Networking

June 12, 2009

Here’s a list I’ve been noodling with lately.  The first entry kind of gives it away, but see how quickly you can guess what these films have in common:

1955
Marty (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)

1956
Patterns (Rod Serling/Fielder Cook)
The Rack (Rod Serling/Arnold Laven)
The Catered Affair (Paddy Chayefsky/Richard Brooks)
Crime in the Streets (Reginald Rose/Don Siegel)
1984 (William P. Templeton/Michael Anderson)
Ransom (Cyril Hume & Richard Maibaum/Alex Segal)
The Fastest Gun Alive (Frank D. Gilroy/Russell Rouse)

1957
Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose/Sidney Lumet)
The Bachelor Party (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
Dino (Reginald Rose/Thomas Carr)
Edge of the City (Robert Alan Aurthur/Martin Ritt)
Spring Reunion (Robert Alan Aurthur/Robert Pirosh)
The Young Stranger (Robert Dozier/John Frankenheimer)
Fear Strikes Out (Mel Goldberg/Robert Mulligan)
Man on Fire (Malvin Wald & Jack Jacobs/Ranald MacDougall)
The D.I. (James Lee Barrett/Jack Webb)

1958
The Left-Handed Gun (Gore Vidal/Arthur Penn)
No Time For Sergeants (Ira Levin/Mervyn LeRoy)
Sing Boy Sing (Paul Monash/Henry Ephron)

1959
Middle of the Night (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
The Rabbit Trap (JP Miller/Philip Leacock)

1960
Visit to a Small Planet (Gore Vidal/Norman Taurog)
One Foot in Hell (Aaron Spelling/James B. Clark)

1961
Judgment at Nuremberg (Abby Mann/Stanley Kramer)
The Outsider (Merle Miller/Delbert Mann)
The Hellions (Harold Swanton/Irwin Allen & Ken Annakin)

1962
Days of Wine and Roses (JP Miller/Blake Edwards)
The Miracle Worker (William Gibson/Arthur Penn)
Requiem For a Heavyweight (Rod Serling/Ralph Nelson)
Incident in an Alley (Rod Serling/Edward L. Cahn)
Pressure Point (S. Lee Pogostin/Hubert Cornfield)

1963
A Child Is Waiting (Abby Mann/John Cassavetes)

1964
Dear Heart (Tad Mosel/Delbert Mann)

1965
Baby the Rain Must Fall (Horton Foote/Robert Mulligan)

1966
A Big Hand For the Little Lady (Sidney Carroll/Fielder Cook)

1967
The Incident (Nicholas E. Baehr/Larry Peerce)

1968
Charly (James Yaffe/Ralph Nelson)
The Legend of Lylah Clare (Robert Thom/Robert Aldrich)

1972
Tomorrow (Horton Foote/Joseph Anthony)

1973
Bang the Drum Slowly (Arnold Schulman/John Hancock)

1985
The Trip to Bountiful (Horton Foote/Peter Masterson)

As you’ve probably deduced already, all of the movies above were adapted from live or videotaped dramas from the “golden age” television anthologies.  The writer of the teleplay (but not necessarily of the subsequent screenplay) and the director of the film (but not necessarily of the original TV show) are listed, respectively, in parentheses.

I think it’s a revealing compilation because, once you get beyond the Serling and Chayefsky scripts, many of the films are not often cited as having their origins in live television.  Mainly that’s because most of the authors and the original teleplays never became famous on their own, as Serling and Chayefsky and “Marty” and “Patterns” did.

I can only scratch the surface of this idea here, but I’d like to posit this list as Exhibit A in a theory that the live television adaptation represents a genuine and unacknowledged movement in the history of American cinema.  How significant a movement?  Less influential, certainly, than Italian neorealism or the French or Japanese New Waves were upon their national cinemas – but perhaps as discrete and coherent as any of those.

One thing that fascinates me about this list is the chronological curve it forms.  If you mapped this data on a graph, the line would trace Hollywood’s explosion of interest in live television following the success of Marty; the early peak in 1956-1957 during which just about any live TV writer could make a lucrative movie-rights sale; and the gradual falling off as escapism regained ground in mainstream American filmmaking for a time during the mid-sixties.

