So once again we have survived.

Radioland Murders

tn_radiolandlucasminusstarwarsRADIOLAND MURDERS is a retro comedy, a madcap murder mystery taking place in 1939 as a Chicago radio station has a gala live broadcast performed in front of an audience and a room full of big shot affiliates waiting to be impressed. There’s a big band and actors doing adventure shows and commercials while the writers, directors and sound engineers scramble to have something on the air after the boss just tossed out all of their scripts. Meanwhile, writer Roger (Brian Benben, I COME IN PEACE) is pathetically trying to woo back his wife Penny (Mary Stuart Masterson, GARDENS OF STONE), who thinks he cheated on her. It was a misunderstanding, but he’s too much of a doofus to make her understand.

And then he becomes the #1 suspect when people in the station start turning up dead. So he has to avoid the police, solve the mystery, convince his wife and finish some scripts. Kind of a rough day for him.

The DVD cover brags about an “All star cast!,” which is stretching it, but the huge ensemble cast does include an impressive lineup of character actors, some of them better known now than they were then. You also got Ned Beatty, Brion James (BLADE RUNNER, 48 HOURS), Michael Lerner (MANIAC COP 2), Michael McKean, Jeffrey Tambor, Stephen Tobolowsky, Christopher Lloyd, Larry Miller (FOODFIGHT!), Corbin Bernsen, Bobcat Goldthwait, Dylan Baker, Robert Klein and Harvey Korman (The Star Wars Holiday Special). Candy Clark and Bo Hopkins of the AMERICAN GRAFFITI saga show up together. Since there’s sort of a variety show going on at the center of it there are appearances by Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, Joey Lawrence (as a dreamy crooner) and even Billy Barty (WILLOW). Also Gary Anthony Williams, the voice of Uncle Ruckus on The Boondocks, made his first movie appearance.

It’s alot of rapid fire banter and running around, people getting hit by doors and dropping things, lots of music being performed, with Michael McKean conducting (he seemed to be hired for his musical background more than his acting). The occasional set-pieces are designed around the features of the radio station: death by crushing in rotating stage, chase across the exterior of the building, with the WGN letters breaking and dangling, climbing up the radio tower like it’s the end of a monster movie.

mp_radiolandThis was an abysmally reviewed movie, and I partly get why, because I had one big problem with it: it has constant jokes, but I didn’t laugh out loud very much. Still, I was happy not to hate it. Aside from a few manic physical bits from Benben it’s not a grating type of unfunny, and lots of it is kinda cute. One part I did think was funny is the scene where police can’t stop laughing at the scene of a murder-by-laughing-gas. I also liked Dylan Baker’s occasional lines as the dumb partner to investigating Lieutenant Cross (Michael Lerner), who doesn’t realize that he never has anything valuable to contribute. And of course there’s something a little contagious about this type of period piece that drips with admiration for the music, fashion, architecture, language, pop culture and acting styles of a specific period.

Of course, it wasn’t exactly a great time. Early in the movie you see the writers’ room, and there’s one black woman there, but she seems to be… you know, the help. Her name is Morgana (Leighann Lord, comedian and more recently a co-host of Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson) and she’s the only black character in the movie besides some of the performing musicians. I was kinda torn about how they should treat race in a period piece like this. Having the black actors only be able to play roles like this seems degrading (see: “Burn Hollywood Burn,” Public Enemy, 1990). But if they were to have black characters working in the station not as janitors, pretending like they could’ve been treated more respectfully at that time, would kinda be letting white society off the hook. And if they wanted to avoid both problems all together that would just mean another all-white cast.

I think Lucas and friends recognized these issues, and the movie has another thing up its sleeve. It knows that Morgana should have a better job than this, so when the idiot writers are stuck she keeps giving them the solutions. She also helps with solving the mystery. She even gives tips to the Foley artist Zoltan (Christopher Lloyd): try smashing a honeydew instead of watermelon for your murder sounds.

