June 21, 2012
Invisible is right.
Word has it that the recent Blu-ray release of The Invisible Man, the 1975 series that starred David McCallum, is all fucked up.
The Blu-rays have cropped the episodes – which, like every TV show prior to the late nineties, were shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio – on the top and bottom to fit the standard widescreen television size of 16:9. That means that poor David McCallum, who was already short enough to begin with, has been shorn of his hair and his legs in a lot of long shots.
There are apparently other problems with this Blu-ray – for one thing, all thirteen episodes are crammed onto a single disc – but obviously the Procrustean aspect ratio change is the dealbreaker. It’s the same botch that afflicted one batch of Route 66 episodes (which were corrected) and the first season of Kung Fu (which weren’t).
(And the series pilot is actually stretched instead of cropped!)
VEI, which put out The Invisible Man discs, is one of several independent DVD labels that have sublicensed old TV series from Universal; it’s responsible for the absurdly overpriced McMillan and Wife box set, and for liberating the four episodes of The Snoop Sisters, a ninety-minute mystery wheel show that had been on a lot of collectors’ most wanted lists.
What’s particularly galling here is that VEI clearly knew better, because their simultaneous DVD release of The Invisible Man is in the original 4:3 aspect ratio. I don’t pretend to understand the logic but it certainly appears that VEI has caved into imbecile pressure from the “I want it to fill my screen” crowd.
It’s not a total loss, since fans who know and care about this stuff can avail themselves of the DVDs instead of the Blu-rays. But the state of classic TV on Blu-ray is so anemic – we have The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner, and … what else? – that a screw-up like this can have wider consequences. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: fans will buy the DVDs instead, sales for the Blu-rays will suck, and VEI (and other industry watchers) will convince themselves that consumers in this niche don’t care about Blu-ray. Well, some of us do – but you have to get them right.
This issue has received surprisingly indifferent coverage on the usual internet rant-podiums (maybe because the show, which I’ve never seen, is not highly regarded), but you can read more about this disaster at my bête noire, the Home Theater Forum. Update: At “press time,” HTF posters are reporting that VEI has plans to issue a second pressing of the Invisible Man Blu-rays in the correct aspect ration. We’ll see.
January 8, 2012
Mike Hammer, perhaps the trashiest of the film noir-era literary detectives, came to television in 1958, in seventy-eight gloriously lurid assemblages of fast-paced fisticuffs, threadbare sets, and stock plots. Video’s first Hammer, incarnated by Darren McGavin, was a reasonably faithful and always lively continuation of the popular series of novels by Mickey Spillane. A&E’s unexpected DVD release of the show, which contains every episode, was one of my favorite home video events of last year.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was produced by MCA, the talent agency-cum-TV factory that churned out oceans of half-hour genre series in the late fifties. The shows were pumped out in backbreaking lots of thirty-nine, shot in three or even two days, for no money (the budgets were often well under $50,000 per episode), on the old, cramped Republic Studios backlot in the San Fernando Valley. MCA had sweetheart deals with the networks, especially NBC, but since there was only so much prime time to be colonized, the up-and-coming mini-major also sold shows into first-run syndication. Mike Hammer was one of those – perhaps the only syndicated MCA offering that’s remembered at all today, and a surprising network reject, given the fame that both Hammer and his shrewd, self-mythologizing creator had accrued since their 1947 debut. The first episode, “The High Cost of Dying,” premiered in New York City on January 28, 1958 (but, as with any syndicated show, any airdates listed on the internet are bogus; local stations that bought the series had discretion over when to schedule it).
The difference between a bearable MCA show and an unbearable one, at least for a modern viewer, is often one of personality – that is, whether or not the series’ star had one. The studio had tried to make TV stars out of stiffs like Dale Robertson (Tales of Wells Fargo), John Smith and Robert Fuller (Laramie), and Rod Cameron (City Detective, State Trooper, and Coronado 9), but it had also corralled an electrifying young Lee Marvin, clearly on the cusp of major stardom, into a television commitment with M Squad in 1957.
In the late fifties, Darren McGavin had a lot in common with Marvin. Both had done showy supporting turns in major films, Marvin in The Big Heat and The Wild One and McGavin in a pair of 1955 releases, David Lean’s Summertime (as an unfaithful husband) and Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (as a vicious drug dealer). The small screen had less prestige than the movies, especially those made by A-list directors, but it offered these youngish actors the opportunity to transition from incipient typecasting as flamboyant villains into potential stardom as leading men. Television proved a wise career move for both actors and, a half-century later, they have repaid the favor by keeping their old series out of history’s dustbin. The boundless energy of Marvin and McGavin – the way they dance around iffy dialogue and prop up dull guest actors and just revel in being the center of attention – is the indispensible quality that overwhelms the many elements that now appear cheap or rushed or dated.
By 1958, there had already been three films, a radio drama, and at least one busted television pilot spun off from the Spillane novels. That pilot was written and directed by future Peter Gunn creator Blake Edwards and starring Brian Keith, who would’ve made a fine Mike Hammer. But the only one of those properties that retains any currency today is Kiss Me Deadly, the 1955 Robert Aldrich masterpiece whose notes of cynicism, futurism, and paranoia were decades ahead of their time.
Armed with a richly ironic A. I. Bezzerides script, which depicted the thuggish, dim-witted Hammer as the agent of his own destruction, Aldrich recast Spillane’s two-fisted, commie-hating hero as something that crawled out from under a rock. Aldrich put Ralph Meeker, the actor who replaced Brando as Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, in the part, and Meeker sneered, sweated, and fondled his way toward the creation of one of film noir’s nastiest protagonists.
Television’s toned-down Hammer isn’t quite as disreputable or disgusting as Kiss Me Deadly’s. But McGavin captures enough of Meeker’s scuzziness to make the series more than a standard, square-jawed (and square) round-up-the-bad guys outing. McGavin’s persona fits Hammer like a glove. He’s fast-talking, gruff, growly, scowling, a girl-chaser and an ass-kicker. He can take lines like “I’m gonna find out about this character Lewis, and when I do, I’m gonna take him apart like a four bit watch!” and spit them out with a palpable sense of menace.
Gun, Hammer, shithole: Darren McGavin as Mike Hammer in his seedy office
I’ve always looked at McGavin as a curmudgeon, television’s great loquacious crank, but my friend Stuart Galbraith IV, who thinks McGavin is cast against type (albeit effectively) in Mike Hammer, calls him “one of the breeziest, most likable of character actors ever.” I have difficulty reconciling that McGavin with my McGavin, but it’s true that the actor plays sincere pretty well in the scenes where Hammer has to comfort grieving widows and orphaned daughters. McGavin himself had contempt for the material, and insisted on affecting what he called a “satirical” approach; he claimed to have won a showdown on the matter with MCA chief Lew Wasserman, who wanted Mike Hammer played straight.
In practice, what McGavin described as “treating it in a lighter manner” meant camping it up whenever he could get away with it (he was a hammer indeed). This was a habit that could make the actor overbearing in some of his later work, like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and A Christmas Story. (The producers of both Kolchak and another McGavin private eye series, The Outsider – respectively, Cy Chermak and Roy Huggins – also clashed with the star over the same issue.) But in Mike Hammer, McGavin doesn’t go overboard. He knows just how much spoofery he can get away with, and his Hammer isn’t clowning so much as he’s blustering enthusiastically through each week’s mystery, the same way a dime-novel private eye would charge through a slim, plot-choked Dell paperback. When McGavin does play it goofy, it’s often genuinely funny; see, for instance, “Requiem For a Sucker,” in which Len Lesser plays a gun thug with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent, and McGavin then mocks it throughout their scenes together.
