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March 28, 2014

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Last week an overview of the anthology series Playhouse 90 appeared under my byline at The A.V. Club.  As a supplement, here are some miscellaneous facts and observations for which there wasn’t room in that article (which is already pretty long!).

1. In between Program X and Playhouse 90, the anthology project was briefly known as The Gay 90s (ugh!). By the time the series was announced publicly in January 1956, Playhouse 90 had been set as the title.

2. The original producers of Playhouse 90 were meant to be Carey Wilson, a movie producer and screenwriter associated with MGM’s Andy Hardy series, and (as his subordinate) Fletcher Markle.  Wilson announced the series debut as an adaptation of Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed, implying a somewhat more conservative approach than Martin Manulis would take.  The trade papers announced Markle’s departure almost immediately, as a result of creative differences with Wilson, who also departed soon thereafter.  According to Manulis, the actual story was somewhat different: CBS executive Hubbell Robinson had intended for Wilson, Markle, and Manulis to alternate as producers, in a manner similar to the structure imposed in the third season.  Manulis, anticipating conflicts among the trio, attempted to bow out, but Robinson reversed course, appointing Manulis as sole producer and getting rid of the other two.

3. Along with the NBC spectaculars, another key antecedent for Playhouse 90 was the live anthology The Best of Broadway, which adapted Broadway plays and was broadcast in color.  Robinson developed the show and Manulis produced it, and their realization that existing plays had to be severly cut to fit an hour time slot was part of the impetus to develop a ninety-minute anthology.

4. Seeking to establish a contemporary, relevant feel for the new series, Hubbell Robinson barred Playhouse 90 from doing “costume dramas,” an edict that was violated infrequently.

5. Although the budget for Playhouse 90 was officially $100,000, Manulis realized early on that that figure wouldn’t fund the kind of star talent that the network wanted. Manulis successfully lobbied Robinson to create a secret slush fund from which all of the name actors (but not the supporting casts) would be paid, at a favored-nations rate of $10,000 each.  As a result, the actual cost of most episodes topped $150,000.  $150,000 was also the reported budget of each filmed segment.

6. By the end of the series, the official budget was reported at $150,000, but many individual segments went far over that cost. “The Killers of Mussolini,” which featured scenes taped in Franklin Canyon, cost around $300,000, and Frankenheimer and Fred Coe’s two-part adaptation of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” hit $500,000.  The conflict with CBS over the cost overruns on the two-parter became so pitched that, according to Frankenheimer, Coe went on a bender in Florida and left his director to fend off the suits.

7. Frankenheimer called Fred Coe “the best producer I ever worked with,” without qualification.  That was a strong statement, given that Frankenheimer directed dozens of Climaxes and Playhouse 90s for Manulis but only five shows (all Playhouse 90s) for Coe.  In Frankenheimer’s view, “Manulis was much more of a politician than Coe, Coe more of a creative artist than Manulis … [Coe] worked harder on the scripts; Manulis left much more to the director.”

8. At the same time, although most of Frankenheimer’s collaborators felt that his talent justified his imperiousness, there were naysayers.  John Houseman (who made only one Playhouse 90, the excellent “Face of a Hero,” with Frankenheimer) observed shrewdly that Frankenheimer directed “with great emphasis on certain ‘terrific’ scenes at the expense of the whole.”  Even Manulis, obviously a champion of Frankenheimer’s, could roll his eyes.  Manulis often told the story of how Frankenheimer, when one Playhouse 90 segment was running long in rehearsals, came to him and insisted in all seriousness that Manulis call New York and inform CBS that there couldn’t be any commercials that week.

9. After most of the live broadcasts, the above-the-line creative talent went to Martin Manulis’s home to watch the kinescope during its broadcast for the West Coast.  The crew convened at Kelbo’s, a Hawaiian-themed Fairfax Avenue bar famous for its ribs.

10. Although the New York-based Robinson was the executive charged with overseeing Playhouse 90, West Coast CBS chief William Dozier (later the man behind the 1960s Batman television series) also exerted a certain influence over the show, just by proximity. It was Dozier, for instance, who would convey the sponsors’ and censors’ notes to John Frankenheimer.

11. Manulis’s story editor, Del Reisman, had a habit of “casting” writers to match material the series wanted to adapt.  For example, Fitzgerald’s unfinished Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon was given to Don M. Mankiewicz, who had grown up in the novel’s Hollywood setting; he was the son of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.  To adapt Irwin Shaw’s short story “The Eighty-Yard Run,” Reisman hired David Shaw, one of the writers who emerged in Fred Coe’s Philco Playhouse stable – and Irwin Shaw’s brother.  Not that Reisman’s logic always paid off: He assigned “Turn Left at Mt. Everest,” a military comedy, to Marion Hargrove, the author of See Here, Private Hargrove, a humorous memoir of World War II service, but Hargrove’s script was so unsatisfactory that Reisman threw it out and wrote the adaptation himself.

12. Because Playhouse 90 so publicly venerated writers, Manulis and the subsequent producers were extremely reluctant to replace a writer, even when he seemed completely “written out” on a script.  Some shows went through a seemingly endless development process as a result of this loyalty.  When a second writer was required, Manulis and Reisman had a small talent pool to whom they turned – fast-working scribes who showed promise but weren’t established enough to get assignments writing originals for the series.  The most important of these script doctors were James P. Cavanagh (an Emmy winner for Alfred Hitchcock Presents), Paul Monash (later the executive producer of Peyton Place), and Leslie Stevens (later the creator of The Outer Limits).

13. Playhouse 90‘s split sponsorship made for an intriguing mix of commercials for mainstream products, like Camel cigarettes and Delsey toilet paper (which Rod Serling often invoked as a punchline), and luxury items like the Renault Dauphine, an import car that was touted in an especially cute animated ad.

14. Time did an unusually frank on-set report on Playhouse 90 in 1957.  Unfortunately the magazine dropped in on one of Frankenheimer’s less distinguished efforts: “The Troublemakers,” a college hazing story that was based on an actual 1949 incident but was also something of a rehash of Calder Willingham’s play End as a Man (Ben Gazzara starred in both).  Time noted that Frankenheimer brought in Rod Serling for an extensive, uncredited rewrite of the script by George Bellak, and that the sponsor’s rep (from Camel, naturally) insisted that Harry Guardino smoke a cigarette instead of a cigar in one scene.

15. Frankenheimer also arranged a rewrite of “Clash by Night” – by Clifford Odets.  Disappointed with the television adaptation by F. W. Durkee, Jr., Frankenheimer (with Manulis’s blessing) visited Odets at his home to enlist the playwright’s help in bringing the show closer to its original form.  Odets ended up doing an uncredited, but paid, polish.

16. The first choice to play Mountain McClintock in “Requiem For a Heavyweight” was Ernest Borgnine, who turned it down.  Manulis was so offended – “If he didn’t want to do it, I didn’t even want to talk to him” – that he wasted no time in offering the role Jack Palance.

17. Anne Francis was originally cast as Kirsten in “Days of Wine and Roses.”  After John Frankenheimer ran into Piper Laurie (whom he had directed in a first season episode, “The Ninth Day”) again in New York, he offered her the role, and Francis was paid off and let go.

18. Because some of the star actors weren’t available for the full three-week rehearsal period, Playhouse 90 had a corps of small-part actors who would perform those roles during the early blocking rehearsals.  This sort-of-repertory company turned up in bit parts during the broadcasts of many episodes: Jason Wingreen, Paul Bryar, Claudia Bryar, Tom Palmer, Paul Lambert, Garry Walberg, John Conwell, Sidney Clute, Michael Pataki.  (Later many of these actors turned into an informal stock company for Ralph Senensky, a production coordinator on Playhouse 90, after Senensky began directing episodic television.)

19. Somewhat overlapping with the group of rehearsal actors was a John Frankenheimer-specific stock company of character actors, some of whom played the meatiest roles of their career in Frankenheimer’s Playhouse 90s: James Gregory, Malcolm Atterbury, Whit Bissell, Robert F. Simon, Helen Kleeb, Eddie Ryder, Arthur Batanides, Douglas Henderson, Marc Lawrence.  The supporting casts of Frankenheimer’s early films (before he began working largely in Europe after 1966’s Grand Prix) are heavily weighted toward his favorite Playhouse 90 actors.

20. The generally dismal quality of the filmed episodes, and the cynicism that went into their making, is hard to understate.  William Froug’s account of one segment he produced, “Natchez,” is the best example: It came about because Screen Gems needed a vehicle for Felicia Farr, a pretty but inexperienced ingenue, in order to do a favor for her fiance, Jack Lemmon, who happened to be a rising star at Columbia.  Froug was told by his boss, William Sackheim, to borrow the plot of Gilda, but to disguise it enough to avoid a plagiarism suit.  The riverboat setting was decided upon because a paddleboat happened to be sitting idle on the studio backlot.

21. Although the bulk of the filmed shows were done at Screen Gems, CBS also ordered three (all filmed on location in Arizona) from Filmaster Productions, and produced a few (like the second season’s “The Dungeon”) in-house.

22. At first, Playhouse 90 was scored mainly with needle-drop cues from the CBS library; a music supervisor (two of whom were Jerry Goldsmith and Fred Steiner, both still journeymen composers) would listen to both the show and the director in a room in the basement and synchronize the pre-selected cues to the live broadcast.  Eventually Goldsmith agitated for more original scoring and was permitted to compose music for many of the third and fourth season episodes.  (Other CBS standbys, including Robert Drasnin and Wilbur Hatch, also contributed a few original scores.)

23. During the live broadcasts, actors would have been in the way of the cameras and technicians had they remained on the soundstage; therefore, when they weren’t in a scene, the actors generally went to their dressing rooms on the second floor and watched the broadcast on monitors.  This had its perils: During “The Great Gatsby,” Philip Reed missed an entrance because he’d gotten so involved in watching the show.

24. When the producer’s chair was vacant after the second season, William Dozier tried and failed to get Kermit Bloomgarden, Dore Schary, and Cecil B. DeMille to produce one-off Playhouse 90 segments.  Dozier wasn’t the only person reaching for the stars: John Frankenheimer sought to cast both Cary Grant and John Wayne on the show.

25. The reasons that Herbert Brodkin’s workload was always meant to be larger than that of either John Houseman or Fred Coe were that Houseman had theatrical commitments for part of the year, and Coe was understood to be a hands-on producer who would get better results if given more time to develop his episodes.  Houseman’s third season schedule of six segments (reduced from eight, as a result of his disagreements with CBS over suitable stories) is instructive of how the arrangement worked.  Following the initial stretch of episodes produced by Fred Coe (and others), Houseman’s “The Return of Ansel Gibbs” (airdate: November 27, 1958), “Free Weekend” (airdate: December 4, 1958), and “Seven Against the Wall” (airdate: December 11, 1958) were staged live in succession, as the eighty-eighth through ninetieth episodes.  Then Playhouse 90 went on hiatus for a week as “Face of a Hero” (airdate: January 1, 1959) and “The Wings of the Dove” (airdate: January 8, 1959) were taped for broadcast the following month, as the ninety-second and ninety-third episodes.  Finally, Houseman flew back to New York to oversee the live broadcast from there of “The Nutcracker” (airdate: December 25, 1958), the ninety-first episode and his final commitment until the following season.  Herbert Brodkin’s segments began with “The Blue Men” (airdate: January 15, 1959) and continued, along with a few produced by substitutes, until the end of the season.  (Houseman, incidentally, was paid $100,000 to produce his third of the season.)

