July 24, 2010
The research behind an interview for this blog, like the one with Shirley Knight that I published this month, is often lengthy and complicated. That might seem obvious, but sometimes I forget it myself. For me, writing is the hard part. Everything else I do here falls into the category of fun.
Typically, there are two phases to my research. The first precedes the interview. It involves rooting out as many of the subject’s television, film, or stage credits as possible, and then deciding which ones I want to cover and what I want to ask about them. The second phase comes afterward. That’s when I have to sort out all the corrections, inconsistencies, additional credits, and other surprises that emerge during the interview. In the case of some obscure writers, the resume I’d assembled beforehand had tripled in size by the end of the interview.
With most interviews, I try to arrange for an open-ended session, or to arrange for at least two hours. If the subject lives in or near New York or Los Angeles, my general rule is that at least part of the conversation must be face-to-face. In Ms. Knight’s case, our interview took place over the phone, and I was told that I would only have an hour (although she graciously let that stretch to ninety minutes). Because of those limitations, I had decided that this would be a brief, informal chat, in which I would try to hit just the high points: ten or twelve specific shows I knew I wanted to cover and then some general questions.
(I mean “brief,” I should add, by my own standards. The final edit ran over 6,200 words. That’s longer than many magazine feature stories these days, but still shorter than any of the oral histories archived on my website.)
One consequence of my slightly looser approach to this one was that I didn’t feel the need to pin down every loose end that came up during the interview. Most of them were tangential anyway and, frankly, Knight was a fairly big “name” to get for this blog. I transcribed and edited her comments quickly, and didn’t want the piece collecting dust while I dithered over trivia. Still: those loose ends are nagging at me. That’s why I’ve created the outline that appears below.
Most of the time, I would roll up my sleeves and dig into the reference books, the archives, the clipping files, and the rolodex to sort out these questions prior to publication. All the reader would see is an extra line in a videography or a neat little footnote, each of them possibly the result of hours of research. This time, though, I’m going public with the loose ends, and offering some detail on why each of them remains somewhat difficult to resolve. My hope is that it will provide some specific insight into one part of the process behind my oral history work. And, just maybe, someone out there will have the missing answers.
The Internet Movie Database claims that Knight played an uncredited “bit part” in Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955), which predated any other professional experience by at least two years. That’s the kind of outlier that immediately makes me suspicious, and a clarification was at the top of my list of questions. Knight explained that she and her siblings worked as extras during the film’s central town picnic sequence, which happened to be shot on location near her hometown in Kansas. What surprised me was Knight’s initial recollection, obviously incorrect, that she was “eight or ten” years old at the time. In fact, she was nearly nineteen when Picnic was shot during the spring of 1955. Perhaps the dramatic divide between Knight’s Kansas years and the precocious career that began in Los Angeles in 1957 pushed the Picnic experience further back into her childhood memories.
I loved the idea of Knight wandering through the background of a film classic at a time when she hadn’t even decided to pursue an acting career. But can we, in fact, find her in the film? I had hoped to post a triumphant screen grab here; alas, I could not spot anyone who resembled the “skinny and blonde and young” Knight girls, as Shirley described them. Eagle-eyed readers are invited to conduct their own search.
II. The Missing Credits
During my interview with Knight, she recalled several early television appearances which do not appear on any of her published resumes. The Internet Movie Database even omits her television debut – a showy part in a 1957 Matinee Theater opposite Michael Landon – although this credit does turn up in other Knight videographies. Rigorous spadework in university archives or microfilm stacks could probably match all of these to the right TV episode, but for now they remain missing from Knight’s credits:
- An unidentified television episode in which Myrna Loy starred as a “judge or a lawyer.” Knight probably played a supporting role in one of Loy’s dramatic anthology appearances in the late fifties: Schlitz Playhouse, G.E. Theater, The June Allyson Show, or something similar. Loy played a judge in a 1974 made-for-TV movie called Indict and Convict, but Knight does not (as far as I can determine) appear in it.
- A G.E. Theater segment with a western setting starring Ronald Reagan. This sounds like an easy one, but Knight was active during the last five years (1957-1962) of G.E. Theater’s run, and Ronald Reagan (also the host of the show) starred in multiple segments each season. I can’t find Knight’s name linked to any episodes of the series at all.
- An unidentified television episode directed by Ida Lupino. Knight remembered Lupino as one of the first good directors for whom she worked. This could be a G.E. Theater segment (Lupino directed for that series), either the one mentioned above or another. Another candidate is “And Man Created Vanity,” a 1963 segment of the medical drama Eleventh Hour. Lupino directed for most of the dramatic series produced by MGM during the early sixties, including Dr. Kildare, from which Eleventh Hour was spun off. The Classic TV Archive (more about this resource below) credits “And Man Created Vanity” to Allen Reisner, but the site also misspells his name, so I’m not abandoning my hunch just yet.
