Rare B Sides: “The Search for Henri Le Fevre”

[This post is part of a series on literary works deserving of a wider audienOrson-Welles-Show-1941ce.]

What is writing? What is literature? There’s a lot of people asking that question lately, especially after that little prize for Bob Dylan last week. I won’t delve into whether Dylan’s songs are great literature (I’ll save that for another time.) But one thing’s for sure: good writing has never been just about words on a page. It comes in many forms. Great writing can be found in a song or a movie script or a video game. So far, in this blog, I’ve talked about obscure pieces of literature, Rare B Sides, that have moved me. They’ve all had one thing in common: they were pieces meant to be written down on a page. Now, it’s time to take the lens out a bit more. To start throwing in some great writing that wasn’t printed in a book. Today, we start with a radio play.

Now, the radio play—like silent movies—is a literary form whose glory days have (likely) come and gone. And like old films, they need a bit of patience and understanding to go through because the pacing of storytelling is different from what it was in the past. But as they say “time is the best editor” so many of the radio plays that are still listened to and shared are pretty decent. And just like it’s important to preserve and celebrate old books, it’s important to preserve and celebrate old films, music and radio. 

I’ve have had no interest in radio plays up to this point. But I was caught in a big traffic jam back into the DMV on a Sunday night, when I flipped the radio dial to WAMU. Airing that evening was a classic: “The Search for Henri Le Fevre.”

Just like a movie, a radio play requires a small army to work well. But it all begins with a script. And the writer of this script was Lucille Fletcher, who wrote several radio plays including a script that eventually became a Twilight Zone episode. Then, there was the music, written by Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann wrote the scores for several Hitchcock movies. And then there’s the acting talent: starting with Orson Welles and his cognac- and cigar-lacquered voice. It’s hard to think of a richer, more ambient voice than that. It’s as if he was born to do radio. So there you go: a little Twilight Zone, a little Hitchcock and a little Welles all wrapped together. Bring those three talents together (writing, music, acting) and you’ve got an entertaining 30 minutes of radio. 

But what is it about? We’ll here’s the short setup:

A man [Henri Le Fevre as voiced by Welles] who has just finished writing a symphony hears the exact same symphony on the radio…He had just set down the last note on paper, he was happy and weary and full of peace. There was a radio near the couch, he sat down and turned it on and felt great horror as he heard the music playing on the radio, the music that he had just set down on paper.

That sets up the story: we’ve got a plot, character and setting. And something that will keep it all going: How is it that this piece of music which he just wrote down is already being broadcast? Well, Henri has to begin a long, painful journey to try to find out. And when he does it’s not clear if the revelation will bring him peace or destroy him. You’ll have to listen in to find out.

Now, the specific version I heard was the Orson Welles 1946 broadcast for the legendary Mercury Summer Theatre. (There’s an earlier version from 1944). You should be able to access it at the link above. If not, Amazon seems to offer it for sale, if you can’t find it anywhere else. But in my experience you should be able to track it down on YouTube or via Google pretty easily. You’ll be glad you tracked it down, it’s a fun little piece of  literature to listen to.

See you next time,

Darius


If you like radio plays and want to dive deeper, check out WAMU’s Big Broadcast. They play old-time radio plays starting at Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. They even archive the broadcast for a whole week so you can come back to it later. It’s a great way to unwind on a Sunday evening.  As the website says:

Host Murray Horwitz brings listeners shows like Gunsmoke, The Jack Benny Show, The Lone Ranger, Suspense, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Dragnet, placing them in the context of the time and linking the shows to current entertainment and events.

It’s well worth a listen.


Wouldn’t be a Rare B Side post without a Rare B Side: Here’s Jack White running through the old blues classic by Son House, Death Letter Blues. Dig this version.

That Death Letter—Man!
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Thinking Orson Welles

Last week, I strolled into Bookman, a used bookstore I used to frequent back in the day. Thankfully, it hasn’t changed a bit (unlike the lately and dearly departed Acres of Books, a favorite of Ray Bradbury). At any rate, I picked up a number of good books there, including a short biography of Orson Welles the-lady-from-shanghai-orson-wellesby John Russell Taylor.

As a kid of the 80’s, I don’t know much about Welles. I remember being introduced to his work in an album about the Apocalypse, which I now think was an audio recording or soundtrack of the documentary, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. I tell you, for a young kid, listening to Welles recount the prophecies of Nostradamus with all the lights off was creepy stuff.

I have only seen one of his films, Touch of Evil on the recommendation of a friend and it was good as far as it went. But after reading the biography, I’m going to have to make a point about seeking out more of his stuff.

Coming to Hollywood as a young man, he was given total creative control over his first film, Citizen Kane. But after that, things changed (for various reasons, not least Welles’s talent for alienating the people with the money) and Hollywood execs let it be known they wanted more control. Unfazed, he decided he didn’t need the studios. He would just make money as an actor and then roll that into his next independent production in which he would retain creative control. As Taylor notes, it was almost unprecedented at the time.

“…This was Welles’s normal way of financing his own creative ventures, and even then, when he was a very well-known actor much in demand, it seldom worked out very well…in Hollywood in 1942, at the height of the studio-factory system, it was a very eccentric way indeed of proceeding.”

Welles struggled with the same thing most artists do: How do you maintain control over what you create? How do you find the money to allow you to create what you want, how  you want? Orson found his solution: Use the funds from his acting, his voiceover work, hell, even commercials (for wine and frozen peas) to subsidize what he loved to do: make movies.

For me, it’s not that different. I’m not a great actor or pitchman. I have a 9-to-5 job like most of you out there. It’s a fine job and it pays the rent and helps with lots of other things. But most importantly, it gives me the work-life balance I need to put everything aside (including financial worry) every now and then and just write. Every creative person has to find that thing that will support them and allow them to create unhindered, unedited and without constraint. I’m glad Orson found his way and it’s nice just knowing that others out there have had to do the same thing to make ends meet.

What about you? Are you a writer? Or creative type? How do you find the funds to do what you do? Feel free to share in the comments section below.


PS…The Wellesnet website has some great clips of Orson Welles from throughout his career. The site also has a look at the recent celebrations marking 100 years since his birth. See you next time!