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.
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.