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The program’s heyday was in the early 1950s, when radio actor, producer and director Elliott Lewis took over (still during the Wilcox/Autolite run). Here the material reached new levels of sophistication. The writing was taut, and the casting, which had always been a strong point of the series (featuring such film stars as Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Ronald Colman, Marlene Dietrich, Eve McVeagh, Lena Horne, and Cary Grant), took an unexpected turn when Lewis expanded the repertory to include many of radio’s famous drama and comedy stars — often playing against type — such as Jack Benny. Jim and Marian Jordan of Fibber McGee and Molly were heard in the episode, “Backseat Driver,” which originally aired February 3, 1949.
The highest production values enhanced Suspense, and many of the shows retain their power to grip and entertain. At the time he took over Suspense, Lewis was familiar to radio fans for playing Frankie Remley, the wastrel guitar-playing sidekick to Phil Harris in The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. On the May 10, 1951 Suspense, Lewis reversed the roles with “Death on My Hands”: A bandleader (Harris) is horrified when an autograph-seeking fan accidentally shoots herself and dies in his hotel room, and a vocalist (Faye) tries to help him as the townfolk call for vigilante justice against him.
With the rise of television and the departures of Lewis and Autolite, subsequent producers (Antony Ellis, William N. Robson and others) struggled to maintain the series despite shrinking budgets, the availability of fewer name actors, and listenership decline. To save money, the program frequently used scripts first broadcast by another noteworthy CBS anthology, Escape. In addition to these tales of exotic adventure, Suspense expanded its repertoire to include more science fiction and supernatural content. By the end of its run, the series was remaking scripts from the long-canceled program The Mysterious Traveler. A time travel tale like Robert Arthur’s “The Man Who Went Back to Save Lincoln” or a thriller about a death ray-wielding mad scientist would alternate with more run-of-the-mill crime dramas.
The Great Gildersleeve (1941–1957), initially written by Leonard Lewis Levinson, was one of broadcast history’s earliest spin-off programs. Built around Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve, a character who had been a staple on the classic radio situation comedy Fibber McGee and Molly, first introduced on Oct. 3, 1939, ep. #216. The Great Gildersleeve enjoyed its greatest success in the 1940s. Actor Harold Peary played the character during its transition from the parent show into the spin-off and later in a quartet of feature films released at the height of the show’s popularity.
On Fibber McGee and Molly, Peary’s Gildersleeve was a pompous windbag who became a consistent McGee nemesis. “You’re a haa-aa-aa-aard man, McGee!” became a Gildersleeve catchphrase. The character was given several conflicting first names on Fibber McGee and Molly, and on one episode his middle name was revealed as Philharmonic. Gildy admits as much at the end of “Gildersleeve’s Diary” on the Fibber McGee and Molly series (Oct. 22, 1940).
He soon became so popular that Kraft Foods—looking primarily to promote its Parkay margarine spread — sponsored a new series with Peary’s Gildersleeve as the central, slightly softened and slightly befuddled focus of a lively new family.
Premiering on August 31, 1941, The Great Gildersleeve moved the title character from the McGees’ Wistful Vista to Summerfield, where Gildersleeve now oversaw his late brother-in-law’s estate and took on the rearing of his orphaned niece and nephew, Marjorie (originally played by Lurene Tuttle and followed by Louise Erickson and Mary Lee Robb) and Leroy Forester (Walter Tetley). The household also included a cook named Birdie. Curiously, while Gildersleeve had occasionally spoken of his (never-present) wife in some Fibber episodes, in his own series the character was a confirmed bachelor.
In a striking forerunner to such later television hits as Bachelor Father and Family Affair, both of which are centered on well-to-do uncles taking in their deceased siblings’ children, Gildersleeve was a bachelor raising two children while, at first, administering a girdle manufacturing company (“If you want a better corset, of course, it’s a Gildersleeve”) and then for the bulk of the show’s run, serving as Summerfield’s water commissioner, between time with the ladies and nights with the boys. The Great Gildersleeve may have been the first broadcast show to be centered on a single parent balancing child-rearing, work, and a social life, done with taste and genuine wit, often at the expense of Gildersleeve’s now slightly understated pomposity.
Many of the original episodes were co-written by John Whedon, father of Tom Whedon (who wrote The Golden Girls), and grandfather of Deadwood scripter Zack Whedon and Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog).
The key to the show was Peary, whose booming voice and facility with moans, groans, laughs, shudders and inflection was as close to body language and facial suggestion as a voice could get. Peary was so effective, and Gildersleeve became so familiar a character, that he was referenced and satirized periodically in other comedies and in a few cartoons.