Tempus Fugitive

August 21, 2011

Well, they’re at it again.

In a way, I feel like I can measure the history of this blog on the timeline of the neverending clusterfuck that is The Fugitive on home video.  The aurally mutilated second season debuted in June 2008, only six months after I opened the doors here, and my editorial on the subject was one of the first pieces to attract the attention of anyone . . . well, anyone other than my parents, basically.

Since then, Fugitive producer Alan Armer, who I quoted in that piece, has died.  CBS continued the ignominious DVD release of The Fugitive, issuing a partially corrected version of the first bogus volume by mail only and then mangling the remainder of the second and third seasons.  The fourth and final season came out intact, all but proving Jon Burlingame’s well-researched theory that CBS’s brow-scratching over the Capitol Music Library was the source of the butchery.  And yet, CBS never saw fit to issue a full apology or explanation for its sins.  And me: I’ve mostly stayed out of muckraking and consumer affairs reporting, and tried to avoid feuds like those I started with internet knuckle-draggers Paul Mavis (still the resident reactionary over at DVD Talk) and Ron Epstein (still the proprietor of the world’s slowest-loading internet forum), because, as you can tell from those parenthetical follow-ups, they don’t accomplish much.

Now there comes news that CBS will be repackaging all 120 episodes of The Fugitive into a pricy box with a stupid subtitle (“The Most Wanted Edition”) for Christmas.  There will be a disc of unspecified extras and a bonus CD of uncertain content.  But CBS’s press release leaves the big question unanswered: will the original soundtracks be restored or will the abominable Mark Heyes synthesizer sonatas continue to tramp all over the fuge’s flight?

I don’t have that answer.  I heard this box set was in the works back in February but, once again, no one at CBS would return my calls, so I haven’t reported on it in this space.  The original intent, I think, was to restore the original music . . . but six months is a long time, and who’s to say that the same idiots who fucked it up the first time haven’t struck again?

Either way, CBS has already blown in it one sense, by failing to address the issue up front.  Once again, they’ve insulted and annoyed fans by implying that the music just doesn’t matter.  Right now it’s a lose-lose situation: if the Heyes “music” is still there, then the box set is pointless; if the original music is back, then CBS has flubbed its best chance to win back some of the fans’ good will that went on the run, along with Pete Rugolo’s classic cues, three years ago.  If it turns out that the Rugolo music is all back where it belongs, then that’s a big win – but I suspect fans have been primed to turn surly over the amount of time it’s taken, and the double-dipping that will be required of many of them.  The usually amiable blogger Ivan Shreve thinks it’s all a plot “to screw the fans over one final time” – and that’s even if the new set includes the original music!

I’m certainly not that pessimistic.  If The Fugitive becomes available again in its original form, that’s all that matters, and I’ll be the first to forgive CBS for all the screw-ups that occurred along the way.  (Although, it certainly would’ve been satisfying had the release come with a little public crow-eating from the craven executive who commissioned the replacement scores.)  The real losers here will be the faithless who shrugged, decided that the synthescythed episodes were as good as it would ever get, and forked their cash over to CBS for those worthless volumes.  And you know what?  They deserve to get screwed.  If something’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right.  If the DVD re-release does fix the music, then it will be a rare case where those of us who complained and refused to shell out for a disgraceful hatchet job are fully vindicated.  And if the new DVDs are still Heyesified?  Well, better to never see The Fugitive at all than to see it in that state.

Now: Explain to me why this set won’t be on Blu-ray?

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You may have inferred from the above that I’m a hawk when it comes to image and audio quality issues.  That’s a position that one could take for granted in the glory days of the digital home video era.  But lately, as streaming video gains in popularity, I’ve begun to feel ever more lonely out here on my purist island.

I touched on this when I reported on some of Netflix’s alarming decisions with regard to physical media a few months ago, but it needs to be spelled out front and center: Streaming video is rolling back the quality benchmarks established by DVD and Blu-ray to something a lot closer to the days of VHS and TV syndication.  Netflix and Hulu have become a dumping ground for substandard video encodes that would’ve been rejected by any major DVD label.  The technology itself is dependent on bandwidth variables which fall outside the control of anyone who finds mid-film interruptions or image quality downgrades unacceptable.  The supply of streaming-only exclusives – rare movies and TV shows that missed out on a disc release – has slowed to a trickle.  No major streaming provider is supplying bonus features created for disc releases – even though it’s technologically simple to do so – much less producing new ones for streaming-only content.  This is bargain-basement home video, folks.

Streaming’s champions, which include some movie buffs who should know better, pull out “convenience” as their trump card.  I’m afraid I find it very inconvenient to have to QC every film beforehand for aspect ratio errors, digital artifacts, or horizontal motion blurring, and then to wonder – once I find the one in ten encodes that passes that test –whether Netflix’s server or my ISP will crap out right in the middle of it.

If streaming is the inevitable delivery system of the future, then movie fans must take a stand now and insist that streaming meet or surpass the best possible disc viewing experiences.  If you’re a Netflix user, you’ll be able, as of next month, to choose separate streaming and/or disc rental plans (up until now, they’ve been bundled).  I strongly encourage you to vote with your dollars and reject the streaming option until Netflix demonstrates a commitment to the quality as well as the quantity of its virtual library.

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If I count streaming as the biggest threat to home entertainment so far this century, I have on the other hand come around as a qualified enthusiast for the manufacture-on-demand platform.  When this revolutionary idea debuted in 2009, it had flaws that were sticking points for a lot of movie buffs: the transfers were subpar; DVD-R was not a stable medium; the cover art was hideous; the prices were far too high and discounts too few; it was almost impossible to buy them, except from eBay price gougers, if you lived outside the U.S.  I think all but the last two considerations have become irrelevant.

The price point is still way too high, and I think it’s taking advantage of die-hard fans who would support the MOD releases in bulk but have to settle for a fraction of what they’d like to buy.  (And if anyone cares to release some numbers proving that the Warner Archive doesn’t have an appreciably higher profit margin than the old retail model, I’ll happily eat those words.)  But at least Warner has plowed some of its bounty back into tangible upgrades: nearly all of the new Warner Archive releases have excellent transfers; a few of the old nineties-era TCM masters from the first wave have been upgraded (and hopefully there will be more); and, not that I care, but they’re even spending money on decent cover art now.  You only have to look at some of Warner Archive’s half-assed imitators – namely MGM and Universal, with their Amazon-fulfilled rosters of horribly edge-enhanced low-res DVD-R releases – to see how much Warner is getting right.

Most importantly, Warner has kept its promise on making the Archive a high-volume proposition.  More than a thousand movies from Warners’ prodigious library have been released, and finally (after a two-year wait) they’ve turned their attention to series television.  It’s still a head-scratcher as to why Maverick, the biggest and most commercially viable gem among Warners’ TV holdings, has never received a full home video release.  (And I’ve heard that Gene Roddenberry’s The Lieutenant, which I reported would be among the first TV series on offer, has fallen afoul of a music clearance problem.)  In the meantime, though, I’m pleased with the offerings of the last few months: The F.B.I., Medical Center, The Man From Atlantis, and now The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.  Some of these are dreck but some of them aren’t, and if my requests for review copies are answered I hope to give them some consideration in this space soon.

