Sun 12 Jun 2016
by Michael Shonk
GEORGE SANDERS MYSTERY THEATRE (aka MYSTERY WRITERS THEATRE). NBC; June 22, 1957 to September 14, 1957. Screen Gems / Bischoff-Diamond Productions. Presented by George Sanders.
During the days of radio and early television the anthology series was very popular. There were a seemingly endless number of the genre from ALCOA PREMIERE to WAY OUT or better remembered from ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS to TWILIGHT ZONE. Virtually all had the same format: a famous actor or writer/producer of the show would talk directly to the audience introducing the story to follow. If an actor were the host, he or she would act in an occasional episode.
Most of the episodes of the majority of these anthologies were as forgettable as the series themselves. Yet occasionally an episode would hold a surprise. There are currently two episodes of GEORGE SANDERS MYSTERY THEATRE on YouTube. Each features a different series title and premise for the short-lived anthology.
“And The Birds Still Sing” is a forgotten adaptation of a Craig Rice short story featuring John J. Malone, with Malone forced to adopt the alias of Francis Parnell. This episode also featured the series original name MYSTERY WRITERS THEATRE and its original premise, to adapt the work of the members of Mystery Writers Association of America (“Billboard” December 3, 1955).
The Mystery Writers of America was and is a non-profit organization of writers. The group is best known for the Edgar Awards, but also helped its members’ work get adapted for radio (MYSTERY HALL OF FAME) and TV (THE WEB, CBS).
“And The Birds Still Sing.” (June 29, 1957) Teleplay by Gene Wang, based on a story by Craig Rice as published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Directed by Gerd Oswald. CAST: John Archer, Mae Clark, Tristram Coffin, and John Beradino. *** A femme fatale hires lawyer Francis Parnell for reasons unknown. When Parnell finds her murdered he is quick to find a new client and the killer.
I have not read the source material, a short story published in EQMM (December, 1952), but the Gene Wang adaptation captures Rice’s style well with an odd murder and odder characters and a twist at the end that is pure Malone.
Wang had experience with Malone as he wrote the best adaption of the character, the summer 1951 NBC radio series starring George Petrie as Malone. You can find my earlier review of the radio series here. (Follow the link.)
The episode’s host segment by George Sanders has its moments as he introduced not only the story but also the MWA club.
There is no doubt lawyer Francis Parnell was really Malone. Both being cocky, broke, cliché-quoting lawyers who spend their days in a local bar and are more interested in a paying client that they can get off than in justice.
Sadly, actor John Archer was the weakest part of the episode. He lacked the charm and comedic timing to make Malone the lovable anti-hero Rice created. As to be expected, the production values were low and left it all with a stagey feel.
Something happened during the series production. There were changes in the fourth episode “You Don’t Live Here.” Gone is the title card for the Mystery Writers of America along with any mention of the MWA and its club. In its place is the series title THE GEORGE SANDERS MYSTERY THEATRE, and the host segments shifted focus away from the MWA to George Sanders persona and the episode at hand, even with Sanders wandering around the story’s location rather than the MWA club. Gone also was an adaption of a MWA members’ work and in its place was a TV original story by relative unknown Eugene Francis. The series now – at least for this episode – was just another wanna-be ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.
“You Don’t Live Here.” (July 13, 1957) Written by Eugene Francis. Produced and directed by Fletcher Markle. CAST: Marion Ross, Alex Gerry and Peter Thompson. *** Returning from a visit with her sick Mother a newlywed discovers her world gone – others now live in her home, her husband has vanished as if he never existed, and her landlord and neighbor claim they have never met her.
The problem with these GASLIGHT-like plots they are always too unnecessarily complex to be believable. The episode tries to keep us guessing who is telling the truth but with the thirty-minute time limit we never get to know the characters well enough to care.
The George Sanders bits are embarrassingly bad as he hams it up even beyond his usual excesses.
