The Sound of a Single Drummer

August 19, 2010

The forty-third episode of Playhouse 90 aired on CBS on October 3, 1957.  It was a science fiction story called “A Sound of Different Drummers.”  It told of a totalitarian future in which books are outlawed (because they encourage people to think for themselves).  A squad of “bookmen” goes around incinerating books using mean-looking flamethrower pistols.  They torch the people who hide the books, too. 

Gordon (Sterling Hayden), a bookman, is getting burned out, so to speak, on his job.  He’s losing the plot on why books are so bad.  He meets a pretty blonde who sorts confiscated books on a conveyor belt to oblivion.  The blonde, Susan (Diana Lynn, Playhouse 90’s go-to ingenue), snatches a book off the belt once in a while.  Gordon and Susan mark each other as kindred spirits.  She introduces him to an underground of kindly bibliophiles.  They fall in love.  They’re in constant danger of getting toasted by Gordon’s colleagues.  They look for a way out, a permanent one.

The story takes some twists and turns, but let’s just say things don’t end well.  For Gordon or for the rest of the bookless world.  I won’t exactly spoil the big reveal (not that you’ll ever get to see this thing anyway), but it turns out that the oppressors and the resistance are the same thing.  “A Sound of Different Drummers” was prescient, which is only one reason why it’s so good.

*

“A Sound of Different Drummers” was written by Robert Alan Aurthur.  That’s the credit: read it for yourself. 

You’re thinking: But, but, but.  Yeah.  We’ll get to that.

*

Back in April 1951, suspected commie Sterling Hayden appeared in Washington and staged a public finkathon before a happy HUAC.  Six years later, someone with a diabolical mind thought of him for “Drummers.”  During the climax, Gordon is interrogated, asked to give the names of other readers.  “You mean I have a choice?” he asks.  Was “Drummers” a ritual of atonement for Hayden?  It’s fascinating to study his face during this sequence.  Not like it gives anything away: Hayden always made you guess what emotions were roiling behind that unblinking glare.

Gordon’s partner and pal Ben, an avid reader-hater who stands in for all humanity’s clueless sheep, is played by John Ireland.  For fans of fifties film noir, the idea of Ireland and Hayden sharing scenes is something akin to the famous superstar standoff between Pacino and DeNiro in Heat.  As in Michael Mann’s film, the event is anticlimactic.  Hayden and Ireland were the same kind of actor – angry and scary in ways that transcended the characters they played.  They’re a meal in which all the courses are the same.  Diana Lynn makes the better foil for Hayden.  She’s all Southern sweetness, open and genuine, and the contrast complements Hayden’s opacity.  Lynn clues us to Hayden’s subtext: she projects the sensitivity that Gordon can’t express, that he’s struggling to find beneath the layers of fascist-cop conditioning.

The director of “A Sound of Different Drummers” was John Frankenheimer.  It was a perfect match.  The future-world setting and the constant atmosphere of dread and paranoia meant that Frankenheimer could go full-bore with his camera and editing tricks without ever overwhelming the material.  Constant camera movement advances the story at a freight-train pace.  None of the sets have back walls; the people of the future live in murky blackness.  The futuristic props (super-fast cars, robotic psychoanalysts) are cleverly designed and there are special effects I still can’t figure out.  The most impressive of those is a videophone screen that appears to project the giant, disembodied head of the speaker against a dark wall.

Frankenheimer was a madman.  “I’d never done more than six pages at a track and there I was with 127 pages and I was terrified,” said Sterling Hayden, who was making his live television debut, in a 1984 interview with Gerald Peary.  “Frankenheimer loved to move the camera so fast.  Christ, it was wild . . . . I went into one set to do a scene and there were no cameras! Then around the corner, like an old San Francisco fire truck, comes the camera on a dolly. And a guy comes along, puts up a light, and BANG, we go.

“I was so scared, but I roared through that goddamned thing.”

*

“Drummers” contains my new favorite on-air live-TV gaffe.  Sterling Hayden and Diana Lynn are making eyes at each other over a meal materialized by a Star Trek-style machine.  It’s a quiet, tender love scene.  From off-stage, there’s a loud “AHHHH-CHOO!”  Someone has sneezed into an open mike.  Hayden visibly loses his concentration, gets it back a second later, maybe blows a line in between.  The mood has been, shall we say, broken.  Up in the control room, Frankenheimer must have blown a gasket.

*

So: Fahrenheit 451.  “Firemen” instead of “bookmen” but, yeah, it’s the same story.  I had always seen “A Sound of Different Drummers” described as an adaptation (meaning, an official one) of the Ray Bradbury novel.  So when I finally saw the show and Bradbury’s name appeared nowhere in the credits, I was surprised.

