Soap Operas In The Postwar World

Following the war, daytime dramatic serials adjusted their orientations to reflect new features of American life. Some made a break with wartime themes by introducing important new characters or changing locales in their stories. Others developed new careers for their heroes. As it was with the American public, the serials put away military concerns and resumed familiar patterns of behavior. Above all, they returned to tales of romance. Traditional stories of love—love that was unrequited, suffering, jealous, insecure, or tested—flourished in the serial world as normal times returned to America.

The soap operas took advantage of the postwar interest in psychology to introduce mental problems as a source of plot development. The emphasis was noticeable at this time in literature and motion pictures, and in radio in various types of dramatic programming. In the soaps, however, the portrayal of psychological problems was more prevalent than in the other forms of the popular arts.

Illustrative of this development was the case of Dr. Jim Brent on The Road of Life. After eight successful years as a surgeon in Chicago, he moved to New York City in 1945 and devoted himself to neuropsychiatric work. His chief assistant was Dr. Carson McVicker, a beautiful heiress who had turned to psychiatry as the result of a nervous breakdown several years earlier. Within this relatively sophisticated context, however, recognizable human predicaments soon emerged. Within a few years Dr. Brent had drifted, from an unhappy marriage ending in divorce, and through four love affairs, each with its own unhappy dimensions. His affair with Dr. McVicker led eventually to her resignation from the hospital following another nervous breakdown. His liaison with Maggie Lowell was ultimately the result of Dr. McVicker's naiveté in hiring her as a lab assistant. Beth Lambert came to spy upon Dr. Brent and his top-secret governmental experiments, but she ended up as his third lover in the postwar era. And before the 1940s had ended, he was involved with a patient, Jocelyn McLeod (whom he eventually married), who was many years his junior.

Psychological materials filtered into the soaps in varying manners. The introduction of a doctor or nurse specializing in psychiatry was a favorite device. King's Row, appearing in 1951, concerned a psychiatric hospital. The heroine of This Is Nora Drake, a series which lasted from 1947 until 1959, was a nurse in the Mental Hygiene Clinic. And in various episodes of Big Sister, doctors often were heard discussing Freudian theories and the latest developments in Russian medicine.

Nevertheless, the most common means of introducing psychology into a serial was to have one of the main characters develop amnesia. A holdover from wartime soaps when shell-shocked veterans often developed loss of memory, amnesia became common in peacetime serials. In series like The Second Mrs. Burton, Young Widder Brown, and Wendy Warren and the News, amnesia allowed characters to develop entirely new lives and plots. In many such cases, love blossomed only to be thwarted at the point of marriage by the return of memory to the injured personality. Even Lorenzo Jones, the harmless inventor who lived an innocuous life with his beloved wife, Belle, suffered amnesia in late 1952 and before NBC cancelled the series in 1955, he had met, wooed, and almost married another woman.

The nervous breakdown and related emotional complications flourished in the soaps after 1945. Men were frequently the victims of such illnesses. The hero of Young Doctor Malone suffered his breakdown in 1948, and Ruth Wayne's husband, Dr. John Wayne, experienced his collapse in Big Sister in 1952. In 1954 the heroine's husband on Wendy Warren and the News suffered from general mental confusion for several months. And neurotic and psychotic males appeared in many soaps throughout this period.

Women, of course, suffered their share of emotional problems. In 1951 two characters—Chichi Conrad on Life Can Be Beautiful and Peg Martinson on This Is Nora Drake—endured psychosomatic paralysis as a result of accidents. Meta Bauer on The Guiding Light, after bearing a child conceived out of wedlock and enduring a loveless but necessary marriage, was acquitted in 1951 of the murder of her husband on the grounds of temporary insanity. Yet Ma Perkins' daughter, Fay, was the most emotionally abused heroine of this period for she once suffered simultaneously from amnesia and psychosomatic paralysis.

During the late 1940s much popular analysis was directed toward the subject of juvenile delinquency. In radio this was notable in terms of news specials and documentaries on lawlessness among American youth. Soap operas also reflected the national concern as several serials integrated into their stories youthful gangs intent upon crime. In the process, they were able to make important statements about the nature and causes of delinquency. When in 1948 Hilltop House returned to the air after a lengthy hiatus, it began with the story of a nine-year-old incorrigible child, who with his slingshot had blinded a playmate in one eye. The judge in the case spent much of one episode berating the boy's mother for failing to rear him properly.

