Enbrithiliel's doing a 'book club' with classic radio episodes, horror-themed. And it has put me in mind of something I've wanted to do for a while, but never got around to: talking about some of the great classics from the Golden Age of Radio. I'll probably do a horror-themed one around Halloween, but I'll probably mostly stick with other genres. So I thought I'd start with one of the most memorable radio drama episodes ever, one that could only really be done during a short period in the twentieth century, and never again: "Long Distance" from The Chase.
The Chase was a twilight series, started in the 1950s. Television had begun to sweep the nation, taking away audience attention and acting talent, and the high-budget radio thrillers of just a decade earlier were increasingly impossible. The Chase ended up doing reasonably well despite this, in part because it was intended to be part of a double. A lot of radio series in the early fifties had television doubles, as networks attempted to figure out how much of a change the new visual medium would make. Usually this was radio being doubled by television, but in the case of The Chase, NBC wanted a television series, a psychological drama, in which each episode would be some kind of chase (hence the name, of course); and they started it out in radio in order to test the waters and build up interest. The television program never got produced, though; before it ever aired, NBC pulled the whole project in favor of another project (which profit-wise turned out to be a good choice). So the radio episodes are there, all alone.
I'm not a huge fan of the series in general, but there are some truly good episodes, and "Long Distance" is one of them. One of the remarkable things about the episode is the nature of its chase. The main character in "Long Distance" is a woman sitting by her phone, desperately trying to get hold of the judge who has the authority to stop her husband's impending execution, which is within the hour, in light of new evidence that has just been found that shows him to be completely innocent. And she can't find the judge. It's a life-or-death telephone chase.
And the way telephones worked at the time it makes for a really good story. Obviously it's all landlines, so if you missed someone, you really missed them. So it's not just ringing up numbers, it's trying to get information from secretaries, hotel desks, and telephone operators, and of course, none of them know the urgency at first, and so the woman is trying to stay calm through frustration after frustration while trying to make people understand what's going on. People do their best to help, but, of course, everyone can only help in a very limited way, and it is up to the caller to put all the pieces together to find the judge as the clock starts ticking down to minutes.
And even if she finds the judge in time, she will have to wait by the phone, hoping that the judge himself can make the right calls in time....
The actress in the episode, who does a brilliant job, was Jan Miner. If I'm not mistaken, despite the fact that the script was originally written for The Chase, it was actually first aired as the premiere episode of Radio City Playhouse, and that episode launched Miner's career, because nobody listening to it could forget it.
In addition to the interest of the story itself, it's interesting to think of how it's a story that could only be told during a short window in the twentieth century, when telephones were common, they were all landlines, there was no voicemail, and professional telephone operators were a large part of the telephone experience. It would be impossible to write a story as gripping about a telephone chase in our day and age. And, actually, a remarkable number of truly great stories from the era involve the complications of calling by phone. The tension between marvel -- being able to chase people down from your chair, or discover what was happening across the country -- and difficulty -- it might take half a dozen steps, through several middlemen where we could do it directly and almost immediately today -- was almost perfect to make it a story device.
You can listen to "Long Distance", episode 23 of The Chase, here at Old-Time Radio.