December 10, 2012
One of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes figures in television history is James T. Aubrey, better known behind his back as ”The Smiling Cobra.” At different times in his career Aubrey was perhaps the most hated man in New York (during his tenure as president of CBS in the early sixties) and the most hated man in Los Angeles (during his tenure as president of MGM in the early seventies).
I’ve touched upon Aubrey’s, er, contributions to television and film history in my production history of East Side / West Side and, tangentially, in this piece about the producer Herbert B. Leonard. While I was researching the latter, I noticed that Aubrey is the beneficiary of a “featured article” on Wikipedia, which I guess means it’s less poorly written and inaccurate than your average Wikipedia article. It’s actually a pretty interesting read, even though it leaves the most useful tidbit that I didn’t already know – the attribution of the “Smiling Cobra” moniker to John Houseman, who produced The Great Adventure at CBS during Aubrey’s reign - unsourced and therefore still in doubt.
Echoing the legendary stories of Aubrey’s enormous ego, personal coldness, professional ruthlessness, and mafia ties have always been rumors of epic sexual perversity – unusually public accounts, some of which leapt from the Hollywood gossip circuit into the mainstream press. Wikipedia leaves most of those out, apart from one entry sourced from Harlan Ellison’s collection of television columns for the L.A. Free Press.
So here’s a juicy one, from William Froug’s book How I Escaped From Gilligan’s Island and Other Misadventures of a Hollywood Writer-Producer (another blind item from which sparked my investigation of the Laurence Heath story). Here, Froug is paraphrasing an account told to him by an actress he dated once:
That Jim Aubrey is some kind of head case….
He took me down to Acapulco for a weekend with him and his friend, Greg Martindale, the lawyer. [Froug does not identify "Martindale" as a pseudonym, but this is probably Greg Bautzer, another infamous Hollywood horndog, who was married to Dana Wynter during the same period that Aubrey was married to Phyllis Thaxter.] Greg had his own girl. I thought I knew what I was in for, some drinks, some sex, some laughs, what the hell. But honestly, there’s no was I could have expected what I got from James T. Aubrey. We’re in the hotel room and we’re both buck naked. As we jump in bed, suddenly Aubrey grabs me by the arm. “You’re going to have to lick my ass,” he says so quietly that I felt a chill go over my entire body. I was speechless.
“You hear me, don’t you?” His voice was ice cold and just above a whisper. “You’re going to have to lick my ass. Don’t worry, it’s nice and clean. And get your tongue up in there.”
“I won’t. No way, no how,” I answered. I thought, is this really happening?
“It’s the only way I can get off,” he insisted. “If you don’t, I’ll break your arm.” His voice was nasty, threatening. I was getting very frightened.
His grip on my arm tightened and he began to twist it, slowly but firmly. It was very painful. . . . He was letting me know he had the strength to do it. . . .
I knew there was no point screaming. We were in a suite with Greg and his girl. They must have known what was going on; he and Aubrey were buddies.
“Get busy, lady,” Aubrey says. “I haven’t got all day.”
I swung around and stuck my finger in his eye. He jerked back. His grip loosened for a moment and I broke loose, grabbed a big beach towel, and ran out of the room.
I stayed at the poolside bar, wrapped in that towel, until Greg came down much later and told me to get dressed. We flew home that evening; the weekend was over.
Froug does not name his source but suppies the following description of her: “a beautiful young actress who had played second lead in a CBS hit sitcom of the sixties.”
So, TV experts, who is the mystery woman? The sitcom in question had to have been on CBS during Aubrey’s years as president, 1959 through 1965. The most obvious candidate would be Julie Newmar, who was one of Aubrey’s girlfriends during the mid-sixties; it’s been alleged that the series My Living Doll was put together by Aubrey as a gift to her. Even though everyone’s eyes were on her, Newmar was billed after the show’s putative star, Robert Cummings, so the “second lead” part could apply. But My Living Doll wasn’t a hit, and Newmar’s relationship with Aubrey probably laster longer than this unfortunate young lady’s did.
Froug did alter some details in his memoir to disguise identities (in the Heath case, for instance, he upped the body count), but let’s hypothesize that the teller of this tale is not Catwoman, and that the sitcom second lead part is accurate. Any guesses?
October 23, 2012
The New Yorker has a story this week about the Right’s efforts to systematically disenfranchise likely Democratic voters through “voter fraud” legislation, even though the type of fraud being targeted is virtually non-existent.
One African American woman, Teresa Sharp, went to Ohio’s Hamilton County Board of Elections to contest a specious challenge to her family’s eligibility to vote:
Sharp told me, “It was like a kangaroo court. There were, like, ninety-four people being challenged, and my family and I were the only ones contesting it! I looked around. The board members and the stenographer, they were all white people. The lady bringing these challenges, she was white, and reminded me of Gladys Kravitz”— the nosy neighbor on the sitcom Bewitched.
Jane Mayer is a very good reporter – she’s the one who outed 24 showrunner Joel Surnow as a torturephilic wingnut – but I feel like she missed a crucial follow-up question in this story.
The question, of course, being: which Gladys Kravitz? Alice Pearce, or Sandra Gould?
June 12, 2012
By the time I managed to locate Bert Leonard, all that was left of him fit into a small unit in a self-storage facility in Los Angeles that was hemmed in by concertina wire and a row of spindly palm trees.
– Susan Orlean
All that was left of him was not a storage unit. That wasn’t all that was left of his life. He had all of his children around him, and he got to understand that he was leaving us behind. He didn’t die alone.
– Gina Leonard
1. I Wouldn’t Start From Here
It started with a question: who owns Route 66 and Naked City? I thought finding the answer would be simple. It wasn’t.
The question comes up because, last month, Shout Factory released all four seasons of Route 66, the Herbert B. Leonard-produced, Stirling Silliphant-created, filmed-all-over-the-United States, one hundred and sixteen-hour road movie that stands as one of the unique events in American television history. That made Route 66 the first of Leonard’s television series to be completed on home video.
That’s complete with an asterisk, though, because one episode in the set (“A Fury Slinging Flame,” a significant anti-nuke treatise) is definitely missing about five minutes of footage, another episode (“Blue Murder”) is probably missing a few minutes, and all of the first fifteen episodes are derived from some badly mauled sixteen-millimeter prints that should never have passed a professional QC. The reasons for these mastering failures remain murky (“murky” is a concept that we’ll be returning to often in this piece). Route 66’s DVD history was a bumpy road, a trial-and-error process that fixed some mistakes and let others stand (I covered this in its early stages here), an unfinished mess that Shout Factory inherited from other companies (Roxbury Entertainment, producer, and Infinity Entertainment, distributor) without much of a track record in the TV-on-DVD business.
Personally, I’m in the half-full camp on this: seven-eighths of the episodes are in better than adequate shape, and I can finally throw out my VHS tapes of the last season. (Plus, they sent me a freebie.) But Brian Ward, the producer of the new Route 66 set, implied months ago in a forum post that the new box set of Route 66 would fix the video problems that afflicted the earlier releases. Ward has an internet history of “truthiness,” of drumming up fans’ enthusiasm when Shout is getting something right and then bailing any time the chips are down, and when you reread what he wrote, it doesn’t make any concrete promises. So technically Ward is off the hook. But many of the small but vocal crowd who actually read these things felt duped, and launched a “cancel your pre-orders” campaign; as of this writing, about two-thirds of the Amazon reviews of the set focus exclusively on the image quality issues, or on the obnoxious fact that Shout has not disclosed whether it will release Season 4 (the only one new to DVD) separately.
I always suspect that these don’t-buy-it-movements are like the southern boycott of Bonanza (because of its stars’ pro-civil rights stance) in the sixties: complain in public but watch it with the shades pulled down. It’s not as if fans have a better way of seeing the botched first season episodes – except, actually, they do. Route 66 ran on Nick at Nite in the late eighties, from new video masters that were (for their time) gorgeous; copies of those circulate among fans, and they look vastly better than the copies of the first fifteen used in this DVD box.
