Old-Time Radio Episode Spotlight: Those Magnificent Cats in their Flying Machines

“Clipper Home,” An American in England
December 22, 1942

Norman Corwin was one of the most important creative forces in radio’s golden age. He wrote, produced, and directed several prestigious, poetic shows celebrating American values. In December 1942, TIME wrote, “CBS’s Norman Corwin, top-flight U.S. radio dramatist, went to England last summer to try something that U.S. radio had not done before. He wanted to explain England to Americans by short-waving his dramatized observations of the English.”

This was a huge technical challenge in 1942, and not all the broadcasts from England aired successfully in the United States. After Corwin returned home in the fall, he produced four more episodes, including this final one.

Pyro, of Helensburgh, Scotland, flew on experimental bombing test missions in World War II. Source: WIRRALNEWS.co.uk

Recently, while listening to it, I became fascinated by a short incident near the end. The narrator, slowly making his way home from Great Britain to the United States, meets a U.S. flier in Brazil. With him, the flier carries his “mascot,” a gray kitten name Tiger. The flier says he brought the kitten from his home in New Hampshire and carries him along on all his flying missions.

As a passionate cat lover, I wanted to find out more about Tiger. Unfortunately, my research didn’t unearth any information about him, but I did learn about a flying World War II cat named Pyro. British photographer Bob Bird was working at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment base in Helensburgh, Scotland, when he adopted a stray kitten. Pyro didn’t like it when his owner left to accompany flight crews on experimental bomb tests. Bird started taking Pyro along on the missions; together they survived a crash landing, and Pyro once helped protect Bird from frostbite. Last year, Pyro received a posthumous award for bravery from the United Kingdom’s People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals charity.

At the time of the award, Bob Bird’s son Robin said, “’We are really very proud of Pyro. He was the only flying cat in the Second World War—and any other war as far as we know.”

Even if “Tiger” didn’t really exist, Pyro wasn’t the only flying cat in World War II. The web site Purr ‘n’ Fur has fascinating and comprehensive pages about cats in wartime. You can read about a few flying cats (and even see a picture of a cat of in a military aircraft in flight). You can also learn about ships’ cats, which were much more numerous than flying cats.

To be honest, my first reaction to hearing about Tiger was annoyance that someone had put an animal in such a dangerous situation. I can’t begrudge soldiers and sailors for seeking comfort from a pet, though, and the cats I’ve read about took their “service” in stride. (Why do my cats fuss so much about a car ride to the vet’s?)

The entire series An American in England makes interesting listening for history buffs and Anglophiles, even though it is wordy and rather unsubtle in its propaganda. (This episode also has an uncomfortable segment in which the narrator wonders what’s going through “the simple tribal mind” of a West African native. That segment concludes, however, with hypothetical soldiers expressing sentiments like this: “Listen, I like bread. So does the next guy. I’d like to see everybody in the world get a piece of bread and a quart of milk a day. And that goes for Indians and Eskimos and Hottentots, too.”)

Joseph Julian plays the narrator, who represents Corwin’s viewpoint.

Final Fun Fact: Corwin, who died last fall at 101, once said, “Cats are designated friends.”

Other Old-Time Radio Entries:

Playlist: Till Death Do Us Part

Episode Spotlight: A Snapped-Worthy 1920s True Story

Episode Spotlight: CSI, 1940s Styl

Playlist: London Calling, Part 

Playlist: London Calling, Part 2


Old-Time Radio Episode Spotlight: A Snapped-Worthy 1920s True Story

Eve Rablen, the real-life model for Alma in this story. Newspaper crime reporters, showing the restraint they are known for, dubbed her “the Borgia of the Sierras.”

Calling All Cars, December 11, 1934

The story you are about to hear is true. Some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Fortunately, producers didn’t bother to change the name of the town, the sheriff, or the star witness in this story, enabling us to uncover the details of a Snapped-worthy 1920s murder.

Calling All Cars, which aired from 1933 to 1939, was an early police procedural show that focused on real California cases.

Tuttletown is the setting for this episode, and Tuolumne County Sheriff J.H. Dambacher opens the story of what he calls his most interesting case.

First, we hear a crotchety old man scolding his son “Herb” for corresponding with a woman named “Alma”–a woman Herb met through “that there matrimonial agency,” as Pap puts it.

Pap is comically over-the-top with his objections, which include his son’s young age (26) and Alma’s previous marriage (“God-fearing people don’t get dee-vorced!”). Herb doesn’t listen, though. He marries Alma and moves her and her young son in with him and his father.

What could possibly go wrong?

In real life, Herb and Alma were Carroll and Eva Rablen, and the radio drama presents an accurate picture of what happens next. At a school-house dance on April 27, 1929, Eva froliced on the dance floor while her husband waited in the car outside.  At one point, she brought him a cup of coffee. Shortly thereafter, he cried out in pain, told his father that his coffee had tasted bitter, and died.

Sheriff Dambacher tell listeners that the killer was “the last person one would logically suspect.”

That might be true–if one had never encountered a crime story before.

