Is there anyone there? Is there anyone? Is there . . . .
I am sad that loads of people have not brought to us their impressions of The Mercury Theater production of The 39 Steps by John Buchan. To me, it is the first of the series which is fully original and creative in its method, the first production which features an elaborate flashback schema, one that may have thrown off listening audiences. This version can be imagined almost "cinematic," in a Wellsian sense.
For one thing, as Welles points out at the end of the show, "If you missed Madeleine Carroll in [the Mercury] stag version," blame Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, and if you found things which were not in the book, blame the Mercury. Perhaps, that is why, a la Tim Robbins' CRADLE WILL ROCK several years ago, Welles calls his adaptation simply "39 Steps."
In 1935, the year Hitchcock's adaptation of The 39 Steps was released, Author John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, had been appointed Governor General of Canada by the Crown (a position he held until his death in 1940). Thinking of a recent thread that brought up a Canadian wartime propaganda series, Nazi Eyes on Canada, which featured Welles, I am reminded how "last week," the First Person Singular series began to be carried by the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Could it be that the selection of The 39 Steps by the Mercury was in some way related to this facts?
A considerable amount of care, if not time, must have been invested in the adaptation of Buchan's novel, which was published in the middle of the First World War (1915). Adopting a conceit, Buchan, serving as an officer, straight forwardly "tells" the story as an American style "dime novel" in a letter to a fellow officer, Thomas Arthur Nelson (Tommy), in his own name (but asks that it be published under his friend's name). Unlike Hitchcock's 1935 Internationally successful movie, the murdered spy with the little black book is not a beautiful woman but an American from Kentucky called Nathan Scudder (changed in the Mercury play to an Eastern European, Nathan Skoda, a name referenced in the news to the great Czech arms works of the same name). Hitchcock had added to the film Miss Carroll, as Richard Hannay's companion and love interest; she came to Hollywood in 1937 and was also much in the news. And in the novel, there is no little man, Mr. Memory, no climactic on stage murder scene in a theater.
In the Mercury radio play, Welles is much more faithful to the spirit of Buchan's novel than Hitchcock is, but scenes are rearranged; one or two characters have taken on a new significance; and the entire shape of the story has been transformed by a series of Chinese box-like retellings, though the play ends pretty much like the novel.
With the advantage of having read Buchan's novel a number of times, and possessing a fascinating copy of the final rehearsal for the Mercury "39 Steps," I can hazard why Welles mysteriously informs us in his introduction that he cannot speak the author real name. He is referring to the beginning of Buchan's novel:
Thomas Arthur Nelson
(Lothian And Border Horse)
My Dear Tommy,
You and I have long cherished an affection for that elemental type of tale which Americans call the 'dime novel' and which we know as the 'shocker' -- the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result, and I should like to put your name on it in memory of our long friendship, in the days when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.
The play begins with the discovery of the spy's murder in Hannay's flat by his drunken acquaintance, Marmaduke Jopoly (Welles). [This figure appears much later in Buchan's novel, happening to pick him up the fugitive Hannay in the green Daimler Phaeton.] Attracted by the insistent ringing of Hannay's phone, Japoly sees the dead spy, disguised as a woman, through the keyhole, having come up in the early morning to raise Hannay for a trip to Scotland. [In another difference from both the book and movie, during his refuge with Hannay, the American spy Scudder has disguised himself as an officer of the 40th Ghurkas during his refuge with Hannay.]
We "cut" to Hannay (also Welles) boarding the Great Northern Express at St. Pancreas for an escape to Scotland. The scene in the carriage is a wonderful "sound-scape," with the Conductor, a drunken Scot and his dog, a mother (Agnes Moorehead) and her son battling over a lollipop, and the nervous Hannay, who knows that he is wanted for murder, dancing around a newspaper which carries a story about "The Portland Place Murder." The argument is scored with whistles, chugging trains and the barking of a dog. Cut to a screech of train brakes, and the sound of a car careening down a road to crash.
Cut to "Sir Harry (Ray Collins)" and his servant, who have found the unconscious Hannay beside a wrecked green Daimler Phaeton. Over a reviving drink, Hannay tells Sir Harry (flashback) how Nathan Skoda accosted the Canadian mining engineer, sought safety in his flat, told him that a sneak attack on the Home Fleet by the "Black Stone" terrorist group (led by "man with a stammer") would be set up as a result of the assassination on July 14th, five days hence, of the Greek Premier Karolides. [In Buchan's version, it will occur a month earlier, but we may surmise that Welles thought it a nice touch to project the climax on to Bastille Day, since it is the French envoy who bears the disposition of the Fleet .] Skoda pointed out a man in the street below who has been sent to kill him for the information he had gathered in Central Europe.
[In the book, Scudder the spy is an anti-Semite, who blames the plot on the machinations of bankers. In the radio play, there is none of that, but Skoda does say when Hannay agrees to hide him, "You are a white man." That is not in the novel, but it would have been a commonly accepted (racist) compliment in America or England down to the 1960's. It is interesting that Welles, very sensitive to racial matters, did not change the remark. For himself at least, he may have found it provided a quick verbal sketch of Skoda's character.]
Hannay describes how he gave Skoda a bed in his smoking room, and retired to his bedroom, locking the door behind him; how at dawn he rose, smoked a cigarette, found Skoda, disguised as a woman, with a knife pinioning him to the back of a rocking chair. He realizes that he will be blamed for the crime, but before taking flight, he happens to find the black book hidden in his tobacco thermodor. The milkman disguise, which figures both in the novel and the rehearsal version of the play, is eliminated.
