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Take a class in Television history and you'll be inundated with testimony about the grand days of the Golden Age of Live Television, an eight or nine-year stretch from about 1952 to 1960. These were the years before videotape, when major corporations sponsored 60- and 90-minute shows that were seen only once because they were essentially live theater broadcast directly from New York and Los Angeles. As we are frequently reminded, the "live" aspect is what made the time so exciting. The technical apparatus of a full TV studio with three or four cameras had to be rehearsed and on cue just as did the actors. Going Out Live meant no second takes or time to think out mistakes. If the show called for a fade-out on a character in one set followed by a fade-in with the same character on a second set, the actor had to dash across the studio to be in place in time. If anything went wrong, the actors would have to improvise.
The excitement was matched by the quality of the shows. Top actors competed for parts; instead of playing to an audience of a few thousands, these dramatic shows would be seen by millions. Actors like Paul Newman, Julie Harris and James Dean found live TV a boon to their careers. A new breed of technically savvy directors was created, headed by stellar names like John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Franklin Schaffner.
The celebrated shows in Criterion's The Golden Age of Television DVD boxed set are still referenced as cultural high points of the 1950s. They had never been rebroadcast until a PBS affiliate assembled them as a series in 1980. As one-off live shows, they wouldn't have survived at all had it not been for Kinescopes filmed directly from TV monitors. These imperfect film copies would be shot and immediately developed so that the shows could be shown in other time zones. The series assembles them as two-hour specials introduced by actors, directors and writers from the period. We're familiar with several of the titles from later movie versions, usually with different actors in the leading roles.
Directed by Delbert Mann, the original 1953 Marty put writer Paddy Chayefsky on the map and gave a major career boost to Rod Steiger, as the "fat, ugly little man" who wants a break from the loneliness of bachelorhood. Chayefky's stylized dialogue still strikes us as more natural than the kinds of speeches heard in the theater, as Marty and his pal Angie (Joe Mantell from Chinatown) worry about what they wanna do tonight. Wallflower Marty meets a kindred spirit in Clara (Nancy Marchand) and takes a new direction in his life. Viewers will be impressed with how compact this original 60-minute play is; Chayefsky expanded the story by a third for the 1955 movie version with Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. Joe Mantell and Esther Minciotti are in both versions.
More evidence that 50s Live TV was a writer's medium comes in 1955's Patterns, a tough-minded tale of boardroom combat similar to Ernest Lehman's Executive Suite of the previous year. Rod Serling's thesis is that big companies must be ruthless with their employees and that only the strong may be permitted to survive; it's a noxious but highly debatable position. New hire Fred Staples (Richard Kiley) soon realizes that his obsessed company president Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane) has brought him on to replace aging Andy Sloane (Ed Begley). Ramsey's method is to force Sloane's resignation through browbeating and humiliation.
Serling lets his characters make human gestures but his "pattern" is just as rigid as the patterns built into the company hierarchy. Sloane is indeed an alcoholic loser, big boss Ramsey just wants the company to be strong for the future and nice guy Staples won't let his feelings deter him from advancement. Nobody questions the inherent inhumanity of the system. Director Fielder Cook keeps things simple, and went on to direct the even better film version the next year. It retained Sloane and the superb Begley but replaced Kiley with Van Heflin. Showing up as various secretaries and "supportive women" are a young Elizabeth Wilson (The Graduate) and a very young Elizabeth Montgomery, who could pass for a Junior High student.
1955's No Time for Sergeants is a service comedy that introduced Southern-twanged Andy Griffith to American audiences. Besides playing a brainless but likeable Army private in charge of the latrine, stand-up specialist Griffith holds the stage on his own during scene changes. Viewers indeed loved private Will Stockdale's knack for frustrating his sergeant (Harry Clark). The show of course launched Andy Griffith, who repeated his performance for the 1958 movie version. Oddly, Elia Kazan's 1957 A Face in the Crowd was considered a setback. Audiences rejected the ironic and cynical show about an Andy Griffith / Arthur Godfrey "good old boy" who becomes a dangerous demagogue. Griffith rebounded in TV's first "aw shucks" simple-folks TV fare, The Andy Griffith Show playing the folksy straight man in a complacent, idealized Southern town.