“Kitchen sink” realism was the umbrella term for the elements of the archetypal fifties television drama: working class characters, urban and ethnic milieus, claustrophobic settings, center-left politics.  All of these concerns migrated west to Hollywood on the backs of teleplays purchased from early New York-based TV dramas.  So did a new style of emotionally intimate acting that developed in tandem with, and partly within the pressure-cooker workshop of, live television.  The American theatrical renaissance of the postwar era – the influence of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, the Actors Studio, Stella Adler – is often and correctly credited with importing many of these ideas into the cinema.  But television was an equally vital conduit.

If this wave of derived-from-live-television films is not enshrined as part of the historical canon, it may be because it foundered so quickly.  Part of the problem was simply the process of filmmaking itself, which tended to dilute the characteristics that made television-derived material distinctive.  Hour-long scripts were padded to feature length.  Shooting in Hollywood studios, with cinematographers and production designers trained to make movie stars and their surroundings look as appealing as possible, added a visual gloss that no amount of carefully positioned garbage in backlot alleys could diminish.  The commercial imperative to attract a wider, more mainstream audience led to the de-ethnicization and de-urbanization of characters and scenarios.  Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair were happier and prettier than television’s Marty and Clara.

Another factor in the diminution of the live television school’s influence on the movies is the extent to which its major practitioners deviated from the styles they had developed in television.  There was no reason to expect otherwise; consider how quickly the Italian neorealist auteurs diverged into maximalism (Fellini), minimalism (Rossellini), abstraction (Antonioni), decadence (Visconti), or banality (De Sica).  Here’s another list to illustrate this point – a roster of the major live television directors who transitioned into features, with a chronological selection in parentheses of some of their most significant films.  The directors are also listed chronologically, according to each man’s initial foray into filmmaking:

Delbert Mann (Marty; Separate Tables; That Touch of Mink)
Fielder Cook (Patterns; A Big Hand For the Little Lady; Seize the Day)
Alex Segal (Ransom; All the Way Home; Harlow)
Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men; Long Day’s Journey Into Night; The Pawnbroker)
Martin Ritt (Edge of the City; Hud; The Molly Maguires)
John Frankenheimer (The Young Stranger; The Manchurian Candidate; Grand Prix)
Robert Mulligan (Fear Strikes Out; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Stalking Moon)
Robert Stevens (The Big Caper; In the Cool of the Day; Change of Mind)
Jeffrey Hayden (The Vintage)
Arthur Penn (The Left-Handed Gun; Bonnie and Clyde; Little Big Man)
Vincent Donehue (Lonelyhearts; Sunrise at Campobello)
Daniel Petrie (The Bramble Bush; A Raisin in the Sun; The Neptune Factor)
Buzz Kulik (The Explosive Generation; Warning Shot; Villa Rides)
Ralph Nelson (Requiem For a Heavyweight; Father Goose; Soldier Blue)
George Roy Hill (Period of Adjustment; Hawaii; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Franklin Schaffner (The Stripper; Planet of the Apes; Patton)
Jack Smight (I’d Rather Be Rich; Harper; Midway)
Elliot Silverstein (Cat Ballou; The Happening; A Man Called Horse)
Paul Bogart (The Three Sisters; Marlowe; Skin Game)
George Schaefer (Pendulum; Doctors’ Wives; An Enemy of the People)

I’ve handpicked the films listed above (and potentially stacked the deck, I realize) to diagram the seemingly inescapable expansion of their directors from television-sized projects into larger-scaled and more stylistically varied films.  Instead of building upon the techniques of live TV to develop radically new methods of filmmaking (of the type, say, that John Cassavetes, an actor but never a director in live TV, would do), the live directors all moved toward established Hollywood practices.  The directors who resisted or failed to master these conventions are the ones who struggled.

Jeffrey Hayden, in a recent interview, told me that he felt underprepared and overwhelmed when MGM sent him to France with a veteran film crew to make his first (and only) feature.  For Hayden, devoting two years to the planning of a single project translated into crushing boredom, and he returned to episodic television.  Vincent Donehue is a case study in how live television experience can fail to prepare a director for working on film; nearly every camera angle, blocking choice, and cut in his two films is conspicuously ill-chosen.  Delbert Mann, who hewed more closely than most to the kind of material he had directed in television, found worthwhile projects scarce after the mid-sixties.  George Roy Hill and Franklin Schaffner were talented filmmakers, but they became such efficient purveyors of large-scaled, star-driven dramas that their roots in television (not to mention their own personalities) are difficult to discern in their work.