Cut to the screeching of the train brakes. Hannay describes how he wandered in the Highlands of Scotland, was observed from a plane and then, by trackers. Cut to his entry into the house of spies, where he had been, more or less, herded into a trap. The head spy (Ray Collins again) locked him in a cellar, but, using his engineering skills, Hannay managed to blow the door off with some gelignite, caps and fuse he found.
[In the rehearsal version, Hannay comes across a road mender, Mr. Turnbull, a wonderfully realized teetotaler in the matter of Scotch Whisky, who has spent the previous day drinking brandy, which explains his willingness to allow Hannay to take his place. (In the novel, Turnbull is something of a major character.) While pretending to be the Scots "navvy," he is met by two of his Black Stone pursuers, who does not recognize him because of his disguise and dialect. The elimination of this entire scene, understandable because the rehearsal must run an hour and fifteen minutes, robs the middle of the play of a wonderful vignette, and of a logical transition to the lair of the Black Stone, which otherwise strains credulity in its abruptness.]
Hannay went on the run again across the Highlands. He came to a tower, which he climbed, and where he took shelter from what appeared to be advancing trackers.
Great clanging of bells!
He realized that he had lost track of the days, the day was Sunday, the men in black were church-goers; the building was an old church. He lay out on a ledge, listening to the service, where he was observed from the monoplane. Soon a green Daimler Phaeton carrying the three Black Stone leaders pulled up in front of the church. Two of the men entered the church, and when it began to rain, the driver left the car unattended, he leapt to the ground, hurting his right arm. He took off in the Daimler.
He remarks that it is difficult to drive with his left hand on the wet road.
Screech -- CRASH!
We are back "in the present," and the recovering Hannay is finishing his story over his whisky and soda. Sir Harry has been convinced of Hannay's innocence, and he is concerned by news of the Black Stone plot. Happily, as all aristocrats in those days seemed to have, Harry has a cousin in the foreign office. He sends a wire and has his servant book a train to Cambridgeshire, where the cousin, Sir Walter Bulevyn has his country home. Hannay will be known by whistling "Annie Lory," and he will give a password.
He comes across Sir Walter at a trout stream. It is a delightful little comic scene, for Sir Walter points to a large trout, and Hannay tells him that it is near "the black stone." They both begin to hum "Annie Lory."
Sir Walter is at first skeptical of the plot. It is already July 14th, he reasons, and no one in Europe would the Greek Premier Karolides dead. Just then, in a moment which only occurred in Radio, a servant hands him a wire announcing the assassination of Karolides. He admits, "There may be a war."
There follows an emergency meeting in London, Hannay in attendance, where Sir William discusses the crisis with Dufure, the French envoy, and the Inner Circle. The meeting ends a bit absurdly (a subtle jibe at phlegmatic quality of British Intelligence, in at least two senses of the word) when Hannay recognizes that one of the Circle, a Lord, is an impostor, in fact the Black Stone leader, the "man with the stammer." As the man escapes, the functionary who knew him best confesses that he was so involved with his own report that he did not pay enough attention to his superior.
The event adds urgency to Hannay's story, and his deduction of the last lines of the little black book, "39 steps at 10:17," leads them to a country house on the coast of Kent, where 39 steps lead down to sea at high tide. A yacht lies out to sea waiting for one of the three Black Stone leaders to take the secret plan to what might later be known, under circumstances, as "the Axis of Evil." Hannay confronts them in a billiards game [an earlier tennis game (in the dress rehearsal) was dropped in the eventual broadcast], and Scotland Yard closes in. One of the men escapes down the steps, the stammering German Intelligence chief shouts: "Das Boot! Das Boot! Ve haf triumphed!" [A passing resemblance to the cry of Dracula in the first production of the series.]
But Hannay has the satisfaction of telling him that "the 'Aurora' has been in our hands since this afternoon."
The play ends with Hannay saying to "Tommy" that in the month since the events, he has been able to take a commission, but he doubts that what he is facing will be more strenuous than what he has just experienced.
Bring up, "It's a Long Way to Tipperaray."
"Signed: August 8, 1914."
I found listening to "39 Steps" again very satisfying, especially listening to the "rehearsal tape" right after. I had that tape for years, but I'm not sure if I had ever listened to it. This time, at any rate, I noticed how Welles (or someone) had changed "Scotch" in reference to Lord Tweedsmuir to "Scots," certainly an important distinction to real Scotsmen at the time; how "Portland Square" was changed to the more colloquial "Portland Place." I was amuse when Welles said, "Cut. I'm missing Page 25"; when he filled in for Eustace Wyatt in the train station scene with, "Eustace Wyatt is not here, Eustace Wyatt is not here." And of course, there were the additions and eliminations in the final live show.
Another thing which impressed me was how there were little cuts, here and there, and I remembered the sound man on The Theater of the Imagination album remarking that, when "air checks" were made, they lasted from five to 15 minutes, which today when recordings can last hours, adds another meaning to the programs from 1938 which we can still listen to.
There are many connections which may be made to Welles (MR. ARKADIN, JOURNEY INTO FEAR, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, THE THIRD MAN, etc.), and to Hitchcock, too (SABOTEUR, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, etc.), not to mention our present situation.
Sorry for going on for so long, for no one else seems very interested in "The 39 Steps."
"Pity, Old Boy . . . . "