Live TV featured plenty of classics and lofty dramas. James Costigan's A Wind from the South (1955) uses the familiar stage formula of visitors at a remote inn to tell a poetic love story. Irish brother and sister Shivawn and Liam (Julie Harris & Michael Higgins) run The Willows. Among their guests are two men attracted to Shivawn, Jack (James Congdon) and poet Robert (Donald Woods). While various characters debate the meaning of life Robert and Shivawn are drawn together, to the consternation of Robert's wife. As can be expected, Shivawn's poetic encounters only last until the holiday is over. Soft rains fall, while singer Merv Griffin is heard over drifting camera moves.
Rod Serling's big winner is 1956's Requiem for a Heavyweight an excellent drama with more impact than the 1962 Anthony Quinn movie. Jack Palance is Harlan "Mountain" McClintock, a heavyweight fighter on the downslide. He's both helped and betrayed by his manager Maish Rennick (Keenan Wynn); Harlan's skid row pals include several real ex-boxers. Unemployment counselor Grace Carney (Kim Hunter) is fascinated to discover that Harlan is a noble innocent. Potential tragedy is averted, but the TV theater format didn't insist on a happy ending. Although Palance's character is somewhat idealized the story arc isn't a compromise from the get-go, something that earned the Golden Age its crown of creative dignity. Figuring heavily in the show's appeal is Keenan's father Ed Wynn, the famous comedian in his first dramatic performance. Wynn senior's emotional presence makes an already fine show into a classic.
Also from 1956 is Bang the Drum Slowly, a baseball story written by Arnold Schulman from Mark Harris' novel. Paul Newman's portrait of a left-handed ballpark star was seen by many more viewers than could have attended his first few movies. Pitcher Henry Wiggen (Newman) shields the slow-witted relief catcher Bruce Pierson (Albert Salmi) from the constant insults of the coach (Rudy Bond). When he learns that Pierson has a fatal disease, Henry does his best to hide it from the rest of the team. Showing up in supporting roles are Robert Altman favorite Bert Remsen and a young George Peppard, who sings the ironic title ballad. The play was made into a movie much later, starring Robert DeNiro and Michael Moriarity.
Director Alex Segal organizes the show into flashbacks, with Newman's character playing host and joining scenes as they fade up from the darkened stage. We're more aware than ever that Live TV of this sort is not film, but a technical extension of theater. Except for a few plays and musicals that have been videotaped, our stage heritage has mostly disappears, to be recalled only in memoirs. These TV plays are an impressive record of some of the decade's best New York talent -- or, at least the performers and writers that avoided the attention of the HUAC blacklists.
The biggest surprise of of the set is Ernest Lehman's 1957 The Comedian, one of the most uncompromised and acidic teleplays ever and a definite precursor to Lehman's classic film Sweet Smell of Success. Mickey Rooney is Sammy Hogarth, an appallingly cruel and insincere comic who spends his time mentally torturing all who work for him, demanding that they constantly acknowledge his importance and their own relative insignificance. The principal victim of Sammy's venom is his own brother Lester (Mel Tormé), a weakling seduced by an easy job. Lester rebels because Sammy insists on filling his weekly monologue with vicious insults aimed directly at his brother. Trapped in the web of dependence are head writer Al Preston (Edmond O'Brien), who can no longer come up with fresh material of his own, and Lester's unhappy wife Julie (Kim Hunter), who despises Sammy but is equally a pawn in the man's nasty power plays. Excellent support is provided by Constance Ford, Whit Bissell and King Donovan.
John Frankenheimer's groundbreaking direction for this show was once lauded in Television history courses. His unrestrained camera shows a TV show in production; taking cameras become cameras in the play. Frankenheimer places Hogarth's giant face on a TV monitor in the foreground, just as he does in the later news conference scenes in The Manchurian Candidate. As the monstrous Hogarth browbeats his associates we can barely tell where the "show within a show" leaves off. The show demonstrates how Live TV goes beyond theater yet is completely different from the movies ... we suddenly understand why a technically slick director like William Friedkin idolizes Frankenheimer. 1
The final show is another Frankenheimer great, Days of Wine and Roses from 1958. J.P. Miller's grueling tale of a married couple's alcoholic tailspin is refreshing in its honesty and refusal to glamorize; it's the next step beyond Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend. Joe Clay and Kirsten Arnesen (Cliff Robertson & Piper Laurie) meet over drinks and share happy, boozy times until he's incapable of holding down a job. They take money from Kirsten's father (Charles Bickford), straighten out for a time and then fall back into their destructive habits. Joe joins the AA but Kirsten remains in denial, choosing the bottle over her husband and her child.
