Saturday, March 13, 2004

“Keeper of the Book…what tale will you tell us this time?”

In 1944’s Off Mike, Arch Oboler of Lights Out fame described writing for radio as “hamburger writing,” noting that “the medium is a quicksand into which millions of words disappear without a trace. All the stories printed monthly in magazines, if assembled into one script, would not be sufficient to keep a network’s monitor loudspeakers chattering for a week.”

To be certain, radio in its Golden Age had a voracious appetite for material—George Burns once noted that while it was possible for a comedian in vaudeville to last a decade with a stage act consisting of only seventeen minutes worth of material, that could all end with one appearance on a weekly half-hour program. Therefore, it was not uncommon for shows to recycle previously broadcast material—long before the concept of recycling was considered environmentally proper.

I thought about this earlier today when I sampled a pair of episodes from The Sealed Book, a syndicated horror anthology broadcast over Mutual/WOR from March 18-September 9, 1945. The program, produced and directed by Jock MacGregor and featuring Philip Clarke as narrator, essentially recycled scripts (by Robert A. Arthur and David Kogan) previously broadcast on Mutual’s popular The Mysterious Traveler. The program would open with sinister laughter and a gong (on loan from Lights Out, no doubt), as “the Keeper of the Book” would unlock “the ponderous volume in which are recorded all the secrets and mysteries of mankind through the ages.” (You can certainly see why the book was sealed, then, since you don’t want that kind of information getting out.) The Keeper would then use the half-hour allotted to him by telling “tales of every kind, tales of murder, tales of madness, of dark deeds and events strange beyond all belief.”

It’s a pretty big buildup for a show that sounds as if it were produced for a buck ninety-eight, but it does have an enjoyable camp quality about it. In “I’ll Die Laughing” (5/27/45), John Dayton, his wife Laura, and attorney-friend Harvey go spelunking in an old cave that—according to a recently deceased prospector—contains Aztec treasure. Harvey, unbeknownst to his pal John, has an ulterior motive in this whole expedition—namely, murdering John and running off with Laura. Of course, as we have learned from a lifetime of Alfred Hitchcock Presents repeats, the best laid plans… I did learn one important thing from this episode—make damn sure your best friend isn’t a lawyer.

“Design For Death” (6/3/45) showcases the story of Carl and Dora Evans, a husband-and-wife team who are on the lam from the law and who pose as brother and sister in order to hide out in an old house where wealthy recluse Mordred Vance resides. Vance takes a shine to Dora and proposes to her, which suits her “brother” just fine, as the old man has a tidy sum of $50,000 tucked away as a dowry. The twist of the tale is, there’s something in Vance’s past that he isn’t quite forthcoming about. Both of these scripts, as stated earlier, appeared previously on The Mysterious Traveler: “I’ll Die Laughing” on May 7, 1944, and “Design” March 5 that same year.

The Sealed Book isn’t classic radio, but it’s certainly not dull; the acting is a bit melodramatic, though—particularly at the climax of “Design For Death” when both actors go back for seconds and thirds at the scenery salad/buffet bar. Though the show is cheaply done, it is of mild importance to OTR fans in one respect: it allows modern-day fans the opportunity to listen to additional episodes of The Mysterious Traveler. (All twenty-six episodes of Book are extant today.) With the advent of cassettes and CDs, of course, the repetition is noticeable now—I’m sure those members of the listening audience probably didn’t even bat an eyelash back then. Even big-budget shows like The Jack Benny Program weren’t immune to “recycling”; Jack’s stable of high quality writers weren’t shy about reworking previous scripts and gags. It reminds me of the famous remark: “Movies aren’t made—they’re remade.”

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