The Virginian

Left to Right: Cecil B. DeMille, unidentified actor, Gary Cooper, and Helen Mack rehearsing “The Virginian”

During the heyday of moviegoing, decades before the rise of home video, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast versions of popular theatrical releases to millions of living rooms across the nation. These came in the form of one-hour radio dramas, most often performed by the same Hollywood stars who had graced the originals. You couldn’t see them, but you could hear them in their crowning vocal glory, re-creating their best film roles and often giving post-show interviews. It was live, and accessible to anyone with decent hearing.   

When the Lux operation began in October 1934, its headquarters were located at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. Their dramas were mostly re-creations of plays, corralling actors from the Great White Way, until June 1936 when the station made the move to Hollywood. That’s when legendary producer-director Cecil B. DeMille climbed on board  as host of the program, helping attract big-name stars for radio dramas based on motion pictures. Lux Radio Theatre (sponsored by Lux Soap) quickly became the most popular dramatic anthology series on the radio, ahead of Orson Welles’s Screen Guild Theatre, and its first West Coast season featured stars such as Jean Harlow, Al Jolson, and Joan Crawford, and producer-directors including D.W. Griffith and Hal Roach. But Lux’s favorite guest, by far, was Barbara Stanwyck, who appeared 23 times from 1936 to 1955.

Stanwyck had a knack for radio. Industrious and capable of staying cool under pressure, she was well suited to the show’s frenetic pace of production. A typical week at Lux meant a read-through with sound effects on Thursday, a full-cast rehearsal on Friday, a recorded dress rehearsal on Sunday, and a final run-through before the program aired on Monday evenings (California time). Program director Frank Woodruff knew how to placate actors (he’d been one himself), but Stanwyck didn’t need it. DeMille for one said he never worked with “an actress who was more cooperative, less temperamental, and a better workman, to use my term of highest compliment, than Barbara Stanwyck.”

Barbara Stanwyck Lux Radio

Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lewis Stone

Stanwyck had started her career as a dancer and actress on Broadway, and she thrived in front of the thousand-person studio audience at the Music Box Theatre where Lux broadcasts were recorded. Film actors who were not used to being on a big stage often required extra direction (they were told to stand behind chalk lines so they did not project too loudly for radio). Stanwyck by contrast ad-libbed with ease, though she liked to memorize her lines thoroughly and far in advance. But the best explanation for why Barbara Stanwyck reigned as queen of the airwaves is obvious: the girl had a great voice.

“Like a million-dollar case of laryngitis,” Richard Chamberlain said of her soothing drawl. Stanwyck grew up in Brooklyn and burned through cigarettes incessantly throughout her life, which undoubtedly contributed to her tone and rapid tempo. Her sultry voice arrived in Hollywood over a decade before Howard Hawks helped coax a leopard-like purr from Lauren Bacall. But what marked Stanwyck’s distinctive timbre was the same thing that helped her screen performances: a raw, natural quality. Frank Capra nearly didn’t cast Stanwyck in Ladies of Leisure (30) but after watching her screen test for 30 seconds, he supposedly had tears in his eyes. “Never had I seen or heard such emotional sincerity,” he recalled. “I was stunned.” Stanwyck introduced her own brand of femininity, unselfconscious and in control, which came across in everything she said.

During World War II, Stanwyck’s riveting voice well suited roles of strong women on the home front. She played the brazen eldest sister who takes care of things after her father goes to war in “The Gay Sisters” (November 1943), and a war-widowed wife who falls in love with another officer in “My Reputation” (April 1947). More people than ever turned to radio during the war; for one thing, gasoline rationing meant people were less likely to drive to the movie theater. Throughout the Forties, psychological dramas about troubled ex-G.I.’s became standard fare, and ads for Lux Soap included pleas to housewives to save their cooking fat. (Stanwyck could even bring her sincere touch to a pitch, as in a Lux ad at the end of an August 1936 broadcast: “Well, personally, I never tried hot rocks or steam as a beauty cure, but I can recommend soap, water and sunshine—if a third of the combination is Lux Toilet Soap.”)

Barbara Stanwyck

Yet within many of the roles Stanwyck took on, there was something deeply melancholic, and it had to do with that voice. As critic James Harvey put it in a review of The Lady Eve: “its huskiness suggests not so much whiskey or disillusion or sexual provocation, as it does the quite unsentimental sound of tears—which have been firmly and sensibly surmounted, but somehow, somewhere, fully wept.” The pull of that undertow of sadness is noticeable in whatever film role she adapts for radio; what fluctuates is the level of affect on the surface of her voice. At the start of the Lux broadcast of “Stella Dallas” (October 1937), she takes on a delicate croon as she tries to reel in John Boles’s character Stephen for a husband: “Can I take your arm? I mean, would that be all right?” she shyly asks. Yet in the next scene, it’s back to snappy Brooklynite as she rants for a bit about the new duties of motherhood and marriage over the cries of an infant. The climactic moments arrive when she is reduced nearly to tears over divorce and the departure of her daughter: not in a dramatic wail, but contained and graceful, as though the uncharted no-man’s-land of maternal sympathy is at last laid bare.

Listening to “The Lady Eve” (March 1942) is like sitting in on an experiment in the different methods of vocal flirtation. Her character Jean starts out as a brazen woman, interjecting blunt commentary on the subdued masculinity of Pike (Ray Milland instead of Henry Fonda) to her father, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) as they scout him out. In the next scene, in her cabin, she tries to seduce Pike in a low come-hither contralto; later, putting on the disguise of Lady Eve, she gives her voice a farcical coat of high-society gloss, rising in pitch, with a more lilting musicality. Yet always—even when she screams at Pike’s snake—some touch of the Stanwyck huskiness remains, identifiable and intoxicating, like an age-old brand of whiskey.

The appeal of Stanwyck’s voice, which could be fierce and soothing, is perhaps most evident in “Double Indemnity” (October 1950), which was so popular on film that it came out in radio drama form twice on The Screen Guild TheatreLux Radio Theatre. Maybe it’s the apparent self-assured stability that attracts Fred MacMurray’s character, Walter Neff, to Stanwyck’s femme fatale in the first place—that low warbling way she says: “I was just fixing some iced tea. Would you like a glass?” But excessive intake of something irresistible can be harmful—and the gunshot at the end of the show might pack a bigger jolt than the same moment on the big screen.

We may largely have Barbara Stanwyck to thank for the shift from higher-pitched supporting ladies (such as Dorothy Comingore) to the suave, low-talkers in Forties noir. Though Lux Radio Theatre fizzled out when television took over—holding its last show in June 1955 and giving way to Lux Video Theatre on CBS TV for another few years—the allure of Stanwyck’s soulful voice endures.