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Classic Radio Better Than Classic Cinema?



It's Alfred Hitchcock day on TCM, a special Sundays With Hitch programming feature during September. One of the films airing today is the classic Spellbound, starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. Alas, it's not a very enjoyable experience. Allow me to explain why that is.

As mentioned before on this blog, I grew up listening to the radio at bedtime. At first it consisted of Larry King (back when he did overnights), and then switched to old-time radio shows from the '30s, '40s and '50s. I would purchase the programs on cassette, and drift to sleep with the sounds of Arch Oboler, Suspense!, The Shadow and others in my ears.

One of the shows I listened to most was Screen Directors Playhouse. It aired on NBC Radio from 1949-51, and consisted of dramatizations of popular movies. Indeed, this is where I was introduced to such cinema classics as Call Northside 777, The Killers, The Spiral Staircase, Lifeboat, Shadow of a Doubt, The Uninvited and, finally, Spellbound (this time starring Joseph Cotten and Mercedes McCambridge).

Eventually, I managed to see most of the aforementioned films and, pretty much with every one of them, I though that the radio versions were better. This mostly had to do with time. In most cases, episodes of Screen Directors Playhouse were 30 minutes. Compare that to the typical runtime of a movie from that era -- 90 minutes -- and you're left with the cinematic versions featuring a lot of padding.

It's also true that radio is indeed the theater of the mind. As long as it is presented well (and these old programs often were), then you can create some spectacular landscapes within your head of what is occurring within each story. In the case of Spellbound, I felt like the dream sequences experienced by the Ballantyne character were better executed in my head than on the screen.

Of course, none of this is to say that classic films -- especially the ones mentioned in this post -- are bad. I love watching older movies. But I do think that their radio counterparts rather upended them when it comes to showing how much can be accomplished with perhaps a bit more brevity of script. The question therefore is: Did radio ruin certain movies for me? The answer? Perhaps, perhaps.


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