Arthur Penn: Notes in the Margins

October 11, 2010

“If Clurman had the fervent years in theater, these were the fervent years in television.  I don’t think the people involved ever felt as great about themselves again as they did then.”

Arthur Penn in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961

I feel obligated to write something sweeping and substantial about Arthur Penn.  In terms of his contributions to television as a medium, he is the most significant of all the recently deceased people mentioned in my last post.  But it’s too daunting a task, in part because of the pesky problem of access, which is something that the estimable Jonah Horwitz gets at in his television-oriented Penn obituary.

Horwitz enjoys tantalizing access to a significant archive of kinescopes at the University of Wisconsin, and in his piece he offers tantalizing (did I say that already?) descriptive details of a couple of Penn-directed live dramas.  Penn finished his tour in live television with a few early segments of Playhouse 90, one of which, William Gibson’s 1957 Helen Keller biography “The Miracle Worker,” became Penn’s first commercially successful film five years later.  But Penn did his most substantive television work for The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse.  He was one of three alternating directors during a two-year period (1953-1955) when that series, produced by the legendary Fred Coe, was ground zero for the intimate “kitchen dramas” that came to represent, for critics, the pinnacle of live television.

As Horwitz notes, the original Playhouse 90 staging of “The Miracle Worker” – which preceded both the stage and film versions, and features different actors (Teresa Wright and Patty McCormack) in the roles made famous by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke – exists, but it is not in wide circulation.  In fact, so far as I know, “The Miracle Worker” does not reside in any private collections, and neither does “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the other Playhouse 90 which became a hugely successful film (and also, with its bleeped-out dialogue concerning the gas chambers, the most infamous victim of censorship in the history of television).  I have been told that the rights issues surrounding Playhouse 90 are “very complicated.”  But the absence of a commercial rerelease for these shows, after three decades of home video and a dozen years in which it has become customary to pair items like these with their big-screen cousins on DVD, is tragic.

The extent to which live television is a forgotten medium is humbling.  Not only are some of the shows lost altogether; not only are many of the extant ones (like “The Miracle Worker”) inaccessible; but in many cases, as I realized while researching this piece, even the basic data remains to be compiled.  Horwitz estimates that Penn directed “likely over 100” television segments during his five years (1953-1958) in live television.  That number might be a little high, but I’m certain the actual tally is far greater than the thirty-four live dramas currently listed in Penn’s Internet Movie Database entry.  I’m not aware of a published source that does any better.  To fill out any more of Penn’s television resume, one would have to delve into archival collections or old newspaper and trade reviews.  That’s a pretty profound knowledge gap, considering that Penn was one of the top practitioners of what was once considered a serious art form.

Penn’s film career was uneven and diverse, but I love about half of them: Mickey One and The Chase, with their exceptional supporting casts of character actors from TV; the twinned genre revisions, Little Big Man (which examines the Old West as a construct of media, celebrity, and identity politics) and Night Moves (a detective story without a resolution); and the nakedly emotional Four Friends, which orbits around a fearless, uninhibited performance by the forgotten Jodi Thelen.

One obit (which I can’t find again) suggested that it’s difficult to reconcile what Horwitz calls Penn’s “deliberately unshowy” television style with the more forceful imagery of his films (in particular, the bold, sometimes jarring editing).  The answer to that riddle is that in between television and movies Penn, who had spent time in Europe as a young man, fell under the influence of the New Wave.  Dave Kehr’s New York Times obituary has a great quote about how Penn was “stunned” by the extent to which The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical debut film about a troubled, semi-delinquent teenager, reflected Penn’s own childhood.  At least on the surface, Penn’s key films (especially Mickey One and Bonnie and Clyde) borrow more from the style and mood of French, Italian, and Japanese New Wave films more than they do his own early television work.

(The other x factor is that Penn, far more than any other ex-live television filmmaker, was an important Broadway director.  The extent to which Penn formed his style on stage, especially in his work with actors, is another key subject for further research.)

