October 2, 2009
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast debut of The Twilight Zone. I wasn’t around in 1959, but I can join in by celebrating a less precise anniversary.
Picture, if you will, a precocious pre-teen with a morbid turn of mind and not enough pop culture fantasies to nourish it. He’s seen the show before. Episodes like “The Dummy” and “Little Girl Lost,” caught in passing on the way to The Flintstones or The Facts of Life, scared the heck out of him when he was a little kid. But now he’s just the right age to groove to Rod Serling’s dark imagination. He drags his dad to the local Waldenbooks to buy him the only literature he can find about the show, Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, which he all but memorizes as he follows the show in syndication, twice a night, once on WGN and then a different episode on the Fox affiliate. It’s been twenty years, give or take a couple of months, since I discovered The Twilight Zone.
One thing that occurred to me recently is that most of my opinions about each Twilight Zone were formed as a response to those taken by Zicree in his book. Given the dearth of other reviews or commentaries, the Companion’s raves, pans, and pointed dismissals – three or four lines of Pauline Kaelish hauteur directed at the likes of “Hocus Pocus and Frisby” – tended to fix themselves permanently in a Zone fan’s consciousness. Over the years, when I’ve found other Zone aficionados who were sufficiently well-versed to compare notes on individual episodes, the discussion has sometimes played out in terms like: “You know, I liked that one more (or less) than Zicree did!”
Last month I reviewed Martin Grams’s The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door and lamented Grams’s decision to withhold his own opinions on the show. That made me wonder: who else has weighed in on the subject since Zicree’s book came out? Surely, on the internet, there must be a plethora of kibitizing on the subject of beloved (or hated) Twilight Zones. And of course, there is.
There are on-line polls where fans can vote for a favorite episode, and forums and websites where they can explain their choices. The Twilight Zone Cafe is a website devoted entirely to Zone chatter, with a thread for every episode and surveys to determine the best and worst of them. Today, to mark the anniversary, the New York Times got into the act, accruing 172 reader responses within eight hours. (Note that, just as the Times’s blogger predicted, only two reader comments were submitted before someone listed an Outer Limits and an Alfred Hitchcock Hour among their favorite Twilight Zones!) Even Facebook, a Twilight Zone-worthy concept if ever there was one, contains a page devoted to the topic. The discussions on these sites sometimes reflect fuzzy memories and unsophisticated ideas, but the affection that viewers continue to express for The Twilight Zone is awe-inspiring.
For a number of reasons, I tend to view the Internet Movie Database’s user ratings with skepticism. But I noticed that for most Twilight Zones, unlike episodes of many other TV series, the IMDb has recorded more than 150 votes. Perhaps that’s enough to constitute a valid statistical sample, even in the absence of any transparency as to how the system works. Most of the Zones fall within a fairly narrow numerical range on the IMDb’s ten-star scale. If an episode scores over a 9.0, it’s a masterpiece. Under a 7.0, and the public can be envisioned as holding its collective nose.
In general, the scores are predictable, although after studying them for a while I noticed one intriguing anomaly. Twilight Zones that turn on an especially clever twist ending skew higher than episodes that instead emphasize character or mood. Fair enough, you may be thinking, surprise endings are what The Twilight Zone is all about – until I point out that IMDb users rank “The Shelter” (8.4), “Printer’s Devil” (8.3), and “The Masks” (8.3) above “Walking Distance” (8.0). Now that’s what I’d call a twist! I think I’ve found more evidence for my pet theory that American audiences take comfort in clever plotting to the exclusion of all else.
As I mentioned before, thumbing through The Twilight Zone Companion – and now, surfing through all those Zone outposts on the internet – brings out the contrarian in me. I always feel like slaughtering a few of the sacred cows in the Twilight Zone’s pens, and sticking up for the underdogs in that fifth-dimensional kennel. I could easily compile a list of both species. But since we’re celebrating an anniversary, I’m going to focus on the positive.
Here, then, are thirteen episodes (presented in chronological order) that I think have slipped through the cracks. These aren’t my personal favorites, which are probably about the same as everybody else’s. They’re the Twilight Zone’s red-headed stepchildren, the ones that haven’t received quite as much love as they deserve from audiences and critics.
1. “The Lonely” (November 13, 1959) Arguably somewhat underappreciated amid the bounty of the early episodes, this is The Twilight Zone’s greatest tragic romance. Jack Warden creates one of his most touching everymen, and the location shooting (an increasing rarity as the series wore on) turns Death Valley into a visceral hell-on-an-asteroid. The final twist may play as contrived, but the power of Serling’s writing is not in that punchline but in the earlier, emotional double-reversal (Warden hates the robot girl, then can’t bear to part with her), which has rarely been executed so skillfully within the confines of a half-hour teleplay.
2. “A World of His Own” (July 1, 1960) Deliberately slight, this budget-friendly bottle show casts Keenan Wynn as an urbane Walter Mitty-ish writer who solves his Betty-or-Veronica dilemma with the help of an enchanted dictaphone. Ending season one with a throwaway gag was a bold, unexpected move, and to overpraise it would miss the point. But Richard Matheson’s droll script resounds with an intricate verbal wit that still sounds fresh and unusual within The Twilight Zone, mainly because it was a mode in which Serling (though he seems to have vaguely inspired Wynn’s character) could not write.
3. “Twenty-Two” (February 10, 1961) A polarizer. Some fans find it shrill and obvious, including Zicree, who calls it “not one of the more shining examples of The Twilight Zone.” Others will delight in seeing comedienne Barbara Nichols pull off a straight dramatic lead, and appreciate the repeated wallop of the spooky stewardess’s refrain (“Room for one more, honey”: for my money the connoisseur’s “It’s a cookbook!”) The smeary imagery enhances the nightmarish quality of the story, making this the only episode to actually benefit from the second-season humiliation of videotape.
4. “The Odyssey of Flight 33” (February 24, 1961) Horror in the lowest key. Armed with technical advice from his airline-pilot brother, Serling crafts a deliciously slow-building atmosphere of terror out of nothing but flight-crew jargon and offscreen space. Naturally, some find that “boring.” As in “Little Girl Lost” (also undervalued), there’s an appealing purity to the contest between concerted rationalism and the batshit inexplicable. The casting of non-star underplayers completes the formula (one show-off in the cockpit would have ruined the big reveal), and the uneasy ending provides even less closure than usual.
5. “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” (April 21, 1961) There’s something seedy and harsh about this nasty little futurist neo-noir, with its second-rate cast and its jerky narrative, stitched together by a rare intermediate Serling narration. But The Twilight Zone was entitled to – even enriched by – a few tawdry little B-movies to bottom-half a double bill with A-stories like “Walking Distance.” (See also: “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up,” another great shaggy-dog story that irritates a certain segment of the fans.) The final twist is half-gotcha, half-groaner, but its mean-spiritedness is just right for this “Caper”’s ugly anti-heroes.
6. “Two” (September 15, 1961) A sentimental favorite. Perhaps the spectacle of two future superstars making googly-eyes at each other across a rubble-strewn MGM backlot contains an element of camp that has kept this one off too many of the all-time favorite lists. But giving Charles Bronson all the dialogue and making Elizabeth Montgomery, everyone’s favorite motormouthed sorceress, act with her orbs, is irresistible against-type casting (at least in hindsight). Plus, settling the Cold War after it’s too late for all but two of us to care is pure Serling.
7. “The Hunt” (January 26, 1962) Earl Hamner, Jr., was The Twilight Zone’s most underappreciated writer; he belongs in the “Big Four” in place of the overrated George Clayton Johnson. Nestled at the heart of this script, which plays like a supernatural episode of The Waltons, is the lovely conceit of a man who turns his back on heaven because St. Peter won’t let his dog in, too. Some of the execution can be faulted, especially the awkward shifts between locations and faux-exterior sets, but I find Arthur Hunnicutt’s sad-eyed performance (which Zicree sees as “leaden . . . and with no range”) straightforward and moving.
8. “I Sing the Body Electric” (May 18, 1962) This respectable Ray Bradbury adaptation has one magical scene, in which three newly orphaned children play Mr. Potato Head at the robot factory and come up with adorable uber-granny Josephine Hutchinson. The remainder is perhaps not all it could be, but “I Sing the Body Electric” certainly doesn’t fail spectacularly enough to earn the contempt that some fans have heaped upon it; perhaps Zicree jinxed it by reporting the episode’s extensive production problems, and Bradbury’s negative reaction. To those who find it saccharine, I ask: have you seen that ostensible classic “Kick the Can” (or as I like to call it, “Pass the Bucket”) lately?
9. “Jess-Belle” (February 14, 1963) By a wide margin the best of the hour-long Twilight Zones, “Jess-Belle” uses the added length to create an authentic sense of place (Hamner’s beloved Blue Ridge Mountains) and mood (a morose fatalism expressed in the performances, the music, and the folk-tune that replaces Serling’s closing remarks). Instead of the usual high-concept twists, “Jess-Belle”’s strangeness manifests in the form of a subterranean sensuality – the animal transformations as an expression of repressed desire; the leering flirtatiousness in Jeanette Nolan’s startling turn as the old witch – that’s atypical both for The Twilight Zone and among Hamner’s catalog of folksy backwoods stories.
10. “The Bard” (May 23, 1963) And you thought the modern-day-imbecile-hooks-up-with-historical-genius fantasy genre began with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But – no. Granted, the TV-industry satire trotted out here is in no danger of dislodging Network from its pedestal. But Serling’s only funny comedy mines more laughs than expected out of a time-traveling Bill Shakespeare, and Burt Reynolds’s side-splitting evisceration of Brando may still be his best performance.