Why couldn’t, or wouldn’t, Shout Factory (or its predecessors) access those tapes? That’s what I wanted to find out. I also wanted to know why the DVD releases of Route 66’s sister show, Naked City, sputtered out in 2006, with 78 of the 138 episodes still unreleased.
A lot of people (including, long ago, myself) have assumed that Sony owns both shows. There’s a logic to that inference – Sony is the corporate successor to Screen Gems, which originally partnered with Herbert Leonard’s production company to produce the shows and then distributed them in syndication; and Sony’s logo appears on the back of the Naked City DVDs – but it’s wrong. The real story is much more complicated.
2. Torment Him Much and Hold Him Long
Herbert B. Leonard got seven shows on the air between 1954 and 1960. The first, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, was a big hit, and it gave the brash Leonard enough leeway to produce whatever he wanted, even though the executives at Screen Gems – who were theoretically his bosses – hated him from the outset. Rin Tin Tin made Leonard a rich man, a comer not only in the television industry but also someone who could be taken seriously as a movie producer, too.
But Leonard spent his last decade without a home of his own, dependent upon the financial support of family and friends. He got throat cancer, lost his larynx and his voice in 2003, and died in 2006. It was a long, sad story that started when Naked City and Route 66 were canceled in 1963 and 1964. Leonard had no shows on the air, no guaranteed income, and all the executives he’d defied and taunted in interviews had their knives out for him. He pitched many pilots, some of them arty endeavors as Route 66 and Naked City had been, others kitsch like 1967’s The Perils of Pauline. None became series. He had a modest hit with Popi, a film he produced in 1969 for United Artists; he made a few bucks on a sepia-tinted, recut version of Rin Tin Tin (Rin Tint Tint?) that he syndicated in the seventies; he got a couple of short-lived sitcoms on the air in the eighties. But most of the second half of Leonard’s life was wasted creatively, a waste that is quite measurable for anyone who has had the rare opportunity to see the single film that Leonard directed.
Going Home (1971), a forgotten almost-masterpiece, was a father-son drama that Robert Mitchum agreed to make for scale, and that reunited a lot of Leonard’s Naked City and Route 66 collaborators – writer Larry Marcus, cameraman Fred Jackman, casting director Marion Dougherty, stunt coordinator Max Kleven. Leonard talked about getting Haskell Wexler (a hot property after Medium Cool) to direct, then decided to do it himself; he struggled at first, but Mitchum backed him, helped him learn the new craft. Problem was, Leonard made the film at MGM, whose president at that time was James T. Aubrey. Aubrey liked to carve up movies in the editing room; Robert Altman, Blake Edwards, Jack Smight, and Bruce Geller, among others, all told the press that Aubrey trashed films they made for MGM during the early seventies. Aubrey was also Bert Leonard’s old nemesis, the head of CBS during the Route 66 years, and when he chopped thirty minutes out of Going Home, and then barely released it, it may have been just out of spite. What remains of the film is the creative bright spot in a forty-year twilight. But after MGM dumped it, Leonard’s promising directing career was over.
Herbert B. Leonard in 1987 (at a Museum of Broadcasting event, a recording of which is an essential extra on Shout Factory’s Route 66 box set)
Bert Leonard could not live modestly. He was, after all, a cigar-chomping mogul of the Hollywood variety. He gambled, he womanized, he borrowed money to finance unmade films and drawn-out lawsuits. There were four wives and six daughters. The last of the wives, Betty Kennedy, was an ingenue in Ladies’ Man, a Leonard-produced workplace sitcom that ran for a season in 1980-81. “That was a real heartbreaker for Bert,” one of his friends told me. Betty was thirty-some years younger than Leonard, and it was a volatile, on-again, off-again relationship; no one would go on the record about the specifics (and I could not reach Kennedy, now living in Reno, for comment), but I suspect that Leonard’s quasi-biographer, Susan Orlean, is being deliberately coy when she writes that Leonard “later described his relation to her as an addiction.”
Until the end, Leonard kept trying to get properties he owned made or remade. He became obsessed with River of Gold, a big-budget feature Rin Tin Tin story that Disney optioned briefly. There were still people who wanted to work with Leonard, but he refused to compromise on any professional point in which he believed strongly, no matter what the consequences; he drove away potential collaborators and backers, even the ones who liked him personally. Stanley Moger, who fronted those tinted Rin Tin Tin intros to the tune of $800,000 and pulled the plug when Leonard ran over budget, called it a “habit for self-destructing.”
Leonard’s friends supported him. The director Irvin Kershner, a friend who was involved with River of Gold, loaned him $100,000 in living expenses. The stuntman Max Kleven (he was Paul Burke’s double on Naked City) gave him $350,000 over the years, and put Leonard up at his ranch for a while. James P. Tierney, who was Leonard’s lawyer for a while (put another asterisk on that; we’ll come back to it), fronted him “ten to twenty thousand a month for three or four years.”
Eventually, Leonard’s only assets were his TV shows. He’d been shrewd enough to retain the copyrights – certainly not a given during the early days of television – but he couldn’t hold on to them.
3. Like This, It Means Father … Like This, Bitter … Like This, Tiger
On the website of the U.S. Copyright Office, you can pull up records documenting the path by which Naked City, Route 66, and the other Leonard shows changed hands over the last fifteen years. They are plentiful and complex. I showed them to an intellectual property lawyer, who told me that to truly untangle the mess, you’d have to go down to D.C. and sift through the complete documents.
Most of those records point to, and were likely filed by, James Tierney, the attorney (with an asterisk) who represented some of Bert Leonard’s affairs toward the end. According to Tierney, Leonard used the shows to settle his debts with Tierney, which eventually totaled $1.5 million.
“It’s a long story,” Tierney explained last month. “He owned me money, and we came to an amicable accomodation about settling with me. I always liked the show” – meaning Naked City, but including most or all of the others – “and he wanted to sell it, and I bought it from him.”
Tierney was guarded when we first spoke, maybe because he didn’t know whether I knew about the paintings (and in fact I didn’t, yet). The paintings were a Monet and a Picasso, among others, and according to Susan Orlean, Tierney conspired in 1992 to steal them from a client as part of an insurance scam. He did time, and lost his law license. (Tierney disputes this version of events, but refused to go into detail and quickly ended our conversation after I brought up Orlean’s book. The California State Bar confirms that Tierney tendered his resignation with charges pending in 1999.)
You can understand how those allegations might color one’s assessment of a source, and yet Tierney sounded genuine in his affection for Leonard. “He worked until the end,” Tierney said. “He was always working on ideas. He was an optimist. He always thought that the next deal was right around the corner.” Tierney also thought – and this is the only way that Bert Leonard could have hung in so long, and borrowed so much dough from so many people – that Leonard was “a charming, talented guy, just a real nice guy.”
4. How Much a Pound Is Albatross
Tierney may have liked the shows, but like his old friend he parceled them off over the subsequent years. Route 66 went to Financo, a Dutch investment company, which sold it to Kirk Hallam, the would-be producer who wanted to remake the series as a feature film. After the original DVD releases petered out, Hallam struck a deal with Shout Factory that gave the home video label “worldwide home entertainment and digital rights, and North American broadcast rights.” (Route 66, Naked City, and Rin Tin Tin have all been in the lineups of these new nostalgia-oriented cable channels that have cropped up – MeTV, Antenna TV, I can’t keep track – so syndication is, after a long dry spell, once again a revenue source.)
