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Page Last

Sat, Feb 28, 2004
01:47:00 PM EST

Contents and Source
Material Copyright © 2004,
L.O.F. Communications
All Rights Reserved

In Celebration:
Harry Bartell

Struts and Frets
By Harry Bartell

On Critics

Among the crosses the actor has to bear, auditions and unresponsive casting directors for example, is an institution known as The Critic. I can't prove this, but I would be willing to bet that when Aeschylus opened Agamemnon at the Theater of Dionysus ca. 458 BC, there was some joker who released a scroll the next day complaining that the presence of a second actor was a terrible mistake, that tradition was being destroyed, that the music was too loud and so forth. By Shakespeare's time the theater itself had come under fire, and in the 1600's Samuel Pepys was writing regular reviews. Having read some of them, I can say with authority that they were not all favorable.

The Golden Age of Radio overlapped what might be called the Golden Age of Critics. Names that include John Mason Brown, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Wolcott, George Jean Nathan, Robert Benchley, and Brooks Atkinson among others were busy people in theater seasons which might see 200 or more new plays. Their reviews have produced some classic lines:

Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra- and sank.

He played the king as though afraid someone else would play the ace.

Katherine Hepburn ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.

"The House Beautiful" is the play lousy.

"The Rotters" is no longer the worst play in town. "Abie's Irish Rose" opened last night.

Comments like these are hardly likely to bolster the confidence or boost the hopes of theater personnel. And it may have been something of this nature that caused John Barrymore to explain that "America is the country where you buy a lifetime supply of aspirin for one dollar, and use it up in two weeks." Of course, in his case there may have been other contributing reasons.

I detest dropping names, particularly in a venue such as this where so many of you were not born during their heyday, but at the time they were writing they carried considerable clout. The theater wasn't limited to multimillion dollar musicals, and drama wasn't all revivals. Not all of the productions were worthy of praise and that was explicitly pointed out. Robert Benchley despised Abie's Irish Rose. He murdered the play at it's opening. It played five years. Just as matter of principle, he wrote a weekly review panning it during the entire run. The producers were delighted. It gave them free mention and when the show finally closed they threw a party for Benchley in appreciation.

It was during this period that radio made it's strongest gains. The 1930's did not present a very favorable economic climate, as anyone who lived through them will agree. Radio was free. In that time, when theater tickets might cost as much as $4.40, free was a nice word. Even movie tickets, ridiculously cheap in light of today's prices, meant shelling out cash money. So people listened to the Atwater Kents, and the Philcos and the Crosleys. By virtue of sheer numbers, radio escaped the close critical attention that other entertainment media suffered. Accepting the time span from 7 to 11.PM as the period in which the biggest shows appeared, that meant 56 shows per week on each of four networks. I am not including the occasional one-hour production, nor local originations. It would have been virtually impossible to cover each show critically. The trade papers, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and Billboard would sometimes cover the season opening of a radio program and there would be occasional articles in the predecessors of TV Guide such as Radio Life and Radio Guide as well as the newspapers. If star names appeared on shows like Lux ads might be used to plug the show but the pressure of constant critical attention was missing. Because it took so long for actors to gain credits on broadcasts, the name value of an individual performer never gained the attention that a film actor might receive. The Unholy Duo, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, formed their own critical bastions but their criticism was mostly aimed at the radio star names and consisted primarily of personal likes and dislikes or political positions.

So who were the radio critics? However many millions of people listened to a show according to the Crossley or Hooper ratings. That in itself was fairly iffy. The polling sample obtained by attaching monitors to individual radios left a great deal to chance because the samples were so small and were frequently challenged, especially by shows about to be taken off the air. In other words, the supreme critic was a number, translated by the advertising agency or network (whichever originated the program) into money. So things haven't changed a great deal in the last 50 or 60 years.

Let's assume that the numbers were correct. Why do we like one show and not another, or why, given a choice of two programs playing at the same time, do we nearly always choose one over another? At this point, we are in big trouble. Definitions cannot be very definite. There are so many factors which enter into individual taste, probably beginning with genes and chromosomes and colored by social mores at any calendar date, that there is no real consensus possible. I think there is one constant in appreciation of any art form: experience.

The critics mentioned in connection with New York theater started, for the most part, as journalists many of whom became critics the hard way‹by doing it. They gradually saw enough plays to be able to make comparisons, to relate those plays with their own tastes and judge accordingly. A few, like Brooks Atkinson and George Jean Nathan, were learned men with reams of reading material behind them. Yet even that could not eliminate personal biases. It merely gave them a head start because of familiarity with dramatic form.

The academic approach to criticism, in my opinion, has some serious flaws as well. While working on a master's degree. I ran into big trouble during a seminar on comedy. There were all sorts of analyses of what constituted humor ranging from Freud to Berenson and beyond. I could never get across the idea to these great brains that performance, when theatrical humor was involved, played a key role in its effectiveness. The greatest joke in the world can get smeared if the timing is off. Maybe the radio audience, in its collective wisdom, took this into account and decided that Fibber McGee and Molly should stay around for umpteen years while other attempts at comedy went down the drain.

From what I can gather from reading the OTR Digest, appreciation of individual shows is heavily influenced by childhood memories or first contacts with radio. In other words an element of emotional attachment is involved in criticism. In my own case, there is a reverse element. I have been able to listen coldly and impartially to shows which I am hearing for the first time 50 years or more after the fact, judging by my own standards of excellence as to the worth of the script, production, and performance. There have been a few shudders, a bunch of OK's, and some Yes!!'s. But then, I'm not a critic.

Harry Bartell maintains that his major accomplishment as a professional actor for forty years was to survive with his mind, morale and marriage intact.

Born in 1913 in New Orleans, he grew up in Houston and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rice University in 1933. After a stint at Harvard Business School and a couple of years forced labor in a department store he moved to Hollywood and stayed there for the next fifty-one years. Three seasons at the Pasadena Playhouse led to work in 185 radio series and 77 TV series plus a dozen or so properly forgettable motion pictures. He passed away on February 26, 2004.

These columns were originally written for the Internet Old-Time Radio Digest.