11. “You Drive” (January 3, 1964) Edward Andrews, occupying a rare and welcome leading role, exudes maximum smarm in this Duel precursor about an unrepentant hit-and-runner whose car meets out justice. It’s a one-idea premise, but director John Brahm executes the driverless car effects so cleverly that nothing more is needed. Modern cinema abounds with tales in which our cars want to kill us (The Car) or fuck us (Crash) or both (Christine). But can anyone think of an earlier version of this technophobic meta-narrative than “You Drive”?
12. “Black Leather Jackets” (January 31, 1964) Associations with schlocky fifties juvenile delinquency films have unfairly shivved the reputation of this alien biker gang saga. Maybe Lee Kinsolving and Shelley Fabares don’t quite sell the teen angst, but I love the sheriff (a creepy, pre-Hill Street Michael Conrad) and the all-seeing, Mabusean video device: even before the space hoodlums arrive in their titular garb, humanity is already doomed. “Jackets” channels McCarthyism, but it also looks ahead to the free-floating, anyone-could-be-an-alien paranoia of The Invaders and The X-Files.
13. “Come Wander With Me” (May 22, 1964) Everyone points out, correctly, that this star-crossed backwoods romance makes no sense. And you were expecting what in the Twilight Zone? One viewer’s nonsense is another’s surrealism, and here the narrative incoherence recedes as the claustrophobic soundstage-exterior sets (which sabotaged other episodes) give the proceedings a unique, otherworldly feel. Bonnie Beecher and Gary Crosby were non-entities, but they’re just right for the material: Beecher, who hung out with Dylan and married Wavy Gravy, looks as if she has strummed a guitar barefoot before; and Crosby, always diffident and uneasy on screen, must have felt comfortably in his father’s shadow as “Come Wander With Me”’s folkie-poseur.
Now, which episodes do you think are underrated . . . or overrated?
September 15, 2009
“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?
August 26, 2009
Last year saw the publication of a valuable new book called The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. The author, Martin Grams, Jr., has written or co-written histories of various radio series as well as television shows like I Led Three Lives and Have Gun, Will Travel. Most of those programs had not been the subject of a book-length account before Mr. Grams, a prolific young historian, turned his attention to them.
For that reason I was somewhat surprised to find The Twilight Zone under Grams’s microscope, because the show’s history had already been ably chronicled in Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion. Zicree’s book, which has been reprinted several times since its publication in 1982, offered a highly readable history and appreciation of The Twilight Zone. Indeed, The Twilight Zone Companion launched the television episode guide as a literary genre and established a format that scores of books (some terrific, some worthless) about old TV shows would follow.
Had anyone asked, I would have guessed that little of substance could be added to Zicree’s research. Grams has proven me wrong, by unearthing a multitude of previously unreported facts and providing some new insights into how The Twilight Zone was made. Here are a few examples that I found particularly fascinating:
- Two highly regarded third season shows, “The Grave” and “Nothing in the Dark,” were actually produced during the second year and shelved, apparently because the network wanted to stockpile some strong shows for the new year.
- Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton went into a panic after seeing the rough cut of “To Serve Man,” an episode that ends on an infamously droll punchline but is, otherwise, kinda stupid. James Sheldon (who was himself replaced, ironically, on a subsequent episode, “I Sing the Body Electric”) directed reshoots, the footage was extensively re-edited, and alien giant Richard Kiel’s voice was replaced with that of another familiar character actor, Joseph Ruskin.
- A rather absurd legal conflict over a G. E. Theatre episode also entitled “The Eye of the Beholder” is finally revealed as the reason why the rerun broadcast of the famous Twilight Zone segment, and later some syndicated prints, bore the alternate title “A Private World of Darkness.” Grams also examines the plagiarism claims, covered vaguely or not at all by Zicree, that led to the exclusion of four episodes from syndication for many years.
- On several occasions where actors played dual roles, a performer of note was engaged to supply an on-stage performance as the “double,” one which would be replaced by optical effects and never seen by the public. Joseph Sargent, later a major film and television director, doubled for George Grizzard in “In His Image,” and Brian G. Hutton (the director of Where Eagles Dare) filled in as the “mirror version” of Joe Mantell in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.” And Keenan Wynn, gave the off-camera performances in Ed Wynn’s mirror scenes in “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” while visiting his sickly father on the set! (Zicree’s book reported the part about Sargent, but the others were news to me.)
Grams has re-interviewed surviving Twilight Zone cast and crew members, albeit somewhat selectively (Collin Wilcox’s recollections of the show, for instance, remain exclusive to this blog). His primary source is a trove of correspondence, memoranda, and other paperwork, some of it apparently acquired on Ebay.
The centerpiece of Grams’s research shelf was a set of ledgers from Serling’s accounting firm, which break down the budgets of most of the Twilight Zone episodes. Grams records these figures and, although he rarely dwells on their significance, the reader can have a lot of fun crunching numbers. Why did some episodes cost far more than others, and were the results were worth it? In the first season, for instance, the classic “Walking Distance” toted up to a whopping $74,485, while the cute season finale, “A World of His Own,” cost a meager $33,438. Grams also reports the actual shooting dates of the episodes, and in so doing he confirms one of my long-standing suspicions about Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion: that, apart from grouping them by season, it presents the episodes in no particular order. (Why? I have no idea.)
Much of the above may seem trivial. But Grams also probes into more substantive behind-the-scenes happenings. Extensive quotations from production memoranda and private correspondence offer far more detailed glimpses than we have had before of the personalities of The Twilight Zone’s creative minds. Buck Houghton, producer of the first three seasons, seems much the same man as he did in Zicree’s account: a sage line producer gifted with an unflappable pragmatism and an uncommonly good story mind. Charles Beaumont, who served as a sort of informal ambassador between The Twilight Zone and the world of science fiction fandom, proved a shrewd salesman for both the series and for his own talent. Richard Matheson was a virtual geyser of grievances who managed to find fault with the execution of nearly all his scripts.
Grams’s depiction of Rod Serling has more complex shadings than I expected. His reputation as an all-around nice guy, and an especially generous ally to fellow writers, is confirmed in the many letters quoted in Unlocking the Door. But Serling’s correspondence also wallows in an extreme form of self-deprecation that comes across as masochistic in some instances, phony in others. He wasted a great deal of time replying (and often apologizing) to viewers who wrote in with picayune complaints about each week’s episode.
But Serling’s humility did not extend to his fame. Previous accounts have depicted Serling as a default choice to host The Twilight Zone, but Grams makes it clear that Serling plotted from the start, over the sponsors’ objections, to insert himself in front of the camera. There is ample evidence that Serling relished his status as a celebrity; Grams quotes an especially shameless letter to an old teacher in which Serling faux-sheepishly plugs an upcoming appearance on The Garry Moore Show. In some people, an outsized ego might be a small imperfection. For Serling - the frequency of whose media appearances during and after The Twilight Zone can be measured neatly in inverse proportion to the quality of his writing - it was a flaw that took on Shakespearean dimensions.
Grams’s coverage of the individual Twilight Zone episodes varies in length and quality, but I admired his attention to some of the tangents and failures that other scholars have neglected. The coverage here of “Mr. Bevis,” the unfunny comedy spinoff about a hapless guardian angel, and Serling’s distaff rehash of same two years later (as the Carol Burnett vehicle “Cavender Is Coming”), is exemplary. Grams reprints plot summaries for unmade episodes of the “Mr. Bevis” series, and casting suggestions for the starring roles in both pilots. He quotes Serling’s lacerating confessions as to why both versions failed creatively, although just why Serling remained so attached to his bungling angel idea as to make it twice remains a mystery. (“Bevis” originated via a sweetheart deal between CBS and a potential sponsor, Prudential Insurance, which may explain how it bypassed the usual common-sense scrutiny that would have vetoed such a slim premise.) In a note to Carol Burnett, Serling admitted that “Cavender” was “lousy,” adding that “I feel like Napoleon surveying the aftermath of Waterloo, except at least I get residuals – all he got was Elba.” Even in his letters, the poor man wasn’t funny.
After three seasons during which it ran smoothly and excelled creatively, The Twilight Zone fell into chaos. Dropped by CBS in the fall of 1962, the series returned the following January in an hour-long format, and limped along (as a half-hour again) for a fifth year. During the half-season in which The Twilight Zone appeared to be dead, both Houghton and Serling took other jobs. Houghton was replaced by three successive producers, none of them as good. Serling, on the other hand, exiled himself in dramatic fashion, taking a teaching job in far-away Antioch College (in Yellow Springs, Ohio) and declaring to the press that he was burned out on television.
In The Twilight Zone Companion, Zicree describes Houghton’s immediate replacement, Herbert Hirschman, as a talented producer who disagreed mildly with Serling. On Hirschman’s successors, Bert Granet and William Froug, Zicree remains noncommittal. The most important sections of Grams’s book, I believe, are those that expand Zicree’s and other sources’ minimal coverage of the final two seasons (widely viewed by fans as inferior to the first three) into a dramatic struggle for control of a troubled series.
In actuality, Hirschman fell immediately out of favor with Serling, who began – in exasperated and (for him) harshly worded memoranda – to question Hirschman’s compatibility with The Twilight Zone’s elements of fantasy and the macabre. Serling was right, I think, based on his specific disagreements with Hirschman over the scripts for “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” and “The Bard.” In each case, Hirschman favored a more pedestrian approach. Serling lobbied to have Hirschman fired, and after a few months the producer was unceremoniously ousted. But Serling’s move backfired. Serling’s choice as Hirschman’s replacement, executive and sometime director Perry Lafferty, was passed over in favor of Granet, a CBS executive already assigned to the show. (Granet, marking his territory, insisted on the right to recut Hirschman’s episodes.)
