Wednesday, January 7, 2004

”Do not embalm me...I am not dead…”

Day 6 of “Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense.”

Crime Without Passion

I was looking forward to listening to this May 2, 1946 episode of Suspense because it is based on the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur screenplay of the 1934 film of the same name. I saw the film some ten or eleven years ago on The Movie Channel, which, at this particular point in the time continuum, wasn’t shy about showing older, classic films. The plot involves an attorney who has committed a murder and plans to cover up his crime by establishing an alibi, utilizing the tricks of his trade.

But Fate has a devilishly wicked sense of humor, as I soon discovered this morning when I put in the CD to give it a listen. I heard the familiar Suspense theme, and then Joseph Kearns announcing that Roma Wines was presenting Mr. Gregory Peck in a tale well-calculated to keep me in…

Gregory Peck??? What the…??? What’s going on here, Joseph Cotten is supposed to be in this show!!!

Indeed he is—but apparently somebody is asleep at the switch in Quality Control at Radio Spirits, because my Track 1 of Disc 6 in The Best of Suspense is “The Lonely Road,” originally broadcast over CBS Radio on March 21, 1946.

I don’t know if I’m the only one this has happened to—I haven’t called the RS folks about it yet. All I know is that Fate has probably wet his/her pants laughing hysterically at what is essentially the aural equivalent of a whoopee cushion.

But we shall boldly press on—“Adapt, adopt, and improve,” as goes the motto of the Round Table. Peck is Steven Gare, a man who hires a new housekeeper, a striking young woman named Jenny (Maria Palmer). His wife Helen (Cathy Lewis) soon develops a strong dislike for the new hire, and I can’t say that I blame her—Jenny has fallen for Steve and has convinced him to snuffing out Helen and running off with her and Helen’s money.

“The Lonely Road” is a standard though pleasant Suspense entry with good work from Peck—and the Oscar-winning actor does something at the end of the episode that I thought was a bit intriguing; he singles out both Palmer and Lewis for their top-notch performances, too. I found this interesting only because producer-director William Spier wasn’t exactly a fountain of generosity when it came to bestowing the supporting players credit on Suspense. He carried this over to The Adventures of Sam Spade, as Howard Duff—who only received credit at the conclusion of the show in the series' first two years—recounted in Leonard Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast:

If I just play a part on Suspense I don’t expect to get anything but credit on the end, but a show that I’m starring in, for Christ’s sake, I’m on every goddamn page of the show, so I had reason to believe that part of the popularity of the show was due to what I was doing. I just thought, by God, I’d better get some credit for this.

After going at loggerheads with Spier, Duff finally got his credit—in fact, only he and Lurene Tuttle (as Effie) were ever able to do so. When Spier left Suspense and Anton Leader took over, Leader unfortunately continued the tradition started by Spier and so the fine supporting actors on “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills” never got the credit they were deservedly due.

Dead Ernest

Pedestrian Ernest Bowers is involved in a small traffic accident in a downtown intersection; the driver of the car swears that he only tapped Bowers, but poor Ernest is lying on the ground, apparently dead as the proverbial doornail. Or is he? You see, Ernest is a cataleptic—and the accident has put him in a paralyzed state, leaving the police to believe he’s snuffed it. You’d think that a man with a condition like that would be prepared for just such an emergency, and he usually is—but the silver bracelet he wears on his wrist has snapped off and has been snatched up by a couple of kids who melt it down for pocket money. He’s also got a letter describing his condition in his suit jacket, but that’s gone, too—a second-hand clothing store owner swiped it and has sold it to a customer. Fortunately, the customer’s wife has found and read the letter, so it’s a race against the clock to stop the folks at the morgue from pumping out Ernest’s blood so that the embalming process may commence.

“Dead Ernest” is one of my all-time favorite Suspense episodes, and an excellent embodiment of the show’s title. It was a popular entry with the series' fans as well, lending itself to two encores broadcast May 8, 1947 and March 24, 1949, respectively. This particular broadcast of August 8, 1946 stands out because it won Suspense a Peabody Award (radio’s Oscar) for best drama of the year.

There’s no star-marquee name on this broadcast, by the way, only what announcer William Johnstone (also a participant in the play) calls “an all-star cast of Hollywood’s radio players.” But due to the stinginess of Spier, only one of them receives any credit (Wally Maher)—the cast is supplemented with the likes of Robert Bailey, Verna Felton, Jerry Hausner, Cathy and Elliott Lewis, Jay Novello, Walter Tetley and Will Wright. (I’m guessing Spier owed Maher some money or something.) It’s ironic that the man who so generously tooted his own horn as “radio’s master of suspense” was so stingy with his actors’ credits, which has proved somewhat frustrating for modern-day OTR fans when trying to identify those players on Suspense programs.

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