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Beyond the Box Office: Panic on the Air (1936), baseball over the radio

A continuing series designed to look a little closer at the intersections of baseball and film history. You can read last week's entry here.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On the afternoon of August 5th, 1921, the first broadcast of a live baseball game was aired from the tower of the nation's "first" radio station, Pittsburgh's KDKA. Major League baseball was 53 years old. Babe Ruth was 26, and had just one year prior, starred in the five-reel comedy Headin' Home, thrown together by the Kessel and Baumann production company in an attempt to cash in on baseball's first truly profitable mega celebrity.

We read about Headin' Home a little bit last week, and you, hopefully at least, watched some of the film. At least clips. If so, think back to how the film formally functions, how it appears aesthetically, and how it navigates from scene to scene or shot to shot. How different, really, is this film from what you watch today? Sure, there are intertitles and no sound. The camera doesn't move very much because cameras used to weigh a bajillion pounds while taking up the space of a model T. The pace is slow and the takes are for the most part long. You're not watching Christopher Nolan cut every two tenths of a second here or anything.


No, here you're going to have many of the formal elements that you see in most Hollywood narrative films still in theaters today. Title cards with the monetized star just as noticeable as the film's name itself. Establishing shots to set locations before moving in closer to navigate space between characters.


There will be somewhat wonky things like irises to navigate your attention--this is before the age of truly mobile cameras mind you--and while you don't really get a modern shot/reverse shot without recorded dialogue, scenes are for the most part constructed just as they are today. I don't even need to tell you what these numbered 1-4 snippets are, because you are already putting them into a linear order in your head, contrasting the meaning of each individual image with what follows in order to create a new meaning out of the two. You did it--you just edited this film in your head and made one Soviet film theorist a very happy man!

So sure, what's new, the Hollywood narrative film as an art form hasn't ultimately changed all that much in around 100 years. Blah blah, that's what we've been rambling about here for the past two weeks on this baseball blog that you thought was actually going to talk about sports and not academic bullshit, what are you trying to pull on me here?

But think back to that first sentence here for a minute.

It seems fair to say that those who saw Headin' Home at Madison Square Garden in October of 1920 were well aware of how to follow a narrative of moving baseball pictures as it had been established through all the other films they had been seeing. But not a single one of them had ever heard a baseball game broadcast over the radio. There was no such thing as play-by-play analysis, no color commentators, hell--if you wanted to follow a baseball team during the year you had two options: go to the game, or read about it in the newspaper the next day. But all that was about to change.

Radio wasn't recorded much in the 1920's, but by the 1930's the practice was starting to be a bit more common. Thankfully, somebody started capturing game recordings from as early as 1934, and you can listen to many of them here. I can only imagine what that first 1921 broadcast sounded like--but note how as early as 1934 we start to get three-line advertisements personally directed to listeners thrown into the play-by-play, just like we have today. Turns out KIRO's got a thirty year head start on ROOT after all.

Now I do not wish to recount the long storied (and much studied) history of baseball broadcasting here. This was supposed to be a film series, after all. But I do think that studying any one media form requires inquiry into the multiple medias that surround it--the history of film would be just as incomplete without radio as it would be without newspapers, pulp magazines, television, and yes, even baseball. And likewise, the history of baseball itself is incomplete without the study of its intersections with radio and film, together, even as one object.

Which brings us to this bizarre film currently streaming on TCM's On Demand site, Watch TCM (by the way--if you have a cable subscription and you haven't checked this website out, drop what you are doing right now and head over to explore that link).

The Film

panic poster

Panic on the Air

56 min. 1936, Columbia Pictures

Directed by D. Ross Lederman

Watch on Watch TCM

This week's film is called Panic on the Air, released in 1936 by Columbia Pictures've probably never heard of it. In fact, Google it. Right now. There are a few database links on the first page--the requisite Wikipedia, IMDb, and the like--but you're already getting into random torrents by the end of the first page, which isn't exactly the best news for its inscription into the annals of art history or anything.


Panic was directed by D. Ross Lederman, a prolific B movie director at Columbia who at his peak was making around seven films a year. That kind of output would be utterly impossible with Hollywood's current economic organization, but back in the days of the studio system's vertical integration, it was quite typical. Today we often think of 'B' movies as bad, low budget messes--the kind of thing you'd throw on the second half of a double feature in the sixties or everything that you find on those awful $9.99 100 TERRIFYING TALES! box sets collected in giant Fred Meyer Electronics section bins. But the reality is they were often havens for intense artistic exploration, as directors took over 'A' movie sets after production had shut down for the night, churning out gangster film, after western, after noir, after whatever else have you.

Sadly, I'm afraid that's not quite the case with Panic on the Air, and I was really hoping for something more interesting when I decided to write on it. In fact even calling it a baseball film is a bit of a stretch--it isn't included in any collected Baseball Filmography book I've scoured (although those are usually terrible anyway), and as I mentioned above, information on the film is pretty scant. But what drew me back to thinking about it afterward was the fact that the film's protagonists are two radio broadcasters, unwittingly caught up in a kidnapping mystery, which yes, is just as absurd as it sounds. It was also, apparently a bit of a trope in detective fiction at the time--a stunningly similar plot line was broadcast as an episode of The Saint in September of 1950:

But yes, back to 1936. Panic opens with Detroit losing the World Series thanks to the odd disappearance of their star pitcher, "Lefty" Dugan. Immediately after, play-by-play announcer Jerry Franklin and his bumbling pal Andy go in search of clues as to his disappearance before ending up in an absurd shootout with the mob, complete with secret numerical codes car chases on the way, and concluding of course with a "dame" in dire need of masculine heroism. Except here it isn't Clark Gable--it's a radio announcer. That's some mystique right there.