- A Quinn Martin pilot featuring Beau Bridges and a premise similar to that of Law and Order. In this case, I suspect Knight has conflated the details of several different credits: the pilot episode of Arrest and Trial, which was a precursor to the long-running Dick Wolf series; the pilot for Abby Mann’s Medical Story, which did co-star Beau Bridges (the only occasion on which he worked with Knight, as far as I can tell); and her many guest shots for Quinn Martin. But as far as I can tell, none of Knight’s many QM roles was in a series pilot. Is it just barely possible there’s an unsold QM pilot lurking in here?
Next we come to Buckskin, a little-remembered half-hour western that ran on NBC from 1958-1959. It sounds mildly promising: the frontier as seen through the eyes of a ten year-old boy (Tommy Nolan) in the charge of his widowed mother. During her twenty-third year Shirley Knight may or may not have been a regular or a semi-regular in the cast of Buckskin. The point proves surprisingly difficult to settle.
TV.com lists Shirley Knight as a “star” of Buckskin. The Internet Movie Database places Knight in the cast of twenty of the thirty-nine Buckskin segments, beginning with the very first one, “The Lady From Blackhawk.” However, both sites unreliable in the area of regulars in early television episodes. Turning to the reference shelf, the sixth edition of Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows does not include Knight in the Buckskin cast at all. Alex McNeil’s Total Television claims that Knight and another actress named Marjorie Bennett both played the role of Mrs. Newcomb.
That’s a lead. Perhaps one actress replaced the other? The problem with that theory is that Shirley Knight looked like this:
While Marjorie Bennett (best remembered as Victor Buono’s domineering mother in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) looked like this:
Now things are getting really confusing. Perhaps the character of Mrs. Newcomb underwent a radical midseason reconception? Alone among these sources, Total Television tells us that a young actor named Robert Lipton co-starred in Buckskin as Ben Newcomb, the “town schoolteacher.” McNeil doesn’t specify Mrs. Newcomb’s relationship to Ben. Knight might have played his wife, Bennett his mother. But at the same time? As regulars, or in one-off guest shots?
The accuracy of data on the fan-maintained Classic TV Archive website is highly variable, but the site often provides leads that I can’t find elsewhere on the internet. It presents another alternative. The Archive’s Buckskin page lists Knight as “recurring” as Mrs. Newcomb, but mentions her only once in its cast lists for the individual episodes. Knight supposedly appears in a 1959 episode, “Little Heathen,” as “Marietta.” Is Marietta the given name of Mrs. Newcomb? Or is it possible Knight was a guest in only one segment of the series?
When I asked Knight about Buckskin, she tentatively disputed the credit. “I don’t even remember that,” she told me. “There’s a part of me that thinks it might be a mistake.” Knight’s memory of her Warner Bros. days were quite precise, and I find it unlikely that she filmed twenty or more episodes of a series just prior to Warners and then forgot them completely. However, Knight did accurately associate Buckskin with the former Republic Studios in Studio City, where it was lensed. She must have passed through the series at some point. I lean toward the theory that Knight was a guest on a single episode, and at some point an erroneous press release or reference book elevated her in the historical record to series regular status. There have been similar errors: most reference books list Gena Rowlands as a series regular on 87th Precinct (1961-1962), but she appeared in only three episodes before her character waas written out.
The only way to resolve the matter once and for all may be the primary source: the show itself. It might require a screening of more than one episode, maybe even all of them, to determine the extent of Knight’s participation. But the short-lived Buckskin hasn’t emerged from the vaults of NBC or Universal (the corporate heir to Revue Productions, which made the series) since 1959. At this point it goes the way these things usually go: I find someone who knows someone who has a few tapes of Buckskin, who may be able to let me take a look, eventually. In the meantime, I turn it over to my readership: Does anyone remember Buckskin well enough to settle the question?
I think it’s remarkable that, in the internet age, this many inconsistencies and omissions can remain in relation an actress of Shirley Knight’s stature. And keep in mind, we’re only addressing the question of credits: the most basic yes-or-no, was-she-or-wasn’t-she-in-this-or-that-show of a performer’s early resume.
Just about every interview I’ve done has generated a task list like the one above. As you might surmise, the list can grow quite a bit longer for a lesser-known television writer or director on whom I’m doing the first substantial work. I’ve done interviews in which my initial list of episodic credits has tripled in size by the time I’ve exhausted the memory of the subject.
Has this post been pedantic in the extreme? Well, yes. But I love this kind of work. And if you made it all the way to the end, maybe you’re ready to declare yourself a media historian, too.
May 26, 2010
TO: Those Listed Below
FROM: James A. Glenn
Director, [NBC] Television Network Operations
DATE: April 22, 1958
RE: KINE RECORDING
2. [NBC's Hollywood studios] will make a videotape of all daytime shows, but will have no kine back-up for any of these shows including Today.
