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Ford, Hart, Bell and the Von Kleinsmid Center

Lately I’ve been revisiting The Paper Chase, the ensemble drama about law students and their demanding, terrifying mentor Professor Kingsfield, which debuted on DVD earlier this year.  The show had an unusual history.  Cancelled after a single season on CBS, it resurfaced nearly five years later (after some success in syndication) on Showtime, which produced close to forty new episodes.  It’s an early, outlying instance of the now nearly complete migration of worthwhile television programming from the major networks to niche cable channels.

I hadn’t seen The Paper Chase in over twenty years, and while its edges are a bit rougher than I remembered, I still consider it one of the best American TV dramas.  It’s an important enough series that I hope to revisit it more thoroughly in the near future.  In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I watched the first dozen episodes.

1. The title song, “The First Years,” is a soft-rock classic, a beatific, even goofy little ditty performed by Seals and Crofts but written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel.  Gimbel, who received an Emmy nomination for his lyrics, wrote a slew of big-time pop songs in the seventies: “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “I Got a Name,” the English lyrics to “The Girl From Ipanema,” “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, the Laverne and Shirley theme. 

But shouldn’t it be “The First Year,” singular?  Because the show places a great deal of importance on the fact that its main characters are all “1Ls,” newbies who are struggling to learn the ropes of the hugely challenging post-grad education they’re beginning.  Their status would change quite a bit from year to year.  (The Showtime version would track this matriculation with some precision).  And since law school only lasts for three years anyway, it’s kind of meaningless to distinguish the first two from just the final one.  I guess the first line (“The first years are hard years”) wouldn’t work in the singular, but the final stanza (“Then one day, we’ll all say / Hey look, we’ve come through / The first years”) could have dropped that final “s” and brought the song more in line with the content of the show. 

2. Last year I wrote, briefly, about my own personal connection to the series; about how I adored The Paper Chase as a young teenager because I thought it showed what college would be like (wrong), and how when I went to college, I discovered that my own campus (the University of Southern California) was the same one where The Paper Chase had been filmed.  This created a weird kind of disjuncture.  I wasn’t having much fun as an undergraduate, and I resented the geographical overlap with my earlier, idealized, pop-culture version of how higher education should be. 

When I wrote that, I remembered USC as the setting for Showtime’s Paper Chase episodes, but I wasn’t certain whether the same campus had been used in the first season.  I thought that perhaps the bigger CBS budget had permitted for some location exteriors at a real New England university.  (Coyly, The Paper Chase never says what school it’s depicting, although it’s based on Harvard grad John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s autobiographical novel, so you’re supposed to do the math.)  But, nope.  The first season of The Paper Chase was filmed at USC, and while the campus has been seen in a ton of movies and TV shows, I doubt that any project before or since made such extensive use of it.  Alumni will have a blast watching this show unless, like me, they are still kind of sick of the place. 

Although I spotted other locations as well, most of the filming seems to have been confined to the area in between three major buildings in the center of the campus: Bovard Auditorium (home to Professor Kingsfield’s lecture hall and office, although the real building does not house any regular classrooms), the imposing Doheny Library, and the more modern Von Kleinsmid Center.  Most of this area looks the same now as it did then, although it’s fascinating to see Trousdale Parkway, the street between Bovard and Doheny, before it was paved over and closed to vehicular traffic.  And the fountain in front of Doheny never seems to be turned on in the early episodes.  I wonder if Los Angeles was in the midst of one of its periodic, very un-New England droughts during the summer of 1978. 

If you stop and think about it, none of this looks at all like an Ivy League school, but of course, it’s television and hardly anyone ever stops to think about things like that.

3. The quality that makes The Paper Chase singular within television history, and disproportionately valuable today, is its celebration of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.  Not even other shows in the “inspiring teacher” genre, like Mr. Novak or Boston Public, have focused primarily on this idea.  The law students of The Paper Chase sacrifice fashion and even hygiene, not to mention social lives and sex, in order to give themselves over entirely to their coursework.  Though they register the stress and the monotony of their work, they don’t cheat or take shortcuts (or if they do, the show depicts them as having failed to live up to an important standard).  In a gesture that was probably idealistic even for the seventies, The Paper Chase rarely mentions careerism or money as reasons behind its protagonists’ interest in the law. 

Unlike many of my real-life teachers who tried to “make learning fun,” The Paper Chase succeeds in passing along its enthusiasm for knowledge to the viewer.  Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) roots his lectures in the Socratic method.  The scenes in his classroom, almost always the best in each episode, mine suspense from whether the characters will know the answers or not; whether they will express themselves eloquently; whether they will impress their teacher or disappoint him.  The classroom sequences have an echo in the students’ study group meetings, where they typically discuss not their own personal problems (even if those problems form the thrust of that week’s plot), but the technical and moral intricacies of the law.  Many scripts weave actual cases common to law school curricula into the storyline (Hawkins v. McGee in the pilot, the Speluncean explorers hypothetical in “The Seating Chart”).  The resolutions to these cases, even though they are conveyed entirely through talk rather than action, often prove as compelling as the actual stories.

The Paper Chase characterizes Bell (James Keane), the comic relief law student, as a fat, pizza-gobbling slob, but I doubt that contemporary viewers would make much of a distinction between Bell and Hart (James Stephens), the chief protagonist, who is pale, sunken-chested, bespectacled, and generally unkempt.  And yet Stephens manages to remove his shirt in most of the first half-dozen episodes.  I think The Paper Chase was positioning him quite deliberately as a sex symbol in the sensitive-New-Age-guy mold (think Alan Alda or Woody Allen).  What I like most about Stephens (and Hart) is his avidness, which contrasts strikingly with the kind of image-conscious nonchalance that nearly every modern TV hero projects.  “How do you do it?” he blurts out beseechingly after he meets the have-it-all-career-girl Law Review editor (Darleen Carr) in the episode “A Day in the Life…”  Hart doesn’t care whether anyone thinks he’s cool.

I bring this up because many of these notions, which were central to The Paper Chase, have no currency within our culture any more.  The Bush II era codified anti-intellectualism as a legitimate approach to national leadership, one which may have been ratified at the polls.  (Recall the “which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” factor in the 2004 election).  And it’s very difficult to find anyone on television now who doesn’t appear to have stepped out of a fashion magazine; even “nerds” (like Adam Brody of The O.C. or Zachary Levi of Chuck) have a six-pack and a stylish haircut. 

When I was a kid, I picked up the ideas (from shows like The Paper Chase, but also from the adults who surrounded me) that enlightenment meant developing the mind more than the body, and that obsessing over one’s personal appearance was vain and shallow.  I still live by those ideas, but they seem rather lonely within the public and private discourse I encounter these days.  I didn’t expect to be old-fashioned before I was thirty-five, but it seems to be working out that way.

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Last month, writing about Wagon Train, I advanced the theory that long-running series sometimes wound their way into strange tangents that only a combination of ratings invulnerability and creative fatigue could explain.  Now that all of Wagon Train’s seventh and penultimate season has been released on DVD, alongside a selection of episodes from all the others, there is ample opportunity to study that phenomenon in practice.

By its sixth season, Wagon Train had experienced the sudden death of one lead, Ward Bond, and the departure of the other, Robert Horton, to pursue other opportunities (mostly dinner theater, as it worked out).  The actors who replaced them were not stars.  Veteran supporting player John McIntire (then best known as the sheriff in Hitchcock’s recent hit Psycho) became the new wagonmaster, and blond ex-movie Tarzan Denny Miller took over as the train’s scout.  I guess NBC figured that the real attraction was the guest stars, although by 1962, Wagon Train wasn’t even spending much money on those.  Judging by the evidence on the screen, Wagon Train barely had enough money to get a completed film in the can.  Episodes routinely opened with stock footage montages, overlaid with meaningless narration by McIntire, in a blatant move to pad their length.  In one case, this drivel runs for a full six minutes before the show gets around to an actual storyline.  I’m convinced that something so shockingly lazy could get on the air only in a  “flyover show” – one so unhip and purely commercial that none of the network or studio executives in charge actually watched it.

In other words, after five years, Wagon Train was a case study of a show that had outlived every reason to endure other than ratings.  Occasionally this creative exhaustion led to fascinating oddities like “The Abel Weatherly Story,” a January 1963 episode with a Twilight Zone-like flavor in which a shipwreck survivor (J. D. Cannon, very good) may or may not be haunted by the ghost of an artist he killed some years before.  Robert Yale Libott’s script takes place, variously, in a New England whaling city, on a ship and then a deserted island, and finally in a small Kansas town – everywhere, in other words, except on the wagon train.  McIntire and Miller do not appear at all; Cannon must make do with the show’s bit players as his interlocutors.  I wonder how Wagon Train’s loyal audience reacted that week, confronted as they were with neither of the show’s stars, and nothing resembling its original premise.

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Yuck: Art Linkletter and friends in “The Sam Darland Story.”

I enjoyed “Abel Weatherly” for its sheer strangeness, but a more typical example of Wagon Train’s sixth year was the preceding week’s outing, “The Sam Darland Story.”  Sam Darland, played by Art Linkletter in a disastrous bit of stunt casting, is an evangelical layman who attempts to settle a ghost town, in hostile Indian territory, with no one other than a band of young orphaned boys.  The one spinster (played by Nancy Reagan!) who ventures that the children should be removed from Sam’s care and adopted by the families in the wagon train is treated an antagonist rather than a voice of sanity.  Religiosity abounds and, needless to say, a modern audience could not watch this show and view Sam as anything other than a deranged pederast.

