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Old-Time Radio In Review
by Elizabeth McLeod
When you first hear "old time radio," whether you're rediscovering a lost part of your youth or you're discovering a form of entertainment you never knew existed, there's a real sense of excitement. But what happens when the "newness" of OTR wears off. Can these fifty or sixty year old programs really stand up as entertainment?
That's the question I hope to tackle in this monthly column, posted to the new OldRadio Mailing List and The Nostalgia Pages. I'll be considering many different shows, some familiar, some obscure -- but all of them available to modern listeners. I'll try to put the programs into some sort of historical perspective -- and I'll offer my candid opinions on whether they've stood the test of time. You may agree -- or not. Either way, I encourage you to listen for yourself -- and discover the world of Old Time Radio.
An Overview of Radio's Outstanding Theatre of Thrills.
An Overview of Radio's Outstanding Theatre of Thrills.
Film scholars have debated for years over the so-called "auteur" theory of film analysis -- the idea that above any other individual the director is the true "author" of a film, stamping the production with the hallmarks of his or her own personal style. While controversial, this theory has come to dominate film criticism over the past forty years -- but it's seldom really been applied to the realm of Old Time Radio.
Some radio directors -- like some film directors -- were little better than hacks, grinding out product to meet a quota with little distinction between indvidual productions. But other directors in the Golden Age of Radio approached the medium with a clear creative vision -- and perhaps no series illustrates the applicability of the "auteur" theory to radio like "Suspense."
"Suspense" ran over CBS for almost exactly twenty years -- but the argument can be made that the program was not one continuous series, but a series of distinctly different programs, linked by a common title. Each of these eras was marked by the imprint of a specific director's personal approach to the art of radio drama, and each era offers unique possibilities for the modern-day listener.
The program began in 1942 under the supervision of William Spier, who is the director most associated with "Suspense" in the minds of modern-day enthusiasts. It was Spier who established the basic ground rule for the series -- tightly written thriller stories based not on boogeymen but on plausible real-life situations. While there were exceptions to this rule during Spier's tenure, they were comparatively rare. Spier's "Suspense" tends to revolve around ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Spier's casts were usually headed by name stars -- backed by a solid stock company of experienced radio actors. Spier's work is perhaps the most familiar of all of the "Suspense" eras -- and for me, perhaps the most representative program of his tenure is the supremely nerve-wracking "Dead Ernest."
Spier remained with the series thru 1948, when he was replaced by Anton M. Leader -- whose approach was similar to that of his predecessor yet subtly different. Rather than sticking to Spier's concept of a resident stock company of actors in support of a showcased star, Leader's programs involved a wider variety of performers, and the broader range of supporting voices added a new dimension to the established format. It was still "Suspense" -- but it was no longer William Spier's "Suspense."
Norman MacDonnell took over for Leader as director in 1949, giving a preview of what would become the CBS "house style" in the 1950s -- an emphasis on understated acting and ultra-realistic sound effects. Then, in August 1950, Elliot Lewis took over the series, beginning what is arguably its finest era.
The Lewis-helmed "Suspense" took the series into realms it had only touched upon under previous directors -- with adventure stories drawn from historical events ("The Diary of Captain Scott") with ambitious adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens ("Othello," "The Mystery of Edwin Drood") and even with dramatic settings based on old ballads ("The Wreck of the Old 97"). Lewis' work stands in many ways not just as the peak of "Suspense," but perhaps as the pinnacle of American radio drama.
After Lewis left the series in 1954 -- and after the program lost its sponsor -- it was taken over on a drastically reduced budget by William N. Robson. Robson had been one of the major innovators in dramatic technique during the 1930s, but his "Suspense" work broke little new ground. It was well-produced, technically adept, and well-acted -- but after the accomplishments of the Lewis years, it also seems both bland and *conventional.* This trend continued thru "Suspense's" final years, the New York era of Bruno Zirota Jr. and Fred Henderson, from 1959 to 1962. By the end, "Suspense" had taken on a B-movie quality -- it could still offer an interesting twenty-five minutes' diversion, but there was little real distinctiveness to the work. The series expired as a shadow of what it once was -- but that it managed to endure into the 1960s at all is a sign of just how powerful the "Suspense" franchise had been.
Different directors, different approaches, a style for every taste. No matter what approach to radio drama you prefer, you'll find it in "Suspense."
Elizabeth McLeod is a journalist, researcher, and freelance writer specializing in radio of the 1930s. She is a regular contributor to "Nostalgia Digest" magazine and the Internet OTR Digest Mailing List, maintains a website, Broadcasting History Resources, and is presently researching a book on Depression-era broadcasting. Elizabeth is always looking for 1930s radio recordings in all formats -- uncoated aluminum or lacquer-coated discs, vinyl or shellac pressings, or low-generation tape copies. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org