Saturday, May 7, 2011

Fredric Brown on TV Part Six – Tales of Tomorrow: Age of Peril

by Jack Seabrook

    “Age of Peril” was first broadcast in New York on ABC as the February 15, 1952 episode of the anthology series, Tales of Tomorrow.  The teleplay was written by A.J. Russell, who adapted it from the Fredric Brown story, “Crisis, 1999.”
    “Crisis, 1999” first appeared in the August 1949 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  It is a science fiction-detective story set 50 years in the future.  Bela Joad, master of disguise and the greatest detective in the world, is called in by Chicago police chief Dyer Rand to help discover how the city’s major criminals are beating the lie detector test.  Joad goes undercover and arranges to fake his own murder.  His killer is arrested but successfully beats the lie detector test.
    Joad suspects that this disturbing trend is somehow connected to the disappearance two years before of criminology professor Ernst Chappel and goes undercover a second time, rising quickly to the top of the underworld as a powerful criminal.  When his worst enemy is killed, he receives a visit from Dr. Chappel.
    The story ends as Joad tells Rand that he plans to retire in order to work with Dr. Chappel, who has perfected a method of hypnotizing professional criminals into thinking they are innocent.  The by-product of this is that they are no longer criminals!  Joad convinces Rand to keep it a secret and they drink a toast to the imminent end of professional crime.

    “Crisis, 1999” is a detective story dressed up with science fiction touches.  People don’t shave, they use “facial depilatory.”  Newspapers are “micronews” and coffee comes by conveyor belt.  The conclusion is not all that far-fetched, though—Dr. Chappel simply hypnotizes professional criminals into becoming innocent people.
    When the story was adapted for television, the title was changed to “Age of Peril” and major changes were made.  In the televised version, which is set in 1965 rather than 1999, Larry Calhoun is sent by the Bureau of Scientific Investigation to San Jose, California, where a portion of a top-secret guided-missile plan has been stolen from a plant.  He tests the plant’s 580 employees with a lie detector, but finds that they are all telling the truth.
    Calhoun tips off the thief that there are more secret documents in a wall safe, then rigs up an automatic camera to catch him in the act.  Even with photographic proof, the thief still beats the lie detector test.  Calhoun learns that this has become a trend and that 48 criminals in the last six months have successfully passed the test.  If the problem can’t be solved, the country is headed into “a new age of peril, in which the criminal will have the upper hand.”

    Calhoun finally deduces that Dr. Chappell is using a machine he invented, in conjunction with hypnotism, to turn criminals into innocent men.  At the end, Calhoun agrees to let Chappell and his colleagues present their findings to the government, hoping to wipe out crime once and for all.
    The televised version of “Crisis, 1999” was broadcast live and then filmed off of a television set as a kinescope that could be broadcast in the western parts of the country.   That kinescope is what survives today, and its quality suffers from the primitive technology used in the early days of TV.  Dennis Harrison stars as Calhoun; he would later change his stage name to Dennis Patrick and have a long TV career, highlighted by a regular role on Dark Shadows.
    Dr. Chappell is played by John McGovern, who would appear as a postal clerk in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.  Phyllis Kirk “stars” in the program as Chappell’s daughter Irene; she had memorable roles in House of Wax (1953), as Nora Charles in The Thin Man TV series (1957-1959), and as Kennan Wynn’s shrewish wife on the Twilight Zone episode, “A World of His Own.”

    Behind the scenes, teleplay writer A.J. Russell would later write nine episodes of The Honeymooners and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Director Don Medford would have a 40-year career as a television director, including five episodes of The Twilight Zone and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.    His son, Jeffrey Wright, wrote a Master’s Thesis on the director, whose nickname was “Midnight Medford”, using his long career to study how TV direction changed from the era of live TV through the filmed shows of the 1980s.
    Most surprising of all was the Director of Graphic Art on Tales of Tomorrow—Arthur Rankin, Jr., who would later found Rankin/Bass and make the animated Christmas specials that were a part of our childhood (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, etc.).  The only graphic art on Tales of Tomorrow appears to be the end credits, which are typed on a transparent roll of film that is hand-rolled over an image of a watchband.
    The show is sponsored by Kreisler watchbands, and a very entertaining look at the Kreisler Kids and their in-show singing advertisement for the product can be found here
    One interesting tidbit about the TV show’s title:  the phrase “Age of Peril” was made famous by President Eisenhower in a May 9, 1953 radio address when he said, “We live in an age of peril.”  He used the phrase again in his 1954 State of the Union address.  Is it possible that his speechwriter recalled this phrase from the February 1952 television program?
    “Crisis, 1999” was reprinted in Fredric Brown’s short-story collection Space on My Hands (1951), and again in the collection From These Ashes (2001).
    “Age of Peril” can be seen on Hulu and is included in the Tales of Tomorrow DVD Collection One of 1st Season Shows.

"Age of Peril." Tales of Tomorrow. ABC. New York, New York, 15 Feb. 1952. Television. Collected on Tales of Tomorrow, Collection One of 1st Season Shows.  DVD.  2004.
Brown, Fredric. "Crisis, 1999." Space On My Hands. 1951.  New York: Bantam, 1980. 15-35.
Galactic Central. Web. 07 May 2011. <>.
Wikipedia. Web. 07 May 2011.


Todd Mason said...

And, for Deep Background, the cover photo for that (newsstand) issue of EQMM is one of the more striking they used...and they reversed the image and used it again on a MERCURY MYSTERY book/issue (I think it was before they turned MERCURY into a no two ways about it magazine).

(The subscription copies had rather sedate, line-drawing covers in comparison.)

Jack Seabrook said...

That is Deep Background! I thought it looked pretty exciting for EQMM. And by the way, does anyone else think that the guy getting hypnotized looks like Michael McKean?

Unknown said...

Holy crap! I decided to look for info on the Kreisler Kids and found out there were others looking too!
Is that creepy or cool?

Jack Seabrook said...

I think it's cool!