7. Kine re-recordings from videotape can be made on order. However, because of the scarcity of tape, Hollywood finds it necessary to erase and re-use this tape as soon as practicable in order to meet the requirements of their work-load. They will erase such tapes within 48 hours following broadcast unless they are notified in sufficient time to prevent tape erasure.
Mr. Aaron Rubin
National Broadcasting Corporation
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York 20, New York
January 13, 1961
Dear Mr. Rubin -
Danny Welles asked me to write and officially tell you that you can wipe our FORD STARTIME TALENT SCOUTS color tape. It is okay, since we will have no use for it in the future.
TO: Mr. Alan B. Fendrick
FROM: Douglas Lutz
DATE: November 18, 1963
RE: DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK
The Talent Administration and Legal Departments have completed their investigations, and have commented on our recommendation to erase some of the old DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK programs.
The following programs may now be erased.
THE BATTLE OF THE PAPER BULLETS
WONDERFUL WORLD OF TOYS
TRICK OR TREASON
HOLLYWOOD, MY HOME TOWN (Ken Murray)
THE ACTION IN NEW ORLEANS
A SOUND OF HUNTING
THE MOVIE STAR
THE RICHEST MAN IN BOGOTA
All other programs in the DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK series must be retained.
TO: Joseph Hewes
FROM: Robert J. Dunne
DATE: June 7, 1973
RE: Tape Retention
This Department has no objection to erasing the 17 reels of Ford Startime and the 29 reels of Sunday Showcase currently being stored at NBC.
The text above has been excerpted verbatim from NBC correspondence and internal memoranda. Kinescopes of some, but by no means all, of the television shows mentioned still exist. In many cases those kinescopes are monochrome recordings of programs created in color. The Sunday Showcase segment “What Makes Sammy Run” is an example of a color show for which the original tape is presumed to have been erased, and of which only a black-and-white print survives.
December 3, 2009
Paradise Cove Is Too Far: It could’ve been the name of one of the sixties TV dramas Paul Wendkos directed, during the years when shows like Naked City and Ben Casey competed to come up with the longest and most cryptic segment titles. “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail” and “The Wild, Wild, Wild Waltzing World” were actual television episodes from Wendkos’s resume.
But Paradise Cove Is Too Far is not one of his credits; it’s a note I found scrawled on my folder for Wendkos, at the end of a set of directions to his Malibu home. I never made the trip to just-before-Paradise Cove. For the last few years, I’d been talking to his wife, Lin Bolen Wendkos (the inspiration for Faye Dunaway’s character in Network, according to rumor, but hopefully not for the more terrifying aspects of that character) about meeting Paul for an interview. But he’d suffered a stroke shortly before I got in touch and remained too frail for the kind of in-depth questioning that I would have needed to toss his way. I kept calling every time I was in Los Angeles, hoping that I’d catch him on a good day, but I never did. Wendkos died last month, on November 12.
Since I started making notes for this piece, good obituaries have appeared in the New York Times and the Independent, so I don’t feel obligated to outline the whole of Wendkos’s long career. He began with a regional independent film, The Burglar, which is a common way for directors to enter television now, but was extremely unusual then. The Burglar is an impeccable film noir. It derives from a novel by David Goodis, the reclusive Philadelphia native whose home town figures essentially in most of his prose. Wendkos also hailed from Philly and deployed his camera along its streets with a knowing eye; he was a perfect match for the material, as was surly sad-sack star Dan Duryea.
The Burglar led immediately to a feature contract and a number of mostly commercial films for Columbia, including Gidget and its two sequels, which led off most of his obits. Wendkos disowned most of his studio films, considering them too compromised, although film buffs make claims for The Case Against Brooklyn and the western Face of a Fugitive. The oddity from among Wendkos’s early films, another indie called Angel Baby, has a small cult following that may grow following its recent sort-of DVD release (in Warners’ new burn-on-demand library). More on Angel Baby further down.
Once he escaped his Columbia pact, Wendkos spent most of a decade in episodic television. He directed for most of the top shows – Naked City (his favorite), Ben Casey, Mr. Novak, Dr. Kildare, The Untouchables, I Spy, The Invaders, The FBI, the pilot for Hawaii Five-O – and, in the same 1968 interview that found Wendkos dyspeptic on the subject of his feature career, he expressed some guarded satisfaction about his work in the newer medium:
Television is a talk medium. The cinema is basically a behavioral medium, an action medium, people do things to generate a story. [I]n television they talk about doing things. You’re dealing with incredible professionalism in this field. All the scripts are tailored for five to seven day schedules and it’s so much easier to shoot characters talking about something than having them go through the actions. Television has an affinity for the minutiae of emotions as opposed to the broad sweep, the spectacle, the action of a motion picture. The difference is in the complexity of the mounting.