Back in 1957, Bradbury had the same reaction.  He sued the shit out of CBS.

*

But first: Who was Robert Alan Aurthur?  He was perhaps the least well-known (and most misspelled) of the first wave of live television playrights.  A multi-tasker who died young (well, youngish), Aurthur was part of the Philco Playhouse gang, the group of gifted writers discovered and nurtured by Fred Coe.  Of that group, David Shaw was Aurthur’s best friend and probably the writer closest to him in sensibility.  Talented but impersonal, or rather all-purpose, Aurthur was a man of many genres and inclined to prefer adaptations over originals.  He won an Emmy for dramatizing “Darkness at Noon” for Producers Showcase, but he never found a niche like the ones that made Serling or Chayefsky or Horton Foote famous.  His best-known live TV script was “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” a story of union strife and interracial friendship that launched Martin Ritt as a film director (the movie version was called Edge of the City) and Sidney Poitier as a star. 

Other details: There was a brief marriage to Bea Arthur (who kept his name but spelled it wrong).  There were three plays on Broadway: they all flopped.  Aurthur scored high-profile screenwriting assignments (Warlock, Lilith).  As with all of the movies written by the live TV generation, except maybe Chayefsky, they weren’t as good as they should have been.  The Hollywood system diluted them.  Aurthur backed out of the job of writing The Magnificent Seven so that Walter Bernstein could do it and get off the blacklist.  (It didn’t quite work out that way, but that’s another story.)  A non-nonconformist, Aurthur ascended to executive jobs at Talent Associates and United Artists, a thing that Serling or Chayefsky would have spat upon.  As a VP of TV at UA, he had something to do with the creation of East Side/West Side and backed pilot scripts by Mel Brooks and Neil Simon and Woody Allen that CBS wouldn’t buy.  He became a (sympathetic) character in Only You, Dick Daring, Merle Miller’s scathing expose of a pilot undone by executive buffoonery.

After the plagiarism judgment, his path re-crossed with old compatriots from live TV.  Poitier let him direct a film, The Lost Man, and Frankenheimer hired him on Grand Prix (but had William Hanley rewrite Aurthur’s script).  Were they doing him favors or getting the better end of the deal?  After The Lost Man, there was a lost decade that I can’t find out much about (Aurthur taught at NYU for some this time), and then a final,  posthumous screen credit on a masterpiece, Bob Fosse’s All That JazzJazz has always been tagged as autobiographical for Fosse, but I’d love to know if there’s any of Aurthur’s life in it, too.

*

A book agent named Robert Kirsch blew the whistle on “A Sound of Different Drummers” even before the live broadcast went off the air.  Kirsch called Bradbury.  Bradbury watched the end of the show.  He blew his stack, right around the same time Frankenheimer blew that gasket.  He called his lawyer the next day.

Gene Beley’s Ray Bradbury Uncensored: The Unauthorized Biography! (iUniverse, 2006) covers the details of the ensuing litigation, which dragged on for years.  The upshot: Bradbury lost in court but won on appeal.  CBS coughed up the proverbial “undisclosed sum.”  Bradbury’s attorney, Gerson Marks, found a paper trail proving that CBS had almost bought the TV rights to the book in 1952, and that Robert Alan Aurthur had considered buying it when he was story-editing Philco at NBC during its final (1954-1955) season.  Aurthur testified.  He fessed up to having seen an old summary prepared by Bernard Wolfe, the CBS story editor who optioned Fahrenheit 451 in 1952.  But he denied having read the book itself.

Marks lobbed scorn at the idea that Aurthur had been willing to stage Fahrenheit 451 on Philco without actually reading it first.  Beley quotes Gerson Marks, in part, as follows: “Aurthur had stature in the industry, and he had to make a moral and legal choice – say nothing or expose himself to the consequences of using unauthorized intellectual work.  He made his choice on the witness stand . . . .”

My translation of Marks’s careful legalspeak: Aurthur lied under oath to save his ass.

It’s hard to imagine a time when someone could think of ripping off Ray Bradbury and getting away with it.  But “A Sound of Different Drummers” came only four years after Fahrenheit 451 was published, and before Ray Bradbury was Ray Bradbury

Michael Zagor, later a television writer himself, was working as a publicist at Universal in late 1961.  One of his assignments was to keep Ray Bradbury happy during the filming of the (non-plagiarized) Alcoa Premiere adaptation of Bradbury’s story “The Jail.”  It was less than a year after the suit was settled.  Zagor recently told me that

Ray Bradbury was such a nice man.  He said to me, “I don’t think Robert Alan Aurthur did it deliberately.  I think he just thought it up one night and thought it was his, and then wrote it.”  So he didn’t bear any visible animosity toward Robert Alan Aurthur. 