Morgana is clearly smarter than all of these doofuses, and arguably the only speaking character who’s not a buffoon or a psycho. She could be better at most of their jobs than them, and these assholes probly even know it, but they still have her cleaning the bathrooms. This is not lost on the movie. I respect it for making that point.

Speaking of uncomfortable racial stuff, you know who could’ve knocked this one out of the park? The Coen Brothers. It actually reminds me of HUDSUCKER PROXY, which they were working on at that time, and a little bit of their disowned Sam Raimi movie CRIMEWAVE (which also had Brion James in it). It actually has a pretty witty script with some good lines, but they would’ve known how to time it better I think. Lucas tried to hire a comedy director, and went with Mel Smith (THE TALL GUY, BEAN), known for his long-running comedy show Alas Smith & Jones. But Smith later passed the buck, allegedly telling the Daily Mail “George doesn’t understand comedy, so the movie flopped.” I don’t know if that means Lucas interfered with the directing of the movie or that his lack of comedy knowledge prevented him from hiring someone funnier to direct.

One part that is timed pretty good is when the killer says “But I never meant to frame Roger. It’s just that he made it so damn easy.” And then it cuts to this shot of Roger:

still_radioland

It’s a little odd too, because normally the joke would be to say something about how great Roger is and then cut to him being a jackass. In this case it’s the bad guy insulting the hero and then the movie making us admit, “Yeah, I guess we can’t argue with that.”

still_radioland3Like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and WILLOW this is a project that had been in Lucas’s brain since early in his career. He originally set it up for himself to direct at Universal after AMERICAN GRAFFITI, with a script by the same team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (based on his treatment). He was still hoping to do it in the late ’70s, at which point it might’ve starred Steve Martin and Cindy Williams. It finally happened in the ’90s because of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and its demonstration of ILM’s digital mattes and compositing and shit, which could bring the budget down considerably. He used a bunch of the Young Indy team, including producer Rick McCallum, composer Joel McNeely, costume designer Peggy Farrell, second unit director Vic Armstrong, stunt coordinator Leon Delaney, choreographer Jennifer Hammond-Moranz, and special effects coordinator David Beavis. Cinematographer David Tattersall, production designer Gavin Bocquet and art director Peter Russell had also all done Young Indy and would continue on to the STAR WARS prequels.

So this is from the same writing team as AMERICAN GRAFFITI (as rewritten by Moonlighting and Duckman writers Jeff Reno & Ron Osborn), but it’s a way broader comedy. I suppose it has in common with it that it switches between several characters, takes place over one night, and looks nostalgically at the style and music of a certain time period. Just as GRAFFITI hints at Vietnam and the turmoil that would soon take away the innocence of these characters, RADIOLAND has a warning at the end that television is coming to take over this whole industry. While this phantom menace is killing off radio people, television is getting ready to kill off radio.

Fittingly, RADIOLAND itself was a warning that digital technology was on its way. But from watching it I never would’ve guessed that it was a landmark in digital filmmaking. Other than the handful of exterior scenes (like the bi-plane attacking as they climb the tower) I didn’t even notice any special effects. But I saw an interview where Lucas said it had around 100 effects shots and that that was more than JURASSIC PARK.

There are connections to earlier Lucasfilm works. The opening shot visually references STAR WARS as it pans down the radio tower against the starry sky, making it look like a spaceship. At the end, Roger does a Han Solo style “I know,” but gets chewed out for it. SPOILER: The solution to the mystery strongly mirrors the Young Indiana Jones episode about Edison’s electric car. A mild-mannered inventor feels his creation was stolen by the company, and he wants revenge. I wonder if Lucas is relating to the inventor, or if he’s afraid of people in his company feeling he’s taking credit for their innovations? Either one would point to tensions that I haven’t heard about existing in Lucasfilm or ILM. Maybe it’s just a trope he likes.

