The Who Done It of Radioland Murders

*contains spoilers

After his success with American Graffiti (1973), producer and director George Lucas (1944-) had a script in mind based on murders in a radio station during a big opening launch based on the Bud Abbott (1897-1979 throat cancer) and Lou Costello (1906-59 heart attack) movie Who Done It? (1942).

A young George Lucas

It went through almost two decades of “development hell” before what emerged – The Radioland Murders (1994) – flopped and was mauled by the critics.

The audience for a 1940s set movie about the old days of radio just before the emergence of television wasn’t there.

Also the taste in comedy featured in Radioland Murders could be seen as dated, in particular the performance of lead Brian Benben (1956-), who many viewers found embarrassing and excruciating.

Radioland Murders poster

Radioland Murders is a screwball farce and a runaway one at that, moving too fast at times, so that you have to view the film a number of times to really appreciate it.

It is almost like a cartoon with its characters, and it’s visuals, especially outside the building – thanks to Industrial Light & Magic – make it all the more enthralling. Technically, the movie is a success.

The original Who Done It? is another film which modern audiences can take or leave – especially the duo of Abbott and Costello themselves. At the time they were so popular that Bud and Lou, as they were also known, saved Universal studios from bankruptcy.

Who Done It? (1942) poster

While the Marx Brothers predated them and remain more popular as the thinking man’s comedy team… Abbott and Costello are more lowbrow and rely on silly and often stupid jokes, some of it clever repartee, and basic pratfalls. For some crazy reason, even The Three Stooges have a stronger fan base today than Abbott and Costello it would seem.

Abbott and Costello in another hit movie Hold That Ghost (1941)

I have always loved Abbott and Costello since I was younger than ten years old and remember writing to the local television station with a list of all their movies that I hadn’t seen. Amazingly they played them. I even wagged school one day at fourteen to see the only film I hadn’t seen of theirs It Aint Hay (1943). It was the only day I ever wagged school.

Is Brian Benben excruciating or funny?

Who Done it? was made at the peak of Abbott and Costello’s success at Universal and Lucas honours it with Radioland Murders in epic fashion. Those years in development hell paid off and the movie was filmed with its script and cast perfectly timed just like many of the gags in the film.

In Who Done it?, Abbott and Costello are a couple of soda jerks who pretend to be detectives to solve a murder in the local radio station in the hope it will get them jobs as writers for the station.

With its mysterious murder at the beginning of Colonel J.R. Andrews, played by Thomas Gomez (1905-71 car accident after three weeks in a coma) through electrocution – Abbott and Costello go through their, or whoever they originally belonged to, stock vaudeville routines as they stumble about and eventually help unmask the murderer.

Poster for Charlie Chan in the Wax Museum (1940)

Charlie Chan in the Wax Museum (1940) a couple of years earlier used its claustrophobic setting of a radio broadcast transmitted direct from a wax museum as the place for its murder also by electrocution.

Another movie to use electrocution was Monogram’s The Thirteenth Guest (1932) starring Ginger Rogers (1911-1995 natural causes).

George Lucas, of course, is the founder of the Star Wars franchise, and he must have loved Abbott and Costello, the days of radio, screwball and slapstick comedy in particular and a good murder mystery.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer (1949) trailer

For me, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer (1949) is probably the most atmospheric of their murder mysteries and is better than Who Done It? With its red herring use of Boris Karloff and bodies hanging in closets in its remote hotel – it is both funny and scary. As a kid, watching it during the daytime, I was frightened.

And while Abbott and Costello is an acquired taste, so are the stars of Radioland Murders, Brian Benben and Mary Stuart Masterson (1966-).

Masterson and Benben make a good screwball team

The original story for Radioland Murders was written by Lucas himself and he may have been influenced by another radio inspired murder movie. That film is the Monogram produced (read: very low budget) The Scarlet Clue (1945) which comes from the tail end of the Sidney Toler (1879-1947 intestinal cancer) Charlie Chan series. Although cheaply made, the film was directed by Phil Rosen (1888-1951 heart attack), a Chan regular towards the end, and he did a fair job under the financial circumstances.