In 1949 Papa David and Chichi became involved with Chuck Lewis, the leader of a dangerous gang of thugs. Although adults were unable to reason with Lewis, it was the compassionate and understanding Chichi who finally was able to relate to him. When she had first found refuge at the Slightly Read Book Shop in the late 1930s, she had been a member of a street gang. Drawing upon her experience and understanding of street life, Chichi illustrated that with the correct attitude delinquents could be approached and reformed. Wherever there were adolescent children in the soaps, they were vulnerable to juvenile delinquency. Even well-adjusted Brad Burton, the son in The Second Mrs. Burton, was tempted in 1950 toward a life of petty crime. Only at the last minute, when lie realized the criminal intentions of his young friends, was he able to abandon them and turn back to the respectability and honesty that his soap opera parents had inculcated in him.

Other glaring realities the soaps had to face in the postwar period were the threat within the radio industry from new forms of daytime broadcasting, and the challenge outside the industry from the growing popularity of television. Although the soaps had been able to withstand the challenge of programming innovations during the war, they never regained the domination of daytime broadcasting they possessed in the prewar years. Using figures compiled by Harrison B. Summers, the number of soap operas broadcast each January in the period 1941-1956 was as follows:

1941 – 60 1947 – 33 1953 – 28
1942 – 55 1948 – 36 1954 – 27
1943 – 40 1949 – 33 1955 – 26
1944 – 44 1950 – 32 1953 – 19
1945 – 47 1951 – 27
1946 – 40 1952 – 32

The growing number of variety and giveaway programs occupying time slots formerly held by daytime serials was partially responsible for the decline in soap operas. By the middle of World War II, when, because of rationing, advertisers no longer needed to worry about selling effectiveness in selecting their programs, many agencies began gambling on new types of daytime programming. Although agency executives were not agreed on what type of show would come to dominate daytime radio, they were convinced that all but the best of the soaps would fade away once the war ended.

Typical of this new sentiment was R. J. Scott of the Schwimmer and Scott agency who told an interviewer in late 1943, "I think that big daytime variety shows will take a commanding position in radio as soon as talent is available, but that will not be until the war is over. In the meantime, new comedy-dramas and the smaller variety shows will undoubtedly take over many of the daytime spots."

Although soaps were not eclipsed as readily as some authorities anticipated, many popular new programs emerged in daytime radio. Tom Brenneman's audience participation program began in 1943 as Breakfast at Sardi's and gained fame under its subsequent name, Breakfast in Hollywood. Until his untimely death in 1948, Brenneman made this hour show one of the top ten in daytime broadcasting. Quiz and giveaway series like Grand Slam with Irene Beasley which premiered in 1943, and Queen for a Day with Jack Bailey which began in 1945, also drew listeners away from the soaps and into new listening patterns. And long-successful daytime variety programs like Don McNeill's Breakfast Club and the Arthur Godfrey Program—series which had been on radio since 1933 and 1945, respectively—helped to introduce other non-serial programs to network radio.

By 1950 a significant pattern emerged from the competition of the serial and non-serial radio programs. Except in those cases where a new show was hosted by an attractive and dynamic personality, soap operas remained more popular with the daytime audience. Only a few hosts, like Arthur Godfrey, Jack Bailey, Art Linkletter of Art Linkletter's House Party, and Tommy Bartlett of Welcome Travelers, successfully competed against the soaps. Despite the generally mediocre popularity of non-serial programming, however, the newer type of shows continued to enter daytime radio.

The reason for this development lay in the dynamics of commercial sponsorship. The daytime serials were sponsored traditionally by large manufacturing companies. When many of the significant advertisers, like General Mills and Pillsbury, began leaving radio for television by the late 1940s, they abandoned soap operas. Most of the newer shows, however, had either several small sponsors who shared the broadcasting expense, or local advertisers whose messages were carried only on individual stations airing the network show. The former, multi-sponsored, and the latter, cooperatively sponsored programs helped keep networks economically healthy even though traditional radio was succumbing to television. What had begun during the war as an interest in non-serial entertainment had become within a decade an economic necessity for the radio networks.

The challenge of television became even more overpowering in the early 1950s when viable daytime programming entered TV. In many cases, former radio soaps moved into the rival medium—The Guiding Light in 1952, Valiant Lady in 1953, and Portia Faces Life in 1954. Even programs new to television, like Search for Tomorrow, Love of Life, and Hawkins Falls, sounded as if they had been nurtured in radio. Television attracted the actors, writers, and the advertisers whose existence had made radio so rich. Television also offered the soaps as plays, with viewers able to see as well as hear the melodramatic stories. It was an attractive combination which radio producers labored valiantly to offset.