In 1963, in an effort to imitate the successful The Virginian, Universal expanded Wagon Train from the sixty minutes it could barely fill to a whopping ninety, and began to film the show in color.  Robert Fuller, fresh off the studio’s cancelled Laramie, joined the show as a rotating star, effectively demoting Scott Miller back to sidekick.  The same production team, led by Howard Christie and comprised of a small pool of regular freelance writers (Norman Jolley, Steven Ritch, Gene L. Coon, Allen H. Miner) and directors (William Witney, Virgil W. Vogel, Miner), remained the same as during the previous season.  There was no reason to hope that the changes in length and hue might give Wagon Train a shot in the arm, but somehow – and to my considerable relief, because the DVDs contain all thirty-two of these things – it did.

To skip straight to the top, Wagon Train produced one undeniable masterwork during its supersized year.  This is “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story,” which features Michael Rennie as a master hunter (with a Sikh attendant, played by an unrecognizable Henry Silva) who tags along with the train in search of American game.  Clarke hunts for sport, and the cowhands’ mechanical methods of rounding up cattle and slaughtering them for sustenance sicken him; at the same time, the westerners are put off by Clarke’s exoticism and veddy British hauteur.  Brian Keith takes a small part as a world-weary cavalry scout, and his presence is a mystery until some of the parties end up trapped in a ruined fort, under siege by Indians.  As this group contemplates its limited options, Gene L. Coon’s script turns into a thoughtful study of courage in the face of death.  Clarke and the Americans, represented by Keith’s taciturn Sergeant Galt, come to accept their differences once they realize that they share a kind of Hawksian stoicism and masculine competence.  At first Coon aligns our sympathies against the unbearably arrogant Clarke, but then he gradually redeems the character; it is Clarke’s fancy hunting rifle, seemingly useless on the rough-and-tumble frontier, which fires the shot of salvation.

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John McIntire, Robert Fuller, and Michael Rennie in “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story.”

Coon, best known as one of the producers of Star Trek, was one of the finest writers of westerns during the fifties and sixties, and sort of a secret weapon for Wagon Train (even though he also claims credit for “Clyde,” the unsuccessful comedy that I mocked in my earlier post).  Coon also wrote the seventh season’s premiere, “The Molly Kincaid Story,” which stars Carolyn Jones as a white woman reclaimed from captivity among the Indians.  The story is familiar, but Coon treats the subject with a startling toughness, beginning with the gruesome facial scarring that Molly suffered during her ordeal.

After Coon, Wagon Train’s other noteworthy auteur was Allen H. Miner, one of the few freelance writer-directors to work as a hyphenate on a multitude of fifties and sixties shows without ever creating his own.  (Douglas Heyes and John Meredyth Lucas, both overlooked talents, were among the others.)  Miner’s segments tend to start off with a catchy premise and then lose their way, either through a gradual dissipation of narrative tension or a sharp left turn into conventionality.  In “The Sam Pulaski Story,” Miner stages some effective comedy by dropping a trio of Runyonseque Brooklyn toughs into the old west, but the fun stops as soon as an element of genuine menace is introduced.  “The Kitty Pryer Story” begins as a dark, perverse love triangle, then shifts into a more conventional tale of lovers (Diana Hyland and Bradford Dillman, both superb) on the run.  Miner also wrote and directed the season finale, “The Last Circle Up,” which nostalgizes the camaraderie of the wagon train and suggests (without really explaining why) that the settlers may fall upon each other now that they’ve arrived at their destination.  John Ford, in his westerns, often addressed these notions of community versus individualism, but Miner does not know what to do with them.

Some of the other ninety-minute segments work because of an inspired guest turn.  Ronald Reagan, in one of his final acting roles, is surprisingly good as an army officer torn between his professional responsibilities and his duty to his alcoholic wife in “The Fort Pierce Story.”  Peter Falk, marshalling a steely restraint absent from his Columbo-era persona, faces off against McIntire after leaving the wagonmaster for dead to save his brother’s life in “The Gus Morgan Story,” an episode that espouses an admirable commitment to reason over vengeance and anger.  Even some of the failures are bizarre enough to hold one’s interest for an hour and a half.  “The Widow O’Rourke Story,” for instance, casts Broadway star Carol Lawrence as an elderly Chinese woman who runs her western plantation with an iron fist; flashbacks, in which Robert Fuller assumes a second role as the red-headed sailor who purchased her from slavers, explain how she ended up so far from home.

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Carol Lawrence and Robert Fuller in “The Widow O’Rourke Story.”

None of the ninety minute episodes that I’ve seen so far proselytizes as blatantly as “The Sam Darland Story.”  But Jesus does make a cameo in enough of them to make me wonder if Christie had a message to send, and no qualms about using a wagon train instead of Western Union.  “The Michael Malone Story,” written by my friend Gerry Day (who is in fact a devout Catholic), chronicles a priest’s crisis of faith without ever contemplating that the priesthood might not be right for him.  (Personally, I was rooting for Michael Parks and Joyce Bulifant, one of television’s stranger romantic pairings, to blow off those vows and get it on.)  “The Whipping,” bearable only due to Martin Balsam’s sensitive performance as a self-hating drunk, builds its story around the assertion that atheism and alcoholism are morally equivalent.  (Faith and sobriety, we are told, are also interchangeable).  The story’s climax contains an unambiguous miracle which, somewhat atypically for television, does not bother to offer an alternate, earthly interpretation of the events.  At least the writer, Leonard Praskins, had the courage of his convictions.

That may sound like I’m anti-religion – and I am.  But I’m capable of enjoying programs that examine faith with respect and intelligence, and from more than one point of view.  Wagon Train does not take this approach; it simply turns preachy now and again.  Commentators who actually believe we have a “liberal media” ignore not only the underlying truth that our media companies are all controlled by wealthy conservatives, but that there have always been popular television shows which espouse a semi-overt, pro-religious agenda.  This is just as true today (this decade’s Joan of Arcadia was especially obnoxious) as it was in the era of Wagon Train.  And then there’s the “new” Battlestar: Galactica.  Watching the series’ finale this year, I was bemused to discover that the answer to many of that show’s long-running mysteries was, in essence: God(s) did it.

*

Continuing on with the third season of Ironside, one of my favorite undemanding popcorn shows of its era, I find it harder than ever to ignore the budgetary constraints that are so obvious on screen.  Universal was always cheap, even going back to Wagon Train; those ninety-minute shows cut back and forth between outdoor locations and unconvincing soundstage “exteriors” in the same scene, with complete indifference to the jarring lack of resemblance between the two.  But it wasn’t until 1969 or 1970 that the studio’s legendarily penny-pinching production department really clamped down, hobbling the efforts of even the most creative or defiant producers.  Except for some second unit shooting, I don’t think Ironside left the backlot once during the whole season.

The nadir is “Good Will Tour,” a romance in which Eve (Barbara Anderson) gives a visiting prince (Bradford Dillman, sporting a stillborn mittel-European accent) a lengthy rear-projection tour of San Francisco.  It’s a decent if slight script by another writer friend, the late Norman Katkov, but why on earth would the producers commission such a location-dependent story?  Ironside overlapped with The Streets of San Francisco for three years of its original run (on the same night of the week), and I can’t understand how the contrast with the actual Bay Area locations of Quinn Martin’s superior cop drama didn’t get Ironside laughed off the airwaves.

On the other hand, I can report that Ironside returned partly to form in the latter half of its third season, offering a few of the traditional cop stories that distinguished its first two years.  One such episode is “Programmed For Danger,” in which Ironside and undercover singleton Eve go up against a dating service operator cum serial molester (slick Roger Perry, well cast) who uses a punch-card computer to select his victims.  Along with the computer, True Boardman’s script places an odd emphasis on gadgets like Ironside’s telephone answering machine and the portable cassette player that Perry carries along on his attacks.  Did you have something you wanted to say about modern technology, Mr. Boardman?  The message was clearer in that Twilight Zone where Richard Haydn gets taken out by a homicidal electric razor.

*

Also during my staycation I pulled down a pair of memoirs that had been gathering dust on the bookshelf for a couple of years: Richard L. Bare’s Confessions of a Hollywood Director (Scarecrow, 2001) and John Rich’s Warm Up the Snake: A Hollywood Memoir (University of Michigan Press, 2006).  Bare and Rich (insert name joke here) were two of the very top television directors of the sixties.  Their books complement each other in a rather amusing way.

Richard Bare directed the pilots for Cheyenne and 77 Sunset Strip, thereby launching both the western and detective cycles that swelled the coffers of Warner Bros. and ABC in the late fifties; he later helmed nearly every episode of another certified classic, the subversive Green Acres.  John Rich directed the first three years of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the first five of All in the Family.  Before James Burrows, he was the undisputed king among sitcom directors.  At his peak, Rich could command huge fees just for consulting on finished pilots and pointing out what was wrong with them.  Rich’s brief association with Gilligan’s Island amounted to little more than that but, according to Warm Up the Snake, Sherwood Schwartz rewarded him with a ten per cent ownership of the series.