As far as I can tell, Sony still controls two of Leonard’s less well-known shows, Rescue 8 (L.A. firefighters) and Tallahassee 7000 (Walter Matthau as a Florida lawman); Leonard signed the rights over to Columbia Pictures Television in the late eighties. I’ve never seen them but I’ve heard that both series have some of the same on-location verisimilitude as Route 66 and Naked City. (There’s also a rumor that they were stymied in syndication because some of the prints could not be found.) Financo appears to be stuck with Circus Boy, the one with the kid Micky Dolenz and the elephant (anybody want to take that off their hands?). And The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin . . . well, that one is too complicated to even get into here.
Naked City was the one show that Tierney held on to. At the time Tierney took over the copyright, Sony – then the show’s distributor, evidently subject to an earlier deal made by Leonard – was already releasing the series on DVD through Image Entertainment. “Then Sony sold their rights to me,” Tierney says, “and I didn’t renew the agreement.” Tierney claims that the Naked City DVDs were profitable – that even though Image spent “thousands of dollars” creating the gorgeous new video masters, the DVDs took in $600,000 of gross revenue and made an 80% profit. Tierney ended the relationship with Image over a financial dispute, and because (like me) he was annoyed that Image cherry-picked the episodes with the most famous guest stars and refused to switch to a season-by-season release pattern.
But there’s a lede that I’ve buried here: In April of this year, Tierney sold Naked City to Image Entertainment, following the “amicable” resolution of a lawsuit he filed against the DVD distributor in 2011. Although Tierney retains remake and sequel rights, Image “effectively owns the original programming,” in Tierney’s words, including all home video and digital rights.
But don’t get excited yet. Last week, a rep for Image told me that the company (which was recently purchased by Robert L. Johnson, the founder of BET) has no immediate plans to release the series on disc. That’s a real shame. Although Image is not a major player in the classic TV realm, it has licensed a few key properties and turned them in to elaborately-produced, well-reviewed disc releases. The mind reels at the possibility of a complete Naked City box set, with audio commentaries and other extras, similar to the Thriller set Image released in 2010. Or, better yet, a series of season-by-season Blu-rays, along the lines of Image’s most recent Twilight Zone upgrades.
5. The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half
There are still things about the above that I don’t fully understand. One is the extent of Sony’s interest in Naked City and Route 66. Did Leonard always own the copyright to his shows outright, or did Screen Gems keep a piece of them? Susan Orlean writes that, by the eighties, Leonard owed Sony “a fortune” – but for what, exactly? Last year Sony’s Vice President of Media Production told me that “both of those titles expired several years ago from the Sony Pictures Television copyright and have moved on to new copyright holders” (emphasis added).
Then there’s the question of Max Kleven. According to Susan Orlean, the former stuntman gained certain rights to Rin Tin Tin in a court-ordered settlement against Leonard, who couldn’t pay off his debts to Kleven any other way. But Kleven told me that he owns more. “All that stuff has been to court twice, and as far as the court is concerned I own control of Rin Tin Tin, Route 66, and the Bert Leonard portion of Naked City,” Kleven said in May. Indeed, the Copyright Office has a 2005 purchase and assignment agreement in the name of TRG Management, LLC & Max Kleven that lists not only Rin Tin Tin but also all the Route 66 and Naked City episodes. James Tierney points out that his own foreclosure on Naked City and Route 66, in 2000, predated any of Kleven’s claims against Leonard, and that the attorneys for Financo and Image checked the titles on the shows before closing the deals with him. Kleven describes Tierney as a friend and a legal advisor. Tierney politely disputes Kleven’s claims to ownership of any of the shows.
Did Bert Leonard give away the same shows twice?
6. Suppose I Said I Was the Queen of Spain
Finally, there’s the question of the film and video elements. Did Bert Leonard keep any of them? A copyright isn’t much good if it doesn’t come with a usable copy of what’s copyrighted. In that storage shed, Susan Orlean found prints and tapes of Rin Tin Tin and some of Leonard’s other shows. But Leonard’s daughter Gina, who was caring for her father when he died and ended up with the keys to the shed, says that no one has sourced any film or video elements from his estate. Tierney told me that, for Naked City, Sony “was holding” all the elements, and “now they’re turning them over” – to Image, presumably.
But what about Route 66? The question of elements was central to the bungled early DVDs of that show. The first round derived from ragged sixteen-millimeters. After the resulting outcry, the subsequent Infinity/Roxbury releases appeared to source thirty-five millimeter elements, albeit with aspect ratio and audio flaws that suggested the mastering was being done inexpertly. Where did these transfers come from? Kirk Hallam addressed the issue in an interview in which he stated that, following the inferior original release (some of which was sourced from “videotape”), the “fine-grain masters” were rounded up from “vaults all up and down the East Coast.” (Whose vaults?) The “original film stock” for the episodes resided in a Sony vault in Burbank, but “the archivists begged me not to use that original film.”
As I’ve written before, aspects of that explanation strike me as obfuscatory (or perhaps just vague about what the technical terms actually mean). My own guess – and this is pure speculation, and I invite anyone with knowledge of the situation to set the record straight – has always been as follows: that Hallam acquired the copyright of Route 66 but no usable film elements; that Sony sought more than Roxbury or Infinity wanted to pay for access to either film prints or the old video masters that ran on Nick at Nite; that Roxbury used either collectors’ prints or some other unknown, second-rate source to create the first Route 66 DVD release; and that for the subsequent volumes Roxbury capitulated and forked over the money to use Sony’s elements.
The big question is why Shout Factory opted not to redo the first fifteen episodes. Was it merely a matter of dollars and cents, or was there another reason why better elements were unavailable? I can understand how new transfers of fifteen hours of film could bust the budget, but what about those Nick at Nite tapes, which were inarguably better than the existing DVDs? Were they tossed, or was Shout too cheap even to pay for access to them?
(Last week Shout Factory’s PR rep stopped responding to my requests for an interview with the producer of the Route 66 DVDs after I declined to submit questions in advance.)
7. The One Marked Hot Gives Cold
I never would’ve guessed that I’d get scooped digging around amid the depressing late-career business dealings of a down-and-out television producer. But that’s essentially what happened last year when Susan Orlean – yes, the New Yorker essayist who was portrayed in the film Adaptation by Meryl Streep – published a book called Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Orlean was a big Rinty fan as a kid, and turned the unlikely subject into a book about the line of movie dogs, and their eccentric owners and trainers. Inevitably, when she came to Rinty’s TV years, Bert Leonard became a central protagonist in Orlean’s book; his epic rise and fall, his excesses and con-man’s charm, were irresistible.
But Orlean’s book also has a bit of a truthiness problem. Leonard Maltin has compiled a long list of its rudimentary errors in the area of film history. There are mistakes regarding Herbert Leonard, too. For instance, Leonard had two daughters with each of his last three wives; Orlean credits four to his third wife and two to Betty Kennedy, the last (and technically Leonard’s fourth and fifth wife, since they divorced, remarried, and divorced again). That might sound trivial, except that Orlean suggests that Leonard’s second marriage, to Willetta Leonard (who is credited as a producer on Route 66 and Naked City), ended due to the death of his only son, Steven, in a swimming pool accident in 1955. The fact that, in reality, Bert and Willetta went on to produce two more children before splitting up confounds that bit of convenient psychology. Reading Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, I got the queasy sense that Orlean was arranging the facts to fit a narrative, instead of the other way around, and that her narrative required Bert Leonard to end up as pathetic and unfulfilled as possible. Gina Leonard, one of Bert’s daughters, insists that Orlean has exaggerated the extent of Leonard’s destitution and unhappiness during his final years. She told me last week that her siblings, mother, and other family members – many of whom had cooperated with and encouraged Orlean’s book – are united in their belief that it does not do justice to Herbert Leonard.
(I should add that while I have used Orlean’s research as a guide for parts of this piece, I have made extensive efforts to fact-check everything sourced from her book with the parties involved – most of whom were clearly reluctant to revisit the topic.)
