March 7, 2013
Last month, my old friend Stuart Galbraith IV and I compiled an instant message conversation for simultaneous publication on both our blogs. The subject was streaming video, but as we chattered back and forth, the topic broadened – inevitably – into the related subject of how lovers movie and television watch what they watch.
I worked with Stuart, a film historian (The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune) and a reviewer at DVDTalk.com for more than ten years, at USC’s Warner Bros. Archives in the late nineties. Now we live in opposite corners of the world – he in Kyoto and I in Manhattan – but we still correspond regularly about the media we enjoy and, more wonkily, the delivery systems that put it in front of our eyeballs.
As aficionados who both cover the subject in our own corners of the internet, we have for the past few years shared an urge to shout “You’re doing it wrong!” at the home video industry and its consumers. Specifically, we believe that the shift from physical media to internet streaming as a primary means of viewing film and television is playing out in some alarming ways – ways that may have a longterm negative impact on cinephiles and on a more general public as well.
One Facebook friend told me that taking on streaming video would be “like trying to stop the rain.” But Stuart and I feel that now – before the metamorphosis is complete, and before it’s too late to have any impact on the shape it takes – is the right time to initiate an urgent discussion of the subject. We hope that you will come to share some of our concerns, and that you’ll join in the conversation in the comments.
Stephen Bowie: Just to frame the conversation a bit: It seems like we’re at a sea change moment in terms of both theatrical & home video exhibition, with the digital switchover from 35mm to DCP, and then the apparent movement from physical media to online streaming. And yet, while I’ve read a lot of articles mourning the loss of celluloid, it feels like no one is talking about the latter.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes, why is that? And why are people who love film taking it lying down, resigned as they seem to be to its inevitability?
Stephen Bowie: I feel like there was a little bit of a fight to preserve 35mm, but it started too late and was lost quickly, except maybe in repertory houses (which is still an important ongoing battle). But I think that while no one is really happy about striking a match to celluloid, the streaming thing has divided the cinephile community. Or seduced it, perhaps I should say.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I think partly there’s a misconception that every new technology improves upon the one in current use. But here, both with the demise of 35mm film in movie theaters and the trend away from physical media toward streaming and downloading, what’s driving it is actually something else entirely, namely studios wanting to eliminate distribution and exhibition costs.
Stephen Bowie: And everybody gets that about DCP – there’s no clear upside for the consumer – but streaming offers users “convenience,” or the illusion thereof. Shrewd of Netflix to brand its streaming as “Instant!” Also, not only can you watch a movie right now, but you can watch it on your telephone or your tablet.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Back around 2002, when I was working in the Technical Services Department at MGM, streaming and downloading was already, even then, viewed as a foregone conclusion, that even though DVD was a huge cash cow for the industry like never before, and far cheaper to manufacture than VHS and laserdisc, they were already ready to kill that golden goose. And Blu-ray was never seen as anything more than a niche or transitional technology like laserdiscs. And yet both have stubbornly hung on with Blu-ray doing extremely well worldwide. I mean, Blu-ray was never going to be “the new DVD,” but I imagine its success has exceeded expectations.
Stephen Bowie: Didn’t realize it went back that far! Wonder what they’re planning to do to us in 2025.
Stuart Galbraith IV: What Price, Hollywood?
Stephen Bowie: I mean, to be clear, I’m not totally negative about streaming, nor am I being a kneejerk Luddite here. But first, what are your own experiences with the technology?
Stuart Galbraith IV: I should preface this by saying while I’ve never found it difficult to hook up a VCR or DVD or Blu-ray player, for me streaming and downloading are another matter. I have very limited computer skills. I struggled mightily trying to figure out how to do firmware updates on my Blu-ray players, and heavily rely on more computer-savvy people, various friends and my wife, Yukiyo, to anything more involved. It was her, not me, who first became interested in streaming – I was happy to watch only Blu-ray and DVD content – but she ended up getting a Roku for her birthday last fall and later an Apple TV for Christmas. Though she managed to hook everything up with relative ease, the service has been extremely unreliable. Particularly whenever I wanted to watch anything. Partly this was due to us living in Japan yet much preferring to watch Hulu Plus content originating from America. That entailed routing everything through a dummy ISP (is that terminology right?), which complicated things.
Stephen Bowie: And have you actually succeeded in watching anything? How did it look?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Hulu Plus especially almost literally never, and I mean 99% of the time, works properly. Eventually, after Yukiyo spent a great many hours trying to figure out what the problem was, aided by a friend who is literally a computer expert employed by Nintendo, we determined that at least part of the problem was Yukiyo had a laptop that somehow deactivated everything every time she took it out of the house, which was most every day. But the problem still persists and I’ve largely given up on it. The only things I’ve managed to see on Hulu Plus are the first 20 minutes of Snow Trail, Toshiro Mifune’s starring debut (that I once owned on laserdisc, without subtitles) and an episode of Dark Shadows. Mind you, everything is hooked up to the small monitor Yukiyo, not me, primarily uses, which is only a 36” screen or so. Dark Shadows, shot presumably on 1” tape, isn’t a good title on which to judge, but the quality seemed OK. On the other hand, the signal caused the picture to jam several times, interrupting the flow of those narratives. I mean, if the selling point of streaming is convenience, the ability to instantly watch and choose from a wide selection of movies and television shows, well, then, for me so far it’s been a total failure. Between Yukiyo and I, not to mention our friend who spent maybe three hours, so far we’ve invested something like 20 hours resulting in probably less than three hours of viewing.
Stephen Bowie: I’ve sampled most of the streaming providers in the US – Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube – and I’ve gotten most of them to work, using my Blu-ray player to send the video feed to my plasma TV. But as you suggest, troubleshooting is like standing on shifting sands. If you have a problem, the streaming provider will blame it on your ISP, and your ISP will blame it on Netflix, and good luck figuring out what’s actually going in. You’re generally at the mercy of how much traffic there is over shared bandwidth in terms of image quality, and Netflix’s servers are notorious for going dead on Friday and Saturday nights. So even if I’m able to learn the technology up to an expert level, it seems like this leaves a lot outside my control. And a lot of what appealed to me about the evolution of home video over the early 00s was control: more movies available to cinephile than at any point in history before, and often in better condition. That’s one thing that feels like it’s being rolled back.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes, there is a feeling of complete helplessness that I find intensely irritating.
Stephen Bowie: Having to learn a whole new technology may be part of the game, and fine, I’ll do it. But I can make a Blu-ray player do what I want if I understand how it works; the same can’t be said of Time Warner Cable.
Stephen Bowie: I’m still worried that we sound like a couple of grandpas, so let me bring us up to what gave us the idea of starting a conversation about this: Over the long weekend last month, Criterion (which has a large, mouth-watering library of rare, streaming-only movies that it has never released on disc) did a promotion where they gave everyone free access to its “channel” on Hulu Plus. The catch was, there would be a few commercials embedded in each movie. And what surprised me was that I saw a lot of excitement about this offer in my “social media” world, which is mostly movie buffs. Now, the catch is, you can subscribe to Hulu for a month for EIGHT BUCKS. What blew my mind was, are there really cinephiles out there who will watch Bresson’s L’Argent with commercials just to save eight bucks?! I mean, the last time I watched a commercial was probably around 1995.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The same here!
Stephen Bowie: The fact that cinephile culture has not left them completely behind really floored me. You know, if a Colbert clip or something comes up with a commercial in front of it, I just close the window, immediately – I don’t care what I’m missing. I don’t object to paying for content – if there were a meter on my screen and I could pay, say, two cents for each Bill Maher monologue, I probably would. But you can’t have my time.
Stuart Galbraith IV: With DVD I think what happened was that the studios exploited all their A-list titles as far as they could, re- and re-re-re-releasing them ad nauseum. Cinephiles refuse to understand that deep catalog titles just don’t make anything like that kind of money. I think it was Mike Schlesinger who said Hudson Hawk sold 500 times as many units as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But, anyway, what with Warner Archive, Sony’s Choice Collection and whatnot, even the most obscure films anyone could possibly want are available somewhere, most in video transfers vastly superior to what used to be available on VHS and in 16mm TV prints, and now maybe the only way to market them as “conveniences” available on your iPhone with the press of a button.I mean, sure, if I was stuck on a Greyhound bus for 14 hours with nothing to do, watching a movie on my iPad would be preferable to twiddling my thumbs, but …
Stephen Bowie: At the risk of sounding like a snob, I feel like DVD was a semi-luxury product that went mainstream, and that streaming is a McDonald’s kind of product. (So far.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: I agree. Blu-ray was released to the marketplace before it was really ready, hence the endless frustration of consumers who had players that wouldn’t play certain discs, even with firmware updates. Streaming to me is far worse, putting the onus on the consumer for absolutely everything.
Stephen Bowie: I mean, I always thought a great home theater was every movie fan’s goal, and it was just a question of whether his or her circumstances made that possible, or not.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Exactly. Few of us, certainly not me, can afford to remodel our homes as elaborately as some of the incredible home theaters I’ve seen on-line, or afford the most expensive, top-of-the-line sound systems and players. But big, widescreen TVs got much better around the turn of the century and they became affordable. (I’m amazed what you can get in 2013 for less than $5,000, or even $1,000!) That, coupled with the low-cost, high-quality of DVD made building libraries and home theaters much more attractive.
Stephen Bowie: But now it feels like streaming, and the iPod, have proven that a lot of movie fans really don’t care how a movie looks. Is that true? How can that be possible?
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s like being at a movie theater where the film is out of focus but there’s no one in the booth, and booth is locked so that even you can’t fix it.
Stephen Bowie: And you’re the only one in the theater who knows it’s out of focus! Everybody else thinks it’s supposed to be that way! And that’s happened to me, literally.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Some years back, I was chatting with friends in the lobby of the restored Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, a beautiful 1,700-seat or so movie palace built in the late twenties. A teenager strolled in and saw all the unmarked doors leading into the auditorium, as well as the grand staircase leading to the balcony. Looking at us, totally confused, he asked, “Uh, which theater is the movie in?” I think the younger generation, my five year old included, are growing up watching everything primarily via computer screens, even iPhones. And, of course, TVs are now basically computers themselves, and becoming more and more computer-like with each model. Maybe 20 years from we’ll be nostalgically recalling putting discs into players the way older generations (gulp, myself included) recall affixing speakers to car windows at the drive-in.
Stephen Bowie: One thing we were discussing a while back is how the aspect ratio war was a sort of unexpected triumph – through a probably unreproducible series of events, the movie fans won that battle over the people who didn’t understand the “black bars” at the beginning of the DVD era. It sort of feels like we need that kind of unity and purpose now, not to defeat streaming, but to set some baselines to make it as acceptable for high-end home theaters as well as cellular phones. I don’t care about the medium so much as the file size.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, what drives any business is money. What’s so odd about what’s happening now is that Blu-ray is making a lot of money worldwide, and even DVD is hanging on. People like those technologies. They’re completely happy with them. How much money will Skyfall (2012) make this month worldwide in Blu-ray and DVD sales? Another $500 million? You’re in New York and I’m in Japan, and we’re seeing very different things. In Manhattan video rental shops are all but extinct but, seemingly, they continue to thrive here in Japan. Japan is always on the leading edge of new technologies, so why are people here still renting DVDs and buying Blu-ray discs if streaming is the wave of the future?
Stephen Bowie: And there are still some niche labels that seem to do okay with just physical media (Olive, Twilight Time, Shout! Factory); they’re just not the same ones that were in the game 10 years ago. One factor that may be a tipping point is Warner Archive. If their new streaming service is a success, will they phase out burn-on-demand discs?
Stuart Galbraith IV: What, for instance, would your top baselines concerns be?
Stephen Bowie: Well, again, I can’t get into this too much technically, but it feels like we’re on a collision course in terms of bandwidth: the more people use streaming, the more we’re fighting for the same resources and the more our movies will get compressed or stuttered or cut off in the middle. I also can’t think of any good examples of content libraries that have remastered titles specifically for streaming. Everything – good (MGM’s good HD cable masters on Netflix), bad (Paramount’s atrocious old SD cable masters on Netflix), and mixed (Criterion’s leftovers on Hulu) – is basically an off-the-shelf data dump. That’s kind of scary.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, again, that’s the whole point: spend the least amount of money to make the most amount of money.
Stephen Bowie: Something else that doesn’t really exist in the world of streaming: bonus content. And the lack of an outcry, frankly, has been so deafening that it’s almost a repudiation of that aspect of the DVD era: Naaah, we never really cared about that “film school in a box” shit anyway!