26. The “guest” producers who spelled Coe, Houseman, and Brodkin on an occasional basis included Peter Kortner, who had been the show’s original story editor (“Dark December,” “The Dingaling Girl,” “Project Immortality,” “The Second Happiest Day,” “In the Presence of Mine Enemies”); Gordon Duff (“The Time of Your Life”); and director Buzz Kulik (“The Killers of Mussolini”).

27. “Seven Against the Wall” is a remarkable achievement of scope and scale; even more than Kraft Television Theater‘s “A Night to Remember,” it represents a successful attempt to retell a sprawling, complex historical event within the confines of a soundstage (or two; the production spilled over into a second studio next door).  For Houseman, it was a conscious follow-up to “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” a triumphant hour he had produced in New York the preceding year for The Seven Lively Arts.  Based on an article by John Bartlow Martin (whose work also formed the basis of one of Coe’s Playhouse 90s, “Journey to the Day”), “Blast” also assembled a huge cast to tell a multi-faceted story with no single protagonist.  As a publicity angle, “Seven Against the Wall” touted its cast of fifty (not counting the extras), all of whom received screen credit on a long crawl.

28. Here is the complete cast of “Seven Against the Wall,” in the order listed on screen: Eric Sevaried (Narrator), Paul Lambert (Al Capone), Dennis Patrick (George “Bugs” Moran), Frank Silvera (Nick Serrello), Paul Stevens (“Machine Gun” Jack McGurn), Dennis Cross (Pete Gusenberg), Barry Cahill (Frank Gusenberg), Richard Carlyle (Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer), Al Ruscio (Albery Weinshank), George Keymas (James Clark), Milton Frome (Adam Heyer), Wayne Heffley (John May), Nesdon Booth (Michael Heitler), Joe De Santis (Charles Fischetti), Tige Andrews (Frank Nitti), Lewis Charles (Jacob Gusik), Paul Burke (Paul Salvanti), Don Gordon (Bobo Borotta), Warren Oates (Ted Ryan), Robert Cass (Service Station Attendant), Celia Lovsky (Mrs. Schwimmer), Jean Inness (Mrs. Greeley), Connie Davis (Woman in the Street), Isabelle Cooley (Moran’s Maid), Nicholas Georgiade (Rocco), Tito Vuolo (Anselmi), Richard Sinatra (Scalisi), Paul Maxwell (Cooley), Arthur Hanson (Moeller), Karl Lukas (Willie Marks), Joseph Abdullah (Joey), Mike Masters (Policeman), Clancy Cooper (Policeman), Sid Cassell (Truck Driver), Phil Arnold (Truck Driver), Walter Barnes (Bartender), Stephen Coit (Bartender), Harry Jackson (Auto Salesman), Joseph Haworth (Garage Owner), Bob Duggan (Bar Customer), Richard Venture (Passerby), Warren Frost (Reporter with Moran), Garry Walberg (Reporter with Moran), Molly Dodd (Reporter with Capone), Jason Wingreen (Reporter with Capone), Barry Brooks (Reporter with Capone), Drew Handley (Cigar Store Clerk), Gil Frye (Capone’s Servant), Rick Ellis (Bellboy), Louise Fletcher (Pete’s Girl).

29. Only Louise Fletcher’s feet are seen in “Seven Against the Wall,” although she has off-screen dialogue and returned for a slightly larger role in a subsequent episode, “The Dingaling Girl.”

30. As that “Seven Against the Wall” roster illustrates, the IMDb’s and other sites’ cast lists for Playhouse 90 are woefully incomplete. In his Archive of American Television interview, Ron Howard recalls appearing three times on Playhouse 90, and I’ve spotted him in two of those: “The Dingaling Girl” and “Dark December.”  None of the three appear on Howard’s IMDb page, and only one of Michael Landon’s (at least) four episodes (“Free Weekend,” “A Quiet Game of Cards,” “Dark December,” and “Project Immortality”) is listed on his.  Sally Kellerman mentioned Playhouse 90 as an early credit in her memoir, and sure enough, there she is in “In Lonely Expectation” (the dropped baby episode) as a receptionist: dark-haired and out of focus in the background, but credited and instantly identifiable by her voice.  One other noteworthy fellow who turns up as an extra or bit player in at least half a dozen episodes: Robert Sorrells, the character actor currently serving 25 to life for murdering a man in a bar in 2004.

31. Because most of Playhouse 90 has been accessible only in archives (or not at all) since its original broadcast, the Internet Movie Database and other aggregate websites are especially perilous sources of misinformation.  For instance: The IMDb lists both Franklin Schaffner and George Roy Hill as the directors of “Dark December.”  Schaffner alone was the actual director; Hill, of course, had parted company with Playhouse 90 for good after clashing with CBS over censorship of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which aired two weeks prior to “Dark December.”  The IMDb will also tell you that “Made in Japan” was written by both Joseph Stefano and Leslie Stevens – which would be significant, since the two writers later teamed to produce The Outer Limits.  But “Made in Japan” is credited solely to Stefano, who won a Robert E. Sherwood Award for the script.

32. The CBS executive who insisted on bumping “Requiem For a Heavyweight” from the series premiere slot was one Al Scalpone, whose television career has otherwise been forgotten by history.  But Scalpone, a former ad man, does have one claim to fame: He created (for the Roman Catholic Family Rosary Crusade) the slogan “The family that prays together, stays together.”

33. Absurdly, the delay of “Requiem For a Heavyweight” so that Playhouse 90 could debut with a less downbeat segment instigated a pattern that repeated itself every season.  In the second year, “The Death of Manolete” was a last-minute substitute after CBS rejected Serling’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” which was meant to be the season premiere.  (Manulis and Winant, among others, often cited “Manolete” as a case of we-thought-we-could-do-anything-on-live-TV hubris, with Frankenheimer as the implicit target of that criticism.  That version of events reads as mythmaking, or simple defensiveness, when compared to Frankenheimer’s version, which that “Manolete” was slapped together out of necessity and everyone knew all along that it would be a dud.)  In the third year, Houseman had prepared Loring Mandel’s “Project Immortality” as his first episode, but CBS rejected the script as “too intellectual”; it was later resubmitted by another producer, Peter Kortner, who managed to get it on near the end of the season.  (It won a Sylvania Award.)  Both Serling’s “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” and the nuclear holocaust story “Alas, Babylon” were announced as season premieres but delayed due to concerns over their controversial subject matter.

34. “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” became a Lucy-and-the-football breaking point for Rod Serling.  Once CBS approved his outline Serling, burned by the “A Town Has Turned to Dust” incident, insisted upon a contractual guarantee that “Enemies” would be produced if he wrote the script. CBS agreed but reneged when the sponsor called it “too downbeat, too violent, and too dated.”  The script came back from the dead in 1960 only because a six-month writers’ strike left Playhouse 90 with nothing else to produce; by that time, Serling had publicly urged writers to hide their messages in Westerns and fantasies, and launched The Twilight Zone to put that strategy into practice.

35. Even though it got on, “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” was a defeat for Serling: Leon Uris publicly called his script anti-semitic and called upon CBS to burn the tape, and Serling himself thought that the miscasting of Charles Laughton as the rabbi doomed the production creatively.

36. The technical complexity of Playhouse 90 episodes varied widely; for instance, while both display Frankenheimer’s typical visual ingenuity, the show-within-a-show sequences in “The Comedian” necessitated some forty film cues, “Days of Wine and Roses” was “relatively easy,” with only one scene pre-taped so that Frankenheimer could executive a dissolve between Cliff Robertson in two different sets.  The difficulty of incorporating film clips, as in “The Comedian,” was the timing of the cues: the film had to be started four seconds before the director could cut to it.  When tape replaced film, the “roll cue” had to be called nine seconds early.  “Nine seconds is an eternity,” said Frankenheimer.

37. Although “Old Man” was the first episode to be edited on tape, it was not the first episode taped in advance.  “Shadows Tremble,” aired four weeks prior to “Old Man,” was pre-taped due to star Edward G. Robinson’s nervousness about performing live, and there may have been even earlier live-on-tape episodes.

38. Frankenheimer wasn’t the only Playhouse 90 director to express immediate misgivings about working on tape.  Ralph Nelson, who shot nearly half of the western “Out of Dust” on tape at the Bob Hope ranch, had trouble adjusting to the shifting of the natural light, which necessitated shooting without the rehearsals to which the company had become accustomed.  Nelson later said that “All that vitality, all the adrenaline, was gone … We thought now we’ve got motion pictures backed off the map.  But it turned out that tape was a four-letter word.”  “The Long March,” apart from Jack Carson’s disastrous live performance, was also a victim of tape; director Delbert Mann shot two takes of the climax (depicting Carson’s futile, deadly assault on a hill) on tape before the crew ran out of time, and wasn’t satisfied with either.  Buzz Kulik (who directed the epic “The Killers of Mussolini,” among other episodes) later said that “things went crazy at the end.  John Frankenheimer led the way and off we went, trying to top each other.  Production started to get very, very big, and go beyond the bounds that it should, from the standpoint of good drama.”

39. Another nostalgist for the not-yet-very-old days of live was Herbert Brodkin, who staged two of his fourth-season productions, “The Silver Whistle” (an adaptation of a play for which Brodkin had designed the sets and lighting on Broadway, in 1948) and “The Hiding Place” live out of New York rather than on tape in Television City.

40. Following his ouster from CBS in May 1959, Hubbell Robinson set up shop at NBC with a Playhouse 90 clone called Ford Startime, which returned somewhat to the musical/variety mode of the spectacular format.  The trade papers gleefully reported on the rivalry between the two series as a war for talent and material, and indeed Robinson did succeed in poaching Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, and Robert Stevens to direct some dramatic segments of Ford Startime.  (That season Frankenheimer also directed for The Buick-Electra Playhouse, a series of adaptations of his beloved Hemingway, which is why he was able to return for only a single segment of Playhouse 90 in its final year.)  Any victory in the war was pyrrhic: Ford Startime, too, was cancelled at the end of the 1959-60 season.

41. Robinson couldn’t resist some sour-grapes carping about the final season of Playhouse 90, which was produced without him. “The fourth year was Playhouse’s worst year,” he said. “No one was sitting on it, guiding it, working for quality. The producers were doing the things they always wanted to do.”

