NBC finds itself in a bind to open the 1949-50 radio season. Red Skelton has defected to CBS, another in the line of defections that took off in earnest, once Jack Benny bolted after his NBC contract negotiations broke down the previous winter. Eddie Cantor has left Friday nights to take on hosting Take It or Leave It on Sunday nights. And moving The Life of Riley and The Jimmy Durante Show to hold fort in the 9:00 p.m. hour is only a stopgap while the network spends calendar 1949 preparing a new show to take the slot come January 1950.
The only problem with Screen Directors’ Playhouse is that it arrives maybe a decade too late.
Inviting major Hollywood stars to perform radio adaptations of popular films is a longtime staple thanks to the continuing success of CBS’s Lux Radio Theater (thought that show has often used the big stars in roles they didn’t originate on the screen) plus such other previous entries as Academy Award, the short-lived, often engaging Old Gold Comedy Theater (the latter having had the additional oomph of being directed by screen legend Harold Lloyd), and Screen Guild Theater.
Screen Directors’ Playhouse will seem to be little more than a re-dressed Screen Guild Theater, the distinction being director participation, though—as John Dunning would remember in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio—the directors not only introduce the adaptations of films they’d directed, they reminisce with the performers about how the original films were made as well as what each has done since making the film.
That makes for interesting recent history, of course, but it can’t help save a show no matter how fresh the writing (usually, by Dick Simmons and Milton Geiger) proves to be. Screen Guild Theater had the advantage of arriving in the best time for such a program; in 1939, when that show premiered, radio audiences hadn’t yet been saturated by the big stars/pared-down radio adaptations. Screen Directors’ Playhouse doesn’t. It will engage critics who like its scripts, its acting, and its clean production; in fact, those critics usually point to Screen Directors’ Playhouse as the better-written, better-directed series, and they are not wrong.
Unfortunately, it won’t engage listeners.
During a season on a night ABC takes five top ten slots for the first time since it was born as NBC Blue in 1927—with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet owning 9:00 in the bargain—Screen Directors’ Playhouse begins life with a 7.1 Nielsen rating, a few points behind another ABC entry, The Sheriff, on a night when the average rating is 9.8 for the season . . . and ABC’s The Fat Man and This Is Your FBI hog the top two Friday slots with 11.9 and 11.8, respectively.
Never making it even into an overall seasonal top fifty—even after expanding (in November 1950) to an hourlong format suited much better for what it wants to accomplish, an hour that proves some of radio’s absolute best in quality (Lifeboat and The Lady Gambles are just two)—Screen Directors’ Playhouse will manage to last a season and a half, expiring quietly toward the end of September 1951.
In one of the better of this show’s original half-hours, Joseph Cotten reprises his 1948 film role as struggling Depression-era artist Eben Adams, whose long battle for success takes a twist or three when—having sold his first painting at last—he finds unusual inspiration through mysterious young Jennie Appleton (Barbara Eiler, in the Jennifer Jones film role, with Norma Jean Nilsson playing Jennie as a young girl), who meets him in Central Park and strikes up a unique friendship with him.
Additional cast: Lurene Tuttle, Ellen Rodley, Wilm Herbert, Ramsey Hill, Vic Perrin, Frank Barton. Announcer: Jimmy Wallington. Music: William Lava. Writer: Milton Geiger, based on the novel by Robert Nathan.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Town Hall Tonight: Murder on the High Seas; or, One Long Pan Helps Boy Meet Gull (comedy/variety; NBC, 1937)
Lum & Abner: Well, Y’all! (comedy; CBS, 1939)
Lux Radio Theater: The Awful Truth (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1941)
Fibber McGee & Molly: The Footstool (comedy; NBC, 1942)
The Fred Allen Show: Banana Man’s Lament (comedy; NBC, 1946)
The Jimmy Durante Show: Jimmy Runs for Vice President (comedy; NBC, 1948)
Broadway is My Beat: The Dr. Robert Stafford Murder Case (crime drama; CBS, 1950)
Escape: Port Royal (adventure; CBS, 1950)
My Favourite Husband: Women’s Rights, Part Two (comedy; CBS, 1950)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Something Fell Off the Car (comedy; NBC, 1953)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Manages Quilby’s Variety Store (comedy; NBC, 1954)
The CBS Radio Workshop: Air Raid—The Prevarications of Mr. Peep (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1957)
Gunsmoke: Grebb Hassle (Western; CBS, 1957)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: One Fella’s Family—A Quiet Evening at Home (improvisational comedy; If You Gotta Ask, We’re Not Doing It Right, 1960)