Ceiling Zero: Old Time Radio version

When reviewing the Howard Hawks movie Ceiling Zero for the early Howard Hawks blog-a-thon, I completely forgot that I had a copy of the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of this film, based on Frank Wead’s play. I’ve now remembered and listened to it – and found there were a few interesting differences from the film. Here’s a link to a site where anyone who wants to hear this production can download it – along with any other episodes of the Lux series which appeal to you. 

From all the OTR shows I’ve heard, I’m impressed by what powerful performances the actors give – they were usually performing in front of a live audience, which gives an extra excitement, and makes it perhaps the nearest we can come to knowing what it would have been  like to see many of these actors on stage.

A lobby card from the film 'Ceiling Zero'

A lobby card from the film 'Ceiling Zero'

The whole story works surprisingly well on radio – as, even without the aerial stunts which are such an important part of the film, the sounds of the desperate radio conversations and the whirring plane engines build up the tension.  James Cagney reprises his starring role as womanising pilot Dizzy Davis, with Stuart Erwin – who I think has a wonderfully gruff, expressive speaking voice – also reprising his role as Texas Clarke. However, the part of Jake Lee, played in the movie by Cagney’s real-life best friend Pat O’Brien, is taken here by another lifelong friend, Ralph Bellamy. Cagney’s younger sister, Jeanne, plays Tex’s tough-talking wife Lou, with Cagney’s then sister-in-law, Boots Mallory, as “Tommy” Thomas,  the young female pilot who attracts Dizzy’s amorous attentions. (Either Mallory or Jeanne seems to star  opposite Cagney in most of his radio performances, making them real family affairs.)

The main difference from the movie is that Dizzy seems to be even more selfish, and more of a shameless womaniser, in the radio play than he was  in the film. For instance, there’s a scene near the end, after Tex has been badly injured in a flying crash,  where a distraught Dizzy refuses to go home from work because he says he couldn’t stand to be alone.

In the film, Tommy goes up and kisses him, and says daringly “You don’t have to be alone!” He gives her the keys to his flat and tells her to wait there for him, but is still distracted by grief and guilt, and I wasn’t quite sure whether he is really planning to meet here there, or whether he just wants to get her out of the way. In the radio version, there’s no doubt at all that he is on the make. 

The radio version also spells various other things out more  than the movie does – presumably because of the lack of facial expressions which can hint things that are never said. In particular, Lou doesn’t just tell Dizzy he is “no good” for causing Tex’s death, but melodramatically cries “Murderer!” The past relationship between Dizzy and Jake’s wife, Mary, is also spelt out more.  

Another change I noticed was that, at one key moment, Cagney says: “Oh my God!” I’m pretty sure he doesn’t say this in the film, as no bad language seems to be allowed in 1930s films – even the line “Ah, nuts!” got cut out of The Mayor of Hell in some states. I’m slightly wondering why the radio could sometimes get away with more.


6 thoughts on “Ceiling Zero: Old Time Radio version

  1. Why do you think women in this era were represented as “tough-talking”? You’re right. It’s a stereotype, but probably does not represent any reality.

    Reading about the art of radio plays is interesting. The art is different and what can be exploited is different. I suspect that visualization brings home what is shown to the less able person and that’s why the difference in breaking any tabooes.

    If you would like to know of a couple of essays on this, I could cite them.



  2. I was a little too tired last night to make my thought on the stereotypes of men and women we see in these older movies clear. What I wanted to ask was, Why do you think these stereotypes existed then and why have they vanished? The tough-talking dame is not the only one you mention; there’s the sexy dame; the older heavy-set harrumphing woman (rather like women in old New Yorker cartoons, all dressed in furs, with earrings and heavy handbags); there is also the ever-so-vulnerable heroine who is loyal to the hero. The men include a kind of simpleton kind older male who has vanished today (you see him more in musicals, say of the Astair-Rogers variety).

    Nowadays we have a different set of stereotypes — except perhaps for the central male whom I think is often still presented similarly only not so moral, and not socially concerned (as Cagney and Grant usually are). Are they equally superficial? Or do they go more to the heart of what people have come nowadays?

    It’s this sort of question that intrigues me when I watch these older films. What do they stand for? why have they gone? I saw a film trailer for a film starring Julia Roberts and a new male star I didn’t recognize (_Two Loverrs_?) Well he looked and to some extent in this trailer acted like Cary Grant. It felt like I was watching a throw-back. She was supposed to be a career spy supporting him — rather like Rosalind Russell. She looked snazzy and he even wore a suit-like outfit (not quite with a tie). An upper class bias is going on, but also an unexplained gender and sex one.