Kehr, incidentally, is one of the best American film critics, and yet he doesn’t quite get the television section of Penn’s career right.  Kehr refers to Penn’s first film, The Left-Handed Gun, as “an extension of the Playhouse 90 aesthetic”; but really, it’s an extension of the Philco aesthetic.  (The Left Handed Gun was, in fact, derived from Gore Vidal’s Philco teleplay “The Death of Billy the Kid.”)  The distinction is important because Philco embodied the intimate, performance-driven New York style of live drama, whereas Playhouse 90, telecast from the spacious CBS studios in Los Angeles, placed a greater emphasis on size and spectacle.  Positioned at live television’s fin de siècle, Playhouse 90 aimed to be cinematic and, as such, was actually a partial repudiation rather than a continuation of the Penn-era Philco aesthetic.  Penn told the scholar Gorham Kindem that CBS’s decision to set up Playhouse 90 on the West Coast represented

the transition from the New York theatre and the New York actors to the Hollywood actors and the Hollywood names.  When I went out there to do “The Miracle Worker,” it was an accepted fact that it was going to have to be with people from the Hollywood community.

Penn seemed to accept that shift grudgingly; he felt that Patty McCormack was “too old” to play Helen Keller, and preferred Anne Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan to Teresa Wright’s.  In The Box, Penn told Jeff Kisseloff that he took Playhouse 90 for the money (“I had a couple of shirts where the collars were almost gone”).  Even after the success of “The Miracle Worker,” Penn had no desire to continue on the series beyond the initial batch he agreed to direct for producer Martin Manulis.  “Those four were enough for me,” he told Kindem.  Penn realized that the theater and movies – even movies made in Hollywood, where Jack Warner took The Left Handed Gun away from Penn and recut it – offered better opportunities to create the kind of reality that he had achieved in his Philco work.

The New York Times followed Kehr’s official obituary with a penetrating appraisal of Penn’s work by Manohla Dargis.  Dargis places unexpected emphasis on Penn’s debut feature, The Left Handed Gun, and she finds more in it than the tortured Method acting and self-conscious anti-genre posturing that I recall.  (I’m going to find time for a second look.)

The Left Handed Gun derives so thoroughly from Penn’s television beginnings that it compels Dargis to devote some space to Penn’s pre-history in TV.  She relates a funny anecdote about Penn’s initial blocking of The Left Handed Gun, which presumed a multiplicity of cameras, as Penn was used to in television, rather than the single one used in motion picture photography.  There’s also a marvelous quote from Penn on how directing live television was “like flying four airplanes at once.”  That analogy echoes a famous remark by the director George Roy Hill, who flew bombers during World War II, that calling the shots in a live television control room was a lot like commanding a B-29.

Dargis also dredges up a quip from Gore Vidal, who called The Left Handed Gun “a film that only someone French could like.”  I’m not sure whether that’s a dig or not, but Vidal’s remark underlines the possibility that his teleplay and the subsequent film may have been quite different from one another.  The Left Handed Gun may bear the handprints of television, but a feature film made at Warner Bros. is still a big leap in scale from a sixty-minute live television broadcast.  Plus, there’s a significant remove in authorship.  “The Death of Billy the Kid” was written by Vidal and directed by Robert Mulligan; The Left Handed Gun was adapted for the screen by Leslie Stevens (the future creator of The Outer Limits) and directed by Penn.

One tends to think of group of directors who moved from live television into movies as having made that transition with a film adaptation of one of their own TV shows.  For instance:

  • Delbert Mann directed “Marty” on Philco, and then as his first film.
  • Fielder Cook directed Rod Serling’s “Patterns” on Kraft Theater, and then as his first film.
  • John Frankenheimer directed “The Young Stranger” on Climax, and then as his first film.
  • Ralph Nelson directed “Requiem For a Heavyweight” on Playhouse 90, and then (a full five years later) as his first film.

