How much does a $15 million film about an early 1940’s radio station earn in box office? Less than a million and a half, that’s how much. And you thought Howard the Duck bombed? Not everything can be Star Wars, eh, Indy?
George Lucas conceived the idea for Radioland Murders during the writing of 1973’s American Graffiti as a homage/remake of the Abbott and Costello films of old, 1942’s Who Done It in particular, which had the screwball comedic duo solving a murder at a radio station. To whip the “who done it” script into shape, Lucas brought on American Graffiti’s husband and wife screenwriting team of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who also worked on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Howard the Duck (1986) and, of course, they doctored Star Wars. Of course, we ‘80s video fringers and ‘70s Drive-In connoisseurs remember them best for their feature film debut, 1973’s Messiah of Evil (a movie so good, we reviewed it three times: HERE, HERE, and HERE).
For the roles of the estranged husband and wife radio team (Bud and Louella?) who become reluctant detectives to solve the murder of station owner General Walt Whalen on the inaugural night of WBN Chicago’s broadcast, Lucas cast Brian Benben from HBO’s “adult-themed” family-situation comedy Dream On (1990 —1996) and Mary Stuart Masterson, best known for her work in John Hughes’s Some Kind of Wonderful (1986). To say this retro radio romp killed both of their careers is an understatement. While Masterson pressed on with roles in several forgotten indie films, Radioland Murders proved to be Benben’s final film. Director Mel Smith never worked in mainstream Hollywood again and reverted back to British cinema. His most notably effort was Bean, the 1997 film version of the British series Mr. Bean, as well as 1985’s Morons from Outer Space, which he wrote and starred.
So, uh, is Radioland Murders funny? Is it “screwball” funny?
Nope. Not in the slightest. The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, even The Ritz Brothers and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis are of a time and place. And when we want to go there, we want to see the originals—and nobody is clamoring to see Brian Benben as the lead in a feature film, let alone a send up of a 1930s “who done it” comedy. It makes you wonder how the movie would have turned out if Steve Martin and Cindy Williams starred as the leads as originally planned. . . .
Rounding out the cast is a who’s who of familiar character actors with Ned Beatty (Superman ’78), Michael Lerner (Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla ’98; Senator Brickman in X-Men: Days of Future Past), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Brown from Back to the Future), Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap), Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning in the Hellboy franchise), and Steven Tobolowsky (Commissioner Hugo Jarry in HBO’s Deadwood). Also be on the lookout for Corbin Bernsen (TV’s L.A Law, the Major League film franchise), Bobcat Goldthwaite, Larry Miller (The Nutty Professor franchise), and Harvey Korman who—ironically—starred as Bud Abbott in the 1978 TV movie bio-flick Bud and Lou.
“Hey, Abbott! Who done it?”
“I don’t know, Lou. The guy who played first base?”
“What do you think, R.D?”