Since I only made it through about three pages of I, the Jury before giving up on Spillane’s ugly, turgid prose, I can’t really grade the extent to which the Mike Hammer series mimicked the novels. For television, MCA kept Hammer’s pal on the police force, Captain Pat Chambers, but dropped the other regular character of his sexy secretary Velda – a somewhat surprising move, given that a video Velda would’ve been both another leggy dame on display and an efficient conduit for some of the inevitable reams of exposition. (Velda is mentioned in a few early episodes, but after a while it became clear that McGavin’s Hammer was a one-man operation.)
As for Chambers, he was played by Bart Burns, a busy bit player and live television veteran, whose chief claim to recognizability was his pronounced Noo Yawk accent. Burns bears a close resemblance to Mickey Spillane, and I wonder if perhaps he was Spillane’s choice to play the character and ended up with the secondary role as a consolation prize after MCA hired a bigger star. Certainly, Spillane had a history of trying to make over screen Hammers in his own image. He went on to star as his own creation in the weird but worthwhile 1963 movie The Girl Hunters, and he had tried unsuccessfully to install Jack Stang, an ex-cop pal on whom the character was purportedly based, as Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (and did succeed in getting Stang small acting roles in I, the Jury and another Spillane film project, Ring of Fear).
Bart Burns as Captain Pat Chambers
If you only know the Hammer character via Kiss Me Deadly, which transplants him to a very location-specific Los Angeles, the emphasis that the television series places on his identity as a New Yorker will come as a surprise. Television’s Hammer often sings the praises of the great city, except when he’s going back to his rough old neighborhood (Greenwich Village, now even more perilous following its colonization by hipsters) to help out or hunt down an old crony. The implication is always that Hammer has come a long way since those hardscrabble days, but the visual evidence is unpersuasive. Hammer operates out of a grungy one-room office (see the image above), and lives a transient existence in the dubious-looking Parkmore Hotel. The heroes of 77 Sunset Strip and Peter Gunn were upright, respectable professionals, and part of the fun of Mike Hammer is that no one made any effort to reform Hammer into any kind of respectability. He drives a huge honking convertible; that’s something, at least.
According to one historian, Mike Hammer slaughtered thirty-four people in the first five Spillane books. There’s no way a television hero, even one operating just prior to the 1961 Congressional hearings on televised violence, could match that body count; McGavin got to blow away one or two bad guys per episode, tops. But the show occasionally delivers some hint of the sex and sadism in which Spillane traded, especially in the earliest episodes. In “Just Around the Coroner,” a murder victim leaves a good-sized arc of blood spatter on a wall, and Hammer observes that “somebody had worked her over with a pistol butt or a hatchet, you couldn’t really tell which.” In the standout “I Ain’t Talkin,’” Hammer roughs up a woman, kicking in a moll’s door, then shoving her up against a wall and screaming into her face. (Then, of course, he kisses her.) “Hot Hands, Cold Dice” has a scene in which Hammer invites a villain to step outside, then throws his coat over the oaf’s face and kicks him in the ass. In “Just Around the Coroner,” as in Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer’s meddling gets an innocent person killed. None of this comes anywhere close to the demythologized, revisionist private eye cycle of the seventies, but Mike Hammer does occasionally – and unexpectedly, for a fifties TV show – call to mind The Rockford Files or Altman’s devastating riposte to Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye.
Darren McGavin and Joan Tabor in “I Ain’t Talkin'”
If the violence was necessarily diluted, other aspects of Spillane’s fifties-pulp style are not. Like M Squad, the show is patched together with verbose first-person narration, a necessity for conveying all the plot points that a low-budget show could not afford to stage. Mike Hammer turns a weak device into something enormously entertaining: the narration is often witty and lurid, and McGavin’s delivery of it is varied, surprising, and often priceless. The episode titles, which do appear on screen, also convey the show’s grim but wry attitude: “Lead Ache”; “Baubles, Bangles, and Blood”; “For Sale: Deathbed – Used.”
So do the stories themselves, when the series is at its best. In “Just Around the Coroner,” Hammer tells a clerk to keep the hotel doctor on call for the next ten minutes. Then he barges in on a counterfeiter, breaks the guy’s money-printing machine over his head, throws him into the hallway, and helpfully informs him that first aid awaits in Room 210. The funny “To Bury a Friend” features James Westerfield as a smirking cop (with a great name, Lieutenant Dan Checkers) who uses Hammer as a punching-bag bird-dog to ferret out a murderer while he himself remains parked on his fat ass. At the end of “Dead Men Don’t Dream,” the gallant Hammer allows the moll to slip away (with a parting admonition to “change your brand of men”) and then pounds the shit out of a roomful of thugs. His pal Captain Chambers is outside with the cops, but he hangs back to give Hammer time to finish his beatdown. “Mike Hammer doesn’t kill easy,” Chambers tells the anxious ingenue confidently. Hammer is the Paul Bunyan of pulp, parading through downmarket crime stories writ large as noirish tall tales.
MCA in the late fifties was already famous as a menacing corporate octopus, a sort of entertainment-industry F.B.I. that clothed its agents (many of whom later became television producers or executives after MCA’s TV arm, Revue Productions, consumed the agency business) in dark suits and ordered them to avoid personal publicity. That ethos may explain why some early Revue shows, including Mike Hammer, carry no producer credit. So if there was a guiding intelligence behind Mike Hammer – and the series was sharp enough that it must have had one – that person’s identity will remain cloaked until someone undertakes a bit of detective work. (Alas, of the archival, not the beating up people, kind.)
We do, however, know who wrote and directed the seventy-eight Mike Hammer segments. The future A-lister among the regular directors was Boris Sagal (Dr. Kildare, Mr. Novak, The Omega Man), then a recent graduate of the live Matinee Theater doing his low-budget apprenticeship in filmed television. It’s almost impossible to see any kind of directorial signature in these two-day wonders, but I did think it fitting that the few forceful compositions I spotted occurred not in Sagal’s episodes but in those helmed by Earl Bellamy, a journeyman who stuck with Universal for a long time as a directorial fix-it man on troubled productions.
It’s more relevant to look at Mike Hammer’s writers, since this was a show that thrived more on words than images. Spillane had nothing to do with the television Hammer, but the series’ most prolific writer (and possibly its uncredited rewrite man) was another pulp writer of some note, Frank Kane. Kane’s series character, New York investigator Johnny Liddell, predated Mike Hammer but flourished in a series of novels that emerged after Spillane hit it big. Supposedly Kane repurposed some of the plots from the Liddell books into Mike Hammer mysteries, and it was an easy transposition: Liddell had a brother on the police force who could turn into Captain Chambers with just a dash of Wite-Out. Kane, who died young in 1968, did not make substantive contributions to many television series, but he had done quite a bit of writing for radio, on The Shadow and also an array of private eye series. His involvement may explain why Mike Hammer’s voiceovers were so much more flavorful than those heard in other contemporaneous series (M Squad, for instance).
Mike Hammer also adapted stories by a young Evan Hunter (under the pen name “Curt Cannon”) and Henry Kane, a prolific crime novelist who still has a small cult following. There was also the talented Bill S. Ballinger, whose books formed the basis of the films noir Pushover and Wicked as They Come. His script for “Requiem For a Sucker” introduces characters named Zyg Zygmunt, Buckets Marburg, and Chinchilla Jones, and it’s as bouncy and Runyonesque as those monikers would imply. Ballinger signed all his Mike Hammers as “B. X. Sanborn,” and the pseudonym mania didn’t stop there. “Steven Thornley,” who wrote more than a dozen scripts, was in fact Ken Pettus, a young writer who later contributed extensively to The Big Valley, The Green Hornet, Bonanza, and Hawaii Five-O under his own name.