The Who Done It? (1942) trailer

Like Who Done It? and Radioland Murders, The Scarlet Clue is principally set in a radio station building high-rise and has some ingenious moments, such as a lift where the floor opens beneath its occupants letting them plunge to the bottom of the lift shaft, as well as some sort of weather tunnel which scientists in another part of the building are working on that can produce bizarre weather conditions such as a blizzard within its confines.

The Scarlet Clue also contains some ingenious banter between Charlie Chan’s chauffer Manton Moreland (1902-73 cerebral haemorrhage) and doomed actor and booking agent Ben Carter (1910-46 diphtheria). Their almost psychic conversation with each other was so successful, it was used again in another Chan movie Dark Alibi (1946).

Manton Moreland (left) and tragic actor Ben Carter also make a good team

So there are a couple of inspirations for Lucas’s Radioland Murders, but none so much as Who Done It? with its climax on the roof of the building.

Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987) also climaxes on top of a building if you can call it that with its cast departing with the line beware “all evil doers”. Radio Days is more a childhood evocation of the radio period and the emptiness of the business… Radioland Murders is quite the opposite as its heart is pure celebration of radio – life and death!

Masterson gets it right

Set in 1939 in Chicago, it’s a radio station’s big night in terms of hoping to become a nationwide success with listeners and sponsors but it’s all threatened when a series of murders occur behind the scenes while the show is on air.

The drama and comedy happens behind the scenes as key staff of the radio station endeavour to keep the show on air without even a moment of “dead air” or nothing on air – a real no-no in the business.

Another underrated radio movie

Benben is a writer who must juggle possibly being suspected of the murders with preparing re-writes for the shows about to air. He must somehow clear his name as police close in with the help of his estranged wife played by Masterson who works in the control booth.

It’s a great production, as we are shown the radio acts, which range from comedians to singers to regular episodes of radio programs, being performed in front of a live studio audience. Meanwhile, there is murder after murder as a ghostly or phantom-like voice occasionally interrupts the broadcast with cryptic clues as to the next murder victim.

 Ned Beatty as the General

Whereas the colonel was murdered in Who Done It?, there is Ned Beatty (1937-) in Radioland Murders as General Whalen, the owner of the station who falls victim to the mysterious killer.

The pace of the movie is fast at times and totally uncool, which often makes for the best comedy. But it is definitely not a gross out movie. Kids can watch it.

It opens with the Universal logo and pans down on the WBN building and its hopes to be a “fourth national radio network”. The unhappy couple of Benben and Masterson must marshal all they have despite his apparently having an affair with the Va-Va-Va Voom Girl played by Anita Morris (1943-94 ovarian cancer) in her last role. She is good.

Abbott (centre) and Costello (right) as soda jerks in the opening of Who Done It?

Other cast members can be found in the writer’s room which is put into overdrive when the radio station’s major sponsor played by Brion James (1945-99 heart attack) rejects the opening night scripts and demands rewrites – fifteen minutes before air time.

Anita Morris is the Va-Va-Va-Voom girl

The comedians in the writer’s room incude Harvey Korman (1927-2008 complications of aneurysm), Peter MacNicol (1954-), Ann de Salvo (1949-) and Bobcat Goldthwaite (1962-) and they are all underused in this movie. They are symbolic of the talent behind the scenes when it came to the written product over the years. It is also hard to use everyone in Radioland Murders when it has such a rich cast list!

The script for the movie, just like the radio shows in the movie, went through many changes and many writers over the years. Credited at the end are Willard Huyck (1945-), Gloria Katz (1942-2018 ovarian cancer), Jeff Reno and Ron Osborne.

American Graffiti (1973) trailer

Huyck and Katz were married and won an Academy Award nomination for their screenplay for American Graffiti. The pair went on to write what has been seen as comic duds such as Eddie Murphy’s Best Defense (1984) and another Lucas megaflop Howard the Duck (1986) which earned Huyck a Razzie as Worst Director. Of course, it’s fun and underrated.