Though he directed a few more theatrical films (including the creepy The Mephisto Waltz, TV producer Quinn Martin’s only foray into features), Wendkos spent most of the seventies on directing made-for-television movies and mini-series, many of which were quite highly regarded. The first of them, a chiller called Fear No Evil, continues to attract obsessive attention; the second, The Brotherhood of the Bell, was a look at a Skull and Bones-type organization that earned Wendkos a DGA award nomination. The Legend of Lizzie Borden, with Elizabeth Montgomery wielding the axe, was a big deal in its day, and The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story netted Wendkos an Emmy nomination. And so on.
I should, at this point, be able to offer some specific insights on what made Wendkos one of the best among his generation of TV directors. But that’s tougher than it sounds, even for a specialist like myself. It’s at least a measurable task to isolate the elements in scripts that make a TV writer unique – the repeated themes, the “voice” of the dialogue, the broader control that can come via elevation to producer or story editorship. But to do the equivalent for an episodic director requires a close viewing of many segments, in close proximity, and even then the common elements may remain elusive, or mislead. How does one grapple with the fact that, as a production necessity, episodic television directors (even the best ones) routinely had less involvement in pre- and post-production than the hackiest of movie directors? How many presumably directorial choices were in fact the director’s, and how many were dictated by the producer or the star or the house style of a particular show? Do his Invaders segments more closely resemble Wendkos’s segments of other series, or those Invaders segments helmed by others? TV movies are easier – one can presume a bit more creative control on the part of the director – but most of them are maddeningly hard to come by these days. Little wonder that the expert cinephiles at Dave Kehr’s blog struggled last month to define the Wendkos touch, even as they agreed upon their admiration for it.
Tise Vahimagi and the late Christopher Wicking, in their book The American Vein, contemplate this authorial question with mixed success, but I think their take on Wendkos is sound:
In his best work, there is a clinical detachment from his characters, which prevents any easy transference from the viewer. His analytic view intensifies the feeling that we are watching insects under a microscope. Some of the insects run bewildered from the various physical and psychological hounds on their trail, whilst others do the pursuing — implacable and imperious. Wendkos’s framing of a cold world is usually meticulously correct, frustratingly proper. It conveys a Langian sense of fate, against which individuals are powerless.
To which I’ll add only that the best dramatic TV directors of the sixties, of whom Wendkos was one, had to be equally proficient in their guidance of actors and in their use of the camera. This is an obvious point. But the fact that there are few television auteurs who managed to specialize in one area to the exclusion of the other (in the way that, say, Kazan was an “actor’s director” or Hitchcock a meticulous planner of compositions) makes it all the more difficult to differentiate amidst their work.
If I can’t offer a full analysis of Wendkos’s mise-en-scene, I can at least shed some light on one mystery which emerged from that discussion on Mr. Kehr’s site. The authorship of Angel Baby has always been disputed in the reference books. Though Wendkos bears the sole screen credit, the project originated with another director, Hubert Cornfield, who had a similarly uneven and interesting early screen career. (Although when Wendkos segued into television, Cornfield simply disappeared). The press reported during the film’s production in 1960 that appendicitis forced Cornfield off the film, without indicating how much of it he completed before Wendkos took over. In that 1968 interview, Wendkos distanced himself a bit from Angel Baby – he claimed he was promised script changes which never materialized – but also neglected to say how much of the finished work actually bore his stamp.
This week I put in a call to Angel Baby’s lovely and talented star, Salome Jens, whose portrayal of the title character, a phony (or is she?) faith healer, is one of the film’s chief assets. According to Jens, Cornfield was fired after one or two days (“he had a lot of ideas, but none of them worked”) and all of his footage was reshot by Wendkos. Of the two credited cinematographers, Jens remembered Haskell Wexler as Wendkos’s primary collaborator; Jack Marta (soon to become the DP on TV’s Route 66) was there mainly to protect the picture’s union status. (Wexler was not yet a member of the A.S.C.)
Angel Baby began shooting on location in Florida and Georgia, but was forced back to Los Angeles by uncooperative weather. That may account for the film’s uneven mixture of steamy tropical authenticity and cramped, flimsy-looking sets. Apart from Jens, the visual energy Wendkos brings to the film – lots of tracking shots and low angles, perhaps to suggest the faithful gazing skyward – is the best thing about it.
“I had a lovely experience with Paul,” said Jens, who also did an Untouchables for Wendkos two years later. “I felt that he enhanced what it was I brought him. I already had ideas about what it was I was going to do, and he was very supportive. I loved Angel Baby. I thought it was a sweet little film.”
There’s one discrepancy I haven’t resolved, and that’s the question of Wendkos’s age. Most reference books report his date of birth as September 20, 1922, but the obits all state that he 84 rather than 87. If I sort out the facts, I’ll report back.
UPDATE, 12/3/09: Lin Bolen Wendkos says that Paul’s birth certificate bears the 1925 date. No one in the family seems to know how that 1922 business got started. Intriguing! Also, Paul was his middle name; his given name was Abraham.