8. A Horse Has a Big Head - Let Him Worry!
I first saw Route 66 when I was in college. One of my instructors, Katie Mills, was doing a dissertation on road movies and slung me tapes of a dozen or so episodes. I confess: I didn’t get it. The videotapes were so murky that I couldn’t appreciate the vintage location footage, and so I responded more to the flaws. The guest stars were good, but the lead actors were either stiff or goofy (this was a problem with Naked City, too). And why were there so many fistfights?
Well, now I know better. Now I’m convinced, in fact, that Route 66 and Naked City may be the most important American television project of the sixties. Maybe not the all-time, word-for-word, best television shows of that era, but definitely the ones I come back to most often when I want to know what people felt then, and how their lives actually looked.
The significance of the Bert Leonard-Stirling Silliphant shows makes the state of preservation and research on them all the more alarming. The elements themselves are in uncertain hands. (Who has the negatives? I can only hope they’re stored safely in Sony’s vaults.) James Rosin has published mostly unsatisfactory books on each, and I know of at least one writer each who has abandoned a book project on Route 66 and Naked City. I’ve written around the shows myself – Naked City bit players; Route 66 locations – and I’ve skimmed Leonard’s and Silliphant’s papers at UCLA, but I haven’t done anything in depth. Sam Manners, the production manager on both shows (how did he manage that?!) and probably the last prominent crew member from either, died while I was researching this piece, and before I could interview him.
Route 66 ended on a weak note, a stillborn, two-part farce. (Silliphant, like Rod Serling, was not much of a comedy writer.) But there’s a satisfying final scene: Buz (Martin Milner) and Linc (Glenn Corbett) go their separate ways, the former settling down to marriage, the latter ostensibly headed “home” but, perhaps, continuing to wander alone. I like to think he’s still driving around out there someplace. The title of the episode is
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
Correction (6/13/12): The original version of this piece described the plot of Route 66‘s final episode inaccurately. Update (5/6/13): Since I published this, Shout Factory has issued a separate release of Route 66‘s fourth season, and Madacy (a subsidiary of Image Entertainment) has released two volumes of Naked City DVDs. Most of the episodes are recycled from the earlier sets, but there are ten new-to-home video episodes.
October 13, 2011
I know I promised you coverage of some seventies crime shows and, trust me, it’s coming. Soon. But first, there are a few follow-ups to old pieces that merit reporting.
Last year, I wrote about how abortion and atheism were topics that television drama rarely tackles any more, because the people who make (and pay for) entertainment programming know that they’ll get more grief than they can handle from all the right-wing dittoheads. In particular, it seemed as if no television show was willing to let a female character choose to have an abortion without undermining that decision with a “family values” message, whether stated or unstated.
Now, according to this cogent piece by Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara, that barrier may have been broken by Grey’s Anatomy, in which its best character (Sandra Oh’s Dr. Christina Yang) terminated a pregnancy that would have interfered with her career. McNamara points out that Dr. Yang did not suffer from any of the mitigating factors (rape, poverty, being underage) that softened the question on other shows (like Friday Night Lights last year), and that Yang “did not seem particularly agonized” in a way that would encourage the audience to believe she was making a mistake. McNamara seems as gobsmacked as I am that Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes allowed Dr. Yang to have the final word on her choice.
I haven’t watched Grey’s Anatomy since its first season, which I found melodramatic and dull, and I wish this breakthrough had occurred on a better show. But Grey’s is now in its eighth year, and these kinds of things tend to happen on series that nobody is paying much attention to any more.
So now we know: the complete DVD set of The Fugitive will have nearly all of its original music restored, plus a mouth-watering array of bonus features. As long as I don’t think too hard about what that “nearly” means, I consider this a marvelous outcome. CBS hasn’t put together this elaborate a TV series package since Paul Brownstein was producing Gunsmoke special editions for them, and its home video staffers deserve congratulations. Yes, we had to wait longer and pay more than we should have. Doesn’t matter. The Fugitive is worth whatever it takes.
Ivan Shreve, who gives CBS’s home video division no quarter, argues that we owe this DVD release to the misguided suckers who knowingly bought the Heyesified Fugitive DVDs; it was their dollars that affirmed the financial viability of the show on home video. He’s probably right. But, at the same time, it had to have cost CBS some dough to untangle the legal issues around the original scores. CBS wouldn’t have parted with that money if it didn’t think that there were a lot of us holdouts out here who would only purchase The Fugitive in an unmolested form. So I still can’t work up much sympathy for anyone who shelled out for the now-worthless Heyesified DVD and has to decide whether to re-buy the whole series. If you eat at McDonald’s, don’t whine about the indigestion.
Update, 10/14/11: Please see the comments section for some troubling news about the new edition of The Fugitive. If this information proves true, the new DVD set probably won’t be worth buying after all.
I’m going to give myself credit for some prescience in my two complaints, from March and August, about the troubling moves Netflix was making in its relative support of physical and streaming media. Since I filed those editorials, Netflix has experienced an unusually public meltdown and stock devaluation. The company alienated subscribers by splitting the two platforms (this was marketed, bizarrely, as a price hike, although that was only the case for certain customer segments), then threatened to shunt its disc business into an offshoot with a goofy name, and then abruptly abandoned this plan to split itself in two. Customers went batshit over each new development. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, once viewed as a Steve Jobsian corporate sage, experienced an Obama-in-the-middle-of-2009 moment: we all realized, all at once, that he didn’t have a secret, brilliant master plan, that he was just a good talker being pushed around by forces with a lot more capital and power.
My only personal interest in all of this is the fate of Netflix’s disc business . . . which is why I’m dismayed by the outcome. Most analysts smelled a sell-off in the segregation of two video channels. Netflix, presumably, was angling to unload its physical media and go exclusively online. A sale could have ended with any number of disasters, but Netflix’s treatment of its disc renters has become so shabby that I found myself rooting for it to happen. In a best-case scenario, the disc business might have been sold to a smaller entity that would have cared about it and turned it into a viable niche business. Now it looks as if the discs won’t be going anywhere, and the Netflix library will continue to wither on the vine. Hastings hates DVDs so much that I’m already envisioning apocalyptic outcomes. Don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning in the near future and read that Netflix has landfilled a few million movies.
I’ve tried to keep an open mind about streaming video, since it’s obviously not going away, and in my first post on the subject I emphasized the few positives I could find. But over the last few months I’ve come to believe that the issue is cut and dried: streaming video is an unambiguous enemy of cinephilia.
As a fer instance: Over the weekend I landed a paid writing assignment that required me to see a lot of films within a very short time. I found several on Netflix Instant and a few others for “rent” from Amazon. All of the Amazon streams were highly compressed and waxy-looking, on the order of Youtube videos. That’s especially outrageous given that Amazon uses a la carte pricing (between $2 and $5 each for the movies I purchased), which, on the whole, comes out to a lot more than Netflix is charging.
Netflix fared a little better, but not much. One recent film was in “HD” and it did in fact look gorgeous, whenever the image was still; but all the lateral motion was just a mite too jerky to seem natural. Another film had an acceptable image but, at the time I chose to view it, either the Netflix servers or those used by my streaming device were having an off day; the movie froze up every few minutes. A third film had also looked adequate, probably about the same as a DVD would. But that film is available on Blu-ray, and if I hadn’t been on a deadline, I certainly would have preferred to wait until I could acquire a copy of the disc.
Because it was for work, streaming these films, rather than schlepping around to the few remaining video stores in New York in search of them, was indeed “convenient.” But not one of those six viewing experiences would have passed muster had I been watching the films primarily for pleasure.