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, to be honest, unless I’m reviewing the disc I doubt that I look or listen to even one-fifth the special feature content on the DVDs and Blu-rays anymore, even when it’s obviously good stuff. If I watch, say, a really great Melville film, instead of spending four or five hours looking at supplements accompanying that disc, I’d rather spend that time watching another Melville instead. Also, does the world really need to see deleted scenes and listen to an audio commentary to Barbershop 2?
Stephen Bowie: Which is hilarious, in a way. I don’t disagree, entirely. But: if I’m going to watch Barbershop 2, I want it to be a goddamn gorgeous transfer, even if it is Barbershop 2. Right?
Stuart Galbraith IV: The transfer, yes. That’s my whole point. The movie’s the thing. Going back to some of your original points, for me watching movies at home has always been about two basic things: recreating the theatrical experience and having access to the movies I want when I want to see them. I’ve no doubt that steaming technologies will improve over time and might even be fantastic and highly desirable within just a few years. But we’re a long way from there at the moment. As you point out, the quality is variable, with a lot of it VHS quality. It’s not reliable and when something is wrong the consumer better have a computer expert on 24-hour call otherwise he’s SOL. Can you imagine inviting a bunch of friends over to watch something this way only to lose your Internet connection three-quarters of the way into the film? Who needs that?
Stephen Bowie: Right, and that will happen, the way things are now. I’ll use Netflix streaming as a sort of supplement – for documentaries or so-so TV shows – things I won’t care too much if they don’t look great or are interrupted. But the idea of that system, as it is now, becoming my primary supplier of cinema is terrifying. It could be the end of me as a cinephile, I think. That’s why I’m making a big deal now, while this tech is still in its formative stage.
The arrival of streaming has been a whole foundation-shaking process, for me, of realizing that many movie buffs – serious, intelligent, widely-published ones, in many cases – don’t agree with that, at least not passionately. They’ll watch it in whatever form is in front of them and that’s fine with them. There’s a great irony here, in that just as we’ve reached the point where you can have a great home video setup for a less than astonomical sum – a multi-region Blu-ray player and a 50” or 60” plasma TV for under $1500 total – it’s portability that’s become a more buzzworthy commodity. I know not just film fans but filmmakers (let me underline that, filmmakers) who don’t even own TVs; they watch everything on a 14” laptop. What a waste. I don’t even think there’s a lot of awareness of how much better suited the plasma technology is to cinema than LCD or LED TVs, and I worry that they’ll stop making the plasmas (in part because they’re less “green”). Am I wrong about this, or unfair?
Stuart Galbraith IV: No, it’s not unfair. Perhaps for them it’s a novelty that’ll wear off. I mentioned drive-ins earlier. Drive-ins were a really fun and novel way to watch movies on a cool summer night. Unless, that is, you really wanted to watch the movie. One or two visits each summer was my limit, so perhaps these misguided souls will come around in the same way. Yeah, being able to watch Citizen Kane (1941) on a tablet in the subway during one’s commute is amazing from a technological standpoint. But that doesn’t mean one ought to watch movies that way.
Stephen Bowie: It might be a novelty but for now “them” includes people like Roger Ebert, who used his TV show to explain letterboxing to a wide audience; now he seems to be shilling indiscriminately for whatever he finds streaming on Netflix. Or here’s a quote from Tim Lucas’s blog (Tim being the founder and editor of Video Watchdog, which remains an epicenter of videophile culture): “I watched Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (1973) tonight via Netflix on my Kindle Fire HD. It turned out to be an unexpectedly wonderful way of watching it, making it a more intimate and book-like experience.” Whaaat?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, Jess Franco may be the only director in the world whose movies might actually benefit from a poor bit rate and iPhone-size screen! Have either Lucas or Ebert been challenged about their allegedly uncritical support?
Stephen Bowie: Not that I’ve observed, although honestly, I don’t know to what extent it’s come up in Video Watchdog (although I should). And it may not be uncritical so much as uncontextualized – they’re saying “hey look, I found this” without the follow-up of “but wait, here’s a better way to see it,” which needs to be there. Consumer reports. Consider this – you write for DVDTalk.com. Where’s StreamingTalk.com? I can’t think of a single website or blog devoted to reviewing individual films for A/V quality on streaming platforms (and there are/were dozens for physical media).
Stuart Galbraith IV: I see streaming as basically HBO, geared for people who come home from work or maybe they’re sitting in a hotel room looking for something to watch. From what I can tell, a lot of these services rotate programming in and out of availability, like pay cable. Who’s to say the movie you’ve been thinking about watching the last three months will still be there when you’re ready to sit down and watch it? Who’s to say it’ll stream properly even if it’s there? Physical media is tangible. Streaming is like owning soybean futures.
Stephen Bowie: Absolutely. In fact, when I first editorialized about Netflix on my blog, I did give them credit for having whole runs of a few shows (Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel) that weren’t complete on DVD at the time. Now those are gone! There has unquestionably been a net loss of catalog titles on Netflix streaming in the three years since I’ve been paying attention. It’s a business model where they can take away anything at any time, which of course is exactly how the studios have wanted it all along. That alone should make film buffs very skeptical.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Of course, this actually discourages ownership of physical film collections. Forty years ago, people with private film collections, often composed of discarded prints found in the Dumpster, were prosecuted, and the earliest days of VHS saw a great debate over the idea of consumers actually owning a copy of a copyrighted work belonging to them.
Stephen Bowie: The idea of renting movies is also sort of a bubble market, without a direct equivalent in music. Without it, I would never have been able to afford to become a film buff. So I guess that’s an argument in favor of the all-you-can-eat $8 Criterion buffet. At the same time, I just hope people who start that way are educating their eyes, and that there are still Blu-rays being published when it dawns on them (as it eventually dawned on me, the teenager who first watched 2001: A Space Odyssey on a 13” TV in my bedroom) that you need to see movies in a better state than that. In other words, the conversation is not just about technology; it’s about how cinephiles (and everyone else) choose to watch movies. The tech is driving the discussion, but it should be the aesthetics that come first.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The thing is I’ve never thought of myself as a “collector.” Instead, over the years I’ve built a video library, a library in the classical sense of it being a resource for me to use in my work, and to be able to lend titles to friends, especially to introduce them to great films they may have never heard of. And it’s already a library I’m sharing with my five-year-old daughter who I hope will continue to use it for the next dozen years or more. Moreover, this library of a reflection of me: my tastes and interests. It expresses who I am.
Stephen Bowie: Yes, although in my case, even “library” is almost overkill. I got over the idea of wanting to own movies pretty early. That’s why it’s ironic that I’ve taken such an extreme stance on streaming, because I’m not married to physical media. So I feel like I’m a potential customer for streaming (or at least downloading in some form) who is being ignored. Because they gotta get it right, and there’s no market pressure to make that happen (yet). I’d be more than happy to let somebody store movies in the cloud for me, as long as it comes with some guarantees that (1) they won’t all evaporate and (2) they won’t look any worse than what I’m accustomed to on discs.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Perhaps subconsciously my determination to build my video library was for exactly the reasons you describe, a fear that what’s available to me now, and in a high-quality form, may not be available tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find working DVD and Blu-ray players 20 years from now. I feel a bit like Harlan Ellison stocking up on Remington Rand typewriters! But what happens if you build a massive personal library on a cloud and one day it vanishes?
Stephen Bowie: You couldn’t do anything, under the current parameters. This is interesting in terms of Netflix: One of the main complaints I see on blogs like HackingNetflix.com is that a movie someone wanted to see used to be there but “expired,” or a TV series disappeared before the watcher reached the end. But while this is seen as a negative, it doesn’t seem to be a dealbreaker for a lot of users.
I’m thinking now about how many intangibles separate movie lovers on issues like this. I don’t revisit movies nearly as often as I think you do, so the question of having a library is less essential. We’re all aligned or opposed so unpredictably based on the different ways we watch and appreciate movies. Harlan’s typewriters will probably outlive him, but once I bought a few DVDs that were upgraded before I pulled off the shrinkwrap, that essentially cured me of needing to “collect” movies. They will slip through your grasp, one way or another.
Stuart Galbraith IV: That’s true to a point, but I also have hundreds of out-of-print movies that may never come back. And, when if they do, at least I’ll have the option to upgrade or not and still have the film in some form.
Stephen Bowie: Sure, but I just got tired of playing that game, worrying about whether I should buy something now or wait or…. I mean, this week, a critic named Bilge Ebiri wrote a piece about an obscure and supposedly magnificent Gillian Armstrong film called High Tide (1987), in which he said that it’s only available via Netflix streaming or an Australian DVD in the wrong aspect ratio. I knew – because I keep track of these things – that this was wrong and that Umbrella Entertainment had done an anamorphic special edition of the film a couple of years ago, with a commentary from Armstrong and other extras. But I looked again and now that version, which I never got around to buying, is out of print. There’s a newer one that looks suspiciously like a bootleg, so I’m left with taking a chance on that, spending a lot of time and/or money seeking out the good OOP version, or just caving in and slurping up the Netflix copy, which looks okay but lacks the extras. If you’re not completely obsessive about this stuff, you’re going to go for the last option, right?
At this point, we took a break, experimented a bit more with streaming video in the interim, and then reconvened a few days later.We exchanged links to a few rare films (Luigi Zampa’s To Live in Peace ; Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her So Well ; Claude Chabrol’s Alice ou la dernière fugue ) that one of us found on YouTube, which appeared to be unavailable for purchase legally – probably rips of foreign DVDs with added “fansubs.” In the end, neither of us felt like watching them in this form – at least not yet.
Stephen Bowie: Have you “streamed” anything since we left off? (And why am I using quotation marks? I just refuse to confront this without holding my nose, I guess.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: I watched a couple of cartoon shows with Sadie, both of which paused in the middle with no clear indication that they would resume, though eventually both did. I also sampled some of the YouTube material you recommended. I’d really like to watch those films … on DVD at least (Blu would be better) … but not on YouTube. It’s weird, I have this innate resistance to watching anything longer than a couple of minutes on YouTube. It’s okay to watch a 55-year-old clip from I’ve Got a Secret or a goofy number from some obscure Turkish musical. But I’d never want to sit through, say, Citizen Kane on my computer. With YouTube on a larger television the picture quality on most stuff is so mediocre, even on my wife’s 36” monitor, I’d rather wait and hope it turns up on DVD or Blu.
Stephen Bowie: I won’t watch anything on a computer monitor, except for cat videos. And if there’s an ad in front of it, I close the window; I just don’t care enough about that Jon Stewart bit, or whatever, to endure being advertised at, even for ten seconds. It’s likely that your AppleTV can play YouTube videos, but the question becomes, will they look like anything other than a pixilated mess on a TV that’s – what size? Probably bigger than mine.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Mine is 45-46”, I think. Exactly. Laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray have spoiled me. Like you said earlier, I can’t imagine watching a movie now panned-and-scanned (although amazingly a tiny handful are still getting released). PD releases from companies like Alpha Video I pretty much can’t look at anymore, except maybe on my laptop while on a 12-hour flight somewhere, where the PQ is about par with what airlines offer. Even regular primetime sitcoms. I watch everything on DVD or Blu these days. How do people stand all those ads and banners and watermarks and 20 minutes of commercials per 40 minutes of show? I’d go nuts!
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, there’s so much to choose from, I just reject a lot of stuff for image quality outright. Fox releases a pan & scan MOD disc? Screw it, maybe in five years somebody will have fixed that, and I have plenty to entertain me in the meantime. But I guess a lot of people make the opposite choice, for gratification now, even if the only option is deeply flawed? I dunno. Not me. (And I want to come back to the ads and banners and watermarks a little later; I have a theory about that.) But: That’s a learned behavior. In the VHS / pay cable era, for the most part, you only had one home video option, and it usually sucked. So if streaming is lowering our standards, it may represent a return to an old norm.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I recently made the decision to buy the British Blu-ray of The Devil Rides Out, the well-regarded Hammer film. As you’re aware, the release was controversial because about five seconds of special effects footage was altered, “improved” so somebody believed. Because of this many of the film’s biggest fans are “boycotting” this release. The same thing is happening now with another Hammer title, Dracula (or Horror of Dracula, its US title), for which absurdly anachronistic color timing was done in an attempt to make it look more “modern.” Obviously, both were stupid, short-sighted decisions oblivious to the basic tenets of film preservation and restoration. But what angry fans don’t realize is that, at least in the world of home video, boycotts either have no effect at all on commercially marginal titles like this — or they have exactly the opposite effect, which is that bean counters will look only at sales figures (do you really they’ve got the time to research comments on the Home Theater Forum or Classic Horror Film Board?) and never release it again because “sales were poor.”
