28 March: The climb of Suspense

If I ever do any more radio work, I want to do it on Suspense, where I get a good chance to act.

Cary Grant.

The play was the thing, 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.

John Dunning, in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio.


Brian Donlevy delivers an effective turn on tonight's Suspense. (Photo: CBS.)

Brian Donlevy delivers an effective turn on tonight’s Suspense. (Photo: CBS.)

Twenty-first century old-time radio fans and collectors sometimes have a difficult time believing—considering the show’s enduring image—that it took awhile from its birth (aboard the CBS anthology Forecast in 1940) before Suspense became a ratings hit equal to its early reputation as radio’s most sophisticated thriller.

When it became a full-fledged series in 1942-43, Suspense was nowhere to be found in Wednesday night’s top ten rated programs, But the show began to hit a kind of stride the very next season, when it moved to Thursday night, beginning what eventual historians and fans alike considered the show’s classic era. Suspense finished the 1943-44 season with a respectable 8.3 Hooper rating, good enough to beat Death Valley Days (7.4), barely finishing behind Major Bowes’s Original Amateur Hour, and not quite reaching the Thursday night top ten.

In 1944-45, Suspense did better—an 11.1 rating to beat out both Death Valley Days and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, but still not quite enough to reach the top ten during a season in which NBC owned Thursday night (the top nine shows) and only Bill Henry Johns Manville News edged into the top ten for CBS.

By the time of tonight’s 1946 episode, Suspense is on its way to its first-ever top ten Thursday night finish. The show will finish number eight (12.5) ahead of two NBC entries, Lowell Thomas’s news and commentaries and The Rudy Vallee Show, and miss beating George Burns and Gracie Allen on NBC by hairs. And it’s good enough to bring Suspense its very first seasonal top fifty finish.


Suspense: Out of Control (CBS, 1946)

Blind private investigator Duncan Maclain (Brian Donlevy in an effective performance) recalls a chain of chilling events beginning with a gubernatorial hopeful’s vain wife, whose former paramour was a gangster killed in a road accident, whose husband’s former business associate—another former paramour—implies blackmail over the accident, who fears her husband may murder a sheriff who’s also a political enemy, and who manipulated Maclain into helping her.

Additional cast: . 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 . . .

Information, Please: Guest Panelists—Rex Stout, Moss Hart (quiz; NBC, 1939)
Information, Please: Guest Panelist—Elsa Lanchester (quiz; NBC, 1941)
The Charlie McCarthy Show: Carlos McCarthy Returns (comedy; NBC, 1943)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Gildy and Leroy Visit (Or, To Know Him is to Love Him—and So Few Know Him) (comedy; NBC, 1944)
Escape: Shipment of Mute Fate (adventure; CBS, 1948)
Fibber McGee & Molly: The Flying Saucer (comedy; NBC, 1950)
The Bob Hope Show: Bing Crosby and Doris Day (comedy; NBC, 1950)
The Henry Morgan Show: Tall in the Saddle (comedy; NBC, 1950)
Broadway is My Beat: The John Stewart Murder Case (crime drama; CBS, 1953)
Gunsmoke: Quarter Horse (western; CBS, 1953)

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