July 30, 2009
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a former Angeleno, and I remain fascinated by Los Angeles locations in the movies and on television. The film essayist Thom Andersen made a whole film, Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the schism between Los Angeles, the actual city, and Los Angeles, the cultural artifact constructed by its ubiquitous appearances in visual media. Andersen prefers the real thing. I’m not sure I agree.
One idea that I took away from Andersen’s film is that iconic locations, like the Bradbury Building or the Griffith Park Observatory, take on a slightly different meaning in the movies than the spaces only a native will find familiar. The latter initiate a sort of private, privileged communication between filmmakers and a geographical subset of their audience. Depending on how a location is depicted, it can add a layer of authenticity and familiarity for those select viewers. Or it can be a trigger that leads those viewers to step outside the narrative, to confront the text as an industrial artifact and to contemplate how reality has been manipulated during its creation.
For about a year I lived around the corner from the Sportsmen’s Lodge, a small hotel and restaurant in Studio City. The Sportsmen’s Lodge is now undergoing extensive remodeling, but for nearly fifty years, it never changed. For that reason it’s easy to spot in any number of movies and TV shows, particularly those made at Universal Studios, which lies only a couple of miles east along Ventura Boulevard. (Columbo fumbled around the Sportsmen’s Lodge more than once.) In its center courtyard the Lodge has a tiny pond, spanned by a wooden bridge, and its most infamous use as a movie location may be in the micro-budgeted fifties post-nuke opus The Day the World Ended. That film used the Lodge’s little trout pond to simulate a real, outdoor body of water.
Recently I was delighted to see the Sportsmen’s Lodge featured prominently in “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” a 1976 episode of The Rockford Files. The Lodge doubles as the Delman Motel (allegedly in Santa Monica, on other side of town), which Rockford visits twice to meet his duplicitous client, played by St. Elsewhere’s William Daniels. In the frame above, James Garner is standing underneath the carport outside the western entrance to the hotel’s parking lot. The building to the right is a lobby leading, if I remember correctly, to both the lounge and the hotel. The street behind Garner is Ventura Boulevard. The structure in the background with the unusual windows is now a Ralph’s Fresh Fare; in the seventies, it was a different supermarket.
Later in the same episode, Garner visits the Winslow Art Gallery to bid on an unusual art object. The Winslow Art Gallery is also the Sportsmen’s Lodge. It’s a different entrance at the eastern end of the hotel, perpendicular to the “Delman Motel” carport. Below is a frame in which Garner stands just outside the Winslow Art Gallery (out of frame just to the right). But in the background, minus its ersatz sign, is the “entrance” to the Delman Motel.
(At a time when many Universal shows, like Emergency! and the early episodes of Kojak, were still confined largely to a backlot that was growing ever more dated and threadbare, The Rockford Files – and Columbo as well – had enough clout to seek out practical locations nearly all the time. But Universal’s prop department still had some catching up to do. In both of those series, the signage added to those locations always looked, well, like something that had just been slapped together by the prop department. Realism came fitfully to television.)
Visible on the horizon in this sequence are both the Sportsmen’s Lodge’s own tiki-styled sign and (to the right of it in the frame below) another yellow, diamond-shaped sign in the background. The latter is a revolving sentinel that towers over Twain’s, a twenty-four hour diner on the northwest corner of Ventura and Coldwater Canyon Boulevards. Twain’s is another San Fernando Valley landmark that’s been there forever and is instantly recognizable to locals (and no one else).
During my Studio City year, a co-worker described how Twain’s was a favorite hangout for her crowd when she was a Valley high schooler during the eighties. Were Wendy to catch a rerun of “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” she would probably forget about the cat-and-mouse game being played out by James Garner and William Daniels on screen. Her thoughts might turn back to her teenage memories – a reaction different from anyone else watching the same episode, and one wholly unanticipated (and possibly undesired) by the show’s creators. But I suspect Wendy would find the experience pleasurable, as I do when The Rockford Files or some other show takes me back to my old neighborhood.
I have written this partly as an exercise in nostalgia, but also to illustrate the small point that TV shows reuse and disguise their locations and even their sets in all kinds of clever ways that most of us never notice. I have a trained eye, but I’m sure I would not have observed consciously that “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s two key locations share the same architecture had I not already been familiar with the Sportsmen’s Lodge. As spectators, our suspension of disbelief extends to spatial geography just as much as it does to storytelling. We allow movies and television to pull all manner of trickery on us, just so long as the people behind the curtain aren’t so manifestly incompetent that they force us to notice the strings holding everything up.
Here’s another example, also taken from a crime program of the seventies, of a very specific kind of visual sleight-of-hand that I often catch. In this scene from “Betrayed,” a 1973 segment of The Streets of San Francisco, Detectives Keller (Michael Douglas) and Stone (Karl Malden) study a reel of surveillance footage and detect an important clue to a bank robber’s identity.
