Suspense, one of the best American radio series of the mid-Twentieth century, was broadcast weekly from Hollywood between 1942-1962. It was known for the excellence of its programs and the way in which it featured big name movie stars in unusual roles. It was also one of the radio series of that era that made the jump to television.
Suspense made its television debut on CBS on March 1, 1949, and was featured weekly on Tuesday nights between 9:30-10:00. The television series was broadcast live from New York City and was produced independently of the radio series. The Auto-lite Company, Suspense's radio sponsor at the time, also sponsored Suspense on television.
Although the series was the product of the best that the fledgling television industry had to offer, the show had its failings. Some episodes managed to be as gripping as the radio show, but in general, Suspense on television was not of the same quality that it was on radio. The television series aired from 1949 to 1954, when Autolite withdrew its sponsorship. Suspense never ran in syndication.
Unlike the radio shows, the television episodes of Suspense have not been available to the public since they aired over fifty years ago.
During this time it was thought that only a small number of the series' 245 episodes had survived, but now 90 of these broadcasts have resurfaced. These "lost" episodes have been digitally remastered from the surviving kinescope masters and divided into three DVD sets. The first of the three collections of thirty episodes became available on July 24, 2007. Suspense: The Lost Episodes (Collection 1) was released in association with CBS Enterprises, Falcon Picture Group, and Infinity Entertainment. The second set will be available at the end of October 2007, and the last at a later date. Aside from these, there are a few episodes housed in broadcasting archives that are available for viewing. There are also a few episodes for sale on the Internet.
How is the television show different from the radio show?
Suspense was unable to create the same stories and characters on television that were possible in the imaginative world of radio. Suspense's television episodes were shorter and structured into two acts, instead of radio's three, to accommodate the lengthy ads from the show's sponsor, Autolite. One similarity between the two is that they were both broadcast live. This is why there are kinescope masters of the television shows.
What is kinescope?
It was the first method by which television programs were recorded. A motion picture camera was placed in front of a television monitor and recorded a program as it aired live.
Today, the production value of Suspense may seem simple, almost comical. The same sets and props appear over and over. The stenciled credits jiggle and halt as they roll down the screen. Each show opens with the Suspense theme music played not by an orchestra, but on an organ. Though it was meant to evoke a creepy atmosphere, the organ music gives the feel of an early radio show or a gloomy ice skating rink. There is also the use of smoking to create the illusion of tension. Tobacco, a cheap and effective prop, was used liberally. Cigarettes, cigars, pipes and chaw tobacco all make their way onto the show.
In Suspense's favor are the many episodes based on classic short stories and the appearances of famous actors. Part of the novelty of watching the show now is to see actors, like Paul Newman, in bit parts. Autolite's commercials are also an interesting part of Suspense and not to be competely ignored. Their advertising campaign was highly regarded by the ad industry at the time.
Despite its drawbacks, most of which resulted from the limitations of early television, Suspense's television show still has a lot to offer. Anyone who is a fan of the radio show will find something to appreciate.
-Christine A. Miller