What’s fascinating about this account is how effectively the network took advantage of Serling’s physical absence to distance him from his own show. Serling still had to supply scripts and commute to Los Angeles to film his introductions, but the new regime did not consult with him on casting, production, or other writers’ scripts. Many key decisions previously made by Serling and Houghton fell not just to the new producers, but to CBS executives above them in the food chain, including Robert F. Lewine, Boris Kaplan, and George Amy (a distinguished film editor who must have been supervising post-production for the network). Kaplan, formerly a TV producer at Universal (of Riverboat and 87th Precinct), seems to have played a critical role, and yet I don’t believe his contributions to The Twilight Zone have ever been examined in detail.
Ultimately Serling was reduced to fuming impotently in letters to production manager Ralph W. Nelson, a Houghton-era holdover who loyally supplied back-channel reports from the set. Serling’s anger at being exploited as a figurehead on his later series Night Gallery has been well documented, and I think Grams’s work recasts Serling’s Night Gallery unhappiness as a rerun of his role during the fourth and fifth seasons of The Twilight Zone. That begs the question of why Serling would allow himself to be trapped in the same limbo twice. The answer seems to be that Serling hoped to wield his influence from afar without battling in the trenches; and the tragedy was that television doesn’t work that way.
Can a well-researched book that’s bigger than two bricks fail to become the definitive account of its subject? Sadly, I think that may be the case here. I remember a great line from a review of David Fincher’s Zodiac, to the effect that watching the film was like being trapped inside a file cabinet. That’s how I often felt as I macheted my way through the eight hundred pages of Grams’s book.
It’s a common peril for an author to get bogged down in the minutiae of his topic, and the biggest problem with Unlocking the Door is simply that it contains too much information. In my own work, I have sometimes made the case for detail at the expense of readability. But does anyone really need to know the dates on which “Queen of the Nile”’s hand inserts were filmed, or that the production staff may have failed to pay MGM for the rental of the episode’s Egyptian props? Or that Serling’s original narration for “Sounds and Silences” gave the protagonist’s weight at 217 pounds, instead of 220 in the filmed version? Grams’s book is so choked with this kind of junk data that it becomes nearly impossible to read for pleasure.
Some of the trivia is not merely irrelevant, but also, perhaps, misleading. On three occasions, Grams lists names submitted for specific roles in Twilight Zone episodes by a talent agent named Robert Longenecker. As Grams points out, none of those actors (with one exception) landed a part on The Twilight Zone. Judging by the names on his list, Longenecker managed a stable of bit players. Ethel Winant, The Twilight Zone’s casting director, had the budget and the clout to attract top actors to the show, and she likely filed Longenecker’s correspondence away without giving it serious consideration. But Grams neglects to provide that context, and the casual reader may assume that these were actors in serious contention for major roles on the series.
Both here and in his introduction to the book, Grams takes particular exception to an erroneous figure in The Twilight Zone Companion. Zicree, evidently sourcing only the memory of producer William Froug, wrote that The Twilight Zone purchased the rights to Robert Enrico’s short French film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for $10,000. Grams documents that the actual figure was $20,000, plus an additional $5,000 in post-production costs. The correction is welcome. But even the $25,000 figure falls well below the halfway point of an average fifth-year Zone episode’s budget. In fussing over the amount, Grams distracts the reader from the larger point, conveyed succinctly in Zicree’s account, that the acquisition of “Occurrence” was a clever coup that both rescued The Twilight Zone’s budget and introduced American audiences to a fine foreign film they would not otherwise have seen.
Perhaps inevitably, Grams compounds this pedantry by organizing his data in a sequence that is only roughly chronological, and often follows no other structure that I can discern. Essential, well-written chronologies of the series’ production alternate with gobs of trivia that should have been consigned to an appendix or cut altogether. Chapter Six, for example, begins with an overview of plans for The Twilight Zone’s second season, then segues into sections on: letters from agents and actors plying Rod Serling for jobs; Serling’s transition into on-camera hosting; the various clothing manufacturers who supplied Serling’s suits; Serling’s charitable activities; a Shakespearean sonnet sent in by a fan; fan clubs; the soundtrack album; and so on. The introductory material, and even the production histories of some episodes, read as if a clipping file had simply been emptied onto the pages.
It’s discouraging to see books on important subjects like The Twilight Zone wind up self-published, or on tiny imprints, for the obvious reason that not enough people will read them. (OTR Publishing, which issued Unlocking the Door, is Grams’s own company). But it is equally relevant, I think, that many of those books are not as good as they could be because their authors do not have the input of a seasoned editor.
In his introduction to Unlocking the Door, Martin Grams presents a sort of mission statement that guided his writing. Grams eschewed earlier published histories of The Twilight Zone and consulted only primary documents. He avoided the kind of shorthand that blurs the opinions of historian and subject. Most radically, he decided that he would not attempt “to offer a critical analysis of the episodes.”
In an era where many alleged journalists source their information from Wikipedia, I applaud authors who stake out a rigorous methodology for themselves and stick to it. But in Unlocking the Door, Grams’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach is too dry. A historian who has immersed himself in his subject for years has earned the right to present reasonable, thoughtfully argued opinions. In fact, he may owe them to his readers. It would be unthinkable, for instance, for the biographer of a major film director not to take a position on which of that director’s works are canonical; or for a professor in a media history class to offer only data without context or analysis. Surely Grams, after studying The Twilight Zone so closely, has some interesting ideas on where the show succeeded and failed, and why. It’s a shame he felt the need to deprive us of them.
While fact-checking some of what I have written above, I pulled out my copy of The Twilight Zone Companion. Immediately, I found myself getting drawn in by Zicree’s clean, witty prose, just as I did decades ago, when I began reading his book for the first time (at a school bus stop, in case anyone cares, on a frigid morning in the winter of 1989). Yes, Zicree’s four-line dismissals of some episodes and his overpraise of others can be infuriating, but they are part of why his book is so enjoyable. And, at least during the years before the internet, Zicree’s reviews also dominated the conversation about The Twilight Zone; I realize now that my own initial thoughts about the individual episodes formed very much in agreement with or in opposition to what Zicree wrote. Much more than his facts, I would have liked this new Twilight Zone book to rebut Zicree’s opinions.
Some of my criticisms of Unlocking the Door may sound harsh. But as a work of scholarship, this is a worthwhile book, a cornucopia of factoids that will delight hardcore Twilight Zone wonks. Luckily, there are a multitude of worthwhile resources on this classic show. For new fans crossing over into The Twilight Zone for the first time, Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion remains the essential intro. For supplemental, multi-media studies, there are Stewart Stanyard’s Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone: A Backstage Tribute to Television’s Groundbreaking Series (an astonishing trove of behind-the-scenes photos), and the special edition DVDs, which are crammed with new and vintage video and audio interviews with the show’s creators. And now, finally, for the advanced scholars who feel ready to begin a post-graduate course in Zoneology, Martin Grams, Jr., has published their textbook.
Martin Grams, Jr., is also the organizer of the annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, which occurs this week (August 27-29) in Aberdeen, Maryland, and benefits the St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Part of Grams’s presentation on The Twilight Zone from last year’s event can be viewed here, here, and here.
July 30, 2009
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a former Angeleno, and I remain fascinated by Los Angeles locations in the movies and on television. The film essayist Thom Andersen made a whole film, Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the schism between Los Angeles, the actual city, and Los Angeles, the cultural artifact constructed by its ubiquitous appearances in visual media. Andersen prefers the real thing. I’m not sure I agree.
One idea that I took away from Andersen’s film is that iconic locations, like the Bradbury Building or the Griffith Park Observatory, take on a slightly different meaning in the movies than the spaces only a native will find familiar. The latter initiate a sort of private, privileged communication between filmmakers and a geographical subset of their audience. Depending on how a location is depicted, it can add a layer of authenticity and familiarity for those select viewers. Or it can be a trigger that leads those viewers to step outside the narrative, to confront the text as an industrial artifact and to contemplate how reality has been manipulated during its creation.
For about a year I lived around the corner from the Sportsmen’s Lodge, a small hotel and restaurant in Studio City. The Sportsmen’s Lodge is now undergoing extensive remodeling, but for nearly fifty years, it never changed. For that reason it’s easy to spot in any number of movies and TV shows, particularly those made at Universal Studios, which lies only a couple of miles east along Ventura Boulevard. (Columbo fumbled around the Sportsmen’s Lodge more than once.) In its center courtyard the Lodge has a tiny pond, spanned by a wooden bridge, and its most infamous use as a movie location may be in the micro-budgeted fifties post-nuke opus The Day the World Ended. That film used the Lodge’s little trout pond to simulate a real, outdoor body of water.
Recently I was delighted to see the Sportsmen’s Lodge featured prominently in “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” a 1976 episode of The Rockford Files. The Lodge doubles as the Delman Motel (allegedly in Santa Monica, on other side of town), which Rockford visits twice to meet his duplicitous client, played by St. Elsewhere’s William Daniels. In the frame above, James Garner is standing underneath the carport outside the western entrance to the hotel’s parking lot. The building to the right is a lobby leading, if I remember correctly, to both the lounge and the hotel. The street behind Garner is Ventura Boulevard. The structure in the background with the unusual windows is now a Ralph’s Fresh Fare; in the seventies, it was a different supermarket.
Later in the same episode, Garner visits the Winslow Art Gallery to bid on an unusual art object. The Winslow Art Gallery is also the Sportsmen’s Lodge. It’s a different entrance at the eastern end of the hotel, perpendicular to the “Delman Motel” carport. Below is a frame in which Garner stands just outside the Winslow Art Gallery (out of frame just to the right). But in the background, minus its ersatz sign, is the “entrance” to the Delman Motel.
