Radioland Murders (1994) was one of George Lucas’ rare forays outside of the Star Wars universe and like others (Willow and Howard the Duck) it was a critical and commercial failure. Lucas seemed to be following in the footsteps of Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987) by paying homage to the heyday of radio in the 1930s before television and when it was the source of news and entertainment for millions of Americans. It was a time when The Shadow captured people’s imaginations and Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast fooled thousands into believing we were actually being attacked by Martians. It is the twilight of this era that Lucas’ film depicts.
It’s 1939 on the night that WBN radio goes nationwide and the whole station is abuzz with activity. Roger Henderson (Brian Benben) is the head writer and his wife Penny (Mary Stuart Masterson) is an assistant to the director (Jeffrey Tambor). They are forced to deal with an unhappy sponsor who doesn’t like the scripts, unhappy writers who don’t like their working conditions, and unhappy actors with inflated egos. As if that wasn’t bad enough, during the opening musical number the orchestra’s trumpeter dies from a heart attack.
Soon, the station’s director turns up dead as well from an apparent suicide. However, it is revealed that both deaths are actually murders. Radioland Murders starts off as a farcical comedy and gradually mutates into a classical whodunit with no shortage of suspects and with the Hendersons out to solve the case while keeping the radio show going. Roger and Penny are married but their union is in big trouble because she caught him with another woman (the star of the station’s radio programs no less) and hasn’t forgiven him while he claims that nothing happened. To make matters worse, Roger ends up becoming one of the primary suspects and has to rush to clear his name.
Mary Stuart Masterson looks beautiful and is lit like a glamourous 1940s movie star but with screwball tendencies. However, she’s let down by the screenplay and saddled with a miscast co-star in the form of Brian Benben who’s not very funny. His character is a sap and it’s hard to see what Penny sees in him.
The problem with Radioland Murders is that it relies too much on broad, slapstick humor with many of the jokes falling flat. There is also too much going on. The movie gets too busy at times. A stronger director might have been able to handle it better but then again, maybe not because the problems are inherent in the screenplay. The movie is written by four different people and this may explain why it is such a mess. Screenwriting by committee is rarely a good idea.
The vintage big band music and the slick production values are the film’s only highlights. There are even cameos by Rosemary Clooney and George Burns (unfortunately his last film role) but they do little to help this mess of a movie. It’s not hard to see why Radioland Murders failed and why Lucas returned back to the safety of the Star Wars universe. One of his contemporaries, Francis Ford Coppola, also ran into difficulties trying to recreate a bygone era with The Cotton Club (1984). Obviously, people are not particularly keen on revisiting the 1920s and the 1930s, or, at least, the way Coppola and Lucas envisioned it.