It’s still possible that the baseline standards for streaming video will improve beyond what I encountered this weekend. But I actually think they’ll get worse, as more people avail themselves of streaming and compete for the same finite bandwidth. You’d think – or hope – that audiences wouldn’t settle for this, but then I consider all the people I know, my age or younger, who claim to “watch” movies regularly, but don’t own television sets. Instead they’re using laptops or, as David Lynch famously moaned, their telephones; and although they haven’t actually seen the movies they think they’re watching in any sense that has value, they don’t know that.
My prediction: In five or ten years movie buffs will be in the same boat as the audiophiles who, today, disparage MP3 and cling desperately to vinyl. We’ll be paying outrageous prices for out-of-print DVDs and, if we’re very lucky, there will be a handful of independent labels who continue to issue a small number of key films on Blu-ray for our sad little niche market. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that by then we’ll probably all be too poor to worry about such first-world problems any more.
May 9, 2011
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Newton Minow’s famous “vast wasteland” speech. That’s the manifesto in which Minow, President Kennedy’s newly-appointed FCC chairman, applied that term to contemporary television programming in front of an audience of sour-faced industry executives. In the decades since, there have always been shows of such egregious awfulness, from The Beverly Hillbillies (which debuted the season after Minow’s epithet) to Jersey Shore, that the quote has remained in constant use. Yours truly even adapted it as a snarky subhead for this blog.
To commemorate the occasion, James Warren has a good interview with Minnow, who’s still active at 85. Also in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan offers an unfocused take on the speech, arguing that Minow motivated broadcasters, who “felt existentially challenged, and immediately pushed themselves to prove him wrong.” Yeah, right. Heffernan acknowledges that many classic TV shows work in defiance of Minow’s ideals (in other words, they’re great trash), but she doesn’t sort out exactly how that doesn’t render Minow irrelevant.
More insightful, and provocative, is Aaron Barnhart’s takedown in the Kansas City Star. Barnhart calls the speech a “failure” and describes Minow’s plan for reform as ineffectual or even (in the area of local news) inadvertently counterproductive.
I have a lot of complicated ideas about the “vast wasteland,” and no time today to sort them out. I’ve covered a lot of that territory on this blog already. Barnhart calls Minow a “snob,” and argues that he was trying to impose his “patrician tastes” on a popular medium – an idea doomed to fail. I agree with that, more or less. Minow’s speech was very much of its particular moment, and so the term “vast wasteland,” potent as it is, is almost always used out of context.
In 1961, there was reason to fear that television had (forgive the pun) gone down the tubes. Paradigm shifts: live television and the dramatic anthology had abruptly died; the networks were aggressively cloning formulas (westerns and private eye shows) that were dumber, more violent, and more cynical than prime time had yet seen. Minow denies nostalgia for Playhouse 90 and Studio One. I think that’s a strategic misdirection, and that his speech is a clandestine eulogy for precisely that kind of programming.
But the fall lineup in 1961 included the debuts of The Defenders, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, Alcoa Premiere, and The Dick Powell Show. Those were literate, sophisticated shows, and in no way created a response to Minow’s screed. Also during the next couple of years, cloned Warner Bros. westerns (Cheyenne, Lawman) and adventure shows (77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye) would abruptly fade in popularity. During the early sixties you could see, for the first time, how television would rebound on its own from periods of creative enervation and commercial pandering. Minow was just a little too early to detect the pattern. He was speaking from the dark before the dawn.
Minow essentially advocated for staking out space for noncommercial television. He wanted to force symphonies down the throats of people who would prefer to watch a western or, more charitably, to make sure that minority of symphony-lovers was never ignored. (Minow used that example; the full text of the famous speech is here.) Was that noble, or naïve? PBS has practiced the Minow doctrine, with valuable results. But I fall into the camp that prefers the thrilling highs and lows of commercial television. For me, the excitement in watching television is not found in staid documentary specials, placed on a non-commercial pedestal. It is the fight to save shows that are too smart for TV (like Arrested Development or Veronica Mars), the elation when one of them becomes a crossover cultural touchstone (The Sopranos), the secret pleasure when a mainstream show smuggles in subversive ideas (CSI). I’m citing recent examples, but this tug of war has gone on since the beginning of television. Minow had a great line. But if television had really been a vast wasteland in 1961, we wouldn’t still be talking about it now, would we?
March 28, 2011
UPDATE, 3/31/11: Since I posted this on Monday, it has been re-blogged by Missing Remote, Home Media Magazine, the Steve Hoffman Music Forums, and the Hacking Netflix blog. The last two links in particular contain a number of reader comments that are worth a look – and not just because the overwhelming majority echo my disappointment with Netflix’s dwindling selection of physical media. Unlike this space, some of those blogs are probably on the radar of Netflix’s management. Hopefully, some of the executive types there will get the message.
Thanks for your six years of valued patronage, and the several thousand dollars you’ve spent on our service. You, however, are now the kind of Luddite for whom we no longer have any use. You with your Blu-ray player and your fetish for things like comprehensive selection and image quality. Get lost, jerk. Take your business to Blockbuster (even though they suck far more than we ever could), or to your local brick-and-mortar store (even though we drove the last of those out of business long ago; oops!), or Amazon.com (although if you could afford to buy all those DVDs, you wouldn’t have needed us in the first place, would you?).
So have fun in the new world of streaming video, and don’t let the mailbox door hit you on your way out!
No, I didn’t actually receive that letter. But I might as well have. And if you’re both a Netflix subscriber and the kind of person who reads this blog, I’ll bet you’ve gotten the same message in one way or another.
What am I talking about? Just this: Within the last year or two, Netflix has quietly stopped purchasing the majority of new catalog titles that debut on home video.
As of this writing, Netflix still buys most Criterion DVDs, but not necessarily their Blu-rays or the vital box sets on their sub-label Eclipse. Almost every other independent label is shut out, and even the major studios’ catalog releases are often passed over.
As a way of taking stock, here are a few of the catalog DVDs singled out for attention so far this year by the New York Times’s home video columnist, Dave Kehr: Luchino Visconti’s Technicolor melodrama Senso (Criterion); Fellini’s I Clowns and the Fernando Di Leo Collection of Italian crime movies (Raro/Entertainment One); the twisted film noir classic The Prowler (VCI); a remastered trio of early Roger Corman sci-fi flicks including Not of This Earth and War of the Satellites (Shout Factory); and a Rita Hayworth set (Sony) including the DVD debuts of Miss Sadie Thompson and Salome.
How many of those films does Netflix carry? Not one of them.
One distributor, told by Netflix that they would acquire a film if an unspecified number of users “saved” it to their rental queues, started a successful Facebook campaign to force Netflix to stock one of its recent releases. But most old movies that come out on DVD don’t have a grass-roots organization to get Netflix’s attention.
(Netflix has since disclosed this policy publicly, although I haven’t seen it work in any other instance. If you’re reading this and you’re a Netflix customer, try ”saving” some of the films I mentioned in the New York Times list above. Some of them, including The Prowler and the Corman titles, aren’t even in Netflix’s database with a “save” option.)
Blockbuster, my old arch-enemy, has actually distinguished itself by continuing to stock a lot of this new stuff. Even though its catalog was never very deep compared to Netflix’s, I’ve set up a rental queue on that site that currently contains about fifty discs that are unavailable from its red rival. So there it is: for the first time in twenty-five years as a home video consumer, I must endure Blockbuster.
Since this is a blog about classic TV, let’s get on topic and look at some of Netflix’s deficiencies in that department. The most recent DVD releases of The Rockford Files, The Fugitive, Leave It to Beaver, The Patty Duke Show, The Donna Reed Show, Route 66, The Lucy Show, and Vega$ are all unavailable. The Twilight Zone and recent seasons of C.S.I. are not rentable on Blu-ray, a format for which Netflix has lately developed a particular aversion. Nearly the whole catalog of Timeless Media, presently the most important independent label specializing in television, is unknown to Netflix. That means no Wagon Train, no The Virginian, no Johnny Staccato, no Arrest and Trial, no Soldiers of Fortune, no Coronado 9, and only a stingy helping of Checkmate.