(At a time when many Universal shows, like Emergency! and the early episodes of Kojak, were still confined largely to a backlot that was growing ever more dated and threadbare, The Rockford Files – and Columbo as well – had enough clout to seek out practical locations nearly all the time. But Universal’s prop department still had some catching up to do. In both of those series, the signage added to those locations always looked, well, like something that had just been slapped together by the prop department. Realism came fitfully to television.)
Visible on the horizon in this sequence are both the Sportsmen’s Lodge’s own tiki-styled sign and (to the right of it in the frame below) another yellow, diamond-shaped sign in the background. The latter is a revolving sentinel that towers over Twain’s, a twenty-four hour diner on the northwest corner of Ventura and Coldwater Canyon Boulevards. Twain’s is another San Fernando Valley landmark that’s been there forever and is instantly recognizable to locals (and no one else).
During my Studio City year, a co-worker described how Twain’s was a favorite hangout for her crowd when she was a Valley high schooler during the eighties. Were Wendy to catch a rerun of “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” she would probably forget about the cat-and-mouse game being played out by James Garner and William Daniels on screen. Her thoughts might turn back to her teenage memories – a reaction different from anyone else watching the same episode, and one wholly unanticipated (and possibly undesired) by the show’s creators. But I suspect Wendy would find the experience pleasurable, as I do when The Rockford Files or some other show takes me back to my old neighborhood.
I have written this partly as an exercise in nostalgia, but also to illustrate the small point that TV shows reuse and disguise their locations and even their sets in all kinds of clever ways that most of us never notice. I have a trained eye, but I’m sure I would not have observed consciously that “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s two key locations share the same architecture had I not already been familiar with the Sportsmen’s Lodge. As spectators, our suspension of disbelief extends to spatial geography just as much as it does to storytelling. We allow movies and television to pull all manner of trickery on us, just so long as the people behind the curtain aren’t so manifestly incompetent that they force us to notice the strings holding everything up.
Here’s another example, also taken from a crime program of the seventies, of a very specific kind of visual sleight-of-hand that I often catch. In this scene from “Betrayed,” a 1973 segment of The Streets of San Francisco, Detectives Keller (Michael Douglas) and Stone (Karl Malden) study a reel of surveillance footage and detect an important clue to a bank robber’s identity.
Keller, the younger detective, operates the sixteen-millimeter projector. “Move in on that,” Stone tells him, when they come to a crucial moment in the footage.
Keller complies, both zooming in and freezing the frame on the bank robber’s wrist.
Somehow Keller has accomplished a feat that lies beyond the technical capabilities of his equipment. He has shifted the angle to a point of view different from that established for the surveillance camera moments before.
Movies do this all the time. They depict cuts, zooms, camera moves, and other visual effects in films-within-the-film that are blatantly implausible, at least to the trained eye. Lately I’ve seen a few movies (George Romero’s wily Diary of the Dead is one) that make extensive internal use of “found footage” and do adhere rigorously to the spatial limitations established for that footage within the story. But often filmmakers find it too difficult to convey a desired expository point within the limited perspective that fixed-camera footage would offer in the “real” world.
I always notice this kind of cheating, and it always gives me a chuckle. But I wonder if it registers with most spectators, or if it’s another example – like “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s multitude of Sportsmen’s Lodges – of the generous suspension of disbelief that we grant to visual media that attempt to give us pleasure.
Another reason we might accept rather than reject this flaw is that it enlists us in a more active kind of spectatorship than television or the movies usually offer. In the scene described above, Detectives Stone and Keller assume the roles of, respectively, a director and a cinematographer/editor. Stone tells his collaborator the effect he wishes to achieve – a solution to a mystery – through the process of watching (making) a film. Keller selects the camera angle and organizes the footage in a way that will deliver that result. Unconsciously, the viewer participates in this process with them.
In any episode of The Streets of San Francisco (or The Rockford Files), the writer, the director, and their collaborators construct a story for us by making the same choices. The projector scene in “Betrayed” embeds this process (or an oversimplified version of it) within the narrative. The spectator will either play along, or else detect the shortcuts and reject them as “fake.” How do we make that choice? Is it conscious or unconscious? Is one response to this scenario superior, or more “correct,” than the other? Personally, few things annoy me more than watching or discussing a movie with someone whose refrain is “Well, that could never happen.” My own tolerance for plot holes (and consequently my indifference to “spoilers”) is quite high, because I consider plot one of the least interesting components of a film or television show. But based on which television shows have achieved popularity in recent years – Lost and 24, Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl – I think many spectators may hold the opposite point of view. They prize narrative complexity to the exclusion of any other kind of complexity.
Hypothetically, let’s say that the director of “Betrayed,” William Hale, had opted for accuracy at the possible expense of clarity. In that case, the scene might have played out with Keller and Stone stopping the film and then squinting and puzzling over the blurry image. Perhaps they would have disagreed over the meaning of the clue. Perhaps their ambivalence would have carried over into another scene; instead of knowing already that their suspect (played by Martin Sheen) was the culprit, they would have had to interrogate him, bluff him, to elicit a confession. Perhaps Sheen’s character would have slipped from their grasp for lack of evidence. Perhaps Keller and Stone would never have known whether he was guilty or not. Perhaps the viewer would have been left with less confidence in the effectiveness of the police, less certainty about the likelihood of closure in general.
Each of those possibilities is less likely than the previous one, at least for a mainstream television show from the seventies. That single subliminal, impossible edit may seem like a continuity error. Instead it’s a shrewd elision that tidies the narrative of “Betrayed” in a meaningful way. Did some viewers, even in 1973, congratulate themselves for catching a mistake that the filmmakers missed? Of course. But the filmmakers had the last word. They understood that sometimes a “mistake” is more satisfying than an uncertainty.
July 9, 2009
I have always intended to write in this space about new TV shows as well as old ones. Since my blog debuted, though, the networks (and even the cable channels) have stymied that plan by offering up two of the most uninspired television seasons in history. But my friend Stuart Galbraith’s recent review of the most recent season of 24 (the only one I haven’t yet seen), plus my own sideswipe at neo-con 24 writer-producer Manny Coto, have gotten me thinking about that series again. So perhaps that’s a place to start.
Two years ago Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article cast a baleful eye upon the popular Fox action serial in which shady government operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) plows a lethal, annual real-time path through an array of terrorists bent on blowing up America. (So far we have glimpsed only 168 hours of Bauer’s life, during which he has saved the world seven times – an impressive average.) For anyone who has qualms about the moral implications of 24, it’s cathartic to see Mayer expose the show’s co-creator, Joel Surnow, as a cigar-smoking, Rush Limbaugh’s ass-kissing, John Milius-wannabe buffoon. Memo to Mr. Surnow: John Milius wouldn’t be caught dead sporting a soul patch.
But Mayer is a political, not an entertainment, reporter. The revelation of Surnow’s politics (and those of fellow 24 writer/producer Manny Coto) is her main “gotcha,” but the more substantial point Mayer makes is that the storytelling of 24 relies heavily upon torture and the trampling of civil rights. That was hardly news to regular 24 viewers, but Mayer’s evidence that military and law enforcement recruits have begun to see the show as justification for brutality in their work gave many pause. Just as the mafiosi of past generations copied their style from James Cagney or The Godfather, today’s real-life spooks may be aping Jack Bauer’s moves.
As a television historian, I’m intrigued by one idea which remains implicit in Mayer’s reporting. I suspect that 24’s torture fetish is more practical than ideological. This is borne out by the amusing quotes from actor Kiefer Sutherland and producer Howard Gordon, who tie themselves in knots trying to reconcile their own liberal or moderate opinions with the series’ hawkish reputation.
In 24, torture operates primarily as an expository device. Mayer, and the experts she quotes, point out that violent coercion always works on 24. It always provides reliable intelligence, always averts deadly disasters in time. Joel Surnow would be happy to have you accept this aspect of his show as an aesthetic affirmation of Bush’s torture policies. But I believe the real reason for all the torture in 24 is simply that it’s the only way to move the story from point A to point B. 24 functions as a succession of suspenseful set pieces, and in order to activate the next one, some new bit of exposition must be gleaned at the end of the previous arc. There are interrogation methods other than torture – many of them mentioned by Mayer – but all of them take longer than a real-time drama can afford. Ergo, lots and lots of busted kneecaps and electroshock. 24’s failures of compassion are secondary to its failures of imagination.
It’s easy for op-ed writers to opine about the supposed politics of a television show when it happens to intersect with the zeitgeist. But most of the time, television’s politics are just opportunistic. Only a tiny handful of American series (The Defenders, M*A*S*H, The West Wing) have actually expressed a coherent political point of view, and I can’t think of any that you could call radical (either to the right or the left). Law and Order is my favorite example: it’s often perceived as a right-leaning show, and in general its focus on cops and prosecutors leads to a knee-jerk pro-law and order stance. But Dick Wolf has always shifted shrewdly with the political breeze – installing liberal district attorneys for the Clinton and Obama eras, a conservative one for the Bush years – and Law and Order nurses a streak of Dickensian, populist contempt for the wealthy and powerful that muddies its ideology. Wherever the story goes, the politics follow.
What I enjoy about 24 are the tangential elements: the taut direction; the drab, sun-battered San Fernando Valley locations; and Sutherland’s sweaty, tamped-down portrayal Jack Bauer, a welcome relief from the Schwarzenegger/Willis model of over-the-top movie action hero. But I suspect that most fans get pulled into the show by the storylines that I find silly and repetitive.
