Film - What If? Radioland Murders

Radioland Murders

Steve Taylor-Bryant takes his cue from Disney and turns his attention to re-imagining a Lucasfilm classic for this What If...

It's been quite an exciting time for George Lucas devotees since the Disney acquisition of his film company in 2012. The first of a slate of new Star Wars films is out soon and, if the trailer is anything to go by, will see the franchise back at the forefront of science fiction and, in the last week or so, Lucasfilm President, Kathleen Kennedy (erstwhile producer extraordinaire) announced that discussion had begun on the long awaited Indiana Jones reboot. So now is a great time to have another attempt at a Lucasfilm reimagining.

You all scoffed when I wanted a Joss Whedon directed Indy starring Scott Speedman and laughed when I asked for Duncan Jones and Jake Gyllenhaal to make a Han Solo origin film so it's obvious that I shouldn't be allowed near the Crown Jewels of Disney's new projects.  Therefore let's have a pop at a forgotten gem shall we? Radioland Murders!

Radioland was a whodunit in the style of Clue but better, with a phenomenal cast and a British director who had comedy flowing through his veins. George Lucas' story was written for the screen by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz but was brought to the big screen by Mel Smith, a stalwart of comedy in the United Kingdom throughout my formative years with Not the 9 o'Clock News, Alas Smith and Jones, and Filthy, Rich and Catflap, whilst his directorial efforts included The Tall Guy, Bean and the incredibly underrated Blackball. Smith sadly passed away a couple of years ago and will be hard to replace, so we'll get to that later in the article.

Radioland Murders was set in 1939 and WBN, a fourth national radio network, was about to debut across the United States.  The story revolves mainly around the owner's secretary, Penny Henderson, who is dealing with the confusion a badly run network produces, an overbearing boss, a sponsor up in arms, a soon to be ex-husband that won't go away, writers that haven't been paid, a disgruntled cast, a nutcase of a director and a mysterious voice that hijacks the debut before people start dropping dead. Penny's soon to be ex, Roger, investigates whilst the police who suspect him chase him through the corridors of WBN.

Radioland 2

Each performance was vital to the plot, each performer was top drawer and it all led to wild hysterical laughter and a fast paced story with Smith directing a wonderful ensemble piece that in any other decade would have been rightly lauded, the 1990's however were not kind to slapstick humour of any kind. Stars of small and big screen came together and made a simple yet mad premise really work. Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future), Ned Beatty (Superman), the wonderful George Burns (Oh, God) and Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent) all helped as Brian Benben (Dream On) played Roger opposite Mary Stuart Masterson's (Benny and Joon) sublime portrayal of Penny. As I write this, I watch the film again wondering why I'm even bothering as it's a perfect, off the wall comedy, but I'm half way through the article now so may as well finish.

Each cast member was an exponent of comedic timing and I genuinely don't think we have a generation of actors that good anymore, I mean who the hell replaces George Burns? We live in a era where Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughan and Will Ferrel are our go to comics and I really think Radioland Murders would lose something if the obvious were cast so I'm going to pick some A list actors that, whilst not best known for their comedy, are funny when it's needed and could command respect within a large ensemble. There's also a comeback for one of the original cast but in a different character.

Roger will be played by the very talented and very funny George Clooney, who can produce both calm one liners like in Oceans 11 or a bit of madness as he did in The Men Who Stare at Goats. Alongside Clooney, as the wife and secretary and glue that holds the whole thing together, will be Meryl Streep, who I wish I'd been a fan of many years ago so I wouldn't be mainlining her entire back catalogue now. Streep has the gravitas and authority to command the cast and the ability to play any role to pretty much Oscar winning standard so this should be electric comedy with her at the forefront. The short tempered policeman that hates Roger and wants him out of the way needs an actor somewhere near the level of the leads in talent with the ability to pull the wings off wasps in a split second as he is foiled at every turn so who else could I cast but John Malkovitch! General Walt Whalen, who runs the company with a military authority but is not liked by anyone, sees the return of an original cast member as I promote Christopher Lloyd from bit part star to main cast. Bernie King is the sponsor with no sense of humour who eventually dies by laughing gas and so a serious actor who has the ability to keep a straight face is needed. Step forward Mr Morgan Freeman. Other characters that need filling as a matter of urgency are WBN Announcer Dexter Morris, the chain smoking know it all that never listens and, for this part, I return to previous Lucasfilm efforts and draft in Harrison Ford. For my final cast member, I could really do all 103 but have to stop somewhere, Wild Writer, originally played by Bobcat Goldthwait, the violent and depressed, put upon scriptwriter will, in this production, be played by an actor I never thought I'd want to cast in anything, Russell Crowe.

Now we have our core cast, it is the writing and directing I must turn my attention to. Scriptwise there is not a lot wrong with the original. The Lucas story, however, was written in the 1970's and lost in a development black hole for 20 years so, even though it's based in the 1930's, it is still a little dated. I'd get master of dialogue and user of many words, Aaron Sorkin, to just tidy the original. It doesn't need a complete rewrite just some tweaking in a Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip sort of style.

Directionwise it is difficult for me, as Mel Smith is a huge part of who I am such was his influence on pop culture during my life. I again don't want to take the obvious route with a comedic director like Mel Brooks or the like, more a director that can handle the ensemble I have put together and let them take the Sorkin/Lucas hybrid wherever it needs to go. Let's take a moment to think "who has done it all? Worked with great scripts? Different film styles? Ensembles of Hollywood gold?"

Yes, I went for Steven Soderbergh as well.

Images - Amazon & Universal