Saturday, September 17, 2011

A few questions about Suspense (with Dr. Joe Webb)

Again, the OTR Buffet is happy to have the very keen insights of Dr. Joe Webb - giving his opinion of a few questions regarding the radio show, Suspense.  You might remember the nice interview he did with me earlier in the year on the subject of Casey, Crime Photographer.

OTR BUFFET: Dr. Joe, thanks for joining me again.  I appreciate your time.  What do you think the main difference is in the pre-1950's shows (produced/directed by William Spier and Anton M. Leader) and those after 1950 which were mostly led by producer and director Elliottt Lewis?

DR. JOE: My favorite is Anton M. Leader. His influence started during the hour-long run with “Beyond Reason” on February 21, 1948. The last show of that season was May 15, 1948. The show returned in its much better half-hour format on July 22, 1948, and he finished on June 30, 1949. This was the best run of Suspense, in my mind, often with fast-moving thrillers. I was not a fan of the Spier shows, but as I have studied a bit more about the series, you do have to respect what he was doing. It was at a higher level than was usual for radio in terms of the overall production values. The Elliott Lewis run (8/31/50 to 7/20/54) took more chances in terms of stories and casting. Getting comedians also increased interest in the show. Jack Benny in a dramatic role? No one would expect that, so it would get some attention. Lewis would also have actors known for singing careers, like Dick Haymes, or Ethel Merman or Rosemary Clooney. He'd also experiment with musical narration, in shows like “Tom Dooley” (3/30/53) or “The Wreck of the Old 97” (3/17/52) or “Frankie and Johnny” (5/5/52) with Dinah Shore.

The Elliott shows are very good, but they can be spotty because he was experimenting with the format so much. I think the Leader half hour shows are consistently better, but both Leader and Lewis are superior runs of the series. In some ways that time was big radio's last stand against the growing diversion of television. The show still had a good-sized budget and could have more lavish productions.

The other shows with Norman MacDonnell, Antony Ellis, and William Robson are better than most other radio of their time. What did surprise me, however, was the New York series, which started August 30, 1959. Collectors had generally felt that this part of the series was not up to the standards of the Hollywood run. I'm sure part of that feeling was because the recordings from this series were mainly home recordings so the sound that survives among collectors was not the best. Considering the budgetary restrictions they were working under, the New York run is better than its reputation. It had a lot of radio's best actors, few of whom had any remaining notoriety, in some very good productions. I urge collectors to give this part of the series new consideration.

OTR BUFFET:  Most people that have a smattering of OTR knowledge probably think of Agnes Moorehead when the topic of Suspense is brought up.  Would you agree with this and why?

DR. JOE: She wasn't called the “First Lady of Suspense” as a joke. The performance of “Sorry, Wrong Number” and her performace brought a lot of respect for the series and radio itself. Remember, radio was generally looked down upon. Theater, especially Broadway, was always held in high esteem, and movies were next, with radio dead last. Eventually, the only thing worse than being a radio actor was to be in early television. This is another example where we may not hold William Spier's work in as high regard since we can see the entire series from an historical vantage point, but at the time casting Moorehead, and having a script and a great performance like that was quite an achievement for that time.

OTR BUFFET:  I've listened to a lot of Suspense in the past couple of months (in the neighborhood of more than 200 episodes.)  I have listened to many others previously.  I recently wrote a series of posts here at the Buffet about my favorite Suspense episodes ( Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.)  Would you care to comment on any of those episodes or mention a few of your favorites that I didn't list?

DR. JOE: Generally, the shows based on Cornell Woolrich stories are quite good. My favorite episode is “Three O'Clock” (3/10/49), but Woolrich had numerous shows adapted. There are some other great shows like “Dead Ernest” (8/8/46, 5/8/47, and 3/24/49), “The Crowd” (9/21/50, a Ray Bradbury story), “The Flame” (5/29/56) and “Fragile: Contents Death” (2/1/51 and 5/22/56).

OTR BUFFET; Which episode of Suspense do you think is the most unique or strangest episode that you've heard and why?

DR. JOE: “Allen in Wonderland” (10/27/52) with Cornell Wilde, but for an odd reason. The show takes place in New York City, and an unnamed cop plays a big role in the story. But anyone who knows OTR knows that when Larry Thor is cast as a policeman, that's no ordinary officer, that's Lt. Danny Clover from “Broadway's My Beat.” This little inside joke is a delight for fans of both series.

©Jimbo 2010/2011


  1. I never heard the musicals Dr. Joe mentions: “Tom Dooley” (3/30/53) or “The Wreck of the Old 97” (3/17/52) or “Frankie and Johnny” (5/5/52) with Dinah Shore.

    Maybe I will need to look them up. Normally do not like musicals, but, wonder if these are different.

  2. If you will recall, there was a Twilight Zone episode (or two) done as a musical as well. If you can recall those, they are very very similar to the Suspense episodes in stye.

    BTW - definitely not my style. I like some musicals. Heck I've even written 3 musicals.


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