Stephen Bowie: Personally, I can’t think in terms of the larger picture on this; I make the decision on whether to rent or buy the disc based on whether I want to watch the film in its compromised state. I wouldn’t have bought the British Blu-rays (or watched them if you gave ‘em to me). There are a lot of films and TV shows lodged in this personal twilight. I’ll never watch the first season of Kung Fu on DVD because it was cropped to 16:9 and, as a result, I’ve never gotten around to the subsequent seasons, either. It’s just another damn thing I have to track down the hard way before I can do anything with it. I’m still trying to figure out my relationship with streaming in this regard, too. There’s a basic instability to the image (ironically, it reminds me of VHS or cable noise) and I still haven’t quite figured out how I rank that against other technical flaws in deciding what edition of a film counts as the best available, or whether or not this is perhaps a dealbreaker any time I notice it.
On the other hand, I’m not as inflexible as you might expect. I’m pretty forgiving of good transfers of dodgy film elements. I have a tin ear so bad sound mixes usually get a pass. And I’ll never understand why you would boycott a foreign film because the subtitles are yellow instead of white – that drives some people nuts, but I’m totally neutral on it.
Stuart Galbraith IV: As both a consumer and someone once on the technical services side of things, I think polite, well-researched emails to project managers and others actually handling video transfers is probably the most effective approach. I’ve known project managers who were film buffs themselves, and who really went the extra mile to make something right. Conversely, I’ve also known project managers who have no idea what they’re doing. They don’t know squat about film history and for them it’s just a job; they might just as well be an assistant manager at The Gap for all the difference it makes to them. On the other hand, an angry email saying, “I SAW this movie in 1958 when I was five years old and it was 1.66:1, not 1.85:1!!!” isn’t going to persuade anyone. A trade ad or article in Variety from 1958 stating the film is 1.66:1 is a lot more convincing.
Stephen Bowie: They’ll either fix it when the first reviews come out because they care, or they’ll stonewall and ignore it. I think fan boycotts and letter campaigns do zilch, sadly. When CBS decided to fix the replaced music in The Fugitive TV series, it wasn’t because people like me moaned about it. It was either because Variety humiliated them in its pages, or because somebody there actually wanted to get it right, or both. As an aside, all these fights over the intermediate aspect ratios are absurd. There’s usually ample evidence of what the original projection ratio was, and yet there’s this handful of battleground films that draw out all kinds of magical thinking as to what the director or DP might have been composing for. I usually applaud completism but I really had a hard time caring about the Blu-ray releases of Touch of Evil and On the Waterfront in all the three ratios.
Stuart Galbraith IV: And because these are commercially marginal titles, it’s not reasonable to expect a home video label to spend $100,000 for home video rights on a ten-second music clip on a movie that’s going to generate $30,000 in revenue. I’d rather see, say, Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain with ten seconds of Beatles music removed than not at all. Conversely, in extreme cases, such as the removal/alteration of music from WKRP in Cincinnati, fans of that series are clearly better off recording uncut broadcast versions.
Stephen Bowie: There is a clear catch-22 with something like WKRP in Cincinnati, which was always doomed. Gut it with song replacement or don’t release it at all: it’s a no-win scenario. (When I interviewed Hugh Wilson, the show’s creator, last year, I could tell he was still pretty wrecked about it.) And it’s really not a conversation that consumers have a voice in, although it’s encouraging that a few labels have figured out that music clearance can be a marketable commodity. Shout! Factory put out a list of songs in each episode to promote its upcoming China Beach release.
Stuart Galbraith IV: One last comment about boycotting. I find it odd that certain people get so upset about relatively minor things while completely ignoring, or even approving, what I consider shameful alterations done in the name of political correctness. To wit: Via an agreement with the Writers Guild of America, credits on ‘50s and ‘60s movies – The Bridge on the River Kwai being one famous example – are being altered to acknowledge the authorship of various blacklisted writers who either worked without credit or wrote under a pseudonym or through a front. I’m all for placing a title card before the movie stating something like, “Pierre Boulle is credited with the screenplay of the film you are about to see but in fact it was written by uncredited Blacklist victims Carl Foreman and Michael G. Wilson.” But to physically alter the original film is like the altering of history books, the kind of thing we used to criticize the Soviet Union for all the time. It’s an injustice that should be acknowledged, not hidden away without comment. Why aren’t people complaining about that?
Stephen Bowie: The revised credits issue is infuriating. And it makes me think of another kind of Orwellian technical rewriting I think has been underreported: the replacement on Blu-ray releases of the optical opening and/or end credit sequences with new, digital credits in films where the original background plates can be located. Usually it’s a really close match, but last year this came to light last year when Universal released Hitchcock’s Frenzy on Blu and bungled the new credits badly, even misspelling some names. But I sometimes see Blu-rays of older films where the credits a little too crisp and I worry that this is happening more often than you’d think, and not being documented. With Frenzy, Universal fixed the misspellings after the review copies were widely mocked – but that’s almost not the point, because if you look at the two sets of credits side-by-side, you can see that the font and the size of the type are not really that close a match. If someone in post thinks it’s worth it to alter a movie this substantively just to scrub some optical debris or avoid some unsightly edge enhancement around the original lettering, then they’re in the wrong job.
Then you have more obvious instances where Blu-ray provides a temptation for directors or DPs (like the notorious Vittorio Storaro, with his demented crusade to reframe all his old films in a new aspect ratio) to rewrite their work and then discard, or actively suppress, the original versions. George Lucas has been flayed by the fanboys for this, but William Friedkin and Michael Mann also like to brag about subtly tweaking every new transfer of their films. And I really think Criterion’s indulgence of Michael Cimino, who radically altered the color palette of Heaven’s Gate for their recent Blu-ray, is a bad precedent. Yes, we have an earlier DVD that’s more accurate, but as of now the only High Def edition is the one Cimino repainted. You talk about compromises and when they become self-defeating – well, honestly, I would have preferred that Criterion insist on including an alternate transfer that attempted to replicate the original release prints, and walk away from the deal if Cimino vetoed that.
Stephen Bowie: After we talked last, to make sure I wasn’t being unfair, so I ran a few episodes of Glee via Netflix Instant. This is a show that’s on Blu-ray, and looks great on Blu-ray, so presumably it was sourced from a competent HD master. And when the image had no movement, like a CU of someone’s face, it looked very crisp, like a frame grab from a Blu-ray. I think that’s what people are thinking of when they argue that streaming in HD is superior to standard-def DVD. But at times the image seemed to break down and display a lot of prominent digital “artifacts.” Usually when there was a lot of motion (like in a dance number), but sometimes just at random, it seemed. Sort of like shots of ocean waves or wheat fields in an early DVD! It was like setting the image quality clock back to 1999. So I have summoned the rest of this season of Glee(the third) on Blu-ray, which, thankfully, Netflix still provides – for now.
Plus, just as you experienced, the transmission froze up twice during the six episodes I watched, and each time I had to shut down the device and reboot it. That’s “only” two three or four minute interruptions, but they both came in the middle of dance numbers – really big-time breaking the spell of the show.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Exactly. Who needs that?
Stephen Bowie: But, people are going to read this and laugh. It’s probably anachronistic to even expect, or try, to watch something without interruptions. It takes a real effort, even for a purist like me, to shut out all the phones and the social media. But we have to do it, and encourage young cinephiles to do it. If you slice up La règle du jeu into ten minute bits, you’re just not going to get much out of it. I don’t care how rigid or old-fashioned that might sound: you are doing it wrong. And, of course, if we have technology that normalizes the interruption (like the dropped call as an accepted feature of cell phone culture) then it becomes harder to argue against conceptually.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I got into a very bad habit with my iPad. I’d watch something then want to look up an actor on the IMDb while I was watching, and then, Hey, let’s check email, and I wonder if that Blu-ray is still on sale? Pretty soon I had completely zoned out of the film. Now I keep the iPad in a different room so I’m not tempted.
Stephen Bowie: Pause the movie for a bathroom break, and hey, might as well check Facebook while I’m up. Bad habit. You’re degrading your own pleasure. Although, you remind me: when I was a teenager and every movie actor was a new face, I had to make myself quit stopping tapes to look them all up in Halliwell or Katz! So ADD is not purely technological.
Stuart Galbraith IV: How do you watch movies? I’m particular to the point where I know I drive certain people crazy. For instance, I can’t watch movies with the lights on. When I have guests over, I make ’em turn off their cellphones before we start. Admittedly, I’m extreme. I once stopped going to movies with one friend because he made a slight whistling noise breathing through his nose that drove me crazy!
Stephen Bowie: Oh, I remember, once I went to your house and we ordered dinner in the middle of the movie, and you got mad when I turned on a lamp just to eat for five minutes. I’m like, do you really want half this pizza in your couch? But, yes, for the most part, I’m pretty intense about stuff like that. My biggest problem now is noise pollution from some sources around my apartment – I have to watch most things at night (as in, weekend all-nighters) and that issue by itself is enough to have me contemplating a move! And incidentally, there’s a nose-whistler who frequents the repertory theaters in New York – could be the nicest guy in the world, but I still get up and move over to the other side of the theater whenever I see him come in.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I often quote the late Gene Siskel who made a great point about spectatorship: “You can only see a movie for the first time once.”
Stephen Bowie: Essential quote from Siskel (so much so, I thought I’d coined it myself!). Particularly since I won’t ever go back to most movies – not out of some Kaelian contempt for the idea but just because my tastes are broad and life is, literally, too short. I still cringe over first viewings ruined in years past. Sweet Smell of Success: 35mm print with a horrible scratch on the audio track for four reels. Still have never managed to “recapture” that film for myself. Just the other day, I got a migraine, the kind where you can’t see properly for a while, right in the middle of Guillermin’s Rapture. I’ll watch it again, of course, but it won’t be the same.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The circumstances in which one watches a film can profoundly impact the experience, much more than people realize. I’d seen House of Wax (1953) in 35mm and 3-D probably seven or eight times through the years. Then the American Cinematheque had a 3-D screening on the Paramount lot (oddly enough) with director Andre de Toth in attendance. The screening was arranged by hardcore 3-D preservationists who knew what they were doing, and it was the only time I had seen the film projected on a silver screen, as was done in the fifties. Although the movie was by this time very familiar, the experience was completely different. Similarly, I first saw Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 35mm on a medium-sized screen. It wasn’t until I saw it again in 70mm, with six-track magnetic stereo sound, on a 70-foot screen, that I finally “got it.” And of course, it’s not just the print. I’ve had “first time only once” experiences totally ruined because of chatty people sitting next to or near me. My good pal Ted Newsom does this and sees nothing wrong with commenting throughout in a normal voice, even at a repertory theater. But, for me, his yacking yanks me rightout of the experience. Regardless of whether it’s a good movie or a bad one, I want to be sucked right in. That’s where the best movie-watching experiences happen, whether it’s Seven Samurai or Lawrence of Arabia or Wild Strawberries or Night of the Living Dead or Singin’ in the Rain or Jason and the Argonauts or whatever.
Stephen Bowie: And I feel like these points are obvious, but you need to make them once in a while. Nobody’s born a viewing-experience zealot. Somebody has to teach you about aspect ratios and stuff. In my case, it was a slightly older film nerd I met at the library when I was about 15, who wrote laserdisc reviews and explained widescreen and pan & scan to me. Until then I’d never understood how badly TV and VHS butchered some movies. So I think it’s worth it for us to be doing this, even if readers feel like they’re being lectured at (although I hope that’s not the case).
And yeah, I don’t go to first-run movie theaters any more; I finally gave up on fighting rude audiences when texting became prominent. I really miss it. Oddly, when DCP came along, instead of grief, I felt a backward sense of relief, because now I wasn’t missing anything any more! That’s some kind of Stockholm syndrome or something, I realize.
Stuart Galbraith IV: My daughter’s five, and when we sit down to watch, say, Disney’s Cinderella (1950), I make it a point to buy the Blu-ray and, as closely as possible, recreate an idealized movie-watching experience for her. Now, I know a lot of parents out there are more than happy to plop their kids in front of computer to watch the film downloaded from somewhere, or (here in Japan) to buy a 500-yen public domain version of Cinderella that looks like dog meat. My daughter, of course, has no awareness of what I’m doing, yet I’m confident introducing movies to her the way I am, it’s making a subtly lasting impression different from what a lot of other kids are experiencing. Add to that, by running Max & Dave Fleischer Popeye cartoons and Our Gang shorts and Buster Keaton silent films, I’m also getting her acclimated to the concept of black and white.
