The history of movies and radio repeatedly intertwine, as I discovered when I wrote my book The Great American Broadcast. At no time was this more apparent than the 1940s, when all of Hollywood worked together to support the war effort. Now, performer and musicologist Michael Feinstein has come upon a cache of transcription discs that open a new chapter in this underappreciated facet of show-business. As he writes, “The other day I was going through transcription discs that belonged to a man named Gerald Kean who worked in radio, for years with Norman Corwin, and found about 30 shows he produced in French with Hollywood stars such as Cary Grant, Dinah Shore, Gene Tierney, Marsha Hunt, etc. I can’t find anything about them online. There are lots of big titles like Dark Victory, How Green Was My Valley, The Thin Man, etc., but all in French and presumably sent overseas.”
The labels on the 16-inch lacquer discs tell as much of the story as we’re likely to know right now: they were produced for the Office of War Information Overseas Branch by something called the “Hollywood French Unit.” They also identify themselves as “A Voice of America Production.”
Their mission, then, was clear: to send Hollywood-quality entertainment to people of all nations and promote the American way of life. Among the shows in the Gerald Kean collection: The Maltese Falcon, Night Must Fall, Phantom Lady, Shadow of a Doubt, Abe Lincoln in Illinois with Franchot Tone, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife with Brian Aherne and Michele Morgan, Destry Rides Again with Dinah Shore, Gentleman Jim with John Loder, Heaven Can Wait with Gene Tierney and Victor Francen, The Shop Around the Corner with Gene Tierney and Felix Bressart, and many more.
In keeping with Lux Radio Theatre tradition, producer Kean tried to get the star of the original movie to re-create his or her part, but this only worked if and when those actors spoke French. Canadian-born Deanna Durbin had no trouble doing It Started with Eve and Charles Boyer was easily able to reprise his part in Hold Back the Dawn. As it turns out, Constance Bennett was able to revive her 1932 success What Price Hollywood and Cary Grant took on Suspicion. James Cagney may not have had the chops to play George M. Cohan in a foreign language, but his young costar Joan Leslie did appear in the OWI production of Yankee Doodle Dandy.
This is clearly a subject for further research and in time Michael Feinstein will donate these discs to his pet project, The Center for the Performing Arts Foundation in Indiana, where they will be available to researchers. You can learn more by clicking HERE.
But there is one survivor who can fill us in a bit about this unique Hollywood endeavor: the extraordinary Marsha Hunt, still with us at age 98. Her voice is heard in surviving discs of The Lodger and Talk of the Town (with that movie’s costar, Jean Arthur).
When I spoke to her last week, she explained, “We did them in French because that was the most widely spoken language on the planet at the time. So they translated a lot of the old Lux Radio Theater hour-long shows into French. There were a couple of young actresses my age who also had good French accents. That enabled me to do some dramas entirely en Français. It was fun for me to do that.
“Apparently it’s a matter of who taught you French. I was a New York City child but my mother had the good sense to give my sister and me a part-time governess who was an old Parisienne with beautiful French speech, and that’s how I learned the language. When visitors from France would come to MGM for lunch they would always ask me to join them at their table. My accent was always complimented. I think the only difference was tempo; they rattled it off more quickly than I did.”
I don’t doubt Marsha’s abilities any more than I do her memory. And I, for one, can hardly wait to hear what she and her colleagues sound like on these rare transcription discs.