Rich has given a lot of interviews about Dick Van Dyke and All in the Family, but even if you’ve read or heard them already, his book offers a concise, revealing portrait of both series from a director’s point of view.  Rich’s stories about shows with which he is less often associated, like Gunsmoke and MacGyver, have even more value.  Unfortunately, Warm Up the Snake is padded with a lot of really stale jokes and anecdotes that have little to do with Rich’s own career, and those will be old news for most readers.  There’s a whole chapter devoted to explaining odd industry terms like “M.O.S.” and the “Abby Singer shot,” and when Rich finally explains his title, it’s not exactly a gutbuster.  (In fact, Walter Grauman, another veteran director, told me a much funnier story about defrosting a snake for a TV scene, which I will share one day.)  Rich and Bare even recount one of the same old Hollywood jokes, about the director who ordered a crowd of spear carriers to “Lunge!” and instead the whole company went to lunch.  But Rich says the director in question was Michael Curtiz, while Bare fingers Cecil B. DeMille!

Rich’s prose has an impersonal, smoothed-over feel to it, and he includes hardly anything about his childhood or non-professional life.  The closest he comes to a confessional tone is a good-natured admission that he sometimes wielded a bad temper on the set.  (He once broke his foot by kicking a chair during an All in the Family table read.)  I found Rich’s reticence particularly disappointing, because I would haved liked to know more about his older brother, David Lowell Rich, a director of television dramas who did some fine work on M Squad, Route 66, and Kraft Suspense Theater.  David Lowell Rich retired to my home town of Raleigh and, while I was in college, he drove me crazy by turning down repeated requests for an interview.  After I sent him (without being asked) some tapes of his rarer shows, Rich thanked me and finally agreed to a meeting – but then died before my next trip back to Raleigh.  I have heard, from several sources, that the Rich brothers did not get along, and that they were not on speaking terms for much of their adult lives.  So I guess I’m not surprised that David receives nary a mention in John’s autobiography.

In contrast to Rich’s approach, Confessions of a Hollywood Director focuses mainly on Richard Bare’s personal life.  He’s still in film school (at my alma mater, USC) on page 100, and when he gets to Green Acres around page 290, Bare has only a handful of anecdotes to tell.  That may make the book sound as dull as unbuttered toast and, indeed, I wish Bare had chosen to share more about his contributions to Maverick and The Twilight Zone and The Virginian.  But Bare’s memoir is so breezy and detailed, and his enthusiasm for old friends and childhood shenanigans so infectious, that I thoroughly enjoyed it.  A Modesto native, Bare (whose childhood friends included George Lucas’s father!) was a true Zelig of the California coast, who stumbled into amusing encounters with everyone from Walt Disney to Dwain Esper to Langston Hughes to Marilyn Monroe.

Richard Bare is still with us, and his name made the rounds on the internet recently because his last birthday, on August 12, was alleged by many sources to be his one hundredth.  Except that when I chatted briefly with Bare ten years ago, he insisted that he was actually born in 1913, and even named the reference book (Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia) in which he felt the inaccurate date had originated.  Bare expressed anger at the error, because he felt it had cost him work toward the end of his career.

At the time, I was convinced.  But Confessions of a Hollywood Director gives no birthdate for Bare, and his narrative remains a bit, well, slippery on the subject.  At one point Bare claims that he was nineteen in 1934, and a subsequent mention of his age also supports a 1914 or 1915 birth.  If Bare was willing to cheat his age forward a little in the book, could he have been fibbing to me as well?  In the book Bare states that Julio Gallo, the winemaker, sat next to him in an algebra class at Modesto High School.  Gallo was born in March 1910, so either he was an unusually slow math student, or . . . well, with all due respect to Mr. Bare, let’s just say that I’d welcome a peek at his driver’s license.

What Makes Sammy Run?

September 30, 2009

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The best vintage TV artifact I’ve seen lately is “What Makes Sammy Run,” a two-part adaptation of Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel.  Shot on videotape for the prestige anthology Sunday Showcase in 1959, this version of “Sammy” was considered partially lost for decades, until the recent discovery of the second half at the Library of Congress.  The complete show has now been released on DVD by Koch (which produced last year’s historic Studio One set), along with substantive extras detailing its production and rediscovery.

I’ve always thought that Schulberg’s novel has been somewhat overpraised.  Schulberg was only twenty-seven when he published What Makes Sammy Run?, and his blunt prose style is sometimes grating.  His characters never take on any life beyond whatever symbolic purpose Schulberg has for them, and the debt owed to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a heavy one.  Still, in Sammy Glick, Schulberg created a pop-culture archetype.  Was Sammy’s unapologetic avarice and boundless self-regard something new in 1941?  I can’t answer that, but the name of Sammy Glick has been an all-too-useful shorthand for a certain aspect of our common character ever since.

Sunday Showcase cast a relative unknown, Larry Blyden, as Sammy.  But the director, Delbert Mann, and the top-billed star, John Forsythe (two seasons into his run on the successful sitcom Bachelor Father), were big names.  Blyden and Forsythe are both terrific, and their performances emphasize what I think is the most complex element of Schulberg’s novel.  Forsythe’s character, Al Manheim, is a New York theater columnist-slash-playwright, and a flattering surrogate for the reader in his reactions to Sammy.  Manheim is sophisticated, talented, introspective, and in every way Sammy’s moral and intellectual superior.  But Glick surpasses or co-opts Al at every turn.  That’s why Manheim becomes obsessed with the question that the novel’s title poses.  Sammy, for his part, feels safe around Al because he poses no threat, and exempts him, to an extent, from his Machiavellian maneuvering.  When Sammy more than once calls Al his “best friend,” he’s sincere – Al is the closest thing to a friend that a Sammy Glick can have – but for Manheim the phrase carries a bitter irony, because Sammy represents everything he despises.  Centrally, Schulberg’s manifesto is that philistinism will always trump refinement.  The message and the messenger may be elitist, but in a culture that gives us Fox News and reality shows, how can one not rally around Manheim’s point of view?

The TV “Sammy” opens and closes with an on-the-nose framing sequence, structured to make it clear that despite his own eventual success Al remains forever obsessed with Sammy.  Apart from that, the teleplay, by Budd Schulberg and his brother Stuart, stays remarkably faithful to the source.  Even elements of the novel that would have had to be excised for a feature film adaptation somehow escaped NBC’s censors.  “Sammy” displays a sexual frankness far beyond anything I’ve seen in fifties television.  Laurette Harrington, Sammy’s trophy bride, retains the sexual perversity that proves critical at the climax.  There are a couple of shocking throwaway lines – one in which a starlet casually explains how she whored her way to the top, and another in which Sammy arranges a threesome – that add to the deliciously seamy atmosphere.  The Sunday Showcase casting – Blyden, Norman Fell, Milton Selzer, David Opatoshu – also leaves little doubt as to the Jewishness of Schulberg’s characters, a touchy subject among critics (Sammy Glick has been called an anti-semitic caricature) and one that a film version would certainly have played down.

The only area where the TV “Sammy” goes soft is in its depiction of unionization.  Schulberg’s book includes a thinly veiled chronicle of the formation of the Screen Writers Guild (now the Writers Guild of America), a bitter struggle that’s also the subject of Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s excellent non-fiction account The Hollywood Writers Wars.  In the novel, the Guild story vies with Sammy’s rise to power as the most significant storyline.  The Schulbergs’ teleplay drops the matter entirely apart from briefly identifying Kit Sargent (the all-purpose leading lady, a Dorothy Parker-ish writer and love object for both Al and Sammy played by Barbara Rush) as one of the Guild’s founders.

I’ve never seen anyone else advance this idea, but it seems obvious to me that Kit Sargent is in part a version of Virginia “Jigee” Ray, Schulberg’s wife during the period when he wrote What Makes Sammy Run?  Jigee, otherwise a forgotten figure, emerges as the heart and soul of Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s book.  A beautiful, confident, and sexually free-spirited young dancer and intellectual, Jigee led a Communist Party study group among the Hollywood movie crowd in the late thirties.  Before (and perhaps after) she settled down with Schulberg, Jigee was courted actively by Milton Sperling and Ring Lardner, Jr., and less successfully by other notable writers.  No less than seventeen of the men Schwartz interviewed for her book confessed to having been in love with Jigee, who appears as a character not only in Sammy but in Lardner’s The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, Arthur Laurents’s A Clearing in the Woods, and Irwin Shaw’s Two Weeks in Another Town.  She may also have been partly the basis for the Barbara Streisand character in The Way We Were, written by Laurents.

Understandably, Schwartz became fascinated with Jigee, whose tragic (and all too literal) flameout can be seen as a perverse metaphor for the demise of the Hollywood progressive movement during the McCarthy period.  After a marriage to another screenwriter, Peter Viertel, and an affair with Ernest Hemingway, Jigee became a desperate alcoholic and, like Schulberg, a fink for the House Un-American Activities Committee.  She burned to death in 1960, after setting her nightgown on fire with a cigarette while drunk.  It was only four months after Sunday Showcase broadcast its version of “Sammy,” and I wonder if Jigee tuned in.

