The Retro-Hugo Awards

1938 on Radio, Television, and Broadway
by Steven H Silver

A version of this article was first published in a booklet distributed by Loncon 3 at the Hugo ceremony at LoneStarCon 3, the 2013 Worldcon.

Although there were science fiction and fantasy films in 1938, there were some nights when you might have wanted to enjoy your science fiction in the privacy of your own home. While you could always curl up with a good (or not so good) book or the latest issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, or Amazing Stories, sometimes you wanted to enjoy something more dramatic. For the most part, that meant turning on the radio.

In 1938, science fiction on the radio generally meant serials, which would probably be best considered for the Hugo Award for the long form version of the Best Dramatic Presentation category since the individual episodes really didn’t stand up on their own (nor were they meant to).

Mary Shelley’s classic science fiction novel Frankenstein was adapted as a thirteen-part radio series, running about three hours in total. George Edwards stars in this adaptation, which is available for free download from iTunes.

Jungle Jim was created for the comics in 1934 by Alex Raymond and Don Moore to go along with Moore’s more famous strip, Flash Gordon. A jungle adventurer, Jungle Jim Bradley was based in Southeast Asia rather than Africa. Within a year of the strip’s debut, Jungle Jim made the leap to radio, where the character was voiced by Matt Crowley until early 1938 when the role was taken over by Gerald Mohr. Episodes ran for 15 minutes each and were often based on the original comic strips. The first film based on Jungle Jim was a serial that debuted in 1937. By the time he hit film again in 1948, the role was filled by former Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller.

The Shadow had been created as the host of Detective Story Hour in 1930. Originally voiced by James LaCurto, the role was taken over by Frank Readick Jr, and used on The Blue Coal Radio Revue and Love Story Hour. The character appeared in numerous pulp magazine and dime novels and in 1937 The Shadow received his own radio series on the Mutual Broadcasting System, initially starring Orson Welles, who was replaced midway through 1938 by Bill Johnstone. Twenty-three episodes of The Shadow were aired in 1938, including the early Welles stories “Sabotage” and “The Hounds in the Hills” as well as the later Johnstone episodes “Caverns of Death” and “Murder in E-Flat”.

After leaving The Shadow, Welles did not stay off the radio. In fact, his theatrical company, Mercury Theatre, already had plans to air their own radio drama adaptations. Mercury Theatre on the Air debuted on 11 July 1938 with a production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, starring Welles in the duel roles of Dr Seward and Dracula, Agnes Moorehead as Mina Harker, and George Coularis as Jonathan Harker. They followed Dracula with several other classic novels. On 5 September, they did an adaptation of G K Chesterton’s metaphysical thriller The Man Who Was Thursday with Wells, Coularis, and Joseph Cotton. Eventually they performed in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days on October 23. Welles again played the lead with Arlene Francis playing Princess Aouda, Ray Collins as Fix, and Edgar Barrier as Passepartout.

Mercury Theatre on the Air made its biggest splash, however, one week later with their adaptation of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds. This production appeared to be a standard radio show featuring the music of Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra, which was being interrupted by news flashes as cylinders landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Eventually the news flashes, which were set in 1939, gave way to complete coverage of the invasion.

In November and December, a children’s holiday serial, Jonathan Thomas and His Christmas on the Moon, aired. In this weekly radio show, Jonathan Thomas travels to the moon via moonbeam in an attempt to get his teddy bear, Guz, back after Guz chased a couple of elves up the beam. Over the course of the six episodes, Thomas faces off against the Man in the Moon, a dragon, a witch, and the characters from Alice in Wonderland. Thomas also learns that Santa Claus has been captured and he must rescue Saint Nick in order for Christmas to take place.

Finally, on 26 December, the Lux Radio Theatre aired a live adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs starring Thelma Hubbard and James Eagles. The show was hosted by Cecil B DeMille and included some of the actors (Doc, Sneezy, the Mirror, and the Huntsman) who had appeared in the Disney animated version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a year earlier.

Many of these radio shows are available online from sites such as the OTR Network Library, Radio Lovers, or Old Radio World. Some can be downloaded as streaming audio for free, others have a slight fee, and many can be purchased on CD or as mp3s.

On 21 February, the BBC Television Service broadcast the very first science fiction show to be televised, a thirty-five minute adaptation of Karel Capek’s seminal play R.U.R., which famously introduced the word “robot” to the English language. Unfortunately, the live performance does not appear to have been rotoscoped and no longer survives.

If you happened to be living in or visiting New York in 1938, you also had the chance to see a handful of Broadway plays which had a fantastic element to them.

I Married an Angel debuted on 11 May at the Schubert Theatre on West 44th Street. The musical was adapted from a play by János Vaszary and had music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart. In the play, a banker, Count Willie Palaffi (Dennis King), breaks off his engagement to Anna (Audrey Christie) and declares that the only woman he would marry would be an actual angel (Vera Zorina). The comedy comes from the fact that the angel is unable to lie and she gets Willie into trouble until his sister, Peggy (Vivienne Segal), teaches her to be less otherworldly. The play was adapted into a 1942 film, although none of the original cast made the transition and the story was changed to turn the angel into a dream.

On 23 November, Rodgers and Hart had another musical debut, this time with a book by George Abbott based on a play by William Shakespeare. The Boys from Syracuse opened at the Alvin Theatre on West 52nd Street and starred Eddie Albert and Ronald Graham as separated twins trying to find each other in ancient Syracuse in a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Although it originally ran for fewer performances than I Married an Angel, it has been revived more often. Generally a straightforward, if such can ever be said, farce of mistaken identity, the musical includes a sequence where one of the Antiopholi’s servant Dromeo searches for his own twin (also named Dromeo) using a magical crystal. As with I Married an Angel, The Boys from Syracuse was turned into a film in 1940 with a completely different cast.

While both of the Rodgers and Hart musicals had lengthy runs and were adapted into film, a less successful play appeared on Broadway in December of 1938. Great Lady debuted on 1 December at the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street and disappeared by Christmas while I Married an Angel was still playing next door. Written by Earle Crooker with music by Frederick Loewe, the operetta told a story which was split between the period of the French Revolution and the modern day. The show included choreography by George Balanchine, who had also choreographed The Boys from Syracuse. Despite being one of the first musicals written by Frederick Loewe, Great Lady has pretty much disappeared from the theatrical repertoire.

Although we tend to think of television or films when it comes to choices for the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugos, there are other possibilities. Records, slide shows, Hugo ceremonies (and acceptance speeches), and yes, even radio shows, have all been on the ballot. In 1938, radio formed a major part of the entertainment complex and radio broadcasts, both original and adaptations, held a place in pop culture which has been superseded by television, but those radio shows live on and can still be enjoyed – and, perhaps, nominated for a Hugo.

© Steven H Silver, 2013