Thursday, August 28, 2014

Voices in the Dark: The Horrors of Dark Fantasy (1941-1942), Part One

by Jose Cruz

Old time radio.

The term doesn’t necessarily engender interest upon hearing it. The modifier “old time” is, of course, what turns people away. When we associate it with other things, “old time” could just as well be replaced with “outdated,” “outmoded,” or “obsolete.” This is a shame, as the broader, more appropriate and dynamic definition of the genre—“radio drama”—speaks more closely to the heights that the medium could achieve when it was at its best. And, more often than not, it truly was great.

It seems ironic then, and a little sad too, that a brand of entertainment that offered such a wealth of genre material (covering everything from space adventures to police procedurals and all that was in between) has not really received the type of enthused, dedicated coverage that other contemporaneous amusements like pulp magazines have garnered since its heyday. The milestones of radio drama—Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, children fare like Little Orphan Annie, and even spooky programmers like Inner Sanctum Mysteries and its memorable creaking door—have permeated into popular culture at large but, for the most part, “old time radio” and its smaller shows have been shelved away in the archives of time.

But not really. For many shows are in fact currently available free to the masses, thanks to the efforts of such stalwart facilities as the Internet Archive. One of these programs is Dark Fantasy, a title all but unknown save to the most fervent fans of aural terrors. A grassroots effort that was produced in Oklahoma City on station WKY in 1941, Dark Fantasy was picked up for national syndication by the NBC Red network fairly early in its run.

The scripts penned by head writer George M. Hamaker (who, under the nom de plume of Scott Bishop, wrote extensively for the pulps and, allegedly, other shows such as The Mysterious Traveler and The Sealed Book) were thrilling and moody playlets that involved such treasured horror tropes as ghostly vengeance, time travel, werewolves, mad doctors, and trees that strangled people.

(For more information on the show’s history, I encourage you to refer to Karl Schadow’s diligently researched account at the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club.)

What surprises the listener most about Dark Fantasy is not only the fact that 27 of its 31 broadcasted episodes are readily available (a rare thing in the annals of radio drama), but that the show maintained a fairly sustained level of quality and ingenuity throughout its all-too-brief run. With a dedicated staff of technicians and actors who typically performed double-duties in the studio, Dark Fantasy was able to conjure up delightful nightmares during its midnight time slot with nothing but the wavering tones of a Kilgen organ, the cry of a howling wind… and voices in the dark.

This humble project is meant to review, in multiple parts, the stories that made Dark Fantasy an equal contender in the realm of radio horror and as a means to ensure that this program may never meet the unjust grave of oblivion.

1. The Man Who Came Back
Original Broadcast: November 14, 1941

Cast: Ben Morris (Keith Granger), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Sylvia), Fred Wayne (Casey), Muir Hite (Captain Sullivan), Murillo Schofield (Cab Driver), and Eugene Francis as ‘The Man Who Came Back.’

The wail of police sirens brings us to the mansion of Keith Granger, a millionaire whose death has brought a premature end to the masquerade that he was hosting. One of the officers on the scene, Casey, hones in on a particularly mysterious fellow in black costume and domino mask who tries to elude the crowd of gawkers. The masked man speaks cryptically of the incident and, when pressed by Casey to remove his mask, the partier responds ominously “It may be better, my friend, that you didn't see my mug” to use Casey’s colorfully tough Irish copper vocabulary.

The man then begins to narrate the tale of Philip Blake, playwright husband of Sylvia, a woman whom Granger had been seeing on the side. After Philip finds a key to Granger’s apartment adorned with his and Sylvia’s initials inside her purse (So much for discretion!), Philip confronts him with his accusations but gets the raw end of the deal when Granger pulls a gun on him. The playboy says that he’ll easily play the self-defense angle and, right after Blake has the chance to swear vengeance from beyond the grave—“I’ll be back, Grange, even if I have to fight all the demons in Hell to do it!”—Granger plants one right between the scribbler’s eyes.

Sure enough Granger is deemed as having acted in the right by the courts and, though Sylvia warns she might tell the truth to the police, she’s quickly curbed when Keith tells her she’s an accomplice for corroborating his story. Granger then fancies himself scot-free. That is until he hears Blake’s voice echoing his own verdict of the smiling murderer: Guilty!

Soon Blake is manifesting himself in a more “physical” manner. The ring Keith buys for Sylvia turns out to be Blake’s own initialed jewelry, the very same one he was buried with. And when Keith takes a cab that no one else could possibly have entered, a bodiless voice sardonically jeers at hearing his destination “Excellent. That’s where I’m going…”   

In order to bring his spirits up (and keep the bad ones away), Keith holds a masquerade ball at his place. But even this revelry is disturbed by the presence of a man—one garbed in black and a domino mask, naturally—who leads Keith to a darkened room where a piano plays a ghostly tune of its own a-chord and Keith’s gun awaits him. Blake’s phantom voice tells Granger that the gun just has one bullet in the chamber. “But that is enough…” the spirit chides. And everything that has happened certainly has been enough—for Granger.

Back in the present, Casey presses for the storyteller to reveal himself. The man asks if Casey remembers how Philip Blake was shot between the eyes. “That doesn’t make a very pretty sight,” he says. Just as Casey retrieves his captain to instill some order in the weirdo’s heart, they find that the man has vanished into thin air… only leaving a small pool of blood in the exact spot he was standing.

Existing records indicate that “The Man Who Came Back” was likely the show WKY used as an audition for their new supernatural program. It initially aired on October 28, just in time for Halloween and eager to usurp the terror throne of the recently-ended Lights Out. In many ways the episode feels like a try-out for what was to come. The old “murdered-spouse-rights-the-scales-of-justice” saw wasn’t new even by 1941 standards.

Dark Fantasy might have come from humble beginnings, but it certainly speaks to the professionalism inherent in the acting, technical direction, and script that not one second of the story ever seems boring or tepid. “The Man Who Came Back” may be pretty tame stuff with its drops of blood and unearthly voices, but Bishop’s radio play is a slick number, moving unfussily from one event to the next until it reaches its completely expected but well-handled conclusion.

Bishop’s dialogue, both naturalistic and descriptive as necessitated by the medium, flows and almost seems underwritten while remaining perfectly potent. Granger’s response to Blake’s accusations, paired with Ben Morris’ calm delivery, is punchy in its simplicity: “No, I don’t deny. You’re wife has been here. Often.”
Straightforward and full of promise, “The Man Who Came Back” is certainly enough to make sure listeners come back for more.

2. **The Soul of Shan Hai Huan** LOST
Original Broadcast: November 28, 1941

3. The Thing from the Sea
Original Broadcast: December 5, 1941

Cast: Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Judith Johnston), Ben Morris (Phillip Hayward), Fred Wayne (Johnston Sr.), Eugene Francis (Ned), Georgianna Cook (Lana), and Daryl McAllister (Buul, ‘The Thing from the Sea’).

A reporter gives the skinny on an interesting tidbit to be buried in the front page to his editor: a Hollywood couple, Phillip Hayward and Judith Johnston, along with her filmmaker father and the crew of their yacht, the Dolphin, have disappeared along with their vessel off the coast of New Zealand. Could their research into Johnston Sr.’s new movie concerning arcane legends of the ocean and the strange creatures that dwell within it have lead the group into some choppy waters?

Of course it has.