Revised slightly on August 22, 2011, to expand upon my intemperate anti-streaming rant.

Nostalgia’s Menace

July 29, 2011

I never really met Jay North, who played Dennis the Menace on television, but I saw him once at an autograph show.  North, who has long been as much of a poster-boy for the fucked-up child star as you can be without actually dying from it, was slumped face-down over his table, cradling his head in his arms amid a puddle of eight-by-ten glossies.  Jeannie Russell, his former co-star, stood behind him, hand on his shoulder, quietly talking him back from whatever ledge of mental anguish on which North was perched.  What struck me as I studied this scene was how routinized it seemed: I got the idea that these two had acted out this ritual countless times before, a sad-funny part of arrested adult lives built upon vague memories of a childhood in which they remained trapped like the proverbial bugs in amber.  And although the spectacle might have been new to this particular roomful of fans, I was certain that I wasn’t in the midst of the first crowd that had tiptoed awkwardly around North in a public setting, waiting for him to get himself together.  Exactly who, I wondered, was benefitting from this transaction?  What does Jay North get from these people?  Why is an old photo of a burned-out child actor worth five bucks and a trip to North Hollywood to anyone?  Nostalgia is the slowest-acting poison.

Jay North: Rebel without a comb.

Anyhow: This month brings us the DVD release of the second season of Dennis the Menace (the third, out of four, has already been announced for the fall, suggesting unexpectedly robust sales), and Shout Factory, in its usual puckish fashion, saw fit to send me this set but not the first season, which came out back in March.  Ordinarily, I’m a completist about this kind of thing, but then I decided that if there was ever a series that did not need to be seen from the beginning, it was probably Dennis the Menace.

My Nick at Nite memories of Dennis the Menace, which I found agreeable as a child, were of an epic, all-out guerilla combat between male Bad Seed Dennis and querulous, nasty old retiree Mr. Wilson.  This turns out to be inaccurate: the show is sweeter, gentler, blander, and less funny than I recalled.  Though it is based, of course, on the long-running Sunday strip by Hank Ketcham – himself apparently a nasty old man who based and named his creation after his own attention-deficit-disordered son, then became estranged from the child who earned him millions – the TV Dennis affects a comics-page atmosphere only in the repetition of cloying catchphrases (“Great Scott!” “Good ol’ Mister Wilson!”) and the exaggerated costumes of Dennis and his know-it-all nemesis Margaret (the aforementioned Ms. Russell).  The rest is straight sitcom-generic, a second-tier entry in the stable of cheap Screen Gems domestic comedies, which also included Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Hazel.

Like those other, better Screen Gems comedies, Dennis the Menace tried for warmth as much as for humor; and it’s a sad reality that warmth, especially yesterday’s warmed-over warmth, does not age as well as a good gag.  The premise hints at a dire form of suburban combat: a symbiotic bond of irritation between two essentially unpleasant people, a bratty child and a mean-spirited retiree, Maple Street denizens burdened by opposite extremes of age but both with too much time on their hands.  Dennis Mitchell is sometimes bratty, occasionally disobedient or disingenuous, but more often just accident-prone or hyperactive.  Mr. Wilson is an asshole and a hypocrite, susceptible to flattery or bribery, querulous by default but obsequious when the potential for personal gain presents itself.  Whenever he has a chance to finally vanquish his enemy, though, as when Dennis runs away in the season opener “Out of Retirement,” Wilson turns nice and sees to it that no harm comes to the boy.  (Paul Mavis, in a customarily credulous and exhaustive survey of the first season, suggests that the earliest episodes offered a livelier and more maleficent Dennis.)  It is probably wise that the show’s creators chose to soften these characters, because I see no one on the show’s roster of creative talent – Screen Gems staff producer James Fonda, B-movie directors William D. Russell and Charles Barton, a list of journeymen writers, and a less than ideal cast – with the talent to have made the show darker without also making it impossible to take.  But as a result Dennis the Menace has no subtext, no edge, neither the nuanced view of human behavior that distinguished Leave It to Beaver nor even the fascinating, barely suppressed hysteria of Donna Reed.

My favorite of the dozen Dennis episodes I watched this week was “Dennis and the Radio Set,” in which Mr. Wilson finds a cache of cash hidden in an old radio, purchased (thanks to Dennis’s meddling) at auction.  Mr. Wilson and Mitchell pere immediately start spending the money in their heads, until Dennis stops them in their tracks by insisting that a search be undertaken for the true owner.  The adults agree to place a classified ad in the local paper, but word it so that the person to whom the cash belongs is unlikely to come forward.  The ethical positions taken by the various characters – Dennis as idealist and moral compass, Mr. Wilson and the usually unassailable Henry Mitchell as morally compromised or, at least, pragmatic to excess – are not consistent with those they affect in other episodes.  But they are, at least, mildly surprising.  The teleplay (credited to Fonda, who was not primarily a writer) also finds room for a not-quite-absurdist gag in which the characters never realize that the old radio only broadcasts a South African station (say what about a lion on the rampage?) and the best role I’ve ever seen gangly bit actor Norman Leavitt play, as an American Gothic-styled ne’er-do-well angling to claim the cash, with a crib sheet tucked into his hat, yet.

But in its efforts to set up and then embellish some sustained gags, “Dennis and the Radio Set” runs somewhat counter to the series’ format.  The prototypical Dennis episode would be one like “Henry and Togetherness,” in which the towheaded twerp manages to destroy, among other things, a cookie jar, an aquarium, and Mr. Wilson’s new hat.  Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, runs a con on Dennis’s father, manipulating him into giving up a golf game in order to spend more time with Dennis, on the dubious logic that this will keep the little brat out of his own hair.

(Mr. Wilson often behaves according to that heightened dream-logic of sitcoms, in which people do things that make absolutely no sense in order that we may have a plot each week.  See also, for instance, Jeannie’s psychotic fixation on “helping” Major Nelson, despite his constant pleas that she mind her own fucking business; Darrin Stephens’s monomaniacally self-defeating anti-feminism; and practically all the behavior of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island.  I’m still working out my Lost-like theory that Gilligan’s isle was actually a top-secret asylum for the dangerously insane, and that everyone on the Minnow was a multiple murderer, heavily drugged and circumvented in escape by unseen government agents.)

Loose in its structure, slack in its pacing, “Henry and Togetherness” is content to assemble a modest catalog of routine childhood antics and banal adult reactions around only a smidgen of plot.  It is inoffensive in its mediocrity, and actually superior to episodes that contrive more elaborate or far-fetched conflicts between Dennis and Mr. Wilson, like “Dennis the Campaign Manager” (Dennis inspires Mr. Wilson’s bid for parks commissioner) or “Dennis and the Miracle Plant Food” (more or less self-explanatory).  But is that ambition enough to justify one hundred and forty-six half-hours?