One of the more interesting shifts in plot structure that radio developed to meet the threat of television was the addition of fast-paced excitement. The traditional pace had been slow in radio, the argument being that a listener should be able to miss two or three consecutive programs and not lose the story line. Now, compelled to become more exciting and more attractive, the radio soaps stressed action. Murder became a favorite event in daytime serials. Perry Mason, the soap opera based on the stories of Earle Stanley Gardner, and Front Page Farrell, which featured a newspaper reporter who specialized in murder mysteries, related stories of homicide with regularity. But murder appeared often in the traditionally romantic serials, from Our Gal Sunday and The Right to Happiness, to Just Plain Bill and Rosemary. Indicative of the new spirit in soaps was the frankly brutal language Meta Bauer used on The Guiding Light when threatening her husband: "You're talking to a woman who'd rather see you dead before she can trust a small boy into your care. I'd kill you first, Ted. I'd kill you! I'd kill you!" Anthony Loring on Young Widder Brown became intimately involved in murder and it took courtroom trials in 1951 and 1956 to clear him of two different deaths.

Taking 1951 as a year of alarm in the production of daytime serials, a few statistics suggest the intensity of that feeling. During that year there were approximately thirty murders committed on fifteen different serials. Twelve occurred on Front Page Farrell, three on Perry Mason, and two each on Our Gal Sunday and Wendy Warren and the News. Add to that at least eight attempted murders, three fatal accidents, and a typhoid epidemic on Rosemary, and the violence that had been seeping into the postwar serials had become a flood.

Another reaction to television was the creation of new serials which, it was felt, added relevance or unique dimensions to daytime broadcasting. Wendy Warren and the News was introduced in 1947, and throughout its eleven years on radio it began with the fictional character, Wendy Warren, reading the news from a radio station along with the actual newscaster, Douglas Edwards. Following the capsulated news, Wendy left the studio and entered her serial world. ABC in 1951 tried to revive Lone Journey, a serial which had expired eight years earlier, by shifting its locale to the Judith mountains of Montana. Here it became the story of a New York City businessman who abandoned urban life and sought new meaning in the country.

No successful soap opera had been devoted entirely to life in the motion picture industry (although Backstage Wife and The Romance of Helen Trent eventually settled their characters in Hollywood), and the rise and fall of Nona from Nowhere in 1950 kept that record intact. The most common format in the new serials was medicine. Just as psychiatry and sickness had become familiar themes in the older, established soaps, they were the subjects of such new programs as King's Row and The Affairs of Dr. Gentry in 1951, and The Doctor's Wife in 1952.

The networks also sought to add prestige to their daytime programs by adding impressive titles and names to their offerings. In this line, both Mutual in 1949, and ABC in 1951, tried to revive Against the Storm. A sensitive, moving serial when it premiered in 1939, it had won in 1942 the highest award in radio, but left the air at the end of that year. Even though it featured the original writer, Sandra Michael, the series was not popular in its revived format. A more successful attempt at prestige was made by bringing Carleton E. Morse to daytime radio. The most celebrated production by Morse had been One Man's Family, an evening serial which began on the West coast in 1932, and became a highly popular network feature the following year. Morse also had created such other series as I Love a Mystery and I Love Adventure. In 1951 he also introduced The Woman in My House, a traditional soap opera with Morse's familiar strong sense of paternalism and family. In 1955, Morse developed a daytime version of One Man's Family, his epic of the Barbours which, like The Woman in My House, presented a conservative image of family living. Both serials lasted until 1959.

When the last surviving soap operas were cancelled by CBS radio in November 1960, the New York Times misinterpreted the significance of the event when it wryly noted that they “along with their long-suffering relatives and friends were sent to the Valhalla of soap operas with the blessings of the network.” It was the radio serial that was unceremoniously shuffled off to an insubstantial paradise. The genre itself survived and found success in the triumphant medium, television.

While they were flooding the daytime airwaves for three decades, the soaps clearly established for themselves a niche that even the demise of creative radio programming could not destroy. Expropriating many of the important developers of the radio serials, including the renowned Irna Phillips, television networks merely transplanted the radio soap opera to the exciting new visual medium. It was misleading of the New York Times, therefore, to suggest that like so many aged and irrelevant heroes of the past, daytime serial dramas were no longer vital to America in the 1960s.

What ended in late 1960 was only a chapter in the history of broadcasting, not a type of programming. Radio had too deeply integrated the soaps into the lifestyle of millions of Americans. Here the serialized dramas functioned as advisors, companions, and friends. They provided everything from philosophy and inspiration, to household hints and gossip. And above all, they had been entertainment. With such a function for daytime housebound audiences, soap operas clearly would remain a relevant and undiminished part of American popular culture.