Saturday, January 17, 2004


Day 16 of "Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense."

The Screaming Woman

It's Thanksgiving, and ten-year-old Margaret Leary (Sherry Jackson) is returning home from running an errand for her mother. While taking a shortcut through a vacant lot—a place where she and her friends often play—she hears a woman screaming. Margaret runs home to tell her parents (John Dehner, Paula Winslowe) but they remain unconvinced—and Margaret realizes that she alone must save the woman’s life.

When writer Antony Ellis assumed the directing-producing chores on Suspense, he phased out the previous stories based on true-life events and concentrated more on what he felt the show’s fans wanted to hear: science-fiction and horror. Ellis was also a huge fan of the work of fantasy author Ray Bradbury—whose short story, “The Screaming Woman,” was adapted by Sylvia Richards for this March 1, 1955 broadcast.

“The Screaming Woman” had been presented previously on the November 25, 1948 program, with MGM’s star moppet Margaret O’Brien in the lead. (Agnes Moorehead, “the first lady of Suspense,” also appeared on this broadcast, but allowed herself to be unbilled so that O’Brien would receive the honors.) In this 1955 version, child star Sherry Jackson essays the role—she was at that time a featured player on Make Room For Daddy, the popular TV sitcom starring Danny Thomas. In support of Jackson is a first-rate cast featuring Dick Beals, Howard McNear, Eve McVey, and Herb Butterfield—but the standout performance in this drama belongs to John Dehner, who offers a nicely understated turn as Margaret’s father.

Both the 1948 and 1955 editions of “The Screaming Woman” feature a small change in the story’s finale because, according to Bradbury, “broadcast morality in those days would not allow the sort of unhappy ending I originally had in my story.” While I prefer Bradbury’s conclusion, I will admit that the tacked-on “happy ending” doesn’t really hurt the material all that much. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for “The Crowd,” a September 21, 1950 Suspense production adapted by Morton Fine and David Friedkin from another excellent Bradbury story. (Read this one if you can, because it’s a doozy; it involves a photographer who begins to notice that the faces in the crowd that eventually gathers around any murder scene are the same every time.)

Zero Hour

Children all over the world are swept up in a new game called “Invasion,” though their clueless parents don’t seem to care enough to pay any attention. The exception is the mother (Paula Winslowe) of young Mink Morris (Isa Ashdown), who is concerned about the effect the game is having on her child—and further worried that what her daughter refers to as “Zero Hour” is rapidly approaching at five o’clock…

One of my very favorite Ray Bradbury stories was adapted by director-producer Antony Ellis to become one of the most memorably chilling episodes ever broadcast throughout the twenty-year run of Suspense. This classic show—originally heard April 5, 1955—was first presented on Suspense’s sister series, Escape, on October 4, 1953, after which a small controversy erupted, resulting in thousands of letters and phone calls to CBS. Many listeners were complimentary—others were horrified—but the huge response, both positive and negative, convinced Ellis to give the script an encore to Suspense’s larger audience. “Zero Hour” made two additional appearances on the program, on May 18, 1958 and January 3, 1960.

I can certainly understand why some people were unnerved by “Zero Hour” to write and phone the network; nearly fifty years later, this broadcast still packs one hell of a wallop. (As many times as I’ve heard it, I still get tiny hairs sticking up on the back of my neck.) Although child star Ashdown receives top billing in the opening credits, it is clearly Winslowe’s show all the way; I’m fascinated by how she deftly switches from blasé housewife mode (Winslowe starred opposite William Bendix for many years as wife Peg on radio’s The Life of Riley) to Agnes Moorehead-like hysteria by the episode’s conclusion. The rest of the cast—Parley Baer in particular—are equally fine, with a special nod to John Dehner for his flawless, eerie narration.

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