42. If you do put in some quality time with Playhouse 90 at UCLA or The Paley Center, here are some commercially unavailable episodes that count as must-sees: “The Ninth Day,” “Invitation to a Gunfighter,” “A Sound of Different Drummers,” “Nightmare at Ground Zero,” “The Innocent Sleep,” “Old Man,” “Free Weekend,” “Seven Against the Wall,” “Face of a Hero,” “Child of Our Time,” “The Raider,” “Project Immortality,” “Target For Three,” “The Tunnel,” and “Tomorrow.”

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Say what you will about the Warner Archive – and most of my early reservations about its product, apart from the pricing, have evaporated – but give them credit for having some dedicated amateur television historians on the payroll.  Not only did they unearth the bizarre backstory behind the 1971 Medical Center episode “Countdown,” but they also located two lengthy, very rarely-seen alternate endings for the episode, and included them on the second season DVD set that was released earlier this year.

Although the credited author of “Countdown” was Don Brinkley, a prolific freelance writer (Bat Masterson; The Fugitive; The F.B.I.) and a Medical Center story editor, the man who crafted many elements of its storyline was the social psychologist Stanley Milgram.  Milgram (whom TV fans will recall as the subject of the famous, largely fictionalized biopic The Tenth Level, with William Shatner) was known for two sociological experiments with implications that penetrated popular culture and made him something of a celebrity, at least within academia: the “small world experiment,” which established through an array of remailed letters the idea that each of us is separated by only six degrees of acquaintance; and the famous Experiment 18, which showed that ordinary people will commit otherwise unthinkable acts of cruelty (in this case, electric shocks administered to strangers) simply because an authority figure instructs them to do so.  Even though the supposed electroshock victims only pretended to suffer, Milgram’s work was condemned by many as unethical, because the shockers weren’t told what was really going on and some were plainly traumatized by their own conduct.  The experiment that Milgram would devise for – or rather, within and around – Medical Center had a similar whiff of sadism.

“Does television violence serve as a model that stimulates the production of violent acts in the community?”  That was the opening line of Milgram’s research proposal, dated April 23, 1969.  Milgram’s pitch was a result of a meeting convened on March 29 by CBS’s Office of Social Research, in which its chief, Dr. Joseph Klapper, solicited grant proposals on the subject of violence on television.  Not much has been written about the Office of Social Research, but it existed for a long time at CBS – from the days of radio in the forties until at least the late eighties – and it appears to have been a pet project of Dr. Frank Stanton, the highly influential CBS president who over saw most of the network’s scientific, political, and journalistic endeavors.  Although it’s hard to imagine a media conglomerate underwriting such a high-minded enterprise today, the OSR actually served two important purposes for CBS.  First, it collected early demographic data.  Second, following the 1961 Senate hearings on televised violence, it focused upon that topic and became an entity to which the network could point whenever it needed to remind someone that it was properly concerned about the social impact of its programming.  In 1969, the OSR awarded Milgram a sum of $260,000 to design and execute a study that would in some way demonstrate the connection (or lack thereof) between violence on television and in real life.

Milgram began with some false starts before he connected with Medical Center.  First, he wanted to deprive a community of “any violence shown on television” for an extended period of time, and measure the effects.  Needless to say, this proved impractical.  Next Milgram commissioned a script for a television movie that would offer a solid, easy-to-emulate act of violence within its narrative, but the script proved deficient (Milgram did not explain precisely why).  Eventually Milgram came to the conclusion that the violent stimulus could be less conspicuously embedded within an ongoing series.  Surveying the shows on CBS’s 1969 prime-time schedule, Milgram rejected saccharine sitcoms like Family Affair as well as programs like Mannix or Mission: Impossible, which were so routinely violent that isolating a specific act for study would be problematic.  Finally he settled upon Medical Center, a popular doctor drama in which a violent act could fit believably into a storyline but still stand out within a show that was typically rather talky.  In December 1969 Milgram met with the show’s executive producer, Frank Glicksman, and producer, Al C. Ward, and found them amenable to the idea.  The Milgram-infiltrated episode was slotted into the next season, Medical Center’s second.

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For his study to work, Milgram needed the episode to contain an anti-social act – a clear moral and legal transgression – but one that did not involve violence against another person.  (Naturally, Milgram didn’t want to be on the hook for suborning murder!)  Milgram and Brinkley settled upon a series of minor thefts as the climax of the episode, entitled “Countdown.”  Their guest protagonist, Tom Desmond (Peter Strauss), would be a young hospital orderly beset by financial and personal problems, as well as a serious inability to control his temper.  Too proud to accept the help of friendly Dr. Joe Gannon (Chad Everett, the star of the show), Tom instead notices that collection boxes for a charity have been placed around the city in various locations, in connection with a telethon.  (Coincidentally, Dr. Gannon is helping to run the charity drive; implausibly, the boxes are stationed in places like a seedy waterfront bar.)  Will Tom bust into one or more of the boxes and steal the cash he needs to pay his wife’s medical bills and bail his charter boat out of hock?

Box Smash

Here is where CBS’s infusion of cash – an amount roughly equivalent to the budget of an entire Medical Center episode, although some of it went to staff and facilities for Milgram’s audience testing – came into play.  Milgram turned his Medical Center entry into a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, concocting three different endings, in each of which Tom made a different choice and suffered a different set of consequences.  These were not little codas appended as epilogues.  Three highly variant alternate versions of the last act of “Countdown” were filmed, adding (in my estimate) at least two or three shooting days to five- or six-day production schedule.

Milgram designed the endings to dramatize distinct moral outcomes: two “antisocial” scenarios, in which Tom does or does not suffer punishment for illegal actions, and one “prosocial” scenario in which he commits no crimes.  In the first, Tom smashes the charity boxes, steals the money, and loses everything – his wife, his boat, his freedom – only to learn that Dr. Gannon had already gone behind his back and paid his debts.  In the second, he steals the money and flees successfully to Mexico, where his wife (Brooke Bundy) will join him after she is discharged from the hospital.  And in the “prosocial” ending, Tom opts at the last minute not to steal or to vandalize any of the charity boxes; in the last shot, he drops a coin into one of them.  With the variant “antisocial” endings, Milgram sought to determine whether the factor of punishment affected imitative behavior; with the “prosocial” ending, he expected to measure whether the mere contemplation of a crime could inspire viewers to commit that crime.  As a control, Milgram selected an entirely different episode, choosing one as anodyne as he could find, with no imitable anti-social behavior.  (Initially Milgram used the first season’s “The Fallen Image,” a soapy Cold War romance with Walter Pidgeon and Viveca Lindfors; for later stages of the experiment, he substituted the newer “Edge of Violence,” with comedian Jack Carter cheering up a possibly suicidal Joan Van Ark.)

Jail

Coin

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Jail, redemption, or Mexico (the latter outcome relayed by the proxy of Tom’s ill wife): each of the three scenes above is unique to one of the different endings of “Countdown.”

One aside that’s worth pointing out is that the Warner Archive disc does not accurately describe “Countdown”’s alternate endings, and presents them in a way that will confuse the viewer.  An art card characterizes the endings as “negative,” “positive,” and “neutral,” but the terms “positive” and “negative” do not correspond to Milgram’s terminology, and “neutral” is misused – Milgram used it to describe his control episode, not one of the “Countdown” variants.  It’s hard to discern just Milgram was trying to achieve with each ending from the limited context provided on the disc.  (But now you know!)  Also, while the discs indicate that “most of the nation would view the positive episode in which anti-social behavior is punished,” which I believe is accurate, Warner Archive presents this as one of the alternates.  On the disc, the standalone version of “Countdown” is Milgram’s “prosocial” cut, which was probably seen by a smaller audience in 1971 than either of the other two.  But what about reruns?  The likelihood is that the “antisocial with punishment” version was the one intended for mass consumption.  (Its script presented first in the appendix of Milgram’s book about the study, and the other two seem unsuitable for mainstream audiences.  The “prosocial” ending is talky and pat even by Medical Center’s standards.  And if not for the Milgram exemption the film noirish version in which Tom slinks off to Mexico, and his wife unapologetically vows to abet his escape, probably would have been disallowed by CBS’s censors.)  If the complete version presented on the DVDs is indeed the same one used in syndication, then for decades viewers have been watching the dullest version of “Countdown,” probably contrary to the producers’ intentions.

Once “Countdown” was in the can, the mind games that Milgram crafted around it took a variety of forms.  In the first round of tests, he showed the different versions of “Countdown,” plus the control episode, to preview audiences in New York City recruited off the street or through newspaper ads.  These viewers, thinking their role was only to evaluate the program as a kind of test audience, were promised a transistor radio as compensation, to be collected within a week’s time at a different location (an office building at 130 42nd Street, in the then-scuzzy Times Square).  When they arrived there, the subjects were met with a variety of stimuli that correlated to the “Countdown” scenarios.  The prize distribution office was unstaffed, and a note left on the counter told prizewinners either that the radios had all been given out, or (in a version meant to be less frustrating) that they were available at an alternate location.  On the wall, a charity box similar to the one in the episode held a small amount of money.  In one variation, a dollar bill dangled seductively from the box.  (Would the criminally inclined take all the money, or just the dollar that could be had without breakage?)  In another, the full Project Hope charity box was next to a similar March of Dimes box that had already been smashed and presumably looted.  Still another round of experiments transmitted the various permutations of “Countdown,” via closed circuit television, into a room in which the viewer was isolated with the tempting charity box.  All the respondents’ behavior was observed by Milgram’s research assistants via hidden cameras.

(The precise design of these scenarios was apparently proscribed by legal concerns about entrapment, a fact mentioned by Milgram and emphasized by one of his research assistants, Dr. Herman Staudenmayer, in an interview this week.)

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An observer’s checklist and images of Milgram’s secret lab (both reproduced from Milgram and Shotland’s book Television and Antisocial Behavior: Field Experiments).  Click to enlarge.

Those experiments occurred between the completion of filming in September 1970 and the initial telecast of “Countdown” in early 1971.  Then Milgram conducted a broadcast survey, in which members of the actual television audience in New York and St. Louis received questionnaires about the episode, which they could redeem in exchange for the radio at Milgram’s disguised lab (where the same will-you-steal-the-money shenanigans ensued).  New York saw the ending with Tom in jail; St. Louis got the version with Tom in Mexico.  (By the time of the broadcast, Milgram had discarded the “prosocial” ending.)

A second broadcast survey prodded viewers to copy another aspect of “Countdown.”  Before smashing the charity boxes in both of the “antisocial” versions, Tom Desmond (a real prince, this guy) twice calls Dr. Gannon’s charity and verbally abuses the telethon operators.  Viewers of the new control episode, “Edge of Violence,” and then “Countdown” in Chicago and Detroit on February 10 and 17, respectively, also saw advertisements that solicited donations to Project Hope.  Calls to the charity on those nights were monitored by Milgram’s associates for harassment that might be imitative of that in “Countdown.”  No one took the bait; the few abusive calls contained no language that resembled Tom’s choice of invective.

