Saturday, January 10, 2004

”You’re always right…with Autolite…”

Day 9 of “Twenty Days Well-Calculated to Keep You in Suspense.”

Backseat Driver

Joe and Ellie (Jim and Marian Jordan) are driving home from an evening at the movies when they hear a radio bulletin notifying listeners that Louis Mattrick (Glenn Anders), a man responsible for the murder of a New Hampshire family, has been spotted in the immediate area. The couple are concerned, and well they should be—since Mattrick has stowed himself away in the back of their vehicle and is now threatening them at gunpoint.

I’ve always marveled that one of the all-time classic Suspense episodes features an unlikely pair of guest stars as dramatic performers: Jim and Marian Jordan, who are billed, of course, as “Fibber McGee & Molly.” But using comedians was not a novelty for new producer-director Anton M. (Tony) Leader (nor was it for William Spier): among the famous comedians who took a turn at the Suspense microphones include Jack Benny (who made four appearances on the show), Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Henry Morgan, Phil Silvers, and Red Skelton.

By the time of this February 3, 1949 broadcast, Suspense had acquired a new sponsor in Autolite. Roma Wines dropped its sponsorship in 1947 (apparently the company was seeing other programs behind Suspense’s back), but CBS—still confident in the show’s popularity—agreed to sustain the program until the end of the year. CBS also sustained the hour-long version of Suspense, a brief experiment that lasted for about five months (January 3 through May 15, 1948). A month and a half later, the Autolite people took a gamble on the show (for thirteen weeks, as the show had dipped somewhat in the ratings due to its brief sixty-minute foray); and when it quickly regained its popularity, contracted to sponsor the program until 1954.

Suspense had also obtained a new individual occupying the producer-director’s chair in Tony Leader, whose previous credits included Murder at Midnight, a syndicated radio horror show that began in 1946. (William Spier, Suspense’s previous director-producer, left the show in February 1948 to write a stage play, but would return to produce the show in 1949—with Norman Macdonnell as director—after Leader’s one season departure.)

I should also mention that “Backseat Driver” functions as a sort of “old home week” for Suspense announcer Harlow Wilcox (who uses the concept in the show’s opening commercial); Wilcox joined the program in November 1948 as Autolite’s pitchman, continuing in that capacity until June 1954. Wilcox, you see, was the longtime announcer for the Johnson’s Wax program—whose stars were, of course, Fibber McGee & Molly. There’s an amusing commercial spot at this program’s conclusion in which the McGees and Harlow banter back and forth about Autolite (Fibber, who nicknamed Wilcox “Waxy” due to his endless touting of Johnson’s Glo-Coat, bestows a new nickname, “Sparky,” on his friend in honor of the automotive parts people.) Because of this commercial—and of course, a superb script written by Sally Thorson—“Backseat Driver” is one of my favorite Suspense episodes, a sentiment apparently shared by many of the program’s fans. Fibber and Molly returned to the show for an encore performance on February 22, 1951 and the script made its third and final appearance—this time with veteran radio actors Parley Baer and Vivi Janniss in the leads—on July 19, 1955.

The Trap

Helen Crane (Agnes Moorehead) has lived alone in her “big ol’ barn” of a house for a couple of years now, and that’s precisely the way she likes it. The only problem is, she’s become convinced that there’s someone else living inside those same four walls—especially when she discovers food missing and a clock that has mysteriously rewound itself. The police dismiss her as some sort of crank, but when the postman questions her about a change-of-address form she’s submitted—and a luggage salesman delivers a set of suitcases she’s ordered—it becomes clear that whomever is in the house wants her gone, even to the point of whistling “Aloha (Farewell to Thee).”

Based on a story by Virginia Meyers and adapted for Suspense by Walter Brown Newman and Ralph Rose, “The Trap” (broadcast on June 16, 1949) is a genuine 24-karat gem; I had not ever heard the program before and was thoroughly delighted and entertained by this wonderfully chilling tale. (Try not to miss this one, the ending is a wow.) Agnes Moorehead gives a performance that almost matches the intensity of her celebrated “Sorry, Wrong Number”; it would be the last of four appearances on the show that season, which also included “The Yellow Wallpaper” (7/29/48), “The Screaming Woman” (11/25/48), and an encore of “Sorry” (11/18/48). “The First Lady of Suspense" is ably supported by an equally top-notch cast that includes Sidney Miller, Herb Vigran, Paula Winslowe and Cathy Lewis.

Suspense fans had the opportunity to get a double dose of the “outstanding theatre of thrills” by the time of this broadcast: a live television version of the show, also sponsored by Autolite, had premiered over CBS-TV March 1, 1949. Several of the episodes included in this Best of Suspense box set were adapted for the new visual medium, among them “Cabin B-13,” “Dead Ernest,” and “On a Country Road.” Although only a handful of the television broadcasts exist today, from the ones I’ve been able to see (thanks to Charlie Summers, who sent me copies of “All Hallow’s Eve” [10/28/52] and “F.O.B. Vienna” [4/28/53]) I don’t think the TV version was as effective as it was on radio. (Certainly, entries such as “Backseat Driver” and “The Trap” would have fallen flat had they been attempted.) But this was of little consequence to the viewing audience—the TV Suspense managed to last for five years, ending its run August 17, 1954.

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