Len Lesser and McGavin in “Requiem For a Sucker”
It’s too bad that the television rights to the Hammer character didn’t go to some outfit other than MCA. Ideally, the series would have been produced on the streets of Hammer’s home turf, New York City, and with more than a few pennies’ worth of production value. The Republic lot’s New York street was so inadequate that Mike Hammer relied mainly on interiors and rear projection. (McGavin, or more often his double, did swing through New York for pickup shots a few times: “Dead Men Don’t Dream” shows McGavin outside a Houston Street subway station, and “Letter Edged in Blackmail” has him entering the Daily News/WPIX building on 42nd Street, not too many blocks away from where I’m writing this.)
But the low-rent approach works; it fits the material. The narration drowns out much of the toneless stock music that was MCA’s unfortunate aural trademark. The threadbare sets evince Mike Hammer’s threadbare world. And McGavin’s mugging takes your attention away from the holes in the overused plots. There were four great half-hour hard-boiled private eye shows on the air during the late fifties: Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Johnny Staccato, and Mike Hammer. Each of the first three enjoyed the participation of a figure who retains a significant cult following today – respectively, Blake Edwards, David Janssen, and John Cassavetes – and I think that because Mike Hammer has no comparable cinephile lightning-rod name, it may sometimes be excluded from their company. Hopefully the new DVD release, which has given the show its first significant exposure in about fifteen years, will put some fresh ammo in Hammer’s gun.
Postscript: A&E doesn’t release a lot of vintage television, but Mike Hammer brings the label full circle: fans will recall its issue, over a decade ago, of another fifties private eye classic, Peter Gunn, which was doomed by atrocious image quality and aborted before even the first (of three) seasons was completed. The DVDs of Mike Hammer, which sport slightly soft but still very watchable transfers, represent a kind of redeption for the label. While researching this piece, I noticed that, amazingly, the 1954 Brian Keith pilot is also available on DVD, and there’s still more good news: I’ve heard a solid rumor that Peter Gunn will be continued on DVD next year, by a different label, and hopefully from better elements.
July 29, 2011
I never really met Jay North, who played Dennis the Menace on television, but I saw him once at an autograph show. North, who has long been as much of a poster-boy for the fucked-up child star as you can be without actually dying from it, was slumped face-down over his table, cradling his head in his arms amid a puddle of eight-by-ten glossies. Jeannie Russell, his former co-star, stood behind him, hand on his shoulder, quietly talking him back from whatever ledge of mental anguish on which North was perched. What struck me as I studied this scene was how routinized it seemed: I got the idea that these two had acted out this ritual countless times before, a sad-funny part of arrested adult lives built upon vague memories of a childhood in which they remained trapped like the proverbial bugs in amber. And although the spectacle might have been new to this particular roomful of fans, I was certain that I wasn’t in the midst of the first crowd that had tiptoed awkwardly around North in a public setting, waiting for him to get himself together. Exactly who, I wondered, was benefitting from this transaction? What does Jay North get from these people? Why is an old photo of a burned-out child actor worth five bucks and a trip to North Hollywood to anyone? Nostalgia is the slowest-acting poison.
Jay North: Rebel without a comb.
Anyhow: This month brings us the DVD release of the second season of Dennis the Menace (the third, out of four, has already been announced for the fall, suggesting unexpectedly robust sales), and Shout Factory, in its usual puckish fashion, saw fit to send me this set but not the first season, which came out back in March. Ordinarily, I’m a completist about this kind of thing, but then I decided that if there was ever a series that did not need to be seen from the beginning, it was probably Dennis the Menace.
My Nick at Nite memories of Dennis the Menace, which I found agreeable as a child, were of an epic, all-out guerilla combat between male Bad Seed Dennis and querulous, nasty old retiree Mr. Wilson. This turns out to be inaccurate: the show is sweeter, gentler, blander, and less funny than I recalled. Though it is based, of course, on the long-running Sunday strip by Hank Ketcham – himself apparently a nasty old man who based and named his creation after his own attention-deficit-disordered son, then became estranged from the child who earned him millions – the TV Dennis affects a comics-page atmosphere only in the repetition of cloying catchphrases (“Great Scott!” “Good ol’ Mister Wilson!”) and the exaggerated costumes of Dennis and his know-it-all nemesis Margaret (the aforementioned Ms. Russell). The rest is straight sitcom-generic, a second-tier entry in the stable of cheap Screen Gems domestic comedies, which also included Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Hazel.
Like those other, better Screen Gems comedies, Dennis the Menace tried for warmth as much as for humor; and it’s a sad reality that warmth, especially yesterday’s warmed-over warmth, does not age as well as a good gag. The premise hints at a dire form of suburban combat: a symbiotic bond of irritation between two essentially unpleasant people, a bratty child and a mean-spirited retiree, Maple Street denizens burdened by opposite extremes of age but both with too much time on their hands. Dennis Mitchell is sometimes bratty, occasionally disobedient or disingenuous, but more often just accident-prone or hyperactive. Mr. Wilson is an asshole and a hypocrite, susceptible to flattery or bribery, querulous by default but obsequious when the potential for personal gain presents itself. Whenever he has a chance to finally vanquish his enemy, though, as when Dennis runs away in the season opener “Out of Retirement,” Wilson turns nice and sees to it that no harm comes to the boy. (Paul Mavis, in a customarily credulous and exhaustive survey of the first season, suggests that the earliest episodes offered a livelier and more maleficent Dennis.) It is probably wise that the show’s creators chose to soften these characters, because I see no one on the show’s roster of creative talent – Screen Gems staff producer James Fonda, B-movie directors William D. Russell and Charles Barton, a list of journeymen writers, and a less than ideal cast – with the talent to have made the show darker without also making it impossible to take. But as a result Dennis the Menace has no subtext, no edge, neither the nuanced view of human behavior that distinguished Leave It to Beaver nor even the fascinating, barely suppressed hysteria of Donna Reed.
My favorite of the dozen Dennis episodes I watched this week was “Dennis and the Radio Set,” in which Mr. Wilson finds a cache of cash hidden in an old radio, purchased (thanks to Dennis’s meddling) at auction. Mr. Wilson and Mitchell pere immediately start spending the money in their heads, until Dennis stops them in their tracks by insisting that a search be undertaken for the true owner. The adults agree to place a classified ad in the local paper, but word it so that the person to whom the cash belongs is unlikely to come forward. The ethical positions taken by the various characters – Dennis as idealist and moral compass, Mr. Wilson and the usually unassailable Henry Mitchell as morally compromised or, at least, pragmatic to excess – are not consistent with those they affect in other episodes. But they are, at least, mildly surprising. The teleplay (credited to Fonda, who was not primarily a writer) also finds room for a not-quite-absurdist gag in which the characters never realize that the old radio only broadcasts a South African station (say what about a lion on the rampage?) and the best role I’ve ever seen gangly bit actor Norman Leavitt play, as an American Gothic-styled ne’er-do-well angling to claim the cash, with a crib sheet tucked into his hat, yet.