Stephen Bowie: This is the point where someone will smugly remind us that in the 30s-50s, it was customary to wander into theaters in the middle of the movie, and probably audience manners were appalling, if not enhanced by disruptive technology. Respectful audience behavior is probably another learned behavior (a boon of the film culture movement of the 50s-60s-70s) but it, too, is not something I’d like to see slide back into the muck, which seems to be happening.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Audiences in Japan are much more polite. In ten years my worst complaint was when someone knocked over a beer bottle and it comically rolled slowly down toward the screen over several minutes. Conversely, seeing movies theatrically is now obscenely expensive, yet we’re still subjected to a mountain of ads easily bypassed on home video. And, frankly, home video is rapidly approaching, even surpassing the theatrical experience. On the other hand, I miss the communal viewing experience that, though rare, made certain screenings truly special shared experiences.
Stephen Bowie: Being a child of the home video era, I never really had that. I prefer to watch alone. The presence of other people always distracts me at least a little bit, even if they’re behaving. This is theoretically contrary to the original idea of how movies are “supposed” to be experienced, but I’ll make an argument for it. Plus, TV (and I’m a TV specialist, of course) complicates that; the magazine ads always showed the whole family gathered around the set, but of course TV made private viewing possible.
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s learned behavior. Neither of us grew up watching silent movies. We had to learn how to watch and appreciate them. These days I’m game for just about anything, but 30 years ago the idea of watching a four-hour reconstruction of Intolerance was a daunting proposition. In a way I feel part of my mission as a film critic and historian is to introduce people to giving old movies a chance. I mean, I’ve probably gotten at least two dozen co-workers and acquaintances over the years to watch Casablanca, which in most cases was probably the only black & white movie they’d ever seen, with the possible exceptions of It’s a Wonderful Life and maybe Miracle on 34th Street. Yet without exception these same people always respond, “That movie was great! Where can I find more stuff like that?!”
Stephen Bowie: I’ve found that my openness to movies has only expanded. Stuff I never cared about at one time suddenly seems intriguing, because I have a context for it, or just a growing curiosity (starting with “furrin” films in film school). DVD, incidentally, came along at the right time to open a lot of doors for me – the technology drove, or fed, my exploration in a really great way. I like your DVD reviews because you’re interested in things I don’t really care about – Three Stooges shorts, singing cowboys, British TV detectives – but you make them sound like fun; you’re laying the groundwork for me to go there someday. I get really impatient with film/TV “fans” (and this includes some of my readers) whose boundaries are already proscribed.
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s certainly true that it’s easier to “lose oneself” watching movies (or TV shows) alone. But, conversely, there is also something magical about experiencing a movie with a receptive, like-minded audience. I regret that audiences can never again experience Star Wars as I did, with an audience that had no idea what they were getting, who by the end was literally cheering at the end. Or evenings in Ann Arbor, Michigan at their “Top of the Park” 16mm screenings of old movies outdoors, in the cool summer air, movies like Double Indemnity and The Band Wagon. I really miss that.
Stephen Bowie: I’ve had that from time to time, but not enough to make me crave it. Conversely, I’ve gone perhaps in the opposite direction…. I’ve gotten interested in the idea of curation – “programming” a weekend, or an evening, or a year of movies or TV shows. Picking up specific ideas (a director, an actor, a national cinema, a widescreen process, an era or movement) and exploring them in depth, or from start to finish. Combining or cross-matching those things: Jean Harlow at MGM or Richard Fleischer in the ‘70s or French ’Scope crime films from the 60s.Or creating ideal double or triple features.Figuring out which movies complement each other; creating flow from one to another.Sort of like ikebana, or fengshui, but with movies. I’m not really interested in having a physical collection, but this might be a sort of equivalent to it.
And of course, to do that is a form of asserting control – of being active rather than passive in what you choose to watch – and one of my instinctive reactions against streaming platforms is that they seem to encourage the opposite. Watch what we throw in front of you, not what you seek out. (Netflix’s famous $1 million recommendation algorithm is based on that principle; conveniently, it’s designed to conceal the big gaps of what movies they don’t stream, and it appears to accomplish that goal very well.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: You have to be open to, if not everything, at least a willingness and curiosity to want to experience the best-regarded examples, if only to further your education about movies. For instance, a lot of hardcore Western fans would never sit through a B-Western, i.e. Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. Yet the Bs probably outnumber the A-Westerns ten to one. I often take you to task for sitting through eight seasons of Harry O without ever having experienced I, Claudius or The Singing Detective or even Cracker. If I were to ship you a box of DVDs of that stuff would you commit to spending three hours a week with it?
Stephen Bowie: Honestly, no, but I promise I will get to those one day. Part of my “zen” curation idea is waiting until you’re ready to be open to something to watch it. No “eating your vegetables” viewing.
Stuart Galbraith IV: That’s what good movies do. When, nearly 30 years ago now, I stumbled up Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours, I immediately tracked down VHS copies or scanned TV Guide of every other Sturges film out there. (I’m still looking for The French They Are a Funny Race.)
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, I feel like I have a road map (and lots of unwatched acorns tucked away for harsh winters), but I hope there are more surprises I don’t know about yet. And I’m lucky enough to live in a city where you can still see prints of a lot of obscurities that you can get on home video (or stream!). Plus, I haven’t turned my back on the new, unlike a lot of movie & TV buffs, so there’s the knowledge that more stuff I’m going to dig is still being made.
Stuart Galbraith IV: But you have to push yourself a little, or you’ll never get around to it. I avoided Last Year at Marienbad for years but when a cheap Blu-ray turned up, I made sure I watched it that night, to ensure it wouldn’t end up in the great unwatched.
Stephen Bowie: It’s a marathon, not a race. I program for maximum “variety,” so that I don’t use up, say, all the French New Wave movies now – or all of those Harry O episodes, since there are, alas, only TWO seasons – or get burned out by watching too much of the same thing.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I do the same thing these days, and take a certain pride watching, say, Pierrot le Fou and Hoppy Serves a Writ on the same evening. Indeed, last night I watched William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters which, coincidentally, also turned out to be a Richard Johnson double feature.
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, exactly. Or go in the opposite direction of being a completist. You can take some obscure ‘40s studio director and assemble a dozen of his movies all in a row now, thanks to Warner Archive and the other MOD lines. Or, just to pay the devil its due, watch 35 films (!) by Kinoshita on Hulu that Criterion will probably never get around to releasing on disc. Although that’s very much the exception rather than the rule for deep catalog via streaming.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Again, I’m old enough to remember that if you wanted to watch, say, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, your options were limited to scanning TV Guide each week and hope one of the six or seven channels available back then might run it. Then you had to sit through commercial interruptions, awkward edits made to fit the film into a particular timeslot, all kinds of crap. My cup ain’t half-empty, it’s a dam burst! Who’d have guessed 30 years ago that one day you could watch This Is Cinerama in Smilebox format, in multi-track stereo sound, on a 50-inch TV in high-definition? Or a restored Metropolis? Or Lawrence of Arabia? Or Snow Trail, an obscure Japanese film I had wanted to see for three decades?
Stephen Bowie: Huge generational shift. I feel like we’re making an “It gets better” video for our teenaged selves. And yet, Dave Kehr always complains that we’re losing films with each technological shift, that lots of stuff that could be rented on 16mm in the 60s-70s never made the transition to VHS or DVD. I think that’s myopic (it emphasizes American studio films over everything else) but it’s a point worth keeping in mind. And it may also apply to US TV – certainly for classic TV buffs there were shows that aired in syndication just before the VHS era, and thus still remain tantalizingly out of reach. You could see them in 1975, but not now.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Kehr has a point. I mean, it’s weird if not criminal that, say, practically every Jess Franco movie is out on DVD while, say, there’s not one by Tadashi Imai with English subtitles. On the other hand, Kehr’s list can’t be very long now, not in 2013. I sometimes refer to DVD Savant’s “wish list,” published on his site, and I’m always amazed how, every year, a big chunk of it disappears.
Stephen Bowie: Bringing this back to streaming: I haven’t found this on my own Netflix platform yet, but last August some users reported that Netflix was minimizing the end credits of TV shows and some movies, to prompt viewers toward the next episode. There was a lot of negative reaction to this, as intruding upon the experience. And you know what it reminds me of? TV. My prediction is that streaming, which is replacing cable (i.e., cord-cutting), will just become cable once it moves everyone over. As soon as everyone’s hooked, you’ll get watermarks, crawls on the screen, shrunken or talked-over credits and, finally, ads (only now you won’t be able to fast-forward through them).
Stuart Galbraith IV: Oh I think you’re absolutely right. I guess there are some people out there who still turn on HBO and say to themselves, “Hey look at that, Kindergarten Cop! I think I’ll watch the last 40 minutes of that.” But I can’t see that lasting much longer. The idea of a primetime network schedule of comedies and dramas seems to be dissipating into other media, and pay and even free cable don’t seem too far behind.
Stephen Bowie: Which may offer more choice in the short term (the much-vaunted House of Cards marathon option) but not necessarily in the long-term (if ads are embedded and recording for a personal library is blocked). It’s easy to go too doom-and-gloom when a paradigm shift looms (dig my rhyming!), but I do feel like we could be brontosauri, happily chowing down on our physical media while the giant asteroid is hurtling toward us. Ever watch Cinemania? That documentary about obsessive movie fans who will only watch films on 35mm? Well, they were the dinosaurs that got wiped out by the DCP meteor. Are we next?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes and no. Physical media may not be an option for, say, my daughter by the time she’s an adult. But the reality is no matter how hard they try to kill it, people around the world are still buying DVDs and Blu-rays, and especially in second- and third-world countries, I don’t see streaming replacing DVD in places like Cambodia or Panama anytime in the near future. There are millions of us over 35 that, while hardly the ideal demographic, still represent billions of dollars of revenue to the home video industry, who aren’t confident about our computer skills, and I just don’t think it’s inevitable like the transition from records to CDs or VHS to DVD because the benefits are countered by an equal or greater number of deal-killer problems even average consumers aren’t going to accept.
Stephen Bowie: I would like it not to be so generational – I’d like for younger people to insist on Blu-ray (and then 4K!) as a niche, sort of like has happened with vinyl, and for some mainstream insistence on better image quality and selection via streaming to get some traction. But still, that’s a more optimistic note to end on than I was expecting.
Also posted on Stuart Galbraith IV’s Cineblogarama.
February 27, 2013
Her father played the organ to accompany the silent The Phantom of the Opera at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. She watched Howard Hughes filming miniature dogfights for Hell’s Angels in a lot behind her house. The “big sister” who showed her around campus when she started at Hollywood High was Lana Turner. Orson Welles hypnotized her in his magic act at the Hollywood Canteen. Gerry Day, native daughter of Los Angeles, child of Hollywood, and a fan who parlayed her love of the movies into a career as a radio and television writer, died on February 13 at the age of 91.
A 1944 UCLA graduate, Day got her start as a newspaper reporter, filing obits and reviewing plays for the Hollywood Citizen News. A radio writing class led to spec scripts, and Day quickly became swamped with assignments for local Los Angeles programs: The First Nighter; Skippy Hollywood Theater; Theater of Famous Players. The transition to television was natural, and Day became a regular contributor to the half-hour anthologies that tried, anemically, to ape the exciting dramatic work being done live in New York. Frank Wisbar, the expatriate German director, taught her how to write teleplays for his Fireside Theater, and then Day moved over to Ford Theater at Screen Gems, working for producer Irving Starr.
A gap in her credits during the late fifties reflects a year knocking around Europe, drifting among movie folk. Back in the States, Gerry’s mother was watching television, writing to her daughter that she’d like these new horse operas that had sprung up: Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train. Ruthy Day meant that her daughter would enjoy watching them, but of course Gerry ended up writing them instead.
A city critter who loved horses and yearned to be a rancher, Day was fated to collide with television’s glut of Westerns. In 1959 she connected with Howard Christie, the genial producer of Wagon Train, who gave her a lot of leeway to write what she wanted (and used her to doctor other scripts beyond the seven or so she’s credited on). Her other key relationship was with Richard Irving, producer of the comedic Western Laredo. Day loved doing the oaters: the light-hearted romp Here Come the Brides; The High Chaparral, with its Tucson location; Tate; Temple Houston; The Virginian; Big Valley; The Outcasts; finally, fittingly, Little House on the Prairie.
Although she specialized in Westerns, Day wrote in all genres, and notched credits on some respectable dramas: Medical Center; My Friend Tony; Judd For the Defense. Peyton Place was not a particularly agreeable experience, nor was Marcus Welby (puckishly, she took a male pseudonym, “Jon Gerald,” for her episode); but Dr. Kildare and Court Martial were treasured memories. It was for Court Martial, a forgotten military drama, that she wrote her favorite script, a euthanasia story called “Judge Them Gently.”
