Because its reputation will merely increase with time, as network radio’s classic era recedes further and further in the rearview mirror of American entertainment, it might be difficult for 21st Century fans to believe that it took several seasons before Suspense proved anything close to a ratings hit commensurate with its image as radio’s most sophisticated thriller.
Launched (as was Duffy’s Tavern) by way of the CBS anthology series Forecast in 1940, before becoming a full-time series in 1942, Suspense didn’t exactly begin with a bang—the show was nowhere to be found in Wednesday night’s top ten for 1942-43, and you’d have needed a homing pigeon to contact it past the overal top fifty.
In 1943-44, however, moving to Thursday nights, the show began to hit a kind of stride; eventual historians and fans alike would come to consider its 1943-47 life Suspense‘s “classic era.” It pulled down an 8.3 Hooper rating in 1943-44, beating Death Valley Days (7.4), barely losing to Major Bowes’s Original Amateur Hour, and not quite reaching Thursday night’s top ten.
But the show already has appeal beyond its cult following—performers love to work it. Cary Grant loved the show so much that as early as 1943 he would tell a reporter, “If I ever do any more radio work, I want to do it on Suspense, where I get a good chance to act.” Hence one of the keys to the show’s eventual long-term survival; whether top Hollywood stars or venerable representatives from Hollywood’s to-be-legendary Radio Row performers, Suspense has been one of the most acute examples of each element knitted to a whole, from the sound and the music to the writing and the performers.
“The play was the thing,” John Dunning (On the Air) would remember, “and [the performers] knew that contributing to a superior product would enhance their reputations far more than reading some feeble film condensation.”
Suspense was one of radio’s glamour showcases, but it never seemed to be trading on celebrity. People like Henry Fonda, Frederic March, and Humphrey Bogart appeared each week, but in scripts fine-tuned to their talents. [Creator-director] William Spier became known as ‘the Hitchcock of the airlanes.’ With the stars he was flexible; he required little rehearsal, just a few hours before air time. He wanted them tense at the microphone. They rewarded him with performances that were almost uniformly fine, matching the levels achieved by their underpaid supporting players, the professional radio people.
The show increased its rating for 1944-45. Tonight’s installment comes as Suspense is en route its very first seasonal top fifty and Thursday night top ten—it will finish number eight on the night, and in a very respectable number 36 slot overall. It’s a prelude to Suspense‘s first top twenty-five overal seasonal finish in 1946-47 and a number three finish on Thursday nights, its 13.5 outdone only by Eddie Cantor (14.4) and Burns & Allen (15.2) on the night. But it slipped right past The Aldrich Family (13.2) at 8 p.m., which probably proved that real terror or the prospect thereof was just a little bit better than Mother Aldrich’s spine-calcifying (and utterly insufferable) Hen-reeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Come 1947-48, however, Suspense—by now sponsored by Autolite spark plugs, after a brief sustaining period following its long tenure with Roma Wines—will be given a mid-season switch, moved from Thursday to Friday nights (its 15.0 rating will still finish top ten on Thursday for that season and at number fifty exactly overall).
But when CBS returns the show to Thursday nights for 1948-49, after a very brief cancellation while trying to find a new sponsor, that proves the jackpot—Suspense will be the number one show on the night (16/4), clobbering Al Jolson’s Kraft Music Hall (12.8) at 9 p.m. and beating Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons by a fraction to take the top Thursday haul, and finishing with (does this figure) a number thirteen overall finish.
Suspense will stay top ten on Thursdays and top fifty overall until 1951-52, when it’s moved to Monday nights and finishes fourth on the night behind Lux Radio Theater, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and The Bob Hawk Show. But that will also make it the number one thriller of the season and the number twelve show of any kind overall on the season, by far the biggest comeback of any radio show that season.
Come 1952-53, perhaps the final year when network radio ratings mean anything substantial or will even be bothered with, Suspense pulls up number two behind Lux and will help CBS achieve a first: the Tiffany Network will finish the season with five shows each on radio and television that finish number one in their time periods on Monday night—including Suspense.
If you consider the Golden Age of Radio to end in 1952-53 (with another decade to come before the patient is finally laid to rest in earnest), Suspense‘s rating also helps CBS achieve a radio ratings record: eleven of the season’s top twelve prime time radio shows.
Suspense, of course, will endure securely enough that it will be one of the two series to close out network radio as long known in 1962, in hand with Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. With at least nine hundred of its 945 broadcasts surviving to be heard by future old-time radio collectors, which may or may not be the absolute happiest of endings for such collectors and radio historians alike.
TUNE IN TONIGHT:
Brian Donlevy is effective as Baynard Kendrick’s blind private investigator Duncan Maclain, recalling a chain of chilling events beginning with a gubernatorial hopeful’s vain wife (Cathy Lewis), whose former paramour was a gangster killed in a road accident, who’s threatened with blackmail over the accident, who fears her husband may murder a sheriff who’s also a political enemy, and who’s manipulating Maclain into helping her.
Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcers: Ken Niles, Truman Bradley (for Roma Wines). Music: Bernard Herrmann. Director: William Spier. Writer: based on the novel by Baynard Kendrick.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Escape: Shipment of Mute Fate (CBS, 1948)—Harry Bartell, Barry Kroeger, unidentified additional cast. From the Martin Storm short story: A cruise ship is compelled to carry a dangerous piece of cargo—a lethal snake causing shipboard complications for a museum staffer charged with capturing it, and the captain agreeing to keep in crated in his cabin. Hold on.
Fibber McGee & Molly: Gildy and Leroy Visit (Or, To Know Him is to Love Him—and So Few Know Him) (NBC, 1944)—Harold Peary, Walter Tetley, Marlin Hurt, Arthur Q. Bryan, Shirley Mitchell, Harlow Wilcox. The Great Gildersleeve himself and nephew Leroy pay a visit to the McGees while on a train change in Wistful Vista, but Gildy’s old “little chum” isn’t home even if other old acquaintances are. As a fill-in while series star Jim Jordan is recuperating from pneumonia, not to mention returning the favour the Jordans gave in a Gildersleeve guest shot, this is pretty good stuff.
The Charlie McCarthy Show: Carlos McCarthy Returns (NBC, 1943)—Edgar Bergen, Dale Evans, Roy Rogers. He’s back from his “international jaunt,” and perhaps Dale can bring him back to his actual or alleged senses, with a little help from Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. Almost.