After the ship’s motors conk out and the yacht drifts for a few days, everyone starts fearing the worst. Especially the elder Johnston, who thinks that the ship might have been stopped by supernatural forces. Phillip poo-poos the director, saying that the auteur of “eight-reel clambakes” is just acting overly superstitious. Phillip has considerably less snark when Judith awakens moaning in terror from a dream, one in which she was confronted by a mermaid who was not only centuries old, but also intent on taking over Judith’s body.

Bishop shows a real flair for eccentric imaginings when he has Judith describe the sea maiden thusly:

“She had long hair, green and slimy like seaweed. Her teeth were brilliant red. They were long and pointed. She kept staring at me with her little, beady eyes. They were horrible, for she had no eyelids. She never blinked once. She just stared and stared.”

Definitely not Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Suddenly the Dolphin starts speeding ahead for destinations unknown. But the motors are still dead and there is no wind in the air. What could be propelling the ship forward? Further intrigue is added when first mate Ned spots a mysterious figure at the helm. This is no normal sailor, but some kind of awful sea monster who sports “long, narrow fingers with webs between them.” “And no fingernails!” gasps Johnston, as if that’s the deal-breaker on the helmsman’s humanity.

But the crew has bigger problems (literally), as a tremendous tidal wave makes its advance upon the boat. The crew takes cover and when they emerge they see the formation of a veritable continent in the distance that could not have possibly been there before. Johnston realizes that the tidal wave was caused by an underwater disturbance, one that brought to the surface what had long been buried. For the steaming, seaweed-strewn land is in fact the fabled city of Ebaan, told to have been ruled by Emperor Buul and Empress Lana before the city was sent into the ocean by Buul in a power-driven madness. It is prophesied that the spirits of the Ebaanites will reclaim their original bodies and take over the world. Or something like that.

Descending into the shallow water and journeying to the island, Johnston and Phillip are shocked to find that the body of their own Captain Webb (!) has been possessed by none other than Buul himself, intent on getting back to his former shell in the “vacuum-like” temple where he stored it for a rainy day. There to block his path is Judith, now controlled by the spirit of Empress Lana who knows all too well Buul’s habit of blowing things up. She accompanies the group into the temple with a mind to stop her crazy husband from further destruction.

Once in the temple (where Johnston’s unfortunate muttering of the word “vacuum” sounds like a request to Phillip to look at “the glass rectum,” adding unsettling meaning to his earlier comment that the island is the “most evil-smelling place I was ever in!”), Buul and Lana regain their scaly Ebaan bodies. Buul then reveals himself for the natural jerk that he is before Lana shoots him down. She then beseeches the humans to flee and, showing that the fate of the island is better restored into her hands, she blows Ebaan up in a shower of fire and lets it sink back into the sea.

Maritime horror isn’t always an easy sell, and unfortunately “The Thing from the Sea” shows some of its weaker points, especially as an entry in the ‘Atlantis-restored’ sub-sub-genre. Bishop falls prey to the traps this kind of endeavor involves, namely the prolonged explanation involved in detailing the lost city/continent’s background and denizens that ends up taking up 90% of the narrative and leaving very few compelling events for us to enjoy. I think of the story from the first issue of Creepy, “H2O World,” in regards to this type of tale: a history lesson with a mere whiff of the monstrous wrapped up in the veneer of a horror story. “The Thing from the Sea” is better than that, but not by too much.

Still, it’s worth a listen if only for the howl-inducing “master plan” of Buul: if the emperor was really set on blowing up the joint, why would he seal the bodies of the entire citizenry in a crypt with the intention of returning one day in the future to reclaim the earth? Did he just want a change of scenery or a couple of centuries to cool off his wet head?

All the unnecessary complexities and bits of lame dialogue (“I will rule Ebaan!” Buul challenges his interfering wife) makes this episode seem more juvenile than it should be, but even “The Thing from the Sea” isn’t enough to sink one’s opinion of the show.

4. The Demon Tree

Original Broadcast: December 12, 1941

Cast: Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Clara), Ben Morris (Humphries), Garland Moss (Danvers), and Murillo Schofield (Crane).

In a country inn near the Barlow Forest in England, a group of friends sit playing cards trying to idle away the hours of a boring vacation from London. Crane suggests taking a nature walk to take in the scenery. Humphries, Danvers, and Clara acquiesce. But Humphries recalls a strange anecdote related to him by the clerk concerning the Barlow Forest. Despite the place’s serene and breath-taking sights, few people have taken the journey into the woods. And those who did were never seen at tea-time again.

Crane and Danvers initially jeer at the moody Humphries, but he then produces a newspaper clipping from 1857 detailing the bizarre death of a local earl who was found wrapped up in the branches of a tree, apparently strangled by the mighty oak. Regional legend has it that a witch cursed the descendants of the Wakefield clan who persecuted her and, in a novel move that Martha Stewart probably wouldn’t endorse, smeared an acorn with her blood and grew from it a giant tree to act as executioner of her undying will.

After contemplating that he may in fact be an extended family member of the Wakefields, Crane decides to go ahead with his initial plan anyway. The rest of the gang is game, save for Humphries who can’t help but wonder “Wouldn’t it be odd if the whole thing were true?”

Though the forest’s entrance at first appears to be too thick with foliage to enter, Danvers finds a footpath and they make their way in. Immediately they feel an unnatural chill in the air, one completely at odds with the mid-afternoon, summertime weather. Danvers is particularly disturbed by it, saying “It’s a different kind of cold. The kind that creeps up your spine when… when some evil comes over you.”

Apt description, Danvers old chum, for just straight ahead the group spots a tree that looks like “a human giant” and one that appears to almost move. When Crane touches the bark, he notes that it feels “warm and smooth and soft” like skin, and not in the good way. (There’s a humorous exchange when the group touches the queer tree all together and, when they invite Humphries to join in, he gives a deadpan “No thanks.”) For Humphries knows that the strange thing is none other than the Demon Tree of Barlow Forest! *Cue organ sting*

Too busy feeling up the witch’s familiar, the group realizes too late that the forest has become almost impenetrably dark and that they’ve lost their way. Trying to find a way out, Crane feels a branch caress his face while in an empty clearing and, finally realizing this probably isn’t the best place for the target of supernatural revenge to be hanging around, he beats a quick path the hell out of there. “Now he’s in for it,” chimes Danvers, showing yet again his aptitude for timing. Seconds later, Crane lets out a banshee shriek of death. “Sounds like he’s being strangled!” Humphries cries.

The fact that Humphries can recognize this specific kind of scream goes uncommented on, perhaps for the better.

The group quickly finds Crane’s remains, his throat marked with hand-like imprints and green staining as if from smeared leaves. An eerie moment passes when the trio realizes it’s actually the same spot they initially discovered the tree… but the tree is gone. Rustling through the brush, Carol fancies them all lost marionettes, to which Humphries asks “Controlled by what strange puppeteer?” Humphries gets in a real funk here, saying that the swift darkness that overtook the forest “Reminded me of how a corpse must feel when the lid is placed over him.” Danvers starts to get fed up with his friend’s morbid talk, so he trades in his companion’s emotional quagmire for a literal one when he falls into some quicksand.

Humphries and Clara try to rescue their screeching friend by extending a pole to him, but the blasted demon tree is there to bat Danvers away with its branches before he finally drowns. Surprisingly, Humphries and Clara manage to find the light at the end of the brambled tunnel and escape the forest and its horrors.