As with CAPTAIN EO and other Lucasfilm productions, Lucas was reportedly unhappy with what was filmed and oversaw the rejiggering. According to actress Leighann Lord, who played Morgana:

“I did it; flew home and got the call a couple of months later to come back because George was not
happy with some of the scenes…George re-did some of the scenes personally. There were even
scenes I had originally done. They put me in some other stuff. And he is very persistent, very
demanding – he knows what he wants it; how he wants it and why didn’t it happen already.”

But I think from Lucas’s perspective this isn’t a matter of trying to rescue a movie that’s not working (like John Carpenter’s reshoots on THE FOG and HALLOWEEN II) but an intentional part of his process. At a press conference for the movie he said, “Not only are we using digital technology, one of the things we’ve pioneered in the TV series, something that I’ve used in my productions ever since the beginning of when I started making movies, was a more non-linear way of making films. Which is that normally you write the film, you prep the film, you shoot the film, you do the sound on the film and everything is laid out on an assembly line. And I’ve never been comfortable with that. Because I’m a writer-director-editor-producer, I’m very much more comfortable working in the medium the way a painter or a sculptor or somebody would. You don’t start in one corner and just work down to the bottom of the page. You basically put on a layer, then put on another layer, then you step back and look at it and put on another layer. And that’s what we’ve been doing in the filmmaking process.”

Of course, the logical conclusion of this philosophy is Lucas’s brutally unpopular decisions to alter THX 1138, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the STAR WARS movies after we’ve already seen them. At that point we’re happy and don’t want him to “step back and look at it and put on another layer.” I think we’re pretty unanimous on that. But it’s not up to us.

In that same press conference, Lucas discussed both his intention to do STAR WARS prequels and his feeling that the computer technology he’d been playing with would “change the whole process of making films.”

“It’s an outgrowth of what we’ve been doing for the last five years in television and we were very anxious to sort of move the process over to the feature film medium, which is a much higher resolution.”

Considering Lucas’s pattern of being ahead of the technological curve, he may have foreseen the upcoming ubiquity of the internet, but I doubt he expected the tidal wave of bile and negativity building up behind the dam of the upcoming prequels. If he’d been reading the letters page of Cinefantastique Magazine in 1995 he might’ve seen an omen of the coming age in which entitled fans consider themselves aggrieved consumers with a divine right to loudly and constantly make demands from artists:

prequels-cinefantastique

I’m not sure Lucas ever gave the public apology for creating movies on his own schedule, but his plans did happen to coincide with the demands of the jerked around legion. In 1999 Lucas and much of the RADIOLAND team unveiled THE PHANTOM MENACE, expanding the canvas of the STAR WARS universe using technology evolved from what they’d done over several years of Young Indiana Jones and RADIOLAND MURDERS, and indulging in Lucas’s life long obsessions with car races, dog fights, mythological archetypes and the corruption of innocence and systems.

So there you go, Jim. You got what you asked for. Are yousa happy now?

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, February 8th, 2016 at 1:12 pm and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Mystery, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Radioland Murders”

  1. I bought a used VHS of RADIOLAND MURDERS ages ago but have still not gotten around to watching it.

    I couldn’t resist the urge to google Mr. Guyer to see where he is now, and it turns out he’s written a couple sci-fi novels: http://www.amazon.com/Jim-Patrick-Guyer/e/B00BCM64P0

  2. Dang, Vern. That last line was cold, man.

  3. I watched it for the first time just a few months ago, when it unexpectedly popped up on pay TV. I immediately fell in love with it. Yeah, the scattershot 1-joke-every-10-seconds approach seems to be a kinda controversial one these days*, but I grew up on old Slapstick movies and of course those wildly absurd cartoons from the 90s (Mostly presented by the director of another favourite movie of mine, which was called 1941.), so of course this was right up my alley.

    My favourite “how to treat black people in a period movie” joke, btw, was the one with the radio play about the “boy from the jungle” or whatever it was called. That is the kind of joke, that isn’t exactly subtle, but is performed so casually, that it goes over several people’s head.

