Tuesday, January 20, 2004

”…they’re an elemental force, a gigantic catastrophe…an act of God…”

Day 19 of “Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense.”

Present Tense

A condemned axe murderer (Vincent Price) who is being transported to the death house seizes an opportunity to escape his fate as a result of a train wreck. He returns home, and finds that the individual whose murder he’s been convicted of—his wife (Ellen Morgan)—is alive and well and carrying on with her lover (Joe de Santis). He kills them both, and in doing so finds himself on the same train…only to escape, and kill again…is he trapped in some sort of time warp?

“Present Tense,” broadcast on Suspense March 3, 1957, brings Vincent Price back to a role that he had previously essayed on Escape January 31, 1950. (The script’s author, James Poe, also adapted “Three Skeleton Key,” which Price performed on the same series March 17, 1950.) It’s an interesting story, even a bit humorous, since Price gets to “ham” it up as only he can, but the ending’s a bit predictable, particularly if you’re familiar with Ambrose Bierce’s classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (which was also performed on both Escape and Suspense).

The supporting cast of “Present Tense” includes two interesting radio veterans: Jack Kruschen, a well-known character actor who gave memorable performances in films like The Apartment (1960; he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in that year’s Oscar race) and Cape Fear (1962). Kruschen made the rounds on many of the shows of Radio’s Golden Age, particularly Dragnet and Gunsmoke, and even had a regular gig on Broadway’s My Beat (1949-54) as Sergeant Muggavan. Talented voice man Daws Butler also appears here in two separate roles; he played frequent bit parts on Suspense but is probably best remembered as the voice of many of the cartoon characters in the Hanna-Barbera stable (Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, etc.), proving he was just as versatile as his colleagues Paul Frees and June Foray when it came to dramatic parts.

By the time of this broadcast, Gunsmoke announcer George Walsh (“They satisfy…the most…”) was doing double duty on this program as well—he had a memorable bassy, foreboding quality to his intonation of “…and nowwwwww…another tale well-calculated to keep you in…” When the production of Suspense moved from Hollywood to New York (beginning August 30, 1959), Walsh could still be heard during the show’s opening and commercial breaks, but the episode title and cast fell to Stuart Metz, who took over full announcing chores on June 25, 1961 until the series left the air.

Leiningen vs. the Ants

An army of flesh-eating ants are working their way across the jungle, threatening to invade and devour the plantation of wealthy owner Leiningen (William Conrad). Leiningen has other ideas—but can he really hope to defeat millions and millions of hungry Army ants?

Considered by many to be radio’s ultimate adventure tale, “Leiningen vs. the Ants” was adapted for this August 25, 1957 Suspense broadcast by writer Robert Ryf from the short story of the same name by Carl Stephenson. (It would be again showcased on Suspense a second time—sans Conrad—on November 29, 1959.) I remember an assignment in a high school English class whereupon we had to do a verbal report on a short story, taking care not to reveal the ending in the hopes that our fellow classmates’ interest would be piqued as to read these tales in their copious free time. (I can’t recall which story I did my report on, but a friend of mine chose Stephenson’s classic tale, and I felt a teensy bit smug since I knew its outcome, having listened to it on Escape. I’d like to say that my classmates, envious of my knowledge and power, demanded that I reveal the ending—but in order for me to do so I would have to provide irrefutable evidence that they cared.)

Like the previously mentioned “Three Skeleton Key,” “Leiningen vs. the Ants” is a story I associate with Escape, so I must reiterate that it’s a bit like cheating, including it in this box set. I will say, however, that Conrad’s performance in this broadcast is especially good, in fact, he played the title role on three different occasions (in an adaptation by writer Les Crutchfield) on the series “designed to free you from the four walls of today.” Conrad was unfortunately overlooked when the story hit the silver screen in 1954 as The Naked Jungle (he played the Commissioner—a part performed by Ben Wright in this 8/25/57 broadcast); the lead role ended up going to Charlton Heston (“Get your feelers off of me, you damn dirty ant!”). “Leiningen vs. the Ants” was also “borrowed” for a plot line in an episode of MacGyver (“Trumbo’s World,” 11/10/85), but my advice to you is to stick with the radio version. You’ll thank me later.

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