WORDS AT WAR
Still smarting from their battles of the 1930’s, the press was not given to praise radio in the 1940’s without good reason. NBC’s Words At War produced those reasons many times over.
The highly acclaimed 99 episode literary series during and dealing with World War II was arguably born as a reaction to William Robson’s actuality based The Man Behind The Gun which started nine months earlier on CBS and won the Peabody Award as Radio’s Outstanding Drama. (1)
Both series were designed as hard hitting propaganda, broadcast to a country fighting a war on two fronts and both programs were without sponsors for most of their runs. Words At War, however, had the endorsement of the U.S. Office of War Information and the publishing industry’s Council On Books In Wartime, dedicated to, “…influence the thinking of the American people.”
For material, NBC boasted that its Script Division read 20 books a week and adapted only those it considered worthy of Words At War‘s mission. (2) Adaptations were produced employing dozens of New York City’s best radio actors under the direction of Anton Leader, Frank Papp, Garnet Garrison, Herbert Rice, Joseph Losey and Joseph Mansfield. Dr. Frank Black wrote the original music for the program and conducted its first orchestra made up of many members of the NBC Symphony. (3) Obviously, NBC didn’t spare any expense in making Words At War a memorable half-hour series.
The premiere of the program on June 24, 1943, reflects that expense in spades as Black’s scoring almost interferes with the dialog of Combined Operations, adapted from Hilary St. George Saunders’ book of the same name telling the origin of the British Commandos and their historic raid on the French seaport of St. Nazaire and its base for German submarines. Les Damon and Jackson Beck led the cast in what Variety reviewed as, “…an engrossing show with Frank Black’s musical cues and background an eloquent contribution.”
Note: Delays of up to 30 seconds are experienced at the start of these broadcasts.
The grim realities war are brought to Words At War in The Last Days of Sevastopol from July 17, 1943. Adapted from Boris Voitekhov’s book, it depicts in seldom heard vivid and brutal terms, the eight month Nazi siege and destruction of the historic Crimean seaport fiercely defended by the Russians without regard to the innocent civilian population. Stefan Schnabel played the Pravda reporter determined to get the story.
Jackson Beck takes the lead in the September 2, 1943 production of Dynamite Cargo by Fred Herman, the true story of an American victim of a torpedo attack in the Arctic Ocean picked up by a British cruiser and packed in its dark mess hall with a group of shipmates and refugees - including a beautiful Russian girl - while Nazi aircraft attack the vessel above deck.
Etta Shiber’s Paris Underground from October 12, 1943, relates her true Cat & Mouse game with the Gestapo as she gave refuge and escape routes to fugitive Allied prisoners of war. Irene Hubbard and Joan Alexander play the leads in the story which ends with a twist told by Ms. Shiber in person.
Legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s Here Is Your War, a compilation of his Scripps-Howard newspaper dispatches from the North African campaign, was the subject of Words At War on November 2, 1943. Santos Ortega headed a large cast and narrated Pyle’s words. The author himself was killed on April 18, 1945 by Japanese machine gun fire in the South Pacific.
Johnson Wax sponsored Words At War in the summer of 1944 while Jim & Marian Jordan’s Fibber McGee & Molly took a 13 week vacation. The sponsor added a host, Carl Van Doren, who was spelled during a hospitalization by Clifton Fadiman from Information Please. August 1, 1944 Words At War was a dramatization of Associated Press correspondent Robert Parker’s best selling Headquarters Budapest - a first hand account set against the framework of a bizarre musical comedy predicting the beginning of World War Three in the Balkans. The elaborate production of this broadcast is a stark contrast with the August 29, 1944 episode which starred Margurite Morrisey in the title role of German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger’s tale of innocence and betrayal, Simone. Despite the sweeping difference between the two broadcasts, their effect on the listener is similarly strong.
When Fibber McGee & Molly displaced Words At War from prime time in the fall of 1944, NBC shuffled the program to 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday nights - part of the network’s experiment of replacing late night big band remotes with original studio programming. The first budget cut was the orchestra which was replaced by organist Bill Meeder. But the content didn’t suffer. From November 14, 1944, Los Angeles Times and NBC war correspondent Tom Treanor‘s hilarious One Damn Thing After Another is a true wartime comedy. (4)
Not all Words At War episodes had to do with struggles overseas. It stunned its late night listeners on February 22, 1944 with its dramatization of Selden Menefee’s Assignment America, which NBC described in the trade press, “…Menefee covered America in a 15,000 mile trek. He put in his book what he saw and heard: racial prejudice, anti- Semitism and indifference.” The reviews of Assignment America were so outstanding that NBC repeated its performance on April 4, 1944. (5) Many affiliates refused to carry the sustaining repeat broadcast because of its charges and offensive language.
As World War II came to a climax in 1945, Words At War drifted further into domestic social issues. An example of this is found in Full Employment In A Free Society by William Beveridge from April 3, 1945. This basic preachment in government controlled economics with a limited cast and an organ replacing a full orchestra reflected NBC‘s regard for the program which was relegated to late Tuesday night when it lost its commercial value.
Commercial interests were listening to the broadcast, however. Sponsors and affiliates alike complained of Beveridge's one-sided message. When The National Association of Manufacturers joined the chorus, NBC listened. The network responded on May 15 with a Words At War adaptation of Frederick Hayek's classic of supply side economics, The Road To Serfdom. (6) The broadcast placated clients of NBC and friends of RCA but doubts about the series' continuing value as a patriotic vehicle spread rapidly. As a result, Words At War ended its NBC run at 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 5, 1945, less than a month after V-E Day.
Because all but a few weeks of its two year run were sustaining, we have no ratings to report for Words At War and because it was often heard at a time when listening levels were at their daily low, perhaps that's a good thing if - as commercial broadcasting's rule equating quantity of listeners to quality of program is to be believed. But as C.E. Hooper, himself, preached so often, it shouldn't be. Words At War is proof of that.
(1) The Man Behind The Gun was introduced on CBS at 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 7, 1942, and ran for 74 episodes until March 4, 1944. Words At War debuted on NBC on June 24, 1943, as the sustaining summer replacement for Maxwell House Coffee Time starring Frank Morgan & Fanny Brice on Thursday nights at 8:00 p.m.
(2) Among the NBC staff writers contributing to Words At War were Edith Sommer, Gerald Holland, Kenneth White, Neal Hopkins, Nora Stirling and Richard McDonaugh.
(3) Frank Black alternated with Morris Mamorsky conducting the Words At War orchestra. When the program’s budget tightened in 1944 the orchestra was replaced by organist Bill Meeder.
(4) Tom Treanor, 35, was killed in France three months earlier - one of 54 U.S. correspondents who lost their lives in World War II.
(5) Typical of the reviews to Assignment America was this by John Hutchens in The New York Times: “Assignment America was the boldest, hardest-hitting program of 1944. There are things that need to be said and the National Broadcasting Company had the courage to allow them to be said.”
(6) No recordings of the Words At War broadcast of The Road To Serfdom were found.