My students never knew it, but I can be a right pushover when it comes to sentiment. I weep, publicly and almost unabashedly, at the sight of a Landseer painting like “His Only Friend.” I enjoy being manipulated that way and am pleased to find my senses receptive to the melodramatic, the dubious arts some denounce as kitsch and others approach only as camp. Nor do I mind being aware of being taken in—unless the trick doesn’t quite come off and I am left disappointed, unmoved, or get downright cross. Disappointed because I was promised a chance to exercise my passions in the relative safety of the controlled environment that is an aesthetic experience. Cold because the passions could not be provoked, despite appreciable effort; and hostile because my intellect rebukes me for having been put on hold for something clearly not worth the shutting down of reason.
To be sure, there’s much to be done with art even if an emotional engagement is lacking; but I am generally distrustful of critics who deny themselves such personal responses or who, worse still, are entirely incapable of experiencing them; commentators who are eager to speak before having listened to the work they subject to the mental appropriation that is critical study.
A long time ago, I told myself never to write anything I don’t feel; and I don’t enjoy writing about matters that do not matter to me emotionally. Granted, that list of subjects is quite short, since I cannot but feel angry at not feeling anything else. Here, then, is what I feel about “Long Distance,” a radio thriller that premiered on this day, 3 July, in 1948.
To begin with, “Long Distance” sounds an awful lot like “Sorry, Wrong Number” (previously mentioned here) It invited the comparison, considering that it aired on and inaugurated NBC’s Radio City Playhouse within weeks of the film premiere of Sorry, Wrong Number, the vastly inferior adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s famous radio thriller. Vastly inferior because the film resorted to flashbacks and thus diminished the sensation of experiencing a crime in progress, a crime whose victim will die within the time allotted for the play—the sensation of being alone with this person as she sits by the telephone, fighting for her life.
What makes “Sorry” such a guilty pleasure is that we don’t feel altogether sorry that the number’s up for the ostensibly innocent victim, who reveals herself to be a mean and selfish individual. The distraught woman trying to call “Long Distance” (portrayed by future Palmolive spokesperson Jan Miner) is fighting for survival as well; but it is not her own existence she cares about; it is the survival of her husband. Convicted of murder, he is schedule to be executed within the next twenty minutes. Mrs. Jacks, the desperate woman on the telephone, claims to have found the missing piece of evidence that would prove her husband’s innocence. For the duration of the play, she is heard trying to get hold of the judge who can stay the execution.
Like Mrs. Stevenson, the anti-heroine of “Sorry, Wrong Number,” Mrs. Jacks is frustrated by a maze of wires; the telephone, her only means of taking action, is acting against her. It is only when the clock strikes the hour of death that she finally manages to talk to the only person who can keep her husband alive. She is urged to hang up and await his return call. The deadline passed, dramatic time stands still. A brief musical bridge rips apart the real time unity of the play—perhaps shredding its realism altogether to pieces. Then, the telephone rings once more. Reluctantly, the despairing woman picks up the receiver. She begins to laugh hysterically, shouting her husband’s name.
Unlike the conclusion of “Sorry, Wrong Number,” which leaves no doubt as to the deadly failure of its central character, the epilogue of “Long Distance” permits alternate readings. The voice to which the woman on the phone responds so euphorically is the only one in the play not rendered audible. It is for the audience to determine whether her husband has been saved or whether she lost both him and her mind during the ordeal of this long distance rescue mission.
It is only in this moment of doubt that I can find merit in Harry W. Junkin’s overwrought and derivative melodrama that, were it not for this little breach of trust, leaves me disappointed, cold, and nearly as hostile as Agnes Moorehead must have felt being passed over for Barbara Stanwyck in the film version of the play that had earned Moorehead the title “First Lady of Suspense.”