Monday, October 20, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Hitch-Hike Poker"

I've written before on the subject of how danger would be found along the highways of Suspense; today's feature hits upon hitchhiking and an unusual way to pass one's time.

"Hitch-Hike Poker" originally aired September 16, 1948 with Gregory Peck as the leading man. Peck plays a war veteran out hitchhiking; a motorist who picks him up introduces him to a way to play games of poker by using the license plates of passing cars. It's innocent enough until the motorist tries to murder his passenger! You may download the episode from archive.org here.

What makes "Hitch-Hike Poker" stick in my memory is the titular game itself; I come from a family which would spend a lot of time on the highways and my siblings and I would have to either concoct our own amusements or stare vacantly out of the windows. We did play games with license plates, although being the upright kids we were, we never thought to turn it into a game of poker. Lucky thing too, or it would have been an easy step for me to start gambling matchsticks. What then, bottlecaps?

Suspense repeated this script on January 25, 1959 as "Four of a Kind" with Elliott Reid in Peck's role. Although this other version truncates the story a little, it's also very good - in fact, I like some of Reid's line readings much more than Peck's. You can try it out from archive.org here.

Tomorrow: "There was something about him, like I was watching myself. Then I realized there was something - someone in the darkness behind him!"

Sunday, October 19, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "On a Country Road"

Today I'm returning to an episode of Suspense featuring Cary Grant as the star. Grant appeared a few times on Suspense - only only in the previously-featured "The Black Curtain," but also in "The Black Path of Fear" and today's entry, the November 16, 1950 program "On a Country Road," which you can download from archive.org here.

Grant is remembered as being the most suave of all classic Hollywood actors and an interesting range of his performances are still renowned today - everything from His Girl Friday to Charade. Grant never busted out his comedic talents for Suspense, but these dramatic roles do bring back memories his appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion & Notorious. Here, Grant played the latest of Suspense's unlucky motorists as he drives himself and his wife down a deserted road, then runs out of gas. However, this isn't the start of a make-out session - not with a crazed mental patient on the loose!

Like many popular episodes, "On a Country Road" would be repeated, ultimately rebroadcasted on December 4, 1954 & May 10, 1959.

Tomorrow: "King? I had to laugh. Beldon was the king, I was just the joker."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Short Order"

I enjoy old-time radio horror shows such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries and the Mysterious Traveler, but I think I've always sensed they were not made of the same caliber as Suspense. For one thing, those programs were too eager to pile on atmosphere and deliver "shocking" developments every 5 minutes. By comparison, Suspense would occasionally take a slow-burn approach to tension and demonstrated how to get it done without relying on flying bullets or falling corpses.

Such a program is "Short Order" from August 16, 1945. It features Joseph Kearns as the owner of a diner who must contend with a disfigured customer whose presence is depressing his business. This is all that's required for the bulk of the program - the tension between the owner and the customer as the former tries to save his business from ruin. Then, just as the twist ending seems to have been revealed... it explodes into a terrifying climax. You may download it from archive.org here.

Joseph Kearns' voice was frequently heard on Suspense in supporting roles, narrative roles or to shill products for the sponsors. In my opinion, he gave his finest performance in this outing. In all, he was a talented radio performer in both drama & comedy.

Tomorrow: "Such a desolate place to run out of gas..."

Friday, October 17, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "To Find Help"

The "home invasion" plot which has become so popular with today's audiences is nothing new - you can find plenty of thrillers rooted in the same fears expressed in those films.

On January 6, 1949, Suspense played the episode "To Find Help," with Ethel Barrymore as an old woman who hires the seemingly-nice young Gene Kelly to do some chores for her. Unfortunately, Kelly ain't quite right in the head. You may download the episode from archive.org here.

When the episode was first performed on Suspense on January 18, 1945, Agnes Moorehead played the woman with Frank Sinatra as the young man. I think Sinatra's performance was stronger than Kelly, but I much prefer Barrymore's to Moorehead's. Still, it's worth hearing both versions so you can find the original at archive.org here.

Another aspect of Suspense which changes between the two performances is their commercial sponsorship; the first version occurred during the days of Roma Wines, while the second debuted in the days of Auto-Lite. I have to say, I much prefer the rich, warm, velvety Roma Wines commercials - they never clash against the tone of Suspense, while all too-often Harlow Wilcox's noisy Auto-Lite ads dissipate the tension of the surrounding program. Still, Auto-Lite commercials remain much more palatable than Lucky Strikes'.

Tomorrow: "Nothing like ketchup, I always say."

Thursday, October 16, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Drive-In"

Suspense excelled at placing its central characters into tense, desperate situations which either demanded great ingenuity on the protagonist's part for them to escape, or led to the protagonist's downfall. Sometimes the protagonists had committed crimes, then had to protect themselves from the law, other criminals or both. Other times the protagonists were upstanding people who maneuvered themselves into harsh situations; perhaps they worked too late at the office ("Very Much Like a Nightmare"), turned down a road they shouldn't have ("On a Country Road") or merely walked into a dark subway tunnel ("Subway Stop"). Today's protagonist accepts a ride from a stranger; terror ensues.

This version of "Drive-In" premiered November 21, 1946 on Suspense with Judy Garland in the lead role. Garland portrays a waitress at a drive-in who has to work a little too late and misses her bus home; a friendly customer offers her a lift and from there she's placed into a dilemma which can only be solved by her own cunning. You may download the episode from archive.org here.

The original broadcast of "Drive-In" was heard on January 11, 1945 with Nancy Kelly in the lead role. No offense to Ms. Kelly, but I prefer Garland's performance - especially with Garland acting opposite Elliott Lewis as the maniac. Still, if you wish to compare the two versions you can find the original broadcast at archive.org here.

Tomorrow: "If you must know, I'll tell you: they said there was something wrong with my mind."

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "Chickenfeed"

In the world of Suspense there's nothing more dangerous than the open highway. If you're out hitchhiking, then you can't trust whoever picks you up; if you're a motorist, you're in jeopardy from sinister hitchhikers or escaped mental patients. Your car might strand you in a precarious position - you might get run off the road. And sometimes you might pull into a town where anything which could go wrong, does go wrong.

"Chickenfeed" aired September 8, 1949 with star Ray Milland. Milland plays a motorist who drives into a small town after an argument with his wife. For want of a nickel, he soon finds himself in trouble with the law, then incarcerated with a couple of jerks, then placed in mortal danger! You may download the episode from archive.org here!

I think this episode teaches one a valuable lesson about money; guard your nickels, boys! It might save you from prison - and it might save your life!

Tomorrow: "I wasn't used to doing this kind of thing. The other girls sometimes let a customer drive them home, but I never did."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

31 Days of Suspense: "John Barbie and Son"

I enjoy mystery-thriller stories which have a great surprise ending - but at the same time (as I've droned on about before), I like stories which play fair with the audience.

On February 22, 1945, Thomas Mitchell starred in the Suspense episode "John Barbie and Son." Mitchell portrays a devoted father, determined to protect his son, a child whose developmental needs have forced them to go on the run from the authorities. You may download the episode from archive.org here.

The clues to the central mystery of "John Barbie and Son" are laid out for anyone with the attention span to notice them; the sharp WHAM! ending of this episode will not surprise you if you've been pitting your wits against the creators - but it's not required of you to match wits with the creators! As I've complained before, Suspense's first auteur John Dickson Carr seemed so obsessed with upsetting his listeners' expectations that his episodes are almost unbearable - they're certainly not entertaining. Suspense is entertainment. Settle back and enjoy it.

Tomorrow: "The face I said I wouldn't want to run into - close."