The richest filmographies among the directors above belong to those who fused what they learned in television with the broader possibilities of the cinema.  Lumet adopted an intimate, mainly realistic approach that relied upon extensive rehearsal to foreground the work of his actors.  He developed a preference for practical locations over the soundstages of live TV, and yet returned again and again to a vision of a grimy, teeming New York City.

Frankenheimer, almost a polar opposite, developed an aggressive visual pallet that drew heavily upon, but extended and refined, the tools available to him in live television: daring camera movements; frequent and extreme shifts in focal length; and complex, assertive editing.  Where Lumet rarely chose to draw attention to his camera, Frankenheimer often abdicated in the area of performance, deferring to his actors to make their own choices (and often to overindulge themselves).  Yet the basics of both styles derive measurably from live television.

To extend these musings one step further, I wonder to what extent certain aesthetics of live television may have resurfaced in the reborn “New Hollywood” of the seventies.  Penn, Lumet, and to a lesser extent Ritt and Mulligan were still making major films at the time, films that attempted to interrogate or dismantle the classicism of their earliest features.  The studiously drab imagery of Network and Night Moves, the Method-style acting of Little Big Man and Dog Day Afternoon circle back to the television that Penn and Lumet were directing in the fifties, even though both had flirted with a range of contradictory styles in the interim.

I’ve always been struck by how many of the key American filmmakers of the seventies who did not come out of live television apprenticed instead in its West Coast counterpart, the episodic filmed TV of the sixties.  Altman, Peckinpah, Rafelson, Cassavetes, Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Michael Ritchie, Stuart Rosenberg, Lamont Johnson, Robert Towne, Alvin Sargent, Frank Pierson, and others all did significant early work there.  Any serious pre-history of the New Hollywood movement must take television into account.  The initial question that comes to mind: was TV any kind of a positive influence on the mature work of these filmmakers, or just the holding pen from which they broke loose in order to innovate?

Thanks to Jonah Horwitz for correcting some technical errors in my earlier writing on John Frankenheimer, and for adding to my understanding of Frankenheimer’s and Lumet’s visual strategies. An earlier draft of this piece omitted A Child Is Waiting (1963), Dear Heart (1964), A Big Hand For the Little Lady (1966), and several other films from the first list.

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7 Responses to “Networking”

  1. Todd Johnson Says:

    Stephen,

    I just thought I would take a moment to mention that I look forward to all your postings on your blog and enjoy your writing. Do you have a book in the works at all?

    -Todd

  2. Griff Says:

    I don’t think it’s a “pedantic exercise in list making,” but I would gently caution you to avoid the sweeping statement “…many of the films are not often cited as having their origins in live television,” when you discuss CHARLY, 1984, TOMORROW and BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY. Most of the shows you mention were TV originals. These, however, are dramatizations; their origins were on the printed page. It’s no small distinction.

    There’s a great, even important article that deserves to be written about William Templeton’s 1984 teleplay and its genesis/transition into the 1956 Columbia movie; I wish someone would write it.

  3. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Griff, thanks for making that point. I’d actually drafted a footnote to address it, but omitted it because the piece was already so long and wonky. I was actually pretty scrupulous about whether to include adaptations in this list, although I think those that are there are significant. There are many live TV versions of plays or novels that were subsequently filmed — Ian Fleming’s CASINO ROYALE or David Goodis’s NIGHTFALL, just off the top of my head — but where there’s no connection at all between the TV and film versions. Those would indeed cloud the picture. With all the adaptations I did include, there’s a clear link between the live TV version and the subsequent film: Foote in the case of “Tomorrow,” Templeton’s “1984” teleplay, Cliff Robertson in “Flowers For Algernon”/CHARLY. I guess “Bang the Drum Slowly” is debatable; I’d always thought of the TV version as having eclipsed the novel in the public consciousness, but that may say more about my capacity for tuning out baseball and anything related to it in popular culture.

    I agree about the “1984” adaptations, if only because William P. Templeton remains such an obscure figure. Certainly, his later achievements in television were modest. I found a notice of his death on November 7, 1973 (in a WGA newsletter, I think) but never any other biographical information (not that I’ve looked very hard).

    Todd, belatedly … I’m working on a couple of things, but nothing that’s close to completion. Thanks for the encouragement.