In an interview for the DVD, Schulberg claims that he dropped the Guild story from his teleplay because it was less dramatic than Sammy’s scheming.  That may be true.  But I wonder if NBC, even as it turned a blind eye to the other adult elements of the show, balked at dramatizing the formation of a union that had been fingered (wrongly, of course) as a source of Soviet infiltration at a time when the blacklist was still in force.  In the same interview, Schulberg finally confirms a rumor about which he had often been coy: that the producer Jerry Wald was his primary model for Glick.  The other half of that legend, which Schulberg does not discuss, is that the relationship between Glick and his long-suffering ghostwriter Julian Blumberg derived from an incident of credit-stealing involving Wald and Julius Epstein (sometime before Epstein and his brother Philip wrote Casablanca and became top Hollywood writers).  I mention this as a way of pointing out that, in Schulberg’s book, Sammy is not just a force of all-consuming evil.  He represents a type of unfettered capitalism for which Schulberg offers organized labor as a solution.  Dropping the Guild angle removes “Sammy” from its political context and, I think, weakens its impact.

One other curious flaw in the TV “Sammy” may derive from its union-phobia; at least, I can’t conceive of any other explanation for it.  For television, the Schulbergs opted to update the novel to the then-present day – but only partially.  The fashions are pure fifties, Tennessee Williams gets name-checked as the hot ticket on Broadway, and Monique Van Vooren’s trampy starlet character Zizi Molnari (not in the book, as I recall) is a rather cheap and ungentlemanly burlesque of Zsa Zsa Gabor.  But the plot retains elements that only make sense in the thirties: Sammy’s journalistic success as a radio columnist (hardly a beat for an up-and-comer by the fifties, although making Sammy a TV reviewer would have made a lovely irony); the importing by the bushel of reporters and playwrights to write for the talkies; the Golden Age backdrop of movie studios led by all-powerful moguls, as yet unchecked by the threat of television; and of course the lowly status of pre-unionized writers.  The agent Sammy cold-calls to launch his Hollywood career is still Myron Selznick, who died in 1944, just before Williams’ first stage success.  So the TV “Sammy” plays out in a weird and factually impossible netherworld of both pre- and post-war Hollywood.

My favorite moment in Larry Blyden’s career-making performance – even in his game-show host phase, he played variations on Sammy for the rest of his life – occurs when Sammy eavesdrops on Al and Kit during a phone call he has set up to bring the estranged lovers back together.  “They’re puttin’ the knock on me,” he coos.  “I love it!”  Blyden understands Sammy’s absence of shame; he’s as uninhibited as the character.  The irony is that by today’s standards Schulberg’s “Sammy,” like Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, doesn’t go far enough.  Sammy experiences a downfall, of sorts, at the end, when his shiksa bride betrays him sexually.  But Sammy’s vulnerability at the hands of this cruel blonde goddess seems characteristeric of a mid-century type of assimilation fantasy that’s now passé.  A modern Sammy would be more likely to shrug off Laurette’s promiscuity, or else join in.  Nothing would phase him.

“Sammy Glick kind of won the debate,” Schulberg admits in the DVD interview, which was recorded ten months before his death in August.  Schulberg’s most potent line occurs in the epilogue to “Sammy,” and appropriately, it’s Sammy who says it: “Sure, Al,  . . . but what about the other question?  The real question?  What makes you, and you, and all the rest of you, run after me?”

Summer Media Roundup, Part 1

September 15, 2009

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“It’s a hippie wagon, and it’s real far out”: Ironside joins the post-Woodstock era (“Eye of the Hurricane,” 1969)

*

What did people do back in the years before someone invented the term staycation?  Personally, I passed the dog days of summer lounging around, reading, and watching old TV shows, just as I do now.  But I didn’t have such a handy term for it back then.

I had to send away to Australia for the third season of Ironside, after Shout Factory conceded that it has given up releasing the series on DVD in the United States due to disappointing sales.  I guess that means not enough consumers share my belief that the differently abled detective and his not-so-mod squad are, like, way hip, man.

For an already formulaic show, Ironside experienced a curious case of mission drift during its third year.  Gone were the standard outings in which Chief Ironside (Raymond Burr) bogarted a high-profile homicide case and then either solved the mystery or played cat-and-mouse with the killer.  Instead, the third season delivered a string of “very special episodes.”  Ironside finds himself in jeopardy, kidnapped as a hostage in a prison break (“Eye of the Hurricane”).  Or Ironside goes on a special mission, as when he’s appointed head of security for a political delegation in Red China (“Love My Enemy”). 

The biggest change was that in the majority of episodes, Ironside or a member of his team gets drawn into the week’s case through a personal connection to the victim.  If you were a San Franciscan and Chief Ironside owed you a favor, something bad was bound to happen to you, whether you were an old girlfriend (“Goodbye to Yesterday,” writer Sy Salkowitz’s sequel to his first season script “Barbara Who”), an aunt (“Alias Mr. Braithwaite”), a pupil (“Stolen on Demand”), a former schoolmate (“Ransom”), or an even older girlfriend (“Beyond a Shadow”).  Apart from casting aspersions on the objectivity of the San Francisco Police Department, this new storytelling mandate gradually undermined the plausibility of the stories.  And, let’s face it, a show about a man in a wheelchair who happens to be named Ironside needs to hold on to as much credibility as it can.

The same producers (Cy Chermak, Joel Rogosin, Douglas Benton, and Winston Miller) who oversaw the second season also managed the third.  So either they were starting to get bored, or else they caved in to network pressure to fix what wasn’t broken.  The surest sign of someone’s command for cosmetic change was the destruction of Ironside’s vehicle, a converted paddywagon (which was, I concede, ridiculous), in a fiery crash in the episode “Poole’s Paradise.”  For the rest of the season, Ironside upgraded to a snazzier cream-colored van decked out with a whole lot of slatted wooden window shutters.   I like to think this got him laid a little bit more often, and presumably the new wheels also garnered the show a few lines in that week’s TV Guide.  Did audiences ever really care about stuff like that, even when they only had three channels to choose from?

*

Years ago I watched most of the Wagon Train episodes that Columbia House released on VHS, and found the show rather bland.  Wagon Train was a traditionally written western with a medium-to-low budget, constructed mainly as a star vehicle for whatever A- and B-list guest stars MCA could seduce into headlining the episodes.  Most of the segments were titled after the name guest’s role (“The Willy Moran Story,” etc.), which should give you an idea of the extent to which Wagon Train was willing to sideline its putative stars (ex-John Ford court jester Ward Bond and pretty-boy Robert Horton).  Ideally, this backdoor-anthology format would have been an opportunity to emphasize character drama over the B-movie action that, say, Laramie or Tales of Wells Fargo favored.  In practice, though, the stories usually took too long to find their way toward obvious, uplifting resolutions, and the show leaned more on Native Americans as stock villains than any of the other “adult” TV westerns of the late fifties.

But Wagon Train was a long-running series, and Columbia House focused just on the first two or three of its eight seasons.  Shows which last that long sometimes evolve from one thing into another; CBS’s Rawhide, which was probably closest in content to Wagon Train than any other major TV western, also ran for eight seasons and went through some radical on- and off-screen changes during that time.  Last year Timeless Media, the indie outfit with the keys to Universal’s tape vault, released two giant boxes of Wagon Train episodes in a typically eccentric fashion.  The emphasis was on Wagon Train’s penultimate year, the only one shot in color and expanded to a weekly ninety minutes (in an effort to copy Universal’s 1962 hit The Virginian, which had begun to trounce Wagon Train in the ratings).  But Timeless also rounded up a random grab-bag of segments from all the other seasons to complement the thirty-two ninety-minute Wagon Trains.  Ordinarily this compilation would run afoul of my compulsive nature, but I took it as a way of setting out some trail markers to chart the direction the show took over the years.

I wish I could report that the results were something other than dire.  But here’s how most evenings went.  First I cued up an episode entitled “The Ah Chong Story.”  Then I realized that Arnold Stang played the title character, and figured I’d need a Vicodin to get through that.  So I skipped to the next episode, “Clyde,” which turned out to be a comedy about trail cook Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath, a tenth-rate Walter Brennan) and the pet buffalo he shields from hungry settlers and Indians.  The buffalo was so mangy that at first I mistook it for a pony draped with a woolly throw rug.  I can’t remember now whether or not Clyde got eaten in the end, because by then I was having one of those occasional crises in which I become paralyzed by the question: Why again did I decide to specialize in early American television?

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Voices From the Studio

January 27, 2009

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One of the great things about Koch’s Studio One DVD set, which I wrote about last month, is its wealth of bonus material.  Several interviews and documentaries, of different lengths and formats, offer an intimate portrait of how the eleven-season anthology series was produced. 

If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that, out of these featurettes, only one – a brief 1987 interview with the director Paul Nickell – offers any information specific to the production of the Studio One segments in the DVD set.  This set me to wondering: would it be possible to supplement the ample DVD extras with some new stories about the seventeen episodes that many new viewers will now be discovering? 

So as I watched these Studio Ones, I contacted some of the surviving individuals whose names I recognized in the credits, and asked them what they remembered.  Here are some of their answers.