Interestingly, the film's opening "World Series" scene is quite obviously culled from stock footage of the 1935 World Series between the Cubs and the Tigers. Note the similarity in the dirt dip below third base and the bullpens--this is obviously old Tiger Stadium (then known as Briggs Stadium) recycled for the film. I bet you any amount of money this was just newsreel footage sitting in some pile that Columbia had cheap and/or free access to. My god, how things have changed on that end.


But what I'm really interested in here is the way the film imagines radio itself as a new technology, both as inscribed into the discourse around sports and entertainment as well as a newfangled narrative device able to gather the interest of spectators headed to the theater each weekend. In all that silly formal analysis of Headin' Home up at the top, it should be clear that by 1920--let alone 1936--radio was actually the incredible new technology after light emulsion onto 24 celluloid squares projected back onto the screen of a darkened theater became old hat.

Where film recorded time to be relived continuously, the airwaves connected discrete places simultaneously like a map folded in on itself. Today you can hardly get a store to pay you to take a cheap plastic AM radio, while in 1928 the Radio Corporation of America had enough capital to start its own movie studio. And as we know, this scared the shit out of Major League Baseball until they realized they could still end up directing it all towards profit.

After we open on this shot of the fictional 1936 World Series (Which, coincidentally did feature the New York Giants), we cut in to two interesting shots of our broadcasting duo of Jerry Franklin and Andy. First, behind the wire protective netting:


Note how the first shot unites both the broadcasters and the spectators in the image. Both the play-by-play team and the audience are here seeing the same thing, together, at the same time, locked in time and space. This is a pretty big deal. By 1936 most Americans living in a major city could hear live broadcasts of their local baseball teams, but the guarantee of liveness was only as good as the audience's faith in its veracity. Often, many early sports broadcasts were entirely recreated in radio studios, churning in synthetic crowd noise and other sound effects while announcers read over a box score hours after the game had ended. This practice was even common knowledge, as Raymond Chandler described this very thing in an offhanded line in 1942's The High Window.

But an image such as the one above suggests something quite different--here the broadcast's claim to an ideology of liveness is only as good as the audience members in the background can attest to. And there they are, seeing the same game, in the same time as Jerry and Andy. The suggestion is simple: radio's power lies not simply in its ability to recreate a game hours after the fact in a studio, but in its ability to link the gaze of the spectators at the ballpark to the ears of the listening audience back home, through the placement of the play-by-play announcer. This may be simply a recreation in a Hollywood B movie, but it says a lot about radio's insistence on guaranteeing itself as a medium of live interconnectivity.

After the game ends, we cut to a medium shot while Jerry and Andy speculate on the whereabouts of "Lefty" Dugan after the end of the game.


I love that Andy here is just chowing down on this huge sandwich. I mean, baseball games are long as hell, and I know Rizzs and Goldsmith trade sets of innings for probably this very reason alone. But note also the typewriter sitting in the frame, unused, just staring back at you as if to give Jerry some sort of deeper claim to journalistic bravado. By the film's conclusion, he's running up smoke-filled stairs shooting at gangsters who had taken out a bet on Lefty--but Lederman seems to want to suggest that it is precisely Jerry's ability to move through the airwaves, both in word and in sound, that gives him the power to confront those gol'durn crooks and save the day.

The rest of the film is pretty terrible, and I don't want to spend too much time dwelling on things which would only get us sidetracked. By the end, Jerry gets tied up in some baddie's hideout, keeping him away from broadcasting, essentially, the identity and location of the gangsters over the airwaves. Thankfully for Columbia, the film gives us the shootout they thought audiences surely desired to see. But the climax of the film comes earlier, when Jerry escapes his shackles, rushes to a phone, and broadcasts the damning information over a telephone hookup to his radio station.


In short, what saves the day is this fascinating and wonderful and magical and new thing called The Airwaves. They can bring you a live baseball game, bring you a boxing match, and they can even solve a cold-blooded murder. In fact, by this point, that fascinating and wonderful cinematic mechanism that brought us Headin' Home is just the commonplace vehicle by which some mystery story can ruminate on an even more interesting technological achievement of modernity.

This, of course, will get complicated with the arrival of television. But it's important to note that the basic technology of television existed even as of the opening of Panic on the Air. Analog television broadcasts were sent out over radio waves, and it was the construction of an infrastructural apparatus which was required to bring millions of Americans the image of Willie Mays catching that fly ball in the 1954 World Series, not any technological limitations. And by the decade's end, you know to what end productive labor was directed towards.

And yet, I wonder, how important it was to guarantee this ideology of liveness in something as simple as an opening shot of two fictional radio broadcasters in a B movie from 1936. How important was that to soothe the notion of what broadcast radio was, or what it could be? How important was that to Major League Baseball itself, in determining exactly how to proceed with a technology not concerned with recording but with transmitting its entertainment product? What can it tell us about MLBAM's draconian GIF policy, or the fact that it took them until this year to allow team-specific streaming packages?

Those are all huge questions which would require about one hundred more of these, and I promise not to subject you to that--at least yet. Until then, go watch this silly movie, listen to some of these radio broadcasts, and once again, realize that it really wasn't all that different back in 1920, 1936, yesterday.