Angry Man

December 23, 2011

At the risk of coming across as schoolmarmish in every post, I must raise a point of order in a matter of semantics.

Criterion’s re-release of 12 Angry Men, on DVD and Blu-ray, is turning up on a lot of best-of-the-year home video lists.  Also on those lists I’m frequently seeing two of the disc’s extras – kinescopes of the original Studio One “12 Angry Men” and the completely new-to-home-video Alcoa Hour “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” – referred to as “teleplays.”  The nomenclature traces back to the copy on Criterion’s website and on the discs themselves.

As far as I know, however, a “teleplay” is just a script written for television.  A show derived from a teleplay is something else – an “episode” or a “broadcast” or just a “show.”  The Writers Guild of America, all the TV writers who have ever used the term in my presence (which is not many; they usually just call ‘em scripts), and even Wikipedia make this distinction.  You could stretch the point and argue that Criterion has used the term this way in order to emphasize the primacy of the writer’s contribution in live television, but that’s not really how their copy reads.  Particularly cringeworthy is a reference to “Frank Schaffner’s teleplay of 12 Angry Men,” which implies that Schaffner was the writer of that show rather than its director.

Of course, I realize that the term “teleplay” (or, um, “kinetoscope”) probably has no meaning at all to the average consumer today.  But if I, or any hardcore TV fan or anyone in the industry, picked up the Criterion 12 Angry Men in a store and read the jacket copy, I think we’d expect to find a PDF file of the scripts on the disc rather than the shows themselves.  I think Criterion has muddied the terminology in a narrow field here, and I hope this misuse of the word doesn’t spread.

Incidentally, I haven’t seen the 12 Angry Men disc.  I wrote about Sidney Lumet and “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” earlier this year and didn’t think I had much else to had in this space.  But I’m curious about the extras, and I’m delighted that Criterion is seeking out live television material to incorporate into its disc releases.

*

Every time I think I’ve found all the good oral histories, something new pops up.  When I was researching last week’s Walter Doniger obit, I learned that Doniger had been interviewed in a book by John Ravage called Television: The Director’s Viewpoint (Westview Press, 1978).  Around the time I was busy being born, Ravage, an academic, spent some months on television sets in Los Angeles, talking to about a dozen working directors.  Some of them (especially Boris Sagal, Buzz Kulik, and Doniger) gave few other interviews of substance before they died.

I didn’t have Ravage’s book when I wrote the piece on Walter, but it arrived today and it’s very good.  Frankly, a lot of these interview books fail because the interviewer doesn’t know what he or she is doing, but Ravage understood how television actually got made and asked really good questions.  This one is worth buying for a penny on Amazon.

*

Meanwhile, I hope to have something more substantive up before Christmas and, if not, then soon after.  Several suppiers of review copies (and one nameless publicist who apparently only thought about sending me that DVD set rather than actually putting it in the mail) had asked me to write about their wares before the holidays and, well, I guess they know better now.  Anyway: happy holidays to everybody.  Treat yourself to some classic TV DVDs and maybe you’ll accidentally buy one of the ones I was supposed to plug.

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11 Responses to “Angry Man”

  1. michael Says:

    I started my failed television writer career in 1976. I always understood the word “teleplay” is television’s version of “screenplay.” It is used in two ways. One, to describe a script for television as opposed for film or stage. Two, as a writer’s credit when the story was done by one writer and the bulk of the shooting script was done by another, such as “Teleplay by A. Story by B.”

    It is a surprise Criterion would make such an error.

    Thank you for the tip about the John Ravage book.

  2. Stephen Bowie Says:

    I keep meaning to do a post explaining the distinction between “teleplay” and “story” credits, “and” and “&” credits, etc. I think a lot of people don’t understand how that works at all, and a lot of sources make inaccurate assumptions (e.g., suggesting that two writers who worked independently on a script were “collaborators”). But I would want someone from the Guild to vet it, because there are some arcane points that even I’m not sure about, and that would be sort of a pain.

    The IMDb has undone some of its mistakes in this regard, but recently they started listing the creator(s) of a series among the writing credits of every episode, which I think is (at best) unnecessary clutter or (at worst) a theft of credit.