*

Charles H. “Chiz” Schultz is a television and film producer of some renown; he produced The Judy Garland Show and one of the great American independent films, Ganja and Hess.  Schultz began his career in the mailroom at CBS, and after working as a production assistant on a couple of shows (including Mama), he was promoted to “assistant to the producer” on Studio One.  It was a job that included budgets, schedules, casting, or, as Schultz put it, “a little bit of everything.”

During the live telecasts, Schultz was stationed in the control booth and charged with timing the show using a stopwatch.  “My hands were always perspiring,” Schultz remembered.  “I would always have to be careful not to drop the watch, because the sweat just poured, out of nervousness.”  If the broadcast appeared to be running long or short, Schultz would relay this information to the director and a decision would be reached: trim a scene, revise the script on the spot, or instruct the actors to speed up or slow down their delivery.

If something went wrong on the stage, Schultz and the others in the booth would look on helplessly.  “An actor would just blow his lines,” he recalled.  “Some of them would just go up.  There was just this stillness in the control room, hoping that another actor would jump in.  Which they always did.  They were always terrific professionals.”

Schultz worked on Studio One in 1955 and 1956, during the tenure of Felix Jackson, the anthology’s most talented producer.  Schultz greatly admired Jackson, an early mentor, as well as Florence Britton, the story editor who was essential to Jackson’s success. 

“Both she and Felix had a terrific story sense,” Schultz recalled.  “Florence was a great character, right out of the twenties.  She was a blonde and had a dutchboy haircut.  She always, at her desk, wore this incredibly large, wide-brimmed hat, and had a cigarette holder.  I was just in awe.  As a kid from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I had never seen anything like her.”

Schultz praised Felix Jackson’s strength as a producer, particularly when he clashed with the blacklist.  Schultz recalled:

After I had been working at Studio One for a while, I was in the casting director, Jim Merrick’s, office, and he said, “I want to show you something.”  And he opened up the bottom right drawer of his desk and there was a telephone in there.  I said, “What the hell’s that?” 

He said, “Every time we get ready to cast Studio One, I have to pick up the phone, and I just push zero, or dial zero, and I hear a woman’s voice say, ‘Read the names.’  And I read her all of the names of the people that we’re about to cast, and after each name she either says yes or no.”  No one knew who was at the end of the phone.  And it was just a horror show.

There was a wonderful actress-dancer named Valerie Bettis, and we cast her in a show.  It was announced.  And we got this frantic call saying that we had to immediately get rid of her.  She was listed, she was obviously a communist.  All of this was crap.  It wasn’t true. 

Felix was so upset, and he wanted to clear her name.  So what he did was, he called the head of CBS and he said, “Oh, I’ve made a terrible mistake.  I cast a woman and I’ve just found out that she’s on the Red Channels list.  So I’ve just called a press conference and I’m going to let all the reporters know that Red Channels has blacklisted her.” 

The head of CBS said, “No, no, for Chrissake, don’t do anything like that.  Nobody knows there’s a Red Channels!  Go ahead, put her in, put her in, and we’ll take care of it.” 

So Valerie Bettis appeared on Studio One, and her name was cleared from that point on.  Felix tried to do that in every way he could.  He was passionate about justice.

Though Schultz’s duties never brought him in close proximity to Studio One‘s writers, he did get to know the show’s primary alternating directors well. 

“Frank Schaffner always dressed in a suit and vest, ramrod straight, almost like an army general.  Like Patton, in a way.  Very stern,” Schultz said. 

“But he had a crazy, wonderful sense of humor.  I had been there maybe three weeks when he came into my office, he didn’t say a word, he walked up to me, reached out, took my tie, pulled out scissors, and just cut it in half.  And walked out of the room.  That was Frank.  You never knew what to expect.”

Schaffner went on to become an Academy Award-winning movie director, not only of Patton, but also of The Best Man, Planet of the Apes, and Papillon.  Paul Nickell, by contrast, fell into obscurity following his Studio One decade.  Nickell had a minor career as an episodic television director (Ben Casey, Sam Benedict) before moving into academia.

“Paul Nickell was a very nice man,” Schultz told me.  “I never knew Paul too well.  I always had a feeling he was sort of out of the loop in a funny way.  A very quiet person, and I think he had his own personal problems.” 

Schultz pointed out the intriguing fact that Schaffner and Nickell divided the Studio One scripts in a way that matched their personalities.  Nickell “went for the love stories, softer stuff.  He was kind of a soft person himself.” 

Schaffner, on the other hand, “was wonderful with war stories.  Men’s stories,” said Schultz.  “He never wanted to do a love story, he never wanted to do a comedy.  He wanted to do serious dramas, and particularly with a male cast.”  Indeed, while Nickell and Schaffner split Reginald Rose’s many Studio One plays, all of the Rod Serling segments were directed by Schaffner.

*

It’s a bit harder to find actors who remember single performances they gave more than a half-century ago.  It might seem that a live broadcast would so jangle the nerves that the memory would be retained forever – but then, some actors appeared in scores or even hundreds of live shows.  And perhaps the most terrifying ordeals before the live cameras tended to blank out memories instead.

Helen Auerbach was the ingenue in “Dark Possession,” the bright young woman who initiates some amateur sleuthing into the identity of a blackmailer who seems to be tormenting her older sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald).  Auerbach didn’t remember anything about “Dark Possession” – not even after I told her about the new DVD collection, and she watched the show again. 

“That’s the kind of part I got,” Auerbach said of her “Dark Possession” character.  “I was thin and sort of wimpy, and I generally got what we called at the time ‘second sad’ parts.”  That was “second” as in second lead, or second-billed: never the juiciest role in the script.

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Helen Auerbach in “Dark Possession”

Auerbach, who gave up acting professionally after she moved to Europe with her family in 1961, did remember that she had appeared opposite her “Dark Possession” leading man, Leslie Nielsen, in another Studio One from two years earlier, “The Hospital.” 

Even more than Nielsen, Auerbach remembered the director of both those shows, Franklin Schaffner.  “He was absolutely the most stunning guy, and very, very nice.  He was gorgeous, with his beautiful leather jackets,” Auerbach said. 

Method-actor leather jackets, like Brando in The Wild One, I wondered?  “No,” Auerbach explained, “Very soft, like suede.  Pale-colored suede, like a shirt, almost.  He seemed to wear that a lot.  And as far as being a good director, I couldn’t possibly know whether he was or not, I was so young!”

Auerbach also described her technique for avoiding those nerves that plagued live television actors.  “The most curious thing about it that I keep remembering is putting a couple of chairs together backstage, and going to sleep,” she explained.  “Somehow it was the way I controlled being nervous: I used to take a nap very shortly before we went on air.”

“In subsequent acting things, the very idea of that is so astonishing, because the nerves just got worse and worse.”

*

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Chester Morris and Frances Sternhagen in “The Arena”

Frances Sternhagen became famous well past middle age, for her roles as Cliff Claven’s possessive mother on Cheers, and John Carter’s patrician grandmother on ER.  But she was only in her mid-twenties when she appeared on Studio One, as a no-nonsense, seen-it-all Washington secretary in Rod Serling’s “The Arena.”

For Sternhagen, “The Arena” was an instance a particular actor’s nightmare: missing a call.  “I was about two hours late for the shooting,” she told me.  “I was pregnant and I was sick, and my husband had thought that I needed to sleep and had turned off the alarm.”

The stagehands dressed Sternhagen “as quickly as they could” and she made it onto the air without missing a cue.  “But I was so mortified that I couldn’t even apologize to Frank Schaffner, and of course he didn’t speak to me,” Sternhagen recalled.  “I wrote him a letter after it was over and never heard anything.  But I thought, ‘Oh, that’s probably why I haven’t gotten another job from Frank Schaffner.'”

Sternhagen recalled her co-stars, Wendell Corey and Chester Morris, as old hands, swapping stories at the table where the actors read and rehearsed the script.  “They were very kind when I finally arrived,” she added.

*

When a live TV broadcast ran longer than it was timed in rehearsals, one thing that often got sacrificed was the closing credits.  (Conversely, if an end credit roll lasts for four minutes, it’s safe to guess that the show ran short.)  Rod Serling’s “The Strike” was such a show, but fortunately the DVD liner notes include a long list of supporting actors – some of them very familiar faces – to fill in for the missing screen credits.

One of those supporting players was Cy Chermak.  Then a young New York actor struggling to make a living, Chermak would soon turn to writing and then producing.  At Universal in the late sixties, he oversaw a succession of hit shows, including The Virginian, Ironside, and The Bold Ones.  Later Chermak was the show-runner of CHiPs for most of its lengthy run.

In “The Strike,” Chermak plays one of several radio operators in the stranded platoon commanded by James Daly’s Major Gaylord.  “It was a nice part,” Chermak recalled in an e-mail.  “I worked the radio with an actor named Fred Scollay.  I pretty much keep repeating the same lines over and over as I was trying to contact another unit.”  Tasked with contacting the unit’s out-of-range headquarters, Chermak’s radio man repeats a call sign that becomes a sort of nerve-wracking chorus as tension in the icy cave mounts.  One of Rod Serling’s biographers, Gordon F. Sander, singled out Chermak’s refrain – “Razor Red, this is Razor Blue CP, come in, Razor Red” – as the most effective detail in “The Strike,” a device that drew upon Serling’s use of “aural details” during his radio writing days.

