Smithsonian Legendary Performers: Edgar Allen Poe, BBC Audiobooks America, Starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, 2005
Edgar Allan Poe is not exactly the kind of writer who upon reading I would think would be a good fit adapting for drama. The stories are too internal, too descriptive, too much atmosphere and not enough action. That is to say, they don’t lend themselves to the kind of ready adaptation and to make a dramatic product would require sticking to a very small number of tales or doing enormous violence to the text.
It may be partly for that reason that we have this notion of Poe as a morbid, melancholic teller of tales of the bizarre and supernatural. Atmosphere is a great deal of what makes a scary story work and his best known stories are typically more action-oriented as well.
Fans of Old Time Radio shows will no doubt enjoy the six disc series Smithsonian Legendary Performers: Edgar Allen Poe, another sizable set put out (oddly) by BBC Audiobooks America. It collects eleven shows based on stories by Poe with a twelfth final show that purports to be a biography of Poe (brought to you by DuPont, no kidding, “maker of better things for better living through chemistry”) based on research done by someone named Victor Thaddeus. I hope he got paid a ton of dough for his material, because he must have done it poolside sipping tall fizzy drinks while watching blondes breast stroke, never once cracking a Poe biography spine.
Nevertheless, collected Old Time Radio (as fans call it) is a neat way to peer into the past and see what cornball kinds of things entertained your grandparents. With the exception of the comedy shows, radio entertainment was generally pretty sappily written with the kind of heavy handed dialogue deemed necessary to convey action without images.
A: What are you doing with that pistol?
B: I’m aiming it right at your heart.
“Put down that knife. No! Don’t come near me! Stop, stop! Stop walking closer!”
Once you can get past that, it turns rather charming on you, these leading statements. The other drawback you’ll notice when you first listen is that OTR is heavy duty on the treble, not so much on the bass. For ease of listening, my recommendation is drop the treble knob on your stereo and jack up the bass (unless you already have it that way, then just sit back and listen).
Vincent Price kicks things off in this collection with “The Pit and the Pendulum,” prefiguring the Hammer film he’d turn in four years later. This is a story that can only work if you basically throw in everything but the kitchen sink. The original story is claustrophobic, features one man, his hands tied, in a dark room with the title implements plus some rats and shifting walls that also heat up to burning red hot. With zero dialogue, radio is probably not its ideal home.
And so the writer and director add in a love interest Beatrice who speaks to Price in his head, offering advice and to whom he can relate the information telegraphing lines: “Rub that meat on the bandages that hold me here. It may be too late.” The villain of this faceless almost villainless tale turned radio play, the Inquisitor also joins Beatrice in speaking in Price’s head. Their combative dialogue is priceless for its blatant information pushery:
Price: This dungeon is changing its shape.
Inquisitor: That is true. The walls are closing in. It was formerly a square and now—
P: It is flattening slowly toward the center to force me into the pit.
I: Of course.
P: It will force you along with me.
I: Again apparently you must be told Captain Darbray that you are speaking only to your own sick fancy. I am not here at all. Farewell.
Those last three lines just kill me. “Speaking to your own sick fancy”? I’m sorry, that rocks with unintended hilarity. Earlier generations, even the generation that brought you the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and the gulag, were so bizarrely innocent about entertainment at times.
Peter Lorre (with whom I share a birthday) narrates the second story, “The Black Cat,” a tale needing no additions or goosing of any kind. The producers kept the meddling to the minimum here, and Lorre delivers one of his patented creepy characters replete with his sniveling shrieks and accent sinister.
The second disc bundles together the two most famous of Poe’s Dupin stories “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” and they’re relatively well put together productions. In an ingenious bit of inclusion, both tales make Dupin’s Watson-like companion no less than Poe himself. I’ve noted before that Poe’s mysteries are some of his most solid writing; they feature novelty, action, charmingly complex mysteries, a bit of humor, and a character whose intelligence is just a ken beyond the reader’s. Had Poe stuck to Dupin, he’d be more widely lauded in American letters.