But in its efforts to set up and then embellish some sustained gags, “Dennis and the Radio Set” runs somewhat counter to the series’ format. The prototypical Dennis episode would be one like “Henry and Togetherness,” in which the towheaded twerp manages to destroy, among other things, a cookie jar, an aquarium, and Mr. Wilson’s new hat. Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, runs a con on Dennis’s father, manipulating him into giving up a golf game in order to spend more time with Dennis, on the dubious logic that this will keep the little brat out of his own hair.
(Mr. Wilson often behaves according to that heightened dream-logic of sitcoms, in which people do things that make absolutely no sense in order that we may have a plot each week. See also, for instance, Jeannie’s psychotic fixation on “helping” Major Nelson, despite his constant pleas that she mind her own fucking business; Darrin Stephens’s monomaniacally self-defeating anti-feminism; and practically all the behavior of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island. I’m still working out my Lost-like theory that Gilligan’s isle was actually a top-secret asylum for the dangerously insane, and that everyone on the Minnow was a multiple murderer, heavily drugged and circumvented in escape by unseen government agents.)
Loose in its structure, slack in its pacing, “Henry and Togetherness” is content to assemble a modest catalog of routine childhood antics and banal adult reactions around only a smidgen of plot. It is inoffensive in its mediocrity, and actually superior to episodes that contrive more elaborate or far-fetched conflicts between Dennis and Mr. Wilson, like “Dennis the Campaign Manager” (Dennis inspires Mr. Wilson’s bid for parks commissioner) or “Dennis and the Miracle Plant Food” (more or less self-explanatory). But is that ambition enough to justify one hundred and forty-six half-hours?
There are other “classic” shows that have, arguably, gotten by with this approach; if you enjoyed The Cosby Show, it was because you liked spending time with Bill Cosby and his appealing faux-family, not because any of them were killing themselves trying to make you laugh. But the cast of Dennis is too cut-rate to coast on slight material. Radio actor Joseph Kearns plays Mr. Wilson with a catalog of overdone, old-womanish gestures and expressions. He’s the right type but he isn’t much fun; Dennis needed a sharp, operatically hatable antagonist, like The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Richard Deacon or The Lucy Show’s Gale Gordon (who, in fact, replaced Kearns on Dennis after he died suddenly toward the end of the third season). Herbert Anderson, playing Dennis’s father, is a nebbish with a tremulous voice, a slight build, and no chin. In contrast to windbaggy sitcom dads like Robert Young, Hugh Beaumont, or Carl Betz, Anderson is a non-entity, displaced entirely by the monster-grandpa figure of Mr. Wilson. A father figure of such extreme weakness, positioned within the standard nuclear-family dynamic is an intriguing source of unease. But I have yet to come across a Dennis episode that mines Anderson’s odd passivity for either humor or pathos.
And as for Jay North, a Village of the Damned escapee with a spooky death-rictus grin, he bellows his dialogue with a presentational delivery, as if he’d been trained to expect a Tootsie Roll for every successfully completed punchline. On one level it’s hard to argue with his casting, because Dennis is supposed to be annoying and North certainly fits that bill. I kept wishing, though, that Dennis could have been Stephen Talbot, who played the similarly unctuous character of Gilbert on Leave It to Beaver in a more likable and realistic manner. Indeed, Beaver’s rich supporting cast contrasts sharply with the lack of background color in Dennis the Menace; all of Dennis’s friends and most of the other adults (including Gloria Henry as his mother) are forgettable. Not only did Beaver have an indelible secondary cast, but it deployed them shrewdly, to extend its tonal richness. If Wally and the Beav were flawed but also likable and recognizably human, then their assortment of friends were either venal (Eddie Haskell, Gilbert Bates) or stupid (Lumpy Rutherford, Larry Mondello), a collective suburban id that had no place in a plainer, sunshinier show like Dennis the Menace.
Earlier I wrote that Dennis the Menace had no subtext, but that’s not quite true. Out of the myriad ways in which a little boy might torment an elderly pensioner, nearly half of my random sampling of episodes zeroed in on incidents whereby Dennis caused, or threatened, a financial loss for Mr. Wilson. This obsession with economics is expressed with numeric precision. Every teleplay spells out the exact sums of money at stake. Mr. Wilson’s worthless stock escalates in value to $500 just as Dennis throws it out with an old phone book (“The Stock Certificate”). Mr. Wilson’s parcel of scrap land goes up in value from $2,000 to $5,000 after Dennis finds gold on it (“The Rock Collector”). Mr. Wilson gets a hundred dollar bill in the mail, only to see it snatched away by a crow (“Woodman, Spare That Tree”). And so on. The amount of money in that radio set was $1600, and in conversations with each of two potential claimants, the exact figure of a reward is haggled over. So much uncouth discussion of dollars and cents called up, in contrast, one of my indelible childhood memories of Leave It to Beaver, in which the Beav asked his dad if they were rich and Ward replied only that the Cleavers were “comfortable.” (I think that line may have triggered my earliest conception of the middle class, and the awareness that I numbered among it.)
On other occasions I have praised shows (like The Wire) that emphasize money, because frank depictions of economic hardship rarely emerge from Hollywood. But when Dennis the Menace does it, the show merely reflects George Wilson’s avarice; you can practically imagine the writers looking over his shoulder and smacking their lips in unison with Mr. Wilson as he grubs for some wad of cash. It’s an unthinking validation of the capitalist trap: the anxiety surrounding financial loss is the most real thing in the world of Dennis the Menace. Still, I’m not unsympathetic. As I grow older and ever less “comfortable,” the thought of living on a fixed income moves further up on my list of fates worse than death, inching past even the threat of torment by unruly children.
The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of prolific television writer Preston Wood on January 13. Wood was 87 and lived in Grover Beach, California.
Although there was no obituary at the time, word of Wood’s death has since surfaced in a detailed Internet Movie Database bio, bylined by his son Mark, and in this introduction to his papers at the Belknap Collection for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida.
Wood began as a writer for radio, then made an unusual detour into directing live television and another into the executive suites of Madison Avenue, where he developed TV programs for the ad agency Young & Rubicam. In the early sixties, Wood transitioned back into story editing and then freelancing for television.
(It wasn’t uncommon for ad execs to migrate into creative roles in early television. Some of the prominent live TV directors – although none of those who became important filmmakers – doubled as agency staffers. Recently I’ve been interviewing another major television writer, Jack Turley, who spent a decade planning and directing TV commercials for ad agencies before making a career move similar to Wood’s, and at the same time.)
As a live television director, Wood worked mainly on We the People and Holiday Hotel. In Los Angeles, he began his writing career as a story editor on the underrated western Outlaws, and also served briefly as a story editor during the first season of The Wild Wild West. He wrote episodes of Bonanza, Mr. Novak, Slattery’s People, The Virginian, The Addams Family, The Patty Duke Show, Rawhide, Destry, Gunsmoke, Matt Lincoln, Little House on the Prairie, Quincy M.E., Kaz, and Jessica Novak.
Wood’s most significant work came for producer / director / star Jack Webb, during the twilight years of Webb’s crime show empire. Wood wrote a few episodes of the 1967 revival of Dragnet before moving over to Adam-12 as its primary writer (he penned ten out of twenty-six episodes during the first season) and then on to Emergency! A bit more than the other early writers, Wood mastered Adam-12’s emphasis on arguably trivial vignettes that made up the professional life of its prowl-car cop protagonists. My favorite Adam-12 is one of Wood’s. The tense “Log 33” abandons the show’s usual loose structure and imprisons Officer Reed (Kent McCord) in a room with a tough Internal Affairs investigator (Jack Hogan) who shakes his confidence in his memory of an officer-involved shooting.
