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Savant Short Review:

The Iceman Cometh

The Iceman Cometh
Image Entertainment
1960 / b&w / 1:37 / 210m. / Broadway Theatre Archive
Starring Jason Robards, Jr., Myron McCormick, Tom Pedi, James Broderick, Farrell Pelly, Robert Redford
Production Designer
Art Direction
Editor Joseph Liss
Original Music
Writing credits Eugene O'Neill
Produced by Lewis Freedman and Worthington Miner
Directed by Sidney Lumet

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

 Revised with a letter (2/1/02) about taping live television in New York in 1960, from Steven and Herb Gardener, below

This Broadway Theater Archive DVD is exactly that - a treasure chest of theatrical delight. The Iceman Cometh is a central work of Eugene O'Neill, and made news at its 1939 premiere with its world of society's misfit losers, portrayed with plain coarse language simply not heard on stages at the time. This National Telefilm Associates presentation is from 1960, and shows dramatic television at its cultural height: serious Broadway-calibre drama directed by top man Sidney Lumet, and enacted by a powerful cast.


The NYC saloon of Harry Hope (Farrell Pelly) is, thanks to his generosity, the hangout for a sorry bunch of losers, burnouts, and failures, who stay in his rooms and drink his liquor mostly on credit. Each has a cover story to hide their shame - how they lost their jobs, their families, their self-respect. Ex-radical Larry Slade (Myron McCormick) is the unofficial philosopher of the group, who number among themselves dishonored soldiers, policemen caught on the take, failed clerks and a lost communist, Hugo (Sorrell Brooke). Willie Oban (James Broderick) is a law graduate who never got down to practicing. Harry's bartender Rocky (Tom Pedi) dispenses the alcohol and keeps a stable of whores on the side. All await the good times promised by the coming of Hickey (Jason Robards) a good-time salesman who buys for all and makes everyone feel great. But there's trouble brewing: The son of Larry's old flame, Don Parritt (Robert Redford), has shown up with a guilty conscience for informing on his own mother. And when Hickey does show, he's not the same old glad-hander, but a man with a mission of reform - and something terrible to hide.

The first thing that comes to mind after seeing this four hour, two-part show (apparently broadcast on successive nights) is that there really must have been a golden age of television back then. Who could imagine a broadcast network today devoting 4 hours of prime time to a deepdish theatrical experience like this? The play is presented with just a quick introduction from New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, who very nervously explains that viewers are going to hear rough language (like bastard and whore). After that, it's five acts of O'Neill straight up. The production takes place in the front and back rooms of Hope's bar, and plays in five pieces of real time, invisibly edited 'On Living Videotape', as claimed by the final credit roll. The commercials have been removed, so the acts end and begin on stationbreak bumpers.

Powerful performances fully flesh out O'Neill's gallery of bums. Already an established actor, by all accounts Jason Robards, Jr. made this the performance of his life. Savant's only seen him in his later genre and supporting actor film work; here he holds the stage and the screen like a dynamo. Myron McCormick (No Time for Sergeants, The Hustler) is quietly magnetic as the disillusioned radical. Of the other actors, we instantly recognize James Broderick and Tom Pedi, whose distinctive voice can be savored in fare from Criss Cross (1949) to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Pedi was considered so indispensable as the crude bartender, that he played it again in John Frankenheimer's 1973 version. Joan Copeland is a prostitute with an alcoholic relationship with one of the souses; she and the other 'whores' are as carefully delineated as are the men. Young Robert Redford has the only part for any male under 40; he speaks more dialogue here than he does in his first twenty movies put together.

The Iceman Cometh is made of broken dreams. The men are all under the spell of alcohol, which functions as both the cause for and retreat from their pain and guilt. Their crimes are the kind punished with not with prison, but with exile from decent society: petty thievery and betrayal of loved ones. The bar's routine is high partying, followed by desultory misery, depending on Harry Hope's generosity; Jason Robards' Hickey character turns this routine inside out. Instead of joining them on a bender, he lectures and cajoles and cheerleads the others to stop leaning on their false dreams and illusions. The desperation in his character slowly comes out, and by the end of act three we know that Hickey, as Slade says, has brought Death to Hope's bar.

Saying anything more about the play as a play takes Savant way out of his path of competency. I was impressed with how quickly I became acclimatized to the heightened pitch of the stage performances. I'll be making return visits to The Theater Archive.