As for the name: It wasn’t that her parents wanted a boy. It’s that there were venerated Southern family names to be preserved, and so the little girl became Gerald Lallande Day. It fit the tomboy she grew into, even though there were draft notices from the Marines and invitations to join the Playboy Club that had to be gently declined.
Gerry lived with her parents for most of her adult life, in an old bungalow in the heart of Hollywood that – apart from the traffic blasting past the tiny lawn on busy Fairfax Avenue – hadn’t changed much since her father bought it in 1937. Gerry already had cancer when I looked her up there in 2007, although it was in remission and she was feeling peppy. When I first dropped by, Gerry was wearing a pair of white slacks that Dan Dailey had picked out for her – Dan Dailey, the song-and-dance man who died in 1978.
The reason Dan Dailey had been Gerry’s personal dresser back in the day was that for a time Gerry wrote with a partner, the actress Bethel Leslie, who was Dailey’s romantic companion toward the end of his life. Day was good at writing for women, and managed on a few shows to write parts for her favorite actresses – Barbara Stanwyck, Vera Miles, and Bethel, who starred in an African Queen knockoff that Day wrote for her on Wagon Train. Day found out that Leslie was working on a memoir, and thought she had talent. They began writing together, on shows like Bracken’s World, Matt Helm, the new Dr. Kildare and the new Perry Mason, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, Barnaby Jones. On her trips out from New York, Leslie lived in Gerry’s studio. They would split up the work: Gerry wrote in the mornings, Bethel in the afternoons, then they meshed the work together. For two years, they were staff writers together on the daytime soap The Secret Storm. “For our sins,” said Day, who detested the executive producer so much that she wouldn’t utter his name.
Day’s love for horses led her to the track. She was an unofficial bookie for the Wagon Train clan, and eventually a part owner of a racehorse, which led her into a variety of adventures that would’ve made great subplots on David Milch’s racetrack opus Luck. A devout Catholic, Day became a Eucharistic minister in her church; she also raised foster children and supported equestrian causes. And remained ever under the spell of the movies. “The other night,” she told me during my first visit, “I stayed up late to watch Rio Grande. Talk about your romance, between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. That was a really good film . . . .”
February 19, 2013
Leverage is the kind of modern show that people who don’t like modern television tend to like. It’s old-fashioned: formulaic, familiar, minimally serialized. It’s a genre show – a weekly caper, Mission: Impossible retrofitted for an era where capitalists, not communists, are the bad guys. Usually I hate contemporary TV shows that try to be like old TV shows. But Leverage is special. It’s a lot of fun. And it kept getting better as it went along – I have to switch to the past tense now, because its cancellation was announced while I noodled with this piece.
The heroes of Leverage are a quintet of criminals who do the Robin Hood bit: they use their skills to avenge the little guys who have been wronged, usually by some legally untouchable corporate fatcat. It’s a show about the 47% versus the 1%, and although its politics are smart and topical, it doesn’t ram them down the viewer’s throat. The secret to Leverage is that although the plots are intricate, the show is – in a way that Mission: Impossible always resisted – totally character-driven. The leader of the gang, Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton), is a former insurance investigator driven toward vengeance by the death of his son at the hands of, yes, his corrupt employer. His team is composed of likable misfits, each with a useful set of skills: actress/grifter Sophie (Gina Bellman), who has an (initially) unrequited affection for Nate; computer hacker Hardison (Aldis Hodge), a fast-talking nerd; muscle man Eliot (Christian Kane), who has rage issues; and thief/pickpocket Parker (Beth Riesgraf), a blithely adorable sociopath.
Although Nate remains a moody, tormented soul, Leverage is essentially light-hearted. A breezy, improvisational performance style shifts the show away from its angry center, and makes it more of a romp. The actors are all winners, complementing each other in a way that reminds me of the original C.S.I. ensemble. Their camaraderie is joyous – it’s clear that both the actors and their characters are having the time of their lives. It’s touching to see these misfits form a makeshift family, even as the actors are shrewd enough to remind us it’s a dysfunctional one. Kane, in particular, has a compact, subtly Southern, and very authentic sense of tightly contained violence, and yet it informs a funny kind of comic timing. Particularly during Eliot’s banter with Hardison, whose geekiness drives him up the wall, Kane’s short-fuse is hilarious. Riesgraf, too, never lets go of her character’s fundamental oddness. She’s like a robot learning how to be human.
When good actors get the chance to build their characters from the ground up, and stay true to them over the course of a long-running show, magic happens. By the fourth season, some of the characters have coupled romantically in ways that are touching (and also plausible, unlike some of the “shipping” on C.S.I.). Nate’s functional alcoholism remains a fascinatingly unresolved issue. Just the fact that Leverage doesn’t feel the need to scold or cure him is itself impressive, but the way the other characters dance around it, how they have to find ways to deal with their concern and cover for their leader’s shortcomings without trying to fix him, adds a layer of uneasy tension. A lot of good shows wither because the writers can’t generate realistic conflicts between the main characters – famously, Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that everyone on a 23rd century starship should get along swimmingly drove the writers of Star Trek nuts. On Leverage, the five protagonists have needs and values that are varied and clearly demarcated, so conflicts arise organically. While it’s impossible not to root for the bonds between these vulnerable people to last, there’s a constant awareness that they’re all fundamentally loners, that they could fall out and go their separate ways if things really went sideways.
(The brains behind the show are writers Dean Devlin, John Rogers, and Chris Downey.)
Leverage’s episode orders approached network-size – eighteen in the fourth season – and that was probably too many. Each season had its share of filler – Leverage goes to Nashville! Leverage goes to coal country! – and there was the occasional ambitious flop. The half-century-spanning lost-loot mystery “The Van Gogh Job” fails because guest star Danny Glover is thirty years too young to play a World War II veteran. But the best episodes, particularly towards the end of the run, were crafted to fit the characters’ skills and vulnerabilities like a glove. “The Cross My Heart Job” glances off Nate’s buried grief for his son; it’s guaranteed that he’ll plunge the team into a twisty spur-of-the-moment airport heist to intercept a cooler carrying a purloined heart to a dying robber baron. “The Gold Job” explores Hardison’s resentment over being taken for granted and puts him in charge of a con for the first time; the outcome depends on whether control freak Nate will undermine or support his colleague. “The Radio Job,” a nifty locked-room con with the unlikely setting of the U.S. Patent Office, brings back Nate’s kryptonite, his low-life petty criminal father (Tom Skerritt), and again divides the team leader’s loyalties as their gambits cross purposes. The fourth-year finale goes a bit astray, indulging in a macabre climax that discards the team’s moral code too cavalierly. But how can you quibble with a television hour that unites the great character actors Leon Rippy and Saul Rubinek (below) in chortling villainy?
Then there’s “The Office Job,” which is one of the most complex and rewarding television episodes I’ve come across during the present decade. In it, Nate and Co. infiltrate a greeting card company, the cubicle-farm headquarters of which is also being filmed by a documentary crew. “The Office Job” is a double parody, of both the comedy series The Office (a joke everyone will get) and the ouevre of the gloomy German filmmaker Werner Herzog (one for the cognoscenti, even though Herzog is a star of the art cinema world). At first the Herzog spoof seems one-note – Peter Stormare’s performance is unsubtle – but once the bombastic director is drawn in as a confederate, the show has fun with his childlike enthusiasm for the con. With regard to The Office, Leverage mocks not only its content but its form. Just as we, along with Nate and company, realize that Stormare’s crew is recording everything, “The Office Job” switches from the expected filmic grammar to the handheld video aesthetic of a single-camera sitcom. It’s a jarring, daring cut – one of the ballsiest edits in the history of television.
Mockumentary becomes a strange and somehow newly urgent way to frame a Leverage caper. The gag pays off over and over again, as the crew suddenly has to grapple with the constant presence of a snooping cameraman while they carry out a con. The show can make stylistic leaps like this because it has that bedrock of well-defined characters, all of whom reveal new aspects of themselves in response to the new stimuli. Parker’s inability to understand metaphor, for instance, sets up funny gags in which the others’ efforts to talk in code while on camera fail completely. The direct-address segments – in which the Leverage characters, like their counterparts on The Office, comment upon the events taking place – morph from snark into something really startling, as Nate and Sophie air some raw, nasty gripes about each other. It’s a bracing, uneasy payoff to a simmering resentment that has festered throughout the season, and a reminder of how rarely TV shows are willing to present their popular characters in a truly unfavorable light.
February 11, 2013
At my day job, I’ve turned my attention from Dorothy Loudon to the famous early Off-Broadway theater, the Circle in the Square. Occasionally I may write here about related fascinations and my first, I think, is the lovely, tragic Kathleen Murray. The Circle launched one enormously influential young character actress, the great Geraldine Page; she and the Circle essentially put each other in the map. But Murray, who is forgotten today, was a staple at the Circle in the year or two before Page attracted attention in Summer and Smoke (1952). She was the Circle’s regular ingenue, appearing in nearly all of the theater’s short-lived early productions: The Dark of the Moon (1951), Amata (1951), Antigone (1951), The Enchanted (1951), Legend of Lovers (1951), Yerma (1952), and The Bonds of Interest (1952). Murray was in that production of Summer and Smoke, too, as Nellie, the girl who ends up with Dr. John instead of Geraldine Page’s Alma.
(Other actors in that legendary production of Summer and Smoke: our friend Jason Wingreen; Walter Beakel, who would become Collin Wilcox’s first husband; the distinctive character actors Lee Richardson and Sudie Bond; and another ill-fated young actress, Lola D’Annunzio, who died in a car accident right after playing Henry Fonda’s sister in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, her only film.)
Murray had a few other important downtown theater roles – opposite Alvin Epstein in Sean O’Casey’s Purple Dust (1956) at the Cherry Lane, and a revival of Leave It to Jane (1959), with a twenty-five year-old George Segal in the cast – but seemed poised for stardom in 1958 when she landed the title role in the daytime soap Kitty Foyle. The publicity claimed that Murray beat out 190 other auditioners. She was promised $50,000 a year to star in the show – overnight success. The press came around: Murray played a sunflower (or a marigold; accounts vary) in a kindergarten play; worked at the Brooklyn phone company for three years; painted sets and lived on $3 a week during her Circle days. Too new to have much of a biography.
Kitty Foyle was NBC’s first thirty-minute soap (fifteen was the standard), and the personnel behind the scenes were among the top soap opera: packager Henry Jaffe (The Bell Telephone Hour), producer Charles Irving (Love of Life), director Hal Cooper (Search For Tomorrow), head writers Carlton E. Morse (One Man’s Family) and Sarett Rudley (Alfred Hitchcock Presents). Kay Medford played Murray’s mother, and Patty Duke was in the cast somewhere. A lot of reference sources, including Murray’s Variety obituary, claim that Kitty Foyle ran for “two seasons,” but unless a season consists of three months, that’s wrong: Kitty flopped, launching in January of 1958 and sliding off the air in June. Bizarrely, Kitty (and Murray) did not show up until the fifth week. In the Times J.P. Shanley called it a “dismal undertaking.” A perplexed John Crosby, the greatest defender of television as a high art, struggled through a review for the Herald-Tribune: “It is just possible that a half-hour of uninterrupted Kitty Foyle soap operay might be more than the human mind can bear . . . . it hasn’t been on long enough to be terrible, but it’s shaping up nicely to be real terrible.” But he allowed that Murray was “a thoroughly sweet and wholesome and candy-fudge sundae kind of girl.”
Murray mostly focused on the stage after that: with a young Lainie Kazan and David Canary in Kittiwake Island in 1960 (New York Times: “Leave Kittiwake Island to the birds”); a final performance in September 1968, again at the Cherry Lane, with Michael Baseleon in Mel Arrighi’s futuristic race relations drama An Ordinary Man.
There were also gaps, I suspect, to raise her two children. Murray was married to Joseph Beruh, a character actor (he appeared in The Iceman Cometh at the Circle, and on Broadway in Compulsion) and later a producer. Beruh’s recorded performances may be even fewer than his wife’s but TV buffs will recall him from an occasional recurring role as Sgt. Arcaro’s brother on Naked City. It was good casting: Beruh (below, left) resembled the famously flat-nosed Harry Bellaver, who played the dese-dem-dose detective.
