Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Suspense: From Classic Radio Show to Hit TV Show

More so than television ever has been, Old Time Radio was known for its classic horror and suspense anthology shows. Such radio programmes as The Witch's Tale, Lights Out, and Inner Sanctum are remembered to this day. Perhaps the best remembered of Old Time Radio's horror and suspense anthologies was a programme simply titled Suspense. Suspense had the longest run of any of the horror and suspense radio shows. It ran for twenty years, from 1942 to 1962.  Given its ratings throughout its run, as well as a remarkably long run, Suspense definitely numbers among the most successful American radio shows of all time. Like Lights Out and Inner Sanctum it would also make the transition to television. There it also proved successful, although its run on television was considerably shorter.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the origins of Suspense owe a debt to the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. In July 1940 CBS debuted a summer replacement show simply entitled Forecast. Forecast was essentially a radio show that each week would present an audition show (the radio equivalent of a television pilot) for a prospective new radio show. It was on July 22 1940 that Forecast featured the audition for a prospective new show called Suspense. To direct the audition show for Suspense CBS was able to get none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself. An agreement was struck with producer Walter Wanger, producer on Alfred Hitchcock's current movie, and the director that he would direct the show on the condition that Mr. Hitchcock could plug his latest film, Foreign Correspondent. The audition show was an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's 1926 film The Lodger, and starred Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwenn. The following week Forecast would air the audition show for what would become another successful radio show, Duffy's Tavern.

The audition show for Suspense received a good response from radio listeners, with letters and phone calls pouring into CBS regarding the programme. Despite this Suspense would not be added to the CBS schedule for quite some time. Fortunately, two events occurred that would guarantee that Suspense would become a mainstay of CBS Radio for twenty years. First, in 1941 the NBC Blue Network debuted Inner Sanctum Mystery, an anthology series that delivered mystery, suspense, and horror with a dose of humour. Inner Sanctum Mystery proved to be an enormous success. Second in the summer of 1942 CBS needed a summer replacement series for their radio show Random Harvest. With Inner Sanctum Mysteries a hit at the NBC Blue Network, CBS thought a suspense anthology would be a good idea. Fortunately, Suspense proved successful enough as a summer replacement series that it won a spot on CBS's schedule as a regularly scheduled programme.

Unlike its predecessors Lights Out and Inner Sanctum Mystery, Suspense was promoted as a prestige programme. It was writer and producer William Spier who largely shaped Suspense, supervising every single script. Quality was not simply expected from its scripts, but every other aspect of the show as well. Suspense also featured top name stars from film and stage, including Anne Baxter, Humprey Bogart, Ronald Colman, Jospeh Cotten, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Agnes Moorehead, Orson Welles, and many others. Bernard Hermman composed the theme to Suspense. While Lights Out and Inner Sanctum Mystery tended to feature more horror, Suspense spanned genres with episodes that could be considered spy thrillers, mysteries, or tales of horror. Suspense adapted The Thirty Nine Steps as well as H. P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror. It adapted The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie as well as Donovan's Brain by Curt Siodmak.

With the phenomenal success it had seen on radio, it was quite natural that CBS would want to bring Suspense to television. Suspense made its television debut on March 1 1949. The show was broadcast live from CBS's studios in New York City, and distributed through kinescopes to stations throughout the United States. While the radio show had expanded from thirty minutes to an hour in length in 1949, the television version of Suspense was thirty minutes. It retained Bernard Hermann's theme music, although it was played on a Hammond organ rather than by an orchestra. In its early days Suspense was produced by Robert Stevens, who would go on to produce Alfred Hitchcock Presents for many years.

To a degree the television version of Suspense was largely similar to the original radio version. Much like the radio version it featured several big names stars over the years, including Jackie Cooper, Hume Cronyn, Nina Foch, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Jeffrey Lynn, Mildred Natwick, and Basil Rathbone. It also featured such up and coming young stars as John Forsythe, Eva Gabor, Cloris Leachman, Jack Lemmon, E. G. Marshall, Lee Marvin, and Leslie Nielsen. Like the radio show, the television version of Suspense adapted stories from such mystery and suspense writers as Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Cornell Woolrich. As might be expected, the television version of Suspense also adapted many of the original plays from the radio show.

While the television version of Suspense was similar to the radio version in many ways, it also differed in some respects from the original radio show as well. The most obvious difference was that it was only a half hour at a time when the radio show was a full hour. A less obvious is that the television version featured more stories of horror than the radio show. The first season alone featured adaptations of Lord Dunsany's play A Night at the Inn, W. W. Jacobs' story "The Monkey's Paw," and Joseph Ruscoll's story "The Creeper." If anything the second season would feature even more horror stories, with adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,"Ollala (under the title "Black Passage")", and "The Suicide Club", Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Cask of Amontillado," and Michael Arlen's The Gentleman From America. In its later seasons the television version of Suspense drifted away from the genre of horror. Much of the reason for this is that the original teleplays also began to outnumber the adaptations of stories and novels in the later seasons as well. Still, tales of horror would appear on the show from time to time. As well as original horror stories and adaptations of originals from the radio show, the television version of Suspense would adapt Robert Louis Stevenson's "Markheim (under the title of "All Hallows Eve") and "The Beach of Falsea" and Charles Dickens' "The Signal Man."

Particularly given the content of some of its earlier episodes, Suspense did occasionally court controversy. New York Times radio and television columnist Jack Gould himself took issue with the episode "Breakdown," in which a still living but comatose man was nearly cremated. The episode "Black Passage (an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of vampirism "Ollala")" caused a bit of a stir when a character was portrayed as drinking a glass of human blood. Not surprisingly, then, Suspense was sometimes mentioned by moral watchdog groups when discussing television violence.

Regardless, Suspense proved very popular as a television series. For the 1949-1950 season it ranked in #8 in the top ten highest rated shows for the season. What is more it was still popular when it ended its run in 1954. According to the July 10 1954 issue of Billboard, CBS moved Suspense from 9:30 Eastern Time on Tuesday to make room for the sitcom Life with Father. CBS offered Suspense's sponsor, Auto-Lite (the manufacturer of spark plugs and automobile ignition wires), alternative time slots (and afterwards even alternative programmes), but Auto-Lite rejected both offers. The initial run of the television version Suspense then came to an end.

In 1957 CBS discussed an hour long, filmed version of Suspense, along with a television version of radio's Richard Diamond, Private Detective, but while Richard Diamond made it to the small screen, Suspense was not revived as an hour long show that season. Suspense was revived as a summer replacement series hosted by Sebastian Cabot in the summer of 1964, but it was a pale imitation of both the classic radio show and the original television version.

As to the original radio show, it ended its run on September 30 1962. Given this date would be the last time the major radio networks would air original dramas in prime time, it is considered to be the end of Old Time Radio. Fittingly, Suspense, one of the most successful radio shows of all time, was the last prime time radio drama CBS ever aired.

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