Friday, January 23, 2004

”…designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half-hour of high adventure…”

During the “Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense” marathon this month, frequent mention was made of the CBS series Escape and how it was considered by many to be the “sister show” of Suspense. If these shows—with the addition of a third program, Romancewere indeed siblings, then Escape was undoubtedly the “middle child.” So I thought I would devote a post to this “Jan Brady” of dramatic anthologies; I previewed two broadcasts at work last night because—believe me—in my line of work one needs a little “high adventure.”

Escape never received the lavish attention received by its older sister, Suspense—throughout its seven-year run (July 7, 1947-September 25, 1954), the show was shifted around in 18 different time slots, and except for a brief period from April-August 1950 (when it was sponsored by Richfield Oil) it was sustained by the CBS radio network. The top-flight Hollywood talent present on “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills” rarely if ever got a showcase on Escape, although there were some exceptions: Victor Mature, Edmond O’Brien, and Vincent Price, to name a few.

Yet Escape is held in high-esteem by fans of Radio’s Golden Age; although I like both shows, I sometimes wonder if Escape isn’t a little bit superior to the better-known Suspense. What the series lacked in big-time budget or celebrity guest stars it more than made up for in the best talent radio had to offer: performers like Elliott Lewis, Jeanette Nolan, Jack Webb, Lillian Buyeff, Hans Conried, Vivi Janiss, Harry Bartell, and Georgia Ellis were just a small sample of the fine performers featuring in front of Escape’s microphone each week. Distinguished veterans like William N. Robson and Norman Macdonnell oversaw the production-direction, and exceptional scripts were provided by the likes of Les Crutchfield, John Dunkel, Gil Doud, E. Jack Neumann and Kathleen Hite. Time and time again, Escape demonstrated that it could still be an outstanding show minus the “Hollywood gloss.”

While stories of mystery and crime were the bailiwick of Suspense, Escape concentrated more on tales of “high adventure”: war, westerns, supernatural horror and science-fiction. Esteemed authors like Rudyard Kipling, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad provided much of the source material for the program, which set Escape apart from the other dramatic anthologies on the air at that same time. (I previously pointed out how many of the originals from Escape—“Zero Hour,” “Three Skeleton Key,” “Leiningen vs. the Ants”—resurfaced on Suspense during that show’s later seasons.) Some of my personal favorites include “Evening Primrose” (which I’ve mentioned a time or two); “Poison” (7/28/50, with Jack Webb and William Conrad), a real sweat-inducer in which a man wakes up to find that a deadly snake has joined him in his bunk; and “A Shipment of Mute Fate” (3/28/48, with Harry Bartell), another spine-tingling snake tale in which an African bushmaster is accidentally let loose on a passenger ship. (Full disclosure: I think my intense dislike of snakes might explain why I’m so fond of two of these shows, because they give me the willies.)

Escape featured one of radio’s most memorable openings, with either William Conrad or Paul Frees (they alternated every week during the show’s early run) intoning: “Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you…ESCAPE!” The orchestra would then strike up Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and within seconds the listener would be transported to a Caribbean jungle or an icy glacier, effectively putting you in the shoes of that episode’s protagonist.

The first show I listened to last night was “The Scarlet Plague,” originally broadcast April 8, 1954 and adapted by Les Crutchfield from the novel by Jack London. It’s a chilling depiction of human existence after an apocalyptic plague spreads like wildfire and kills the world’s millions—the cast includes Vic Perrin, Parley Baer, Virginia Gregg. John Dehner, Eleanore Tanin, John Larch, Barney Philips and Sam Edwards. Following that, “Affair at Mandrake”—a taut espionage thriller (broadcast April 15, 1954) with Dehner as a British Army major assigned to command a battalion conducting field tests with rockets in Mandrake Forest. Again, a superlative supporting cast consisting of Baer, Joseph Kearns, Richard Peale, Gary Montgomery, Lawrence Dobkin and Ben Wright (who also wrote the script), adds immeasurably to this production.

Of the more than 200 episodes originally broadcast on Escape, there are but a mere handful that are missing today, which is wonderful news for the novice listener, as hours and hours of great radio drama awaits (and ultimately rewards). Several shows are available in both East Coast and West Coast versions; the East Coast shows are distinguished by the presence of a full orchestra, while the West Coast broadcasts (repeats usually performed a few days later with the same cast) have organ music as accompaniment.

No comments:

Post a Comment