There are other “classic” shows that have, arguably, gotten by with this approach; if you enjoyed The Cosby Show, it was because you liked spending time with Bill Cosby and his appealing faux-family, not because any of them were killing themselves trying to make you laugh.  But the cast of Dennis is too cut-rate to coast on slight material.  Radio actor Joseph Kearns plays Mr. Wilson with a catalog of overdone, old-womanish gestures and expressions.  He’s the right type but he isn’t much fun; Dennis needed a sharp, operatically hatable antagonist, like The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Richard Deacon or The Lucy Show’s Gale Gordon (who, in fact, replaced Kearns on Dennis after he died suddenly toward the end of the third season).  Herbert Anderson, playing Dennis’s father, is a nebbish with a tremulous voice, a slight build, and no chin.  In contrast to windbaggy sitcom dads like Robert Young, Hugh Beaumont, or Carl Betz, Anderson is a non-entity, displaced entirely by the monster-grandpa figure of Mr. Wilson.  A father figure of such extreme weakness, positioned within the standard nuclear-family dynamic is an intriguing source of unease.  But I have yet to come across a Dennis episode that mines Anderson’s odd passivity for either humor or pathos.

And as for Jay North, a Village of the Damned escapee with a spooky death-rictus grin, he bellows his dialogue with a presentational delivery, as if he’d been trained to expect a Tootsie Roll for every successfully completed punchline.  On one level it’s hard to argue with his casting, because Dennis is supposed to be annoying and North certainly fits that bill.  I kept wishing, though, that Dennis could have been Stephen Talbot, who played the similarly unctuous character of Gilbert on Leave It to Beaver in a more likable and realistic manner.  Indeed, Beaver’s rich supporting cast contrasts sharply with the lack of background color in Dennis the Menace; all of Dennis’s friends and most of the other adults (including Gloria Henry as his mother) are forgettable.  Not only did Beaver have an indelible secondary cast, but it deployed them shrewdly, to extend its tonal richness.  If Wally and the Beav were flawed but also likable and recognizably human, then their assortment of friends were either venal (Eddie Haskell, Gilbert Bates) or stupid (Lumpy Rutherford, Larry Mondello), a collective suburban id that had no place in a plainer, sunshinier show like Dennis the Menace.

Earlier I wrote that Dennis the Menace had no subtext, but that’s not quite true.   Out of the myriad ways in which a little boy might torment an elderly pensioner, nearly half of my random sampling of episodes zeroed in on incidents whereby Dennis caused, or threatened, a financial loss for Mr. Wilson.  This obsession with economics is expressed with numeric precision.  Every teleplay spells out the exact sums of money at stake.  Mr. Wilson’s worthless stock escalates in value to $500 just as Dennis throws it out with an old phone book (“The Stock Certificate”).  Mr. Wilson’s parcel of scrap land goes up in value from $2,000 to $5,000 after Dennis finds gold on it (“The Rock Collector”).  Mr. Wilson gets a hundred dollar bill in the mail, only to see it snatched away by a crow (“Woodman, Spare That Tree”).  And so on.  The amount of money in that radio set was $1600, and in conversations with each of two potential claimants, the exact figure of a reward is haggled over.  So much uncouth discussion of dollars and cents called up, in contrast, one of my indelible childhood memories of Leave It to Beaver, in which the Beav asked his dad if they were rich and Ward replied only that the Cleavers were “comfortable.”  (I think that line may have triggered my earliest conception of the middle class, and the awareness that I numbered among it.)

On other occasions I have praised shows (like The Wire) that emphasize money, because frank depictions of economic hardship rarely emerge from Hollywood.  But when Dennis the Menace does it, the show merely reflects George Wilson’s avarice; you can practically imagine the writers looking over his shoulder and smacking their lips in unison with Mr. Wilson as he grubs for some wad of cash.  It’s an unthinking validation of the capitalist trap: the anxiety surrounding financial loss is the most real thing in the world of Dennis the Menace.  Still, I’m not unsympathetic.  As I grow older and ever less “comfortable,” the thought of living on a fixed income moves further up on my list of fates worse than death, inching past even the threat of torment by unruly children.

1. Avid enthusiasts of the work of the famous lyricist Stephen Sondheim refer to themselves as Sondheimites.  They use this term without irony or self-consciousness and if you crack a joke about it (say it out loud, fast, if you’re not following me here), they do not find it funny.

That was only my first faux pas as I entered the world of Sondheim, an artist whose work I’m afraid I fail to get after my admittedly limited exposure.  Sondheim’s lyrics are viewed as extremely complex and sophisticated, but he still works within the tradition of the twentieth-century American musical theater, and that’s a tradition that always puts me to sleep.

So let’s say that, like me, you dig old TV shows but you don’t have any particular affinity for the musical theater.  That’s okay because, while Sondheim’s four songs are the marketing hook for this DVD release (and the only reason it exists), there are a lot of other ways into “Evening Primrose,” which was, for the record, an original hour-long musical created in 1966 for the short-lived prime-time anthology ABC Stage 67

One way in is through John Collier, upon whose short story “Primrose” is based.  Collier was a terrifically witty and macabre writer, who has been compared to Roald Dahl (although I think Collier is the bigger talent).  It’s because of Collier’s tone that “Evening Primrose” has sometimes been categorized as a kind of lost Twilight Zone episode.  And while “Primrose” only intermittently achieves that flavor, it does more or less duplicate the plot of “The After Hours,” the Zone episode in which Anne Francis gets locked in a department store after closing time and discovers that the mannequins are alive.  Or perhaps I have that backwards, since Collier’s story was first collected in Fancies and Goodnights in 1951, and Rod Serling was known for unconsciously regurgitating ideas from works of fantasy that he’d read while planning The Twilight Zone.

Another way is through James Goldman, who wrote the teleplay (or the book) for “Evening Primrose.”  Goldman, the lesser-known brother of screenwriter William Goldman, was a witty and facile writer in his own right, best known for the play and film The Lion in Winter, in which Eleanor of Aquitaine says things like, “Of course I have a knife.  We all have knives.  It’s 1183, and we’re barbarians!” 

Another way in is through Anthony Perkins.  Although both Sondheim and Perkins himself were vocally critical of his performance, I find Perkins charming and wistful here, an ideal actor for the material and a far cry from the creepiness of Norman Bates.  And a final way in is through the expert staging of Paul Bogart, who was almost certainly the most accomplished American television director to specialize in shooting on videotape.

2. Paul Bogart is the nicest guy in the world.  Paul is a barrel-chested man, with a fully white beard, whose visage, in repose, fixes itself into an ominous scowl.  It’s silly, but his appearance is so imposing that I put off contacting him for some time after I decided that I needed to interview him.  But once Paul begins to speak, his welcoming smile and soft voice express his true personality.  Most directors develop an imposing demeanor, and a certain ego; after all, on a set, dozens of people await his or her orders.  Lamont Johnson, who died late last year, was compact in size and not at all physically imposing, but he had a general’s demeanor; when I visited him in Monterey, he never once cracked a smile in ninety minutes, and basically intimidated the hell out of me.  Paul, by contrast, is an unfailingly sweet and easygoing person, and also an unnecessarily self-deprecating artist.  You’ll see, in the interview we did for the DVD, that Paul is sometimes quite critical of his work on “Evening Primrose.”  Don’t take his word for it.  Watch the show yourself, and see how skillfully he pulled together all the disparate elements of this odd musical on an incredibly tough schedule.

