Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Suspense Of Suspense

The way I figure it any TV show I've never seen is a new show.
So you can imagine my sheer delight when the boxed set of Suspense arrived at my desk.
The CBS series ran from March 1949 to August 1954 for a total of 260 episodes. But since this was live TV the original kinescopes were considered long lost.
CBS was clearing one of its storage vaults when 90 original half hour kinescopes were found. Kinescopes were 16 mm recordings of the actual live performance. A fixed camera attached to a TV monitor captured every flub and glitch but the quality was necessarily quite low.
The kinescopes were then flown to Los Angeles for transmission the next week (and then went to San Francisco for a third airing). Live transmissions across the country were not possible until the mid-Fifties.
After being used the kinescopes had no further use: Many were dumped in Frisco Bay while others destroyed for their silver content.
To watch these "live" TV performances is to be transported into another time, the dawn of TV.
Suspense was one of many TV series with radio antecedents. The list includes Our Miss Brooks, Father Knows Best, Gunsmoke.
The radio program began in 1942 and included the fabulously famous broadcasting of Sorry, Wrong Number with Agnes Moorehead which ran live as died most radio dramas.
Radio's version lasted until 1962 and when it left the air it was the only regularly scheduled drama series left on U.S. commercial radio.
The TV series was sent out live every week from CBS Studios atop Grand Central station. But the half hour format proved too cramped --such authors as Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe and a youngster named Rod Serling were used.
Scripts are far too talky but this was necessary because outdoor filming could not be utilized. What fascinates are the presence of many unknown actors soon to burst into stardom: Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger.
Plus there are many Hollywood stars on their way down the ladder: Boris Karloff, Joan Blondell, John Carradine, Chester Morris.
An example is the Jan. 22 1952 episode The Red Signal by Agatha Christie. That wonderful old Broadway actress Isobel Elsom is a phony medium who drags up emotions at a seance between Tom Helmore and Beatrice Straight who is cheating on her husband Peter Cookson. Straight and Cookson were married in real life which is interesting but there's not enough time to properly tell the story.
In another 1952 episode titled The Corsage Brian Keith (then known as Robert Keith Jr.) is an investigating police officer in a small town who determines that a serial killer has type "H" blood and is able to track the man down --is this TV's first use of CSI techniques?
In one chilling 1951 episode John Forsythe and Mary Sinclair play young marrieds on a honeymoon in New England. It's a foggy night and they hear on the car radio that a deranged woman who has killed is on the loose from the local asylum. Running out of gas they take refuge in a fisherman's shed only to hear a woman banging on the door. Should they let her in out of the storm? Mildred Natwick is the woman and she's plenty scarey.
As the years go on the quality of the shows gets better, smoother. There are fewer awkward moments.
This DVD set of Suspense reminds us of the days when TV was live, relevant and boasted great acting.
In today's sea of endless summer reruns here is a reminder how much we've lost in the onward march from a few to hundreds of channels.
The six disc set is from CBS and Infinity Entertainment and is a must to understand the glory days of TV drama..

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