The police investigation nailed Eva pretty quickly. The prosecutor later doubted that he’d ever see such a strong circumstantial-evidence case again. The evidence included:

Post-mortem testing that showed strychnine poisoning killed Carroll.

The discovery of a bottle containing traces of strychnine near the spot where Carroll died.

A druggist’s positive identification of Eva as the woman who’d purchased the strychnine from him a few days before the murder.

Forensic testing that found strychnine present on the coffee-stained dress of another dance-goer. While Eva was taking Carroll his coffee, she bumped into this other woman and spilled some coffee on her.

Prosecutors’ star witness would be Edward O. Heinrich, a forensic science pioneer who earned the nickname “the Wizard of Berkeley.”

Newspapers had a field day with “mail-order bride” murder story, and local interest reached such a pitch that Eva’s arraignment was held outdoors to accommodate crowds.

How could a newspaper make its murder coverage even more disturbing? By using this picture to illustrate Eva Rablen’s “juvenile-minded” nature.

Ultimately, her defense attorneys focused on Eva’s supposedly arrested mental development.

As one expert told the media: “The response of the ductless glands to situations varies with their congenital capacity and acquired susceptibility. In the ability of one endocrine system to inhibit another we have the germ of the unconscious. Hence the modus operandi of the repressions and the supressions, compensations and dissociations, which may unite to integrate, or refuse to integrate, and so disintegrate and deteriorate a personality.”

Well, that makes sense.

I won’t spoil the outcome of this case for you, but you can read more about the case’s resolution and what happened to Eva later in newspaper accounts.


Old Time Radio Episode Spotlight: CSI, 1940s Style

It’s always freaky when several of my interests collide. Crime, old-time radio, and classic movies–it all comes together in this photo of the FBI photographing Margaret O’Brien.

“The 91 million prints we have on file here at the FBI are the biggest man trap ever devised.”

Adventure Ahead, August 26, 1944

This is not a great radio show. In my experience, the cheese factor in old-time radio correlates directly with the number of organ flourishes a show contains. But this show’s subject–how the FBI lab helped police solve crimes in the 1940s–intrigues me.

Adventure Ahead was a Saturday morning show aimed at young boys. In this episode, a boy tours the FBI crime lab and learns how agents help solve crimes through blood and hair analysis, ballistics, and fingerprint identification.

(This show uses what TV Tropes calls the Little Jimmy trope: “Little Jimmy is a young character without any distinguishable traits other than complete ignorance related to the subject at hand. Most likely found in educational films, commercials, and public service announcements. Their only job is to represent the young and stupid viewers of the film who know nothing about common sense and would very well get into a car with a stranger offering candy unless some superhero or other fictional character comes along and tells them that it’s wrong. He’s typically young, white and freckled.” Here, our Little Jimmy is named Tommy.)

Because I live near America’s largest fingerprint database, I paid special attention to the information about FBI fingerprint files. After listening to the show, I couldn’t resist doing some research on the history of fingerprint identification and how the FBI collection has changed over the years.

Soon after J. Edgar Hoover became FBI director in 1924, the Bureau established an Identification Division.
Within nine years, it contained 5 million cards. By 1944, when this radio show aired, these numbers had soared to 91 million. Actress Margaret O’Brien provided the Bureau’s 100 millionth set of fingerprints two years later.

This radio show describes a fingerprint matching system that involved punched cards and “steel fingers.” The FBI first used computers to search fingerprint files in 1980, but didn’t establish a fully computerized system, the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, until 1999.

The FBI is now building a huge database of other biometric information, from iris scans to tattoos.

Old-Time Radio Playlist: London Calling, Part 1

As a fan of old-time radio, I like to organize shows into topical playlists. The recent Olympic games inspired this list of London-themed episodes. (Part 2 of this playlist.)

“Journey for Margaret”

Screen Guild Theater, April 5, 1943
“A man can’t go on feeling forever. There’s a limit. By and by, he finds himself dead. That’s why I can’t get mad; I’m dead.”
Notable Cast Members: Robert Young, who shows off his fatherly side well before Father Knows Best appeared on radio and then TV, and 6-year-old Margaret O’Brien, recreating the movie role in which she made a name for herself, literally and figuratively. Four-year-old actor Billy Severn also appeared—it must have been terrifying for the director to rely upon such young children in a live radio drama. O’Brien does a great job, and Severn is adorable.
About Screen Guild Theater: This was one of several shows that condensed popular movies for radio audiences. At least the better-known Lux Radio Theater had 60 minutes to work with; 30 minute shows like Screen Guild Theater often leave only a sketchy outline of the movie plot. As John Dunning put it in The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio, “Screen Guild always seemed like the quick economy tour, jerky and uneven, scenes knit together by thin thread and taxing a modern listener’s willingness to suspend disbelief.”
Story: A war-weary American journalist and his wife, in London during the Blitz, lose their unborn child and decide to adopt a traumatized war orphan.
Based Upon: The successful 1942 movie of the same name, in which Young and O’Brien also starred. The movie, in turn, was based upon the novel by journalist William L. White, and that was based on his true story of adopting a British war orphan. Life ran an interesting story on the “real Margaret” (not revealing that her name was actually Barbara), who would grow up to carry on her family’s journalistic legacy.
Google-worthy References: Ack-ack—Anti-aircraft guns.
Also, when the pregnant wife and her husband share a toast, she drinks milk. This surprised me and got me wondering how long doctors have been advising pregnant women to avoid alcohol. I didn’t find a definitive answer, but this history suggests alcohol’s potential harm has long been common knowledge.
My Verdict: These short movie adaptations work best when you haven’t seen the movie, which I haven’t in this case (although I want to now). As a radio story, it feels complete, and Robert Young and the children give enjoyable performances.