Or do they? Both of the survivors have a nagging feeling that their dilemma isn’t over yet. Entering Humphries’ room at the inn, they see how right they are. A demonic branch awaits them on the bed, ready to finish what it started. They try to escape, Humphries suggesting they take the elevator instead of just running down the stairs. Bad thing that the lift’s gate has been left ajar, as it gives the branch ample opportunity to slither over and push Clara down the elevator shaft. The conclusion is pure comic book. As the tendril monster advances, Humphries can only cry out what is happening to him: “The tree! The demon tree! It’s choking me! Aaaagh!”

With its fourth episode, Dark Fantasy hits its first home run right out of the woods. While “The Man Who Came Back” was a classic (if just-slightly-stale) chiller well-told and “The Thing from the Sea” was ambitious but muddled, “The Demon Tree” is pure pulpy fun drenched in atmosphere. Bishop utilizes the fabled “Strangling Tree of Nannau Woods” to spine-chilling effect, recalling such fantastic literary mainstays as the Fighting Trees from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books to the crushing guard at Hogwarts in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

As silly as the idea of an ambulatory tree might seem to be (which it is at times, like with the pathetic-sounding swats it takes at the drowning Danvers and the whacked-out finale), the play manages to be truly eerie in its depiction of the infernal weed. A great magazine-cover-moment occurs when the three friends spot the tremendous tree walking in the distance, glowing with a mad phosphorescence like the Baskerville hound, Crane’s broken body tucked up in the crook of its knobby arm. The organ score is also put to wonderful use, augmenting scenes like the touching of the tree and the heroes’ weary journey with great tension.

And if there’s one thing “The Demon Tree” delivers on, it’s the suspense. This may not be white-knuckle adventure, but the performers give it the goods, with Moss and Schofield particularly excelling at their sumptuous screams and ravings. If you think of old time radio as a staid and hoary venture, let Schofield’s death-cry put a few hairs on your chest!

5. Men Call Me Mad
Original Broadcast: December 19, 1941

Cast: Ben Morris (Charles), Eleanor Naylor Caughron (Princess Elena), Fred Wayne (King Londolier), Murillo Schofield (Dr. West), Muir Hite (Dr. Smith), Daryl McAllister (Specialist).

Charles is a scientist, and he has gathered two of his peers, Doctors Smith and West, to witness a most startling discovery that he has made. Using a special stock of color film, Charles has taken a series of magnified shots of a moonbeam and, with each advancing slide that he displays to his awestruck audience he reveals an entire, hidden world existing within the ray of lunar light. Charles marvels over what he calls “My world within a moonbeam,” a planet that is marked with startling hues of color like the “leaves of brilliant scarlet,” “sun of dazzling blue,” “vivid orange streams,” and a man riding an undescribed “strange animal.”

The trio of lab coats are all duly bowled over, the concept of “worlds within worlds” (and our own Earth possibly being one such plane of existence) almost too much to handle in one sitting. So Charles throws them another curveball: he plans to journey to the land of moonshine himself! He proposes to do this by entering a ten-inch glass igloo that he will shine the moonlight on, making a veritable chamber that he can use to physically “enter” the beam. (Don’t ask me cause I don’t get it either.)

When asked by Smith how he supposes he could enter such a tiny structure, Charles tells him that he has concocted, for all intents and purposes, a shrinking potion made from radium. Charles assures his comrades that he has tested the formula on animals and says that even his clothes will conveniently downsize as well, as he found out when a test dog and its collar both minimized to board game player-size. Which is probably better for him, because if Charles didn’t already look crazy, he certainly wouldn’t be pulling in any more supporters as a six-inch naked guy.

Once the potion is imbibed, Charles becomes temporarily blind and “a strange weakness” comes over him (rather a nice description for the shrinking sensation). His dutiful friends place his ever-decreasing body before the igloo. As the mini-Charles reaches his cosmic destination, old Smith thinks aloud “I wonder what he’ll discover…”

Entering the igloo, Charles is transported to the moonbeam world. He marvels at the colorful landscape and is suddenly accosted by a beautiful alien woman. She explains that she is Princess Elena and he is in the gardens of her father, King Londolier, who rules over their entire realm with “kindness and justness.” Charles explains that he is a citizen of the United States and describes its relation to Elena’s world. She’s fairly unsurprised, as the scientists of her world had long ago discovered the presence of other dimensions but had not found the means to traverse among them.

But Elena warns Charles that all is not happiness and light in her world: a horrible plague has risen up and is killing thousands of moonlings every day. She beseeches him to leave, but Charles presses on, eager to help the citizens of Landolier’s kingdom. The old monarch sees their situation as hopeless, but relents when Charles requests to examine his stricken son. But to the scientist’s amazement, the plague that they are suffering from is nothing but typhoid. Ecstatic, Charles has vaccinations made up and gets the kingdom’s death toll down to nil.

Charles is seen as a god in the eyes of the people, but something else in the eyes of Elena, and soon a mutual affection has developed between human boy and moon girl (no relation to E. C. Comics). The princess asks Charles to say, but he feels his discovery is too great to keep from Earth and promises to return to his beloved after he has told his story to the masses.

Back on Earth, West and Smith wait expectantly for their friend’s return, either a sign that time works very differently in the moonbeam or that Charles has great friends who would stick around in the same room for five months for him to come back. Charles takes his radium capsule and grows back to normal size, filling in his friends on his amazing discoveries. Charles then drops a bombshell on the assembly (and us): he explains that his greedy sister is desperate to get her claws into some oil property that the siblings share, even going so far as to lodge accusations that he is mentally unbalanced and unfit to manage the holdings. Charles is to be examined by a group of analysts the following day and asks his pals to be there and back up his fantastic tale as a means of demonstrating his capability. Surprisingly, they agree.

Needless to say, when you try to prove your sanity with a story that you shrunk yourself down to the size of an atom and saved an alien planet from a bad case of the flu as opposed to telling the doctors, well, anything else, your odds of coming out looking like the most brilliant person in the room are pretty slim. Sure enough, the examiners try to tell Charles very calmly and very quietly that he should probably start packing his chemistry set away for the prescribed sanitarium vacation.

But where are West and Smith, the ones who saw the whole unbelievable affair with their own impartial, scientific eyes? As a handily-timed phone call to one of the examiners reveals, West and Smith have died in a car accident on the way to testify for their good friend, which goes to prove that no matter how many worlds there may be in existence, God likes to laugh in all of them. Though Charles laments in his padded cell that now “men call me mad” and that there is no escape from this hell, he hears Elena’s voice calling out to him from the ether. “No escape?” he says. “But of course. The moonbeam!”

If “The Thing from the Sea” stumbled from putting too much in, “Men Call Me Mad” underwhelms because it feels as if something’s missing. The descriptions of the moon world are imaginative enough—though they’re really just limited to psychedelic colors—but one wishes a little more time was taken to make the moon land sound alien.

Dark Fantasy has proven to be a bit reticent with the special audio effects, either for artistic or budgetary reasons, and concepts like the shining glass igloo and the grand majesty of Londolier’s kingdom invite all kinds of unconventional music and foley stunts to really sell the otherworldliness of the place. But the scenes in the magical moonbeam sound exactly like what they really are: people standing around in a circle talking.

Clearly owing to Fitz James O’ Brien’s short story “The Diamond Lens” (1858), Bishop’s script shoots for a sense of wonder and romance but falls just short of its goal. The passionate dialogue spoken by Charles and Elena just before he departs is particularly dusty:

“Elena, my darling. Is it wrong to say I love you?”

“Is it wrong for the stars to shine? Or the flowers to bloom?”