    Basinger didn’t go into this; she seemed to assume the stereotypes had universal application. They don’t. That’s why we know we are watching old films and why a film made today in imitation is conscious of it.



    • Sorry to be slow in answering this – a lot of food for thought here, as ever, Ellen.:) I have also noticed that there are some stereotypes which turn up in earlier films and not so much now (I know exactly what you mean by the harrumphing woman!), and would be interested in reading more about this. There is discussion of the earlier stereotypes and their variations in Mick LaSalle’s two books about pre-Code films, ‘Complicated Women’ and ‘Dangerous Men’, both of which I have found very helpful, but I’d really also like to find something which goes on further in time and looks at how they developed and changed all through the 30s and 40s.

      I think the tough guys and dames are linked to the tough world they live in, the Great Depression and then the Second World War – it’s also noticeable that the types of character vary a lot between British and American films of the period. I also think that linked to the character types who turn up in the films are the way a continuing screen personality was created for each of the major studio stars of the period – Cary Grant, for instance, is really his own type.

      I am reading a book about the history of romantic comedies at the moment, ‘Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges’ by James Harvey, and am hoping he will look at some of these issues – I haven’t got very far in as yet, as I’m trying to watch some of the films he discusses alongside my reading, so it will take me a long time to get through the book.
      I agree with you that a problem with the Jeanine Basinger book you mention, ‘A Woman’s View’, is that she doesn’t really look at how the types of heroine she discusses changed over the years, but jumps to and fro between the 1930s and 40s and as late as the mid-60s, when the world shown in these films and the characters going with them had all changed a lot. Having said that, I did admire Basinger’s book and often find myself reminded of sections of it while watching the films.

      I do think that stereotypes become more apparent in retrospect, so some that we don’t notice in current films, because we take them for granted, may be seen in the future looking back.


  3. Thanks for the link Judy.
    I started listening to “Angels with Dirty Faces”
    yesterday but only managed to get through 15 minutes before a family situation interupted (one of my cats is ill and it is a two person job to give him his meds). Ideally, if I can figure out how to download these I could transfer to a disc and listen to them on my drive to work. I could easily get through a show a day.


    • Sorry you’ve had a problem with these, John – if I just click on the link for one of the shows, it asks me where I want to download it to and then I can save it and play it on Windows Media Player. I haven’t tried burning them to a disc, but hope this will work for you too – listening to the shows on the drive to work sounds ideal. I think ‘Angels’ is one of the best Cagney radio recordings that I’ve heard.

      I can sympathise about the cat, as we used to have a cat who was a nightmare to get any pills into! Hope your cat is better soon.


  4. Dear Judy,

    Answering: what struck me about Sue Harper’s commentary on British readers’ letters to working class newspapers in the 1930s and 40s was the not uncommon request that Cagney or Cagney type actors and “tough-talking dames” (in this case no particular woman mentioned) would improve costume drama enormously. This is astonishing. It shows (among other things) that Cagney’s working class male resonated among British working class people as did the tough-talking dame and the objection to costume drama is class-based. It’s seen as elitist, requiring education, figuring forth more middle and upper class manners which exclude these viewers.

    But it’s also the type because we still have working and say lower middle class men and women going to public media and yet these types have if not disappeared strongly modified so the male hero is no longer so moral nor vulnerable, and the female jumps into his arms and into bed with him with hardly any difficulty put in his way. All this shows the strong masculinist bias of the older and new films.

    On the harrumping female type I mentioned — she is in both costume and “classic” movies: Edna May Oliver who played Aunt March in the 33 Little Women, Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the 39-40 P&P and the aunt in _Tale of Two Cities_ (with Colman) is one instance. They are usually fatter but always commanding, and one of their functions is to scold the hero and by their very presence prevent him from having sex with the heroine. Oliver played in non-costume dramas too; the type was apparently easily changeable, and it turns up in _New Yorker_ cartoons. It’s not much mentioned in most books which really probably have to cut something, but this woman and others like her made a lot of money from this comically hostile (supposedly comic) woman type to the hero’s appetitive propensities. She too has disappeared.

    I see in all this something Basinger does mention but comes out more in other studies: the male type we see is no longer permitted to be sensitive and non-macho unless put in a definitely brotherly role (Ralph Fiennes) or in costume drama. I take it to be a step backwards in civility as well as truth and making life harder for men not easier. Male critics dare not discuss this (that’s how Basinger brings it in, she says they dare not discuss this). The fear of being seen as gay is part of what is at the core of this.



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