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Monday, May 24, 2010

Favorites List --- Sorry, Wrong Number

Sorry, Wrong Number was once a story that meant something to almost everyone. They listened to it on radio, saw the movie, or heard conversation about it, likelier all of above. 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 that 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.


Anonymous Martin Grams said...

SORRY, WRONG NUMBER was done on television in 1954, not 1946. Barbara Shelley played the lead for television. It was dramatized again on television in 1957, actress unknown. Moorehead played the role on SUSPENSE eight times but the 1960 version was a repeat recording of the 1957 version, so she technically did it seven times on the program. Moorehead was indeed bitter about not getting the chance to do it on the movie -- personal letters in her collection at Wisconsin reveal that. (Source: SUSPENSE: Twenty Years of Thrills and Chills, Morris Publishing, 1998).

1:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Martin, I had read about the 1954 television broadcast of "Sorry, Wrong Number," but I also found references to a version that was done in 1946, which surprised me because it was so early. Possibly these sources are wrong, though possibility exists of even more dramatizations that none of us know about ...

2:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Scott MacGillivray e-mailed the following info and link about the 1946 "Sorry, Wrong Number" on television ....

The Web says you're right, John -- "Sorry, Wrong Number" was telecast in January 1946. The Archive of American Television mentions it here:

Thanks a lot for supplying this, Scott.

4:57 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

This thread reminds me of a famous Argentine soap opera written by Alberto Migré called from 1950 called "0597 da ocupado", about a relationship that it was established between an operator and a womanizer...

It was extremely succesful on radio.

On television, it was remade first in 1956 in Colombia, then in 1963 in Brasil (they did it again later) and in Mexico it was done in 1997.

The Argentine television version was done in 1990 produced by Migré himself. It was extremely popular and I remember a parody in which even the leading actors of the serious soap opera participated.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

Really nothing to add, but thanks for this post on SORRY WRONG NUMBER, I saw it as a kid on NBC's "Saturday Night at the Movie" and it made an indelible impression on me, especially the amazing ending scene. Would love to have heard the radio drama before seeing the film.

8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You might be surprised to learn that Sorry, Wrong Number is still commonly recreated (perhaps the most recent example is here,, from 2009). As to it's being the "radio's most famous play," I'd have to give it second place, after the Mercury Theater's production of War of the Worlds (which is also frequently recreated for modern audiences -- and which is probably the only radio broadcast that produces some general recognition among contemporary non-radio fans).

I've never seen the film version of Sorry Wrong Number. Several years ago I read a novella length treatment of the story, by Lucille Fletcher and Allan Ullman. (Presumably this was something Ullman fleshed out from Fletcher's radio script?) I don't know if this was done as background for the film, or if it's independent. I found the longer version to be pretty boring -- it's very hard to build and maintain suspense over a longer time frame, especially with the use of flashbacks. I imagine the film suffers from the same problem.


2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Decca Records also released a version on 4 sides (that is, a two-disc 78 RPM set) in the mid-1940s, again with Ms. Moorehead in the lead.--Mark Hendrix

3:00 PM  
Anonymous Dan in Missouri said...

I was also eight in 1962, but living in the "New York Metropolitian Area" I was able to listen to a lot of great old time radio shows.
CBS kept Suspense and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar on the air with new episodes until 1962 as well as some soap operas.
Many radio stations ran recordings of classic radio shows including The Lone Ranger, The Shadow and the Green Hornet. It was also quite common for some of the big stations to have retrospectives of classic shows, frequently hosted by the original stars. After all, old time radio wasn't so old at the time.
The last time I checked, and it has been at least five years, Paramount still had 35 mm prints of Sorry, Wrong Number available at very low prices for theates to run commercially.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"telephones ... 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."

