Friday 4 November 2011

Tom Keith, "Tune In Tomorrow", "Radio Days", and "A Prairie Home Companion"

When I was a kid, we didn't have TV. We had something that might have been better; we had radio. In particular, we had radio serials, such as Superman, Tarzan, The Shadow, Blue Hills, The Muddle-headed Wombat, The Search For The Golden Boomerang, and the Argonauts Club. Radio had a powerful ability to suggest so much; the rest was up to you. If you had any kind of imagination, you could fill in the picture yourself. 

The people who did most to assist in this process were the sound-effects people. They did whatever it took to create sounds that reminded the audience of the mood or sensation the story required. Monkeys, car crashes, automobiles, piranha, you-name-it. (You'd be amazed at how vividly kryptonite could be conjured up in the imagination of a ten year-old boy by certain sounds.)

One of the best depictions in movies of the old-time radio sound-effects guy can be found in Tune in Tomorrow (1990). The film was released in Australia as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, the title of the novel by Mario Vargas Llosa on which the film was based. It's one of my favourite examples of a movie adaptation that's better than the original book. Peter Falk, Keanu Reeves, Barbara Hershey. Check it out, but bring your imagination with you.

Tune in Tomorrow
Another movie which captures the spirit of the golden age of radio is Radio Days (1987), by Woody Allen. Set in the period before and during World War II, it includes a serial based on The Shadow, and features a musical score consisting of songs from the 1930s and 40s. The cast include Julie Kavner, Dianne Wiest, Tito Puente, Larry David, Danny Aiello, William H. Macy, and Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton (the only time those two appeared in the same Woody Allen movie). In this screen shot, Wallace Shawn is playing the part of The Masked Avenger on radio.
Wallace Shawn in Radio Days
A Prairie Home Companion (2006), Robert Altman's last film, tells the story of the final broadcast of a radio show. It has an unlikely cast, including Lindsay Lohan, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline, Garrison Keillor, Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep. The sound-effects man, both in the movie and in real life, was Tom Keith. He could produce sounds like "gunshot volleys" or a "singing walrus" on command. 
Tom Keith in A Prairie Home Companion, channeling a peacock for Meryl Streep.
Last Sunday, Tom Keith passed away at the age of 64.  R.I.P.

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