Wood seems to have evaded a comprehensive career interview. I contacted him in 2004 but a brief correspondence subsided without the opportunity of an interview, and Michael Hayde, Jack Webb’s otherwise thorough biographer, seems to have missed Wood as well. As Wood’s archive of scripts is one of the most comprehensive records of a television writer’s output that we have, so I particularly regret missing the opportunity to complement that resource with an account of the events in his career that occurred off the page.
Also largely unreported: The death of comedy writer Norm Liebmann on December 20 of last year. Born on January 16, 1928, Liebmann’s primary claim to fame derived from one-half of a murky “developed by” credit on The Munsters. According to Stephen Cox’s The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane, a shady Universal executive merged Liebmann and collaborator Ed Haas’s proposal for the series with another by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, without bothering to inform either set of writers until they met on the set. A Writers Guild arbitration resulted in the convoluted (non-) creator credits. Liebmann told Cox that he came up with some of the characters’ names, and he and Haas wrote a couple of early episodes.
Much of the rest of Liebmann’s resume holds more interest than The Munsters. Alternating between sitcom and variety assignments, he wrote for the 1961 Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and Chico and the Man, as well as for Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
June 6, 2011
I discovered The Fugitive on TV.
The title character was my imagined self as sexual igniter. He was running from a murder charge as trumped-up as mine was real. The show was the epic of shifting and lonely America. Love was alway unconsummated. Yearning was continuous and transferred monogamously. Dr. Richard Kimble had moments of stunning truth with women weekly. The real world interdicted his efforts to claim them and create a separate world mutually safe. The guest-star actresses were torturously aware and rooted in complex and frustrated selfhood. They all try to love him. He tries to love them all. It never happens. It all goes away.
I fucking lost it and wept every Tuesday night . . . .
It wasn’t the way they looked at Dr. Kimble. It was who they were and the path of their hurt up to him.
- James Ellroy (who turned 15 in 1963, and blamed himself for his mother’s murder five years earlier), in his memoir The Hilliker Curse (2010)
May 31, 2011
Landers is best known for his five-year run on Ben Casey as Dr. Ted Hoffman, sidekick to the brooding brain surgeon of the show’s title. Diminutive and eminently reasonable, Hoffman often acted as a calming influence on the towering volcano that was Dr. Casey. Landers’s other claim to fame, as a coffee pitchman in a series of commercials for Taster’s Choice, also made good use of his mumbly bedroom voice and his air of approachable warmth.
All of that just shows what a good actor Landers could be. In life, Landers was a bantamweight tyro, a heavy drinker who spent more than a few nights in jail. Many of his stories revolve around his sudden flashes of anger, and the consequences of on-set outbursts. He has mellowed somewhat with age, but even in his final year as an octogenarian, Landers seems capable of scary explosions of temper. During the hamburger incident – and in fairness, that patty did appear scorched to excess – I was sure that we narrowly avoided one.
(And yes, Landers is 89, not 90. All the reference books give his date of birth as April 3, 1921, but in fact it is September 3. At some point, someone’s handwritten 9 must have resembled a 4.)
As he talked about working for Hitchcock and DeMille, Landers was expansive, but also genuinely modest. “Why do you want to know all this crap?” he asked more than once. A moment of honesty finally won his respect. “Why did you decide to interview me?” he wanted to know.
There were several possible answers, but I went with the most accurate. “Because you’re the last surviving regular cast member of Ben Casey,” I replied.
“That’s a good reason,” Harry agreed instantly. But when I asked him to comment on some of the widely publicized conflicts among the show’s stars, he would only go so far. “No, it’s no good,” he said after interrupting himself in the middle of an anecdote and casting a wary eye in my direction. “You’re too smooth!”
Retired now, Landers lives with his son in the San Fernando Valley. He misses his old house in Sherman Oaks and, even more, the vibrant street life of Manhattan. Until recently, he visited New York City several times a year. So many of hangouts closed and so many of his East Coast friends passed away, though, that after a time Landers found himself seeing shows, dining alone, and going back to his hotel to watch television. He stopped going back. But he’s still active, and still pugnacious: his residuals are so “pathetic” that he doesn’t cash some of the checks, “just to drive the accounting offices crazy.”
As we wrapped up, he insisted on picking up the check. “I’m a gentleman of quality,” said Landers. “You can’t bribe me, kid.”
How did you get started as an actor?
I was working at Warner Bros. as a laborer. There was an article in the Warner Bros. newspaper that they distributed throughout the studio, and they mentioned my name. In World War II, I did what I think any other kid my age would have done. I was a little heroic on a ship that was torpedoed, and I saved some lives. It was no big deal.
How did you save them?
Well, this torpedo was hanging by the fantail. Some kid was trying to get out through a porthole. One kid was frozen on the ladder. I just moved ahead with a flashlight, and had people grab hold and go towards the lifeboat. Just a little immediate reaction. I think if you’re a kid, you don’t realize what you do. You just do it.
So anyway, one day I was out in the back of the studio, where the big water tower is, and I’m pounding nails, and a limousine drove up and a man got out. His name was Snuffy Smith. He asked for me, and somebody indicated where I was pounding nails. He said, “Bette Davis wants to see you.”
I said, “What?” I was scroungy, stripped to the waist, matted hair, sweaty, angry.
He said, “Yes, she wants to see you.”
So I grabbed a t-shirt and put it on, and got into the limo. Now I was fear-ridden. On the ship, I wasn’t. How old was I? I was in my early twenties, I guess. I remembered Bette Davis as a kid, watching her movies. To this day, I think she’s still the motion picture actress in American cinema. She’s incredible.
So they asked me onto the stage, to Bette Davis’s dressing room. They were shooting. There was a camera and all the sets. The man went up and said, “Miss Davis, I have the young man.” So she said, “Come in, come in.” I walked in and there she was, seated in front of the mirror. She looked at me and shook my hand. She asked me a few questions. She said, “What can I do for you?”
Maybe when I was a kid in New York City, in Brooklyn, I always realized I’d wind up in Hollywood someday. I never knew why or what, but it was a magnet. Motion pictures is better than sex! And she said, “What can I do for you?”
I used to watch the extras. Beautiful little girls walking around, and they were always rather well-dressed and doing nothing, and I’m sweating and pounding nails. And they were making more money. I think I was making like nine or ten dollars a day. I said, “I’d like to do what they’re doing.”
She said, “You want to be an extra?”
I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Then she picked up the phone and she spoke to Pat Somerset at the Screen Actors Guild. Put the phone down. A few seconds later the phone rang. She said, “Yes, Pat. Bette here. I have a young man here, and I will pay his initiation.” That was the end of it. She told me where to go. She wrote it down: The Screen Actors Guild union on Hollywood and La Brea. We talked for maybe three more sentences, said goodbye and shook hands.
The next time I ran across Bette Davis was at a party at Greer Garson’s house. By that time many years had passed; in fact, I was in Ben Casey. I was with Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman. They knew Greer – Miss Garson – very well. There was Bette Davis, and she didn’t remember me. I [reminded her and] a little thing flicked in her mind. It was just a very brief kind of a [memory]. That was the last time I ever saw her.
That was before the strict union rules. Now you give an [extra] special business or a line, they automatically have to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Every now and then they would say, “Hey, you. Can you say this and this?” They’d give me one or two short lines. So I’d be in a short, fast, little scene. But I always knew this was going to happen. It was just a progression. I met a young man who was going to an acting class, Mark Daly, who’s dead, many years ago. He always had books under his arm. I said, “What are you reading?”
He said, “Plays.”
I never read a play in my life. I said, “Oh.”