Milgram and a co-author, R. Lance Shotland, published their results in 1973, in a book called Television and Antisocial Behavior: Field Experiments.  Milgram’s biographer, Thomas Blass, suggests that the Medical Center experiment is not widely known in part because Milgram did not correlate it with the large body of prior research on the effects of violence in media.  Another reason might be that (as Milgram conceded in his own analysis) it proved nothing in particular, except the rather reassuring fact that even a really, really tempting target provokes theft in fewer than ten percent of cases.  Not only did viewers of “Countdown” not steal money in significantly greater numbers than the control group, but in several of Milgram’s simulations, people who saw the neutral program stole more often than whose who saw “Countdown.”  To the extent that his methodology was valid, Milgram’s experiment indicated that violence and lawbreaking on television were unlikely to contaminate the audience (a fact that no doubt relieved, but probably didn’t surprise, Milgram’s backers at CBS).

In their book, Milgram and Shotland pointed out certain flaws in their methodology – but there were other, more obvious problems to which they did not call attention.  For one thing, the puppet-strings aren’t very well concealed.  Even though the experiment cleverly cast its guinea pigs as television critics rather than test subjects, wouldn’t many of them have suspected something was up when a scenario almost identical to the climax of the program they’d been asked to evaluate presented itself in real life, during the evaluation process?  This was well after the heyday of Candid Camera, and I have to suspect that many of these folks were dissuaded from taking the dangling dollar because they fully expected Allen Funt to appear the second they touched it.

Also, since Milgram conducted the broadcast portion of his experiment during summer reruns – presumably, CBS’s indulgence did not extent far enough to allow Milgram to tinker with programming during the regular season – then at least some of his subjects must have seen “Countdown” prior to the evening on which they were asked to evaluate it.  Mightn’t many of them have remembered the show and filled out the questionnaires without watching the rerun all the way to the end?  That would mean that they had observed Tom’s criminal act months rather than days prior to being tempted themselves.

(I think that viewers in Milgram’s broadcast experiments saw “Countdown” in both February and April of 1971, but it’s difficult to be completely certain.  Milgram and Shotland’s book indicates that “while most of the country saw a neutral episode,” twelve million viewers in the New York City area watched “Countdown” on April 28 as part of the free radio experiment.  An unidentified control episode was surveyed the week before.  However, in the section on the call-in experiment, Milgram and Shotland suggest that a control episode and then “Countdown” aired, respectively, on April 14 and 21.  Unless I’m missing something, that’s an internal contradiction in their book.  TV Guide’s listings in its Metropolitan New York edition and the TV listings of Long Island’s Newsday both give the following airdates: February 10, “Edge of Violence”; February 17, “Countdown” (meaning that the April broadcast used in the study was definitely a repeat); April 14, a rerun of “Trial by Terror”; April 21, a rerun of “Death Grip”; April 28, a rerun of “Junkie.”  If Milgram and Shotland’s account is accurate, then “Countdown” was substituted in New York for either “Death Grip” or “Junkie,” without notice to that effect in the local listings.  That’s certainly plausible, given the amount of influence Milgram had with CBS.  However, I am puzzled by the dates given in Milgram and Shotland’s book for the St. Louis broadcasts: April 12 and 19, two days before the corresponding New York airdates.  How on earth was St. Louis watching Medical Center on Monday nights instead of Wednesdays?)

From a historical perspective, the behind-the-scenes story of “Countdown” holds more interest than the results of Milgram’s experiment.  Even Milgram seemed to understand and admit this.  “Although the relationship between television violence and aggression was not something Milgram was intrinsically interested in – and, in fact, he harbored some doubts about the existence of such a relationship – the idea of being able to do research on a grand scale appealed to him,” wrote Thomas Blass.

It’s fascinating to map the competing agendas of the network, the producers, and the scientist.  CBS purchased a study that, regardless of the results, would serve as tangible evidence of its concern about televised violence.  Milgram got to undertake the best-funded research of his career – although in accepting the grant he opened himself up to charges that his objectivity would be compromised.

And why would the producers of Medical Center put themselves through the torturous process of Milgramizing an episode?  Ward and Glicksman may have coveted CBS’s extra dollars.  Two of the three endings of “Countdown” have more production value on display than a typical Medical Center.  There’s an extended foot chase scene, shot on actual outdoor locations and given a noirish flavor by director Vincent Sherman, who had been an A-level contract director at Warner Bros. during the studio’s golden age.

Drunk

Milgram recorded his frustration with the production of “Countdown.”  “At points in the production of the film,” he wrote, “I found myself up against long-established traditions of directing and acting that, because of the group norms of the production team, became virtually impossible to change.”  Milgram was present on the set, trying – usually in vain – to get the episode to conform to his needs.  He objected to Tom’s “faint trace of inebriation” during the phone calls (in fact, an overacting Peter Strauss plays Tom as completely plastered throughout the climax or, rather, all three climaxes) and to several other story points.  Milgram complained that “the director insisted on inserting a chase scene . . . simply for the purpose of livening up the action.”  In writing that, Milgram revealed a basic ignorance of the production process.  Sherman could not have completely improvised the lengthy chase scene, which involves police cars, extras portraying policemen, and substantial day and night exteriors.  Such a sequence would have been budgeted and scheduled well in advance, which suggests that perhaps the producers were keeping Milgram in the dark about some of their intentions, and leaving Sherman to run interference with the good doctor.

Noir 1

Noir 2

Noir 3Scenes from a chase that Stanley Milgram didn’t want.  Sorry, Stan.

It’s tempting to imagine Glicksman and Ward indulging and manipulating Milgram, using his experiment to buy themselves an above-average segment.  On the other hand, Milgram was still pulling the network’s puppet-strings – which may have been the whole point all along.  Blass points out that “what makes the study unique to this day is that Milgram had control over regular prime-time programming.”  Milgram managed to insert his own agenda into a closed capitalist system of popular culture that academia could typically observe only from the outside.  The electrocutors and the letter-mailers in Milgram’s famous experiments didn’t know that they were actually his guinea pigs.  Perhaps the CBS men who funded Milgram’s Medical Center shenanigans were, without knowing it, the true subjects of the experiment.

Sources: Stanley Milgram and R. Lance Shotland’s Television and Antisocial Behavior: Field Experiments (Academic Press, 1973) and Thomas Blass’s The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram (Basic Books, 2004).

The Smiling Cobra

December 10, 2012

One of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes figures in television history is James T. Aubrey, better known behind his back as “The Smiling Cobra.”  At different times in his career Aubrey was perhaps the most hated man in New York (during his tenure as president of CBS in the early sixties) and the most hated man in Los Angeles (during his tenure as president of MGM in the early seventies).

I’ve touched upon Aubrey’s, er, contributions to television and film history in my production history of East Side / West Side and, tangentially, in this piece about the producer Herbert B. Leonard.  While I was researching the latter, I noticed that Aubrey is the beneficiary of a “featured article” on Wikipedia, which I guess means it’s less poorly written and inaccurate than your average Wikipedia article.  It’s actually a pretty interesting read, even though it leaves the most useful tidbit that I didn’t already know – the attribution of the “Smiling Cobra” moniker to John Houseman, who produced The Great Adventure at CBS during Aubrey’s reign – unsourced and therefore still in doubt.

Echoing the legendary stories of Aubrey’s enormous ego, personal coldness, professional ruthlessness, and mafia ties have always been rumors of epic sexual perversity – unusually public accounts, some of which leapt from the Hollywood gossip circuit into the mainstream press.  Wikipedia leaves most of those out, apart from one entry sourced from Harlan Ellison’s collection of television columns for the L.A. Free Press.

So here’s a juicy one, from William Froug’s book How I Escaped From Gilligan’s Island and Other Misadventures of a Hollywood Writer-Producer (another blind item from which sparked my investigation of the Laurence Heath story).  Here, Froug is paraphrasing an account told to him by an actress he dated once:

That Jim Aubrey is some kind of head case….

He took me down to Acapulco for a weekend with him and his friend, Greg Martindale, the lawyer.  [Froug does not identify "Martindale" as a pseudonym, but this is probably Greg Bautzer, another infamous Hollywood horndog, who was married to Dana Wynter during the same period that Aubrey was married to Phyllis Thaxter.]  Greg had his own girl.  I thought I knew what I was in for, some drinks, some sex, some laughs, what the hell.  But honestly, there’s no was I could have expected what I got from James T. Aubrey.  We’re in the hotel room and we’re both buck naked.  As we jump in bed, suddenly Aubrey grabs me by the arm.  “You’re going to have to lick my ass,” he says so quietly that I felt a chill go over my entire body.  I was speechless.

“You hear me, don’t you?”  His voice was ice cold and just above a whisper.  “You’re going to have to lick my ass.  Don’t worry, it’s nice and clean.  And get your tongue up in there.”

“I won’t.  No way, no how,” I answered.  I thought, is this really happening?

“It’s the only way I can get off,” he insisted.  “If you don’t, I’ll break your arm.”  His voice was nasty, threatening.  I was getting very frightened.

His grip on my arm tightened and he began to twist it, slowly but firmly.  It was very painful. . . . He was letting me know he had the strength to do it. . . .

I knew there was no point screaming.  We were in a suite with Greg and his girl.  They must have known what was going on; he and Aubrey were buddies.

“Get busy, lady,” Aubrey says.  “I haven’t got all day.”

I swung around and stuck my finger in his eye.  He jerked back.  His grip loosened for a moment and I broke loose, grabbed a big beach towel, and ran out of the room.

I stayed at the poolside bar, wrapped in that towel, until Greg came down much later and told me to get dressed.  We flew home that evening; the weekend was over.

Froug does not name his source but suppies the following description of her: “a beautiful young actress who had played second lead in a CBS hit sitcom of the sixties.”

So, TV experts, who is the mystery woman?  The sitcom in question had to have been on CBS during Aubrey’s years as president, 1959 through 1965.  The most obvious candidate would be Julie Newmar, who was one of Aubrey’s girlfriends during the mid-sixties; it’s been alleged that the series My Living Doll was put together by Aubrey as a gift to her.  Even though everyone’s eyes were on her, Newmar was billed after the show’s putative star, Robert Cummings, so the “second lead” part could apply.  But My Living Doll wasn’t a hit, and Newmar’s relationship with Aubrey probably laster longer than this unfortunate young lady’s did.

Froug did alter some details in his memoir to disguise identities (in the Heath case, for instance, he upped the body count), but let’s hypothesize that the teller of this tale is not Catwoman, and that the sitcom second lead part is accurate. Any guesses?

The forty-third episode of Playhouse 90 aired on CBS on October 3, 1957.  It was a science fiction story called “A Sound of Different Drummers.”  It told of a totalitarian future in which books are outlawed (because they encourage people to think for themselves).  A squad of “bookmen” goes around incinerating books using mean-looking flamethrower pistols.  They torch the people who hide the books, too. 

Gordon (Sterling Hayden), a bookman, is getting burned out, so to speak, on his job.  He’s losing the plot on why books are so bad.  He meets a pretty blonde who sorts confiscated books on a conveyor belt to oblivion.  The blonde, Susan (Diana Lynn, Playhouse 90’s go-to ingenue), snatches a book off the belt once in a while.  Gordon and Susan mark each other as kindred spirits.  She introduces him to an underground of kindly bibliophiles.  They fall in love.  They’re in constant danger of getting toasted by Gordon’s colleagues.  They look for a way out, a permanent one.