    • michael Says:

      Does the Writer Guild understand credits? Often it seems they make it up as they go along. You toss in agents and it gets really confusing. A recent favorite of mine was the recent X-Men movie where the WGA sided with a writer whose script the director claimed he had never seen and used nothing from.

      Sounds like one of those subjects Ken Levine would have tackled by now.

      Of course, the writers credits still have more meaning than executive producer credit.

  3. Stephen Bowie Says:

    … and as for Criterion, they spelled Ben Gazzara’s name wrong on the packaging for the first run of The Fugitive Kind, a fact that apparently no one over there noticed until I semi-mocked them on this blog (which I sort of felt bad about, because the producer of the disc seemed nice).

    I also remember Jonathan Rosenbaum pointing out that the Criterion booklet for a French film (I wish I could remember which one) listed the script girl as the screenwriter, obviously because someone didn’t know what the credit “scripte” meant.

    • michael Says:

      It bothers me too that there are so many errors in today’s databases and books. It is so hard to get the hearsay and myths out of TV history.

      For example, the myth that CASES OF EDDIE DRAKE and FILES OF JEFFREY JONES were produced by the same people. I have watched episodes from both, they are connected by star, CBS TV Film Sales, and JEFFREY JONES first sponsor but were made by different production companies and staffs. Try convincing people of that when most just don’t care.

      So I guess you are not alone as the “angry man.”

  4. Stephen Bowie Says:

    The WGA determines the final credits and has a committee that arbitrates disputes. Clearly they get it wrong sometimes but I’ve known some very honorable people who served on that committee, so it would be unfair to say that the process is corrupt or irreparably flawed. Again, that’s another area where I don’t understand all the specifics.

    Somehow the guilds also determine the relative placement of the different craftspeople in the credits of films & TV shows, which is another incredibly wonky and ever-changing set of rules that I’d love to have somebody explain to me. The WGA and DGA also have specific rules on when a pseudonym can be used or a name can be removed altogether from the credits (directors basically can’t do it any more, I think — “Alan Smithee” was making them look ridiculous). I’m also curious as to what extent actors’ billing is negotiated — among the stars of a series or film it’s very important and sometimes contentious, but then I’ll look at the guest stars in an episode of, say, C.S.I. and see a comparatively well-known performer’s name just get buried, and I wonder how that happened.

    • michael Says:

      Or when an actor asked not to be credited.

      In the “Remington Steele” episode “Tempered Steele” Lou Antonio plays a speaking role for which he asked the producers not to credit him for on screen.

      I did a writer’s guide for the producers (no money, just a way to get them to look at my annual attempt at a script) and they had no idea why Mr. Antonio asked not to be credited.

      Oh, “Tempered Steele” is actually the pilot for the series. NBC liked it and wanted a show where the audience sees how the two characters meet and “Licensed To Steele” was filmed.

      • Lee Says:

        And as I understand it, the irony was that Tempered Steele was written that way because NBC initially said, “We don’t want a pilot where they see how they meet. That’s boring.” Then, they saw it and said it needed to be explained more; make one where we see how they meet. License to Steele was actually filmed fourth or fifth.

        On Murder, She Wrote they were very strict about the alphabetical credits. Dale Robertson objected, but was told there were no exceptions. He asked if he could be uncredited, and so he was.

    • michael Says:

      Stephen, today’s (1/30/12) blog by Ken Levine discusses credits especially the common use of the uncredited writer who rewrites the script.

      http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2012/01/some-thoughts-on-rewriting.html

  5. Todd Says:

    I assume that the misuse of “teleplay” in this case was simply snobbish affectation that was overlooked by an editor. RE: oral histories, have you read Gorham Kindem’s “The Live Television Generation of Hollywood Film Directors: Interviews With 7 Directors”? If so, what did you think of it? Very funny anecdote about the J/O publicist who considered sending you something without actually doing so. Why would he/she bother mentioning it to you?

  6. Stephen Bowie Says:

    The Kindem book is great. I consult it frequently, and recommend it to any live TV fan who’s never heard of it.

    I’m going to assume I was on the receiving end of an honest mistake on the part of an overworked publicist. But it was part of an exchange that had already become frustrating and unproductive, so I was churlish enough to mention it here. Worst case, I may end up with material for a follow-up to one of my favorite old pieces….


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