Then he said, “Harry, what are you doing tonight?”
I said, “Nothing.”
He said, “I’m going to an acting class. Come on down, you might like it.”
I went down there and I met the person who ran the studio. It was an incredible place, called the Actors Lab.
That was the left-wing theater group, many of whose members got blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
Yes. Most of them did. It was a residual effect out of the Group Theatre. That’s where I met some of the people who became fast friends of mine. The one woman I met was Mary Tarsai, who was sort of the administrator. She wouldn’t say no to me. She was afraid I was going to kill her. I was interviewed to become a member. You had to audition and all that stuff. So it was like, okay, come to class next Thursday. Then I met people like Lloyd Bridges, and an incredible actor and an incredible man who was an associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Norman Lloyd. What an amazing man. Beautiful voice.
Stella Adler taught me, and threw me out of her class. She called me a gangster, and she was right.
Why did she call you a gangster?
I don’t know.
Then why do you say she was right?
Well, I was rebellious.
Many of the Actors Lab members were later blacklisted because of their political views. Were you?
No. No, because I was not that prominent. They were after the big names, like J. Edward Bromberg, Morris Carnovsky, who were – I’m not going to go into whether they were communists or not. Hume Cronyn. But it was immaterial to me. See, I knew what they wanted. The desire to overthrow the government was the least motive in their minds. They were political activists who wanted a better life for the people. No discrimination. So I was very sympathetic to what they had to do and say.
Once there were a bunch of us picketing Warner Bros. studio, from the Lab, and we were rounded up and taken over to the Burbank jail. They put like seven, eight of us in a holding cell. The door was unlocked. I walked out. My mother lived in Van Nuys, and I got to my mom’s house in a cab or whatever, had some lunch, spoke to her, and I went back to the jail. Opened the door and went back in. People said, “Hi, Harry.” They never knew I was gone.
The Actors Lab was in Los Angeles, but you went back to New York at some point. Why?
I missed New York. By that time I was out of New York City for quite some time, but I just wanted to go for the adventure. I drove to New York with two guys. One became a very famous actor, Gene Barry. Marvelous man. And a guy named Harry something – Harry Berman, I think. Big, tall, huge heavy guy.
This would have been the late forties, early fifties. Tell me about some of the young actors you got to know in New York during that time.
Ralph Meeker. Good friend. Very tough man. Great fighter, wrestler. Robert Strauss. Harvey Lembeck. I was in a play with Marlon Brando that I walked out of, stupidly. Luther Adler was directing. Adler begged me not to. It was dumb. There was a hotel in New York called the Park Central Hotel, on 55th and Broadway. There was a gym, and I used to worked out there, and Brando used to work out there. We became friendly, and we liked each other immediately. We knew all the same people. Robert Condon, Wally Cox, an incredible man called Red Kullers [whom Cassavetes enthusiasts will remember as the man in Husbands who sings “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”]. Brando and I got along very well. We double-dated a few times, and I did a movie with him, The Wild One.
Murray Hamilton was the most talented. He was an amazing actor. There was never a finer southern gentleman who ever lived. And very liberal politically. Married one of the DeMarco sisters. Murray got married in my old house up in Sherman Oaks. When Murray would come in to L.A. – he hated Los Angeles – he, after working, would go back to New York. We all had to stuff him into a plane. Fear of flying. He would have to be stoned before he would get on the plane.
One day he came up from downstairs and opened the door. He used to call me Hesh, and I used to call him Hambone. He said, “Harry – Hesh – you have to do me a favor.”
I said, “What?”
“You have to keep me off the sauce.” Now, Murray was an alcoholic. I was. Strauss, Lembeck, Meeker, all very heavy drinkers.
I said, “Okay.” He was doing The Graduate. Remember The Graduate? He played that beautiful girl’s father. He said, “Now, the director [Mike Nichols], he said ‘Murray, you have to stop drinking. We can’t see your eyes any more.’”
How did you stop drinking?
I didn’t. I think just, as the years went on, these people went out of my life. I just slowly but surely stopped [carousing].
Tell me about doing live television.
Some were small parts, some I was a star. One with James Dean, I was the lead, opposite Hume Cronyn. Cronyn was my teacher at the Actors Lab, the best teacher I ever had. He was the star, he and Jessica Tandy. I was in love with Jessica.
What did you learn from him?
I learned you cannot get on stage without knowing your lines. There was a time when I was able to do an improvisation on anything, and I thought that I was a very good actor, or a great actor. I hit my marks and people hired me all the time, so I must have been pretty good. I never felt that I had the freedom, the confidence, to really have the opportunities to let go and do it.
What live shows do you remember?
I did so many live TV shows. One of my best moments on live TV was a very famous show called “The Battleship Bismarck,” on Studio One. I played a fanatical nazi on the battleship. There’s the set, the battleship, and I was here saying everything like “Sieg heil!” and “Achtung!” I’m on the set, talking, during a rehearsal break or something, and I looked over and said, “Oh, my god.” I flipped. Over there was Eleanor Roosevelt. I didn’t ask permission, although I’m a very polite man, respectful of my peers, superiors. I just said, “Excuse me,” and walked up to her. I’m not very tall, and she was, and I’m in my nazi uniform. I said, “Mrs. Roosevelt – ” She grabbed my wrist and said, “Dear boy, what are you doing?!” The uniform I had on.
Ernie Borgnine and I were cast in Captain Video. We got paid $25 an episode, and we shot it in New York City. We had to learn a whole script a day, for $25. We did it for two weeks. We would write the cues on our cuffs. It was impossible. We worked so well together. A very sweet guy. The last time I saw him, Ernie knew the dates, and he said, “Who cast us in the show?” I said, “Uh….” and he said, “Elizabeth Mears!”
You were in the classic Playhouse 90, “Requiem For a Heavyweight.”
I replaced Murray Hamilton in that show; I don’t remember why. The only thing I really remember about the show was that [Jack] Palance was not very friendly.
The famous story about that show is that Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines, and right up to the last minute they were going to replace him with another actor.
I never knew Ed Wynn prior to that, but his son I’d worked with quite a few times in the movies. Keenan Wynn would beg him: “Come on, Dad, you can do it, come on, you can do it!” And the old man did it, and it was a marvelous performance.
Do you remember any incidents where something went wrong on the air?
I remember I was supposed to be on the set of Tales of Tomorrow, and I was in jail.
What happened? Did you make it on the air?
Yes! Bob Condon, the brother of Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate, bailed me out of jail.
And why were you there in the first place?
I destroyed an apartment house. The night before I had a date with a beautiful girl from Westchester County, the daughter of an actor and a crazy girl, just a nut. I went down to her apartment on 37th Street or 38th Street, and I took Bobby Condon with me. He and I were good friends. I spoke to her – I think her name was Betty – and I said, “I’m bringing a friend. Get a girl. The four of us will go out.”
Well, we went down there and she was pissed at me. I knocked on her apartment door, and she wouldn’t let me in. I said, “Will you open the door?” Blah, blah, blah, blah. “Come on, open the door.” And I became angry and I kicked the door in. Dumb. I was a kid. I kicked the door in, and that was it. But as I walked out of the apartment house, I wrecked the entire apartment house. Like three, four banisters on the stairs, I kicked the spokes out, [pulled down] the chandeliers. Went home. About five o’clock in the morning, six in the morning, the cops grabbed me and threw me in jail, and they threw Bobby Condon in jail. They let him out immediately, but they kept me in just because of my attitude.