If one sums this up simply to the “antiquity” of the medium, I suggest you listen to any one of the plays penned by Bishop’s contemporary Wyllis Cooper for his program Quiet, Please to hear how love scenes could take on air of genuine darkness and mystical eroticism without resorting to these greeting card niceties.

Though the entire device of Charles’ villainous sister and the resulting deaths of West and Smith feels completely shoehorned in solely for the purpose of giving a reason for Charles to be found insane, the ambiguous ending does leave matters off on a tantalizingly uncertain note. Does Charles hear the voice of his alien mistress calling out to him from within the stars, or just from inside the depths of his own disturbed mind?

You can listen to these episodes and more at this fabulous site!


Monday, August 25, 2014

Do You Dare Enter? Part Thirty-Four: March 1973

The DC Mystery Anthologies 1968-1976
by Peter Enfantino and
Jack Seabrook

Nick Cardy
Unexpected 145

"Grave of Glass"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Abe Ocampo

"Maniac at Large"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Ralph Reese

"Newton Northrup's New Brain!"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by Sid Greene and Frank Giacoia

Jack: Brutish middle-aged Arnold strangles his elderly, wheelchair-bound wife Lillian and buries her under her own prize tomatoes in a "Grave of Glass" inside her own greenhouse. Arnold thinks Lillian's hot young nurse, Pamela, will return his affection but when she spurns him he locks her in the greenhouse. That evening, after she begs him to let her out, he whips up a tasty dinner using some of the very plants his late wife cultivated. After he chokes and dies, the coroner reveals that he ate poison mushrooms, which the late Lillian had been growing for the state agricultural college.

"Grave of Glass"
Peter: This is one of those stories so bland and indistinct it's hard to find words to describe it. Well, bland and indistinct are good, I guess. Kashdan's script is not horrible but it's not good; Ocampo's art is serviceable, it gets the job done without challenging or surprising the reader (actually, Abe's depiction of Arnold is probably as sleazy and sweaty as the CCA would allow at the time). Its foundation is among the oldest cliches in the horror story so there's nothing radical to point out. Let's move on then.

Jack: Is Judd Donner, held in an insane asylum and known as "The Choker" for how he supposedly killed his victims, really a "Maniac at Large" after he escapes from the bughouse? Private eye Oswald Gibbs is determined to find out and claim the $5000 reward. He follows Judd's elderly sister home and discovers Judd and his two sisters hiding in a sub-basement. Unfortunately for Oswald, Judd merely holds the victims while his sisters do the choking--which is not necessary this time, since Oswald drops dead from fright. I can't decide if Ralph Reese's art is really cool or really awkward!

Peter: The only thing of interest I pulled from "Maniac at Large" is that, in 1972, psychiatrists could still refer to their clients as "maniacs." That's something I guess. Oh, and thanks to the unseen horror host for explaining the story's climax to us right after we saw the whole thing with our own eyes. Ralph Reese is so much better than this.

"Maniac at Large"

Jack: Nora Worley is the strong-willed boss's daughter and, at the advanced age of 28, she decides that she wants to marry his meek bookkeeper, Newton Northrup, certain that she can make a man out of him. Things don't go so well after the wedding, and Newton is a big disappointment. Nora happens on the idea of a brain transplant, but after she arranges "Newton Northrup's New Brain," she discovers that the brain used to belong to a homicidal maniac. Wessler has written a dreadful story and the art is bottom of the barrel to match. What happened to Sid Greene? Ten or fifteen years before this he was one of the folks responsible for bringing superhero comics back from the dead. Though the comic credits him as the artist, the GCD says inks were by Giacoia, so maybe we can blame that old punching bag, Frank.

"Newton Northrup's New Brain!"

Peter: An incredibly stupid story closes yet another bad issue of Unexpected. So, no one knew that the guy who was to get the brain swap was an escaped lunatic? No interviews before such a dangerous and ground-breaking experiment? Unexpected is a comic book, you're supposed to cut it some slack and enjoy the fanciful treks, but plot devices as inane as this tend to stick in your craw for the duration.

Jack: Say, Peter, what can you tell us about the 1973 circulation report for Unexpected?

Peter: The always-fascinating circulation figures pop up in a couple of titles this month. Unexpected was selling 168,430 copies on average during the year 1972 while The House of Mystery bettered that a bit with 175,134. In comparison, DC's Stable Studs, Superman and Batman were selling 317,990 and 185,283 respectively. Hard to believe Batman, once the best-selling comic book in America (1966 and 1967, with nearly 900,000 copies a month!) had dropped down to near-equal numbers with the lowly mystery books. Oh and, over at Marvel, The Amazing Spider-Man was moving 288,379 a month.

Mike Kaluta
The House of Mystery 212

"Ever After"
Story Uncredited
Art by John Calnan and Murphy Anderson

"Oh, Mom! Oh, Dad! You've Sent Me Away
 to Summer Camp... And I'm So Sad!"
Story by Michael Fleisher and Maxene Fabe
Art by Alex Nino

"Halfway to Hell"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Ruben Yandoc

Peter: American gigolo Warren desperately wants Cheryl's millions and, now that her father is dead, he's escalating his plan. Out for a fast ride in his sports car, Warren misses a hairpin turn and he and Cheryl slide off a cliff to their deaths. Or so Warren thinks until he wakes up in the company of some very strange people at Cheryl's house. When he tells her he wants to leave, Cheryl tells him he's not going anywhere and soon he discovers that's true. There's an invisible barrier around the house and Cheryl has fangs. In both story and art, "Ever After" is just about unbeatable... for #1 on the Worst of the Year list. Calnan and Anderson team up to produce art amazingly bland and lifeless. Perhaps the most important question would be: what the hell is that ending all about? We never see Cheryl's father. She's got an invisible wall around her house. She's a vampire. Right, how could I not have connected the dots? This would have been a good time for one of those afterword expositories Cain usually gives us.

"Ever After"

Jack: For much of the story, Cheryl is pretty darn cute for someone whom Warren describes as a "square broad" whose "face and figure" bug him. The story does take some turns that make no sense but you have to admit that Murphy Anderson's inks improve John Calnan's pencils over what we've seen Calnan do on his own.

Peter: Stuck at summer camp and stuck in a wheelchair are double doses of dread for little Richie, especially when he meets the rest of the kids at the camp. When one of the boys drowns in the lake, Richie is told the boy was drowned by one of the counselors. The next day, Richie witnesses another boy pull a switchblade on one of the men. Has the entire world gone insane? When our little mop top happens upon a cache of axes, knives and kerosene, Timmy, the only boy in the camp who is kind to Richie, explains that the entire camp is actually a front for outer space aliens who intend to kidnap the boys and take them to their own world for experiments. The boys are planning to kill all the counselors. Not believing a word of it, Richie tells his favorite counselor, Mr. Ressler, all about the plot and is then chased by the enraged mob of pre-teen campers. Richie manages to escape to Ressler's office where he spies an alien monster, now having doffed his Mr. Ressler disguise, reporting to his superiors. Richie hangs on as the entire camp lifts off into space. Fabulously stylized Nino art and a wonderful Bradbury-esque story by future superstar Michael Fleisher. "Oh Mom!... " has a very wordy script (at times, the words threaten to envelope the panel completely) but the story never lags or hits the wrong notes. Are these kids homicidal lunatics or on the doorstep to interstellar travel? You never know until the last few panels. Disney could have done wonders with this on their Sunday television show. Seriously though, I thought this was how all summer camps were.

"Oh, Mom! Oh, Dad!..."

