Sunday, January 11, 2004

”Aren’t we devils?”

Day 10 of "Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense."

Ghost Hunt

Hip disc jockey Smiley Smith (Ralph Edwards) has made arrangements to spend the night in a “haunted house” (notorious for four suicides committed within the last decade) as a publicity stunt. Joining him is Dr. Clarence Reed (Wilms Hilbert), a scientist with a passion for investigating psychic phenomena. The morning after, the house’s owner and the real estate agent arrive at the house to pick the two men up—and find Reed covered with blood and Smith…disappeared. The explanation for the disturbing events lies in a surviving wire recording made for Smith’s audience…

About fifty years before The Blair Witch Project hit movie screens, Suspense did the same story in the span of thirty minutes—but much more effectively and without the nausea-inducing camerawork of the 1999 hit film, either. Adapted by Walter Brown from a story written especially for Suspense by Herbert Russell Wakefield (known to many as “the father of the ghost story”), “Ghost Hunt,” originally broadcast over CBS June 23, 1949, follows on the heels of the previous week’s “The Trap” to score another one-two punch for the classic radio drama series.

As with the novelty of featuring Jim and Marian Jordan (a.k.a. “Fibber McGee & Molly”) in “Backseat Driver,” “Ghost Hunt” relies on some unusual casting in that the part of Smith is played by Ralph Edwards, host of two popular shows during the Golden Age of Radio (and later transplanted to television)—Truth or Consequences and This is Your Life. Edwards is truly a marvel in a role admittedly tailor-made for him; however, he reveals a previously undisclosed flair for the buskin, particularly in how his character’s mood changes from a sort of whistling-in-the-dark (“Where ghosts are concerned, I say live and let live…”) to outright hysteria and terror at the events happening around him. A top-notch episode from beginning to end, “Ghost Hunt” is definitely one that remains in the memory.

The Search For Isabel

Mild-mannered bank clerk Dick Brown (Red Skelton) no sooner has his new phone installed in his apartment when he begins to receive phone calls from various men asking to speak to Isabel LaRue. Brown starts to become obsessed with Isabel (Cathy Lewis), even to the point of dreaming about her—and sets out to track the elusive woman down.

MGM’s star comedian Red Skelton steps up to the Suspense microphone to display his dramatic talents in “The Search For Isabel,” originally broadcast on November 3, 1949—about a month after Red moved to CBS after a lengthy stint on NBC. Skelton was reported as saying that he was “terrified” at the prospect, but he turns in a respectable performance. The problem is, Skelton’s appearance is really the only thing the episode has to offer—the story is one of those weak, seriocomic pieces that Suspense had a tendency to slip into from time to time. (This handicap would later crop up, for example, in the episodes that Jack Benny did for the series; although I bow to no one in my admiration for Benny, his Suspense episodes are among my least favorites.)

“The Search For Isabel” was written by Richard Bodra, who originally had his script broadcast as an episode of The Clock (on April 22, 1948). The Clock (1946-48) was a short-lived anthology series on ABC Radio that was very similar to Suspense; in fact, when the program moved to the West Coast in 1948 (after a season on the East Coast) it regularly featured Suspense players like Lurene Tuttle, William Conrad, Jeanette Nolan and Elliott and Cathy Lewis. William Spier directed this series before returning to Suspense, and no doubt remembered this story when it came to choosing a proper vehicle for Skelton.

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