So one of the cops called over and said, “Yeah, he’s in jail.” So they had a standby actor walking [in my place] all camera rehearsal. Meanwhile the jailers were cueing me for my lines. They loved it! I had grabbed my script and my glasses [when the police arrived]. But they bailed me out just in time to get me to the set. I got there just in time. I needed a shave. I had scrubby clothes. Gene Raymond was the star of that show. He looked at me like, “Oh, wow, who are you?”
The producer never forgave me, but the show was marvelous! One of my better performances.
Above: Landers and Gene Raymond on Tales of Tomorrow (“Plague From Space,” April 25, 1952)
You were in Rear Window. Tell me about Alfred Hitchcock.
I was prepared to dislike him. I don’t know why; I was a great fan of his. When we got on the stage, he said, “All right, kiddies, show me what you’d like to do.” That was all improvised: we’re in a club, she picks me up in a club coming out of a movie. We get through doing it and he says, “Oh, that’s marvelous.” He says, “Harry, come here. Look through the camera.” I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at. But he was gentle, and sweet, and so nice to work with. Which surprised me.
You were also in The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s last film.
I played three different parts. I was the first guy in America in fifty years who screamed at Cecil B. DeMille on the set, in front of God and everyone. Everybody’s dead silent. DeMille’s blue eyes went [looking around in search of the culprit]. The assistant director goes, “Harry, get back where you belong.” I said to myself, “I’m fired. That’s it.”
Why did you yell at him?
By that time, I’d watched DeMille scream at actors, and he could be very, very cruel. He did not know how to direct actors. He directed donkeys and elephants and mass crowds. With actors, he didn’t know. When I got on the stage first time, one of the actors said, “With Cecil B. DeMille, raise your hands all the time. ‘Yes!’ ‘Yes!’” I said, “Oh, okay.”
Anyway, in the scene, I’m on a parallel. I’m an Egyptian architect, and I’m surveying. I look up this way, and I’ve got a flag, and I look this way, and this way. A good-looking guy, John Derek, played Joshua, and he breaks loose from his Egyptian captors. So I jump off the parallel – the only reason I got the job is because I was always very well-built – and I grab him, hit him, knock him on the floor, and jump on him. Then some other people grab him. DeMille is sitting with his binder. Looking through his viewfinder, he says, “You! Move three inches to your left.” So I knew he meant me. I moved three inches, maybe five, maybe six.
Now when DeMille spoke, he had somebody put a mike in front of him. When he sat, somebody put a stool under his ass. So he’d never look [at anything].
That legend is really true?
Absolutely! I was there. So the mike is in front of him, and he said, “I said three inches, not three feet!”
I went insane. I picked up John Derek, I pushed him like this. I walked up to DeMille, I got very close to him. I cupped my hands. I said [loudly], “Mr. DeMille!” Now this is a huge stage of donkeys and hundreds of people. “Mr. DeMille! Would you like to go over there and measure me?”
He was flabbergasted. Prime ministers would come to see this man. He was Mister Paramount. And, anyway, I thought I was fired. I came back the next day. Next day, nobody spoke to me. Not one actor. Two days later, I’m walking on set. DeMille looked at me and said, “Good morning, young man.” Turned away and walked straight ahead. I’m saying, “Wow, what goes with this?” Nobody knew why I was still on the set, why I was still working.
Now, every actor in Hollywood worked on The Ten Commandments, and a lot of them weren’t even given screen credit. I got paid $200 a day, six days a week, plus we always went overtime – $250 a day. And I worked on it for three months. I was making more money than John Carradine, who was an old friend of mine, more than Vincent Price. I was papering my walls with checks from Paramount. One day, the assistant director, a great guy, says, “Harry, I gotta let you go. The front office is screaming about it.” He’d told me this once before, about a month before. He said, “Harry, we’ve got to let you go.” Because they’d never put me on a weekly [deal]. They said, “Get rid of him, or he’s going to make [a fortune off of us].”
When I was fired by the assistant director, I climbed up to tell DeMille. He was always up on a parallel. By this time I’d grew to love the old man. I really did. I realized how incompetent he was! I walked up and he waited, and then he looked and said, “Yes . . . young man?” He always wanted to call me by name, but he could not remember my name.
I said, “Mr. DeMille, I just wanted to say goodbye and I wanted to thank you very much for just a great time.” And I really meant it, in my heart. I said, “It was a great experience. I appreciate it so much.”
The assistant director was waiting at the bottom of the parallel. He climbs up the ladder. DeMille said, “Where is this young man going?” And the assistant director looked at me, and looked at DeMille, and said, “Nowhere, sir.”
I stayed on the picture for another full month, at $250 a day overtime.
Here’s the end of the story. Months later I’m walking through Paramount, on an interview for something, and as I’m walking out, walking towards me is Cecil B. DeMille and his film editor and somebody else. He stopped, and he went like this [beckons]. I walked towards him. He extended his hand and said, “Hello. How are you?” And then he looked very deeply into my eyes and said, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I’m not very smart when it comes to that. I said, “No, sir, but I thank you very much for the offer.” He said okay.
As I walked away, I realized the whole thing. DeMille, in those days, was probably in his sixties. I was in my thirties. I must’ve reminded him of someone he knew as a kid, who was a very good friend of his, or a relative. I took DeMille out of the twentieth century and took him back to when he was a child, or a youngster. We saw each other and he would sense-memory back to somebody in another life. That’s the only reason he tolerated me, I suppose.
What made you think that?
Every time we spoke, he turned to his left, like there was a name on the tip of his tongue. Like he wanted to call me John or Bill or something.
I see – that’s why he was always blocked on your name.
Yeah. He was always busy, people talking to him, and when I spoke to him, all of a sudden everything evaporated and he just zeroed in on me for a moment. And then he was back to [what he was doing]. So that’s the only logical conclusion I could come to. Or maybe it was because I screamed at him. I felt so secure, I got my own dressing room, and I changed a whole huge scene in the movie by telling the assistant director the dialogue was incorrect grammatically. I brought my little immigrant mother on the stage and introduced my mom to Cecil B. DeMille. “Madame, it’s such a pleasure meeting you.” I felt very confident with the old man.
How did you get the part on Ben Casey?
There was a show called Medic, with Richard Boone. I did one of the episodes. It was a great show. One of my better moments. [A few years later] I was walking down the streets of MGM to go to my barber. I had a barber there who used to cut my hair. As I’m walking down the studio street, my agent walked up. He said, “Hey, Harry, what are you doing?” I told him [nothing]. He said, “Do you know Jim Moser?” I said, “Yes.” He produced and wrote Medic, and he produced Ben Casey and did the pilot.
Anyway, he arranged an interview for me. It was on a Friday. I’ll never forget this. I went there and read for him and Matt Rapf and I forget the studio executive’s name. I did four or five pilots prior to that, and you could almost tell when you had something. When I got home I called my agent and I said, “I think we have a series.”
Monday, he called me and said, “They want you back for another reading.”
So I went back to the studio. There was Vince Edwards, who I knew in New York City. Knew him quite well. They handed us each a script and we started reading. And Jim Moser got out of the chair, he grabbed the scripts, threw them up in the air, and said, “That’s it. You guys are the parts.” That’s how I got it.
Landers and perpetually scowling Vince Edwards (right) on Ben Casey.
What was Vince Edwards like?
Amazing man. One of the smartest, stupidest men I’ve ever known in my life. Complete contradiction. It’s too long to go into. He was abusive to many people. He was petty in many ways. He was far more talented than he gave people a chance to realize.
