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Confession

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 8, 2009 05:55pm | Post a Comment

Confession is a crime drama anthology that originally aired on NBC from July 5 to September 14 in 1953, Sunday nights at 9:30. Each episode featured Paul Frees as Richard McGee -- then the director of California Department of Corrections. John Wald was the announcer.

                

The rest of the cast changed from episode to episode and was a veritable "who’s who" of radio talent of the era, including: Alice Reinhardt, Anthony Barrett (aka Tony Barrett), Barney Phillips, Charlotte Lawrence, Dan Rhys, Eddie Firestone, Eve McVeagh, George Peroni, Gerald Mohr, Gloria Grant, Helen Kleeb, Jack Kruschen, Jack Moyles, James Edwards, Jay Loughlin, Jester Hairston, Joel Davis, John Crawford, John McIntire, Jonathan Hole, Joyce McCluskey, Lamont Johnson, Lurene Tuttle, Les Tremayne, Maidie Norman, Marvin Miller, Sam Edwards, Stacy Harris, Virginia Gregg, Vivvie Jennis and Warren Stevens.

Each episode begins with the Wald solemnly intoning “The confession you are about to hear is an actual recording...” (followed by two loud, distinct beeps of the Canadian Beeper Phone). Then the interviewer vocally encourages the convict to begin their confession, gently prodding “alright... go ahead... make the statement please." Then the convict/protagonist reads the beginning of their confession before the program segues into a dramatization of the events of the confessor's arrest.

In the premiere episode, the interviewer suggests “if there’s comfort for the listeners it’s that you’ve [the convict] been apprehended.” The way the criminals give their accounts is distinguishable from comparable examples with fictional stories of most TV, film and radio of their era. Unlike those frequently over-the-top characterizations of criminals, on Confession, the criminals laconically tell their tales with unpretentious, unembellished language spoken with the seemingly distinct cadences, accents and slang of the era. The realism is further abetted by the subtle acting, with characters coughing, occasionally mumbling unintelligibly and sometimes interrupted by the interviewer giving instructions to speak up, lean toward the mic or sometimes even correcting the confessor's reading of their own confessions as they convincingly stumble through their written accounts. The sound effects are used sparingly and skillfully and the most memorable sound is that of the spare, haunting piano score of Michael Sumogi (or Somage in some accounts) which contributes to an uneasy disquiet.

Confession was a Canfield-Lewis Creation. Homer Canfield was NBC’s director of west coast operations at the time and the main reason Dragnet was picked up by the network after being rejected by CBS. He also produced several episodes of Dragnet. The Lewis of the team was Warren Lewis, who co-produced the series.

Many of the actors that helped make Confession also appeared on Dragnet. Barney Phillips was Dragnet’s officer Ed Jacobs. As with Dragnet, in Confession, "Names were changed to protect the legal rights of the subject." The criminals’ narratives also share Dragnet's slow, measured pace. However, the dramatizations of the criminal's accounts (written by Don Brinkley, Richard Allen Simmons and Lou Rusoff) invariably depict the comission of the crime which was almost never the case on Dragnet and are usually dramatic in a manner somewhat at odds with the matter-of-fact resignation of the actual descriptions.

In many ways, Confession is like the flipside of Dragnet. The story begins with the apprehended criminal’s confession and works backward, showing the criminal's viewpoint instead of the coppers'. Whereas on Dragnet the Los Angeles vast sprawl was the haystack in which Friday and his partners looked for needles, the criminals in the Los Angeles of Confession have the cramped tension of a kitchen sink dramas.

By 1953, radio had been largely eclipsed in popularity by TV and producers responded by trying to move radio in a more titilating, exploitative direction -- albeit under the guise of public-service orientation. Since TV pretty much had a lock on mindless escapism of religious dramas, juvenile sci-fi and game shows, it was pretty simple for radio to assert its maturity. Therefore, although the short lives of radio programs that debuted in the early '50s is often blamed on TV's deathgrip, it's kind of hard to imagine that its  competition on the idiot box (the forgotten The Plainclothesman, The Philco Television Playhouse/Goodyear Television Playhouse, Break the Bank  and This is the Life starring the Fisher Family) could have posed much competition for a smart, engaging crime drama.

In the end, the eight “true tragedies” of Confession's short run ("The Doris Kane Case," "The Martin Everett Case," "The Anna Carlson Case," "The Esther Phillips Case," "James V. Matson Case," "Leo J. Fowler Case," "The George S. Andress Case" and the "The Roger S. Chapman Case") may’ve been been too bleak, too depressing and too confusingly ambivalent.

Though the network claimed at the end of each episode of Confession that it was “brought to you each week by NBC in an effort to stem the nation's forward march of crime,” the program often elicits sympathy for a cast of characters who seem more pathetic than villainous; often driven to crime by lack of work opportunities, soul-crushing relationships, racial prejudice, previously undiagnosed mental illnesses or the influence of shady characters.

However, I have another theory about why this great program didn't last longer -- within its short run, the Korean War ended, with many GIs returning home to an America where Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was flying off the shelves, giving couples reuinited after long, painful separations much better things to do that summer.

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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John Wald (1), Radio Drama (6), Homer Canfield (1), Gerald Mohr (2), 1950s (25), Anthologies (1), Crime Dramas (2), Confession (1), Old Time Radio (27), Radio Noir (11), Audio Noir (9), Paul Frees (2), Radio (21)