The story takes some twists and turns, but let’s just say things don’t end well.  For Gordon or for the rest of the bookless world.  I won’t exactly spoil the big reveal (not that you’ll ever get to see this thing anyway), but it turns out that the oppressors and the resistance are the same thing.  “A Sound of Different Drummers” was prescient, which is only one reason why it’s so good.

*

“A Sound of Different Drummers” was written by Robert Alan Aurthur.  That’s the credit: read it for yourself. 

You’re thinking: But, but, but.  Yeah.  We’ll get to that.

*

Back in April 1951, suspected commie Sterling Hayden appeared in Washington and staged a public finkathon before a happy HUAC.  Six years later, someone with a diabolical mind thought of him for “Drummers.”  During the climax, Gordon is interrogated, asked to give the names of other readers.  “You mean I have a choice?” he asks.  Was “Drummers” a ritual of atonement for Hayden?  It’s fascinating to study his face during this sequence.  Not like it gives anything away: Hayden always made you guess what emotions were roiling behind that unblinking glare.

Gordon’s partner and pal Ben, an avid reader-hater who stands in for all humanity’s clueless sheep, is played by John Ireland.  For fans of fifties film noir, the idea of Ireland and Hayden sharing scenes is something akin to the famous superstar standoff between Pacino and DeNiro in Heat.  As in Michael Mann’s film, the event is anticlimactic.  Hayden and Ireland were the same kind of actor – angry and scary in ways that transcended the characters they played.  They’re a meal in which all the courses are the same.  Diana Lynn makes the better foil for Hayden.  She’s all Southern sweetness, open and genuine, and the contrast complements Hayden’s opacity.  Lynn clues us to Hayden’s subtext: she projects the sensitivity that Gordon can’t express, that he’s struggling to find beneath the layers of fascist-cop conditioning.

The director of “A Sound of Different Drummers” was John Frankenheimer.  It was a perfect match.  The future-world setting and the constant atmosphere of dread and paranoia meant that Frankenheimer could go full-bore with his camera and editing tricks without ever overwhelming the material.  Constant camera movement advances the story at a freight-train pace.  None of the sets have back walls; the people of the future live in murky blackness.  The futuristic props (super-fast cars, robotic psychoanalysts) are cleverly designed and there are special effects I still can’t figure out.  The most impressive of those is a videophone screen that appears to project the giant, disembodied head of the speaker against a dark wall.

Frankenheimer was a madman.  “I’d never done more than six pages at a track and there I was with 127 pages and I was terrified,” said Sterling Hayden, who was making his live television debut, in a 1984 interview with Gerald Peary.  “Frankenheimer loved to move the camera so fast.  Christ, it was wild . . . . I went into one set to do a scene and there were no cameras! Then around the corner, like an old San Francisco fire truck, comes the camera on a dolly. And a guy comes along, puts up a light, and BANG, we go.

“I was so scared, but I roared through that goddamned thing.”

*

“Drummers” contains my new favorite on-air live-TV gaffe.  Sterling Hayden and Diana Lynn are making eyes at each other over a meal materialized by a Star Trek-style machine.  It’s a quiet, tender love scene.  From off-stage, there’s a loud “AHHHH-CHOO!”  Someone has sneezed into an open mike.  Hayden visibly loses his concentration, gets it back a second later, maybe blows a line in between.  The mood has been, shall we say, broken.  Up in the control room, Frankenheimer must have blown a gasket.

*

So: Fahrenheit 451.  “Firemen” instead of “bookmen” but, yeah, it’s the same story.  I had always seen “A Sound of Different Drummers” described as an adaptation (meaning, an official one) of the Ray Bradbury novel.  So when I finally saw the show and Bradbury’s name appeared nowhere in the credits, I was surprised.

Back in 1957, Bradbury had the same reaction.  He sued the shit out of CBS.

*

But first: Who was Robert Alan Aurthur?  He was perhaps the least well-known (and most misspelled) of the first wave of live television playrights.  A multi-tasker who died young (well, youngish), Aurthur was part of the Philco Playhouse gang, the group of gifted writers discovered and nurtured by Fred Coe.  Of that group, David Shaw was Aurthur’s best friend and probably the writer closest to him in sensibility.  Talented but impersonal, or rather all-purpose, Aurthur was a man of many genres and inclined to prefer adaptations over originals.  He won an Emmy for dramatizing “Darkness at Noon” for Producers Showcase, but he never found a niche like the ones that made Serling or Chayefsky or Horton Foote famous.  His best-known live TV script was “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” a story of union strife and interracial friendship that launched Martin Ritt as a film director (the movie version was called Edge of the City) and Sidney Poitier as a star. 

Other details: There was a brief marriage to Bea Arthur (who kept his name but spelled it wrong).  There were three plays on Broadway: they all flopped.  Aurthur scored high-profile screenwriting assignments (Warlock, Lilith).  As with all of the movies written by the live TV generation, except maybe Chayefsky, they weren’t as good as they should have been.  The Hollywood system diluted them.  Aurthur backed out of the job of writing The Magnificent Seven so that Walter Bernstein could do it and get off the blacklist.  (It didn’t quite work out that way, but that’s another story.)  A non-nonconformist, Aurthur ascended to executive jobs at Talent Associates and United Artists, a thing that Serling or Chayefsky would have spat upon.  As a VP of TV at UA, he had something to do with the creation of East Side/West Side and backed pilot scripts by Mel Brooks and Neil Simon and Woody Allen that CBS wouldn’t buy.  He became a (sympathetic) character in Only You, Dick Daring, Merle Miller’s scathing expose of a pilot undone by executive buffoonery.

After the plagiarism judgment, his path re-crossed with old compatriots from live TV.  Poitier let him direct a film, The Lost Man, and Frankenheimer hired him on Grand Prix (but had William Hanley rewrite Aurthur’s script).  Were they doing him favors or getting the better end of the deal?  After The Lost Man, there was a lost decade that I can’t find out much about (Aurthur taught at NYU for some this time), and then a final,  posthumous screen credit on a masterpiece, Bob Fosse’s All That JazzJazz has always been tagged as autobiographical for Fosse, but I’d love to know if there’s any of Aurthur’s life in it, too.

*

A book agent named Robert Kirsch blew the whistle on “A Sound of Different Drummers” even before the live broadcast went off the air.  Kirsch called Bradbury.  Bradbury watched the end of the show.  He blew his stack, right around the same time Frankenheimer blew that gasket.  He called his lawyer the next day.

Gene Beley’s Ray Bradbury Uncensored: The Unauthorized Biography! (iUniverse, 2006) covers the details of the ensuing litigation, which dragged on for years.  The upshot: Bradbury lost in court but won on appeal.  CBS coughed up the proverbial “undisclosed sum.”  Bradbury’s attorney, Gerson Marks, found a paper trail proving that CBS had almost bought the TV rights to the book in 1952, and that Robert Alan Aurthur had considered buying it when he was story-editing Philco at NBC during its final (1954-1955) season.  Aurthur testified.  He fessed up to having seen an old summary prepared by Bernard Wolfe, the CBS story editor who optioned Fahrenheit 451 in 1952.  But he denied having read the book itself.

Marks lobbed scorn at the idea that Aurthur had been willing to stage Fahrenheit 451 on Philco without actually reading it first.  Beley quotes Gerson Marks, in part, as follows: “Aurthur had stature in the industry, and he had to make a moral and legal choice – say nothing or expose himself to the consequences of using unauthorized intellectual work.  He made his choice on the witness stand . . . .”

My translation of Marks’s careful legalspeak: Aurthur lied under oath to save his ass.

It’s hard to imagine a time when someone could think of ripping off Ray Bradbury and getting away with it.  But “A Sound of Different Drummers” came only four years after Fahrenheit 451 was published, and before Ray Bradbury was Ray Bradbury

Michael Zagor, later a television writer himself, was working as a publicist at Universal in late 1961.  One of his assignments was to keep Ray Bradbury happy during the filming of the (non-plagiarized) Alcoa Premiere adaptation of Bradbury’s story “The Jail.”  It was less than a year after the suit was settled.  Zagor recently told me that

Ray Bradbury was such a nice man.  He said to me, “I don’t think Robert Alan Aurthur did it deliberately.  I think he just thought it up one night and thought it was his, and then wrote it.”  So he didn’t bear any visible animosity toward Robert Alan Aurthur. 

He said, “It’s an awful business to sue.  It takes a long, long time.”  But he said he had to do it. 

Though I love Fahrenheit 451, I’m less interested in Bradbury’s role in “A Sound of Different Drummers” and its aftermath than in Robert Alan Aurthur’s.  Was Aurthur a callous plagiarist or an unconscious mimic?  The latter sounds implausible, but live television moved fast, like Frankenheimer’s San Francisco firetruck camera, and I think every writer nurses a secret fear of disgorging some spontaneous nugget without realizing that it originated someplace else.  Whether he was guilty or not, or something in between, and whether he lied or told the truth on the stand, Aurthur must have been utterly humiliated by the whole affair. 

What personal and professional consequences did Aurthur suffer?  Why doesn’t he have a single film or television credit between 1969 and 1979?  Did he lose jobs and friends in the industry?  Did he feel that CBS had thrown him under the bus back in 1957?  If it’s true that Aurthur did lie: was no one else complicit in ripping off Bradbury?  Could Frankenheimer and the producer, Martin Manulis, really have staged a plagiarized version of Fahrenheit 451 without realizing it?  A Playhouse 90 show rehearsed for three weeks and employed scores, maybe hundreds of people – and none of them knew the Bradbury book?

One last thing I wonder about: Did Aurthur go to see the François Truffaut’s film when it came out in 1966?  Did he understand that his and Frankenheimer’s version of Fahrenheit 451 was better than Truffaut’s?  Did he ever dare say so?

Ray Bradbury will turn 90 on August 22.

Long-running television shows are like the proverbial elephant: they feel very different depending on where (or when, in case of a TV series) you touch one.  A few, like Bonanza or C.S.I., have gone for a decade or so without changing much, but those are the exceptions.  Most of the time, there are significant changes along the way in a show’s cast, producers, writers, premise, setting, tone, or budget, and these inevitably affect its quality.

I always think of Rawhide, a popular western which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1965, as the most extreme example of this phenomenon.  On the surface, one episode of Rawhide looks more or less like any other.  It began as the story of a cattle drive, and remained true to that concept for most of its eight seasons (actually, six and two half-seasons, since it began as a midyear replacement and closed as a midyear cancellation).  The stars were Eric Fleming as the trail boss and Clint Eastwood, a sidekick who almost but not quite achieved co-lead status, as his ramrod.  A few secondary cowboys came and went, but the only major cast change occurred in the last year, when Fleming was replaced by a worn-looking John Ireland.