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Cy Chermak (left), James Daly, and Fred J. Scollay in “The Strike”

Like Chiz Schultz, Chermak recalled the physical effects of the stress of performing live.  “The final camera shot [in "The Strike"] was a close-up of me as the camera moved in,” he recalled.  “As it did I got nervous and developed a tic in my face.” 

After the broadcast, the director, Franklin Schaffner, told Chermak that he loved this touch.  Schaffner had assumed that the young actor’s tic was a clever improvisation rather than an involuntary spasm.

“The Strike” wasn’t the first time that Studio One had cast Chermak (who had in fact served in the army, as a drill instructor, from 1951-1953) in the specialized role of a battlefield technician.  Six months earlier, also for Schaffner, he had appeared in the famous 1953 segment “Dry Run,” with Walter Matthau as a submarine commander, a show for which the entire studio was flooded.  “I played a bow planesman,” Chermak wrote.  “Simply repeated commands given me like, ‘Up ten degrees,’ and ‘Dive, dive, dive!'”

*

“If you’re talking about Studio One, my goodness, that was one of the benchmarks of the drama series of television,” said Kim Swados, who alternated as the series’ set designer from 1952 until about 1954.  Swados, assigned to director Paul Nickell’s unit, worked on every other show.  Willard Levitas, whom Swados praised as “a brilliant designer,” created the sets for Franklin Schaffner’s segments.

According to Swados, the two-week process of creating an entire set for a show began with a reading of the script, then consultations with Felix Jackson and Nickell.  Once the producer and director approved of his ideas, Swados said, “my responsibility was to draw them up and get an okay on the budget and from the director, and then supervise them in the shop and then the setup.”  The stage crew erected the sets on Saturday, and Swados remained on hand to make changes during Sunday’s technical and dress rehearsals.  During the broadcast, Swados often watched from the control booth, seated behind the director.  

“We never had any sets fall down, thank goodness, but sometimes a door would stick,” Swados said of the on-air gaffes that made live television an adventure.  A more common mishap, he recalled, would be a camera failure, which would require the director to change his original plan and cut to one of the two other cameras while the third cameraman worked frantically to repair his machine.

Among the shows he designed, Swados’ favorites included period pieces with a continental flavor starring Michele Morgan (1953’s “Silent the Song”) and Claude Dauphin (1954’s “Cardinal Mindszenty”).  For the Morgan segment, Swados created an all-white set and outfitted the actors in white gloves, so that they appeared as disembodied figures against his backdrop.

But Swados’ sharpest memories were of the Studio One superproduction, also cited by Paul Nickell (in the DVD interview) as a turning point for both the series and his own career: the September 1953 adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984.” 

“It’s the one I am very proud of,” Swados told me.  “It was done as a stark, documentary-like, very frightening attempt to explore the anxiety that Mr. Orwell had about fascism and about how terrible it was to [live in] that kind of evil society.”  Swados added that

One of the big problems that we had was with Big Brother.  I was asked to design a poster for him, which I did, and they had a marvelous idea, the director, Paul Nickell.  We made twenty or thirty copies of the poster that I had done in charcoal, with “Big Brother Is Watching You.”  They were used as cards or shields, very much like what Hitler did with the swastika.  It was quite frightening and unnatural when you saw ten or fifteen or twenty of these things in confrontation. 

I remember that the worst thing that a person was frightened of, which is taken of course from the text of the book, was a door that had 101 on it.  That was the door that you were sent through to confront the worst fear of your life.  We had a big discussion about what the door should look like.

Swados went on to become the art director on The Deer Hunter and The Amityville Horror, as well as the television series Dallas.  A production injury left him disabled and forced him to retire in the mid-eighties.

Now living in Kansas, Swados looks back on his live television days with unbridled fondness.  “It was a brand new discipline, where nobody really knew what was right to do and what wasn’t right to do,” he told me.  “That was indeed the age of what was referred to as golden days of television.”

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Kim Swados’ Big Brother sketches surround Eddie Albert in “1984”

*

Thanks to David Kalat, Stuart Galbraith IV, Frank Marth, and of course to the individuals interviewed for this piece.  For more stories from Chiz Schultz (and from Kim Swados’ counterpart, the late Willard Levitas, among others), take a look at the most essential of the interview segments on the Koch DVD, a ninety-minute recording of a Museum of Broadcasting panel discussion on Studio One.

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In 1958, ABC lobbed an eight-year nightmare of emasculation onto the airwaves, cloaking it under an innocuous title: The Donna Reed Show.  Less blatantly Freudian than the same year’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, this domestic situation comedy nevertheless postulated its housewife protagonist as a superwoman capable of rendering the male of the species all but obsolete.  The surname of Reed’s emblematic TV family was Stone – same as the stuff they build prisons out of.

The eponymous star kept her own first name as the all-purpose wife/mother.  Two kids (teenaged Mary and younger son Jeff) and work-at-home pediatrician dad Alex made up the rest of The Donna Reed Show‘s prototypically nuclear clan, huddled together in a cramped-looking suburban two-story. 

The standard rap on The Donna Reed Show is that it presents Reed as an impossibly idealized image of domesticity.  But in digging through the first ten or so episodes, I was struck by how far Donna’s superpowers extended beyond the regimen of mending clothes and packing lunches. 

The debut outing, “Weekend Trip,” has Donna scheming to clear the family schedule so they can enjoy a brief vacation together.  And I mean scheming: think Lady Macbeth.  Donna manipulates Alex’s colleagues and friends into covering his patients or dropping their demands on his time.  She even usurps his professional status, figuring out a psychological motive behind a boy’s illness that eludes Dr. Stone.  Alex still manages to wreck things at the last minute, by forgetting to deliver an important phone message – Carl Betz’s “oh, fuck” reaction shot is the biggest laugh in the episode – but Donna has this problem solved in seconds, and doesn’t even deign to issue the expected scolding.  From the outset the message is clear: Hubby might be the breadwinner, but his stethoscope is as limp as his … well, you know. 

With each new episode, Donna seems to annex another sector of masculine territory.  She teaches Jeff how to box (episode two, “Pardon My Gloves”).  She takes a group of boys on a camping trip (episode three, “The Hike”).  Finally the question of Donna’s incontrovertible superiority comes to the fore in the fourth segment, “Male Ego,” which really chucks poor Alex under the bus: Mary delivers an overblown speech extolling her mother’s virtues, and dad comes off as a whinging ingrate when he bristles at being undervalued.  By the time the infamous twin beds turn up in the spousal bedroom during in the final scene of “Male Ego,” you can’t help but muse that it’s Donna who decides if and when they get pushed together, and Alex who’s on the bottom during the activity that ensues.

The punchlines to these gags undercut a full-on feminist reading.  Hopeless at tent construction and other outdoor skills, Donna hires a caterer to provide the hunter’s stew.  But the overwhelming impression is of a family unit in which husband and even kids are superfluous appendages. 

It’s possible to assess much of the popular American entertainment of the fifties as a post-war retrenchment of traditional gender roles.  This is especially relevant in television, where the major works of the first generation of dramatists (Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, Stirling Silliphant) often retreated into all-male worlds, or unfolded as one-sided and rather hysterical monologues on female sexuality and independence.  (Silliphant’s early Route 66 segment “A Lance of Straw,” available on DVD, gives this type of anxiety a rigorous workout.)  In that context, The Donna Reed Show seems less about female empowerment (or its opposite) than male fear.

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*

I have, of course, offered a somewhat radical counter-reading here.  But I think the worthwhile comedy shows of the fifties sustain these kinds of sidelong interpretations, and even encourage them.  Programs like The Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best are thought of as reinforcing social norms – the Eisenhower ideal of the nuclear family, pounded into your head until you want to impale yourself on a white picket fence.  But humor derives from the defiance of expectations, so it follows that only the most banal (and now forgotten) early sitcoms could have failed to challenge, in some way, the institutions that they depicted. 

For instance.  I’ve always thought of Leave It to Beaver not as a wholesome family show but as an exercise in witty insult humor.  You have June’s cheery putdowns of Ward’s stuffiness; his slow-on-the-uptake double takes; Lumpy Rutherford and his father Fred, sharply etched caricatures of mediocrity; and of course Eddie Haskell, a human diarrhea of sarcasm that splatters all over every totem of ethics or decorum.  And watch Wally Cleaver closely.  Tony Dow’s “aw, shucks” delivery, and the long penumbra of Ken Osmond’s more verbal Eddie, conceal a steady, passive-aggressive stream of unanswered rebukes to every correction offered by his parents, and a devastatingly accurate assessment of “the little creep”‘s (Beaver’s) shortcomings.  It’s the prototype for a later, raunchier classic of spoofed suburban malaise, Married with Children, and I’m very much convinced that Beaver’s original audience was in on the joke.

Apart from a few clips, I’ve never seen The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but I’m fascinated by Tim Lucas’s considerations of the surrealism and technical innovation in that series – qualities which would seem to refute, or at least sidestep, the common perceptions of the Nelsons’ fourteen-season opus as a simple-minded exercise in domestic harmony.  Lucas’s work strikes me as a useful example of how to look at media that might seem dated or irrelevant today: through contemporary eyes, but with a close and open-minded examination of the texts. 