The series has an interesting backstory. According to “Billboard” (July 14, 1956), NBC had bought MYSTERY WRITERS THEATRE from Screen Gems with plans to air the series later. “Broadcasting” (August 13, 1956) noted NBC did not plan to air the series in the fall of 1956-57 season but instead hold the series called GEORGE SANDERS SHOW for the 1957-58 season.
From “Broadcasting” (September 17, 1956), NBC buys Screen Gems series GEORGE SANDERS MYSTERY THEATRE, but only after Screen Gems agreed to share the profit from the series with the network. NBC would get 25% of the profits from the airing of the series in the U.S. and Canada as well as a rerun share.
This was a time when the networks sold time slots to advertising agencies and sponsors. “Broadcasting” (May 13, 1957) reported Pabst (beer) bought thirteen weeks of GEORGE SANDERS THEATRE to run during the summer on Saturday at 9pm- 9:30pm.
But this could only last for thirteen weeks as NBC had sold the time slot (Saturday at 9pm) for the fall to ad agency Liggett & Myers for sponsors Chesterfield (cigarettes) and Max Factor of Hollywood for the TV series PANIC.
So what happened to the MWA during this series? The episode indexes available for this series show the series was a mix of adaptations and originals.
“Broadcasting” (April 30, 1956) mentioned an episode of MYSTERY WRITERS THEATRE was shown to four hundred MWA members and their guests during the Edgar Allan Poe Awards on April 19, 1956. This means at least one episode was done before the anthology series was bought by NBC in July 1956 and not aired until June 1957. Could the MWA episodes been shot in summer of 1956 and the original stories episodes shot later when it was known NBC wanted it only as a replacement series?
Why was Malone’s name changed for “And The Birds Still Sing”? ABC had the TV rights for Malone for the 1951-52 TV series but apparently did not keep them after cancelling THE AMAZING MR. MALONE. The series last episode aired March 10, 1952.
BONUS RESEARCH – CRAIG RICE THEATRE:
“Billboard” (June 26, 1952) reported CRAIG RICE THEATRE planned to go into production in August 1952 for Eagle-Lion Studio in Hollywood. Tony London would produce the half-hour series based on the work of Craig Rice. Sam Neuman would adapt the stories and direct. July 14, 1952 “Broadcasting” magazine added Tony London (FRANK MERRIWELL) had acquired the TV-Film rights to 352 story properties by Craig Rice. “Billboard” (September 6, 1952) listed CRAIG RICE THEATRE available for syndication but no pilot had yet been filmed.
Skip ahead to 1954, “Billboard” (September 27, 1954) CRAIG RICE was still a possible project with Tony London still the producer and Sam Neuman adapting Rice’s work as well as directing. Now McCadden Production (George Burns and Gracie Allen company) was behind the proposed series. The December 18, 1954 “Billboard” quoted producer Tony London’s complaints about the difficulty with finding a willing female star to host CRAIG RICE THEATRE.
“Billboard” (April 9, 1955) reported ABC-TV president Robert Kintner had discussions with producer Tony London and writer Sam Neuman about the CRAIG RICE series.
August 1, 1955 “Broadcasting” Ziv-TV plan to produce CRAIG RICE THEATRE but have yet to assign any writers. “Billboard” January 14, 1956 the CRAIG RICE THEATRE is on Ziv-TV production schedule to begin filming in late February or March and currently casting for the female host/lead. “Billboard” (April 7, 1956) Ziv-TV is still trying to sell CRAIG RICE THEATRE for the fall, but still have not found the female/host lead (“Billboard” January 14, 1956). April 7, 1956 “Billboard” has the last mention of CRAIG RICE THEATRE. Ziv-TV hopes to have it ready for the fall but there is no pilot or host/star attached. Tony London remains the project’s producer.
It is unlikely CRAIG RICE THEATRE ever got beyond planning, unable to ever find the right female star willing to host the series. But the TV rights to her writing seems to have been tied up in the Tony London project from 1952 through at least the fall of 1956 and that could have forced Malone to use his Parnell alias in “And The Birds Still Sing.”