On This Day in 1947: Havoc in "Subway" Gives Commuters Ideas

Well, if you’re on the edge, you’d better not take the subway and stand next to someone who has the job you want, wants the partner you have, and won’t stop yapping about her career and the lucky breaks she’s had. You’d better hold on to the strap and, crowds permitting, take a deep breath—especially if you got a sharp pair of scissors in your bag. “Idea and scissors. Scissors . . . and idea!” That’s what the down-on-her-luck Paula has running through her mind in a Suspense play titled “Subway,” which aired on this day, 30 October, in 1947.

The leading role in this thriller is played by June Havoc, who happened to be the wife of Suspense producer William Spier (both pictured above). A few years after teaming up for this broadcast, Spier directed Havoc in the motion picture A Lady Possessed (1952), which pretty much sums up the driven yet frustrated Paula, the central character riding this New York City “Subway.”

While somewhat overpowering at first, the sound effects transported me back to the underbelly of the city. I thought of my commutes from Manhattan to the Bronx and back, or to wherever I was studying and working at the time. Having been squeezed in and shoved by the “five-o’clock mob,” as Paula calls her fellow straphangers, it is easy to sympathize with someone who suddenly “hated everybody” and “felt like committing murder.” She certainly has reason to resent Ruth, the woman next to her, who insists on unfolding her success story at a time when Paula’s career has pretty much folded. Scissors, please!

Perhaps someone ought to have handed a pair to veteran radio playwright Mel Dinelli, co-writer of “Subway.” The set-up, certainly, is well suited to a twenty-minute thrill ride on the airwaves, especially to the noirish psycho-dramas in which Suspense excelled after the departure of puzzle-crafter John Dickson Carr (previously mentioned here). A character sketch, narrated in the first person, that revolves around a possible turning point in that person’s life, a moment demanding quick decisions and swift action. “Idea and scissors.” Will the two meet so that Paula might get her break, taking over for Ruth, as suggested by this none-too-bright former rival? Or will Paula cut her losses and run off empty-handed? It’s all a matter of minutes. Why, Paula marvels, “I wouldn’t even be late for supper!”

Dinelli dealt with such a tense instant and the instincts it triggers very successfully in thrillers like “To Find Help,” a Suspense play he reworked into Beware, My Lovely, a motion picture starring Ida Lupino. Here, however, the survival drama is given a rather more ambitious treatment, as the protagonist’s drives—her desire to be Ruth-less—are being met by her conscience, the consideration that even strangers on a train, even those she thinks of as “an obstruction to be cleared away for something more important,” are part of a grandly designed human fabric her scissors are poised to slice and destroy. It is an awakening that, in order to ring true or convince, requires a finer tuning than the crude but effective formula devised for Suspense, the will she/won’t she scenario that, in order to sustain tension, pushes the moral issue of such an epiphany to the edge, where it is in danger of falling flat instead of rising to the occasion of being uplifting. Hearing about someone regaining self-control is decidedly less thrilling than listening to the unravelling of nerves.

“Subway” is a troubled ride of a domesticated Wild West show in which the law of the gun has become a split-decision for scissors. The frustrated Paula stands in for the women in post-WWII America whose careers have been cut short by a return to the ostensibly normal; women who were pushed back into kitchen and nursery, away from the promises of assuming center stage among men, overshadowed by the ordinary and outdone by opportunists fighting with weapons fit for man-hunt or matrimony; women who were expected to keep their ambitions and their anger in check.

What are the rewards for patience and sacrifice in a post-war society reclaiming its entrepreneurial edge with a vengeance? While not as suggestive as that most famous of all radio plays to air on this day, “The War of the Worlds,” “Subway” might have given a few commuters ideas about running with scissors.

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