In the New Yorker, Mayer laid out how 24’s overuse of race-against-time threats that rarely, if ever, occur in real life represent a straw-man argument for the efficacy of torture. Her argument complements a point articulated in Adam Curtis’s 2004 BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, which can also be taken as an extended rebuke to 24. Curtis makes a persuasive case that the idea of an organized global network of terrorism is a fiction maintained by fear-mongering politicians in order to command the allegiance of the public. People who believe the lies cling to hawks like Bush and Cheney in order to feel safe, and I think that’s why 24 has found an audience, too. Across its seven cycles, 24 exhibits a horrorshow of worst-case scenarios with unconcealed glee: political assassinations, dirty bombs, missing nukes, flesh-eating bioterror microbes on the rampage in downtown L.A. Emotionally, 24 scores by eliciting a vicarious, tenuous sense of relief that looming real-world threats to our personal safety may come to pass tomorrow, but did not do so today. What eludes me is why such a masochistic ritual appeals to so many people.
Meanwhile, I’ve been watching Swingtown, the show about wife-swapping during the Bicentennial summer that was already a lame duck when it aired last year. Swingtown was a curious venture for CBS, not just because the network hasn’t successfully nurtured a serious drama in nearly a decade, but also because it covers such familiar territory. What is there about suburban banality that hasn’t already been sliced and microscoped on Weeds or Desperate Housewives or Big Love or Mad Men or The Riches?
Not much, it turns out. Swingtown has a solid B+ pedigree; it was created by writer Mike Kelley (ex-The O.C.) and executive produced by director Alan Poul (ex-Six Feet Under). But Swingtown borrows a great deal from Ang Lee and James Schamus’s The Ice Storm, albeit ten years later and fatally watered down for prime-time. Kelley’s creation, set in a Chicago commuter town, has a cul-de-sac full of stereotypes: prudish Stepford wife best friend; coke-whore single mom; precocious teen with a crush on her teacher. But so far (I’m around the half-way point) there has been no single iconic image with the resonance of Christina Ricci’s teen nymphette in a Nixon mask.
There are two good reasons to watch Swingtown: its leading ladies. (There are men in Swingtown too, but I’ve already forgotten them.) Since I first noticed her on Boomtown, Lana Parrilla has passed through several series (including 24) without leaving much of an impression. Here she finally has a chance to shine as Trina, the predatory swinger superwoman who is as at home in the kitchen, whipping up a perfect fondue, as she is in bed with two men. Parrilla is ravishingly sexy and confident, and more committed than the rest of the cast to the authentic seventies hairdos.
But the star here is Molly Parker, playing a thirtysomething housewife and mother who discovers an unexpected restlessness within herself after she’s exposed to Trina and her hedonistic circle. The main thrust of Swingtown is Susan Decker’s awakening, to sexual experimentation and also to some of the ideas and practical applications of feminism. I was afraid that Parker would offer just a caricature of female repression; it’s well within her range, and the early episodes don’t help her much with ridiculous scenes like the one where Susan gets flustered by all the sexy talk and drags the family straight off to church. But Parker understands that we want to see her break through. She has a natural languor, but also the ability to turn on a kind of inner radiance at just the right moments. A fearless indie film star (see Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World, for one), Parker descended into television via Deadwood, and it’s especially exhilarating to see her freed from the straitjacket of David Milch’s pretentious pseudo-Shakespearean dialect. Mostly she’s way ahead of the writing in Swingtown, but there’s a real joy in watching her light up any time the prospect of liberation presents itself.
The real test of a show about sexual freedom is probably whether or not it comes off as sex-positive, and this is where Swingtown may have suffered from being on CBS instead of cable. For one thing, it can’t depict an actual orgy; instead there are quick cutaways to a shirtless extra with two (clothed) babes cooing in his ear, a scene so chaste it could be an outtake from a deodorant commercial. At one point Trina’s husband entreats her to talk dirty to him, and the camera whoosh-pans away from Parrilla with her mouth hanging open, before she can get the first word out.
Not being able to show (or even talk about) the central subject is handicap enough, but even as pure plot Swingtown stalls on the wife-swapping. Susan and her husband enjoy a polite gangbang with the neighbors at the climax of the pilot, but by the seventh episode, a second hookup remains conspicuous in its absence. One particularly grating tactic for throwing cold water on everyone is the character of Susan’s straitlaced “old” best friend Janet (Miriam Shor, in a cripplingly weak performance that equates repression with a robotic speech pattern), who has a habit of showing up whenever Susan (or anyone else) starts to feel naughty.
Maybe this is just a conservative narrative strategy – once Susan and spouse go all the way, the show has shot its wad, as it were – but it smacks of another kind of conservatism, too. There’s an aspect of class consciousness nestled at the base of Swingtown’s premise that remains revealingly underdeveloped. Susan’s transformative odyssey begins only when she and her family move to a pointedly wealthier neighborhood. Swingtown math: financial prosperity (Trina) equals decadence; relative poverty (Janet) equals inhibition and intolerance. But surely there’s a happy, middlebrow, censor-appeasing, baby boomer-CBS-audience-satisfying compromise somewhere along that sliding scale, right?
I’m reminded of a Night Court episode from the eighties in which a guy has just awakened from a twenty-year coma. “What about the sexual revolution – is it over?” he asks innocently. Marsha Warfield’s no-nonsense bailiff looks at him pityingly and says, “Ohhhhh, yeah.” (I’ve paraphrased that exchange from memory.) Swingtown doesn’t treat the sexual revolution as a joke, but it doesn’t seem to know why we should take it seriously, either. Are we meant to feel nostalgia for the bygone possibility of alternative sexuality in even the most staid of enclaves – of Harry Reems dropping in for cocktails at a midwestern house party, as happens in one enjoyable episode – or to shudder with relief that such scandalously unchecked libidinousness is as extinct as the Ford Pinto? One thing you can say about all of the best TV shows, of any era: they take a position.
May 14, 2009
My name is Stephen, and I am a Trekkie.
It’s been over ten years since I’ve used, but I know I can slip at any time.
It started when I was nine years old. My father, in most other ways a sage and upstanding man, was the one who hooked me. He just wanted something decent to watch when he came home from work. At the time Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was my afternoon rerun of choice, and he knew Star Trek was on the other channel.
It didn’t take immediately. I pronounced the spaceships and the wild aliens “boring,” and I missed Jim Nabors. But after a while, I started to get it. I liked Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future, and the idea that Mr. Spock’s behavior was governed by logic rather than emotion (a point of view foreign to most of my fellow fourth graders). I couldn’t have articulated this then, but I also dug the retro-futurist design in the sets, the costumes, and the special effects. (Now, I find these to be the most enduring aspects of the 1966 Star Trek’s appeal – which is why the new Blu-Ray versions which replace the original effects with CGI gild the lily in the most pointless way.)
It got ugly pretty fast. I was always an obsessive taxonomist of whatever interest I had at the moment – earlier, it had been geography, and before that zoology – and so I got my hands on all the books about Star Trek and read them over and over again. There was Allan Asherman’s The Star Trek Companion. Stephen E. Whitfield’s The Making of Star Trek. David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek. My mother, so sure she’d had a scientific prodigy on her hands, tore her hair and begged for the animals and the maps to come back. But they were gone for good.
My father suffered, too. I’d become a Trek fan during a rare window, a lull between the movies, when the original show wasn’t ubiquitous in reruns, at least where I lived. I must’ve dragged my dad to every video store in the greater Raleigh area looking for tapes of the fifty-two episodes that had been released on VHS. When the lion’s share of Star Trek’s third season finally emerged on tape, my father bought the whole run of them on the same night I discovered them in the Waldenbooks at the Crabtree Valley Mall. I was awed, because a parent had never spent so much money on me at one time before. Now I realize that my father understood he was saving himself a lot of grief in the long run.
I tried to spread the gospel in school, but they were all heathens there. I’d take my Star Trek books into class and the other kids, discoving that I had them memorized, would quiz me on the trivia. They thought they had me once, but it was actually a misspelling in Asherman’s book. During the fifth grade, our lessons each week were organized around a theme of the teacher’s choosing: geology, say, or Native American culture. In the spring Mrs. Jones (not a pseudonym) called me outside and whispered a secret conspiracy: what say I ghost-write her lesson plan and we make Star Trek the theme of the week? I happily complied. Finally, an official seal of approval! My classmates seethed: this Star Trek nonsense they’d been tuning out for so long had finally forced its way into their lives. I’d been a citizen of the nerd ghetto since kindergarten, but Star Trek sent my popularity down to some subterranean level quite possibly never plumbed by an elementary schooler before. That time when the other kids (abetted by a parent volunteer) duct-taped my mouth shut – I’m pretty sure that had something to do with Star Trek.
My fervor crested around the time Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987. I still remember which living room chair I was sitting in as I devoured the pilot (mediocre, but of course I didn’t mind). The Next Generation was a constant during my teen years, even as my media tastes expanded (other TV shows; movies; theater) and as I developed something resembling a social life. When it went off the air – I remember that night, too – it was sad, but I figured I could get by without it now. There were other things to think about, like girls.
Something else happened during the seven-year run of The Next Generation, something more profound than my feeble progress toward getting a life, and it’s a phenomenon that I don’t think has been remarked upon enough: Star Trek became corporatized. Paramount had been trying to make money off of Star Trek for twenty years, but in fact it had overseen a long period of benign ineptitude (premature cancellation of the original series; the collapse of a sequel show in the seventies; the failure of the first film) in which Trekkies were more or less left to their own devices. Finally, with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the studio had a vehicle that could generate sustained profit and, more importantly, could transition Trek from a cult to a mainstream fanbase.