    *It must be said that I am not a fan of FAMILY GUY or anything else by Seth McFarlane (Not counting the stuff he made when he was just a writer/animator for Cartoon Network shows like JOHNNY BRAVO), but man, since SOUTH PARK had this CARTOON WARS episode, everybody talks about how jokes are not allowed to be random and need a build up and should evolve from the situation and blablabla. But come on, if someone hears a funny joke, nobody would ask “Well, why did this guy walk into a bar? Where does he come from? What did he do before he decided to walk into a bar?”

  4. That Cinefantastique letter is an incredible find, but I actually think the title to Guyer’s sequel to Rabbit in a Bottle is even more amazing: Rabbit in a Bottle II: Mouse in a Bottle. (But to give credit where credit is due, both books are well reviewed).

    I hunted down this film as a kid, because it had Lucas’s name on it and because I like the time period. I don’t remember too much, except thinking that the biplane at the end was a little too much. I think I mostly enjoyed it.

  5. I like this movie, but I’m a sucker for Brian Benben.

    Oh man, that letter sums up how I feel about all these whiny little lazybones who never made a thing in their life that didn’t come out of a box with instructions. You think because you sat on your ass and watched a movie 100 times you own it? Fuck that. You ain’t an artist. My man E-Double knows what you are.

    EPMD - You're A Customer

    EPMD - You're A Customer [Strictly Business]

  6. I remember one of those giant Industrial Light and Magic hardcover books had a ton of stuff on the visual effects work for this film. As a kid I was slightly baffled, “What the hell is Radioland Murders?”

    It’s always interesting reading about Lucas’s theories regarding filmmaking. It reminds me a lot of the process of making animated films, where you’re constantly reworking your film at every stage of production. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend “The Making of Revenge of the Sith” by JW Rinzler, which is a fascinating look at the day-to-day process of creating the film.

  7. Republican Cloth Coat

    February 8th, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    Confirmation. It’s fresh.

  8. Crushinator Jones

    February 8th, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    “I like this movie, but I’m a sucker for Brian Benben.”

    Me too! I was hoping they would cast him in one of those dang Marvel Netflix shows or one of those Amazon Originals or Starz Exclusives or whatever. That man belongs on premium cable.

  9. DREAM ON was one of the greatest shows of all time. I’ve always wanted to see Brian Benben and Scott Bakula play brothers.

  10. I’ve always loved this one, but I have a strange affinity for off-kilter modern takes on old screwball comedies, like CRIMEWAVE, or David Lynch’s short lived tv show ON THE AIR. I also love Brian Benben, he’s dead on playing a bumbling but genuinely likable schmuck. My favorite part is when Benben is disguised as a telegram delivery man or something trying to give his wife a message and he uses a kind of Muppet voice to tell her “It might be important.” My wife and I use that line every time we’re subtly trying to get each others attention. No one ever gets it, but it cracks us up.

  11. I saw this movie when it was new on video, and I think I liked it more or less. One thing is certain: I didn’t hate it!!

    I was reminded of this movie fairly recently, not by Vern’s Lucas series, but by the trailer for The Coen Brothers’ HAIL CAESAR. The Coen Bros have mined similar territory a number of times, but this new one seems most like RADIOLAND. I plan on seeing it this week, and if I actually remembered anything about RADIOLAND I could compare the two!

    Also, speaking of foggy memory, there are scenes and characters I am not sure if they are from this movie, or David Lynch’s similarly themed ON THE AIR. I plan on watching that again sometime soon…something tells me I will like it a little more this time around. The feel of that particular show, while homaging the past, I am pretty sure was very ahead of its time. There is something very ADULT SWIM-ish about my memory of it.

    I think Lucas’ version of these type of antics probably aged well. A lot of really poorly reviewed movies fare a lot better when taken away from any expectations at the time, as well as direct comparisons to movies of their year/era.

