Period film: Radioland Murders (1994)

The year is 1939, and Chicago’s brand new WBN radio network is about to go on air for the first time.

(Image: Cinema Passion)

(Image: Cinema Passion)

As premiere night begins, assistant director Penny Henderson must contend with a stressed out station owner, an unhappy sponsor, angrily over-worked script writers and a number of other frustrating problems that come with the territory of working in media.

But things are about to get even crazier at WBN. On top of the plethora of professional and personal dramas that are carrying themselves out backstage at the station, a trumpet player named Ruffles Reedy turns up dead in the studio, killed by rat poisoning. More deaths begin to occur at the station, and everyone frantically tries to solve the mysterious deaths while the night’s radio program moves along. The show must go on, no matter what happens!

Mel Smith directs Radioland Murders, a period mystery-comedy released in 1994. The film was co-written and produced by George Lucas, who originally began developing the film in the 1970s. Steve Martin and Cindy Williams had been approached to star, but the plans never came together. The film was trapped in “development hell.” In 1993, Lucas was finally able to get the film made, with the help of a re-write and promise to keep the budget relatively low. In the end, the studio’s worries were valid: the film bombed at the box office and with critics.

But the film didn’t bomb here at TMP!

Radioland Murders has a really fun cast full of familiar faces. Mary Stuart Masterson (Benny & Joon) stars as Penny Henderson. Ned Beatty (Network, Nashville) appears as Walt, the owner of WBN, and Jeffrey Tambor stars as his son who directs the show. Christopher Lloyd appears as a sound engineer. Peter MacNicol (who played my favorite TV lawyer, The Biscuit, on Ally McBeal) portrays one of the show’s writers. George Burns makes a cameo as a 100-year-old comedian in his final feature film role, and Rosemary Clooney makes a cameo as — what else? — a radio singer!

Seeing all of these wonderful people in any film together would be delightful, but to see them in a period film of this type is even more enjoyable. Radioland Murders is an homage not only to classic radio programs but also to the mystery/comedy B-movies of yesteryear. Blending music with light, humorous mystery plots was incredibly common, particularly in the 1940s. I’ve seen many films of this type, and they’re often very fun. (Up in the Air is one example from 1940.) George Lucas is said to have conceived the story as in tribute to Abbot and Costello’s mystery-comedies in particular.

Some of the comedy is over-the-top to the point of seeming too contrived, but for the most part the humor is successful and a lot of fun to watch. It’s like an extra-campy version of the past, pulling out all of the cheesiest aspects of radio in the ’30s and exaggerating them. Dark comedy and slapstick fill every scene, and since these are two of my favorite genres of comedy, I found myself laughing quite a bit.

Roger Ebert said of the film, “The slapstick starts so soon and lasts so long that we don’t have an opportunity to meet or care about the characters in a way that would make their actions funny.” While I agree with Ebert’s assertion that the characters could have been fleshed out more, the film was still very funny to me.

Even the film's promotional materials are in the style of the past! (Image: Classic Star Pictures)

Even the film’s promotional materials are in the style of the past! (Image: Classic Star Pictures)

I enjoyed it for its attempt to pay tribute to the past, and I felt that many of the gags were successful. It’s incredibly zany, and I can see how it may come off as a try-hard effort to some… but just as with the 1997 slapstick-filled Mousehunt, I can’t help but love it.

In terms of truly capturing the period in which it is set, Radioland Murders is certainly a very stylish film. A lot of digital work was done to keep the budget from shooting sky-high, and this does keep some of the film’s sets from looking completely authentic. The digital work is very well-done but lends a somewhat cartoonish look at times. Still, this works for the film in a way, considering the exaggeration that appears in the script as well.

Radioland Murders is a fast-paced and highly enjoyable piece of nostalgic cinema. It isn’t a film that will appeal to everyone — not even to every fan of mystery/comedy or slapstick — but for those of us who appreciate this type of exaggerated homage to the past, it’s a wonderful watch. The score: 4/5

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