Fifties sitcoms seem particularly vulnerable to brutalization at the hands of ideologues.  Nostalgists respond to them with misty-eyed diatribes exalting the narrow-minded, conformist “family values” of the fifties.  In this limited view, The Donna Reed Show becomes a club to wield against today’s more permissive popular culture or even (by devaluing that which the Stones’ world excludes) against the sort of social progress that has made possible the election of a black president.  Where’s that African-American version of the Stone family?  Oh, right – they were busy getting block-busted out of the suburbs over on East Side/West Side.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve run into academics who see fifties sitcoms as objects of condescension or ridicule.  When I was in film school, the old cliche of June Cleaver wearing pearls while doing housework came up as an example of how out of touch shows like Leave It to Beaver were with the reality of their own era.  When I pointed out that June wore pearls because the cameraman sought to conceal Barbara Billingsley’s unattractive neck – and cited a source, Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 – no one was particularly interested.  But to me, such clues are critical in trying to gauge the gap between reality and representation.

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I’ve drifted pretty far away from The Donna Reed Show, which I had not sampled until its first season appeared on DVD (in an attractive, well-produced set from Arts Alliance).  Is the show any good?  It’s certainly competent: there are a few laughs in every episode, and more wit and intelligence than I expected. 

I wish I knew more about the production history of the series.  The producer was Tony Owen – Reed’s husband – and the associate producer, William Roberts, who is also credited with creating the characters, was apparently the same screenwriter who co-wrote The Magnificent Seven.  Roberts penned the funniest episode I’ve seen so far (“Change Partners and Dance”), but The Donna Reed Show doesn’t appear to be the work of a single distinctive voice.  Instead, it’s a professional, anonymous effort assembled by a large pool of busy freelance comedy writers.  The scripts are inconsistent, not only in quality but in sophistication.  “Pardon My Gloves” includes a Hitchcock joke and a subplot about a mangled local theatre production of A Doll’s House that’s only funny if you know a little bit about Ibsen.  But in the same episode, Jeff comes home with a black eye (and then another one), and each time his family seems concerned primarily with whether or not he succeeded in beating the other boy even more savagely.

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The direction, mostly by Oscar Rudolph, is routine, although the timing and energy of the cast is pretty lively.  Someone made the clever decision to write all of Jeff Stone’s lines at an adult level, and Paul Petersen’s delivery of these precocious throwaways is often hilarious (much more so than Danny Bonaduce’s obnoxious take on a similar character in The Partridge Family).  Petersen and Shelly Fabares have a fast-paced, natural chemistry, and – as in Leave It to Beaver – their banter is more insult-based than one might expect.  (Sample lines from the episode “Change Partners and Dance.”  Mary: “What a revolting little freak . . . He makes me sick.  I think if I had my way I’d drown all boys at birth.”  Jeff: “A formula guaranteed to get rid of ten pounds of ugly fat . . . Cut off your head!”)  

Even Carl Betz, a total stiff in his dramatic turn as Judd For the Defense (for which he won an Emmy), proves a nimble straight man.

Oddly, the weakest member of the ensemble is Donna Reed herself.  Reed is monotonous, even cloying, in her unflappability; her perma-smile has a robotic quality, like an android grandma from The Twilight Zone.  Much more than the material, it’s the star’s unwillingness to bestow any hint of human frailty upon Donna Stone that gives The Donna Reed Show its Stepford reputation.  Donna Stone is the antithesis of the warm (and, not insignificantly, ethnic) mama figure of Molly Goldberg. 

It’s easy to imagine a child burying his or her face in Mrs. Goldberg’s ample bosom for comfort, but in a similar scene on The Donna Reed Show, I’d be scrutinizing Reed’s face for subtext: will this embrace muss my hair or wrinkle my apron?  She’s the kind of parent whose perfection most kids would compare themselves against and come up lacking.  How could Jeff and Mary hope to reach their twenties without becoming seething, rebellious head cases?  Now that’s one made-for-TV reunion movie I would have liked to see.

After a somewhat longer summer hiatus than planned, I’m back with some notes on a few recent early television discoveries.  By now there aren’t too many TV shows from the fifties or sixties with which I’m totally unfamiliar, but until last year’s complete DVD release of the series, Man with a Camera (1958-60) fell into that category. This was one of the few half-hour action series of the late fifties of which (to my knowledge) no episodes had circulated among private libraries, and I suspect many TV enthusiasts were curious about it for two reasons.  First, it starred Charles Bronson, long before Bronson became the movies’ oldest action hero; and second, for us hard-core TV wonks, it was the show that the talented producer Buck Houghton was running immediately before he moved to MGM to oversee the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone.  Houghton was a line producer, not a writer, so one doesn’t expect to find any kind of thematic or stylistic connection, but this modest little low-budget effort was assembled with the same care that make the grander MGM-backlot fantasies of The Twilight Zone so visually compelling.

In Man with a Camera Bronson plays a freelance photographer named Mike Kovic.  He runs his own business, in consultation with his father (Ludwig Stossel) from the old country.  Kovic even suffers a few ethnic slurs along the lines of Banacek, and it’s possible to view this ethnically-identified but still mainstream-assimilated character as a transition point between early melting-pot shows like The Goldbergs and the totally deracinated TV landscape of the sixties.

Bronson always struck me as the unlikeliest of stars, and Man with a Camera is something of a case study in how his frozen visage and monotone voice can produce a kind of anti-charismatic charisma.  Whatever his deficiencies as an actor, Bronson had confidence, and he’s surprisingly loose when the opportunity presents himself.  In “The Bride,” for instance, Kovic briefly poses as a naïve, heavily-accented immigrant negotiating a mail-order marriage, and the fun that Bronson has with this goofy scene is contagious.

Based on the little I had read, I wasn’t sure exactly what form Man with a Camera would take.  Newspaper drama?  International adventure?  It turns out to be a de facto detective drama, one of those shows in which people with no business fighting crime nevertheless do so.  Johnny Staccato, a Greenwich Village nightclub owner/unlicensed private dick, was a contemporaneous figure, and they still crop up on TV now and then – Hack (2002-2004) starred David Morse as a Philadelphia cab driver who doubled as a vigilante for hire.  These series make one wonder: why not just make a show about actual private eyes (or cops), instead of burdening the writers with the chore of explaining every week how a photographer or a restaurateur got himself into this mess?

In the case of Man with a Camera, the first dozen or so episodes tell plausible, if cliched, stories consistent with actual photojournalism, at least if you grant that Kovic is the rush-off-to-battle-zone macho-adventurer type of photojournalist.  Kovic tries to snap a shot of an Appalachia-style gangsters’ summit (“The Big Squeeze”), gets accused of doctoring a pic of a bigwig politician (“Turntable”), and exposes crimes while covering a boxing match (“Second Avenue Assassin”) and the testing of a new military plane (“Another Barrier”).

Over time, the number of actual photographers credited as technical advisors dwindled from three to one, and later scripts barely attempted to justify why Kovic was investigating Mexican drug smuggling (“Missing”) or bodyguarding an arrogant movie star in Cannes (“Kangaroo Court”).  “But there’s a picture angle!” insists a client as he begs Kovic to investigate a blackmail ring preying on adopted children in “Girl in the Dark.”  Thanks for the reminder.

A little more often than most fifties crime dramas, Man with a Camera varied the standard mystery-plus-fisticuffs equation.   The most unusual episode, the lynch mob story “Six Faces of Satan,” is essentially The Twilight Zone‘s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” minus the science fiction angle.  The earnest script, by David P. Harmon, is as subtle as a brick against the back of the head, but director Boris Sagal stages it with a claustrophobic fervor that never allows the tension to subside.  It’s all tight angles, angry faces shoved into the lens, crowds converging and dispersing as the camera probes the tiny interior New York street set.

The milder pleasures of “Hot Ice Cream,” an amusement park murder story, chiefly stem from the oddball pairing of guest stars Yvonne Craig (delightful as a precocious teenaged camera buff) and Lawrence Tierney, the latter’s bald dome, if not his surly disposition, concealed by a jaunty ice cream vendor’s cap.  And speaking of guest stars, does anyone recognize this actor, who makes a very early, and uncredited, appearance in the episode “The Bride”:

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If Man with a Camera stands out as an above average example of the sort of undemanding escapism that was becoming the bread and butter of late-fifties network TV, then Tate (1960), the entire run of which has also been disgorged on DVD in a single chunk, is a more exciting kind of revelation: a serious, important, and unjustly forgotten western.

Tate was created and story-edited by Harry Julian Fink, a talented writer who probably received a deal for his own series on the strength of a number of thoughtful Have Gun Will Travel episodes.  Fink’s show is a western which confronts directly the one aspect of the generally very adult Have Gun that was gussied up a little for television: the hero’s profession.  Have Gun‘s Paladin sought and carried out assignments that made use of his skill with a firearm, but in practice the show was never as mercenary as its title.  The tone of the stories varied from grim to frothy, and Paladin (and the series’ writers) took pride in concocting intricate, non-violent forms of conflict resolution.  Tate, on the other hand, is simply and bluntly a hired killer, something about which he has no illusions and makes no apologies.  He doesn’t live in an ornate San Francisco hotel suite or savor expensive cigars.  Tate is dusty and beat-down and often wears a serape to conceal his handicap, a useless left arm that he keeps holstered in a mean-looking, elbow-length leather glove.

