshoe; Mary Astor as the conniving dame; Peter Lorre as the sneaky, sniveling little foreigner; and Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, who's thought to be the inspiration for Jabba the Hutt. What's not to love? Admittedly the mystery doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but who gives a flying buttress about that? This is one picture you don't see for the plot.
While The Maltese Falcon is the big title of the bunch, the others deserve more attention than they get. Sorry, Wrong Number is spun from an agonizingly suspenseful radio play by Lucille Fletcher; the story concerns an invalid woman who overhears a murder plot on the phone, and if the film doesn't approach the hysteria-inducing tension of the radio version, it's still scary enough to make your belly hurt real good. He Walked by Night is a kind of proto-Dragnet, featuring lots of staccato detective action, with Jack Webb on hand as a snappy fellow in the Joe Friday mold; the picture is, if anything, even more intense and punchy than Dragnet, and that's saying a bunch. The Whistler was a popular radio anthology series of suspense plays that spawned an equally popular anthology film series, the first installment of which concerns a suicidal fellow who takes out a contract on his own life and lives to regret it. Director William Castle was a masterfully schlocky filmmaker famous for inventing novel ways to get the audience's adrenalin going—including, for one picture, literally jolting filmgoers with electric shocks in their seats. Thankfully, for this picture, Castle did without such hair-raising gimmicks . . . or did he? BWAH-HAH-HAH! I can promise you a live re-creation of one of the original Whistler radio shows, but will your butt get a few volts zapped through it? You'll just have to live in fear.
As our economy spirals down the tubes, as we slog through another stupid war, succumb to outbreaks of exotic new diseases, and face racial and sexual intolerance that will (hopefully) one day baffle and amuse our descendants, we find ourselves having more in common with Grandma and Grandpa than we might have hoped. But at least for one precious week, we can have the thrilling radio of yesteryear in common with them, too.
"Radio Goes to the Movies" at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 466-FILM; www.egyptiantheatre.com. Sorry, Wrong Number, Fri., 7:30 p.m.; The Whistler, Sat., 2 p.m.; He Walked By Night, Sat., 6:30 p.m.; The Maltese Falcon, Sun., 2 p.m. Each show, $6-$8.