Jack: This was so close to a great story, but the ending was a dud. Nino's art is fantastic and the idea of a group of little kids murdering their counselors is wonderfully sick, but the "surprise" that the counselors were really aliens was no surprise to me. I was really hoping for a better ending but it didn't happen. The title is a takeoff on Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, a black comedy that played on the New York stage in 1962 and was made into a movie in 1967. It had nothing to do with summer camp.

Peter: Eddie Walker is a vicious, slimy rat who does really nasty things to good people. After pulling one of his jobs, stealing a grandmother's food money, Eddie takes a bullet and awakens aboard a strange train, surrounded by very pale people. It doesn't take a genius to figure out he's "Halfway to Hell" but Eddie isn't going to be peaceful on this journey. Grabbing a little girl as a hostage, he forces the conductor to tell him how to get off. "Just jump" says the man, and Eddie does. When he lands, he's back on earth in his body, paralyzed for life in a hospital bed. Jack Oleck's obviously taking a cue from Robert Bloch's classic "That Hell-Bound Train" but adding riffs of his own quite nicely. Eddie Walker may be the stereotypical hood, looking out for number one and sneering at the cries of mercy from his victims, but the upside is that we find out half way through the story that this is a hell-bound train. We don't have to wade through six pages for a finale we saw coming the whole way, instead we get a legitimately surprising climax. Yandoc suffers from the same malady as some of the other Filipino artists: the guy can't draw human faces. Crowd shots, backgrounds, detail, all nice. Close-ups not so.

Jack: Easily the best story in this issue, even if it doesn't have the best art, "Halfway to Hell" held my interest and I did not guess the ending. If only we could match the best stories with the best artists!

Peter: The circulation statement published this issue shows that House of Mystery was selling an average of 175,134 copies per month in 1972.

Berni Wrightson
The House of Secrets 106

"The Curse of Harappa"
Story by Maxene Fabe
Art by Ruben Yandoc

"The Island of No Return"
Story by John Albano
Art by Alex Nino

"This Will Kill You"
Story by Jack Oleck
Art by Alfredo Alcala

Peter: When Frank O'Connor was a boy he watched his superstitious mother avoid walking under a ladder and get run over by a truck. Now he devotes his entire life to eradicating superstition throughout the world. In the Far East, he hears rumors of "The Curse of Harappa," a village that hides a dangerous secret: a woman known as "the Bride of Death." One look at this woman will capture a man's heart and, before long, he will dig his own grave. Laughing at the old wives' tales, Frank spends weeks searching for Harappa and, when he finally finds it, he discovers the rumors are true. The woman sitting atop her throne is the most beautiful he's ever seen. Frank becomes obsessed and begs the girl to marry him but then keeps her captive, jealous of the affectionate looks she gives other men. One night, "The Bride" announces she's leaving and Frank follows her to a rendezvous with another man. In a rage, Frank murders both and then begins digging their grave. When he's finished, he's a bit taken aback by two observers: his wife and her lover. Shaken, he steps back into the open pit, effectively having dug his own grave. Yandoc still has his problems with faces, especially those of his male characters, but the guy definitely knows his way around a woman's anatomy. I find it hard to believe that anyone would spend their life traveling the world, debunking myths but then, I guess we'd be shy a few DC mystery stories if we stuck to realism.

"The Curse of Harappa"

Jack: Immediately on finishing this story, I clicked over to YouTube and put on Dr. Hook's classic, "When You're In Love With a Beautiful Woman." The lyrics fit this story perfectly! Holy smoke, you're not kidding about Rubeny's way with the lady's anatomy. She looks quite a bit like the dame on the cover, and Berni Wrightson gives us his own take on Ms. 36-C on the splash page. Maxene Fabe is writing some pretty good stories lately, isn't she?

Peter: The captain of a shipwrecked yacht lies dying in a hospital bed but before he expires he tells the police and a newspaper reporter a fantastic tale. The captain had skippered a boat owned by a millionaire couple, The Craxtons, and a couple of their close friends. When a terrible storm sank the boat, the five were lucky to make it to a small deserted island, where they quickly made huts. That night, the captain awakened to find the Craxtons, now vampires, feeding on their friends. Rather than face a nasty death, the captain swam out to sea where he was rescued. Fascinated by the tale, the reporter convinces his editor there may be a story behind all the scary nonsense and he hires a pilot to fly him out to "The Island of No Return." Once there, the men split up to search the island. When the pilot finds a fish on the beach with two small holes and drained of blood (!), he goes in search of the reporter, only to find him being drained by the Craxtons. As the pilot hoofs it back to the plane, the Craxtons smile and hope a few people believe his wild story so they'll have more guests. Not a bad story (in fact, I quite enjoyed the conversation between cop and reporter that opened the tale, moreso than the "scary stuff") but there are a few (pretty large) holes and a few liberties taken with the vampire legend. Vampires can't swim and they don't hang out on the beach to work on their tans, but the Craxtons do. The biggest question I have that's not answered is: was this the grand scheme of the Craxtons, to end up stranded on this island? Far-fetched (are they able to summon storms as well?), yes, but, taken with the rest of the fancies put forth, I just thought I'd ask. As usual, I have nothing but praise for Nino's art. That last panel, where Abel puts an Alfred Hitchcock Presents bow around the package by reassuring us that the Craxtons wouldn't be feasting for very long since the U.S. Air Force had just targeted their island for H-Bomb testing, is really dopey and only serves to let the air out of a nice, nasty climax.

"The Island of No Return"
Jack: More vampires, but with Alex Nino at the top of his game, who cares? This is a pretty original story, and I liked the weird touch of the fish drained of blood. Think about it--if you were a vampire stuck on a desert island, what would you do? Suck the blood from whatever you could find! I thought Abel's concluding remarks were funny--weird, but funny. I also liked Nino's half-page splash with the giant-sized Abel looking like something Jerry Robinson would have drawn looming over the story's characters.

Peter: Practical jokesters Pete and Dolly have their favorite mark, poor simple-minded Charlie, who works in the town's funeral parlor. When old man Hanley dies, Pete comes up with the best prank of his career: he tells Charlie that Hanley was a vampire and then dresses up as the old man, taking his place in his coffin. When Pete begins his eerie howling, Charlie enters the room and, seeing Dolly, knows he must protect the pretty girl with his handy wooden stake. "This Will Kill You" has far from the most original script (it's a combination of Robert Arthur's "The Jokester" and Robert Bloch's "The Living Dead") but its charm and great art make up for its predictability. Pete and Dolly are one nasty couple! Why the DC mystery writers were zeroing in on practical joker storylines in 1973 is itself a mystery.

"This Will Kill You"

Jack: This one is a dud, despite the quality art, which is far from Alcala's best work. Vampires, vampires, vampires! Way to pound a theme into the ground, DC. By the way, for a couple living in 1900, they sure are hip talkers: "It, baby--is an idea!" Pete says at one point. I can't really see the point of setting this story in 1900. House of Secrets blew away House of Mystery this month, even though both comics continue the trend we've seen in the DC horror line of art being much better than story.