3. You can’t always get what you want.  The “Evening Primrose” presented on the DVD is a black-and-white copy of a show originally telecast in color.  That’s a heartbreaking shame, especially since Jane Klain, Research Manager at the Paley Center For Media, undertook an Ahab-like quest to track down the original color tape in time for the DVD.  I really wanted to see her zealous efforts rewarded with success. 

Jane has compiled a number of theories as to why the color tape for “Evening Primrose” went missing, and hasn’t proven any one of them to her satisfaction.  Because the master tapes of many other Stage 67s still exist, and because of certain other anecdotal evidence compiled by Jane, I lean toward the notion that the tape was pilfered years ago by some knowledgeable but unscrupulous Sondheimite.  But we’ll probably never know for sure.

In fact, during her search, Jane unearthed a new kinescope that far eclipsed the other known elements in image quality.  (Remastering the new kine is why the DVD was delayed from an initial release date in April until last fall.)  So now “Evening Primrose” looks better than it has any right to, but it’s still a (literally) pallid rendering of a show telecast in vivid color back in 1966.

4. But look anyway.  “Oh, and I still have some test footage we shot on film with Anthony Perkins,” Paul Bogart said in passing as we made plans for my trip to North Carolina to record his interview for the DVD.  This was news.  On a previous visit to Chapel Hill, I had plundered the attic of Paul’s rustic home, which was lined with ¾” videotapes of hundreds of his television shows.  But I hadn’t encountered any film reels.  The “Evening Primrose” canisters, it turned out, were in a closet downstairs.

When Paul handed the film cans over to me, he explained what they were.  The footage consists of establishing shots of Anthony Perkins in and around Macy’s, and outside the store in Herald Square; and then shots of two extras (different from the pair used in the final version) who feature prominently in the show’s twist ending.  They’re not “deleted scenes,” although DVD consumers might tend to pigeonhole them in that category.  I’m also not quite it’s accurate to call them “test footage,” as we labeled it for the DVD, because upon reflection I suspect much of this MOS material was in fact intended to be used in “Evening Primrose.” 

When Bogart shot the scenes, on September 13, 1966, the idea was probably to use them in the finished production.  But sometime prior to the start of taping on September 25, Macy’s opted out, and the producers hurriedly arranged a move to Stern’s (a now-defunct department store across the street from Bryant Park).  All of the Macy’s-related footage was now useless.  And that’s why it ended up in Paul Bogart’s closet instead of an editing suite and, eventually, oblivion.

As I carried the film cans to the airport, a thought struck me: could I be holding the only surviving color footage of “Evening Primrose”?  Since the show was going to be in color, it wouldn’t have made sense for the film to be shot or even developed in black and white.  Bogart and his collaborators would have wanted to see how the location and the costumes looked in color.  But perhaps the film had faded after forty years in Paul’s closet? 

Eventually the DVD producer, Jason Viteritti, confirmed that the footage was, in fact, in color.  But my part in the production was done as soon as I handed over the film cans, so I didn’t get a chance to actually see the footage until the DVD arrived.  When I finally did look at the footage, it struck me as a revelation – a reason to have the DVD in and of itself.

As you can imagine, these twenty-odd minutes of location footage represent a priceless Manhattan time capsule: a long look, over multiple takes in a variety of set-ups, of mid-sixties Macy’s shoppers and Herald Square pedestrians, all going about their daily business (or, perhaps, trying conspicuously to ignore the camera in their presence).  But it’s also a unique opportunity to observe both director and actor formulating their approach to the material, and to compare their first stabs at it to the final version. 

For instance, many of Bogart’s set-ups in Macy’s are nearly identical to their counterparts in Stern’s (compare the frame grab below to the title card at the top of this post).  As I watched take after take of Perkins mingling with authentic department store customers in the opening sequence, I realized how essential Bogart’s conception of these scenes was to the success of the whole piece.  Bogart emphasizes the realistic world of the store in daytime – his use of the handheld camera in these shots is very cinema verite and, indeed, without Perkins in the mix, one could mistake them for outtakes from Frederick Wiseman’s The Store.  Once Perkins enters the nighttime world of the store dwellers, Bogart favors a look that complements the artifice of the fantasy world into which Charles has entered.  Studio sets replace practical locations and Bogart (influenced, no doubt, by the limitations of shooting on videotape) uses more deliberate camera movements, and more static compositions.  Bogart was a director who shunned any kind of showy stylistic flourishes, and this peek at his outtakes offers a valuable chance to study an “invisible” television director’s modus operandi in detail.

As for Perkins, there’s the wonderful moment where he tries to remain in character as a passerby – unaware of the camera stationed high atop a nearby building – recognizes and approaches him.  At least one of the other people in the department store is clearly a professional extra – the young brunette digging through the bin of dress shirts – but I can’t make up my mind about the woman in green seated on the park bench next to Perkins.  She could be a plant, but I think she’s just playing along with the scene, as any good New Yorker would.

5. Sondheim wasn’t first.  Actually I discovered this information after the “Evening Primrose” DVD was finished, but it’s worth recording here nonetheless.  It turns out that John Collier’s story came close to being adapted for television a decade before the Goldman-Sondheim version.  In 1956, David Susskind paid writer David Swift, the creator of Mister Peepers, five thousand dollars to adapt “Evening Primrose” as a live television spectacular.  Susskind got as far as changing the title to “Primrose Path” and drafting a list of casting ideas for the two leading roles.  Those lists of names include some possibilities that are exciting (Paul Newman, Natalie Wood) and some that are unlikely (Richard Boone, Richard Widmark, Jean Simmons).  I have a hunch that the names atop each list were Susskind’s favored choices, since they were less well-known than most of the others and more likely to fit the budgetary realities of a live TV production.  Who were they?  Barry Nelson as Charles and Lois Smith as Ella.  As to why did this version of “Primrose” never went beyond the planning stages…?  At least for now, that remains a mystery.

DVD News

August 26, 2010

A visit to the invaluable TVShowsonDVD website reveals some news about The Fugitive that is, shall we say, eyebrow-raising.  Since I first reported, two years ago, on CBS’s craven decision to mutilate The Fugitive’s underscoring, the entirety of the series’ second and third seasons have been released on DVD.  All of the subsequent releases have contained substantial music alterations, as well.  In the meantime, there has been much speculation on whether CBS would choose to release The Fugitive’s fourth and final season with the music intact.  That’s because, during year four, the producers of The Fugitive switched from the Capital Music library (which is thought to be the source of CBS’s legal risk-aversion) to a library of cues composed by Dominic Frontiere for The Outer Limits and Stoney Burke as their source of stock music.

The sole extra announced for the initial fourth-season DVD release is a featurette with a provocative title: “Season of Change: Composer Dominic Frontiere.”  Is that a signal that the music on this release will finally, again, be the original music?  Or a fuck-you to all of us who have been bitching and moaning about the failed second- and third-season DVDs?  If CBS is going to the trouble of explaining Frontiere’s uncredited involvement in The Fugitive, is it possible the featurette will also offer an explanation and/or an apology for what happened to the middle two seasons?  Either way, it’s an unpleasant irony that the only bonus feature to be produced for any DVD release of The Fugitive will be devoted to an individual whose name never appeared in the show’s credits.  Maybe that’ll help to make up for the fact that MGM’s DVD releases of The Outer Limits (a sixties classic to which Frontiere’s contributions really were essential) also offered no special features.  But: not really.

