Friday, January 2, 2004

”And now…another tale well calculated to keep you in…SUSPENSE!"

The dramatic anthology known as Suspense debuted over CBS Radio on June 17, 1942 and ran for nearly twenty years on the network until closing out Radio’s Golden Age (along with Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar) on September 30, 1962. Billed as “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills,” the award winning series (it won a Peabody in 1947) set high standards for dramatic programs with superb behind-the-scenes craftsmanship, fine scripts, and top-flight celebrity guest stars.

Suspense was originally auditioned on July 22, 1940 on a CBS summer series called Forecast, in a production of “The Lodger” starring Herbert Marshall and directed by Alfred Hitchcock (who helmed a feature film-version of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novella in 1927). This audition recording is in circulation among OTR hobbyists today, though it bears only a slight resemblance to the program that was yet to come.
Suspense excelled in the areas of sound effects (by Berne Surrey and David Light) and music (conducted by the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Lucien Moraweck, and Lud Gluskin), and its entire production was supervised in its early years by producer-director William Spier, who demonstrated a knack for fine-tuning each week’s scripts to the talents of the various celebrity guests. In later seasons, Spier’s chores were handled by such radio veterans as Anton M. Leader, Elliott Lewis, Norman Macdonnell, and William N. Robson.

When it first appeared on CBS, Suspense was a sustaining program (meaning it was sans sponsor)—but that all changed on December 2, 1943 when Roma Wines began paying the show’s bills; even today, there are often inquiries on the Old-Time Radio Digest as to whatever became of the wine company and whether it is still in business. Autolite took the sponsorship reins in 1948 for the next six seasons, and the program’s final years fluctuated between periods of continued network sustaining and multiple sponsors.

Since it has been estimated that barely 1-2% of all programs originally broadcast during the Golden Age of Radio have survived today, Suspense has indeed been very lucky; nearly 900 out of the program’s original 945 broadcasts are still around for OTR collectors to listen to and enjoy. For Christmas, Santa Claus was kind enough to place the Radio Spirits CD box set The Best of Suspense under my tree this year, and so we’ll begin with Disc 1.

The Hitch-Hiker

Lucille Fletcher was employed by the Columbia Broadcasting System as a copyright clerk and publicity writer when husband Bernard Herrmann—the network’s musical director—coaxed her into giving scriptwriting a whirl. Her efforts resulted in “The Hitch-Hiker,” a script she tailored to the talents of radio’s resident Renaissance man, Orson Welles. Welles originally produced Fletcher’s play on his self-titled CBS series The Orson Welles Show; it was first broadcast November 10, 1941.

The September 2, 1942 broadcast of Suspense was Welles’ first-ever appearance on the program, and producer William Spier selected Fletcher’s play for Welles’ debut. Before the drama gets underway, Welles prefaces the production with some humerous remarks, including a sly reference to the broadcast (the 10/30/38 “War of the Worlds” production) that catapulted him to radio fame:

Personally, I’ve never met anybody who didn’t like a good ghost story…but I know a lot of people who think there are a lot of people who don’t like a good ghost story. For the benefit of those, at least I go on record at the outset of this evening’s entertainment with the sober assurance that although blood may be curdled on this program, none will be spilt. There’s no shooting, knifing, throttling, axing, or poisoning here…no clanking chains, no cobwebs, no boney and/or hairy hands appearing from secret panels or, better yet, bedroom curtains. If it’s phosphorescent foolishness that people who don’t like ghost stories don’t like, then again I promise you, we haven’t got it—not tonight. What we do have is a thriller—if it’s half as good as we think it is you can call it a shocker…it’s already been called “a real Orson Welles story.” Now frankly, I don’t know what this means—I’ve been on the air directing and acting in my own shows for quite a while now and I don’t suppose I’ve done more than half a dozen thrillers in all that time. Honestly, I don’t think even that many, but it seems I do have a reputation for the uncanny…quite possibly, a little escapade of mine involving a couple of planets—which shall be nameless—is responsible.

During Welles’ speech Herrmann and the orchestra launch into a rendition of “Funeral March of the Marionettes”—which would later achieve television immortality as the theme of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Welles plays Ronald Adams, a young man who has embarked on a cross-country trek from New York to California. While driving, he recurrently spots an odd-looking individual hitch-hiking by the side of the roads on his journey. Unnerved by the constant sightings of the hitch-hiker, it is only after he places a call to his mother that he learns the reason for why he continues to encounter the mysterious drifter.

“The Hitch-Hiker” has long been one of my favorite Suspense episodes, and it really kicks off this collection with a bang. It’s an eerie, spine-tingling tale that benefits tremendously from an outstanding acting/narrative performance from Welles. (Years of his shameless hawking of Paul Masson wines have sometimes blinded me to the fact that Welles was truly a talented actor.) Since Welles later performed this play for a third time on the June 21, 1946 broadcast of The Mercury Summer Theater of the Air, I’m going to assume that Orson was as big a fan of “The Hitch-Hiker” as I am.

Fletcher’s play is no doubt better recognized by modern-day audiences from an episode of TV’s The Twilight Zone; though in that production the lead character undergoes a gender change as is played by actress Inger Stevens. (My first exposure to this fine radio play was not, however, through TZ or Suspense, but rather an early 80s production recorded at Marshall University’s WMUL-FM; the lead was played by a friend of a friend of mine, and though he did an okay job I’m sure Welles didn’t suffer any sleepless nights as a result.)

Cabin B-13

Broadcast November 9, 1943, this John Dickson Carr-scripted tale finds newlyweds Anne and Richard Brewster (Margo, William Johnstone) sailing off to Europe aboard the luxury liner Maurevania. The Brewsters have stored their luggage in their stateroom (the title of the show) but once the ship sets sail, Anne is stunned to learn from a fellow passenger, Dr. Paul Heinrich (Philip Dorn), that Cabin B-13 doesn’t exist! Anne begins to doubt her sanity when both her new husband and his luggage disappear into thin air, and only Heinrich believes her claims that she is married despite the lack of evidence to prove her husband’s existence.

With a plot that closely mirrors a similar story told in the 1950 British film So Long at the Fair, “Cabin B-13” is a nifty little gem that benefits from both Carr’s fine script (with a nice twist ending) and great support from Hans Conried and Dennis Hoey—a character actor best-known for his role as Inspector Lestrade in the Universal Sherlock Holmes movie series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (“That’s right, Mr. ‘Olmes—and it’s no good saying it ain’t.”). Carr himself was a renowned mystery writer who contributed many early Suspense scripts (including “The Burning Court,” the program’s premiere) but left CBS in a dispute and journeyed back across the pond to write for the BBC. He later returned to America and used “Cabin B-13” as the inspiration for a short-lived, same-titled mystery series that premiered on July 5, 1948; he also assumed the duties of the series' writer and director. The author soon experienced difficulties in meeting the required weekly deadlines, however, and Cabin B-13 came to a halt January 2, 1949.

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