Nick Cardy
The Witching Hour 29

"It's Your Funeral!"
Story Uncredited
Art Uncredited

"To Perish by the Sword"
Story by Murray Boltinoff
Art by E.R. Cruz

"A Time to Live--A Time to Die!"
Story by Bill Dennehy (Murray Boltinoff)
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

Jack: Ray Karns is a murderer on the run after escaping from prison. He finds himself by the docks and steals a solar ship from a crate labeled "Todd Museum of Natural History." When he sails off, he passes through a strange fog and emerges in Ancient Egypt, though he doesn't realize it. He is treated as a welcome guest and the Pharaoh's daughter agrees to marry him, but when the time comes for the wedding ceremony Ray learns that "It's Your Funeral!" He is killed so that he can join the rest of the dead. Over 2000 years later, the solar ship, which had been missing since Ray stole it, suddenly turns up in the museum's Egypt exhibit, complete with a deceased Ray at the helm. Despite the groovy lingo that Cynthia uses to narrate this story, I thought it was pretty good, but then I'm a sucker for anything involving Ancient Egypt.

The Gil Kane of the Philippines!
Peter: So I, like, totally thought the set-up was like, totally, with it, man, but the punchline was dead, daddy-o, dead! I love how Ray Karns, dumbest con in the world, thinks "Hmmm, I must have taken a little nap and woke up in Egypt. Hey, it happens!" Very rarely do we come across a story that we can find no credits for either writer or artist but this would be one of them. There's a flash of Gil Kane in a shaded nose but that has to be an homage. Unfortunately, I'm no expert on DC artists but I'd guess he's of Filipino origin ("Duh!" says the peanut gallery) and I wouldn't mind seeing more of his work.

Jack: Famous bullfighter Luis Domingo is about to retire and wed the lovely Carmelita the next day. His beloved is afraid that he will die in his last fight, but he goes through with it and emerges victorious. After the battle, he tosses aside his sword, cape and hat and rushes to embrace his fiancee, but he trips over his own cape and learns what it means "To Perish By the Sword." Solid art by E.R. Cruz enlivens this rather straightforward tale of a bullfighter who is graceful in the ring but clumsy when he shouldn't be.

Peter: Fabulous art and an ironic twist ending make this a winner for me. E.R. Cruz is fast ascending the ladder of top-tier DC mystery artists. His five-panel bull-fighting sequence is nicely choreographed and, since we really have no idea where this story will go, generates mucho suspenso!

Jack: Ever since young Nicholas Croft disappeared three years ago, his father has been angry and his mother's health has been failing. Now, Croft Senior has a plan--he has a boy of about his son's age brought home to soothe his wife in her last days. The boy has lost his memory and believes he's the missing lad. The tenant farmers on Croft's property hate their cruel master, so one of them tells young Nicholas that he must kill his father. Nicholas obliges during a hunting trip in the fog, but then he surprises the tenant farmer by turning into a demon and disappearing. The police find the farmer holding the rifle and babbling about a young man who is no longer there. "A Time to Live--A Time to Die!" seems to be making sense at first but loses its thread somewhere toward the end and ends up making about as much sense as Jerry G's usual, awful art.

Mordred's baby picture
Peter: Here's another one of those really frustrating stories that makes you think the writer switched gears halfway through the story. At the very least Boltinoff could have had one of those dopey "Here's what happened and why" expositories delivered in the final panel. I'm just thankful it's Jack who had to write the synopsis to this loser.

Jack: By the way, that great Nick Cardy cover has absolutely nothing to do with any of the stories in this issue, which is unusual. The covers usually illustrate a scene from one of the stories, or thereabouts.

Nick Cardy
Ghosts 13

"The Nightmare in the Sandbox!"
Story by Leo Dorfman
Art by Bob Brown

"Voice of Vengeance"
Story by Carl Wessler
Art by John Calnan

"Have Tomb, Will Travel"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Gerry Talaoc

"Hell is One Mile High"
Story by Bill Dennehy (Murray Boltinoff)
Art by Nestor Redondo

Jack: Dr. Allan Jonas moved his family to Haiti to help the people improve their farming techniques, and what does he get in return? "The Nightmare in the Sandbox!" occurs when an angry witch doctor curses his childrens' sandbox! Evil Baron Samedi tries to yank the kids into the sand and succeeds in pulling the family dog under, so Dr. Jonas hires a competing witch doctor to throw a curse. The bad witch doctor ends up getting dragged under the sand and the kids avoid the sandbox forever after. At least this story makes sense and has a beginning, middle and end. Bob Brown's art is above average for him. That's about all I can say!

Peter: When I saw the dog on the cover I naturally assumed we were talking about a different kind of "Nightmare" in the sandbox but, no, Leo Dorfman resorts to the laugh-out-loud concept of a voodoo-cursed sandbox. Knowing he may have something fatal to his children (and little doggy) in his backyard, Dr. Jonas naturally takes steps to rid himself of the box (or at the very least, cover the damn thing), right? Nope. And if you're a voodoo medicine man, do you tempt fate by walking through the very item you cursed? Supremely dopey!

Jack: The people of a little Italian village wait anxiously for the annual visit of Signor Giovanni and his marionettes. During the show, the puppets tell secrets of the local folk--some nice, like a wedding engagement, and some not so nice, like Signor Gardella, head of the local bank, stealing his depositor's money. Late that night, Gardella strangles Giovanni enough to destroy his voice but spare his life. Yet the next evening, who is providing the voice of the marionettes as they tell of Gardella's evil deed? It's not Giovanni's son, whose bus arrives too late, so it must be the "Voice of Vengeance." How many times will we have to endure the character whose bus arrives too late?

Peter: More pulpy nonsense from Carl Wessler. Why in the world would crooked banker Gardella leave the puppeteer alive after strangling him within an inch of his life? They do have paper and pen in Italy, don't they? And leave it to Wessler to end the story with the creaky old "sorry I'm late, I couldn't man the puppets because the bridge was washed out!"

Jack: Patsy Coyne's killer has the dead man's body placed in a wrecked auto, which is then crushed into a small cube by an auto wrecker. The killer keeps hearing Coyne's laughter, even after the car and his body have been crushed. The killer takes a vacation and the crushed car is recycled into a new sports car, which is coincidentally bought by the killer, who once again hears the laughter and dies in a car crash. "Have Tomb, Will Travel" is the umpteenth version of "The Tell-Tale Heart," but I do like Talaoc's art.

Peter: A silly bit of fluff but certainly more enjoyable than the first two stories (although my sides are still aching from "the sandbox nightmare"), if only because of Gerry Talaoc's distinctive art style.

Jack: Near the end of WWII, a couple of GIs struggle through the Black Forest. Bill is helping Jim, who is badly wounded, and they climb a high hill to a castle, only to discover that "Hell is One Mile High." Bill leaves Jim there and Jim soon meets an ex-Nazi and his beautiful daughter who live in the castle. The Nazi plans to kill Jim but his daughter helps Jim escape and gives him her ring as a souvenir. Jim makes it back to his unit and they come upon the castle the next day, but now it is ruined and uninhabited. Jim makes it to a field hospital, where doctors fail to save his life and a nurse removes a ring from his finger. I'm always happy for any work by Nestor Redondo, but this story is all over the place. Is the war over or not? Jim and Bill say no, but the Baron tells Jim that it is. As usual, I'm confused. One good thing--maybe Redondo will draw some war comics?

Peter: The premise is an old one but "Hell is One Mile High" actually works in some tweaks that make the story involving right up to its disastrously abrupt climax. Was the ring on Jim's finger in the final panel supposed to be a twist? Why would it be when his fellow GI, Bill, acknowledged its presence? Regardless, this is a classic compared to most of the stories published in Ghosts. Savor it. And savor Nestor Redondo's exquisite art as well.