*

Just yesterday I was explaining to someone that his options for watching the 1959 private eye series Johnny Staccato were not pretty.  One, there were the sixteen-millimeter transfers that have been floating around for decades; they’re uncut, but every copy I’ve ever seen is generations removed from the original and looks awful.  Two, there are the versions that ran on the now-defunct Trio cable channel five or six years ago.  Those looked gorgeous, having been remastered by Universal from thirty-five millimeter elements, but each episode was cut by three or four minutes.

Well, happily, all of that has changed in the last twenty-four hours, because Timeless Media Group has announced that it will be releasing the entire Johnny Staccato series in October.

Most of the shows Timeless has licensed from Universal have been westerns.  Many of those are obscure; some of them are even good (The Virginian) or quite rare prior to their DVD release (Whispering Smith), but they don’t really represent the best of the Revue productions of the fifties and sixties.  Neither does Johnny Staccato, for that matter: it’s a rip-off of the other “jazz detective shows,” Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and it’s not different enough from either of them to be that exciting.  But its historical significance is undeniable.  Cassavetes, perhaps the greatest of American film directors, did his first Hollywood work behind the camera on the series, writing and directing several episodes.  Many actors who guest starred on Johnny Staccato were either veterans of Cassavetes’s first film Shadows (Tom Reese, Lelia Goldoni) or would play important roles in his later films (Gena Rowlands, John Marley, Val Avery, Paul Stewart, Jimmy Joyce, Mario Gallo).

TVShowsonDVD also has news that another of the companies that’s been dipping in the Universal well will be bringing us The Snoop Sisters, one of the NBC “mystery wheel” shows that tanked after half a season (meaning, four episodes).  Fine and dandy, but let me start the chorus now: where’s Tenafly?

Back in April, the Criterion Collection released a welcome DVD of Sidney Lumet’s fourth feature, The Fugitive Kind.  An adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s 1957 play Orpheus Descending, The Fugitive Kind is an underrated work, an atmospheric movie wrapped around a searing performance from Marlon Brando (who would never interpret Williams on film again).

But the major rediscovery in this release is an “extra,” a one-hour live television drama called “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams,” which aired as a segment of The Kraft Theatre on April 16, 1958, and has so far as I know been unavailable outside of museums and archives ever since.  Last year Criterion released a box set of eight key live television dramas, which comprised canonical works like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” and Rod Serling’s “Patterns.”  While it was delight to see these masterpieces in the limelight again, they had all been in circulation on cable and on videotape since the early eighties.  The arrival of “Three Plays” implies a commitment to plow a little deeper into the vaults and unearth some classic television that’s not only good but also rare.  I’m not sure that Criterion quite understood what they had in “Three Plays” (for one thing, they’ve managed to spell the name of one of its stars, Ben Gazzara, incorrectly on the DVD packaging)*, and most reviewers of the disc have either brushed past the television segment or failed to contextualize it accurately.  But all that matters is that it’s out there for all of us to discover on our own.

“Three Plays,” which appears in its entirety (except for the original commercial segments) in the Fugitive Kind release, comprises three one-act plays written by Tennessee Williams in the lean years before A Streetcar Named Desire established him as one of the essential American writers.  Apart from Williams, the connection between “Three Plays” and The Fugitive Kind is the director of both, Sidney Lumet, who had a nuanced understanding of Williams’s preoccupations and, crucially, his use of language.  All three of the plays are unapologetically verbose, and Lumet’s key contribution is to stage them so that nothing distracts from the almost unbroken exchanges of dialogue in each.

Between them, the three one-acts encapsulate many of Williams’s recognizable motifs in an undiluted form: the naked emotionalism, the fragile female psyches, the decaying grandeur of the Old South, the complex depiction of nostalgia, and what Lumet calls “the destruction of our sensitive souls.”  They’re an essential corollary for anyone who ranks the best cinematic adaptations of Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Night of the Iguana) among the most vital of American movies during the fifties and early sixties. 

“Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry” opens the hour, either because it was the earliest of the plays chronologically, or because it features the cast’s only marquee names: the graylisted Lee Grant and Gazzara, who had originated the role of Brick in the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Contemporary reviewers scolded Gazzara for overacting, and in “Moony” he does revel in full-on torn-shirt mode.  The layer of self-conscious cool that would be an element in his great performances (in the films for Cassavetes and Bogdanovich) is nowhere in sight here, even though Gazzara had it down as early as Anatomy of a Murder, only a year later.  “Moony” is bait for Method-haters, two sweaty people screeching at each other in a squalid room without pause, and if the exercise succeeds it’s because Lumet positions the excess of Moony’s and his wife’s outbursts as the prelude to a single, gentle gesture at the finale.

“The Last of the Solid Gold Watches” is the weakest of the trio, a kind of get-off-my-lawn harangue delivered by Broadway actor Thomas Chalmers with a somber dignity that drags against the youthful vitality of the surrounding performances.  Zina Bethune, only thirteen at the time, offers the best performance in “Three Plays,” as the grotesquely-dressed Willie Starr, who lives in the ruins of her family home and clings to the treasured memory of her deceased older sister Alva.  The technical limitations of live television catch up with “This Property Is Condemned,” in that Bethune speaks so fast and so breathily that some of Williams’s dialogue can’t be caught by the studio microphone.  Still, Lumet gets the point across, gradually peeling off the layers of Willie’s monologue to reveal her as an unreliable narrator and a forlorn and tragic figure. 

It’s useful to compare Lumet’s succinct vignette to the wreck of a movie directed by Sydney Pollack, which bears the title This Property Is Condemned but deviates from Williams’s material to personify the unseen Alva in the form of Natalie Wood.  The Willie Starr scene dramatized in “Three Plays” becomes an expository prologue, sandwiched in the middle of the opening credits.  Pollack’s staging of that scene, along a curve in a defunct railroad track, resembles Lumet’s, despite the contrast between the film’s sunny outdoor location and the TV production’s cramped interior set.  I suspect that Pollack had seen the Kraft Theatre, and he may have understood that even this bastardized remnant of Williams’s play was better than any subsequent scene in his film.  Mary Badham, Pollack’s Willie Starr, is more hardened and less vulnerable than Bethune, so we have a record of two different and, I think, equally valid approaches to the character.

*

“To live is to change, to change is to live,” says Tennessee Williams, in his live, on-camera introduction to “Three Plays.”  Understandably, Williams takes care to label these short works as early efforts, perhaps not up to the level of the famous plays and films for which viewers would know him.  He also seems nervous, stepping on the announcer’s intro with his first line and often looking upward at his cue cards.  How did the Kraft Theatre land both Williams and his trio of short plays for this broadcast?  The answer involves some television heavyweights, and much change of the sort to which Williams alludes.

Williams was a hot literary commodity in 1958, with a decade of important plays and movies to his credit and the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Elizabeth Taylor, due in theaters in the fall.  But Williams’s plays were dense, and too adult to be a natural fit for television.  Even in the “Three Plays,” which have little overt sexual content, it’s surprising that the suggestion of Willie’s casual promiscuity comes through so clearly.  The person who fought to bring “Three Plays” to television without a great deal of censorship or simplification seems to have been Robert Herridge, one of the great forgotten producers of the live era.