He said, “It’s an awful business to sue.  It takes a long, long time.”  But he said he had to do it. 

Though I love Fahrenheit 451, I’m less interested in Bradbury’s role in “A Sound of Different Drummers” and its aftermath than in Robert Alan Aurthur’s.  Was Aurthur a callous plagiarist or an unconscious mimic?  The latter sounds implausible, but live television moved fast, like Frankenheimer’s San Francisco firetruck camera, and I think every writer nurses a secret fear of disgorging some spontaneous nugget without realizing that it originated someplace else.  Whether he was guilty or not, or something in between, and whether he lied or told the truth on the stand, Aurthur must have been utterly humiliated by the whole affair. 

What personal and professional consequences did Aurthur suffer?  Why doesn’t he have a single film or television credit between 1969 and 1979?  Did he lose jobs and friends in the industry?  Did he feel that CBS had thrown him under the bus back in 1957?  If it’s true that Aurthur did lie: was no one else complicit in ripping off Bradbury?  Could Frankenheimer and the producer, Martin Manulis, really have staged a plagiarized version of Fahrenheit 451 without realizing it?  A Playhouse 90 show rehearsed for three weeks and employed scores, maybe hundreds of people – and none of them knew the Bradbury book?

One last thing I wonder about: Did Aurthur go to see the François Truffaut’s film when it came out in 1966?  Did he understand that his and Frankenheimer’s version of Fahrenheit 451 was better than Truffaut’s?  Did he ever dare say so?

Ray Bradbury will turn 90 on August 22.

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13 Responses to “The Sound of a Single Drummer”

  1. Jonah Says:

    Excellent article! One note: “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall” was directed by Robert Mulligan, who was in Fred Coe’s small stable of directors. I believe that in 1955, Martin Ritt was still on the “graylist” and couldn’t work in television. But he did indeed direct the film remake, Edge of the City, in 1957.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Thanks, Jonah. I think I can just squeak by with the way I worded it, at least with your note appended. But you’re right, I always get that wrong, even though that’s one of the few late PHILCO/GOODYEARs that I’ve been able to see.

  2. Ted Newsom Says:

    Steven: I’m not so sure the appeal found correctly. The judge in the original case knew more than a little about plagiarism, scenes affaire and coincidence. Remember that the decision went against Bradbury’s claim of infringement.

    If you decided you’d do a sci fi riff on book-burning in the near future, there are a lot of elements which will erupt naturally from the premise. If it’s a parallel with Nazi Germany, then the burning is going to be officially sanctioned, and, by extension, there would be specialists – “firemen” in Bradbury’s novella, “bookmen” in Aurthur.

    In such a hypothesis, what would the protagonist be? The obvious choices are few: a secret bibliophile, a fascist book-burner, or, heck, maybe even a writer. And since you’d want your main character to change & have some sort of character arc, it makes sense to start him as a rightwing soldier/fireman/bookman and lead him away from that into a different head space.

    How do you do that? By exposure to books, obviously– but this is drama, and that usually means you need some romance. So? You personalize “books” by creating a female character and develop a romance.

    I’d reckon the second and third acts of “Drummer” are a whole heck of a lot different than Bradbury’s stuff. And from what you’re describing, the Act 3 twist sounds like it’s a riff straight out of 1984, where Winston Smith is told by O’Brien (factually or not) that there is no underground, or that it’s a convenient government fiction.

    CBS’s argument in the original case included comparisons between FARHENHEIT 451 and the two previous notable dystopian classics, Orwell’s 1984, and Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD.

    Your piece makes it sound as if Robert Alan Aurthur was intentionally perjuring himself when he said he’d never read Bradbury’s book, that he vaguely remembered reading a couple-page summary — five years before, in 1952.

    OK, then I’ve got one for you: under oath, Bradbury denied ever reading Orwell’s 1984.