Alfredo Alcala
Secrets of Sinister House 10

"Castle Curse"
Story by Steve Skeates
Art by Alfredo Alcala

"The Cards Never Lie!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Gerry Talaoc

"Losing His Head!
Story Uncredited
Art by Larry Hama, Neal Adams and Rich Buckler

Peter: A peasant farmer learns that he has inherited a castle and a title from an uncle he didn't even know. Once he and his wife move, however, he learns that he has also inherited a "Castle Curse." Soon after arriving, the newly minted royalty begins to have blackouts and women are murdered in the village by a werewolf. His wife, fearful she'll become a victim of the werewolf, begs him to give up his title so that they can return to their farm. Scoffing at his wife's fears and handing her a gun loaded with silver bullets, the man buries himself in the castle library, where he finds a manuscript which backs up the story of the curse. As he heads up to his bedroom, he becomes a werewolf and launches himself at his terrified wife. She shoots the werewolf and, once the creature regains the form of her husband, shoots herself. A patchwork of so many other curse/inheritance/werewolf stories, "Castle Curse" is a beautifully illustrated piece of fluff. Not one original word could be found in my reading of the story so this must have been a case of Steve Skeates fighting a deadline. The other strange aspect of "Castle Curse" is that there is no attempt to convince the reader that the werewolf is anyone else than the  main protagonist (this despite the fact that the werewolf is shown in tattered garments and "The Man"--he is never given a name--wakes up refreshed and perma-pressed). As much as I love Alcala's work, his werewolf looks like The Fantastic Mr. Fox!

"The Fantastic Mr..." um "Castle Curse"

Jack: Not one of Alcala's better efforts, "Castle Curse" plods along from start to finish with nary a surprising moment. Won't these people ever learn that it's a bad idea to scoff at a curse when you're in a horror comic? I will say that the page-long wordless sequence of the werewolf's first kill is nicely done.

Peter: When mobster Stab Digby is told by a dying fortune teller that the King of Spades or a tall, dark man, will be his murderer, he rubs out anyone who fits the bill. His chief rival, Tommy Flannigan, is a blonde so he escapes the machine guns but when the two decide to merge their businesses Stab takes a ride to Tommy's nightclub and discovers Flannigan's trademark is... The King of Spades! Digby has his new partner ventilated and then takes over the club but dies in an explosion. In the afterlife, Stab meets up with the fortune teller and has cross words with her, insisting he wiped out all the kings of spades. The old woman shows him his body in the rubble of the nightclub, surrounded by the club's marquee, the King of Spades, and assures him that "The Cards Never Lie!" A crafty, humorous little slip of a tale, with an ingenious last panel. Talaoc's art just gets better and better. This is the second "mobsters go to a fortune teller" story we've had in just the last few months, which leads me to believe that the DC mystery office had a chalkboard with all the possible scenarios on them. Luckily (uncredited) got this assignment.

"The Cards Never Lie"

Jack: I'll go out on a limb and credit this story to editor E. Nelson Bridwell, since it is more of a gangster story than a horror tale. The sudden appearance of the ghosts at the end was jarring and didn't work for me, but I'm right there with you on appreciating the artwork.

Peter: Every night, The Great Claymore, a carnival ventriloquist, plays to packed houses. Watching from a distance is hunchbacked Onappo, who has a certain fondness for Claymore's assistant, the gorgeous Esmeralda. Attempting to impress the girl with ventriloquism skills, Onappo asks Claymore for some tips, only to be rebuffed rudely. Esmeralda decides she's a free spirit and can love anyone so she becomes friends with the hunchback but, one night, Onappo overhears an argument between the girl and Claymore and the word "pity" is used more than once. Slipping a gasket in his brain, the scorned lover decides money is much more desirable than a woman anyway and so breaks into Claymore's wagon to steal his "box of secrets." Claymore discovers Onappo and a fight ensues, with Claymore taking a nasty blow to the head. The hunchback watches in awe as Claymore's head shatters, revealing that the man was actually the dummy in the act. Opening the "box of secrets," Onappo is attacked by a creature that latches onto his head and, very soon after, the carnival welcomes The Great Onappo to its stage. There's an obvious bit of homage to The Hunchback of Notre Dame in "Losing His Head" but a there's also a whole lot of hazy stuff going on in the story. Is Esmeralda leading her new friend on? What is the thing in the box? Does this mean that Onappo has a ceramic head now? Since she's up on stage at the climax, Esmeralda must know what's going on so is she ceramic as well? Why didn't the artist paint a light bulb over Onappo's head when he declares, "Well, if I can't have love, I can at least have money!"? All these very good questions shall remain unanswered but I'll give "Losing His Head" a thumbs-up anyway for its grisly and creepy climax.

"Losing His Head"

Jack: I didn't get it at all. Is Onappo a hollow dummy at the end? How did Claymore walk and talk if he was a hollow guy with a ceramic head? It makes no sense. I wasn't impressed by the art. This looks like one of those apocryphal stories where Neal Adams stopped by the DC offices one day and polished up a few panels here and there on this story. Some of the faces are obviously his work but overall the art is pretty blah. I vaguely recall Larry Hama from mid-'70s comics but that's all I remember. I liked his work on Iron Fist and the Atlas comics.

"Losing His Head"

Peter: A note on the art of "Losing His Head!": GCD, an essential tool we could not do this blog without, will list questionable credits at times (that is, credits with a question mark). It may be wrong, but we ignore the question marked artists and writers and only credit those which the GCD has listed as confirmed (Since when?--Jack). For instance, Larry Hama is listed as a possible artist on "Losing His Head!" and Adams and Buckler are confirmed as inkers. You can definitely see traces of Adams and Buckler but I'm not an expert on Hama's work so we'll err on the side of caution.

Jack: Wikipedia says Hama was a Crusty Bunker, so I think the credit is believable.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Thirty-Five: "Most Likely to Succeed" [7.31]

by Jack Seabrook

Henry Slesar's short story, "Beggars Can Be Choosers," was first published in the October 1961 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and has been reprinted in the collection, Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar's Alfred Hitchcock Stories as "Most Likely to Succeed," the title under which it aired on Alfred Hitchcock Presents on May 8, 1962, near the end of the half-hour series's seven-year run.

The story concerns Stanley Towers, a successful middle-aged businessman who is playing pool at home one day when the maid tells him that a man is at the back door, looking for odd jobs. Stanley tells her to let the man cut wood in exchange for a meal and three dollars. After killing time reading a magazine and watching TV, Stanley ventures into the kitchen for a snack and sees the tramp, suddenly recognizing him as Dave Sumner, a classmate of his at Washington and Lee.

Stanley badgers Dave into telling him the hard luck story of his downfall from college scholar to itinerant worker. Stanley bags about his success in business despite having had a mediocre college career and even boasts about how he cheats on his taxes. Stanley gives Dave $40 and sees him on his way. When his wife Deirdre returns home from a shopping trip, she finds Stanley looking at his college yearbook, where Dave was voted Most Likely to Succeed.

Howard Morris as Dave, dressed as a servant
Six months later, Stanley receives a summons to appear at the offices of the Treasury Department, and a week later he is arraigned. At trial, Stanley sees Dave Sumner walk into the courtroom and soon learns that he is "the most successful Treasury agent in the department."

"Beggars Can Be Choosers" displays Slesar's irony in its twist ending, where the man who appeared to be a bum is revealed to have been an investigator in disguise, and the man who was living the high life is brought down by his own boasting and pride. The story is brief and I don't think it is one of Slesar's best, despite its inclusion in Death on Television.