I promised you a tragedy, and here it is: Murray died of cancer on August 24, 1969, one day after her 41st birthday, at her home on 31 West 93rd Street. She was survived by the children, her mother, two siblings, and Beruh (who lived until 1989, and went on to produce Godspell and American Buffalo on Broadway, plus the cult films Squirm and Blue Sunshine). The obits claimed that Murray had logged over 200 television roles. If you figure that around 120 of those were Kitty Foyle segments, that still leaves a mass of uncatalogued and likely lost live TV performances. Murray said in an interview that she debuted on Mister Peepers, as Wally Cox’s sisters roommate. Also: Danger, Philco, Young Dr. Malone, an Armstrong Circle Theatre in 1960 that seems to be her last known foray before a camera (but there were probably soaps and commercials in the sixties). She was in Kraft Theatre’s “Babies For Sale” (1956), written by Norman Katkov, and flew to Los Angeles in 1957 to star in a Matinee Theatre (Frank D. Gilroy’s “Run For the Money,” co-starring Gerald S. O’Loughlin). Her best-known anthology role was “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” the 1955 Philco that was adapted into the film Edge of the City, although Murray had a nothing part – Don Murray’s (no relation) girlfriend, seen only talking to him on the phone with a mother hovering nearby. That show exists in the archives, but the best bit we have is Brenner, the Herbert Brodkin-produced New York cop show, and a very rare filmed recording of Murray (pictured above). She’s in the 1959 episode “I, Executioner,” which is in the DVD set for the series, as a nurse who flirts with sensitive James Broderick. There were eight million actors in the naked city; this has been one of them.
Above: Murray with Johanna Douglas on Philco Television Playhouse (“A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” 1955) and with James Broderick on Brenner (“I, Executioner,” 1959). The image of Beruh (with Carla Rich and an unidentified juvenile) is from Naked City (“Kill Me While I’m Young So I Can Die Happy,” 1962).
January 3, 2013
Jowly, pock-marked, and massive, Cliff Osmond was the kind of actor whose career was defined as much by his physique as by his talent. In his television debut, on The Rifleman, Osmond played a simple-minded musician, and he would reprise the gentle giant archetype in other developmentally disabled roles (on Gunsmoke, for instance). Osmond went on to add the bumbling oaf, the sadistic henchman, and the crooked lawman to his repertoire, all the while seeking (and occasionally finding) meatier roles outside of the physical typecasting. Just as the diminutive Billy Barty was a man who – to paraphrase a memorable LA Weekly profile – never saw the top of a refrigerator, so was Cliff Osmond an actor who played a romantic lead only once during his thirty-five years on the screen.
And yet his work was as diverse as someone with so specific a physique could manage. Ethnically ambiguous, his native origins disguised by a name change, Osmond tried out an array of different accents, playing Germans, Greeks, Italians, Frenchmen, Native Americans, and redneck sheriffs. He also had a sense of humor, a light touch that contrasted with his heavy step and allowed him to criss-cross between dramas and sitcoms. Osmond’s best-remembered projects are a quartet of late, underappreciated films for Billy Wilder: Irma La Douce, Kiss Me, Stupid, The Fortune Cookie, and The Front Page. The acerbic writer-director, who became a friend and mentor to Osmond, saw him not as a straight heavy but as a world-weary, philosophical schemer – a useful type for Wilder’s cynical, sagacious comedies.
Osmond, who worked primarily as an acting coach in recent years, had a voluminous web presence – social media, a website, and not one but two blogs, one for work and one for more personal ruminations (such as a chronicle of his stint as a volunteer for John Edwards’s 2008 presidential campaign). But I noticed over time that Osmond rarely reminisced about his career in any of those spaces, and last year I contacted him to ask if this blog might be a good home for some of those anecdotes. He agreed at once, pointing out that he had rarely given interviews (I could find only one significant one, for Kevin Lally’s 1996 biography Wilder Times) but that he had recently become more interested in looking backward, at his own history.
What I did not know, when Cliff and I recorded this interview over the phone in October, was that he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Diagnosed nearly four years earlier, Cliff had far outlived the disease’s usual life expectancy, exhausted his chemotherapy options and, in September, learned that the cancer had metastasized to his brain. Cliff had also been working on a memoir of sorts for his family and friends, and I now suspect (and Cliff’s widow, Gretchen, agrees) that doing this interview was another gesture toward posterity. He was “obsessed with tying together his life, with making sense of it for himself, for us, during the last year,” as Gretchen told me last week. Cliff Osmond passed away on December 22, 2012.
Tell me about your first time in front of a motion picture camera.
There was a very small thing, How the West Was Won. I’m standing behind Gregory Peck, mugging myself to death, just terrible acting, but trying to be noticed. My agent got me that job in order to get my union card. So that really was the first time in front of a camera.
What was that like?
I was so overwhelmed. At that age you think you belong, you think you’re wonderful, you think you’re at your proper place. I wasn’t nervous. I was behind him [Peck]. I probably felt I should have been in front of him! I always felt, when I was a young man, I belonged. It’s like a young football player, challenging the old-timers. It’s your turn. They should move aside. That’s how silly you are, but that’s how you are when you’re young, and it gives you the impetus and the drive to succeed. And this held on for years, and I worked with some very great actors.
Several directors worked on How the West Was Won. Who directed your scenes?
Henry Hathaway. He was a grumpy, get-it-done kind of man. I don’t remember any direction. I was just supposed to stand there and watch, and deal with the scene as it played out.
Then you went straight into television, and worked steadily.
After that I had my union card, and I went in on an audition. I had the same agent as Chuck Connors, a guy called Meyer Mishkin, who had had Jeff Chandler, Lee Marvin, Jimmy Coburn, Morgan Woodward. Meyer was about five foot five, and he had all these large alpha males as clients. I had an audition to go for The Rifleman, through the good offices of Chuck Connors.
I went in and read for [an episode], and they sent me across the hall. They said, “We’ve got a show coming up even before then. Somebody just had a heart attack.” Someone they were contemplating casting had had a heart attack. I forget the gentleman’s name. And I went in and read and wound up getting the role. So a lead on The Rifleman was the very first thing I did. A nice start.
Osmond’s television debut on The Rifleman (“None So Blind,” 1962)
Were you the villain in that?
The villain-hero. It was a blind troubadour who was coming back to avenge himself on Chuck Connors because he believed that Chuck had destroyed his wife while he had been in prison. But it turned out to be a very sympathetic character. Number one, Chuck had not done this to the wife, and the man had to face that realization. And he also was a troubadour, and if you sing a song you always have a softened character. You can be the worst heavy in the world, but if you’re singing a song, you’re a nice guy.
Do you remember Paul Wendkos?
Yes, Paul directed that episode. He was very bright, very intelligent. Well organized. Very analytic. There were no problems. He was very forthcoming and very illuminating, helpful. I was very pleased, and I hope I gave him what he wanted. I think I did. It was a very nice episode, actually. Other than the fact that I had to sing back to a recording. They had the soundtrack on the set, and I mouthed the words. “Shenandoah” was the song. I couldn’t carry a tune worth a damn, and I obviously wasn’t blind, and I was playing a fifty year-old man and I was twenty-five. They had to dye my hair. Obviously I’d done something in the audition, apart from their desperation, that made them choose me.
What do you remember about Chuck Connors?
On all of those shows, whoever had the lead set the tone. Chuck was a get-it-done kind of guy. He wasn’t an artist in that sense. Chuck could be a tough guy. He had been a ball player. They were doing a show, making a buck, and there was no nonsense. Everybody did their work. And heeded Chuck. Chuck liked to be heeded. He had a professional ball player’s ego. But he was always good to me, and the fact that we had a mutual agent helped.
You did an episode of Arrest and Trial, his next series, the following year.
Yes, and also a Cowboy in Africa with him years later. So I worked, I think, three times with him. Always pleasant. He was a tall man, six foot five, as I am, and that made it a nice situation. We could both look at each other straight on. Since I often played the heavy, or had a fight with the lead, with Chuck and later Jim Arness it was fun to beat up somebody their own size. You didn’t seem like such a bully. So that helped in the casting.
It’s odd to realize that you were only twenty-five at that time. You often played characters much older than yourself.
I was always fifty. I think I was almost born fifty. Well, I was a large man. Six foot five, but I was also three hundred pounds in those days. I looked like I could be older. So I always played older, from the very beginning. I eventually got older.
Did you find that your physique and the way you looked were good for you professionally, or did it limit or typecast you, early on?
No, I don’t think so. I lost some weight as the years went on and that was more limiting, actually. I remember Billy Wilder saying to me one time – he hadn’t seen me in a couple of years – and he said, “You’ve lost weight.” And I knew what he was saying was, it was good for my health, but for my character type there was a certain uniqueness of a six foot five and three quarters, three hundred pounds [frame], and yet had the capability of moving. I had been an athlete as a kid, and had a certain grace. That gave me a certain stamp of uniqueness that I would not have had otherwise, and I’m sure that helped in my getting going.
Even in the comedies – I remember on The Bob Newhart Show, he [did] a group session where everyone was overweight. When I went in for that, the assistant director met me and I met the director – I had known him before, I think – and he said, “My god, where did you go?” I had lost forty or fifty pounds. I had lost enough weight that I wasn’t really right for an overweight group. I said, “I’m sorry I’ve lost all this weight. I knew when you called me in there was going to be a contradiction here.” And they said, “Well, come on and read anyway.” I wound up reading and getting the part. They had to pad me forty or fifty pounds! But fortunately I still had a full face, and that carried itself.
But the weight was definitely a very important thing. That was a time of exotic characters. The heavies began to get blond and blue-eyed and five-foot-ten there in the late sixties and early seventies. But before that period, before I broke in, the heavies were exotic characters. They were larger than life – I don’t know about larger than life, but very large life. And that aided me, very definitely.
And you were ambiguous ethnically as well – another good quality for a villain. You played many a foreigner.
Absolutely. I did. Anything in the Middle East. I played Russian, I played Mexican, Eastern European, Hungarian, I played American Indian. So all those physical attributes helped.
Let’s go back to some of your early television work.
The second was a Twilight Zone. The director Paul Mazursky was in it as an actor. It was called “The Gift.” It turned out to be a very nice episode. I went out and auditioned – I forget who the casting director was. Buck Houghton was the producer, out at MGM. That went fine, again. Just did the work.
And then Dr. Kildare. [Guest star] Lee Marvin had been a client of Meyer Mishkin’s, and I’m sure the entree came from that. I don’t know if I read or not. In those early days an agent would submit you for a role and you didn’t have to audition. If they liked you or wanted to inquire further, he’d say, “Look, he just did something for CBS. Go see The Twilight Zone. Call CBS.” Or whatever network it was on, and they would have it shipped over and they’d look at it and say, “Oh, yeah, he’s a good actor.” Or “Yes, he’d be right.”
Do you have any memory of working with Lee Marvin?
Yes. Lee was a great actor. I always wanted to pick anybody’s brain, and I remember looking at his script one day when he had left it on the chair and went off to the bathroom. I was thinking, “What is the magical formula?” He had been reading it and taking notes. And in every scene, he had just written a simple thing: what it was that his character wanted. That’s all. Every scene. What his character wanted. He knew that he was extravagant enough as a personality, and talented enough as a craftsman, that by following that formulation he would be interesting, exciting, and the performance would be fine. So he had reduced it to the essential element.
Was he exciting to play a scene with?
Absolutely. He was very spontaneous. Very natural. A wonderful actor, but heightened by a high proportion of spontaneity. Lee really didn’t give a shit, in that sense. Whatever came, came. Let’s just wing it, let’s just do it. He didn’t have to plan every move. So it was exciting, because you never knew what he was going to do, because Lee didn’t know what he was going to do next.
“The World’s Greatest Robbery” was a segment of the DuPont Show of the Week anthology, with a great all-character actor cast. Franklin Schaffner directed it.
He was very bright, and very – I don’t mean this pejoratively – waspy intelligent. He was a brilliant man, obviously driven if he was in this business and wanted to be a director, but meticulous, well-planned. We did it live [on tape]. I believe we shot it over a weekend, at NBC. There was a group of us – again, Paul Mazursky was in this as an actor, and R. G. Armstrong – who played the core group that were committing this Brinks robbery.
So your career really began in Los Angeles and in film and television, without much of an apprenticeship in the theatre. I should back up and ask how you got there, and connected with Meyer Mishkin and got your start.