The Iceman Cometh is also very interesting technically. Shot on 2" videotape, this appears to be a tape restoration. It certainly looks a lot better than kinescopes I've seen. The cuts are so good, it was hard to decide whether the show was directed live or cut later on tape. Cuts on 2" video at the time had to be made by manually cutting the videotape, in a process guaranteed to make a mess of things; I think this show must have been live-switched in the studio ... the kind of process where the director calls out the cameras. If it was, it must be the best-rehearsed technical crew of all time, because the cuts are as good as if a top film editor did them. There is an editor credited, but perhaps all he did was to smooth out the flow here and there. It's Savant's understanding that real tape-to-tape editing didn't happen until much later (I guess I'm fishing for an expert opinion here). The titles are definitely added with a live switcher from an old-fashioned drum; a technician adjusts the gain at one point so we can read the fine print.

Quality-wise, the show looks good but is limited by 1960 videotape technology. The picture is contrasty, and there are fairly frequent analog video flaws: horizontal lines, fluctuating contrast, blooming whites. The images still have a good texture; the lighting brings out the character in the faces of the aged actors, while highlighting every flaw in Robert Redford's complexion.

The DVD is a simple affair with just some production notes as an extra. The cover is designed to evoke the look of an old-fashioned playbill. An advertising extra is an extensive set of promo trailers for other Theater Archive DVDs. It qualifies as added value content, because the lengthy clips from the famous productions are entertaining in themselves.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Iceman Cometh rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good, considering the stone-age video technology
Sound: Good
Supplements: Promos for other stage performance DVDs
Packaging: Double Keep case
Reviewed: January 25, 2002


1. THE EXPERT OPINION SAVANT WAS HOPING FOR (thank you Steven and Herb Gardener) 2/1/02: Since you said you were "fishing for an expert opinion" about the early days of videotape, I sent your review on to my father, Herb Gardener (no, not the playwright), who was a techie at CBS in New York from the mid-'50s through the mid-'70s and was one of the first people involved in physical videotape editing. He sent me some info which I thought you might find interesting (see below). -Steven Gardener, Image Entertainment (coincidentally, since I wasn't involved in the Iceman DVD)
Yes, I remember The Iceman Cometh fondly. I did not edit that show (I suspect I was a tape supervisor by that time) but I was very close to it. At that time (1960) video tape was only about two years old. I was one of perhaps four guys that pioneered tape editing at CBS. We had the first two production models from Ampex (serial numbers 1001 & 1002. How about that?). They were installed in the CBS New York facilities that were located above the star-lit ceiling of Grand Central Terminal.

The original use of video tape was for delayed broadcast to the Central and Pacific Time zones. Shows like the Ed Sullivan show (Toast of The Town) would originate live in New York which were originally recorded on "Hot Kine's" (jiffy processed film) for the west coast. Pretty awful quality. Tape solved that problem. Studio One, Playhouse 90, Philco Playhouse and Hallmark Hall of Fame were all dramatic shows that were done live mostly with Broadway actors who were used to live theatre. I'm not even sure that Iceman aired on CBS. The credits may tell us. At that time PBS used the CBS studios for a weekly series called Play of The Week produced by Lewis Freedman. The shows were shot on Saturday and Sunday. They were then edited and duplicated in long overnight sessions to be delivered to Channel 13 for air Monday evening. "Razor blade" editing was very tedious and each would take from 20 to 30 minutes and had to be done on the "originals" to preserve quality. All recordings were made on two machines to provide a backup. Editing was really cutting scenes together and trying to fix any goofs. The shows were shot in big chunks. Complete scenes or acts were shot with 3 or 4 cameras by directors of the stature of Sidney Lumet, John Frankenhiemer, Dan Petrie and Yul Brynner (with hair). The stage and technical crews were magicians that could make moves and get unbelievable shots amongst a tangle of camera cables and lights. Remember these were the days of live television. We didn't know any better. Most of the soaps still use the technique of recording complete acts and editing them together. One of the shows I edited was a Playhouse 90, For Whom the Bell Tolls. All but one short act was recorded on tape. The sleeping bag scene was done live just so it could be advertised as a live show. They had to keep the studio hot so the live scene could be done three hours later for the west coast. The fifties and sixties were the most dynamic years in Television. There were more ideas explored and techniques developed because anybody--Directors, Actors, Stagehands, Technicians and the kids that went for coffee--could suggest something and be listened to. I sure had a good time.

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