But it was actually just as, if not more common, for a television director to do what Penn did: to adapt as his debut feature a property that someone else had done on television.  Consider:

  • Sidney Lumet directed 12 Angry Men, which had been staged live on Studio One by Franklin Schaffner.
  • Robert Mulligan directed Fear Strikes Out, which had been staged live on Climax by Herbert B. Swope, Jr.
  • Martin Ritt directed Edge of the City, which had been staged live on Philco (under the title “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall”) by Mulligan.

I’m not sure if that proves anything, except that by 1955 the film industry viewed live television as a prime commodity.  The movie industry imported talent and material in bulk.  After “Marty,” it wasn’t individual teleplays, with director and actors attached, that got scooped up by Hollywood.  It was any property, and any director, that could attract a movie offer.

Those personnel switches may amount to trivia now – Mulligan, we see, was a two-time bridesmaid before he got to bring one of his teleplays to the big screen – but I’ll bet that at the time they were colored by personal rivalries and conflicting perceptions of having compromised or sold out in order to matriculate into filmmaking.  Penn, for one, seemed acutely conscious of that concern.  In interviews, he was always eager to define, and to champion, the New York aesthetic of acting and storytelling.  In The Box, Penn explained that

our mission on Playhouse 90 was to come in as the New York boys and take the Hollywood community and “Marty” them.  Hollywood’s way of dealing with New York was, “If we can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

The challenge for fans of Penn’s films is to find the connective tissue between them.  Dargis is vague: “a sense of history, a feeling for what makes us human and the lessons learned from theater, television and life.”  Maybe the difficulty in pinning down Penn is that he was always reacting against something: traditional ways of depicting violence or a subculture in the movies; conventions of individual genres; phoniness in general.  Substitute “movies” for “Playhouse 90” in the quote above, and you’ll see what I mean.

*

One final tangent of Arthur Penn’s legacy is that he married a woman who auditioned for him on Philco, and in doing so he took a talented actress off the market.  She survives him.  Her name is Peggy Maurer, and she retired in 1964 after having done quite a bit of live television and only one film (the 1958 horror curio I Bury the Living).  I’ve only seen three of Mrs. Penn’s few recorded performances, but in at least one of them, an important segment of The Defenders called “Ordeal,” she pulls off a leading role of considerable emotional complexity.  She was also rather pretty.


Peggy Maurer and Robert Webber in The Defenders (“Ordeal,” 1963; directed by Alex March).

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One Response to “Arthur Penn: Notes in the Margins”

  1. Griff Says:

    Stephen, Nat Segaloff’s most respectful but often frustratingly anecdotal (and, I suspect under-researched) new biography of Penn briefly mentions the director’s 1968 NBC “TV movie shot on video,” FLESH AND BLOOD. I only vaguely recall hearing about the previously. Segaloff asserts that William Hanley was paid $112,500 for the teleplay, which seems a remarkable sum. Have you ever run across this?

    Segaloff’s book isn’t terrible — it simply makes one wish that someone would write a first-rate biography of the director. No one has really addressed the story behind his long absences from the screen during the ’70s — which should have been prime time for Penn to work freely — and this isn’t satisfactorily covered here. While you get a feel for the development of THE MIRACLE WORKER and the Broadway production of TWO FOR THE SEESAW (William Gibson was clearly a valuable source here), other projects receive short shrift. FOUR FRIENDS, whatever one may think of it, is an important picture in the director’s canon; it was his last really major film work. It gets little mention or attention here at all — I believe TARGET actually receives a bit more space in the text. Of course, my ideal Penn biography would include perhaps two chapters on MICKEY ONE…

    I was surprised to discover here, though, that Penn apparently recorded a commentary for the DVD of THE LEFT HANDED GUN. While I remain annoyed that the filmmaker wasn’t asked to do commentaries for NIGHT MOVES, LITTLE BIG MAN and certain other of his pictures, this was kind of exciting to learn; I’ll have to check this out right away.


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