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21 April: You won't want to escape

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If you think it’s the wit as well as the hard-wrought realism that makes Escape regarded as the pinnacle of old-time radio adventure series, be advised that the writer of tonight’s offering wrote seven of the series’ best-regarded-for-wit installments.

Co-writer Gwen Bagni’s name (she has written for Escape with her first husband, John, as often as not) may ring a small bell to future film audiences, since she will be one of the four screenwriters who bring to life one of the first of a small rash of 1960s farces involving single-by-widowhood parents with children remarrying and forming large, chaotic households, the 1966 Doris Day/Brian Keith farce With Six You Get Eggroll. Not to mention writing the pilot for the late 1960s television crime drama hit, The Mod Squad.

That project will come a decade after actor/writer-husband John dies after having co-written the Ronald Reagan Western romantic semi-farce, Law and Order, among other credits. His widow will base With Six You Get Eggroll in large part on her own courtship with her second husband, screenwriter Paul Dubov. Sadly enough, Bagni would learn the hard way about history repeating itself: she will be widowed a second time, when Dubov dies in 1979, around the time Bagni is instrumental in bringing yet another large-family comedy-drama to life, television’s Eight is Enough.

If only Escape itself could have earned a little more respect from its own network. Bagni is only one of the small throng of Hollywood radio talent attracted to the show’s striking, realistic aims, but from the moment it was picked up as a regular series CBS never seemed able (willing?) to assign it a consistent air slot. The erratic scheduling and lack of commercial sponsorship (only the Richfield Oil Company will sponsor it at any time, between April and August 1950) makes it impossible to know whether Escape in its time—basically, on the threshold of classic network radio’s terminal phase—drew a listening audience concurrent to its critical praise.

Radio Life adores the show, going far enough as to say the very name of it is misleading because its stories “all possess many times the reality that most radio writing conveys.” And, at a time when most dramatic anthologies were flush and flooded with incessant Hollywood film adaptations, Escape stands nearly alone for adapting literary works or developing its own stories.

The best news for future collectors: nearly the entire series will survive intact, though those collectors might be slightly bemused by surviving pairs of episodes—half the pair with full orchestral music, half with organ music. The answer proves simple enough: the orchestral episodes originated from the East Coast, and the organ episodes were West Coast airings days later, often with the same cast repeating their earlier performances. Leaving it to those future collecting listeners to bring it down to a matter of musical preference.

If only all such surviving network radio programs had problems that simple for the future fan . . .

TUNE IN TONIGHT:

Escape: The Shanghai Document (CBS, 1950)

The Bagni wit comes in handily enough tonight, when an American reporter (John Dehner), stuck in Chungking, China, struggles to buy passage to Shanghai, until he’s hospitalised in a scuffle trying to obtain tickets and his doctor, an American woman (Joan Banks), provides him a ticket the following day. Prompting his suspicion that she, too, seems desperately interested in a certain document that prompted his travel to China in the first place.

Vickers: Ben Wright. Ratigan: William Conrad. Lt. Chen: Benson Fong. Officer: Charles Leung. Narrator: Paul Frees. Announcer: Roy Rowan. Music: Ivan Ditmars. Director: William N. Robson.

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Comedy

Fibber McGee & Molly: Out to the Ballgame (NBC, 1942)—Jim and Marian Jordan, Isabel Randolph, Bill Thompson, Gale Gordon, Harlow Wilcox. The first lady of 79 Wistful Vista is hungry for her man to take her to Wistful Vista’s Opening Day, and her man seems just as hungry not to go unless he can finagle his way in. This is also known as the Fibber McGee version of the hidden ball trick.

Maxwell House Coffee Time with George Burns and Gracie Allen: Eddie Cantor is Working Too Hard (NBC, 1949)—George Burns, Gracie Allen, Toby Reed, Bea Benaderet, Joan Banks, Bill Goodwin. Only the first hints involve how many dates he books in a day and how long it’s been since he’s kissed his wife. Don’t ask, just laugh.

Drama/Dramatic Anthology

Lux Radio Theater: The Letter(CBS, 1941)—Bette Davis (recreating her Oscar role), James Stephenson (recreating his Oscar nomination), Richard Davis, Charles Leung, Gloria Holden, Suzanne Caron, Wally Maher, Eleanor Stewart, Eric Snowden, Leila Hymes McIntyre. Bette Davis doesn’t lose the feeling for the conflicted W. Somerset Maughan heroine, a wife in Malaysian jungleback claiming self-defense in the jealousy killing of her lover and challenged by her attorney and her lover’s widow—whose letter provides moral dilemnas for her attorney and her husband as well. Who cares if you can’t see those Bette Davis eyes when the delivery is this good?

Mystery/Thriller

Suspense: Chicken Feed (CBS, 1957)—Lloyd Bridges, Amzie Strickland, Betty Groble, Lou Krugman, Jack Kruschen, Charlie Leung, Lou Merrill, Dick Le Grand. A domestic quarrel over the mere dime he gave his young son causes a frustrated husband and father to take a long cooling-off drive, bringing him a fortune of trouble in a coffee shop when he realises he left the house without his wallet—and his wife (possibly Amzie Strickland) won’t accept his collect call home. Stick it out.

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