Behind the scenes, though, the creative turnover was significant, and the types of stories that comprised Rawhide changed with each new regime.  A thumbnail production history is in order.

The creator of Rawhide was Charles Marquis Warren, a writer and director of B movie westerns who had played a significant role in transitioning the radio hit Gunsmoke to television in 1955.  Warren stayed with Rawhide for its first three years (longer than he had remained on Gunsmoke, or would last on his next big TV hit, The Virginian).  For the fourth season, CBS elevated Rawhide’s story editor, Hungarian-born screenwriter Endre Bohem, to the producer’s chair.  Vincent M. Fennelly, a journeyman who had produced Trackdown and Stagecoach West, took over for the fifth and sixth seasons.  During the seventh year, the team of Bruce Geller and Bernard L. Kowalski succeeded Fennelly, only to be fired in December and replaced by a returning Endre Bohem.  A final team, comprising executive producer Ben Brady and producer Robert E. Thompson, couldn’t save Rawhide from cancellation halfway through its eighth season.

Most Rawhide fans will tell you that the early seasons are the best.  I can guess why they think that, but I believe they’re wrong.  Warren’s version of Rawhide played it safe, telling traditional western stories with predictable resolutions.  The writers were second-rate, and Warren padded their  thin plots with endless shots of migrating “beeves.”  Warren was content to deploy totemic western tropes – Indian attacks, evil land barons, Confederate recidivists – in the same familiar ways that the movies had used them for decades.

During the Bohem and Fennelly years, things began to improve.  Both producers brought in talented young writers, including Charles Larson and future Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon, who contributed quirky anecdotes like “The Little Fishes” (Burgess Meredith as a dreamer transplanting a barrel of fragile Maine shad fry to the Sacramento River) and pocket-sized epics like the amazing “Incident of the Dogfaces” (James Whitmore as a malevolent but terrifyingly effective cavalry sergeant).  There were still episodes that coasted on routine genre action, but they alternated with meaty, character-driven pieces.

When Kowalski and Geller (the eventual creators of Mission: Impossible) took over Rawhide in 1964, they pulled off a daring experiment that has never been matched in the history of television.  The new producers upended Rawhide, dismantling western myths and muddying genre barriers with surgical precision and undisguised glee.  Geller and Kowalski commissioned teleplays like “Corporal Dasovik,” a Vietnam allegory which portrayed the cavalry as slovenly, dishonorable, and homicidal, and “The Meeting,” a surreal clash between the drovers and a prototypical mafia on a weirdly barren plain.  The two-part “Damon’s Road” was a rowdy shaggy-dog comedy, complete with infectious Geller-penned showtunes (“Ten Tiny Toes”) and a subplot that reduces Fleming’s square-jawedhero to buffoonery, pushing a railroad handcar across the prairie in his longjohns.

Geller and Kowalski’s Rawhide segments may be the finest television westerns ever made.  Taken as a whole, they represent a comprehensive rebuke to the myth of the Old West.  They anticipate the brutal, disillusioned revisionist western films made by Sam Peckinpah and others in the following decade.  Peckinpah’s The Westerner (1959) and Rod Serling’s The Loner (1965-1966) touch upon some of the same ideas, but they do not take them as far.  Not until Deadwood, forty years later, did television produce another western that looked, felt, and smelled like the seventh season of Rawhide.

The only problem with the Geller-Kowalski Rawhide, which the producers undoubtedly understood, was that it had little to do with the Rawhide that had come before.  Many observers just didn’t get it, including Eric Fleming, who refused to perform some of the material.   (Eastwood, apparently, got the idea, and Geller and Kowalski shifted their attention from Fleming’s character to his.)  Another non-believer was William S. Paley, the president of CBS, who was aghast at what had been done to one of his favorite programs.  Paley fired Geller, Kowalski, and their story editor Del Reisman midseason in what they termed “the Christmas Eve Massacre.”  Paley uttered one of television history’s most infamous quotes when he ordered their replacements to “put the cows back in.”

During the final year of Rawhide, the new producers did just that.  The series attracted some talented young directors and actors, including Raymond St. Jacques as TV’s first black cowboy.  But no one took any chances in the storytelling.

*

Critics don’t have much value if they neglect to interrogate their own assumptions, question their long-held opinions.  Which explains why I’ve been slogging through the first and second season of Rawhide, screening the episodes I hadn’t seen before and looking for glimmers of life that I might have missed.  Most of the segments I watched in this go-round proved to be just as handsomely mounted, and fatally tedious, as the rest.  But one episode, “Incident of the Blue Fire,” triggered some doubts about my dismissal of Charles Marquis Warren, and led me to write this piece.

“Incident of the Blue Fire” (originally broadcast on December 11, 1959) is a little masterpiece about a cowhand named Lucky Markley, who believes he’s a jinx and whose frequent mishaps gradually convince the superstitious drovers that he’s right.  It sounds like one of those dead-end cliches that I listed in my description of the Warren era above.  But the writer, John Dunkel, and Warren, who directed, get so many details just right that “Incident of the Blue Fire” dazzled me with its authenticity, its rich atmosphere, and its moving, ironic denouement.

Dunkel’s script gives the herders a problem that is specific to their situation, rather than TV western-generic.  They’re moving across the plains during a spell of weather so humid that the constant heat lightning threatens to stampede the cattle.  The drovers swap stories about earlier stampedes, trying to separate truth from legend, to find out if any of them have actually seen one.  Eastwood’s character, Rowdy Yates, averts a stampede just before it begins, and explains to his boss how he spotted the one skittish animal.  Favor, the trail boss, replies that Rowdy should have shot the troublemaker as soon as he recognized it.  These cowboys are professional men, discussing problems and solutions in technical terms, like doctors or lawyers in a medical or legal drama.

Then Lucky appears, asking to join the drive with thirty-odd mavericks that he has rounded up.  “Those scrawny, slab-sided, no-good scrub cows?” Favor asks.  Not unkindly, he dispels Lucky’s illusions about the value of his cattle.  Lucky shrugs it off, and negotiates to tag along with Favor’s herd to the next town.  Then Favor and one of his aides debate the merits of allowing a stranger to join them.  In one brief, matter-of-fact scene, Dunkel introduces viewers to an unfamiliar way of making a living in the west and to a type of man who might undertake it.

Warren directs this unpretentious material with casual confidence.  He gets a nuanced performance from Skip Homeier, whose Lucky is proud and quick to take offense, but also smart and eager to ingratiate himself with others.  Warren’s pacing is measured, but it’s appropriate to a story of men waiting for something to happen.  Tension mounts palpably in scenes of men doing nothing more than sitting around the campfire, uttering Dunkel’s flavorful lines:

WISHBONE: Somethin’ about them clouds hangin’ low.  And the heat.  Sultry-like.  It’s depressin’, for animals and men.

COWHAND: Yep, it’s the kind of weather old Tom Farnsworth just up and took his gun, shot hisself, and nobody knowed why.

“Incident of the Blue Fire” features some unusually poetic lighting and compositions.  Much of it was shot day-for-night, outdoors, and the high-key imagery creates, visually, the quality of stillness in the air that the cattlemen remark upon throughout the show.  (The cinematographer was John M. Nickolaus, Jr., who went on to shoot The Outer Limits, alternating with Conrad Hall.)  There’s an eerie beauty to many of the images, like this simple close-up of Eric Fleming framed against the sky.

Does one terrific episode alter my take on the early Rawhide years?  No – they’re still largely a bore.  But now I can concede that Charles Marquis Warren was probably after something worthwhile, a quotidian idea of the old west as a place of routine work and minor incident.  That the series lapsed into drudgery much of the time, that the stories usually turned melodramatic at all the wrong moments, can be lain at the feet of a mediocre writing pool.  Or, perhaps, Warren capitulated too willingly to the network’s ideas of where and how action had to fit into a western.  But Rawhide had a great notion at its core, and that explains how the show could flourish into brilliance when later producers, better writers, were given enough room to make something out of it.

Lost in the Twilight Zone

August 26, 2009

Time Enough at Last

Last year saw the publication of a valuable new book called The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic.  The author, Martin Grams, Jr., has written or co-written histories of various radio series as well as television shows like I Led Three Lives and Have Gun, Will Travel.  Most of those programs had not been the subject of a book-length account before Mr. Grams, a prolific young historian, turned his attention to them.

For that reason I was somewhat surprised to find The Twilight Zone under Grams’s microscope, because the show’s history had already been ably chronicled in Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion.  Zicree’s book, which has been reprinted several times since its publication in 1982, offered a highly readable history and appreciation of The Twilight Zone.   Indeed, The Twilight Zone Companion launched the television episode guide as a literary genre and established a format that scores of books (some terrific, some worthless) about old TV shows  would follow.

Had anyone asked, I would have guessed that little of substance could be added to Zicree’s research.  Grams has proven me wrong, by unearthing a multitude of previously unreported facts and providing some new insights into how The Twilight Zone was made.  Here are a few examples that I found particularly fascinating:

  • Two highly regarded third season shows, “The Grave” and “Nothing in the Dark,” were actually produced during the second year and shelved, apparently because the network wanted to stockpile some strong shows for the new year.
  • Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton went into a panic after seeing the rough cut of “To Serve Man,” an episode that ends on an infamously droll punchline but is, otherwise, kinda stupid.  James Sheldon (who was himself replaced, ironically, on a subsequent episode, “I Sing the Body Electric”) directed reshoots, the footage was extensively re-edited, and alien giant Richard Kiel’s voice was replaced with that of another familiar character actor, Joseph Ruskin.
  • A rather absurd legal conflict over a G. E. Theatre episode also entitled “The Eye of the Beholder” is finally revealed as the reason why the rerun broadcast of the famous Twilight Zone segment, and later some syndicated prints, bore the alternate title “A Private World of Darkness.”  Grams also examines the plagiarism claims, covered vaguely or not at all by Zicree, that led to the exclusion of four episodes from syndication for many years.
  • On several occasions where actors played dual roles, a performer of note was engaged to supply an on-stage performance as the “double,” one which would be replaced by optical effects and never seen by the public.  Joseph Sargent, later a major film and television director, doubled for George Grizzard in “In His Image,” and Brian G. Hutton (the director of Where Eagles Dare) filled in as the “mirror version” of Joe Mantell in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.”  And Keenan Wynn, gave the off-camera performances in Ed Wynn’s mirror scenes in “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” while visiting his sickly father on the set!  (Zicree’s book reported the part about Sargent, but the others were news to me.)

Grams has re-interviewed surviving Twilight Zone cast and crew members, albeit somewhat selectively (Collin Wilcox’s recollections of the show, for instance, remain exclusive to this blog).  His primary source is a trove of correspondence, memoranda, and other paperwork, some of it apparently acquired on Ebay.