Keller, the younger detective, operates the sixteen-millimeter projector. “Move in on that,” Stone tells him, when they come to a crucial moment in the footage.
Keller complies, both zooming in and freezing the frame on the bank robber’s wrist.
Somehow Keller has accomplished a feat that lies beyond the technical capabilities of his equipment. He has shifted the angle to a point of view different from that established for the surveillance camera moments before.
Movies do this all the time. They depict cuts, zooms, camera moves, and other visual effects in films-within-the-film that are blatantly implausible, at least to the trained eye. Lately I’ve seen a few movies (George Romero’s wily Diary of the Dead is one) that make extensive internal use of “found footage” and do adhere rigorously to the spatial limitations established for that footage within the story. But often filmmakers find it too difficult to convey a desired expository point within the limited perspective that fixed-camera footage would offer in the “real” world.
I always notice this kind of cheating, and it always gives me a chuckle. But I wonder if it registers with most spectators, or if it’s another example – like “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s multitude of Sportsmen’s Lodges – of the generous suspension of disbelief that we grant to visual media that attempt to give us pleasure.
Another reason we might accept rather than reject this flaw is that it enlists us in a more active kind of spectatorship than television or the movies usually offer. In the scene described above, Detectives Stone and Keller assume the roles of, respectively, a director and a cinematographer/editor. Stone tells his collaborator the effect he wishes to achieve – a solution to a mystery – through the process of watching (making) a film. Keller selects the camera angle and organizes the footage in a way that will deliver that result. Unconsciously, the viewer participates in this process with them.
In any episode of The Streets of San Francisco (or The Rockford Files), the writer, the director, and their collaborators construct a story for us by making the same choices. The projector scene in “Betrayed” embeds this process (or an oversimplified version of it) within the narrative. The spectator will either play along, or else detect the shortcuts and reject them as “fake.” How do we make that choice? Is it conscious or unconscious? Is one response to this scenario superior, or more “correct,” than the other? Personally, few things annoy me more than watching or discussing a movie with someone whose refrain is “Well, that could never happen.” My own tolerance for plot holes (and consequently my indifference to “spoilers”) is quite high, because I consider plot one of the least interesting components of a film or television show. But based on which television shows have achieved popularity in recent years – Lost and 24, Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl – I think many spectators may hold the opposite point of view. They prize narrative complexity to the exclusion of any other kind of complexity.
Hypothetically, let’s say that the director of “Betrayed,” William Hale, had opted for accuracy at the possible expense of clarity. In that case, the scene might have played out with Keller and Stone stopping the film and then squinting and puzzling over the blurry image. Perhaps they would have disagreed over the meaning of the clue. Perhaps their ambivalence would have carried over into another scene; instead of knowing already that their suspect (played by Martin Sheen) was the culprit, they would have had to interrogate him, bluff him, to elicit a confession. Perhaps Sheen’s character would have slipped from their grasp for lack of evidence. Perhaps Keller and Stone would never have known whether he was guilty or not. Perhaps the viewer would have been left with less confidence in the effectiveness of the police, less certainty about the likelihood of closure in general.
Each of those possibilities is less likely than the previous one, at least for a mainstream television show from the seventies. That single subliminal, impossible edit may seem like a continuity error. Instead it’s a shrewd elision that tidies the narrative of “Betrayed” in a meaningful way. Did some viewers, even in 1973, congratulate themselves for catching a mistake that the filmmakers missed? Of course. But the filmmakers had the last word. They understood that sometimes a “mistake” is more satisfying than an uncertainty.
May 27, 2009
“By then I’d begun to do research, thinking – not realistically – that maybe I could interest someone who knew how to write nonfiction in taking on the project. I’d gather the material and hand it off to a professional and in a year or two I’d have that book I wanted to read.”
- Stewart O’Nan, foreword to The Circus Fire: A True Story
January 7, 2009
The Archive has done videotaped interviews with over 600 people who worked in early television in various capacities, so they’re obviously operating in the same wheelhouse as this blog. Much of my own research in recent years has focused on oral history. Since it began to emerge on Google Video, the Archive’s output has done a great deal to inspire me, and to validate the methodology that I’ve chosen to pursue.
It’s obvious that the Archive is a treasure trove for historians like myself, but many of the interviews are enormously entertaining for the casual spectator too. Often they achieve an intimacy that’s akin to the experience of attending a dinner party and listening to a veteran entertainer hold court with a lifetime of stories. The segments with Andy Griffith, Ed Asner, the actress Maxine Stuart, the director Robert Butler, and the writer Ernest Kinoy all succeed in that way.
My own favorite is probably the interview with John Frankenheimer, who’s such a polished raconteur that I’m surprised he never enjoyed a sideline as a character actor, along the lines of his protege Sydney Pollack. The next time you have fifteen minutes to spare, check out the long anecdote Frankenheimer tells at the beginning of Part 7 of his oral history. It may be the ultimate live television disaster story . . . and it’s never failed to crack up anyone to whom I’ve recommended it.