    Here’s Bradbury, a bibliophile who has loudly and repeatedly bragged that he spent 10 years reading books in the library and got a far better self-education than anyone could in college… a guy who by the late 1940s and early 1950s was making his bones as a sci fi writer… was a vociferous progressive critic of censorship and totalitarianism… a writer who, in 1950 (three years after the publication of 1984), wrote to his agent:
    “Haven’t we lost at least a thousand sales, to put it mildly, by not getting the CHRONICLES to certain reviewers without the s-f lable? I have admired [Aldous] Huxley for years, but never heard him referred to as a science fiction writer. Or George Orwell. I do not mean to sound conceited, but I only want a certain amount of recognition among people I admire and look up to…”

    So clearly– in Bradbury’s own words– he was at the very least familiar with Orwell and 1984, and had “admired Huxley for years.” Orwell did not write any other science fiction books EXCEPT 1984: a dystopian future in which a functionary of a repressive government questions his role in censorship… and falls in love with an opposite number woman who writes porn for the proletariat (the opposite of Smith’s “factual” rewriting of history.)

    And Bradbury said, under oath, he never read 1984. Well, he also says he has a photographic memory of everything in his life, including being born.

    Well, given his cockamamie memory of writing IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (dealt with at length on Classic Horror Film Board), his insistence that Russia has no faxes, no cars, no phones, and they don’t allow books, and they burn authors alive… y’know… I’m not so sure Robert Alan Aurthur DIDN’T get royally screwed.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Ted: Aha, 1984. That is the elephant in the room. I didn’t get into it, partly because of length, partly because it’s been a long time since I’ve read either book, and partly because Bradbury fans get sort of churlish when someone suggests that maybe Fahrenheit 451 owes quite a bit to the Orwell. After all, I wouldn’t want to court this young lady‘s disapproval. Bradbury can’t last forever, and someday she’s gonna need a new fella.

      Anyway, yes, my feeling on watching “A Sound of Different Drummers” was that the fervor in the Sterling Hayden/Diana Lynn relationship, and the intense, paranoid fear of exposure, owed more to 1984 than to 451. In the TV play, Oliver doesn’t have a wife — the focus is entirely on his book-loving temptress. The interrogator (David Opatoshu) who figures prominently in the climax hews more closely to his equivalent in the Orwell than the Bradbury. And you’re right, the plot of the Aurthur script does diverge quite a bit from the Bradbury novel once it gets going, although it does come back to the idea of a book-preserving minority who live in hiding outside the city. Not that that’s not much of a defense: “I didn’t steal it from Bradbury, I stole it from Orwell!”

      One thing I didn’t stick in there was that Frankenheimer pointedly refers to Aurthur’s script as an “original” in Gerald Pratley’s book The Films of John Frankenheimer. I’m not sure when that interview was done (Pratley began interviewing him in 1963) but it was definitely after the plagiarism verdict.

      • Ted Newsom Says:

        And I’ll repeat: the original judge– who actually knew about things like literary coincidence, common themes, scenes a’ffaire, etc., considered all the evidence, all the testimony, and came to the conclusion that there was no plagiarism, no intent to copy Bradbury’s work. He commented that he’d never been presented with a more literate set of arguments, pro and con.

        Feeling the game is rigged is pretty common when a decision goes against you. So, naturally, the decision was not good enough for Bradbury. He felt that Aurthur was given special treatment because of his “stature” in the industry.

        But as you point out, that “stature” was rather modest compared to his peers Chayefsky, et al– and apparently not enough to keep him employed for a decade after a charge of plagiarism.

        And lifting an idea to use it and make it your own– that’s an old story. For instance, I just watched Luigi Cozzi’s CONTAMINATION, and there’s visual and plot bits of ALIEN, ENEMY FROM SPACE and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS… but it’s not a remake. Or a rip-off.

        Bradbury also complained to the Writers Guild when John Huston wanted co-credit on MOBY DICK. Bradbury felt it should be HIS Moby Dick. Well, considering Huston was no mean writer himself, considering Roald Dahl tried to patch up Bradbury’s work after Bradbury was done, and yet another writer was re-doing the thing all the way through filming (Huston’s script girl Lori Sherwood luckily kept copies of all the drafts), the WGA slapped Bradbury down and said, “No, it’s split credit.”

        I’m sure he wasn’t happy about that, either.

  3. Stephen Bowie Says:

    And of course Bradbury felt that Serling plagiarized a bunch of his stuff on THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Martin Grams’s TZ book quotes some fascinating correspondence that suggests like Bradbury used Charles Beaumont as an intermediary to take those accusations to Serling (or else Beaumont, as a Bradbury protegee, got into the middle of it on his own, and quickly backtracked once Serling schooled him).

  4. Ted Newsom Says:

    He felt Serling ripped him off on the script where Gig Young, an overworked ad exec, returns to the town he grew up in. Because there was a erry-go-round in the script– and because Bradbury write a story once with a Ferris wheel– he felt that was stealing. (In the same way he felt Michael Moore “stole” FAHRENHEIT 451′s title for FAHRENHEIT 9/11.)