In adapting his own story for television, Slesar must have realized that significant changes needed to be made in order to fill out a half-hour time slot. The first big change comes right at the start, as a truck pulls up in front of the Towers' house and a man in a rumpled raincoat with no luggage hops out of the passenger seat, having hitched a ride. It appears he targeted Stanley's house and, when he goes to the door, he identifies himself to the maid as "an old friend of his, from college." Slesar thus takes the element of chance out of Dave's visit to Stanley.

Jack Carter as Stanley
A second big change in the televised version is the expanded role of Stanley's wife, Louise. From her first scene, she is complaining to Stanley that they never have any fun. She is beautiful and well-dressed but she is kept in the home without anything to do but eat while Stanley works day and night to make more money.

When Stanley chats with Dave in the kitchen, he quickly agrees to hire his old classmate to help out around the house, not just to chop some wood and be on his way, as he did in the short story. We then witness a business meeting held in Stanley's living room, where Louise signs papers making her the "sole owner of a million dollar business," even though she does not understand what is happening. Stanley, his lawyer, and another business associate joke about how they plan to sell the business in six months at a loss, and Dave is silent witness to it all.

Joanna Moore as Louise
Louise is portrayed as a woman who does not fit with her surroundings, seeming awkward and bored. Stanley has a slick veneer but seems seedy underneath his jocular exterior. He boasts to his wife that Dave was "top scholar in the whole school," while Stanley was merely "vice president of the Dance Committee"--Louise asks, "Is that all?" Dave, on the other hand, has a list of accolades after his name.

After the break, we see a long scene in the Towers' living room between Louise and Dave. She craves company and tries to engage him in conversation, yet he is reticent and she does most of the talking, admitting that "Stanley's not curious, but I am." Dave admits that his downfall began with a woman, the boss's daughter, whom he married and who then turned out to be "no angel." They divorced, he could not get another job, and he started to drink. This scene is interesting because of what does not happen, and I think it's due to the fact that this show was produced in 1962. There is a strong sexual tension between the voluptuous Louise and the straight-laced Dave, but it is never brought out into the open. She laughs about how her husband cheats at business and she lies back on the sofa in a low-cut dress, obviously desiring his physical attention. Finally, she asks him to fix her a hot fudge sundae, which seems to be a substitute for the sex she really craves.

Grams and Wikstrom think the yearbook's name is an
inside joke referring to associate producer Norman Lloyd
In the following scene, Stanley comes home drunk and complains to Dave about how government interference requires him to work hard to make enough money. In different scenes, Stanley and Louise each tell Dave that he has it easy because he does not have to worry about making a lot of money to support an extravagant lifestyle.

Next morning, Louise asks Dave to drive her somewhere far away, since she is fed up with Stanley and his phony business deals. She suggests that Dave come with her (which supports my reading of the earlier scene where she wants a hot fudge sundae) and Stanley walks into the room and thinks that Dave and Louise are together. Louise tells Stanley off, Dave is fired from his job, and Stanley informs his wife that she is not going anywhere because she is not willing to give up her lifestyle.

Jack Carter as Stanley
In the final scene, Stanley, his lawyer, and the business associate we saw earlier are joined by another man as they enter the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Stanley is confident and asks how long it will take, but his confidence fades when Dave walks into the office and Stanley is told that "the Treasury Department probably assigned him your case because he once knew you . . . he's the most successful agent in the Treasury Department." At this, Dave smiles for the first time in the episode and the screen fades to black.

Much expanded from the short story on which it is based, "Most Likely to Succeed" is far-fetched but fun, with more character development than the slight original story. (Did IRS agents ever really go undercover like this to catch tax cheats?) In his disguise, Dave plays on his knowledge of Stanley's ego, assuming correctly that Stanley can't resist hiring him and keeping him around in order to rub his nose in Stanley's success. Jack Carter is very good as Stanley, his somewhat seedy, low-class persona perfectly fitting the character who has cheated his way to a fortune.

Howard Morris's face is excluded from the frame
to add to the surprise as Jack Carter sits waiting
Howard Morris is also excellent as Dave: humble, quiet, somewhat embarrassed by his situation, yet all the while the smartest guy in the room, toying with Stanley and Louise. Finally, Joanna Moore is perfect as Louise, trapped in an unhappy marriage, unable to leave the money and jewels but miserable and bored. The only time Stanley shows affection toward her is when he starts to kiss her neck after he shows her the yearbook and revels in the reversal of fortune that he believes has affected him and Dave. The direction of this episode is competent and does not get in the way of the story. There is a brief bit of tricky camerawork in the final scene, as the camera stays focused on Stanley, who is seated, thus obscuring Dave's face from the viewer as he walks into the room.

Does she look like she wants a hot fudge sundae?
"Most Likely to Succeed" is a good example of a run of the mill short story with a good twist that was expanded into a much more interesting TV show. Slesar also seems to have written a radio play with the title "Beggars Can Be Choosers," which is presumably the same story. It was recorded live in New York on January 28, 2000, and broadcast on New York's WFUV, but no audio copy appears to be available online.

Richard Whorf (1906-1966) directed the TV adaptation, his only work for the Hitchcock series. He was a stage actor, a film actor, and a painter who began directing films in 1942 and TV shows in 1952. He directed episodes of various TV series, including 67 half-hours of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Jack Carter (1923- ), who plays Stanley, was born Jack Chakrin in Brooklyn, New York. He has been a popular stand-up comedian and TV personality since the late 1940s and he is still working today at age 91! This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Joanna Moore
Joanna Moore (1934-1997), who plays Louise, was born Dorothy Joanne Cook. She was orphaned as a child when her parents and sister were killed in a car accident. She grew to be a beautiful young woman and won a beauty contest in Georgia, then headed for Hollywood, where she began appearing in movies and on TV in 1956 and 1957. She had roles in films that included Touch of Evil (1958), Monster on the Campus (1958) and Walk on the Wild Side (1962). She had a recurring role on The Andy Griffith Show and appeared in six episodes of the Hitchcock series. She was married to Ryan O'Neal from 1963 to 1967 and one of her children was Tatum O'Neal. Her later years were unhappily marred by bouts of addiction to drugs and alcohol and she died of lung cancer, as did so many actors and actresses of her era, in 1997. Like many beautiful women who led tumultuous lives, she has received a lot of attention online, and a good summary may be found here.

Howard Morris, dressed as a tramp
Howard Morris (1919-2005) plays Dave. Born in the Bronx, he entertained troops in the South Pacific in WWII and first became famous as a cast member on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, but he is best remembered today for his recurring role as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. He later did an enormous amount of voiceover work for cartoons. He appeared just this once on the Hitchcock show and, even though he died in 2005, his voice continued to show up in cartoons for years after that. His son maintains a website about Morris here.

"Most Likely to Succeed" also features some character actors who have popped up before on the Hitchcock show: King Calder, last seen in "The Right Kind of Medicine" and John Zaremba, last seen in "The Kerry Blue."

King Calder as Stanley's lawyer

"" ErnestTcom RSS. Web. 16 Aug. 2014.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 16 Aug. 2014.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 16 Aug. 2014.
"Joanna Moore Profile." Joanna Moore. Web. 16 Aug. 2014.
"Most Likely to Succeed." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 8 May 1962. Television.
Slesar, Henry. "Most Likely to Succeed." 1962. Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar's Alfred Hitchcock Stories. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1989. 140-45. Print. Originally published as "Beggars Can Be Choosers."
"" Web. 16 Aug. 2014.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 16 Aug. 2014.

COMING IN TWO WEEKS: Richard Long and Coleen Gray in "The Opportunity"!