    Oh, that Jim Patrick Guyer guy sounds like a real jerk. Exactly the kind of schmuck who gives fans a bad name. Great find going back that far though… Hope he takes a flying fuck through a rolling doughnut!

  12. “Of course, the logical conclusion of this philosophy is Lucas’s brutally unpopular decisions to alter THX 1138”

    That’s one of his “special editions” I didn’t mind at all. Those changes didn’t bother me for some reason.

    Plus…masturbating robot pump!

  13. Sometimes the mind play tricks on us, all through this review I was thinking of Woody Allen’s RADIO DAYS and couldn’t for the life of me remember the stuff Vern was talking about. I’ve seen – and liked – both movies, but obviously have to revisit them.

    Vern, isn’t there a WHO FRAMED ROGER (RABBIT) link/joke in there somewhere?

  14. The Original Paul

    February 9th, 2016 at 7:42 am

    A retro pre-2nd-World-War murder mystery comedy? Sounds like my jam. (Yes, I know I have a really weirdly specific jam.) Don’t know why I haven’t heard of this one. If I ever come across it I’ll check it out anyway.

  15. ALAS SMITH & JONES was a pretty big deal in the UK, although it’s one of those things which weirdly seemed to instantly go from very popular to somewhat obscure the second it finished, until Smith died a few years ago and there was a brief resurgence of interest (still no proper DVD release though). As someone who conveniently got into it at the point it fell into obscurity I always wanted to check RADIOLAND MURDERS out, but I never got round to it, there was a VHS copy in a second hand shop I used to frequent but never gave in to.

    He was a naturally very funny performer (though by all accounts Jones did the heavy lifting behind the scenes) but I’m not sure he was much cop as a director, though I did like BEAN when I was 10. BLACKBALL (weirdly released as a NATIONAL LAMPOON film in the US) came out as I started Sixth Form and I remember wishing I could see that when I was dragged to JEEPERS CREEPERS 2; seemed like much less of a disappointment when I caught it on DVD the following summer.

    Smith and Jones did a couple of films together. MORONS FROM OUTER SPACE received reviews which included “die before than see this film” but I have a soft spot for it, though on my last viewing I had to admit it was pretty ropey. WILT is a lot better.

    Interesting that he thought “the last two STAR WARS” films were terrible and relied on too much CGI. From that I can only infer that he liked THE PHANTOM MENACE. I wonder if he was invited to the premier? Or stayed on Lucas’s Christmas Card list?

  16. I hate to say it, Vern, but I think you ought to include the documentary THE PEOPLE VS GEORGE LUCAS (2010) in this series. Obviously it IS about STAR WARS, and a lot of it is exactly what you think, just “INTERNET: THE MOVIE” where nerdy fanboys bitch about Lucas. But as it goes along, something kind of revealing happens. It becomes more a film about a generational divide regarding the nature of art itself, and the proper relationship between art’s creators and its viewers, and those who occupy kind of a nebulous space between those roles. It also interestingly touches on the way fans from different cultures can be equally rabid, but filtered through the distinct cultural traditions they come from.

    I know this series is supposed to be about Lucas minus his most definitive work, but I think the most interesting strands to come from it have to do with Lucas himself, and how he thinks about his work, which is ultimately the topic of TPVGL as well. As much as I know you’d rather do almost anything than watch a movie about middle-aged nerds complaining about STAR WARS, thematically it might be the perfect way to tie everything together.

  17. I swear to God, I thought ALAS SMITH AND JONES was a typo and you meant ALIAS SMITH AND JONES, which was a western TV show from the 70s. I had a little old lady who lived next door to me growing up and she was like a grandma to me. I would go over to visit and we’d watch whatever western re-run she could find on TV. I’ve seen them all. So, when you said this was directed by the guy who did ALAS SMITH AND JONES (and I thought it was ALIAS SMITH AND JONES) I thought that was super random and weird. Glad I didn’t try to correct you and make a joke out of it.

