“The 39 Steps” Radio Adaptations

25 04 2010

As I wrote here, “The 39 Steps” has been a classic thriller since it was first published in 1915. Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation changed the storyline considerably while also doing much add new life to the twenty year old tale.

The life of “The 39 Steps” continued in another medium besides film. Like other hit movies of the perdio, it was adapted for radio, but its dual life in two popular version seems to have given it even more longevity as a subject for adaptation. According to the Hitchcock Wiki site, there have been at least ten different radio version of the tale. Here are some details on each, which I gleaned from the Hitchcock Wiki page and elsewhere.

The earliest adaptation was by the Lux Radio Theatre, broadcast on December 13, 1937. It runs 60 minutes and is available on the Criterion Edition of the movie. It was hosted by Cecil B. DeMille, directed by Frank Woodruff, with Robert Montgomery as Richard Hannay, with Ida Lupino as well. You can listen to it streaming here.

On August 1, 1938, the Mercury Theatre adapted “The 39 Steps, ” directed by Orson Welles, who also stars as Hannay. It’s one of the Mercury Theatre’s earliest adaptations, and adheres to the book rather than the movie plot; you can listen to it streaming here. It runs just over an hour, and includes a gaffe, where someone (Welles?) calls for a missing page in his script, and another at the end where the announcer’s call to cut the tape is left in. Coincidentally, the orchestra is conducted by future Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Hermann.

The story was adapted again on May 21, 1943 on CBS radio as part of the “Philip Morris Playhouse” series. This version runs 30 minutes and features Madeleine Carroll.

ABC radio’s “Mystery Hour” ran a 60-minute adaptation starring David Niven on September 1, 1946.

The CBC in Canada ran its adaptation sometime in 1947, seven years after the death of John Buchan, who of course had been the Governor General of Canada. This version condenses some of the story and introduces a female character. It runs an hour and can be heard here.

Another version was created by “Studio One” on March 23, 1948, starring Glenn Ford and Mercedes McCambridge.

The next adaptation listed by the Hitchcock Wiki page ran on March 3, 1952 as part of the “Suspense” radio program. Starring Herbert Marshall as Richard Hannay, this version is based on the book, and can be heard here.

Over 30 years later, the BBC radio a new adaptation of “The 39 Steps” in three 30-minute chapters on December 28, 1989. This is a more elaborate adaptation than the previous versions, with more sound effects, music and production. You can hear all three chapters on this page.

The lengthiest version yet is a straight reading of the book by James Fox. This somewhat abridged version from 1994, in eight chapters running a total of 135 minutes, is posted on the Hitchcock Wiki page here.

The BBC ran a more traditional adaptation on Radio 4 starting on March 14, 2001, in four 30-minute chapters. Starring David Robb and Tom Baker, all four chapters are online here. This version seems to turn the story around a bit, so that it starts with Hannay on the run and then fills in the setup of the adventure later.

All the versions I’ve posted above may be heard only via streaming audio, and require flash. In a few days I’ll post another version that’s an MP3 you can download to your itunes and put on an MP3 player.




4 responses

27 04 2010
Downloadable “39 Steps” Radio Play « Alfred Hitchcock and Me

[…] to listen to one of the radio versions of “The 39 Steps” like the ones I wrote about here, or you can download it and put it on your itunes and MP3 […]

25 06 2010
Keating DuGarm


I just listened to the Studio One 3/22/48 version of “The 39 Steps” with Glenn Ford and Mercedes McCambridge. Like the Welles version you wrote about, this one never mentioned Alfred Hitchcock even though it followed Hitch’s movie pretty well. This 60 minute show skipped the political rally and had no whistling from Hanney. Pamela escapes from the handcuffs using a hairpin. Other than those changes, this hued pretty close to Hitchcock’s movie adaptation.

The announcer makes note that a Canadian actor, Glenn Ford, is playing a Canadian character, Richard Hannay.

Studio One had a good reputation for dramatic adaptations on the radio, but it only lasted one season because it aired at the same time as Fibber McGee and Molly as well as The Bob Hope Show.


12 03 2011
Jim Widner

The Mercury Theatre version of “The Thirty Nine Steps” you have does not contain “gaffes.” It is because this is a copy of the rehearsal version that is in circulation. There is a second version in not very good quality floating around that is the actual broadcast version which does not have these “gaffes” to which you refer. It is not uncommon for rehearsal versions to float around.

12 03 2011

Thanks for the clarification, Jim!

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