Worst of all, earlier seasons of many popular series – Hawaii Five-O, Murder She Wrote, The Outer Limits, Father Knows Best – have disappeared recently, even though Netflix used to offer them. All of these shows are still in print, so the likelihood is that Netflix has chosen not to replace discs that get lost or damaged. And even though it’s not necessary, it appears that Netflix deletes an entire TV season as soon as just one disc from that set is depleted from its inventory. I suspect that what I’ve noticed is just the tip of the iceberg, and that unless Netflix reverses its policy of not replacing lost discs, we will soon see an epidemic of unavailable classics.
Availability Unknown: An unaltered screen grab of part of my Netflix queue as of March 23, 2011.
How can Netflix abandon DVDs when it is, or was, a disc rental business? Because of streaming video. In December, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that his management team was devoting 98% of its attention to streaming and only 2% on rental by mail. “Pretty soon, we’re going to be a streaming business that rents some DVDs,” said Hastings.
Watching movies over the internet is an inevitable future. Already, you can watch content on the internet that you can’t get on DVD. Later seasons of Have Gun Will Travel and Wagon Train suddenly popped up on Netflix last year, an unexpected bounty for fans accustomed to the agonizing pace of season-by-season DVD releases. For several years, the online video provider Hulu has offered The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which at Universal’s present rate of progress (in ten years they’ve managed only four out of ten seasons of the half-hour Hitchcock) won’t see a disc release until about 2020.
But the selection of films and TV shows that can be streamed via Netflix or any other online platform is dwarfed by the amount of material that exists on DVD – and Netflix already has a reputation of bulking up its streaming volume with junky public-domain fare. Netflix brags about how rapidly its streaming catalog is growing, but it makes no effort to match those acquisitions to its existing disc library. In other words, Netflix passes over films or allows them to drop out of the disc inventory before it acquires streaming licenses for the same films.
What’s even more problematic is that there are many more technical variables with streaming video, and few widely accepted technical standards. If you get a disc in the mail and there are no scratches on it, you’re good to go. But to stream a movie successfully, you need (a) an adequate supply of bandwidth from your ISP; (b) an adequate supply of bandwidth on Netflix’s end (apparently streaming video commonly loses quality or experiences interruptions during peak viewing periods); and (c) a good interface to port the digital content to your television (unless you are, to paraphrase David Lynch, one of those people who tries to watch movies on a telephone). Then there’s the issue of special features – deleted scenes, interviews, audio commentaries – created for DVDs. So far, when you “stream” a film, you don’t get any of them.
In terms of video masters, Netflix takes whatever it’s given. A recent deal with the supplier Epix, for instance, added a number of rare Paramount and MGM-owned films to the Netflix catalog. But while the MGM films were generally backed by pristine HD masters in the right aspect ratio (likely created for MGM’s high-definition cable channel), the Paramount offerings were almost all ancient, unwatchable transfers, cropped on the sides and/or digitally compressed to excess. In some cases (Jack Smight’s strange dark comedy No Way to Treat a Lady, for instance), a good, widescreen DVD is now out of print and has been superceded by a inferior full-frame streaming master. And Netflix, like the honey badger, don’t care.
As a pop culture historian, I often cross paths with nostalgists and collectors – people who feel a need to own, in a physical form, the media that holds meaning for them. So far these good folks have been leading the fight against streaming video. Unlike them, I don’t care whether or not all twelve seasons of Murder, She Wrote are sitting on my shelf. In fact, I would rather have an uncluttered home, with all of the TV shows I enjoy stored on a hard drive in some other city. But not – and this is the battle that we are in danger of losing – not if image quality is sacrificed for convenience, and not unless the extras that were on the disc remain available online.
Netflix, in devoting itself so slavishly to streaming technology, seems to think it can position itself at the iTunes of movies. I’m not so sure. I think Netflix is more likely to end up as the Vestron Video of the twenty-first century. Vestron, you’ll recall, was an independent label that thrived in the mid-eighties by licensing movies from the major studios and releasing them on VHS – until the studios realized that there was serious money to be made in videotape. Suddenly, no more Vestron. I don’t believe that the studios will ever license their most valuable content – the newest hits, the Academy Award winners, the current Nielsen champions – to Netflix for streaming. The big content owners will build their own platforms, separately or together, and leave Netflix out in the cold.
But that’s Netflix’s problem, not mine, and as yet I don’t really care who wins the streaming war. What does infuriate me is that Netflix is abandoning DVD before it should, and that it has not been honest with its customers in this regard. The once-mighty stream of DVD releases has slowed to a trickle now. Netflix could continue to stock every major disc release using only a fraction of the acquisitions budget that it once required. Instead its leadership chooses not to devote even those meager sums to physical media – sums that account for the margin between profit and loss for many small DVD companies that still fight the good fight to put out rare films and TV shows.
The disc will be dead on its own soon enough. Netflix should not be an accomplice to its murder.
February 6, 2011
Superbowl, Superbowl, Superbowl … let’s see, that one’s football, isn’t it?
What I know, or care, about sports could fill a thimble, but even I understood the importance this week when the Wall Street Journal announced the discovery of a tape of the Superbowl I game that was telecast live on both NBC and CBS in 1967. In an era when 2″ videotape was expensive and bulky, the television networks routinely reused the tapes or even tossed them out just to conserve space. Most of the first decade of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show remains the most famous victim of this colossal short-sightedness, but the first Superbowl has always been right behind it on television’s “whoops, we maybe shoulda kept that, huh?” list. As its curator, Ron Simon, points out in the Journal piece, the Paley Center for Media has had Superbowl I perched forlornly atop its most-wanted list since before it started calling itself the Paley Center For Media.
While I’m as delighted about this find as any sports fan, I can’t help but wonder about the real story behind this story. Because the Journal‘s reporting raises just as many questions as it answers.
First of all, the reporters, David Roth and Jared Diamond, wait until their third-to-last graf before they mention that the Superbowl I tape is incomplete. The half-time show and a “large chunk” of the third quarter are missing. Since 80% of the first Superbowl is a lot more than the 0% of the first Superbowl we had until recently, maybe it’s a bit of a buzz-kill to dwell too long on that fact. But we also can’t take Superbowl I off the missing list yet, either. Anybody who’s been searching for the show for the last forty-three years will be searching for the missing quarter. The “Holy Grail,” as executive Rick Bernstein calls it in the Journal, is now just a smaller and not-so-shiny grail.
The other fact that gets rather buried in the Journal article is that the tape’s owner realized its significance back in 2005 – almost six years ago. It’s not clear exactly when the Paley Center, which “restored” the tape that had been stored in a Philadelphia attic since 1967, became involved, but evidently it was closer to 2005 than to now. So why are we just hearing the news this week? The opportunistic timing of the announcement to coincide with this year’s Superbowl is a little tacky. Given the magnitude of this discovery, shouldn’t the folks at the Paley Center have felt some obligation to disclose it as soon as they knew it?
One reason behind the timing may be money, another critical issue that the Journal reporters don’t get into until the very end of their report. At one point, Sports Illustrated estimated the value of a Superbowl I recording at $1 million. According to a lawyer representing the tape owner (who has not been named publicly, I guess for fear of being descended on by thousands of sports fanatics), the NFL offered $30,000 for it. If my between-line reading is correct, then the long delay, and the timing of the present announcement, stem from years of dickering between the owner of the tape and the copyright holder, neither of whom can benefit much from the Superbowl I tape without the other. And until that stalemate is broken, no one can view the recording, apparently not even at the Paley Center.