  4. Griff Says:

    I do take your point in general, and in particular as regards Foote’s involvement with Faulkner’s TOMORROW; the teleplay clearly indicates that a feature film could readily be made from the short story. One reason Templeton’s involvement with the 1984 film still fascinates me, of course, is that the BBC had aired a rather innovative Nigel Kneale-scripted production in 1954; when Columbia — and British producers — went ahead with a 1984 feature, they went to Templeton for the script. I have no issue with that, I just wonder why. Robertson nurtured the idea of playing Charly Gordon in a feature film for years, and the actor acquired the property with the idea of setting up a production at a studio. In 1966, Daniel Keyes successfully expanded his “Flowers for Algernon” short story, basis for the 1961 Yaffe teleplay, into a novel; not long after that, Robertson finally managed to interest ABC’s theatrical wing in the project.

    BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY is a wonderful teleplay, with a swell Newman performance, good Salmi and Rudy Bond, but I don’t see that the production had much influence on the 1973 feature. I’m fairly sure the Mark Harris’ novel had stayed in print over the years, and Harris had also written other books about NY Mammoths pitcher Henry “Author” Wiggen. The book even has much the same structure — and first person narration — as Schulman’s teleplay adaptation.

    The movie benefits greatly from outdoor photography, fresh air and New York, though it would have helped considerably if the producers had been able to gain access to even one additional major league park for a bit of verisimilitude. De Niro is terrific as the doomed catcher in an early role that helped put him on the map, but no less good is Moriarty as the thoughtful Wiggen, who finds himself putting his job on the line, and really learns something about life… and death. [I doubt that either De Niro or Moriarty can play baseball worth a darn, but you never question it watching the picture; John Hancock is good at stuff like this.] Vincent Gardenia, channeling Joe Schultz as the colorful manager, got an Oscar nomination, but he’s pretty over the top here — he did much better work elsewhere. It’s still a good movie, dated though it is by the commercial-tinged early ’70s Stephen Lawrence score.

    It doesn’t really fit into your thematic, but the list made me think of what may be the very last network teleplay adapted into a feature film: JP Miller’s 1968 CBS Playhouse production of THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR, a searing (and quite interesting) drama of suburban drug abuse and family dysfunction, was purchased by Avco Embassy and released two years later as a picture no one was remotely proud of, and largely sold as an exploitation vehicle. Some of the teleplays you cite went wrong (a few went badly wrong) on their journeys to the big screen; none hit this nadir.

  5. Stephen Bowie Says:

    I probably should’ve included “The People Next Door”; the distinction I was making between that and the earlier anthologies now seems obscure, since the people behind CBS PLAYHOUSE were clearly trying (desperately, vainly) to try to revive or imitate fifties notions of quality TV drama.

    I’m sure there are a few more out there I’ve neglected. For instance: today’s LA Times obituary for the underappreciated Charles Eastman points out that his script for Hal Ashby’s SECOND HAND HEARTS (1981) was originally “The Hamster of Happiness,” a teleplay for the NBC EXPERIMENT IN TELEVISION, another of those now-forgotten Sunday afternoon “cultural ghetto” omnibus programs.

  6. Griff Says:

    While I wouldn’t class THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR with the outstanding teleplays of the 1950s, it did cause something of a sensation when it was aired in 1968 and was much discussed. [My mother was a high school teacher; she told me the show was talked about at several school board meetings, and that her school eventually obtained transcripts of the show from the network and used material from it in assemblies.]

    I never knew until this week that Eastman’s script for the long-in-gestation late ’70s – early ’80s Ashby film HAMSTER OF HAPPINESS/SECOND HAND HEARTS was derived from a teleplay. [The show's description at CTVA does not greatly resemble the feature's narrative.] Eastman was a quite interesting writer. I remember thinking back in 1970 while watching LITTLE FAUSS & BIG HALSY — gosh, this is a terrible movie, but the ideas and situations are really original; couldn’t they have found a better director (and better actors) to make this work? Eastman’s one shot at directing was probably hobbled by his inexperience with actors and camera and more than a little studio interference, but THE ALL-AMERICAN BOY has some good things in it (it’s a better movie than LITTLE FAUSS & BIG HALSY). Perhaps the Warner Archive will soon release both AMERICAN BOY and Ashby’s troubled HEARTS, and we can reevaluate them.

  7. Jonah Says:

    One addition to this list: “Crime in the Streets,” initially a 1955 episode of “The Elgin Hour.” Reginald Rose adapted it into a feature film the next year.


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