Herridge had passed briefly through prime time, with a summer stint on Studio One – summer was when the heavyweight TV producers fled sweltering Manhattan and let the “B” team take over for thirteen weeks.  But he was known mainly for non-commercial programming that ran in the Sunday “cultural ghetto,” minimalist dramas that echoed the style of avant-garde theater and documentaries showcasing the jazz and folk music for which Herridge had a passion.  (Camera Three, The Seven Lively Arts, and The Robert Herridge Theatre were some of the umbrella titles for Herridge’s programs.)  On Kraft he was subordinate to David Susskind, a talent agent who had become a big wheel in the industry as a “packager” of television properties.

With live drama, and its own Television Theatre hour (which dated back to 1947), in their death throes, Kraft took a chance on bringing in a big wheel like Susskind.  Someone, either Susskind or Kraft or Herridge, hatched the idea of adapting a series of important modern literary works on the KraftTheatre.  The idea was to attract more talent, more publicity, more viewers than the usual Kraft fare of original, written-for-television dramas.  These shows kicked of with “Three Plays” and also included “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Hemingway’s “Fifty Grand,” Fitzgerald’s “The Last of the Belles,” and a two-part, Don Mankiewicz-scripted version of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” that Herridge partisan Nat Hentoff deemed “a far more seizing transformation of the book than Robert Rossen’s screen version.”  Sidney Lumet, who had just been nominated for the Oscar for Twelve Angry Men and had his pick of television assignments, signed on to direct “Three Plays” and “All the King’s Men.”

Susskind, remembered today as a defender of quality television, was no philistine.  He launched East Side / West Side and brought a number of other difficult plays and novels to television on the DuPont Show of the Month and Play of the Week.  But Herridge was too far out for Susskind, who called him a “kook” and carped that Herridge “tried to substitute nonconformity of dress for talent.”  Herridge earned Susskind’s lasting enmity by shouldering the senior producer aside on the Kraft shows, literally barring Susskind from some of the rehearsals.  Susskind’s staffers Jacqueline Babbin and Audrey Gellen, who worked on the DuPont Show and Play of the Week adaptations (sometimes fronting for blacklisted writers), are credited on “Three Plays” as story editors.  But I would guess that whatever changes were made to Williams’s text were done by Herridge, or by Williams himself with Herridge’s input.

(Charles H. “Chiz” Schultz, late of Studio One, also appears in the credits of “Three Plays,” as an associate producer.  I have no idea whether he was attached to Susskind, Herridge, Kraft, or NBC at that point.)

What’s fascinating about Kraft’s experiment in literature is how short-lived it was.  Susskind and Herridge may have produced as few as a half-dozen segments for Kraft, which morphed into the Kraft Mystery Theatre for the summer and dropped from high- to low-brow with adaptations of pulpy short stories (including a couple of Ed McBain’s early 87th Precinct tales).  In October of 1958, The Kraft Theatre went off the air for good.

I’d love to see Criterion follow up this release with a package of the other Susskind-produced Krafts, which survive.  But to be honest, what I’d like even more is a collection of the lesser-known original dramas from the year or two preceding the Susskind shows.  These were teleplays written by some of the finest writers of the late-live television era: James Leo Herlihy, James Lee Barrett, John Gay, Paul Monash, Will Lorin, David Davidson, Robert Crean, Richard DeRoy, Robert Van Scoyk, Alfred Brenner.  Larry Cohen, only twenty and still in the army, contributed some of the Mystery scripts, and even Jack Klugman (yes, that Jack Klugman) wrote a couple.  I’ll bet an audit of those kinescopes would yield some fine, forgotten work.

Tennessee Williams, television host.

* Update, 6/24/2010: The original version of this piece also noted the misspelling of Gazzara’s name on the Criterion website, which was corrected shortly after publication.  Notes on sources: Sidney Lumet quote is from a video interview on the Fugitive Kind DVD; Nat Hentoff quote and some of the Robert Herridge background are from “A TV Exclusive! The Passion of Huckleberry Dracula,” collected in The Nat Hentoff Reader (Da Capo, 2001).

Sixty-Nine

April 19, 2010

Last month I bought a copy of the first season of The Bill Cosby Show for six dollars in a remaindered DVD store on Sixth Avenue.  That probably goes some way towards explaining why it’s taken Shout Factory, which distributes The Bill Cosby Show, four years to get around to releasing the second and final season, and only as a direct-mail exclusive.

If you’re confused about how anything Cosbyfied could lapse into obscurity or unprofitability, you should note that I’m talking about The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971), not The Cosby Show (1984-1992).  The latter is the mega-popular, audience-friendly family sitcom that kept NBC in business during the eighties.  The former is the black sheep of the Cosby canon, a forgotten but far superior series in which the comedian took chances, engaged with the realities of the immediate post-Civil Rights era, and apparently annoyed the network (also NBC) enough to trigger a premature cancellation.  The first name makes all the difference.  Original recipe Cos is the one you want.

Backed by triple Emmy wins for his work on I Spy, Cosby executive-produced The Bill Cosby Show himself, independently.  It doesn’t look or feel like any other situation comedy from the time.  There’s no laugh track, no ensemble of colorful sidekicks mugging for attention.  A lot of the action in The Bill Cosby Show takes place outdoors (and off the backlot).  Many of the directors (Harvey Hart, Ralph Senensky, Seymour Robbie) had more experience working with dramatic material than with comedy, and the writers took care to depict Cosby’s character as a rounded, multi-faceted individual, an organic part of a well-defined environment.  It would be an overstatement to call The Bill Cosby Show a “dramedy.”  But it takes place in the real world, not in sitcomland.

The other aspect of The Bill Cosby Show that distinguishes it from most television comedies is that it has no set formula.  It goes in all different directions.  Each episode is very different from the others in its plot, setting, and even the style of humor.  Cosby plays Chet Kincaid, who in press materials about the show is usually identified as a high school gym coach.  That’s accurate, but incomplete, because this is not a workplace comedy.  Chet is, first and foremost, a black man in Los Angeles.

In the first episode, “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet stumbles into a series of increasingly serious misadventures while out for a morning jog.  That activity is the only clue to his profession, which the series explores at its leisure.  Later episodes build out the character of Chet, gradually introducing members of a large family (siblings, sister-in-law, niece & nephews, parents), various girlfriends, colleagues from work.  Chet’s life at school dominates more episodes than any other subject, but many segments deal exclusively with his family relations, his sex life, or simply the scrapes that an average citizen gets into while going about his daily life.

My favorite episodes of The Bill Cosby Show fall into that last category, because they are the most unpredictable.   Unencumbered by all the usual sitcom fallbacks, Cosby and his head writer, Ed. Weinberger, could craft scenarios out of any whim that struck them.  “Rules Is Rules,” one of the funniest farces I’ve ever seen on television, pits Chet against an implacable public school bureaucracy in his quest to purchase a single valve that he needs to re-inflate his supply of basketballs.  “A Word From Our Sponsor” sees Chet accept a role as a cereal pitchman – because, he makes clear, he needs the money.  Rather than follow standard sitcom rules, the writer, Marvin Kaplan, offers a series of formless set pieces, climaxing with a howler of a TV commercial shoot in which the hapless Chet is soundly defeated by a precocious child actor and a misbehaving box of Corn Wispies.  The episode falters only because Cosby seems to have improvised at length, and his timing was altered when these sequences were trimmed to fit the half-hour frame.  It’s hard to imagine an episode of That Girl having that problem. 