    As for the movie, I know I saw it when it came out on video, but don’t remember a single thing about it. I love things set in this timeframe – all those things you mention, music, costume, set design, architecture, etc. In theory. In reality, not so much. You know, the rampant misogyny, racism and polio. I’ll have to give it another viewing.

  18. The Original Paul

    February 9th, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    Oh wait, that Mel Smith? I had no idea that he’d had anything to do with Lucas. I remember that he died in 2013 – I mentioned it here – as it was something of a personal hit for me; I’d been watching SMITH AND JONES basically since I was a baby (my parents were fans).

  19. I never even heard of this movie until I bought the Drew Struzan artbook 5 years ago which contained some pretty rad poster art he did for this movie (none of which was actually used for the final poster of course), but I have a pretty strong fascination with the culture and aesthetics of America from about the mid to late 30’s on through the late 50’s, so I love movies like WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (which is probably what started my fascination), THE HUDSUCKER PROXY and CRIMEWAVE, so I guess I should check this movie out as well, it’s also for these same reasons that Bioshock is one of my all time favorite video games.

    CRIMEWAVE especially is a movie I’m fond of, I mean it’s a damn Sam Raimi directed Coen Brothers movie and yet almost no one on Earth has any idea it exists, that obscurity level is fascinating in of itself, but while the movie is a little rough around the edges it’s still pretty amusing, I love the scene where Louise Lasser runs down the cartoon like hallways of doors, it’s perfectly surreal.

  20. Knew I recognized Mel Smith from that pic. British receptionist in European Vacation!

    “Big Ben…Parliament.”

  21. I unabashedly love this movie. Easily in my Top 20 Comedies, at least. When I finally got a debit card last year, a DVD of this was one of the first things I bought off the internet. But Dream On was my Sex Ed as a kid, so I’m always pulling for Brian Benben. And Vern, dude, c’mon- George fuckin’ Burns is in this movie. It’s got an all-star cast, hands down class. I usually hate musical interludes in movies, but the way this one was cut made them a blast, especially Mike McKean’s Spike Jones routine (If you don’t know Spike Jones [not the director], look him up on Youtube immediately. Basically the ’40 Weird Al. Fun Fact: Sigourney Weaver’s Uncle ‘Doodles’ Weaver was part of his band). I love Joey Lawrence’s crooner act, complete with swooning teens. I love that Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney’s Aunt) gets one last chance to shine. I love that the whole movie is a metaphor for the then-nascent Fox TV network, which had just shown up in my small Arkansas town. Curt, pull out your VHS and watch this movie posthaste.

    Favorite exchange (that immediately jumps to mind):

    Brian Benben: I didn’t do anything!
    Mary Stuart Masterson: Roger, you’ve gotta try harder than that.
    Brian Benben: I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING.

    Radioland Murders Trailer 1994

    Radioland Murders Trailer 1994 Director: Mel Smith Starring: Brian Benben, Christopher Lloyd, George Burns, Mary Stuart Masterson, Michael McKean, Ned Beatty...

  22. Quint over at aicn posted pictures from the Universal coming attractions book for 1974. This is a poster for this movie from before 1974. Could you imagine if he would have made this instead of Star Wars? I couldn’t just do the picture so I linked you. It also has an awesome Jaws promo art as well.

    Take a rare look back at Universal's 1974 slate, which includes unmade movies & rare production art!

    From George Lucas' Radioland Murders to Alan J. Pakula's One More Song, this oddity showcases movies that never happened as well as early production art for Steven Spielberg's Jaws!

  23. Yeah, judging by the poster it seemed like this was supposed to be a serious murder mystery. I love the version we got, but I’m curious what the 70s version would have been like.

  24. Those promo pictures are amazing. There’s something about movie posters from the 70s that’s absolutely infectious. And that Clearwater movie looks like it would have been amazing if they had actually made it.

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