Sunday, January 4, 2004

”Ringing Murray Hill Four-Oh-Oh-Nine-Eight…”

Day 3 of “Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense.”

Sorry, Wrong Number

Last night I revisited what is probably the most famous of all of Suspense’s productions with the February 24, 1944 broadcast of “Sorry, Wrong Number.” Lucille Fletcher's heart-pounding play tells the story of Mrs. Elbert Stevenson, an invalid who mistakenly overhears a telephone conversation between two men plotting to murder a bedridden woman. She frantically tries to get both the telephone operator and the police to do something to prevent it from happening (at 11:15pm), but the scant details with which she provides them they dismiss her as an elderly crank. Agnes Moorehead gives a tour-de-force performance of absolute hysteria in the part; a role that most deservedly earned her the title “The First Lady of Suspense.”

When the play was first broadcast on May 25, 1943, the actor playing the role of the “killer” committed a gaffe and missed a crucial cue, leaving the play’s outcome up in the air to many in the listening audience. Nearly three months later, the show’s producer rectified the mistake with an encore performance on August 21, 1943. “Sorry, Wrong Number” would eventually be presented a total of eight times, with Agnes Moorehead stepping up to the mike for each and every one of them. She used the same script for each performance because she superstitiously believed it to be a good-luck charm; eventually the script became torn, tattered and heavily marked from overuse but since Agnes had most of the dialogue memorized by that time it didn’t seem to matter.

Orson Welles remarked that “Sorry, Wrong Number” was “the greatest single radio script ever written”—a sentiment that I can’t quite share; I also strongly disagree with OTR author John Dunning’s assertion that the production is “rather boring.” I first heard Fletcher’s play over KMOX in St. Louis (back when AM radios could really pick up distant stations, since we lived in West Virginia) in the late 70s and a year later, was delighted to find that the script had been included in our textbook for my high school English class. Listening to it late at night—with the lights out, of course—it still gives me goose pimples. Moorehead was simply terrific in this broadcast, and supporting players Cathy Lewis, John McIntire and Hans Conried were equally top-notch.

“Sorry, Wrong Number” was later brought to the silver screen in a fleshed-out feature film by Paramount in 1948. If you look at it as a completely different take on the radio play, it’s not too bad—although I think they made a major mistake in passing up Moorehead for Barbara Stanwyck for the Mrs. Stevenson role. I find it a little hard to buy that the ball-busting dame from films like Double Indemnity (1944) and The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) could ever be a helpless, bedridden invalid. (Stanwyck must have done something right, however, she earned an Oscar nod for her performance in the film.)

Lucille Fletcher was a fertile contributor to Suspense; penning classics like “The Hitch-Hiker,” “The Diary of Saphronia Winters” (also with Moorehead), and “Fugue in C-Minor.” But “Sorry, Wrong Number” remains her most famous work; so influential, in fact, that it provided material for some of the funniest shows in Radio’s Golden Age—for example, a October 17, 1948 Jack Benny Program (with Barbara Stanwyck as guest) in which Jack intercepts a conversation via crossed wires and hears his sponsor planning to cancel his contract. A Burns and Allen broadcast from March 13. 1947 sends up the same material, while adding a parody of The Adventures of the Thin Man to boot.

The Dark Tower

Orson Welles stars in this May 4, 1944 broadcast as the great stage actor Damon Wellington, whose newest play is being threatened with the loss of his leading lady—his sister Jessica (Jeanette Nolan)—through the oily machinations of her Svengali-like husband, Stanley Vance (Hans Conried). Damon uses his acting talents to “remove” Stanley for the sake of both his sister and the play. Director-producer William Spier adapted Alexander Woolcott and George S. Kaufman’s stage play of the same name for this Suspense; a feature film version of The Dark Tower (1943) premiered a year earlier.

I had never heard “The Dark Tower” until last night and while I enjoyed it, I’m not certain I would have included it in this “Best of” Collection. (I think two of Welles’ earlier Suspense efforts, “The Marvelous Barastro” and “Lazarus Walks” are much superior productions.) That tiny quibble aside, it’s definitely worth listening to for Welles and Welles alone; his delicious burlesque of his idol, John Barrymore, is a truly inspired performance. Consummate radio pros Conried, Nolan, John McIntire (Nolan’s husband), and Verna Felton all provide Welles good support.

Orson also gets the opportunity to poke a little tongue-in-cheek fun at his own image with this amusing line: “There’s a little thing I like in the second act, too…Jessica asks me why I don’t stop drinking and I say ‘What? Would you have me subsist entirely on food and reach the gargantuan proportions of an Orson Welles?’ That ought to needle the boy wonder.” I think one of Welles’ most endearing qualities was his ability to laugh at himself, as anyone who’s ever heard his guest appearances on The Jack Benny Program or the famous “Les Miserables” skit on Fred Allen’s show will attest.

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