November 27, 2008
All the usual things, of course. Family and friends, as well as my loyal readers. Assuming those two groups don’t overlap entirely.
But here’s something for which I’m even more thankful. The Paley Center, the newest alias of The Museum of Television and Radio (f/k/a The Museum of Broadcasting) in New York and Los Angeles, now has its catalog online.
The search software is a little crude – Boolean searches appear beyond its grasp. Nevertheless, this is an enormously valuable research tool. It’s likely to yield up television credits I didn’t know about for some of my favorite TV writers and directors, or at least confirm or disprove data gleaned from less reliable sources.
More importantly, of course, it’s now possible to preview the Paley’s collection and plan ahead before making a visit. It used to be incredibly frustrating to poke through the UCLA Film and Television Archive‘s search engine and know exactly what that institution held on a given series or person – but not be able to do the same for the Paley. Finally, I can go through the videography of one of the writers or directors I’m profiling and know for certain how much of his or her work survives in an accessible venue, without leaving my desk.
(The Library of Congress and the University of Wisconsin-Madison also have substantial collections of early television that can be browsed via online searches. But since I’m regularly in New York and Los Angeles, UCLA and the Paley have always been the Big Two.)
Actually, it’s been so long since I’ve checked on this that the Paley Center could have had this feature on its website for years, but I just discovered it yesterday. So I know what I’ll be doing while I eat tonight’s cold turkey sandwich!
January 28, 2008
I’m extremely skeptical of the Internet Movie Database for a number of reasons, most of them basic conceptual flaws: the complete lack of sourcing for any of its information; its failure to designate entries which may be incomplete or unverified; its labyrinthine and opaque process for accepting (or ignoring) corrections; and its disinterest in consulting experts in lieu of accepting unpaid “submissions” by people who must, like the old joke about people who can’t get out of jury duty, have too much time on their hands and no productive outlet for their knowledge. But recently I noticed a practice that’s disturbing and wrong-headed even by the IMDb’s dubious standards. On the IMDb page for most major recent American films, the acronym (WGA) appears in parentheses next to the film’s writing credits. The “WGA” is clickable and leads to this page, which explains that since 1999 the Writers Guild of America “has been furnishing credits directly” to IMDb. Following that are a handy explanation of both the WGA’s jurisdiction (which extends to “USA-controlled live-action film and TV projects, produced . . . by studios or major independent producers,” i.e., signatories to the Guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement – the same companies that are being struck by the Guild right now) and its rather intricate process for determining those credits.
However, buried in the next-to-last paragraph of this lengthy document is a crucial disclaimer:
The IMDb will not accept uncredited writers for titles with WGA-determined credits.
In other words, for the past nine years, the IMDb has been colluding with the Writers Guild of America to suppress critical information about how some movies were written.
I guess I should step back a moment and explain the WGA’s process for determining screen credits. It’s always been common, from the early days of the Hollywood studios up to the present day, for movies and TV shows to be written by committee – by a succession of different writers put on the project by a producer or director. In the 1930s, the studios treated writers as interchangeable and disposable; weird on-screen credits like “adaptation by” or “additional dialogue by” proliferated, and it wasn’t uncommon for an unscrupulous producer to steal the writer’s credit for himself (or a flunky or nephew). Outrage over these practices were part of what led to the formation of the Screen Writers Guild (now the WGA) in 1933. Wresting control of writers’ on-screen credits from the studios was a major victory for the nascent Guild.
Today the WGA has, in its own words, a “strong feeling against a multiplicity of credits” on a film. In other words, not every writer who contributes a few lines, or even certain major ideas, to a screenplay will receive credit. When multiple writers have taken a whack at a troubled screenplay, only those who contributed substantially to the finished film will be awarded credit. When a dispute arises, the matter goes to the WGA’s arbitration committee, a group of members who read all the drafts of the screenplay and issue a binding version of the final credits. The arbitration process is viewed by most in the industry as essentially honorable and fair – albeit responsible on occasion for a perplexingly bad call. In some cases even writers who “won” screen credit have opined publicly that they didn’t deserve it.
The problem is that while the WGA system might serve the interests of working writers, it’s counterproductive for historians. Those of us who write about movies need, very obviously, as much insight into the production history of a film as possible. If you’re writing about John Frankenheimer, for instance, you need to know that The Train was “really written” not by the credited team of Frank Davis and Franklin Coen, but by the blacklisted writers Ned Young and Howard Dimsdale.
