You may have heard this before, but before there was HDTV, there was just regular TV, kind of pixilated. Before there was cable and satellite TV, there was just regular broadcast TV, received -- for free -- via an antenna. Before there were remote controls, people had to get up to change the channels (all 13 of them). Before there was color, there was black-and-white. And before all that, there was no picture at all... just sound. And they called it radio.
People used to listen to all kinds of things on the radio: talk shows, music shows, comedy shows, adventure shows. Sometimes actors stepped up to the mike to re-create famous movies for radio. Sometimes comic books, comic strips and pulp novels were adapted into radio. Some of the most famous radio shows were 'Little Orphan Annie,' 'The Cisco Kid,' 'Fibber McGee and Molly,' 'Dick Tracy,' 'Flash Gordon,' 'The Lone Ranger,' 'The Shadow,' 'War of the Worlds,' 'You Bet Your Life' and 'The Green Hornet.' That last was actually created for the radio, and only later evolved into a comic book, TV show, and the new Michel Gondry film that opens this week.
Oddly, big screen versions of radio classics don't seem to be very memorable, such as the 1994 movie version of 'The Shadow,' with Alec Baldwin. And though both cinematic versions of 'The War of the Worlds' (1953 and 2005) are excellent, neither has the extra dimension of real-life terror that drove Orson Welles' notorious 1938 radio production. So for this Cinematical seven, rather than pay tribute to big screen versions of radio classics, I thought I'd look at movies that paid tribute to radio.
1. Radio Days (1987, Woody Allen)
Allen's free-form comedy-drama is one of his most complex productions, with all its period design and tons of camera setups, but the end product is one of his sweetest and most effortless films. He focuses on the everyday radio fans that like to listen to the radio, as well as the big stars behind the scenes. One of the best jokes has Wallace Shawn providing the mighty voice of "The Masked Avenger," and then appearing in real-life as, well, Wallace Shawn.
2. A Christmas Story (1983, Bob Clark)
No other movie captures the feel of the radio era better than this holiday classic. Ralphie can't wait for 'Little Orphan Annie' time, and the secret decoder ring he sends away for is all part of the excitement. Note how kids could simply flop on the floor in front of the big electric box, but still somehow needed to look at it.
3. Good Morning Vietnam (1987, Barry Levinson)
Moving forward in history, this comedy drama demonstrates the singular power of a voice on the airwaves. Levinson and star Robin Williams took the story of real-life American Forces Vietnam Network DJ Adrian Cronauer and punched it up, turning him into a rapid-fire comedian as well as a rock 'n' roll dealer. In the movie, Cronauer shakes up the regular, boring, lifeless broadcasts and gives the men something to look forward to. Williams earned his first Oscar nomination for this performance, which also includes a heart-rending subplot about an English language class and a pretty Vietnamese girl.
4. Talk to Me (2007, Kasi Lemmons)
Another look at the same turbulent era, but from stateside. Lemmons' excellent film was tragically overlooked in 2007, especially for the performances of Don Cheadle as convict-turned-DJ "Petey" Greene, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as his long-suffering manager Dewey Hughes. Again, the power of one human voice telling the truth unites thousands of listeners, and Lemmons' film revels in that power. I dare you not to be moved by the astounding sequence that takes place on the night of Martin Luther King's death.
5. Pump Up the Volume (1990, Allan Moyle)
Here's another on-air rebel, and though this one lives in less tumultuous times, he's just as dissatisfied with his bland, frightened life as his predecessors were with their violent ones. Christian Slater uses his charmingly smooth, snarky voice to rile up the listeners at his high school, once again telling the truth, and playing loud, alternative rock music that these poor repressed teens have never heard before. Again, though the central images revolve around one guy sitting in a chair, there's an irresistible, dynamic energy to this one.
6. Me and Orson Welles (2009, Richard Linklater)
Though this movie centers more on theater than radio, it contains some essential images of Orson Welles (Christian McKay) working on the radio, and traveling back and forth from the theater to the studio via a hired ambulance (true story). These events take place before the Halloween, 1938 broadcast of 'The War of the Worlds' -- in which Welles' news broadcast format made people think that Martians were really attacking -- but by this time he had done things like 'Hamlet' and 'Dracula' and also 'The Shadow.' His experience in radio also came in handy when it came time to record sound for his feature films.
7. A Prairie Home Companion (2006, Robert Altman)
Garrison Keillor's long-running National Public Radio show is like a throwback to old-time radio, with its folksy, non-threatening humor, skits and music. For his final film, master director Robert Altman gave it a kind of surreal homage, complete with a corporate stooge trying to buy and shut down the show, and an angel of death hanging around backstage. Between these plot threads Altman gives us an infectiously joyous look at the behind-the-scenes. This one is the opposite of a truthful rebel; this one just feels good.
More radio movies: 'Play Misty for Me' (1971), 'American Graffiti' (1973), 'Talk Radio' (1988), 'Do the Right Thing' (1989), 'Airheads' (1994), 'Grosse Pointe Blank' (1997), 'Telling Lies in America' (1997), 'The Night Listener' (2006), 'The King's Speech' (2010)