Anxious for Her Next Close-up, Gloria Swanson Murders "By the Book"

She might have been auditioning for Sunset Blvd. or hoping for some such comeback; then again, she sounded as if acting lay in a distant, silent past. Screen legend Gloria Swanson, I mean, who, on this day, 10 July, in 1947, stepped behind the microphone to make her only appearance on CBS radio’s Suspense series in a thriller titled ”Murder by the Book (a clip of which I appropriated for one of my old-time radio podcasts).

Swanson (pictured above in a scene from Music in the Air [1934]) plays a mystery writer suffering from dizzy spells, memory loss, and nervous tension, ever since her husband’s death by drowning. She’d been seeing a doctor about it; but he died as well. “You see, he has been murdered,” she declares, narrating her story. Still, she is determined to continue her latest book, a thriller “about a woman who kills her husband”; but, she admits, she’s been having “all kinds of trouble with the end. Everything was all right up until the explanation.”

For the sake of publicity, and to get her mind off her troubled new volume, she agrees to her publisher’s suggestion to turn reporter and cover her doctor’s murder, much to the distress of her stepdaughter. “She’d always been a little strange,” Swanson’s character remarks. Then again, she’s the one with the dizzy spells.

Swanson, you will agree, was not very assured in her reading of her lines, and at times scans the script downright carelessly. Then again, her best years had been silent ones. Nevertheless, she succeeds in turning the character of Emily into one cooky dame. Since we sense from the start that she cannot be trusted, the pleasure of listening to Robert L. Richard’s “Murder by the Book” lies in hearing her fall apart. It’s a fine premise for the kind of movie thriller many an aging Hollywood diva would take on in the 1950. Ready or not, Swanson had one glorious last close-up in her future . . .

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