“The Gold Bug” adaptation had me worried going in. These radio shows date from the forties and fifties typically, at a time when “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was a going popular concern. Anyone who’s read “The Gold Bug” will readily conceive the flagrantly shuck 'n' jive racist dialect attributed to the elderly manumitted slave Jupiter. For those unfamiliar, a sample is as good as the whole: “Is de lef’ eye ob de skull ‘pon de same side as de lef’ hand ob de skull too? —cause de skull aint got not a bit ob a hand at all—nebber mind! I got de lef’ eye now—here de lef’ eye! what mus’ do wid it?” Jupiter on the radio was younger, stronger, and possessed of a better dialect than that, marginally at least. Like the Dupin stories, this mystery is another action based piece of business that also translates strongly. Here the producers also made Poe the narrating friend in the piece, a strange tradition we see passed along from show to show.
Also included and fairly well adapted were the lesser known “Never Bet the Devil Your Heart,” also starring Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” “Metzengerstein” is almost unlistenable to the near constant bad sound effects rain that dominates the opening several minutes.
I thought that “The Tell-Tale Heart” starring Boris Karloff as the killer was the most abused tale until I heard “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” which occupied the top space until I heard the life of Poe radio play at the collection’s conclusion. All three are bizarre enough to barely warrant attaching Poe’s name to them at all.
The first of the three tells the story of a man out walking a country road who meets a second man. The first, Boris K., tells the second man that he’s just been released from a famous hospital where he’s had special ear surgery that has cured his deafness to the point now where he can hear miles and miles away. The second man congratulates him, then is himself congratulated by Boris when it turns out that he too has just been released from the hospital and it was his blindness that was cured allowing him to see for miles and miles. Well, whattaya know?
Well, the two have a falling out their very first night together because the once blind man hates the world. Apparently he uses his new gifts of vision to tell a rancher in search of his stray cow that he’ll find the beast two miles away in a field, and the rancher’s rich neighbor is trying to steal the cow. All lies of course. Lies because he hates the world. Well, Boris has no option but to kill him, don’t you see? Upshot is, they’re both escapees from the looney bin. Toodle oo! I wondered if they brought Poe in just for the name on the marquis, hardly a necessity when you’ve got Karloff, but what do I know?
“Pym” upends everything. Turns the kindly captain into an insane man as well, one who tricks sailors on to his ship then sails off and forces them to work for him. How does he force them? By saying he’s the captain by god, and if they don’t listen it’s mutiny, mutiny, d’y’hear! Aaarrgh! The original villainous mutineer here becomes an honest sailor gang-pressed into this insanity, and everyone has a rotten time. In this case, with no name actors in lead roles, Poe was clearly brought in to boost a ratings sinker, I think.
The closing number features a Poe so gone with romance of the artistic kind that he reads his “Raven” to the lowly clerks and typesetters when the publisher won’t run it, then rips off stanzas for fifteen dollars a piece. This dramatic, climactic scene ends with him shrieking the lines: “Must the king kneel? The king will kneel. Say what the king must do, and he’ll do it!” He is married to some starry eyed girl his own age named Anna who dies while he’s away doing this. Prior to her death, prior to his madness, they dance at fancy balls where she confesses her illness to him. He has a loony fit to a lady’s literary society and demands they support him financially, and he insults other poets to their faces at bookstores. Karl Swenson plays the title role and comes off somewhere between Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and his turn in Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros. It is a frenetic, deranged bit of shouting and the whole thing ends with Poe dying of pneumonia or something as he lies on Anna’s grave in the rain talking to her. Recorded before a live audience, the saps eat it up and whistle, cheer, stomp feet.
At any rate, Old Time Radio is a periodic fixation I go through, usually after catching a bit of an old Jack Benny movie or something with young Orson Welles. I got hooked on them in junior high school after shoplifting a double cassette pack of Arch Oboler's Lights Out Everybody, a show whose name lives on more in Bill Cosby's bit about the chicken heart more than much in memory. These Poe plays are on average no worse and no better than most at the times, though little compares for drama's sake to Welles' Mercury Theatre on The Air, many shows, including the infamous Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds can be downloaded for your enjoyment here. Have fun.