Monday, October 17, 2016

Pump up the Volume! Radioland Murders (1994)

witnesses to death
Scott Michael Campbell and Brian Benben

Radioland Murders, a terrifically frenetic yet warmly nostalgic comedy-mystery film produced by George Lucas, was overwhelmingly panned by critics upon its release in the US and promptly cratered at the box office, having one of the biggest second weekend drops in American film history; yet since then it has enjoyed a good life on television, video and DVD, having developed something of a loyal fan following.

I'll admit it, I'm one of those fan followers.  Sure, the film is far from Woody Allen's ingenious Bullets over Broadway (1994), but it leaves me with a smile.

Anita Morris
At the time of its release, Radioland Murders received a dreaded one-star review from the late film critic Roger Ebert, who lambasted it as "all action and no character."  It certainly is one frenetically paced film, obviously drawing inspiration from Thirties screwball comedy as well as slapstick Forties mystery spoofs like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's Who Done It? (1942) (which is also set at a radio station). 

The film was originally conceived by George Lucas when he was writing the script of American Graffiti. (He also has a certain untitled science fiction film in mind.)  By 1979 it was slated for production (Steve Martin and Cindy Williams had been approached to star as the leads), but it took fifteen years for the film, heavily rewritten to appeal to the MTV generation, finally to be made.

Set in 1939 during the inaugural night of a major new radio network (WBN-Chicago), Radioland Murders is a madcap, mile-a-minute mystery film with a fantastic cast, although many of the parts are little more than cameos. 

Frantic! Scott Michael Campbell and Mary Stuart Masterson

The film's main characters are radio scriptwriter Scott Henderson (Brian Benben), Penny Henderson (Mary Stuart Masterson), Scott's estranged wife and assistant director at WBN, and harassed page boy Billy Budget (Scott Michael Campbell); though there are a tremendous number of additional players, including:

Ixnay on the urdermay! Mary Stuart Masterson and Brian Benben

Michael Lerner
as Lieutenant Cross, the police officer investigating the murders; Dylan Baker as Detective Jasper, Cross's dim assistant; Ned Beatty as General Walt Whalen, the owner of WBN; Jeffrey Tambor as Walt Whalen, Jr., WBN program director; Larry Miller as Herman Katzenback, the German-born stage manager of WBN; Anita Morris as Claudette Katzenback, "the va-va-va voom girl with the va-va-va voom voice"; Stephen Tobolowsky as Max Applewhite, the WBN sound engineer; Michael McKean as Rick Rochester, the WBN band conductor; Corbin Bernsen as Dexter Morris, the station announcer; Christopher Lloyd as Zoltan, sound effects impresario; Ellen Albertini Dow as the WBN organist; and Bobcat Goldthwait, Harvey Korman, Robert Klein, Ann De Salvo and Peter MacNicol as additional scriptwriters.

Whew! Even after six murders, there is still quite a bit of cast left!

the frequently clueless WBN scriptwriters get a lot of helpful tips from
cleaning lady Morgana (Leighann Lord, center), in a nice bit of social commentary

I'll admit right off that the mystery element is certainly a fizzle as a fair play mystery, but the plot still offers the old attraction of keeping us in suspense to see who will be next to be bumped off.  Also, the film adheres to the classic "wrong man" plot gambit so beloved by Alfred Hitchcock and other suspense film directors, as Scott Henderson gets arrested by Lieutentent Cross for the murders and ends up making a break for it, getting pursued by the blundering cops all over the towering station building. 

On the lam with a fruity problem: Brian Benben

The production design of the film is fantastic (if improbably elaborate?) and the radio show parodies that hurtle past us are wonderful. (Of course it helps if you love old time radio.)  Roger Ebert was right that there isn't much emphasis on character development--I think the page boy Billy Budget, in a winsome performance by Campbell, actually has the most developed character (he even has a story arc!)--but a number of the characters make impact even with their limited screen time. 

Back on the case: Michael Lerner and Brian Benben

The great Michael Lerner makes a great blustering cop; Anita Morris, in her last role (she tragically died from ovarian cancer at the age of 50 seven months before the film opened), is funny and sexy to the very end; Stephen Tobolowsky offers a welcome oasis of calm for much of this frantic film; Dylan Baker is delightfully dim indeed; Michael McKean, is quite droll in a mostly visual performance (check out the Saber Dance scene); Corbin Bernsen is memorably suave and acidly snide as the announcer; and even Bobcat Goldthwait didn't seem as irritating as I remember him from those days. Brian Benben and Mary Stuart Masterton gamely follow the bickering and bantering path blazed by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, even if their lines aren't nearly as good and Benben's character is more schlep than sophisticate.

Off the hook?  Brian Benben and Mary Stuart Masterson

I should mention too that there are additional cameos, uber-cameos, by Joey Lawrence, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Barty and, in his last film, the legendary George Burns, then 98 years old and with a delivery as comically deadpan as ever.  Radioland Murders always leaves me wanting to see more of the characters who inhabit its world (until they get bumped off); and that's not a bad thing to say about any creative work.


  1. Have to get my hands on a copy of this! Thanks!

  2. I'm with you on this one. Great art it ain't, but who cares? There's so much going on, so many nostalgic moments coupled with featherweight farce, with all of it so fast-paced and tightly compressed that it could make you wonder just what's happening.

    In the closing credits Mercer and Elman's "And the Angels Sing" gets a thorough working over - but in a good way. I'm still amazed, though, at how someone could audibly cock a revolver just by pushing it forward.

    1. Speaking of guns, I liked the bit when the guy shouts at the cop to "use your gun" to break the glass door, and [SPOILER] the cop throws the gun at the door!

  3. I remember enjoying this one. I have great fondness for radio theater and even created the only college sponsored radio theater in the Mid-Atlantic states back in the 1980s. It had a short life of only two years due to a major overhaul of the few non-music programming slots, but we all had a lot of fun while it lasted. I bet this movie would have been a sleeper had it been made and released in the late 70s. Lucas must've been inspired by the popularity of THE STING and PAPER MOON, both made in 1973 the same year AMERICAN GRAFFITTI was released. With both those movies proving that a period crime story can do well I wonder what made them surrender and shelve it for over decade.

    1. It's too bad they didn't. Paper Moon is such a great film, one of my favorites. I suspect a seventies version would not have been quite so frenetic!