Favorites List --- Sorry, Wrong Number
Sorry, Wrong Number was once a story that meant something to almost everyone. They'd either listened to it on radio, seen the movie, or heard conversation about it. The title itself became a catch-phrase. Now we're left with a DVD and remnants of a generation that experienced eight separate broadcasts of what's said to be Radio's Most Famous Play. I'll defer to airwave authorities over truth (or not) of that, and merely assert here and now that few if any thrillers work so well when you're home alone and it's late, that going for Agnes Moorehead's radio rendition, Paramount's 1948 movie, or even Jack Benny's send-up as heard on October 17, 1948 (and readily accessible on line). I'll declare too that Sorry, Wrong Number plays swell to general audiences, having run it for several college crowds that roundly approved. But here's the rub: My last SWN engagement was ten years ago and since then telephones, at least as I've always understood them, have morphed into communication devices Sorry, Wrong Number's initial audience would never fully grasp. Can this show make sense to youth today? --- what with texting, facebook, cells ... what could be so retro as receivers in a cradle, let alone necessity of dealing with operators. Watching Sorry, Wrong Number in a wireless world reminded me that I haven't spoken to a live-voiced representative of the phone company for years, so how's Barbara Stanwyck doing so incessantly for 89 minutes going to register with 2010 viewers?
Like so many eventual filmic institutions, Sorry, Wrong Number began on radio. To be precise, it happened on a program called Suspense that ran on CBS from 1942 through 1962, a staggering record I'd presume only a few soap operas have beaten (945 episodes were broadcast and more than 900 are said to survive). The date was May 23, 1943. Legend claims Agnes Moorehead didn't want to play it at first. Said Sorry, Wrong Number was too morbid and made her nervous. Of course, the doomed Leona became Moorehead's signature role, even if she'd never be seen performing it (other actresses would for TV, but never AM). Sorry, Wrong Number became an ongoing airing event, subject to frequent listener demands for an encore. Always they used Agnes to reprise the lead, except when Stanwyck took a turn in 1950 for Lux Radio Theater's go at the expanded movie version with co-star Burt Lancaster. If Moorehead was human at all, she had to resent Stanwyck poaching on a character long since settled as hers. I read somewhere of a 1946 television adaptation of Sorry, Wrong Number, which only makes sense inasmuch as you can stage the whole thing with one hysterical actress in bed with a side table and a prop phone; what's more ideally suited to ultra austere live TV? One college-era afternoon I've not forgotten took place in a church basement just off campus where a group dramatized Sorry, Wrong Number using its original twenty-two or so minute script. I remember being amazed anyone was still putting on this show so late as 1974. Might some enterprising playmakers try again today using a BlackBerry?
Radio historians say Sorry, Wrong Number had its final dramatization in 1962, again with Agnes Moorehead. I'd have thought drama minus pictures was altogether finished by that time, but radio, being the institution everyone imagined would last forever, took years lumbering off. Sort of like vaudeville or what's left of today's print media. Seems no one in my growing-up household listened to radio except for music or news about school closings when it snowed. Why couldn't I have been one of those odd children shunning TV in favor of this fading theatre of the imagination? According to histories, there was still plenty beyond Sorry, Wrong Number I could have enjoyed in 1962, but how might radio have torn this eight-year-old away from The Jetsons? Now much of radio's history is stored on line for listening pleasure, thus was I regaled with Sorry, Wrong Number's historic first recital (and tried communing with jangled nerves of those who listened in originally). How many heard that 1943 broadcast and ones to come? More than watch even highest-rated television programs today? Paramount boasted forty million having been thrilled by the time their 1948 movie was ready to go, enough I'd think to put any pre-sold property in the shade. Certainly everyone got the jokes when Jack Benny's crew lampooned a by-then folkloric tale in October of that year. I'd have to assume Hollywood and radio walking hand-in-hand during this period when both were at a peak made everyone rich. Hal Wallis surely faced serious rivals when he went bidding for Sorry, Wrong Number.
Short stories and radio dramas called for similar handling when prepped for feature-length. Was Wallis guided by Mark Hellinger's expansion of The Killers from those few pages Hemingway sold him? This was everyone's model for fattening terse narrative into two-hour's thriller-making. Flashbacks became staples of noir by 1948 and Sorry, Wrong Number abounds in them. Lucille Fletcher had written radio's capsuled inspiration and was hired by Wallis to background thoroughly how luckless Leona got to her point of no rescue. Viewers new to Sorry, Wrong Number are often stunned by its ending. They expect Burt Lancaster to crash in at the last minute to save his wife. I'd guess 1948 saw the bleak finish coming from having listened at home or hearing friends drop spoilers. The web Wallis constructed was exemplary noir after the fashion of his own I Walk Alone and The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (among Paramount's many missed opportunities was a boxed DVD set of the best among these). Wallis deserves more credit as a major noir architect, one who pursued the brand seriously long before it was labeled and sold for extraordinary style it represented. He confessed a preference for portraying the dark side of life ... frankly and without compromise (his Starmaker memoir). Wallis stayed resolutely indoors rather than venturing to street locations as other noirists would, with result being stylized thrillers knee-deep in studio crafted atmospherics we happily associate with the genre. There was also his stock company traveling from dark to darker alleys. It must have seemed for a while that Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, Wendell Corey, and others of the Wallis school would never get away from doing pictures like these. Sorry, Wrong Number only whets my appetite for the Summer DVD release of Dark City and Rope Of Sand, two Wallis productions from this fertile period that have been long out of circulation (but where's much-requested I Walk Alone?).