I noticed the changes that came with that transition with dismay. I was, after all, the last of the “classic Trek” fans. Suddenly Trekkies were deluged with collectible plates and pewter starships. An extensive line of action figures emerged – oh, if only they’d been a few years earlier, when I was still young enough to play with them! When I went to my first Star Trek convention, in 1987, there was a dealer’s room where the items for sale were mostly handmade (wood-carved tricorders!) or mimeographed (episode guides and, yes, even some “K/S” fan fiction). The only celebrity guest was Mark Lenard, who had played the minor character of Spock’s father, and the rest of the busy program consisted of fans’ panel discussions and screenings of original Trek episodes and blooper reels on ordinary TV sets. During the run of The Next Generation, the conventions were hijacked by an event planning corporation called Creation. Creation could book the big name stars into third-tier cities like Raleigh, and project exclusive preview clips onto giant screens. The dealers sold only Paramount-authorized merchandise; fans never had much chance to talk to each other; and while Marina Sirtis was fun, it was obvious even to a thirteen year-old that she (unlike Mark Lenard) was there because promoting the show was part of her job.
I’m pretty sure that I was the only person under eighteen at that 1987 show. When I went to my last convention, five or six years later, I was shocked to see the audience full of children younger than me, with parents in tow. Star Trek was now being marketed, successfully, not toward adults but to a “family” demographic.
Courting an audience of twelve year-olds, Star Trek seemed increasingly to be written and executed at a twelve year-old level. The writing and acting on The Next Generation remained somewhat pure, but the subsequent series had compromise in their DNA. Early on during the run of The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry, the truculent anti-authoritarian who had created Star Trek, was kicked upstairs. Rick Berman, the Paramount executive who took charge of the Trek franchise, was a corporate loyalist – a suit. Everything new that emerged during the Berman era was calculatedly bland. Deep Space Nine, the third series, introduced the character of Dr. Bashir as a temperamental and potentially dangerous rogue, for example, but he became a lovable fop after the test screenings. Voyager and Enterprise, the fourth and fifth Trek series, made me embarrassed to admit I had ever been a Trekkie, with their cookie-cutter scripts and interchangeable supporting casts of pretty but hopeless nobodies. (Quick, Neelix or Phlox, which was the comic relief alien from which series? It doesn’t matter: both were insufferable.)
What really bothered me was that the fans seemed to go right along with program while Star Trek was watered down and merchandised to death. I didn’t get it. Star Trek had been a phenomenon of the counterculture. The original Trekkies were hippies and peaceniks who had seen Trek as part of a larger cultural movement that tried to map out a hopeful future in a dark time. They were intellectuals and artists, not maladjusted shut-ins. At least, that’s the way it was told in the histories of fandom I’d read. But if that was true, why didn’t the old guard of Trek fans rise up and reject the condescending, homogenized Star Trek of Deep Space Nine on, of the tie-in novels, of most of the feature films?
I had this epiphany sometime in high school and resolved to write a passionate, well-reasoned missive to the official Star Trek fanzine, the Communicator, outlining the points above and leading the fans in wresting Star Trek back from the corporate machine. I would be the Trotsky of Star Trek. But then it dawned on me that most – in fact, just about all – of the letters published in the Trek fanzine were pretty positive about the way Star Trek was going. It was almost as if the Communicator was itself hooked in with Paramount somehow. I began to suspect that the Communicator might have the temerity to not publish my manifesto, even if I did sit down and write it. I wondered if everyone who had mocked Star Trek, from Bill Shatner on Saturday Night Live on down to my middle school classmates, might not have been right. Were we sheep, we Trekkies? By the time I went off to college, I had mostly left Star Trek behind.
I tried to be loyal over the years. I sampled Voyager and Enterprise when they began, but found them too banal to stick with. With its complex characters, its robust acting and direction, and its sometimes profound engagement with real ideas, The Next Generation had achieved a quality comparable to the other great (and more critically acclaimed) ensemble dramas with which it overlapped, from St. Elsewhere to Picket Fences. But Voyager and Enterprise were just schlocky action serials.
I’ll admit to a certain schadenfreude when UPN cancelled the last of the Star Trek shows well before the end of the seven-year covenant to which every mediocre Trek sequel felt entitled. Enterprise had done more than simply bore me. It had enraged me with the cliff-hanger ending to its second season, a callous fictionalization of the September 11 tragedy that expanded the following year into a hysterical, opportunistic parable for the United States’s “war on terror” (itself a fiction, but I digress).
One of the main architects of this “Xindi” storyline was a writer named Manny Coto, and years later when the New Yorker made a big splash by outing the creative staff of 24 (including Coto) as a nest of right-wing torture-mongers, my reaction was along the lines of: Well, no doi. That agenda was no secret if you knew where to look. Star Trek died the most undignified death imaginable. It began as one of television’s few sincere pleas for tolerance and peace (complete, infamously, with actual space hippies) and ended as a neo-conservative exercise in outer space war games.
But Star Trek, like Spock, always resurrects, and if the above reads like a backhanded way of tying this blog in with current events . . . well, it is. We have a new Trek movie whose box office returns are replicating like tribbles, and that seems sure to guarantee a few more sequels starring its new cast in the familiar roles. Supposedly the fans are on board, but then my friend Scott Foundas (also a lapsed Trekkie) believes that the film was made by a committee of Vulcans, or of studio execs looking to shore up their franchise. That sounds familiar to me. I wish the new Star Trek well, but I’m not sure I’m in any hurry to beam up again.
April 28, 2009
Don Carpenter was a novelist who mostly lived in and wrote about the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. He published nine novels and a collection of short stories and blew his brains out in 1995, at the age of sixty-four.
Lately Carpenter has become one of my favorite writers. I discovered him after his debut novel, Hard Rain Falling, turned up on a Village Voice list of unjustly forgotten books, and I think I warmed to his work because I was looking for some kind of continuation of the mind-blowing experience of reading Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Carpenter’s writing is looser, leaner, and somewhat less depressing than Yates’s. But Carpenter works in the same mode of detailed psychological realism, and often employs the omniscient narrative voice that drives Revolutionary Road.
Carpenter is relevant here because, like many other fine novelists, he made some unproductive forays into television which provide a provocative footnote to his serious writing. One of the most storied aspects of the Hollywood’s “Golden Age” is that nearly every world-class American writer – Faulkner, Fitzgerald, West, Chandler – passed through Tinseltown long enough to toil on some forgettable movies and gather material for their prose. To a lesser extent, a subsequent generation performed the same kind of journeyman work in television. John Fante wrote a (bad) script for The Richard Boone Show. David Goodis penned an Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Jim Thompson racked up credits on Dr. Kildare and Cain’s Hundred. Joseph Heller, in the years between Catch-22‘s publication and its veneration, wrote for McHale’s Navy.
Don Carpenter’s brush with television occurred in 1968-69 and encompassed two series that I know about, the western High Chaparral and Roy Huggins’ short-lived, hard-boiled private eye drama The Outsider. Carpenter had one script produced on High Chaparral, executive producer David Dortort’s followup to/ripoff of his mega-hit Bonanza, and at least one script done on The Outsider. I haven’t seen either of them. When I decided to write this piece, I felt an urge to track them down, but The Outsider remains a frustrating enigma (only a handful of episodes exist in private hands). And watching High Chaparral, I have to confess, ranks not too far above rectal exams on the list of things I’d care to spend my free time doing. One day I’ll put myself through it, I suppose, but don’t these exercises in grad student completism usually turn out to be fool’s errands anyway? Is anyone really going to find Heller’s soul crouched in the hull of PT-73? And if the junk vigilantism of Cain’s Hundred does bear some superficial similarity to, say, The Killer Inside Me, does that really mean anything?
So far my favorite Carpenter novel is The Class of ’49, a kind of updated Winesburg, Ohio, that catalogs a series of formative incidents in the lives of a group of Portland high school seniors. Elliptical in its approach, The Class of ’49 runs to a mere 110 pages, and so its enterprising publisher bundled it with two unrelated short stories. The second of those stories is called Glitter: A Memory, and it draws upon Carpenter’s own adventures in the television trade.
Carpenter wrote a lot about Hollywood, including a trilogy of novels – The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, A Couple of Comedians, and Turnaround – that do not strike me as quite putting their finger on the movie industry with the same authenticity as The Day of the Locust or What Makes Sammy Run? or Fitzgerald’s “Crazy Sunday.” But, then, I wasn’t there, so what do I know? Maybe it’s just because I’ve done a lot of my own research on the television industry of the late sixties, but I think Glitter: A Memory is the most realistic (and most viscerally truthful) of Carpenter’s Hollywood stories.
Glitter offers an account of the early gestation of a television pilot, the content of which remains largely undescribed (and irrelevant). It’s told in the first person by an unnamed “number two writer” on the project; the other two main characters are the pilot’s writer-creator and its young star, Felix Bilson, who has a reputation for being difficult to work with. Mainly the story recounts a single afternoon and evening of carousing on the part of the three principals, who bond across the industry’s well-etched class divisions after Bilson and the narrator find they share an affinity for pool. As with most of Carpenter’s work, Glitter doesn’t go where you expect it to: the bratty movie star is not a monster, but an artist who ought to be taken more seriously, and the narrative comes to an anticlimactic end in a nudie bar. The narrator pays a compliment to a stripper – “You dance beautifully” - and confides to the reader that he should have expressed the same sentiment to Bilson.