The centerpiece of Grams’s research shelf was a set of ledgers from Serling’s accounting firm, which break down the budgets of most of the Twilight Zone episodes.  Grams records these figures and, although he rarely dwells on their significance, the reader can have a lot of fun crunching numbers.  Why did some episodes cost far more than others, and were the results were worth it?  In the first season, for instance, the classic “Walking Distance” toted up to a whopping $74,485, while the cute season finale, “A World of His Own,” cost a meager $33,438.  Grams also reports the actual shooting dates of the episodes, and in so doing he confirms one of my long-standing suspicions about Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion: that, apart from grouping them by season, it presents the episodes in no particular order.  (Why?  I have no idea.)

Much of the above may seem trivial.  But Grams also probes into more substantive behind-the-scenes happenings.  Extensive quotations from production memoranda and private correspondence offer far more detailed glimpses than we have had before of the personalities of The Twilight Zone’s creative minds.  Buck Houghton, producer of the first three seasons, seems much the same man as he did in Zicree’s account: a sage line producer gifted with an unflappable pragmatism and an uncommonly good story mind.  Charles Beaumont, who served as a sort of informal ambassador between The Twilight Zone and the world of science fiction fandom, proved a shrewd salesman for both the series and for his own talent.  Richard Matheson was a virtual geyser of grievances who managed to find fault with the execution of nearly all his scripts.

Grams’s depiction of Rod Serling has more complex shadings than I expected.  His reputation as an all-around nice guy, and an especially generous ally to fellow writers, is confirmed in the many letters quoted in Unlocking the Door.  But Serling’s correspondence also wallows in an extreme form of self-deprecation that comes across as masochistic in some instances, phony in others.  He wasted a great deal of time replying (and often apologizing) to viewers who wrote in with picayune complaints about each week’s episode.

But Serling’s humility did not extend to his fame.  Previous accounts have depicted Serling as a default choice to host The Twilight Zone, but Grams makes it clear that Serling plotted from the start, over the sponsors’ objections, to insert himself in front of the camera.  There is ample evidence that Serling relished his status as a celebrity; Grams quotes an especially shameless letter to an old teacher in which Serling faux-sheepishly plugs an upcoming appearance on The Garry Moore Show.  In some people, an outsized ego might be a small imperfection.  For Serling – the frequency of whose media appearances during and after The Twilight Zone can be measured neatly in inverse proportion to the quality of his writing – it was a flaw that took on Shakespearean dimensions.

Grams’s coverage of the individual Twilight Zone episodes varies in length and quality, but I admired his attention to some of the tangents and failures that other scholars have neglected.  The coverage here of “Mr. Bevis,” the unfunny comedy spinoff about a hapless guardian angel, and Serling’s distaff rehash of same two years later (as the Carol Burnett vehicle “Cavender Is Coming”), is exemplary.  Grams reprints plot summaries for unmade episodes of the “Mr. Bevis” series, and casting suggestions for the starring roles in both pilots.  He quotes Serling’s lacerating confessions as to why both versions failed creatively, although just why Serling remained so attached to his bungling angel idea as to make it twice remains a mystery.  (“Bevis” originated via a sweetheart deal between CBS and a potential sponsor, Prudential Insurance, which may explain how it bypassed the usual common-sense scrutiny that would have vetoed such a slim premise.)  In a note to Carol Burnett, Serling admitted that “Cavender” was “lousy,” adding that “I feel like Napoleon surveying the aftermath of Waterloo, except at least I get residuals – all he got was Elba.”  Even in his letters, the poor man wasn’t funny.

*

After three seasons during which it ran smoothly and excelled creatively, The Twilight Zone fell into chaos.  Dropped by CBS in the fall of 1962, the series returned the following January in an hour-long format, and limped along (as a half-hour again) for a fifth year.  During the half-season in which The Twilight Zone appeared to be dead, both Houghton and Serling took other jobs.  Houghton was replaced by three successive producers, none of them as good.  Serling, on the other hand, exiled himself in dramatic fashion, taking a teaching job in far-away Antioch College (in Yellow Springs, Ohio) and declaring to the press that he was burned out on television.

In The Twilight Zone Companion, Zicree describes Houghton’s immediate replacement, Herbert Hirschman, as a talented producer who disagreed mildly with Serling.  On Hirschman’s successors, Bert Granet and William Froug, Zicree remains noncommittal.  The most important sections of Grams’s book are those that expand Zicree’s and other sources’ minimal coverage of the final two seasons (widely viewed by fans as inferior to the first three) into a dramatic struggle for control of a troubled series.

In actuality, Hirschman fell immediately out of favor with Serling, who began – in exasperated and (for him) harshly worded memoranda – to question Hirschman’s compatibility with The Twilight Zone’s elements of fantasy and the macabre.  Serling was right, I think, based on his specific disagreements with Hirschman over the scripts for “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” and “The Bard.”  In each case, Hirschman favored a more pedestrian approach.  Serling lobbied to have Hirschman fired, and after a few months the producer was unceremoniously ousted.  But Serling’s move backfired.  Serling’s choice as Hirschman’s replacement, executive and sometime director Perry Lafferty, was passed over in favor of Granet, a CBS executive already assigned to the show.  (Granet, marking his territory, insisted on the right to recut Hirschman’s episodes.)

What’s fascinating about this account is how effectively the network took advantage of Serling’s physical absence to distance him from his own show.  Serling still had to supply scripts and commute to Los Angeles to film his introductions, but the new regime did not consult with him on casting, production, or other writers’ scripts.  Many key decisions previously made by Serling and Houghton fell not just to the new producers, but to CBS executives above them in the food chain, including Robert F. Lewine, Boris Kaplan, and George Amy (a distinguished film editor who must have been supervising post-production for the network).  Kaplan, formerly a TV producer at Universal (of Riverboat and 87th Precinct), seems to have played a critical role, and yet I don’t believe his contributions to The Twilight Zone have ever been examined in detail.

Ultimately Serling was reduced to fuming impotently in letters to production manager Ralph W. Nelson, a Houghton-era holdover who loyally supplied back-channel reports from the set.  Serling’s anger at being exploited as a figurehead on his later series Night Gallery has been well documented, and I think Grams’s work recasts Serling’s Night Gallery unhappiness as a rerun of his role during the fourth and fifth seasons of The Twilight Zone.  That begs the question of why Serling would allow himself to be trapped in the same limbo twice.  The answer seems to be that Serling hoped to wield his influence from afar without battling in the trenches; and the tragedy was that television doesn’t work that way.

*

Can a well-researched book that’s bigger than two bricks fail to become the definitive account of its subject?  Sadly, I think that may be the case here.  I remember a great line from a review of David Fincher’s Zodiac, to the effect that watching the film was like being trapped inside a file cabinet.  That’s how I often felt as I macheted my way through the eight hundred pages of Grams’s book.

It’s a common peril for an author to get bogged down in the minutiae of his topic, and the biggest problem with Unlocking the Door is simply that it contains too much information.  In my own work, I have sometimes made the case for detail at the expense of readability.  But does anyone really need to know the dates on which “Queen of the Nile”’s hand inserts were filmed, or that the production staff may have failed to pay MGM for the rental of the episode’s Egyptian props?  Or that Serling’s original narration for “Sounds and Silences” gave the protagonist’s weight at 217 pounds, instead of 220 in the filmed version?  Grams’s book is so choked with this kind of junk data that it becomes nearly impossible to read for pleasure.

Some of the trivia is not merely irrelevant, but also, perhaps, misleading.  On three occasions, Grams lists names submitted for specific roles in Twilight Zone episodes by a talent agent named Robert Longenecker.  As Grams points out, none of those actors (with one exception) landed a part on The Twilight Zone.  Judging by the names on his list, Longenecker managed a stable of bit players.  Ethel Winant, The Twilight Zone’s casting director, had the budget and the clout to attract top actors to the show, and she likely filed Longenecker’s correspondence away without giving it serious consideration.  But Grams neglects to provide that context, and the casual reader may assume that these were actors in serious contention for major roles on the series.

Both here and in his introduction to the book, Grams takes particular exception to an erroneous figure in The Twilight Zone Companion.  Zicree, evidently sourcing only the memory of producer William Froug, wrote that The Twilight Zone purchased the rights to Robert Enrico’s short French film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for $10,000.  Grams documents that the actual figure was $20,000, plus an additional $5,000 in post-production costs.  The correction is welcome.  But even the $25,000 figure falls well below the halfway point of an average fifth-year Zone episode’s budget.  In fussing over the amount, Grams distracts the reader from the larger point, conveyed succinctly in Zicree’s account, that the acquisition of “Occurrence” was a clever coup that both rescued The Twilight Zone’s budget and introduced American audiences to a fine foreign film they would not otherwise have seen.

Perhaps inevitably, Grams compounds this pedantry by organizing his data in a sequence that is only roughly chronological, and often follows no other structure that I can discern.  Essential, well-written chronologies of the series’ production alternate with gobs of trivia that should have been consigned to an appendix or cut altogether.  Chapter Six, for example, begins with an overview of plans for The Twilight Zone’s second season, then segues into sections on: letters from agents and actors plying Rod Serling for jobs; Serling’s transition into on-camera hosting; the various clothing manufacturers who supplied Serling’s suits; Serling’s charitable activities; a Shakespearean sonnet sent in by a fan; fan clubs; the soundtrack album; and so on.  The introductory material, and even the production histories of some episodes, read as if a clipping file had simply been emptied onto the pages.

It’s discouraging to see books on important subjects like The Twilight Zone wind up self-published, or on tiny imprints, for the obvious reason that not enough people will read them.  (OTR Publishing, which issued Unlocking the Door, is Grams’s own company).  But it is equally relevant, I think, that many of those books are not as good as they could be because their authors do not have the input of a seasoned editor.

*

In his introduction to Unlocking the Door, Martin Grams presents a sort of mission statement that guided his writing.  Grams eschewed earlier published histories of The Twilight Zone and consulted only primary documents.  He avoided the kind of shorthand that blurs the opinions of historian and subject.  Most radically, he decided that he would not attempt “to offer a critical analysis of the episodes.”

In an era where many alleged journalists source their information from Wikipedia, I applaud authors who stake out a rigorous methodology for themselves and stick to it.  But in Unlocking the Door, Grams’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach is too dry.  A historian who has immersed himself in his subject for years has earned the right to present reasonable, thoughtfully argued opinions.  In fact, he may owe them to his readers.  It would be unthinkable, for instance, for the biographer of a major film director not to take a position on which of that director’s works are canonical; or for a professor in a media history class to offer only data without context or analysis.  Surely Grams, after studying The Twilight Zone so closely, has some interesting ideas on where the show succeeded and failed, and why.  It’s a shame he felt the need to deprive us of them.

While fact-checking some of what I have written above, I pulled out my copy of The Twilight Zone Companion.  Immediately, I found myself getting drawn in by Zicree’s clean, witty prose, just as I did decades ago, when I began reading his book for the first time (at a school bus stop, in case anyone cares, on a frigid morning in the winter of 1989).  Yes, Zicree’s four-line dismissals of some episodes and his overpraise of others can be infuriating, but they are part of why his book is so enjoyable.  And, at least during the years before the internet, Zicree’s reviews also dominated the conversation about The Twilight Zone; I realize now that my own initial thoughts about the individual episodes formed very much in agreement with or in opposition to what Zicree wrote.  Much more than his facts, I would have liked this new Twilight Zone book to rebut Zicree’s opinions.