I was raised right across the river from New York, in Union City, New Jersey, so the logic would have been probably to stay home and make the rounds in New York and try to get going. My background had all been theater. I had gone to Dartmouth, and so really my affiliation was with the East Coast. But I had hitchhiked to California about two years earlier, and fell in love with it. That was one reason. Two, the lure of film. Three, I had never gotten along with the theater crowd at Dartmouth or in the East. It was something, I don’t know, my own insecurity. They seemed a little too cultured and judgmental for me, and I was more of an outsider in that arena. And I basically just wanted to get away from my mother. Had I stayed in the East, I would have had to live [at] home. So I went west.
In an interview for Kevin Lally’s book on Billy Wilder, you described yourself at the time of Irma La Douce as “fragile, terribly insecure, seven years removed from the inner city ghetto, having made a tremendous leap in social class and artistic work.” Can you expand upon that?
Yeah, that’s valid. I was “upper poor,” that was the class. And an inner city kid. Dartmouth was quite a cultural shock. And then Hollywood. I remember, Kiss Me, Stupid, going to a party at Ira Gershwin’s house. Jack Lemmon was there, and Peter Sellers and Kim Novak and Ira Gershwin and Billy. And thinking: what the hell am I doing here? I graduated in 1960, and this was 1964.
Dartmouth had helped the process of developing a little bit of class. When I went to college, I thought Freud was pronounced Froo-id. I had to learn to speak in college by doing plays of George Bernard Shaw, and trying desperately to change my accent. It was a rigorous going in those four or five years at Dartmouth, to feel I belonged. And even when I went to work for Billy, I didn’t feel I belonged. My wife worked at Union Bank in Beverly Hills, and right across Beverly Drive was a place called Blum’s, which was, for me, upscale. They had a fountain and they had candy and they sold goodies, and I would stop over there for breakfast and I would feel very intimidated that I didn’t belong in this restaurant, sitting at a counter having breakfast waiting for my wife to join me. And I remember when she didn’t join me, I would go down to a Norm’s on La Cienaga, where I felt much more comfortable.
So, quite a culture shock. But I was ambitious, and I was driven, and I had a will, an energy. When I came out to L.A., I had sixteen dollars in my pocket. I lost twenty-five pounds till I found a job writing insurance. It was a climb into feeling secure socioeconomically and culturally. It’s one of the reasons I never stayed in New York. I felt that I could never handle the elegance of the New York theatre world. That culture was something that I would be constantly jarring up against.
But Los Angeles seemed less impenetrable?
The agent was the intermediary. In New York, I knew you had to make your rounds. You had to go out and meet people and sell them. I have never been a great self-marketer. And L.A., I had heard that agents ran everything. The insularity benefitted me, I thought at the time. It was a manifestation of the insecurity.
Tell me more about your family and your background.
My mother was a German, out of Minnesota. She had run away from home when she was fifteen and moved to Detroit during the depression, and worked in the factories. There was a union organizer there, and [she] lived a kind of free and wild life. When she got married and had two kids, eventually three, she wanted more for them. She remembered her middle class roots, and that’s when the disruption between she and my father [occurred]. He and she broke up when I was twelve. My father was a waiter. He worked nights at a local big restaurant in the Transfer Station section of Union City. My father said, “Son, I just never could make money in my life. I was smarter than my friends, but they could make money. I never could make money.”
My mother had some rough times. She went to work for minimum wage, in a sweatshop, there in Union City. A sewing machine operator. And he tried various businesses, failed, did a lot of drinking in those days. My brother and I were amazed that they broke up. We thought we were happy. But I did very well in school. I was happy. We didn’t know we were poor. Everybody around us was struggling with one thing or another.
Your real name is Clifford Ebrahim.
It’s Turkish. My father, when he came over, at Ellis Island, they asked him his name and he said, “Ishmael.” They said, “Ishmael what? What’s your surname?” He didn’t understand. He said, “Ishmael bin Ebrahim” – he’s the son of Ebrahim. So they wrote down that his surname was Ebrahim.
Were you raised as a Muslim, or Christian?
I was raised Catholic. My mother was Roman Catholic, and my father was never very religious. He drank, he smoked, he ate pork. In fact he had a wonderful story – when I asked him when Khomeini took over in Iran, I said, “Well, what do you think, Dad?” He and I had not spoken for twenty years; that’s another long story. But we had a rapprochement and I said, “What do you think of this Khomeini thing?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, the Muslim resurgence in the world. Do you connect with it? Is there a little pride, a little connection?” And he said, “Ah, they’re all crazy. Why do you think I left?”
He said, “Let me tell you something, son. Do you remember when we moved into that house and the rain had leaked all the time and we had to put out pots and pans? Remember when you and your brother had to catch mice and rats in the traps and all of that? Even in those days, I was gambling a thousand dollars a day. Where but in America could a man do that? This is the greatest country in the world.”
How did you choose Cliff Osmond?
I had a Jewish agent. The second agent with Meyer Mishkin said I’d have to change my name, that an Arabic-sounding name was not going to do well. I took umbrage, of course, for about a day and a half. But I was as greedy and ambitious as anyone else, and we decided to take “Osman,” my middle name, which again is a Turkish name, and change that to Osmond. It kind of vanillacized the name. “Cliff Osmond,” that seemed properly waspish.
Legally, I have always gone by Ebrahim. I remember thinking at the time I would have a rational schizophrenia. I would have two mindsets. My work would be Cliff Osmond, and then everything legal, the home purchase, and my marriage and my children and all of that would be Clifford Ebrahim. You make these decisions . . . . I thought it was a decision with integrity, that I would on the one hand deny my heritage but on the other hand maintain it. You try to have the best of both worlds, and often when you try to have the best of both worlds, and stand with your feet astride a vacuum underneath, you wind up spreading your legs too much and you wind up falling on your face. In many ways I’ve regretted not having a singular identity. But that’s a choice I made.
Your move to California – was that an adventure?
I had no money. I didn’t know anybody. On the way out to California, I ran into somebody in a bit of serendipity in Dallas. Somebody that I had met at [my] Dartmouth graduation was going to put me up for a free meal, and while I was there I went to the Dallas Theater Center, and while I was there I ran into someone who five years before had graduated Dartmouth, who was then a student in a repertory company in Dallas. He said, “Oh, why don’t you audition for this?” So I went to the Greyhound terminal for a shave, went over, auditioned, and they offered me a hundred a month to stay there and be part of the repertory company and also take some graduate courses. So I spent a year or so there, acting, at the Dallas Theater Center. At the end of which time, Paul Baker and I had a semi-antagonistic relationship, so my scholarship was rescinded the second year. He gave it to my girlfriend, hoping that she would stay and I would leave. And I did leave. I went to California, not knowing anyone.
And your girlfriend stayed behind?
She stayed, except that I did win eventually. I started working in about four or five months, and she came out, followed me. In fact we’ve been married fifty years. So I triumphed in that regard.
But I came out here, and I had to get a job. I had sixteen bucks. A friend from Dartmouth’s brother was running an apartment complex in Downey, and he let me stay in an unfurnished apartment, sleeping on the floor, for a month or so. I would hitchhike or take the bus up to Los Angeles and try to find a steady gig, a straight job, so I could eat. Finally I got a job at Continental Assurance Company, underwriting group insurance proposals, which I had done in New York the year that I’d left college. So I did that. Didn’t tell anyone I was an actor. And then got affiliated with a group in Hollywood. So during the day, I was a straight group insurance proposal writer, and then at night I would do plays. I wound up in a play at the Troubadour. It must have been on an off night – the Troubadour was a musical venue – and we did a thing by Ionesco called Victims of Duty. A couple of agents saw it, one of which was Meyer Mishkin’s assistant, and she liked me. That was about five months into being in L.A. And in the ensuing two months, I continued to work in insurance, and then when I had an audition I just would call in sick. By January of ’62, I hit the Rifleman situation, and then during that period I talked my future wife into coming out here.
Mishkin represented a number of established, or at least very promising, young leading men, and here you were, an unknown and also not a matinee idol type.
I think like any business, you have your main product, and then you do your research and development. You’re developing new products. Jeff Chandler had died a year or two before. Lee was now hot. Behind him, he had Claude Akins, who would do Movin’ On, the trucker series. He had Claude, and Morgan Woodward, and Jimmy Coburn was coming up. And then he was finding some new people.
Were there other young actors you hung out with, or studied with, during this time?
You know, I was not a group kind of guy. First of all, having my lady coming out, I also had a great domestic yearning, a very bourgeois yearning to have a good life, and get married and have kids. I mostly affiliated with her. I also went to UCLA and was working on my Masters in Business Administration at the very same time, from’62 to’66, the period we’re talking about, when I was getting started, I was getting a Masters at the same time at UCLA in finance.
Was that a way of hedging your bets, in case the acting career didn’t take off?
I think it was. I also found that kind of life very satisfying, and it interested me. I did not spend the amount of time I should have on my career. So it was positive in terms of it made me happy, but a negative effect on the career, certainly. I wasn’t a hanger-outer. I’ve always been a semi-loner, even in college. Group affiliation was not my strong suit. I’ve got friends, obviously, and a social circle, but I did not hang out with actors that much after I started working.
As a drunken Indian chief (very funny opposite a stone-faced Shelley Morrison as his wife) on Laredo (“Yahoo,” 1965)
After The Rifleman, you did more westerns, including Laredo and three episodes of Wagon Train.
That was fun. It was fun to go on location and play seedy and rustic, because I was an urban kid and it played into the fantasy element of acting.
One of your Wagon Trains guest starred Robert Ryan.
That’s an interesting story, yes. Robert Ryan was, number one, one of the great actors. He was a Dartmouth graduate, and there was a time when I had been put in contact with Robert Ryan by someone at Dartmouth, and had visited him at his palatial home in Beverly Hills. It was on Carroll Drive, I believe. I went out to the house, and he was very gentlemanly and courtly, and we chatted for a bit. He gave me some advice, tips, and so forth, and that was it. Now, several years had passed, and suddenly I was going to be on a show with him. He didn’t remember me. I did not [remind him] that we had gotten together. And now we were just two actors.
By the story we had to be antagonistic, and I think we had a physical fight. I remember very vividly, it was a tough fight. Robert Ryan had been a professional boxer, and physical prowess was something he took pride in. And I was a young guy, and obviously [to] young guys, at least the kind of guy I was, physical prowess was important. So we were going at each other, and it was one of the toughest fights I have ever had in film. Because he was not going to back off, and I was not going to back off. We didn’t speak or say anything, but we went at it. He was tough.
Was it a real fight?
No, it was a staged fight. But normally with a staged fight you’d go to eighty, eighty-five percent. We were hovering in the ninety, ninety-five percent of effort. We were pushing. I mean, there was not so much a personal element, but there was, for me, all right, older actor, I’m going to take you out and show how tough I am. And he’s an older actor saying, hey kid, okay, you want to push it, all right, I’ll push it. You want to see? You want to see what I got left?
I know you’ve written a lot about the craft and the process of acting more recently, but at that time, what kind of approach were you taking? Did you follow a particular technique? Was it all instinct at first?
I had some very intelligent directors, theater people, at Dartmouth. Dartmouth did not have a theater program; in other words, you couldn’t take any courses or anything. It was all extracurricular. But I did sixteen plays there. So there was a lot of actual rehearsal, and it was mostly what they call technical, but I prefer to call mechanical. Speech, movement, and these kinds of things. We did a lot of classics. Yet there was a sense in me that emotional truth had to happen. I never had any formal training in it, but I knew that it was the goal. I did a couple of student plays, Of Mice and Men and A View From the Bridge, directed them myself and did the leads, and constantly trying to move my instrument toward emotional truth. But, again, no formal training.
Then I went to Dallas and did the theater there, and they were very much into rhythm, line, texture, form – again, the technical, mechanical, formal aspects of an actor. And I would be fighting again for this emotional truth. Unfortunately what I saw as emotional truth was auto-stimulated. It was generated by the truth, but also generated by the actor themselves and not by the scene and the interplay between the characters. This meant when I came to Hollywood, this was what I still knew. I was a very clever tactician – by tactician, I mean mechanical, very bright, knew how to do a narrative, tried to reach for the emotional quality of the character but did not really listen well, did not deal with others well in terms of listening and the byplay back and forth. So I missed the key element for me, in reality. I missed that key element. I never had that training. I did some improv for a while with Jeff Corey, for like four months, but never quite caught on its value. So I was relatively untrained in the sense of a method, like Meisner, Strasberg, overall Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, all of that.
It seems that everyone I talk to who was your age or a little older and working as an actor in Los Angeles in the sixties passed through Jeff Corey’s class.