“Berkeley Square”
Everything for the Boys, February 8, 1944

Dangerously Yours, September 24, 1944

Hallmark Playhouse, March 3, 1949

“Out of what’s wrong with this world came a better time, and somehow the same will happen out of the struggles of my world.”
Based Upon
: The John L. Balderson play Berkeley Square, which was a hit when it opened in 1929. This time-travel romance was also a hit with old-time radio audiences, if you can judge by the number of shows that adapted it.
Story: Peter Standish longs to leave the 20th century behind. Obsessed with the diaries of an 18th century ancestor, he soon finds himself living his ancestor’s life. Complications arise when he falls in love with the sister of the woman his ancestor married.
Setting: Berkeley Square, a perennially fashionable London neighborhood.
Notable Cast Members: Ronald Colman plays Peter on Everything for the Boys, a wartime dramatic anthology. Greer Garson plays his love interest, Helen. Victor Jory stars in the Dangerously Yours episode. David Niven stars in the Hallmark Playhouse version.
About the Programs: Everything for the Boys ran for 21 weeks, with Colman hosting and starring in each episode and the legendary Arch Oboler writing and directing. Each episode ended with a short-wave call to fighting men overseas—this was a major technical challenge then and didn’t always work. The romantic anthology Dangerously Yours was also a short-lived 1944 show with a regular leading man—Victor Jory. After 16 episodes, it morphed into Vicks Matinee Theater. The high-toned Hallmark Playhouse presented Hollywood stars in literary adaptations.
My Verdict: Without having seen or read the play, I can’t say which version adapts it most faithfully. In all three versions, the time travel is abrupt and unexplained. The Everything for the Boys script adds an extra layer of resonance to the play by giving it an explicit World-War-II context. This makes it easier to see why Peter wants to escape the 20th century, why Helen is so horrified by her vision of the future (she sees men, women, and children being herded into open graves), and why Peter feels he must return to his own time and address its challenges.
Final Fun Facts: Oboler and Colman did not enjoy their collaboration. In fact, Dunning quotes Oboler as saying, “We hated each other’s guts.”
Also, Leslie Howard starred in the original Berkeley Square play and the 1933 movie version.

“It’s Always Tomorrow”

Words at War, January 2, 1945
“I’m gonna keep an eye on certain people here in England…and if they try to cheat us out of anything we’ve won in this war, then we’ll see if we can arrange another direct hit, especially for their benefit.”
Based Upon: It’s Always Tomorrow by Robert St. John, a journalist whose life spanned the 20th century and whose adventures spanned the globe. (He reminisces about his career in Studs Terkel’s Coming of Age—thanks, old-time radio, for making my to-be-read list even longer.)
Story: An American journalist assigned to London finds himself disgusted by out-of-touch, imperialist aristocrats. He falls in love with Polly, a bitter working-class woman, who refuses to support a war she thinks will benefit only the rich.
Notable Cast Members: Cathleen Cordell, who plays Polly, went on to have a long career as a character actress in television. I think William Quinn, who plays Dave, may be the same person as Bill Quinn, another prolific TV character actor.
About the Program: Words at War was a dramatic anthology that told timely stories from the world’s literal and figurative battlefronts. The New York Times called it “the boldest, hardest-hitting program” on the air.
My Verdict: Once you get past some heavy-handed British stereotypes, this is an interesting, nuanced story. Polly is a shockingly unpatriotic character by wartime radio standards. At one point, she even cries, “Let Germany win! Let Germany win!” Dave, playing devil’s advocate, tries to convince her that World War II is a “people’s war.” He interviews working people who are glad to make sacrifices and an aristocrat who is paying 97.5 percent of his income in taxes, but Polly remains unconvinced. When Dave loses his leg in a bombing, I thought sure the writers would give Polly a quick attitude change. She does agree to take Dave’s place in a war plant (where he’s begun working because his newspaper superiors banned him from writing about war’s effect on “the little people”). She stresses, however, that she’s making this choice based on love, not patriotism. A reviewer of St. John’s novel noted favorably that the book “makes a passionate plea for general understanding of the bitter hatred the common people in war-torn countries feel toward rulers who quit them ingloriously, shamefully, taking with them their loot and their foolish hides.” In the 1950s, author Robert St. John was blacklisted as a Communist, a label he disavowed. It’s sad but not surprising that his concern for the world’s common people would suggest Communism to 1950s red hunters.
Final Fun Fact: At one point, Dave and Polly visit a pub, where the crowd sings this song.