I'm not sure this really matters. No one drives around in a hansom cab or pulls a bell-rope for servants any more, but that doesn't stop new audiences from enjoying Sherlock Holmes' adventures in print or elsewhere. Similarly, nobody's encountered warp drive, phasers or transporters in the real world, but that hasn't stopped "Star Trek" from connecting with audiences. The technology is secondary to the human elements. Mrs. Stevenson (I believe she's only referred to as Leona in the film) is an interesting character in an unusual situation and that's what's important. Cradles and operators, hansom cabs and bell-ropes, and opening hailing frequencies on a sub-space channel so an away team can beam down? That's mostly window dressing.

Speaking of which. Within the last year or so, Fletcher's play was produced in Kansas City, MO -- staged in a series of shop windows, with the audience out front on the street, according to the online Kansas City Star.

1:12 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dugan, it was "Saturday Night at the Movies" on NBC where I saw SWN for the first time as well ... an unforgettable night.

Dr. OTR, as always I'm delighted to get your input on the radio subjects. You always have valuable new info to pass along.

Mark, I never knew about the Decca record. Thanks for sharing that.

Dan in Missouri, you were doing in 1962 what I should have been doing (listening to radio). Also glad to hear that Paramount has a 35mm SWN available for rental, and that the price is reasonable.

10:11 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I guess my first acquaintance with Sorry, Wrong Number is pretty unique: it was the radio version, but not from listening to it, from reading it in English class. Seems to me it was eighth grade, maybe ninth; anyhow, the script was one of the selections in our reader. The teacher had us read it out loud (it fit neatly into one classroom period); can't remember who read Mrs. Stevenson, but I guess she did a pretty good job, as the play certainly left a deep impression, at least on me.

9:59 PM  
Anonymous Steven Smith said...

Great post, John.

Lucille Fletcher was a lovely lady who became a friend when I began writing a biography of her first husband, Bernard Herrmann. (She and Benny met in the 1930s while both worked at CBS.) She did not remember SWN's production fondly; Anatole Litvak felt that her writing of Lancaster's shady pals lacked verisimilitude and demanded rewrites she felt she couldn't deliver. Lucille said that weeks of pressure-filled rewriting accelerated the end of her marriage to the demanding Herrmann.

A footnote: Herrmann's friend, composer Jerome Moross, turned SWN into a one-act opera - his final work - in 1977.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Professional Tourist said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:42 PM  
Blogger kinoeye said...

As Frances Buss notes in her American Archive of Television interview, Sorry, Wrong Number was indeed done for television in 1946, on 30 January to be exact. It aired over CBS with Mildred Natwick in the lead. It was done once more on 8 January 1950 with Meg Mundy. This later production. telecast with CBS's experimental color wheel system, was the first drama to be transmitted in color in the U.S. The 1954 production for Climax! was the third adaptation for television.

9:59 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks much Allen, for this very interesting information.

Only wish I could see that 1950color broadcast!

8:00 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

My first experience with SWN was reading / listening to it in grade school English class. Back in the early 1970's there was a school publication called READ which would present truncated script versions of famous literature - often accompanied by a flexi-disc record the teacher would play.

The version I heard was the famous one with Agnes Moorehead we're all talking about and it prompted me to later buy a cassette version. Therein lies my story.

The READ version mentioned that during the >original< broadcast the killer flubbed his line. The script and recording we heard in class did not reflect this. However, the bargain counter cassette my mother later bought me played through just like the famous one - Suspense, Agnes Moorehead and all - until the last moment when I heard:

"Police Department, Martin speaking."
"Police Department, Martin speaking."
"Police Department..."
"Oh, police department? I'm sorry. I must have got the wrong number.Don't worry, everything's okay."

It wasn't until decades later that I learned - just as with many other live radio shows - there was an East Coast and a West Coast version. The flubbed recording came from the original, first, East Coast performance of 05-25-43, while the "famous" version is the second, West Coast performance later that same day.

You REALLY have to search to find an online recording of the flubbed performance. As for myself, once I realised that something was odd, I made a dupe of the cassette to prove I wasn't crazy.

3:20 PM  

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