 

The first episode, “Home Town,” is a near-perfect examination of masculine stoicism and obligation.  In it Tate returns to the town of his birth to help his mentor, an aging marshal (Royal Dano), protect a prisoner from a lynch mob.  It’s a futile endeavor, of course, in the sense that the unrepentant murderer will likely hang anyway, and that’s the point.  Fink seems to challenge himself to convey Tate’s backstory as unsentimentally as possible.  Here’s an exchange that includes the only explanation we ever get for Tate’s dead arm:

MARSHAL: How long’s it been?

TATE: Ten years.

MARSHAL: The war and then some.  Where’d it happen?

TATE: Vicksburg.  I didn’t run fast enough, Morty.

MARSHAL: You’re home, son.  What do you think of it?

TATE: The same.  A little smaller, a little dirtier.  Just a memory, Morty, it doesn’t exist any more.

Tate’s wife is buried in the same town, and again Fink conveys this element of the character’s psychological makeup obliquely.  There’s a lovely scene between Tate and a waitress (Sandra Knight) who turns out to be his wife’s cousin.  They discuss the girl’s resemblance to Mary Tate, but Tate never tells her that Mary was his wife.  All the emotion remains unspoken.  The scene ends with an iris into the cousin’s face: a technique from the silent cinema so powerful that, by 1960, it was often used ironically.   But here it’s perfect, a way of releasing the pent-up sadness of the moment through form instead of dialogue.

“Stopover,” the second, and perhaps best, episode, is even more avant-garde.  Fink, who wrote the script, underlines a local law officer’s disgust when Tate rides into town with a corpse across his saddle.  While the sheriff executes some bureaucratic maneuvers to delay the payment of the bounty, Tate cools his heels in a saloon where he runs smack into a twitchy punk who wants to test his gun against him.  It’s a familiar setup, but Fink fills it with unexpected ideas: an emphasis on money (the bounty is $2,080, and Tate insists on the $80); the extreme lengths to which Tate goes to avoid a gun duel that won’t yield a profit; the lack of ambiguity concerning a saloon girl’s actual profession (she charges five dollars to bring the guests an “extra blanket”).  Smith, the young gunslinger, is not just an analogue to the modern juvenile delinquents of the fifties (a common notion in films like Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James and Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun).  He’s quite clearly a psychopath in a clinical sense.  Fink makes this point mainly through the young man’s speech, which is fanciful to the point of incomprehensibility.  At one point, he refers to man Tate has killed as “a magical person,” an anachronistic, New Age-y phrase that startles one into thinking of Smith more in terms of Manson worship than of western villainy.

Indeed, “Stopover” is about language, or the failure of communication.  Tate and the young gun talk past each other throughout their encounter: the gunman wants to know who he’s challenging, but Tate won’t tell him his name, while Tate keeps probing to find out the relationship between Smith and the dead man.  He can’t wrap his mind around the idea that there might not be any connection between them – that violence can occur without a rational motive.

Television westerns were, of course, plentiful in the extreme during the fifties and sixties, a fact that necessitated as much differentiation as possible.  A wide range of generic traditions and storytelling approaches characterize the major TV westerns: The Virginian told sweeping, epic tales which emphasized the vastness of the effort to settle the frontier; Wagon Train was a dramatic anthology in disguise, eschewing western naturalism in favor of character-driven stories; The Rifleman was a bildungsroman that reduced the west to a canvas for illustrating life lessons; and so on.

I think the most productive model for the TV western, the one best suited to the limitations of the small screen, was the sort of spare, unsentimental ultra-minimalism that characterizes Budd Boetticher’s and some of Anthony Mann’s film westerns.  The two key series in this mode were Sam Peckinpah’s quirky The Westerner and Rod Serling’s blatantly existential The LonerTate belongs within this tradition, although it’s not quite at the same level as those two masterworks.

One problem is David McLean, who plays Tate (“Just Tate,” incidentally, the missing first name a midpoint marker on the way to Eastwood’s Man with No Name).  McLean has the right world-weary look and gruff voice for the role – he was later famous as a cowboy-styled cigarette pitchman.   But his performance lacks depth; as the series progresses it becomes evident that McLean is cycling through the same four or five line readings, and the guest stars nudge him off the screen.  (It doesn’t help McLean that Tate‘s uncredited but canny casting director paired him with an unusual number of future stars: Louise Fletcher, Martin Landau, Robert Culp, James Coburn, Warren Oates, and, in small but showy roles in two episodes, Robert Redford.)

But the primary failure of Tate was a lack of sustainability.  Unlike Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone or Stirling Silliphant on Route 66, Harry Julian Fink fumbled the critical step of finding gifted, complementary voices to fill in the gaps between his own contributions.  The six Tates written by Fink, all but one of them gems, and the seven episodes penned by lesser writers might as well be from two wholly different series.  By the last episode, Gerry Day’s “The Return of Jessica Jackson,” there’s a lamentable scene in which Tate pulls out a Bible and proselytizes to the distraught heroine.  This Tate is a far more conventional TV hero than the Tate of the pilot, a terse pragmatist of uncertain morality, adrift on a sea of grief and regret.

Not that it mattered much: Tate ran as a replacement series in the summer of 1960, meaning that NBC had likely abandoned any plans for renewing it even before the series debuted.  Just like The Westerner and The Loner, both of which were short-lived, Tate was too cerebral and too downbeat for the mainstream.

(A brief note for the Corrections Department: One frustrating bit of misinformation which has proliferated across the internet, even on the official page for the Tate DVD, is that the series was videotaped.  In fact, the quickest glimpse at any Tate episode reveals that it was shot on film, not with the clunky video cameras of the era, which were limited in both resolution and range of motion.   I’m not sure how that idea got started, except perhaps that the show carries an onscreen copyright in the name of Roncom Video Films – Perry Como’s production company.  But the term “video,” at that time, was an industry synonym for television.)

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At the other end of the scale is Laredo (1965-1967), which lives down to its reputation as one of the least distinguished of nineteen-sixties westerns.  In fact, it’s one of the worst TV shows, period, and perhaps a minor benchmark in the dumbing down of the medium.

Laredo concerns the adventures of three rowdy Texas rangers, played by Neville Brand, Peter Brown, and William Smith.  (Philip Carey, cashing a paycheck, delivers a scene’s worth of exposition in each episode and then disappears, just as Rick Jason had taken to doing in the later years of Combat.)  It’s distinguished from the glut of other westerns of its time mainly by its strident efforts to maintain a would-be comedic tone.  Mainly, this means that, in the midst of carrying out the usual lawman’s duties of leading posses and fighting Indians, the heroes incessantly needle and play elaborate pranks upon one another.  It’s the first, but by no means the last, TV show I can think of in which adults behave like hyperactive pre-teens for no discernible reason – except, perhaps, kinship with a target demographic.

What’s startling about Laredo is how cruel and violent its prank subplots are.  In the first episode, for example, Reese Bennett (Brand) retaliates against the other two rangers for their earlier mockery by leaving them bound in an Indian camp, where they’re later tortured.  In that instance, Reese gets the upper hand, but in most episodes Cooper (Brown) and Riley (Smith) outfox him.  Brand’s performance makes this dynamic extremely uncomfortable.  I can imagine that Brand was trying to create a Paul Bunyanesque caricature – a Texan who was so dumb that he, et cetera, et cetera.  But Reese is so helplessly stupid, and his chums are so smug and superior, that the experience is akin to watching schoolyard bullies taunt a retarded child.  Laredo unavoidably implicates the viewer in its peculiar brand of cruelty – never is civility imposed on any of the characters – and I, for one, didn’t feel like playing.  Perhaps I’ve just lost my capacity, over the last, oh, eight or so years, to be amused by imbecilic Texan authority figures whose chief character traits are a cartoonish understanding of violence and an utter absence of basic human empathy.

Laredo, which carries no creator credit, was produced by veteran Universal staffers, all journeymen, including Wagon Train‘s Howard Christie and the director Richard Irving.  So it’s no surprise that the results were undistinguished, but it’s worth noting that the odious premise of Laredo reliably defeated the efforts of some talented writers (John D. F. Black, Gene L. Coon), directors (Harvey Hart, Paul Stanley), and guest stars (Burgess Meredith, Jack Lord, Julie Harris).  In the first dozen or so episodes, only a single performance struck me as original and worthwhile: Shelley Morrison’s recurring role (in a pair of Black-scripted segments) as Linda Little Trees, a slightly-smarter-than-her-tribe female Indian chief who has the catchphrase, “Oooookay.”  It doesn’t sound like much, but Morrison’s befuddled delivery is priceless.

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If Laredo weren’t so awful, it would be a shame that Timeless’s two DVD collections (which contain the entire first season) cram five hour-long episodes onto each disc, coating Universal’s serviceable if slightly drab video masters in a thick blanket of artifacts and edge enhancement.  Tate, also from Timeless, looks a little better.  But  it was Infinity’s Man with a Camera package that really impressed me.  The episodes are transferred from 16mm, but the prints – from the collection of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, also the source of Mister Peepers and hopefully more classic TV gems to come – are in excellent condition, and they have been rendered onto DVD with about as much detail as one could hope from that format.

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