Some of my criticisms of Unlocking the Door may sound harsh.  But as a work of scholarship, this is a worthwhile book, a cornucopia of factoids that will delight hardcore Twilight Zone wonks.  Luckily, there are a multitude of worthwhile resources on this classic show.  For new fans crossing over into The Twilight Zone for the first time, Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion remains the essential intro.  For supplemental, multi-media studies, there are Stewart Stanyard’s Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone: A Backstage Tribute to Television’s Groundbreaking Series (an astonishing trove of behind-the-scenes photos), and the special edition DVDs, which are crammed with new and vintage video and audio interviews with the show’s creators.  And now, finally, for the advanced scholars who feel ready to begin a post-graduate course in Zoneology, Martin Grams, Jr., has published their textbook.

Martin Grams, Jr., is also the organizer of the annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, which occurs this week (August 27-29) in Aberdeen, Maryland, and benefits the St. Jude Children’s Hospital.  Part of Grams’s presentation on The Twilight Zone from last year’s event can be viewed here, here, and here.

Sex and Violence

July 9, 2009

I have always intended to write in this space about new TV shows as well as old ones.  Since my blog debuted, though, the networks (and even the cable channels) have stymied that plan by offering up two of the most uninspired television seasons in history.  But my friend Stuart Galbraith’s recent review of the most recent season of 24 (the only one I haven’t yet seen), plus my own sideswipe at neo-con 24 writer-producer Manny Coto, have gotten me thinking about that series again.  So perhaps that’s a place to start.

Two years ago Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article cast a baleful eye upon the popular Fox action serial in which shady government operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) plows a lethal, annual real-time path through an array of terrorists bent on blowing up America.  (So far we have glimpsed only 168 hours of Bauer’s life, during which he has saved the world seven times – an impressive average.)  For anyone who has qualms about the moral implications of 24, it’s cathartic to see Mayer expose the show’s co-creator, Joel Surnow, as a cigar-smoking, Rush Limbaugh’s ass-kissing, John Milius-wannabe buffoon.  Memo to Mr. Surnow: John Milius wouldn’t be caught dead sporting a soul patch.

But Mayer is a political, not an entertainment, reporter.  The revelation of Surnow’s politics (and those of fellow 24 writer/producer Manny Coto) is her main “gotcha,” but the more substantial point Mayer makes is that the storytelling of 24 relies heavily upon torture and the trampling of civil rights.  That was hardly news to regular 24 viewers, but Mayer’s evidence that military and law enforcement recruits have begun to see the show as justification for brutality in their work gave many pause.  Just as the mafiosi of past generations copied their style from James Cagney or The Godfather, today’s real-life spooks may be aping Jack Bauer’s moves.

As a television historian, I’m intrigued by one idea which remains implicit in Mayer’s reporting.  I suspect that 24’s torture fetish is more practical than ideological.  This is borne out by the amusing quotes from actor Kiefer Sutherland and producer Howard Gordon, who tie themselves in knots trying to reconcile their own liberal or moderate opinions with the series’ hawkish reputation.

In 24, torture operates primarily as an expository device.  Mayer, and the experts she quotes, point out that violent coercion always works on 24.   It always provides reliable intelligence, always averts deadly disasters in time.  Joel Surnow would be happy to have you accept this aspect of his show as an aesthetic affirmation of Bush’s torture policies.  But I believe the real reason for all the torture in 24 is simply that it’s the only way to move the story from point A to point B.  24 functions as a succession of suspenseful set pieces, and in order to activate the next one, some new bit of exposition must be gleaned at the end of the previous arc.  There are interrogation methods other than torture – many of them mentioned by Mayer – but all of them take longer than a real-time drama can afford.  Ergo, lots and lots of busted kneecaps and electroshock.  24’s failures of compassion are secondary to its failures of imagination.

It’s easy for op-ed writers to opine about  the supposed politics of a television show when it happens to intersect with the zeitgeist.  But most of the time, television’s politics are just opportunistic.  Only a tiny handful of American series (The Defenders, M*A*S*H, The West Wing) have actually expressed a coherent political point of view, and I can’t think of any that you could call radical (either to the right or the left).  Law and Order is my favorite example: it’s often perceived as a right-leaning show, and in general its focus on cops and prosecutors leads to a knee-jerk pro-law and order stance.  But Dick Wolf has always shifted shrewdly with the political breeze – installing liberal district attorneys for the Clinton and Obama eras, a conservative one for the Bush years – and Law and Order nurses a streak of Dickensian, populist contempt for the wealthy and powerful that muddies its ideology.  Wherever the story goes, the politics follow.

What I enjoy about 24 are the tangential elements: the taut direction; the drab, sun-battered San Fernando Valley locations; and Sutherland’s sweaty, tamped-down portrayal Jack Bauer, a welcome relief from the Schwarzenegger/Willis model of over-the-top movie action hero.  But I suspect that most fans get pulled into the show by the storylines that I find silly and repetitive.

Mayer laid out how 24’s overuse of race-against-time threats that rarely, if ever, occur in real life represent a straw-man argument for the efficacy of torture.  Her argument complements a point articulated in Adam Curtis’s 2004 BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, which can also be taken as an extended rebuke to 24.  Curtis makes a persuasive case that the idea of an organized global network of terrorism is a fiction maintained by fear-mongering politicians in order to command the allegiance of the public.  People who believe the lies cling to hawks like Bush and Cheney in order to feel safe, and I think that’s why 24 has found an audience, too.  Across its seven cycles, 24 exhibits a horrorshow of worst-case scenarios with unconcealed glee: political assassinations, dirty bombs, missing nukes, flesh-eating bioterror microbes on the rampage in downtown L.A.  Emotionally, 24 scores by eliciting a vicarious, tenuous sense of relief that looming real-world threats to our personal safety may come to pass tomorrow, but did not do so today.  What eludes me is why such a masochistic ritual appeals to so many people.

*

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching Swingtown, the show about wife-swapping during the Bicentennial summer that was already a lame duck when it aired last year.  Swingtown was a curious venture for CBS, not just because the network hasn’t successfully nurtured a serious drama in nearly a decade, but also because it covers such familiar territory.  What is there about suburban banality that hasn’t already been sliced and microscoped on Weeds or Desperate Housewives or Big Love or Mad Men or The Riches?

Not much, it turns out.  Swingtown has a solid B+ pedigree; it was created by writer Mike Kelley (ex-The O.C.) and executive produced by director Alan Poul (ex-Six Feet Under).  But Swingtown borrows a great deal from Ang Lee and James Schamus’s The Ice Storm, albeit ten years later and fatally watered down for prime-time.  Kelley’s creation, set in a Chicago commuter town, has a cul-de-sac full of stereotypes: prudish Stepford wife best friend; coke-whore single mom; precocious teen with a crush on her teacher.  But so far (I’m around the half-way point) there has been no single iconic image with the resonance of Christina Ricci’s teen nymphette in a Nixon mask.

There are two good reasons to watch Swingtown: its leading ladies.  (There are men in Swingtown too, but I’ve already forgotten them.)  Since I first noticed her on Boomtown, Lana Parrilla has passed through several series (including 24) without leaving much of an impression.  Here she finally has a chance to shine as Trina, the predatory swinger superwoman who is as at home in the kitchen, whipping up a perfect fondue,  as she is in bed with two men.  Parrilla is ravishingly sexy and confident, and more committed than the rest of the cast to the authentic seventies hairdos.

But the star here is Molly Parker, playing a thirtysomething housewife and mother who discovers an unexpected restlessness within herself after she’s exposed to Trina and her hedonistic circle.  The main thrust of Swingtown is Susan Decker’s awakening, to sexual experimentation and also to some of the ideas and practical applications of feminism.  I was afraid that Parker would offer just a caricature of female repression; it’s well within her range, and the early episodes don’t help her much with ridiculous scenes like the one where Susan gets flustered by all the sexy talk and drags the family straight off to church.  But Parker understands that we want to see her break through.  She has a natural languor, but also the ability to turn on a kind of inner radiance at just the right moments.  A fearless indie film star (see Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World, for one), Parker descended into television via Deadwood, and it’s especially exhilarating to see her freed from the straitjacket of David Milch’s pretentious pseudo-Shakespearean dialect.  Mostly she’s way ahead of the writing in Swingtown, but there’s a real joy in watching her light up any time the prospect of liberation presents itself.

The real test of a show about sexual freedom is probably whether or not it comes off as sex-positive, and this is where Swingtown may have suffered from being on CBS instead of cable.  For one thing, it can’t depict an actual orgy; instead there are quick cutaways to a shirtless extra with two (clothed) babes cooing in his ear, a scene so chaste it could be an outtake from a deodorant commercial.  At one point Trina’s husband entreats her to talk dirty to him, and the camera whoosh-pans away from Parrilla with her mouth hanging open, before she can get the first word out.

Not being able to show (or even talk about) the central subject is handicap enough, but even as pure plot Swingtown stalls on the wife-swapping.  Susan and her husband enjoy a polite gangbang with the neighbors at the climax of the pilot, but by the seventh episode, a second hookup remains conspicuous in its absence.  One particularly grating tactic for throwing cold water on everyone is the character of Susan’s straitlaced “old” best friend Janet (Miriam Shor, in a cripplingly weak performance that equates repression with a robotic speech pattern), who has a habit of showing up whenever Susan (or anyone else) starts to feel naughty.

Maybe this is just a conservative narrative strategy – once Susan and spouse go all the way, the show has shot its wad, as it were – but it smacks of another kind of conservatism, too.  There’s an aspect of class consciousness nestled at the base of Swingtown’s premise that remains revealingly underdeveloped.  Susan’s transformative odyssey begins only when she and her family move to a pointedly wealthier neighborhood.  Swingtown math: financial prosperity (Trina) equals decadence; relative poverty (Janet) equals inhibition and intolerance.  But surely there’s a happy, middlebrow, censor-appeasing, baby boomer-CBS-audience-satisfying compromise somewhere along that sliding scale, right?

I’m reminded of a Night Court episode from the eighties in which a guy has just awakened from a twenty-year coma.  “What about the sexual revolution – is it over?” he asks innocently.  Marsha Warfield’s no-nonsense bailiff looks at him pityingly and says, “Ohhhhh, yeah.”  (I’ve paraphrased that exchange from memory.)  Swingtown doesn’t treat the sexual revolution as a joke, but it doesn’t seem to know why we should take it seriously, either.  Are we meant to feel nostalgia for the bygone possibility of alternative sexuality in even the most staid of enclaves – of Harry Reems dropping in for cocktails at a midwestern house party, as happens in one enjoyable episode – or to shudder with relief that such scandalously unchecked libidinousness is as extinct as the Ford Pinto?  One thing you can say about all of the best TV shows, of any era: they take a position.

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