The pair also had another critical disaster on their hands with Lucky Lady which followed American Graffiti in 1975. Huyck and Katz are also reported to have worked uncredited on the Star Wars script.

With their number of flops, and its general non-appeal box office-wise, it is perhaps not surprising Radioland Murders was in development hell for so long. Anyway, Lucas was busy with the Star Wars movies over the years and this almost art-house mainstream movie had to wait even if it was always doomed to financial failure.

Huyck on left with Katz and Lucas on the right

Screwball comedy, which is central to Radioland Murders, more or less thrived in the 1930s and died in the early 40s. Such classics produced include My Man Godfrey (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). The odd screwball comedy was made over the years and when Lucas probably first came up with his story outline there had been a bit of resurgence for screwball at the box office with Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? (1972), which of course takes its title from the famous Bugs Bunny retort, and For Pete’s Sake (1974) – both of which starred Barbra Streisand.

A still from screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940) with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant

But they were only flashes in the pan and few fully-fledged screwball comedies have made an appearance especially at the box office since. It never really came back into vogue – it was, and perhaps is, uncool, silly and stupid. As is old time radio in this world of Netflix and reality television 25 years after the film’s original release.

A typically self-indulgent Bogdanovich What’s Up Doc? (1972) trailer

But it’s all a matter of taste, add a murder plot and there is more balance to Radioland Murders. I have always been a fan since I saw it on VHS upon its original release when I was living in London. To me, it has always been a classic.

At one stage, after directing American Graffiti, Lucas was reportedly set to direct the movie but it fell through. When it was finally shot in the mid-90s for a budget of $15 million, you wonder what was holding it back, except for the old adage for Lucas not to invest his own money in the project.

Lucas with Radioland Murders director Mel Smith (right)

The director finally chosen was British comedian Mel Smith (1952-2013 heart attack), who might have seemed an odd choice as he had little solid box office behind him. Not even The Tall Guy (1989) written by Four Weddings and a Funeral’s (1994) Richard Curtis (1956-) made money. But after Radioland Murders Smith had a massive hit with the Mr Bean movie Bean (1997).

A zany moment from the very screwy Radioland Murders

So he definitely had talent in front as well as behind the camera as he melds the talents of multiple comedians including Michael Lerner (1941-), Christopher Lloyd (1938-) and Michael McKean (1947-). The cast goes on… with guest acts which include surprises such as George Burns (1896-1996 complications from a fall) pushing 100 in his last role and Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002 lung cancer), while Joey Lawrence (1976-) does a passable job crooning like Frank Sinatra.

There is an electrocution murder when Corbin Bernsen’s (1954-) announcer character grips a microphone a la Who Done It? Meanwhile Beatty’s general falls down an elevator shaft like in The Scarlet Clue.

Lloyd of Back to the Future fame plays the effects man in Radioland Murders

To look further for more influences on Radioland Murders, there is The Big Clock (1948) starring Ray Milland (1907-86 lung cancer). That film was written by Jonathan Latimer (1906-83), who was known for his William Crane private eye novels which weaved murder and screwball comedy together into one. The Big Clock was film noir but its protagonist had to prove himself innocent of murder like Benben’s character in Radioland Murders while time is running out.

The rooftop climax of Who Done It? is used again in Radioland Murders

While Abbott and Costello confines itself in terms of the number of murders, there are six in Radioland Murders and its climax on top of the radio tower with the villain introduces the new concept of television into the plot.

Like Murder by Television (1935) with Bela Lugosi, the plot point central to the ensuing murders was the result of the original inventor not taking out a proper patent for his invention.

Did you guess the murderer?

If you like screwball and cartoons and don’t take everything too seriously, if Benben’s mugging is to your taste and you have a penchant for old movies, especially those set in a radio station with the odd murder or six – then Radioland Murders is for you as it revels in the talent which goes on behind the scenes in making a live radio production. It is something that could not be done behind the scenes in a television station or a movie production.

Radioland Murders (1994) trailer

The Radioland Murders despite its influences is, for its day anyway, dare I say, unique and for some reason I love it and because it is a period piece, it ages well.

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