A comparison to Seinfeld may be too easy, but the best of The Bill Cosby Shows are, indeed, about nothing.  This appealing minimalism reached its apex with Henry Fonda’s guest appearance in “The Elevator Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.”  Instead of giving the movie legend a meaty star turn, Stan Daniels’s teleplay casts him as a meek English teacher who gets trapped in an elevator with Chet.  The pair pass the time with word games and breath-holding contests.  Fonda does get to deliver a touching monologue near the end, but for most of the show he seems liberated by the chance to riff with Cosby in a series of long-take two-shots.


Bill Cosby, Ray Charles, Henry Fonda, and an elevator

Cosby seems to have insisted on that setup as much as possible.  In “Home Remedy” there’s an amazing four-and-a-half-minute improvisation between Cosby and Lee Weaver (a semi-regular, as Chet’s married brother), in which they reminisce about faking illnesses to score sick days when they were children.  Long takes suit Cosby because he really gets going when he has strong, adult performers off of whom he can play.  (Cosby is less entertaining when he’s playing with children, or doing solo schtick.  The comedian foregrounded those elements in his second eponymous series, which was likable but not nearly as funny as the first one.)

Even more than Fonda, small-part actors who were often stuck playing exaggerated comic types in other shows came alive in the company of Cosby.  Kathleen Freeman must have drawn on her own experience as an acting coach in “A Word From Her Sponsor,” in which she plays a drama teacher who puts a hopeless Chet through a series of detailed and authentic-sounding acting exercises.  In “Let X Equal a Lousy Weekend,” Chet subs as an algebra teacher and gets stuck on a tough word problem involving amounts of candy.  Enter Bill Zuckert to deliver a hilarious aria as a candy shop owner who decides that Chet is crazy when he requests a hike in prices so they’ll match his math problem exactly.

And Fran Ryan, never one of my favorite character players, is a revelation as the stern school administrator in “Rules Is Rules.”  She’s playing her usual battle axe type, but it occurred to someone that Ryan’s Mrs. Beal should respond to the charm that Cosby aims at her.  With a hint of a smile, Ryan betrays a secret pleasure as Chet outwits the inane red tape that Mrs. Beal is charged with enforcing.  A cliched situation turns complex, warm, and real through the byplay between the two performers.

My favorite of Cosby’s sparring partners is Joyce Bulifant, the perky blonde who later appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Murray’s wife.  Bulifant plays a hip guidance counselor, Marsha Paterson, who has a lively, sexy chemistry with Chet.  But she disappears after a few episodes.  That a romance between Chet and Mrs. Paterson (carefully identified as a married woman in the scripts) remained off-limits brings us around to the issue of race, which lies palpably under the surface of The Bill Cosby Show.


Joyce Bulifant as Mrs. Paterson

Supposedly Cosby and Robert Culp, his co-star in I Spy, agreed that the camaraderie between their characters on that series “was the statement.”  Their interracial friendship was more powerful because race was never mentioned.  Cosby took the same approach when he got his own series.  Racial discrimination and identity politics form an important structuring absence in The Bill Cosby Show.

In “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet gets picked up by the cops because he resembles a vague description of a burglar they’re looking for.  He is a victim of racial profiling.  But Cosby hedges his bets by casting African Americans as two of the police officers, and then by playing the actual criminal himself in the closing gag of the show.  Chet’s uncanny resemblance to the thief means that the cops can’t be faulted for overt bigotry.

Is that a cop-out?  I’m not sure.  Casting a squat, bald black man who looked nothing like Cosby would have made a powerful statement, but that’s not the kind of show Cosby wanted to do.  He’s more concerned with a minute study of how Chet deals with the problem: he gets exasperated, then alarmed, but he contains his emotions and plays it cool.  Most TV shows in the sixties either ignored racism or railed against it, and I’ll bet that Cosby’s down-to-earth attack on the subject held more meaning for viewers who actually faced systemic racism in their daily lives.

In “The Gumball Incident,” an innocent Chet gets arrested for breaking a merchant’s gumball machine.  Chet has the option of paying off the complainant, but he submits to the arrest because of his faith that the system will vindicate him.  Cosby does a funny routine where he has trouble holding his booking sign the right way as the police (who are, again, multiracial) take his mug shot.  The sequence conveys no explicit political message, but it’s freighted with a meaning that would not be there if, say, Ted Bessell posed for a booking photograph on That Girl.

(In case you hadn’t noticed: That Girl is this week’s banal-sitcom whipping-post.)

At the end of “The Gumball Incident” Chet reconciles with the surly storekeeper.  In the interim, he has received scrupulously fair treatment by the police and the courts.  The plot of the episode evokes the specter of the Watts riots – a black man is accused of vandalism by a white business owner – but Cosby chooses to paint the situation in the most optimistic terms imaginable.  It’s possible to take this as naïve, and I wonder how African American audiences reacted to it back in 1969.  The Bill Cosby Show’s approach to matters of race is non-confrontational in the extreme.  Whenever Cosby addresses the subject, he’s pointed but indirect.  A photo of Dr. King or a Ray Charles album on prominent display in Chet’s apartment contextualize him within African American politics and culture.  But no one ever mentions the color of anyone’s skin.

The most potent of these unreferenced images of blackness involve Chet’s sexuality.  To put it in modern terms, Chet is a player.  He’s an unapologetic bachelor who lays a good line on a different beautiful black woman in nearly every episode.  Chet has game, and a sex appeal that will surprise anyone who only knows Cosby as Cliff Huxtable.  Chet never gets serious about any of his lady friends, and then when he does – in “The Blind Date,” which features a lovely, relaxed Cicely Tyson as a potential soulmate who breaks his heart – it carries a great deal of meaning.  The Bill Cosby Show debuted just before the blaxploitation era of aggressive African American pimps and studs, at a moment when Sidney Poitier faced criticism for muting his own sexuality in films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in order to court a wider (or whiter) audience.  In his typically subtle way, Cosby crossed one of the last barriers for black leading men.

That’s why I’m curious about Joyce Bulifant’s departure, and why The Bill Cosby Show poured cold water on her character’s flirtation with Chet.  Did Cosby oppose interracial dating?  Did he worry about provoking a controversy that would overshadow his quietly progressive take on race relations?   Did Cosby sacrifice Bulifant’s contributions in order to preserve the opportunity to place a variety of attractive black women in front of the camera?  Or was NBC simply too squeamish to put an interracial relationship on the air in 1969?

*

Since I started this blog, I have acquired a reputation as a Scroogy McScrooge who doesn’t like to laugh.  Except maybe when I’m kicking puppies or insulting dead actors.  Yes, that’s right: a sitcom-hater.  My detractors will be delighted to learn that I must be getting soft in my incipient middle age, because I have started watching Love American Style and I think it’s very funny.  Sometimes.