What fascinates me about Glitter: A Memory is that it derives unmistakably from the creation of NBC’s Then Came Bronson, an unusual one-season drama about a rootless wanderer who travels the western United States on a Harley-Davidson. Carpenter dedicates the story to “Denne,” and that’s the key that unlocks the riddle. On High Chaparral, Carpenter overlapped with a writer and story editor named Denne Bart Petitclerc. If challenging storytelling was not a hallmark of David Dortort’s work, then one of his paradoxical virtues was a commitment to finding and giving opportunities to unorthodox, delicate, and outside-Hollywood writing talent. Petitclerc and Carpenter number among his discoveries. I’m certain that I’m safe in surmising that Petitclerc (who died in 2006) is both the “Denne” of Glitter‘s dedication as well as the character of the fictitious pilot’s primary writer, barely disguised with the name Dennis Grey Liffy. It was Petitclerc who wrote the March 1969 made-for-television movie that launched Then Came Bronson as a series the following fall.
If the Glitter pilot is really Then Came Bronson, then Felix Bilson is Michael Parks. Carpenter creates a backstory for Bilson that draws heavily on the details of Parks’s life: the conspicuous resemblance (in looks and Method-y technique) to James Dean; the chafing under a restrictive studio contract and the contrarian attitude toward his executive overlords (read more here about Parks’ clash with Universal and Lew Wasserman); the career suicide undone by an “executive producer” (unnamed in Glitter, Herbert F. Solow in real life) who fought to cast Parks in his pilot. And the personal tragedies. Parks’ second wife, a small-part actress named Jan Moriarty, took a fatal overdose of pills in 1964; his brother Jimmy drowned in 1968. Carpenter, perhaps influenced by the Manson killings, combines those incidents into a single one, the violent, inexplicable and unsolved double homicide of Felix Bilson’s wife and brother.
The events of Glitter take place in 1968, the same year during which Petitclerc would have conceived and written Then Came Bronson. All that really leaves to conjecture is how much, if any, of the drinking, toking, girl-chasing, and male bonding in Carpenter’s story (all of which is more complex and sympathetic than I’m making it sound) actually happened between Parks and the two writers. I can’t even hazard a guess as to whether Carpenter was a participant in Bronson at all, or merely an observer, or perhaps just inspired by some anecdote related to him by Petitclerc. The absence of any credited connection between Carpenter and Then Came Bronson doesn’t prove much; Petitclerc had nothing to do with Then Came Bronson after the pilot TV-movie he wrote sold, so once he was out, Carpenter (if he was ever in) would have been too.
As it happens, the twenty-six episodes of Then Came Bronson get just about everything right except the writing: Parks is vulnerable and mesmerizing; the locations are often breathtaking, the imagery suitably Fordian. But the scripts rarely go beyond motorbike travelogue and into the air of wanderlust and uncertainty and change that was palpable in 1969. I have to wonder: what kind of a masterpiece could the show have been with Petitclerc and Carpenter at the reins?
January 27, 2009
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
December 6, 2008
Studio One occupies so much real estate in the history of television that it’s difficult to know how to even begin to survey it. A dramatic anthology, especially a long-running one, is like the proverbial elephant: every piece of it you lay a hand on is different from any other. Studio One broadcast nearly five hundred shows over ten seasons, from 1948 to 1958, and inevitably it ran the full technological and creative gamut of live television.
That’s why Koch Vision’s exceptionally well curated Studio One Anthology is so valuable. The seventeen shows in this expensive but essential DVD collection give viewers a far better sense of the achievements and the limitations specific to Studio One than any written account of the series could.
Up to now, many of the Studio Ones that have circulated in private collections and public domain video releases came from what I think of as the show’s least interesting period – the early years in which almost every teleplay was an adaptation of a work from some other medium. The emblematic Studio One segment among many TV fans is, I fear, a deadly dull Cliff Notes cut-down of The Taming of the Shrew or Wuthering Heights starring a stiff Charlton Heston (the only member of the show’s initial repertory to become a major star).
The Studio One Anthology includes a handful of these early works, which, like the Victorian “tradition of quality” films from the earliest days of cinema, seemed intent on proving that, yes, television could acquit itself respectably with Shakespeare or Hawthorne or Henry James. Heston’s Heathcliff is here, alongside an opera (“The Medium”), an Easter “Pontius Pilate” from 1952, and the last of Studio One‘s three stagings of “Julius Caesar.”
But the DVD set focuses primarily on what the so-called Golden Age of television did best: the original, personal dramas by young writers who were looking for ways to introduce contemporary concerns into the new medium. There are two episodes apiece by Rod Serling and Gore Vidal. Reginald Rose, the only important live TV playwright who was chiefly associated with Studio One, is properly represented by a whopping five shows.
A great deal has been written about cultural milestones like Serling’s “The Arena” and Rose’s Emmy-winning “Twelve Angry Men” (thought lost until a full kinescope was discovered in a private collection in 2003), but until now they have been impossible to see outside of museums. The Studio One Anthology may well be the classic television event of the year.
From the moment it debuted on CBS in 1948, Studio One was awarded the status of an instant classic. The Kraft Television Theater, the first regular hour-long dramatic anthology, had begun a season earlier, but it was not regarded as highly. Delbert Mann, one of the great live TV directors, once rated the most prestigious live anthologies from an insider’s point of view:
Of the live shows, Philco and Studio One were considered to be the class acts. When Robert Montgomery [Presents] went on the air, it joined that group. Kraft was not in that group, with the exception of a few shows. The Alcoa Hour and Pulitzer Prize Playhouse did quality shows, but they didn’t last long. Playhouse 90 came later. Hallmark was the class of the class, but they were not on a weekly basis.
Studio One‘s initial producer was Worthington H. “Tony” Miner. Miner, who also wrote and directed many early segments, was a sort of D. W. Griffith figure who expanded the possibilities of a potentially static medium. Miner defined a lot of the basic grammar of live TV. He broke the proscenium arch by utilizing sets with moveable walls that could conceal the cameras, allowing for complex movements and cinematic angles. Miner figured out that cleverly timed voiceovers and costume changes would permit flashbacks and other sleight of hand. He looked for ways to defy the basic spatial limitations of the live drama; famously, in 1950, he turned Studio One‘s stage into a gigantic water tank for the submarine drama “The Last Cruise.” Franklin Schaffner, one of the show’s most prolific directors, said that
. . . what made Studio One an attraction was the sense of adventure that Tony Miner brought to that show in terms of challenging the limitations of doing television programs live inside a studio. His insistence on exploring the possibilities for staging in terms of depth made Studio One markedly different from Philco, The U.S. Steel Hour, and Kraft. Everything that I know visually came out of that experience with Tony Miner.
Without disputing the accuracy and importance of any of that, I want to take away some of the credit that historians have conveyed upon Miner and award it instead to his most important successor, Felix Jackson. Jackson took the reigns of Studio One fifteen months after Miner’s departure in spring 1952 (due to a contract dispute with CBS, according to Larry James Gianakos’ helpful DVD liner notes).
A German screenwriter who fled the Nazis during the thirties, Jackson became a Hollywood producer, chiefly at Universal Pictures, where he made seven Deanna Durbin musicals – and then married his star. Eventually Jackson’s Hollywood career, and his union with Durbin, derailed and in the fall of 1953 he began a three-year stint as the producer of Studio One, overseeing what I believe is the anthology’s most fertile period.
In the year and a half between Miner’s departure and Jackson’s arrival, a succession of at least five different producers rotated at the helm; the most important were Donald Davis and his wife Dorothy Mathews, and Fletcher Markle, who had originated the radio version of Studio One in 1947. It was during this fallow period at Studio One that Fred Coe, the producer of the Philco Television Playhouse, achieved the major breakthrough in terms of commissioning original material for live anthologies. Paddy Chayefsky and Horton Foote both wrote their first teleplays for Philco during those seventeen months, and on May 24, 1953, the Philco telecast of “Marty” turned the tide irrevocably toward the “kitchen sink.”
Jackson understood this. He and the CBS staffer who became his story editor, a colorful former movie actress named Florence Britton, raided Philco and Kraft for fresh material by star writers like Tad Mosel, Alvin Sapinsley, and A. J. Russell. They groomed young discoveries of their own (among them Frank D. Gilroy and Paul Monash), and promoted some Studio One standbys, including Reginald Rose, from adaptations to originals. Jackson may have been following the trend rather than setting it, but the results were impressive.
Sandy Kenyon in “An Almanac of Liberty”
The biggest question surrounding the Studio One Anthology may be what modern audiences will make of Studio One‘s behind-the-typewriter star, Reginald Rose. I suspect he might be a hard sell.
Horton Foote and Paddy Chayefsky wrote from the heart; their plays are character-driven and emotional, and as such timeless. Reginald Rose wrote from the head: almost everything was an allegory, an intellectual idea or a political point, fictionalized once over lightly. The pitfalls of stridency and pedagogy loomed, and Rose was not always so nimble as to avoid them.
“In a way, almost everything I wrote in the fifties was about McCarthy,” Rose once said. Indeed. The key Rose segments here are his first original, “The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners,” and “An Almanac of Liberty,” studies of intolerance similar enough to one another to invite questions of self-plagiarism. They are almost Marxist in their decentralization of authority. Neither has a single protagonist; they divide their focus instead among large ensembles of small-town archetypes. Both utilize the narrative device of the mock trial. “Carson Corners” has schoolchildren and then their parents crucifying a janitor for a boy’s fatal fall from a damaged staircase, only to realize that the culpability was collective. “Almanac,” ostensibly based on a nonfiction book of the same name by then-supreme court justice William O. Douglas, but in fact an original work synergized for cross-promotion, is a study of scapegoating. Citizens at a town meeting righteously parse the causes of an outsider’s savage beating, finally discerning that the ugliness of a few lies within all.