Days of Wine and Roses shows TV's evolution away from Live Drama. The show is a series of flashbacks from an AA meeting, a story told by a cleaned up and sober Joe Clay. The flashbacks to the haggard Joe make a live production impossible. As it turns out, the AA meeting material was recorded on brand-new video tape machines (which could not yet edit), allowing for quick costume and makeup changes, not to mention brief breaks for Cliff Robertson to scale his performance up or down as needed. The show was of course made into a slick film version with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Henry Mancini's slick music glamorizes and unbalances the film even though the original's harsh ending is retained. The overwrought, weepy performances in the movie version led to a Mad magazine parody with the priceless title The Days of Runny Noses.
Criterion's The Golden Age of Television repackages the seven episodes of the 1980 series in a fold-out disc holder containing an insert booklet with an essay by Ron Simon and notes on each show.
The TV series' original introductions are intact. Many of the stars involved discuss the special circumstances of the shows, while the directors and producers (Martin Manulis, Fred Coe) help fill in details about the legendary star writers. Criterion producer Susan Arrosteguy has helped assemble several director commentaries and interview outtakes. We learn about Rod Serling's chronic sense of insecurity, which seemed to bleed into the subject matter of many of his plays. Ralph Nelson and other cast members recall the near disaster that nearly happened with the casting of the elderly Ed Wynn, who in rehearsal couldn't get through his lines and would often become confused. The miracle is that Wynn is practically perfect in the show itself.
John Frankenheimer's commentary on The Comedian is interesting in that he doesn't necessarily remember the supporting actors, but he has vivid memories of his favorite cameramen. Everyone praises Mickey Rooney's talent to the skies, yet they acknowledge that there's more than a little of Rooney in the arrogant Sammy Hogarth character: Rooney brought several girlfriends to the set and pressured Frankenheimer to find them roles in the play.
Viewers looking for mistakes, flubs and breakdowns are going to be disappointed. Every once in a while a camera is miscued or we see the Kinescope technician adjust the overall brightness of the image, but that's about it. Frankenheimer says that the skills of Live TV were born out of necessity, and the technicians rose to the occasion. Once videotape came in, Live TV was soon abandoned. But nothing could replace the immediacy and excitement of the unique format.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dear Glenn: When discussing The Comedian, probably the most flat out brilliant of the 'fifties teleplays that I have seen, the matter of authorship is a little complicated.
That is to say, when you write, "The biggest surprise of of the set is Ernest Lehman's 1957 The Comedian, one of the most uncompromised and acidic teleplays ever and a definite precursor to Lehman's classic film Sweet Smell of Success," that sentence strongly suggests that Lehman wrote the teleplay for The Comedian (and, for that matter, implies that Lehman is the sole author of the screenplay of Sweet Smell of Success* ).
I've never run across a copy of Lehman's novelette "The Comedian", though it is well regarded (there are copies out there; it was reissued in 2000 in a collection with the "Sweet Smell" novella). But I do know that Rod Serling adapted Lehman's novelette for television. And there are many touches and moments in the The Comedian script that are pure Serling.
I would also respectfully point out that No Time for Sergeants was written for television by Ira Levin from the novel by Mac Hyman. No Time aired on The U.S. Steel Hour in March of 1955. In October of that year, Levin's stage adaptation of the novel and teleplay opened on Broadway with Andy Griffith repeating his role as Will Stockdale; the show ran for almost 800 performances. It put Andy on the map as an actor (and got him A Face in the Crowd), and, of course, was later made into a hit film by Warners. WB even produced a short-lived No Time sitcom in the '60s, but the material didn't click without Griffith. Best, Always. -- B
* The screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success is by Clifford Odets and Lehman. The story goes that illness prevented Lehman from working on the script beyond developmental stages; Odets was brought in to write a full screenplay, and Lehman later did some rewrites.
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