|witnesses to death
Scott Michael Campbell and Brian Benben
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.
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.