    Bradbury’s sole attempt at actually writing a TWILIGHT ZONE script was the ponderous I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC (a title Bradbury swiped from Walt Whitman, btw). He is a marvelous short-story writer, but his dialogue is often unspeakably ponderous (and considering Serling got awfully pedantic himself, that says a great deal.)

  5. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Bradbury wrote at least two unproduced scripts for TZ. One was spiked because it was too expensive, and I’m not sure about the other one. I think “I Sing the Body Electric” is a lot better than its reputation — even though Bradbury himself publicly criticized the filmed version before it aired.

  6. 50swesterns Says:

    Boy, do I love Sterling Hayden! Great movies, good movies, crappy movied — I’ll watch him in anything.

    Just seeing those pictures from that show were great.

    Thanks a bunch.

  7. Gene Beley Says:

    You can read an entire chapter on this Bradbury vs. CBS legal battle in my biography on Ray Bradbury: Ray Bradbury Uncensored! It is the only unauthorized biography on Bradbury, but actually I had Bradbury’s assistance in writing it and opening doors like to his Beverly Hills attorney in the case. I also had a UCLA law student help me research it as it was a very complex case and wanted it accurate. Although my book is not readily available in book stores now, it is easily obtained on the Internet through just Googling the name of the book or my name, Gene Beley.

  8. Ted Newsom Says:

    Gene: I used your book, via the net, as a source of information for my reply. It is extremely well-written, neither a complete haigography nor a tabloid-trash fest. However, your conclusions that Bradbury’s suit was justified (understandable, considering you were working with RB) do not hold up, in my experience.

    Mr. B. has always been a cantankerous and at times litegous soul. His “photographic memory” often has convenient holes in the emulsion. One such example is his verision of the incident when the Apollo guys landed on the Moon. Another is him assuming he deserved sole credit for MOBY DICK; likewise, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE.

    And, dollars to doughnuts, he statement under oath that he never read 1984. As his letter to his agent (also named Bradbury) shows above, he was quite familiar with both 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD.

    You ought to have caught this: you reproduce the letter in your book. :)

  9. Gene Beley Says:

    To: Ted Newsom
    From Gene Beley, Aug. 12, 2011:

    Just wanted to add, as you know, that all my research came directly from Bradbury’s Beverly Hills attorney Gerson Marks and the court documents, not Ray, except for his testimony in the court proceedings. Early publishers I talked to would have thrown this entire chapter out, because they said it was “too boring”, but I thought it was important to retain for future scholars. This is one advantage of self-publishing through on demand companies like i-Universe. I had published a community newspaper for 16 years in Morgan Hill, CA, so was experienced as a self-publisher. I think it is somewhat humorous that many of the book stores like Borders that refused to carry it in 2006 are now out of business. Thanks to the Internet, my Ray Bradbury Uncensored! book is still widely available worldwide on the Internet.

    An agent in New York is now marketing my entire Ray Bradbury Research Collection of taped interviews with Ray, his colleagues, and relatives, 80 letters to me, photos, and other documents to interested science fiction libraries, universities or think tanks. I look forward to turning all this material over to the successful buyer so all scholars will have access to the totality of materials I collected from 1968 when I first met Ray to his 89th birthday party that I filmed in Glendale at the Mystery & Imagination Book Store. I believe he will be the John Steinbeck of the Space Age. Few will remember that both Steinbeck and Bradbury were hired by Life magazine to be reporters. My favorite Life article of Bradbury’s is Any Friend of Trains is a Friend of Mine when he chronicled his love for riding trains. His use of the English language in that article is a showcase of pure genius and a period where he was at the top of his game. Having observed him close up for many years, I”m aware of his human foibles, just like all the rest of us, but who can criticize his track record and sheer volume of multi-media writing in so many different genres? I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to enjoy the experience of hanging out with him and getting to observe what makes a genius tick and why they behave the way they do. At the same time I was able to hang with Bradbury, I was also hanging out with Johnny Cash, after going to Folsom Prison with him and June Carter for the now historic concert January 13, 1968, so I was doubly blessed in life. Quite frankly, I find it slightly disappointing that more people are interested in my experiences with Johnny Cash than Ray Bradbury!

  10. pacman000 Says:

    “It’s hard to imagine a time when someone could think of ripping off Ray Bradbury and getting away with it. But “A Sound of Different Drummers” came only four years after Fahrenheit 451 was published, and before Ray Bradbury was Ray Bradbury. ”

    “Mystery at the Light House,” an episode of Pokemon, shares some similarities with to Ray Bradbury’s “The Foghorn.”


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