Jeff had been blacklisted, and he had to find a way to earn a living during the blacklist and began, I think, housepainting first, and then teaching. He was a very bright man, and did mostly improv training, to get you into reality. I don’t remember his instructions, but I do remember the place, and how intelligent he was. But there was no formal training. It wasn’t like, you do this, and you do that, and this is why, this is what’s going to occur. It wasn’t properly formula-ized. It was just, you pick it up on your own by doing the improvisation. He was very central to that time in Los Angeles.
Through Jeff I met Lenny Nimoy. When I did The Rifleman, Lenny had been Jeff’s assistant, and I went to him for some help with that first role.
Do you remember anything about that session?
I went over to Leonard’s house. He was there with his wife, and I said, “Lenny, I have this scene in The Rifleman.” I probably had called him before and said, “I need some help. Do you mind working on a couple of scenes, because this is a big shot.” We had been fellow students with Jeff, although hierarchically he was the assistant and I was just a student. And we sat there and did a couple of scenes and talked about them, what was going on in the scene and so forth. He helped me enormously.
Did you watch him later on Star Trek?
Oh, sure. The perfect show for the perfect man, and an iconic performance.
You were in the cast of an unsold pilot for a series about Alexander the Great, which is now remembered as something of a legendary flop.
That would have made my life had it gone! I don’t remember the origin of the casting. William Shatner, Cassavetes – it had a big cast. It was done by somebody who was an intellectual about Alexander the Great, and he put this thing together. Albert McCleery. It was very expensive. We shot out in the high desert. I remember it costing, at a time, a million dollars or something. That’s why the series really died. ABC was doing it, and the cost was prohibitive per episode, had they gone ahead.
I was only signed for one episode, to play Memnon, and then they previewed. And the knob-turners, the preview audience, every time I came on the interest went up in the show. They had to come back to me and now do a contract for regular status. Because obviously I had an appeal. For whatever reason the audience connected with me and my character, and they came back to me and had to sign a very nice contract. I wish that show had gone. It would have been a lot of money.
Adam West was in that, and you later worked with him on Batman. Why are you laughing?
I’m laughing because … you do it because you do it. I mean, somebody makes you an offer, and you grab the money. There was no joy in terms of creativity or anything else. It’s not my idea of a good time, that kind of spoof. Spoof, for me, is – what should I say – not as satisfying a form of acting.
I thought everyone in Hollywood was clamoring to be a guest star on Batman!
Well, maybe if I was going to do one of the leads and create an exotic character, and have that kind of fun perhaps. But playing another heavy was not that satisfying. If I had to give you my list of twenty shows that I remember, that’s not one of them.
Land of the Giants was in the same vein, except perhaps unintentionally campy.
Yeah, I did a couple of those, didn’t I? Again, it was a job. They came to me. I was big. That was another thing that went on with my career: a lot of short actors wouldn’t work with me. I never did a Robert Conrad show. There are a lot of actors who do not want to be in a scene with somebody that is bigger than them. Heroic characters do not like to look up to other characters. Unless you’re playing a giant, then that’s okay.
I seem to be picking shows to ask about that don’t mean much to you. So which of those guest star roles were satisfying for you? If you do have a mental top-20 list, I’m curious as to which ones are on it.
All in the Family, one. Kojak, two. Bob Newhart, three. Certainly The Rifleman. About four of the Gunsmokes were very satisfying. One of which, the very first one I did, the Gunsmoke people submitted me for an Emmy. And deservedly so, from their point of view, and mine. Those leap out at me, as episodes where I did a nice job. The blueprint that they gave me was wonderful, and it was well-executed.
Was that Gunsmoke episode “The Victim”?
Yes. “The Victim” and “Celia,” those two were particularly pleasurable. In “The Victim,” he was a simple man. It didn’t go as far as Of Mice and Men in terms of the simplicity, but that element of someone just trying to figure out how to get through life, and then life threw its vicissitudes at him, and he had to struggle mightily with a deficient intellect to survive. And of course your success and your survival is limited by who and what you are. That’s what happened to the character at the end. He loses. But he loses with dignity. That was, for me, a nice resolution.
And then “Celia” was a love story. The only love story I ever got to do. It was a prominent role, and I did a good narrative job. I know how to tell a story. “Celia” was told very well. You knew pretty much where the character was at all times in its plotting and its theme.
Was “Celia” a femme fatale kind of story?
Yes, exactly. Somebody tried to use an abuse a blacksmith, tried to get money from him. And fool that he is, he falls in love with her.
Gunsmoke was always a pleasure to be on the set. It was run [with] the highest level of professionalism. Jim Arness demanded that. He obviously had an affinity toward actors and acting. There was just never any problem. Everything was top-notch. Including salary. That was one of the best-paying shows. Even comparable to the last few years. It paid well, everyone was treated with the utmost respect, and the assistant directors didn’t run around and say, “The heavy’s up next!” They always referred to you by name. Without being obsequious. They just were highly professional, and the show was fun.
What do you remember about Bob Newhart (“The Heavyweights,” 1975, above)?
Just absolutely delightful. You know, the fish stinks from the head first, and it also smells good from the head first. He was a relaxed kind of guy. He reminded me of when I worked with Dean Martin. They knew what they could do, they did do what they could do well, and they enjoyed being themselves doing what they did well. So the set was pleasant; it never got out of control.
And All in the Family, it was just an excellent concept, an excellent cast. All people who were intelligent, hard-working, and they cared about what they were doing. And they were kind enough to leave you alone, or at least left me alone, to do what I do well.
What are your thoughts about Carroll O’Connor?
He’s buried between Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. I happened to be at the cemetery the other day, and that just popped into my brain. What do I remember about Carroll? He was hard-driving, professional. Get out of his way if you weren’t any good, and if you were good, he’d welcome you and you’d do the work. There was an element of irascibility, but it was under control. He was just a tough, good actor, who’d paid his dues and now he was going to shine.
Why is Kojak near the top of your list?
That was an interesting one. We were doing a kind of a – the old Victor McLaglen thing, where he winds up getting killed by the group because he rats on somebody. The Informer – they were doing their version of The Informer. I had the lead in that, and there was a group of good actors, a lot of them out of New York. Sally Kirkland was in it.
Telly Savalas, by then, was a success, and Savalas was not that enthralled doing the work. We had worked one day, worked very hard, and we showed up on the second day to start his work. He hadn’t read the script. And he had the history of not being off-camera. If you had a scene with him, once he got done with his side, he’d disappear into the dressing room, and you’d have to work with the script supervisor [reading Savalas’s lines].
I don’t know if it was an overt pact, but at least I made a pact with myself to say, you know, when Telly got into this business as an actor, he must have cared. He must have cared. And if we work very hard, and conscientiously, in our scenes, he will be embarrassed not to be off-camera with us. That old “why I got into this business in the first place” will be triggered. And darned if that didn’t happen. He saw us working very hard, and he certainly worked harder off-camera, collaboratively, with everyone than he had before, in terms of at least the reputation. So it was an enjoyable experience in that regard, and he came out with a fairly nice episode.
What other TV stars didn’t do off-camera?
Very, very few. I cannot recall many that did not work off-camera. Occasionally somebody would be sick or somebody would be hung over or something like that. But no, I would say for the most part, he stands out in that regard.
You did an Ironside. Was Raymond Burr using his famous teleprompter?
Raymond Burr? Yeah, he would use the cards. Certainly he would look here and he would look there. But he had so integrated it into his persona, his character, that it wasn’t as egregious a cheat as Telly. He had not integrated it into character. Because he played a very direct character, and then he’s looking over your shoulder. Whereas Raymond Burr was always this pensive, thinking, wondering, as he was looking around for his lines.
Oh, so Telly Savalas had his lines somewhere on Kojak?
Oh, yeah, on boards.
Other big stars you worked with: Lucille Ball.
She was wonderful. I mean, she was a big girl, and I was a big guy, and we did a lot of physical stuff together. To do comedy with her, it was like a dance. She was very charming. She did change, I must admit, when I brought my wife to the set and introduced my wife to her, and she wasn’t quite so accommodating and pleasant. Now, whether she liked me because I worked hard as an actor or because I seemed like a single man or not, I don’t know. But there was a change in her demeanor.
And you were on The Red Skelton Show.
Same thing. I mean, I just had three lines or something in a scene. But he was funny and charming, and nice. And he looked off, like he always did, to find his lines, and did his usual giggling. But it was genuine giggling. Another physical genius.
Of all your guest spots that I ever least expected to see, it was My Living Doll, which actually came out on DVD this year (“The Pool Shark,” 1965, below). You played a pool shark, sort of a spoof of Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats character from The Hustler, in one episode. Do you remember that?
I remember working with Robert Cummings. I remember one comment. I must have made some choices in performance that he was not particularly happy with. He wanted something else. I was explaining what I was trying for, and he nodded and nodded and he said in this way he had – a bit arch, a bit distant – “That’s very good, that’s very good. Tell you what, why don’t you do that on the inside, but do it the way I want on the outside.”
January 2, 2013
Wagon Train continues to serve as my go-to comfort food whenever I have the sniffles and don’t feel up to watching something that might be, y’know, good. Over the holidays, I plowed through a middle chunk of the third season, which yielded such mild discoveries / pleasures as a twenty-five year old Louise Fletcher (as Estella in ”The Tom Tuckett Story,” a credited adaptation of Great Expectations!) and Elisha Cook, Jr., as a dangerous trail weasel named Cadge Waldo (in “The Tracy Sadler Story”). If you’re going to name a character “Cadge Waldo,” you pretty much have to get Elisha Cook to play him. Leonard Nimoy as a drunken Indian and Susan Oliver, loudly proclaiming that her name is Margaret Hamilton (which is hilarious if you know your character actresses), as a spoiled teenager in “The Maggie Hamilton Story.” “Look at that beautiful rabbit!” Susan exclaims dimly, and Flint (Robert Horton) blows it away for dinner.
Minor pleasures amid hazy naps.
The way Revue Productions did its screen credits around this time (1959-1960) was procrustean. Most shows had one or two end credit cards for the guest stars, and if everyone fit, they got screen credit; if not, they didn’t. A Wagon Train episode with few guest stars had room in the credits for all of them, including bit players and even stuntmen. In an episode with a large cast, however, actors with major secondary roles might get left out. If a top-lining guest star required extra-large type or single card billing, that would further serve to crowd out some of the supporting actors. Nobody really cared whether the actors received credit or not - which leaves fussy historians, fifty-odd years later, waiting for each set of end titles with fingers crossed.
The 1959 Christmas episode, “The St. Nicholas Story,” sees the train’s Santa Claus arrow-speared by unfriendly Indians. Missing children from both sides find each other on the plains and frolic together, thus brokering an uneasy truce. And Ward Bond saves Christmas. Somehow, it’s less nauseating than it sounds, but amidst the chaos the actress playing the Indian boy’s mother went uncredited:
“The Lita Foladaire Story” is a rare off-campus episode for trailmaster Major Adams, who solves a frontier-town murder mystery with the help of sidekicks Bill Hawks and Charlie Wooster. Too many suspects for the end credits; left out are the sheriff (top, on the right with Ward Bond) and one “Jason Arnold,” attorney at law, who pops in briefly to deliver a bit of exposition (bottom, also on the right with Bond; shall we say that director Jerry Hopper’s sense of composition was, er, consistent):
Then in “The Christine Elliott Story,” the title character (Phyllis Thaxter) shepherds a dozen mischievous boys onto the wagon train once her father drops dead and his orphanage closes. This one is about as nauseating as it sounds. Oddly, while seven of the twelve child actors receive screen credit, the elderly fellow playing Thaxter’s father, “John Russell,” does not, even though he has a lengthy deathbed scene:
So can anyone ID these uncredited Wagon Trainers? As it happens, all three of these episodes are on Youtube in their entirety. For “The St. Nicholas Story,” see 26:50; for “The Lita Foladaire Story,” see 01:45 and 30:00; for “The Christine Elliott Story,” see 02:50. But don’t watch Wagon Train on Youtube for pleasure; these copies are way too compressed. Spring for the DVDs.)
P.S. Bonus screed against the IMDb et. al.: Look around the internet and you’ll see the titles of many Wagon Train episodes, most of which incorporate the names of the primary guest characters, misspelled on many data aggregation sites. As the screen grab below makes clear, it’s Elliott with two T’s, and yet it’s spelled as “Elliot” on IMDb.com, tvguide.com, starz.com, tvrage.com, tviv.org, zap2it.com, and even most of the Youtube accounts that have posted the video illegally. “The Vittorio Botticelli Story,” also from the third season, is often garbled as “The Vittorio Bottecelli Story.” Yet another reason why I still transcribe the credits of most vintage TV episodes that I watch, even though the internet has made some of that work (but not every detail of it) redundant.