These democracy-in-action impulses came to an apex in “Twelve Angry Men,” that oft-remade, multi-media civics lesson that remains Rose’s epitaph. At only an hour, and with colorless Robert Cummings rather than magisterial Henry Fonda as the instigator of dissent, the television version plays more as a group dialectic on jurisprudence than as a lone hero’s courageous stand against the mob.
It’s hard for me to separate my reactions to “Twelve Angry Men”‘s Studio One blueprint from my admiration for Sidney Lumet’s film of three years later. More often than not big-screen treatment diluted the impact of live TV material (see Marty or The Days of Wine and Roses), but I think Rose’s screenplay enriched his original considerably. With an extra half hour, everyone gets a fair share of the spotlight. It’s a shock to realize that some of the feature’s more vivid jurors – mainly Robert Webber’s fatuous ad man (“Throw it on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up!”), a cherished figure of Rosean ridicule – are mere placeholders in the original.
Whatever their flaws, these shows illustrate Rose’s conviction that rationalism and communication can affect positive change. That sounds dry, but in each of these three plays there is emotional catharsis when Rose’s characters reach common ground at the conclusion. The problem is that Rose seemed unable to move beyond this representational mode. The samples here of his non-allegorical work – that is to say, Rose’s more ostensibly character-driven shows – are fairly disastrous.
“Dino,” an earnest take on the juvenile delinquency problem with nuanced performances from Sal Mineo and an atypically restrained Ralph Meeker, languishes in self-congratulatory liberalism. “The Death and Life of Larry Benson” builds to a second-act shocker: a quintessential mid-American family anticipates the return of its veteran son, only to be greeted at the train station by a stranger. It’s Rose’s most intimate early work, and yet his coldest. Pseudo-Larry and his would-be family have no inner lives; they exist only to illustrate a half-baked yin-yang conceit that one man’s life is as good as another. Had Rose articulated his idea more clearly, it might have offended someone.
It may be fair to say that Rose did not find his voice until The Defenders, which liberated him from both allegory and interiority. The legal procedural format enabled Rose to retire his mock trials and orchestrate real ones. Here was a venue wherein his characters had to articulate their feelings, or die.
Strip the credits off “An Almanac of Liberty” and you’d guess it was a Rod Serling work, because it deploys The Twilight Zone‘s raison d’etre of couching social critique within science fiction. “Almanac” incorporates an explicitly paranormal event, an unexplained stoppage of time – wristwatches quit working and people outside the town hall freeze in their tracks – and it’s implied that the victimized stranger (Sandy Kenyon) may be an alien, or a Christ figure, sent to test the mettle of the human race. Rose’s very first teleplay, “The Bus to Nowhere” (for Out There), was also science fiction, but he doesn’t seem terribly engaged by the elements of fantasy in “Almanac”; they’re scalpels on his surgeon’s tray. Recall that Serling was around and paying attention – he was fond enough of one of Rose’s Studio Ones (“The Incredible World of Horace Ford”) to have it filmed for The Twilight Zone – and it becomes reasonable to think of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Eye of the Beholder” as touchdowns scored with a ball that Rose tossed to him.
Though Rod Serling wrote his most important teleplays for other anthologies (mainly Kraft, U. S. Steel, and Playhouse 90), even minor Serling compels attention. The two shows on display here bookend “Patterns,” the 1955 Kraft that put Serling on the map, but it’s the earlier of the two that is the most successful. “The Strike” is a Korean War drama about an outwardly tough officer who crumbles when he realizes that the only way to save his platoon is to order an airstrike that will wipe out a small patrol of his own men. Major Gaylord is a classic Serling white-knuckle character, a nervous man in a snowy Korean pass, and his utter collapse into self-doubt and then self-pity is mesmerizing.
James Daly, as Gaylord, offers the DVD set’s quintessential live TV performance. Acting for live television combined the trickiest elements of theater and film – a performer had to deliver a fully realized characterization in real time, but scaled down for the camera that was often only inches from his or her face. There are many good actors in the casts of these seventeen Studio Ones, but watch Daly: he’s one of the few whose performance is as precisely modulated as anything he ever did for a film camera.
“The Strike”‘s finale, its Solomonic dilemma a foregone conclusion, is a bit too schematic, and it will seem heavy-handed and academic to anyone who has seen Sam Fuller’s unsentimental combat films. Putting the young Serling up against Fuller may be unfair (even though Serling was a combat veteran, too), but the comparison comes naturally in that “The Strike” bears a strong physical resemblance to Fuller’s early masterpiece Fixed Bayonets! That film, also a study of wartime cowardice, occupies a similarly claustrophobic setting, a wintry mountain cavern and the ridge immediately outside of it. I can’t imagine that someone – Serling, director Franklin Schaffner, or the production designer – didn’t recall the Fuller film while putting “The Strike” together.
James Daly and Roy Roberts in “The Strike”
The second Serling episode, “The Arena,” takes the U.S. Congress as its setting, but the political trappings are window dressing for an Oedipal drama of a freshman senator (Wendell Corey, too old for the role) finally stepping out of his domineering, monstrous father’s shadow. I can’t help but think of it as a poor man’s predecessor to Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, the play and later film (directed by Studio One‘s Schaffner) that offered a less naive vision of the professional ethics of politicians.
Vidal may be the major discovery of the Studio One Anthology. Vidal was the last of the major TV playwrights to emerge; he turned from a stalled career as a novelist to the live anthologies in 1954, after “Marty,” and his work received considerable attention as the trade papers and the mainstream press wondered who would be the next Paddy Chayefsky. As with Serling, Vidal’s best-known TV plays – “Visit to a Small Planet” and “The Death of Billy the Kid,” later filmed as The Left-Handed Gun – aired elsewhere, but the two Studio One originals on display here offer ample evidence of the then twentysomething Vidal’s talent.
“Dark Possession,” skillfully evoking a frosty turn-of-the-century setting, begins as a melodrama of emotional repression and, with the entry of handsome doctor-turned-amateur sleuth Leslie Nielsen, morphs nimbly into a sort of medical mystery. “Summer Pavilion,” a contemporary story that Vidal writes was “based pretty much on my own life and times,” also nails its milieu in a few brush strokes, a changing New Orleans in which Southern aristocrats are being literally bulldozed by progress.
I have to wonder what Vidal, a cousin of Al Gore, meant exactly by that tantalizing remark: is the manipulative matriarch who makes a last futile stand against change, essayed to perfection by fading movie star Miriam Hopkins, a figure from his family history? Or is the touching story of love blooming between Southern belle (radiant Elizabeth Montgomery) and Yankee (wooden Charles Drake) a bit of gender-switched autobiography, a plea for the pursuit of romance in defiance of convention? In any case, though there’s no kitchen sink in sight, “Summer Pavilion” is the DVD set’s most emblematic example of live television, a delicate flower that would have crumbled had it been projected onto a sixty-foot screen or bellowed from a Broadway stage.
Miriam Hopkins in “Summer Pavilion”
There are other riches here that I hardly have room for: “June Moon,” the highlight of the five Miner-produced episodes, a sprightly comedy starring the barely-out-of-diapers Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint; Felix Jackson’s battering-down-the-door debut, a sweeping adaptation of “1984″ that was the basis for the 1956 film; and “Confessions of a Nervous Man,” a twisty, self-reflexive, hilarious bit of self-promotion in which newly lauded playwright George Axelrod (played both by himself and by Art Carney) demonstrates exactly how his smash Broadway hit, The Seven-Year Itch, has ruined his life. Even more than “Twelve Angry Men,” this is the DVD collection’s prize for cinephiles, because “Confessions” is loaded with the same brand of fast-paced, cartoon-styled humor and cynical, up-to-the-minute media satire that made the extraordinary Frank Tashlin film of Axelrod’s next play, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, one of the best American (and one of the most American) movies of the fifties.
It goes without saying that further volumes of Studio One DVDs would be welcome. Curiously, in the liner notes, Larry James Gianakos takes care to list the insignificant interim Studio One producers who came after Worthington Miner, but he omits the men who followed Felix Jackson’s departure in 1956. The first of them, Robert Herridge, was a champion of quality television so far ahead of his time that he worked mainly in the dead zone of non-commercial Sunday programming offered to keep the FCC off the networks’ back. As a substitute producer during the 1956 summer edition of Studio One, Herridge did some of his best (or at least most mainstream) work.
During the final two seasons, other notable names took a turn at the helm: Gordon Duff, who had succeeded Fred Coe on Philco; Norman Felton, later executive producer of Dr. Kildare and The Man From UNCLE; and Herbert Brodkin. Brodkin, of course, was the man who teamed with Reginald Rose to produce The Defenders, a show that had its origins in one of the most famous Studio Ones, Rose’s two-part “The Defender,” with William Shatner and Steve McQueen. “The Defender” is available on DVD (although not in the Koch collection), but few of the other Studio Ones from the final two seasons – during which the show reached its technical peak, and moved from New York to CBS’s Television City facility in Los Angeles – have been seen since their initial transmission. I suspect there’s an unmined vein of the Golden Age there, and I hope Koch has the commitment to tap it.
Endnotes: The Franklin Schaffner quote is from The Days of Live, Ira Skutch, ed. (Scarecrow, 1998), page 50; the Delbert Mann and Reginald Rose quotes are from Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box (Penguin, 1995), pages 235 and 238, respectively; the Gore Vidal quote is from a short essay by Vidal in the Studio One Anthology liner notes.
Stay tuned for more Studio One coverage later this month, featuring comments from some of the series’ surviving participants.
November 14, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.