I don’t know enough about the situation to take sides, but it does seem that someone who was smart enough to hold on to something that two entire television networks didn’t think was worth keeping deserves a decent share of whatever profits that recording might yield.
December 1, 2010
Last night I attended an event at the Paley Center for Media in New York City that promised to showcase a true television rarity. As a tie-in to Stephen Battaglio’s new biography of David Susskind, the Paley Center planned to screen an unaired television pilot that Susskind produced in 1963: a videotaped adaptation of Edward Albee’s one-act play The American Dream, which was intended to launch a new anthology series called Command Performance. Susskind hoped to adapt works by modern and avant-garde authors (Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter) for the new show. It would have been an important follow-up to the classics that Susskind staged on Play of the Week and The DuPont Show of the Month, a way of bringing that commitment to televised literature up to date at a moment when television needed as many infusions of contemporary ideas as it could get.
But, as all of the awkward tenses in the preceding paragraph suggest, very few of those things came off as planned. Including, lamentably, last night’s screening of “The American Dream.”
After (and only after) members of the audience had bought their tickets and taken their seats, Paley Center curator David Bushman sheepishly announced that his organization had acceded to a last-minute “request” from Albee’s representatives that the Susskind program not be shown. (The not-terribly-inspired substitution was the famous East Side / West Side episode, “Who Do You Kill?”)
The reason no one ever saw “The American Dream” back in 1963, and presumably the reason Albee still objects to it, stemmed from a colossal error of judgment and ego on Susskind’s part. As a way of courting Albee (and, if the series sold, other important playwrights), Susskind offered him a Dramatists Guild contract for the show. Among other things, that guaranteed Albee a right rarely afforded to television writers: full approval of any changes to his script. During production, Susskind made some trims to Albee’s play (“several pages of dialogue and a few phrases,” according to Battaglio) which the author declined to approve. Susskind shot the modified script anyway. Albee watched the finished tape and refused to sign his contract. Susskind’s show was now worthless, since he did not have the rights to the underlying material. How could an experienced producer make such a rookie mistake? According to associate producer Jack Willis (a guest at last night’s non-screening, which was redeemed by a lively discussion about Susskind that also featured Battaglio, actress Rosemary Harris, writer Heywood Gould, producer George C. White, and Susskind’s son Andrew), Susskind was such a consummate schmoozer that he presumed he could simply charm Albee into complying. But Susskind was wrong. “The American Dream” was shelved and Command Performance died an embarrassing death.
When I read this account of “The American Dream,” I felt that Albee emerged as the hero of the story. Given an authority all too infrequently granted to writers, Albee exercised it in defense of his words. He refused to compromise in the face of pressure from commercial interests. The fact that the elisions made to his play may have been rather minor – a few years later, Albee expressed public approval for Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, even though it too made some cuts to shorten Albee’s play – only strengthens my admiration for Albee’s stubbornness. My work as an oral historian, with its focus on oral histories with writers and directors, has turned me into a near-absolutist in the defense of artists’ rights. Say what you will about Ayn Rand, but I’m on board with Howard Roark when he blows up those corrupted buildings.
However: 2010 is not 1963. Susskind, when he cut Albee’s text, did so for commercial reasons, and he hoped to profit financially from “The American Dream.” At the time, Albee’s play was relatively new. His dismay at the idea of a large television audience being exposed to the work in an altered form was understandable. But the Paley Center screening would have been in a historical context, not a commercial one. The audience, unlike the television viewers of 1963, would have been made aware that Albee’s play had been altered without his approval. Those alterations would have been fodder for a discussion among experts. The issue of authors’ rights, in general and in the case of “The American Dream,” would have received worthwhile public scrutiny.
And after forty-seven years, “The American Dream” is not the same artifact it once was. Then, it was a new, and arguably compromised, production of a work by a fashionable young writer. Now, it is a rare recording of an early play by a legend of the American theater. Botched or not, it has tremendous historical value. It’s also a collaborative effort. Albee, in suppressing it, buries not only his own work but the work of some gifted performers – Ruth Gordon, Celeste Holm, Sudie Bond, Ernest Truex, and George Maharis – and a talented director, David Pressman. (All of whom Albee approved back in 1963, per the terms of that same Dramatists Guild contract.) For Pressman, who is still alive at 97, “The American Dream” represented a comeback after ten years on the blacklist. I cringe at having to point out the irony that, decades later, this work that Pressman finally did get to direct cannot be shown publicly, for reasons that are altogether different but no less objectionable.
It’s very difficult for an artist not to hold the high ground in an ethical dispute, but in my view, Mr. Albee has managed to cede it in this instance. It’s an oversimplification, of course, but I’m willing to frame Albee’s 1963 showdown with Susskind as Art vs. Capitalism. Last night, it was Art vs. History. That’s a much tougher battle to take sides on, but here the latter trumps the former. It’s time for Mr. Albee to consider the bigger picture. And the Paley Center, which is an institution charged with preserving history, should have stood up to Albee and insisted on screening “The American Dream” – at its own legal peril, if necessary.
Last night, someone told me that “The American Dream” resides in the center’s permanent collection, which can be viewed by visitors in New York in Los Angeles. I can’t find it in their online catalog, but I hope that’s true. I’d sure like to see it someday.
August 19, 2010
The forty-third episode of Playhouse 90 aired on CBS on October 3, 1957. It was a science fiction story called “A Sound of Different Drummers.” It told of a totalitarian future in which books are outlawed (because they encourage people to think for themselves). A squad of “bookmen” goes around incinerating books using mean-looking flamethrower pistols. They torch the people who hide the books, too.
Gordon (Sterling Hayden), a bookman, is getting burned out, so to speak, on his job. He’s losing the plot on why books are so bad. He meets a pretty blonde who sorts confiscated books on a conveyor belt to oblivion. The blonde, Susan (Diana Lynn, Playhouse 90’s go-to ingenue), snatches a book off the belt once in a while. Gordon and Susan mark each other as kindred spirits. She introduces him to an underground of kindly bibliophiles. They fall in love. They’re in constant danger of getting toasted by Gordon’s colleagues. They look for a way out, a permanent one.
The story takes some twists and turns, but let’s just say things don’t end well. For Gordon or for the rest of the bookless world. I won’t exactly spoil the big reveal (not that you’ll ever get to see this thing anyway), but it turns out that the oppressors and the resistance are the same thing. “A Sound of Different Drummers” was prescient, which is only one reason why it’s so good.
“A Sound of Different Drummers” was written by Robert Alan Aurthur. That’s the credit: read it for yourself.
You’re thinking: But, but, but. Yeah. We’ll get to that.
Back in April 1951, suspected commie Sterling Hayden appeared in Washington and staged a public finkathon before a happy HUAC. Six years later, someone with a diabolical mind thought of him for “Drummers.” During the climax, Gordon is interrogated, asked to give the names of other readers. “You mean I have a choice?” he asks. Was “Drummers” a ritual of atonement for Hayden? It’s fascinating to study his face during this sequence. Not like it gives anything away: Hayden always made you guess what emotions were roiling behind that unblinking glare.
Gordon’s partner and pal Ben, an avid reader-hater who stands in for all humanity’s clueless sheep, is played by John Ireland. For fans of fifties film noir, the idea of Ireland and Hayden sharing scenes is something akin to the famous superstar standoff between Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. As in Michael Mann’s film, the event is anticlimactic. Hayden and Ireland were the same kind of actor – angry and scary in ways that transcended the characters they played. They’re a meal in which all the courses are the same. Diana Lynn makes the better foil for Hayden. She’s all Southern sweetness, open and genuine, and the contrast complements Hayden’s opacity. Lynn clues us to Hayden’s subtext: she projects the sensitivity that Gordon can’t express, that he’s struggling to find beneath the layers of fascist-cop conditioning.
