Brushing Aside Traditions (1935)

Brushing Aside Traditions

Leslie Howard Contends That Broadcasting ‘Is Much a Gamble’–Radio’s Disregard of Theatre Technique Amazes Him

by Orrin E. Dunlap Jr.

Leslie Howard, star of the stage and screen, asked a friend to buy him a chocolate bar; then, smiling, he stepped into the elevator for a lift to the lofty studios, where he found a staff of production men, announcers and co-actors waiting to swing into rehearsal of the opening episode in his initial radio serial.

But first he must discuss the electrical magic or whatever the mysterious force that enticed him to seek new laurels in a third medium of entertainment–the radio. To him broadcasting is “much a gamble.” He thinks the broadcast showmen display real nerve to sign up an actor and say, “You will be on the air for thirteen or twenty-six weeks.” The theatre would never do that. The show might not click; it might end in a week.
Then why does radio so boldly declare, even before a rehearsal or the cast is selected, that the performance will be electrified for thirteen weeks? Is not radio subject to the whims and fancies of the public just as the movies and the stage? Yes, even more so, Mr. Howard is inclined to believe, because radio strikes such a multitude–the masses. Especially does this widespread influence apply to the legitimate actor. The comedian, Mr. Howard thinks, has an easier time of it on the air. He can be himself, in fact, he must if he is to be a success. The actor, however, must be some one else. He can be no more than the part he plays.
“Let me explain a bit,” said Mr. Howard nibbling at his bar of chocolate. “Cantor, for example, on the radio or screen, can be himself. But in no sense am I, as a legitimate actor, in the movies or on the air, myself. As a person I am far different than the character I portray.

He Favors Special Scripts.

“I am a great believer in treating each medium of entertainment as a separate thing. I mean the script of scenario should be written especially for the medium. If the broadcasters could get enough writers and intrigue them they could write as well for radio as for the stage. I know some believe the adaptation of tried and tested plays for broadcasting are sure-fire, but I think over a period of weeks a radio serial has the best chance for success if prepared definitely for broadcasting.
“Of course, for the actor it is far better to have a part on the radio that he has played on the stage or in the pictures. There’s less gamble that way for the actor, because he has proved the part to be good or not to be good. He has lived it. For instance, in “Petrified Forest” I take no chances on the screen because I have played it on the stage. I know exactly what to expect from the character. That’s the easiest way. It’s the short cut, but to give a medium its true break the script should be written especially for it.”
There is always room for argument in radio circles whether a studio audience is to be desired. Mr. Howard supports the negative side of the debate. He thinks the studio gathering spits the audience. He prefers the studio’s solitude.
“I firmly believe the real audience is on the other end of the line,” he said, rolling back the tinfoil from the chocolate bar. “It is not fair that the unseen audience should be listening to an actor distracted by a visible audience.

What Is the Attraction?

“But why does any one want to see a broadcast? It’s a pathetic scene. Two or three silly actors reading from a paper to a mute box-like machine on the end of a metal pole. That is the performer’s art cut down to the rawest. It’s like letting the public in to see movies being shot. It would strip the picture of the illusion. The people would realize the whole thing as a trick, and might never go to the playhouse. It’s the same with a radio show. To watch a broadcast cuts drama to its lowest possible level.
“Imagine trying to do something with glamour, magic and imagination before a studio audience. It’s suicide. The radio audience is led to believe things are happening. Broadcasting creates an illusion; it feeds the imagination. And it is difficult enough to keep an illusion without destroying it by a peek behind the scenes.
“OF course, for the comedian it si different. He is at the microphone to create laughs. The studio audience may help him time and gauge them. But for the legitimate actor we must preserve and not give away the secrets. The theatre would never do it. Rehearsal of plays is held behind locked doors. It’s a tradition.”

Occasionally, the word television crept into the interview, and Mr. Howard was asked how he, as an actor, looked ahead to being televised in a play:
“I confess, at times I wonder if it will destroy the function of both stage and screen, with radio, the theatre and movies blending into one medium. I don’t like that idea because I never like to have all the eggs in one basket. Think of the poor television actor; after all his hard work the play would be gone in one broadcast. He would have to give five or six different performances a week.

Will People Stay Home?

“I wonder if when television is perfected and made cheap it will knock the stuffing out of the stage and screen. I don’t just know, but of the two the stage will suffer less because there is always the curiosity of the public to see the artist in the flesh. That is why so many rush to see broadcasts. They hear the performers, and that whets their desire to catch a glimpse of the real thing. The ultimate effect of television, it seems to me, depends on how the public accepts it. Will it keep them home? I wonder!”
What does a star of the stage and screen listen to when he gets a chance. He seldom gets the chance, Mr. Howard reveals. When he tunes in, usually the station broadcasting music wins.
“Radio is not a medium for a busy person,” he continued. “One can listen to music, however, and work or think at the same time, but voices distract. Broadcasting is for the old, the infirm, the country people and those who enjoy home life. One cannot read and listen. I’m really surprised how many people sit down solemnly and listen. It’s a complement to their daily lives.”
A knock on the door indicated the staff, ready for rehearsal, was becoming uneasy. But the chocolate bar had disappeared; Mr. Howard’s lunch was over, and so was the interview. Within twenty-four hours “The Amateur Gentleman” would be on the air. Mr. Howard would then be free to rush off to Hollywood, whence the next eight episodes would take the air on WABC, beginning tonight at 8:30 o’clock.

(The New York Times, October 13, 1935)