In purely formal terms, Love American Style, which also debuted in the fall of 1969, was as novel as The Bill Cosby Show.  An hour-long anthology, Love assembled three or four unrelated comic stories each week.  Interspersing with these were a half-dozen or so blackout gags, all less than sixty seconds in duration and featuring a regular cast of bit players.  The looseness of the format made the show feel more like a variety show than a sitcom, even though the material was typically sitcomic, right down to the laugh track.  The success of NBC’s free-form Laugh-In the previous year probably inspired ABC to dilute Love‘s structure and content to appeal to a wider audience.

A popular, five-season hit in its day, Love American Style has since acquired a reputation as a uniquely cringeworthy relic.  The show is redolent with nehru jackets and paisley party shirts, but the reason it’s dated now is because it didn’t tell much truth.  If the show had anything real to say about love or sex or relationships, its disinterment for DVD in 2007 wouldn’t have inspired a long say wha? in the New York Times, of all places.  Love took the easy route – it reduced its subject to a card-file of cliches, hoary vaudeville routines, and adolescent male fantasies.

The premiere episode, which was probably shot and broadcast first because it broached a “controversial” topic, concludes with a sketch entitled “Love and the Pill.”  The segment unfurls a dialogue between the parents of a teenaged girl and her mod young boyfriend.  Revealingly, the character who’s absent while the other parties discuss her reproductive rights is the teenager who may or may not be using the pill.  The big joke – wait for it – is whether or not the parents (Robert Cummings and iconic TV mom Jane Wyatt) will opt to mash up a contraceptive and spike their daughter’s food with it.

Love American Style is always like that.  Its default perspective is vaguely establishment and relentlessly male.  It takes a traditionally “female” genre (romance) and twists it into leering sex farce.  The funniest episodes are those in which a dweeby or creepy young man comes up with some clever trick for wearing down the resistance of a beautiful woman.  (If that sounds familiar, it may be because Judd Apatow’s modern, acclaimed “adult” comedies and their imitators founder on the same shoals of arrested development.)  Segments that revolve around middle-aged or elderly couples, or African Americans, usually play like musty old vaudeville routines.  Likely that’s because the youngish, white, male executive producers, Jim Parker and Arnold Margolin, couldn’t be easily budged from a point of view that came naturally to them.

Were a viewer to marathon-watch Love American Style today, the casual sexism would grow toxic.  But I did say that I liked this show, didn’t I?  Yes, that’s the shame: within its limits, here and there, Love American Style delivers laughs.


Exploring his options: That Girl‘s Ted Bessell must choose between stewardesses Diane McBain and Anjanette Comer in “Love and the Roommate.”

One reason for that is the anthology structure.  If you got tired of dropping in on Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell year after year, you could click over to Love American Style, safe in the knowledge that this week’s quibbling couple would make their exeunt in twenty minutes or less.  This knowledge must have appealed to the writers even more than to the viewer, because they could end a script without having to return their characters to the same stasis they were in last week and would still be in next week.  Occasionally, a Love American Style segment takes advantage of that freedom and goes in for a bawdy laugh or out on a strange tangent.

“Love and the Living Doll,” in which Arte Johnson romances a blow-up doll in order to make a neighbor girl jealous, teeters intriguingly on the boundary between icky and cute.  “Love and the Watchdog” fetches some clever telephone humor out of a dognapping scenario (the owner wants to hear the dog bark before she’ll pay a ransom).  “Love and the Dating Computer” chronicles a botched blind date between two guys whose names are Francis and Marion, who find that the computer matched them perfectly in every other regard.  What sounds like an exercise in homophobia turns witty and endearing once it becomes clear that the writers, Michael Elias and Frank Shaw, aren’t going to coat the budding bromance with a layer of gay panic.  And the casting is inspired: Broderick Crawford has great fun playing against type as a sensitive, lonely bachelor.

Then there’s the segment in which newlywed Stefanie Powers tells husband Gary Lockwood that his mouth is too small, and he tries to prove her wrong by fellating a doorknob.  It’s called, yes, “Love and the Doorknob.”  I really don’t know what to say about this absurdist gem, except that suddenly I want to know more about the private lives of Doris and Frank Hursley, the soap opera royalty (they created General Hospital) who wrote it.

Only two things are worth mentioning about the tiny throwaway sketches that Love American Style used as a connective tissue between the main segments.  The first is that they made a star of sorts out of the rubber-faced Stuart Margolin (brother of Arnold Margolin, and later to play Angel on The Rockford Files), who was the only actor in the seven-member ensemble with any talent.  The second is that the “Love American Style Players,” as they were billed in the closing credits, were interracial (two black, five white).  That makes these otherwise innocuous vignettes as much a snapshot of network television’s take on race at the end of the sixties as The Bill Cosby Show.  It’s no surprise that Love American Style’s ideas on this subject are far more squirm-inducing and out of date than Cosby’s.  Partly that’s an accident of casting: Buzz Cooper, the African American romantic lead of the group, deployed an array of slack-jawed, sho’ nuff expressions that Willie Best would have envied.  (Cooper was replaced for the second season.)

But the more troubling aspect of the short sketches is that while the cast is interracial, the couples are always of the same race.  The vignettes pair off the seven performers in every possible heterosexual combination, except for mixed race couples.  After the first few episodes, Love American Style’s avoidance of that possibility becomes a pregnant case of passive racism.  I never understood why it was such a big deal when, in March of 1969, William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols enjoyed an interracial kiss in an episode of Star Trek.  Now I’m starting to get the picture.


Out of his league: Tracy Reed and Buzz Cooper of the “Love American Style Players.”

Correction (1/22/14): The original version of this piece misidentified the writer Frank Shaw (as Frank Davis).

Return of the Goldbergs

December 2, 2009

Usually I don’t post DVD news here, but this is too big a scoop to resist.

I’ve been informed by a reliable source that The Goldbergs, the Jewish family comedy first telecast from 1949-1956, will be coming to DVD in a big way in early 2010.

This Goldbergs release will be a “complete” series set, compiled by a well-known DVD producer and distributed by another label that specializes in classic television.  “Complete” appears in quotation marks because The Goldbergs was, of course, staged live during all but its final season, so many of the episodes no longer exist.  But the DVD set will gather all of the surviving kinescopes from the series’ various incarnations – it had runs on CBS, NBC, and DuMont, with a number of cast changes along the way – as well as all thirty-nine segments shot on film for the show’s last season.  I don’t know the exact tally, but it will be over sixty episodes.

The 1950 feature film version of The Goldbergs (a Paramount property) will not be included.  But the DVD set will contain some segments from the radio version of The Goldbergs, which ran on NBC and CBS for nearly twenty years, as well as the pilot for Berg’s next series, Mrs. G Goes to College.

I’ve only seen one episode of The Goldbergs and have no idea how well the show will hold up, as a comedy, today.  But its cultural significance is enormous.  The Goldbergs was the most popular of the “ethnic” situation comedies that thrived in the early fifties but died out as TV expanded outward from New York and Chicago into America’s less diverse regions.  Maybe even more importantly, The Goldbergs was the first TV series with a female “showrunner”; Gertrude Berg, the creator, star, and frequent writer, reportedly had total control over the show’s content.

Of course, I’ll have more to say about this exciting development once it becomes a reality.

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