The director of “A Sound of Different Drummers” was John Frankenheimer. It was a perfect match. The future-world setting and the constant atmosphere of dread and paranoia meant that Frankenheimer could go full-bore with his camera and editing tricks without ever overwhelming the material. Constant camera movement advances the story at a freight-train pace. None of the sets have back walls; the people of the future live in murky blackness. The futuristic props (super-fast cars, robotic psychoanalysts) are cleverly designed and there are special effects I still can’t figure out. The most impressive of those is a videophone screen that appears to project the giant, disembodied head of the speaker against a dark wall.
Frankenheimer was a madman. “I’d never done more than six pages at a track and there I was with 127 pages and I was terrified,” said Sterling Hayden, who was making his live television debut, in a 1984 interview with Gerald Peary. “Frankenheimer loved to move the camera so fast. Christ, it was wild . . . . I went into one set to do a scene and there were no cameras! Then around the corner, like an old San Francisco fire truck, comes the camera on a dolly. And a guy comes along, puts up a light, and BANG, we go.
“I was so scared, but I roared through that goddamned thing.”
“Drummers” contains my new favorite on-air live-TV gaffe. Sterling Hayden and Diana Lynn are making eyes at each other over a meal materialized by a Star Trek-style machine. It’s a quiet, tender love scene. From off-stage, there’s a loud “AHHHH-CHOO!” Someone has sneezed into an open mike. Hayden visibly loses his concentration, gets it back a second later, maybe blows a line in between. The mood has been, shall we say, broken. Up in the control room, Frankenheimer must have blown a gasket.
So: Fahrenheit 451. “Firemen” instead of “bookmen” but, yeah, it’s the same story. I had always seen “A Sound of Different Drummers” described as an adaptation (meaning, an official one) of the Ray Bradbury novel. So when I finally saw the show and Bradbury’s name appeared nowhere in the credits, I was surprised.
Back in 1957, Bradbury had the same reaction. He sued the shit out of CBS.
But first: Who was Robert Alan Aurthur? He was perhaps the least well-known (and most misspelled) of the first wave of live television playrights. A multi-tasker who died young (well, youngish), Aurthur was part of the Philco Playhouse gang, the group of gifted writers discovered and nurtured by Fred Coe. Of that group, David Shaw was Aurthur’s best friend and probably the writer closest to him in sensibility. Talented but impersonal, or rather all-purpose, Aurthur was a man of many genres and inclined to prefer adaptations over originals. He won an Emmy for dramatizing “Darkness at Noon” for Producers Showcase, but he never found a niche like the ones that made Serling or Chayefsky or Horton Foote famous. His best-known live TV script was “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” a story of union strife and interracial friendship that launched Martin Ritt as a film director (the movie version was called Edge of the City) and Sidney Poitier as a star.
Other details: There was a brief marriage to Bea Arthur (who kept his name but spelled it wrong). There were three plays on Broadway: they all flopped. Aurthur scored high-profile screenwriting assignments (Warlock, Lilith). As with all of the movies written by the live TV generation, except maybe Chayefsky, they weren’t as good as they should have been. The Hollywood system diluted them. Aurthur backed out of the job of writing The Magnificent Seven so that Walter Bernstein could do it and get off the blacklist. (It didn’t quite work out that way, but that’s another story.) A non-nonconformist, Aurthur ascended to executive jobs at Talent Associates and United Artists, a thing that Serling or Chayefsky would have spat upon. As a VP of TV at UA, he had something to do with the creation of East Side/West Side and backed pilot scripts by Mel Brooks and Neil Simon and Woody Allen that CBS wouldn’t buy. He became a (sympathetic) character in Only You, Dick Daring, Merle Miller’s scathing expose of a pilot undone by executive buffoonery.
After the plagiarism judgment, his path re-crossed with old compatriots from live TV. Poitier let him direct a film, The Lost Man, and Frankenheimer hired him on Grand Prix (but had William Hanley rewrite Aurthur’s script). Were they doing him favors or getting the better end of the deal? After The Lost Man, there was a lost decade that I can’t find out much about (Aurthur taught at NYU for some this time), and then a final, posthumous screen credit on a masterpiece, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Jazz has always been tagged as autobiographical for Fosse, but I’d love to know if there’s any of Aurthur’s life in it, too.
A book agent named Robert Kirsch blew the whistle on “A Sound of Different Drummers” even before the live broadcast went off the air. Kirsch called Bradbury. Bradbury watched the end of the show. He blew his stack, right around the same time Frankenheimer blew that gasket. He called his lawyer the next day.
Gene Beley’s Ray Bradbury Uncensored: The Unauthorized Biography! (iUniverse, 2006) covers the details of the ensuing litigation, which dragged on for years. The upshot: Bradbury lost in court but won on appeal. CBS coughed up the proverbial “undisclosed sum.” Bradbury’s attorney, Gerson Marks, found a paper trail proving that CBS had almost bought the TV rights to the book in 1952, and that Robert Alan Aurthur had considered buying it when he was story-editing Philco at NBC during its final (1954-1955) season. Aurthur testified. He fessed up to having seen an old summary prepared by Bernard Wolfe, the CBS story editor who optioned Fahrenheit 451 in 1952. But he denied having read the book itself.
Marks lobbed scorn at the idea that Aurthur had been willing to stage Fahrenheit 451 on Philco without actually reading it first. Beley quotes Gerson Marks, in part, as follows: “Aurthur had stature in the industry, and he had to make a moral and legal choice – say nothing or expose himself to the consequences of using unauthorized intellectual work. He made his choice on the witness stand . . . .”
My translation of Marks’s careful legalspeak: Aurthur lied under oath to save his ass.
It’s hard to imagine a time when someone could think of ripping off Ray Bradbury and getting away with it. But “A Sound of Different Drummers” came only four years after Fahrenheit 451 was published, and before Ray Bradbury was Ray Bradbury.
Michael Zagor, later a television writer himself, was working as a publicist at Universal in late 1961. One of his assignments was to keep Ray Bradbury happy during the filming of the (non-plagiarized) Alcoa Premiere adaptation of Bradbury’s story “The Jail.” It was less than a year after the suit was settled. Zagor recently told me that
Ray Bradbury was such a nice man. He said to me, “I don’t think Robert Alan Aurthur did it deliberately. I think he just thought it up one night and thought it was his, and then wrote it.” So he didn’t bear any visible animosity toward Robert Alan Aurthur.
He said, “It’s an awful business to sue. It takes a long, long time.” But he said he had to do it.
Though I love Fahrenheit 451, I’m less interested in Bradbury’s role in “A Sound of Different Drummers” and its aftermath than in Robert Alan Aurthur’s. Was Aurthur a callous plagiarist or an unconscious mimic? The latter sounds implausible, but live television moved fast, like Frankenheimer’s San Francisco firetruck camera, and I think every writer nurses a secret fear of disgorging some spontaneous nugget without realizing that it originated someplace else. Whether he was guilty or not, or something in between, and whether he lied or told the truth on the stand, Aurthur must have been utterly humiliated by the whole affair.
What personal and professional consequences did Aurthur suffer? Why doesn’t he have a single film or television credit between 1969 and 1979? Did he lose jobs and friends in the industry? Did he feel that CBS had thrown him under the bus back in 1957? If it’s true that Aurthur did lie: was no one else complicit in ripping off Bradbury? Could Frankenheimer and the producer, Martin Manulis, really have staged a plagiarized version of Fahrenheit 451 without realizing it? A Playhouse 90 show rehearsed for three weeks and employed scores, maybe hundreds of people – and none of them knew the Bradbury book?
One last thing I wonder about: Did Aurthur go to see the François Truffaut’s film when it came out in 1966? Did he understand that his and Frankenheimer’s version of Fahrenheit 451 was better than Truffaut’s? Did he ever dare say so?
Ray Bradbury will turn 90 on August 22.