As it happens, the IMDb doesn’t record that tidbit about The Train, but for older films it does often list uncredited contributors to the script. Its Ben Hur page, for instance, offers this breakdown of the film’s on-screen writing credits:
Lew Wallace (novel) (as General Lew Wallace)
Karl Tunberg (screenplay)
and then the following:
Maxwell Anderson uncredited and
Christopher Fry uncredited and
Gore Vidal uncredited
The names of the unacknowledged writers (and the prospect of analyzing their work on the film) are far more tantalizing than that of the journeyman, Karl Tunberg, who received sole screenplay credit. And that’s a relatively minor example. How could anyone hope to untangle the creation of The Wizard of Oz if its list of uncredited writers were unavailable? Again, a reproduction of the IMDb’s writing credits for the film:
L. Frank Baum (novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”)
Noel Langley (screenplay) and
Florence Ryerson (screenplay) and
Edgar Allan Woolf (screenplay)
Irving Brecher uncredited
William H. Cannon uncredited
Herbert Fields uncredited
Arthur Freed uncredited
Jack Haley additional dialogue (uncredited)
E.Y. Harburg uncredited
Samuel Hoffenstein uncredited
Bert Lahr additional dialogue (uncredited)
Noel Langley adaptation
John Lee Mahin uncredited
Herman J. Mankiewicz uncredited
Jack Mintz uncredited
Or, to approach it from the other direction, anyone writing a biography one of Hollywood’s legendary “script doctors” – first-rank screenwriters like Robert Towne, Bo Goldman, or Alvin Sargent who have earned much of their living by punching up high-profile screenplays without credit – will have a tough time of it. Such a figure’s involvement in a project is often a closely guarded secret, rarely reported in the press or the trades and disseminated only by word of mouth. The IMDb could and should function as a repository to collect this data.
Of course, uncredited script revisions are “facts” that lie outside of a film’s official history, and should as such be treated cautiously. And one of the IMDb’s major weaknesses is that one can’t evaluate the sources of its data; if, for instance, I managed to add Young’s and Dimsdale’s names to its page for The Train, you wouldn’t know that I gleaned their names from Frankenheimer himself, via his audio commentary on the DVD of the film.
Still, there’s nothing to stop the IMDb from adding Young and Dimsdale to their page for the The Train. But for any film made after 1999, that would be specifically forbidden.
How important is this matter? Essential, given that it’s still common practice for major blockbusters to be worked over by many (even dozens) of writers. If the Los Angeles Times considered it newsworthy that such well-known writers as Ron Shelton, Jerry Stahl, and John Lee Hancock took a pass at the screenplay (if you can call it that) for Bad Boys 2, then it’s inexcusable that this reporting cannot be archived somewhere in the one place that is (for better or worse) everyone’s first stop for information about movies.
And, since this is a blog about classic television, consider what triggered my musings on the subject in the first place: the fact that Horton Foote wrote a draft of Denzel Washington’s new film The Great Debaters. Bad Boys 2 might provoke a scoff, but Foote is one of the most significant television writers and playwrights of his generation. Any project on which he labored, no matter how insignificantly or futilely, is of interest to historians. Foote’s participation in The Great Debaters is not recorded on the IMDb, nor will it ever be under the IMDb’s current policy.
It all reminds me of the cringeworthy conclusion to the Guild’s otherwise laudable project to restore the credits of blacklisted writers who worked under the table due to political oppression during McCarthy era. During the 1990s the WGA undertook a comprehensive review of movies known to have been written by blacklistees, and to restore those writers’ names to the official credits (credits that originally went to fronts or pseudonyms) in its records. The research was rigorous and conservative, and for all the credits it amended, the Guild reluctantly denied many that could not be substantiated.
A heroic effort. But then the WGA somehow convinced the major studios to physically alter the onscreen credits of many of the affected films. The Bridge on the River Kwai‘s title card “Screenplay by Pierre Boulle” – notorious because Boulle spoke no English – was optically or digitally changed to “Screenplay by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman” on all new prints and home video editions. Not only was this historical revisionism at its most Orwellian, but in a savagely ironic way it contradicts the purpose of the Guild’s project. By effacing Boulle’s absurd screen credit, the Guild erased evidence of the bitter farce that was McCarthyism. (Plus, it was unnecessary: Why not simply add a new title card at the beginning or end of the film, with the names of the actual writers and an explanation of their initial omission, similar to the preservation credits appended to films that have undergone restoration?)
According to Craig Mazin, a Guild member whose blog contains the only other discussion of this issue I could find on the internet, the WGA pushed for its relationship with the IMDb as part of a general preference for keeping its arbitration backstories confidential. Fair enough. But why should the IMDb roll over for a special interest group whose goals run contrary to its own? All that’s admitted on its WGA page is that the Guild has now spared the IMDb staff the oh-so-arduous task of retrieving certain TV and movie credits from published sources. Hmmm . . . I wonder if there’s anything else the WGA might also have offered to secure the cooperation of the IMDb (or its corporate owner, Amazon.com)?
I don’t really expect any better than this from the Internet Movie Database, and I realize it’s ill-timed to bash the Writers Guild when it’s fighting for its relevance in a critical strike. But come on, WGA: you guys are my heroes, and you’re letting me down.