He had a photographic memory. Every now and then we’d have time to rehearse. We’d sit around the table and read our scenes. Vince would read a script once and he knew every line. Every dot, every comma. He knew everything. Sam Jaffe and I had difficulty, especially with the latin terms. Vince would just glance down and he’d get every paragraph, like that. Jaffe and I used to look at each other and go, “Wow.”
It was also his downfall, because he never bothered to study, to learn his lines. He was a much better actor than he gave himself a chance to be. He had charm. He had a great voice. He sang very well. He had an incredible since of humor. He was quick as a cat. Very witty.
I’ve heard a couple of things about Edwards during the production of Ben Casey. One was that he spent all his time at the racetrack.
Sure. I’m directing one of the episodes, okay? Now, Vince is an old friend of mine. I knew him in New York City. When he first came out here, he stayed at my house. When he had an appendicitis attack, I got him to a doctor. My mother used to feed him chicken soup.
Vince, lunchtime: “I’ll be back.” He didn’t care who [was directing]. He was ruthless. He’d go, and [after] the hour for lunch, “Where’s Vince?” We had to shoot around him. He’d show up around three, four o’clock.
We haven’t gotten in Franchot Tone. What a man, what a man. He was brilliant. Do you know who he is?
He replaced Sam Jaffe as the senior doctor for the last season of the show.
Yeah. Sam Jaffe left for two reasons. It’s a sordid story. But Franchot Tone was amazing. He was the son of a doctor. Very rich. Responsible for the Group Theatre. When they ran out of money, when they were doing Odets plays and all that, he would [write a check].
Now, I’ll tell you a story about him. He would talk to no one. It took months before he would relate to anyone in the cast. On any level. I became his buddy. The reason? Right before we’re shooting, he came out and said, “Harry, I understand you have a dressing room upstairs?” I did. I had three dressing rooms, one upstairs – the editors had their own private dressing room there – one on the stage, and one downstairs with Vince. He said, “Can I have the key?” He looked over, and there was a pretty little extra in the doorway. So I slipped him the key.
After that we became very, very good friends, and he turned out to be a marvelous source of information about all the Group Theatre actors. Tone was a total alcoholic. He was a marvelous, compassionate, bright guy. But when he came to the studio, the minute he passed the guard, the phone on the set would ring: “Watch out, Franchot’s on the way over.” Franchot had a rented Chevrolet. The sides were bent like an accordion. He would hit the sides of the building: boom, boom, boom. He’d get out, staggering. He and his companion, carrying two big paper bags loaded with ice and whatever they were drinking. Scotch. Clink, clink, clink, went the bags. They’d go into the room, and that was it.
One day, when I was directing the show, he looked at me and said, “Harry, you know, you do something that the other directors don’t do.”
I said, “What’s that, Franchot?”
He said, “You always have me seated when we’re in a scene. Why do you do that?”
Well, I didn’t want to tell him that he was swaying in and out of focus all the time. I said, “Well, Franchot, you’re the boss of the hospital and this guy is your subordinate, so it’s just proper etiquette.”
He said, “Oh, yes, dear boy, thank you, I see.” With a little smirk on his face.
Franchot Tone as Dr. Freeland on Ben Casey.
I want to go back to Sam Jaffe. I heard that he left Ben Casey because of conflicts with Vince Edwards. Is that accurate?
Partially. Yeah, I’d say it was accurate. If Vince was in a bad mood – if you’re the star of the show, you’re a total, total dictator. The atmosphere on a set is dictated by the star. Vince was the boss. And Vince usually was in a pretty good mood, but he had an assistant who worked for him, an ex-prizefighter. What I’m going to tell you is too sordid, it’s such a cheap kind of a . . . oh, why not? They would do thievery. Christmastime, they would collect money to buy gifts for everyone. They kept half the money.
But Edwards was making a fortune as the star of the show, right?
Yes. He blew it all. He owned an apartment house with Carol Burnett out in Santa Monica – they were business partners together. Vince sold out his rights to get some more money to go to the track. I’m at Santa Anita one day with Jack Klugman, and I go to the men’s room. I look out and I see Vince walking towards the men’s room. I don’t want to bump into him, so I made a sharp left back into the bathroom, got into a stall, locked the stall. I was waiting for Vince’s feet to go out so I could leave, because he invariably hit you up for money. If you were at the track, and you saw Vince coming towards you, you immediately pulled out like two twenty dollar bills and put it on the table. Because he’d hit you up for money. “See, Vince, that’s it. That’s what’s left of my stake. I came in with three hundred dollars,” and whatever. Some bullshit. And he knew it. He owed me a lot of money. I’m a schmuck.
So he really stole the Christmas gift money from the cast and crew of Ben Casey?
Yeah. They would give people extra business. You know what that is, an actor gets extra business? He gets an increase in his pay. It makes him eligible to become a member of the Guild. So they would create extra business for extras, and if you did extra business you would pick up an extra hundred dollars. So Benny Goldberg, his little thuggy partner, would collect the money. It was petty. I remember once – I don’t know why I’m telling you all this shit. I can’t do it. It’s too demeaning. You’re too smooth. No, it’s no good.
Well, it sounds as if Edwards had a very serious addiction.
Oh, enormous. He had a huge problem gambling.
Do you think he liked doing Ben Casey? Did he like acting, like being a star?
I don’t know. Did he like doing it? Sure. He was making a lot of money. There was an episode where – I’ll tell you this, I don’t care – Jerry Lewis was directing one of the episodes of Ben Casey. He and Vince got into it. Bing Crosby got on the phone – he was the boss, you know that, he owned the show – and Vince disappeared. All of Vince’s lines went to me and Jaffe. And Jerry Lewis directed the show without any problems. We were all pros. But he was a difficult guy in many ways, yes. In many ways, no. Instead of focusing on his acting, his focus was get it done and go to the track.
Did your earlier friendship mean that you were on better terms with Vince than the rest of the cast was?
Yeah. By far. Absolutely. I could get away with murder with Vince. He was afraid of me.
He was bigger than you, though.
Ah, he was full of shit. He was blown up with drugs, but he had the wrists of a fifteen year-old girl.
What kind of drugs was he on?
I don’t know. I think, in those days, enhancement drugs.
Yeah, steroids. Oh, yeah, he was a two hundred-and-ten pound phony baloney. But it was all right. He was very smart. Big ideas. But a dumbbell. Didn’t know how to treat people. He believed that they tolerated and hated him.
But there was only one Ben Casey, and it was him. Nobody could take that show over. Nobody. He was it.
I think that surly quality of his made the character, and the show, unique. He wasn’t a wimp like Dr. Kildare.
Yeah. I knew actors who were up for the role. Russell Johnson, from Gilligan’s Island, was up for it, and two or three other actors. But Vince got it, and was marvelous in it.
Did Jim Moser have a lot of involvement in Ben Casey?
No, outside of writing. He was the producer, but he was never on the stage. Matt Rapf was one of the producers. They rarely came on the stage. I think it was part of the caste system in Hollywood. When you reach a certain level, you don’t go back.
Tell me about Sam Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, who played Ben Casey’s leading lady. Were they together before the show began?
Already married. She was his student. After Sam died, she moved to South Carolina. She would come out here and she would call me and I would have lunch with her, maybe once or twice a year. She became a Tennessee Williams type of lady. She developed a slight little Southern accent. She reverted back to her youth. She was a marvelous lady. Her brother was a doctor. She was very well-schooled.
I became Sam Jaffe’s son in some ways. Just chemistry, mutual likes, politics. People we knew. He’d always call me up: “Heshel, how are you?” When he died, the whole town came out.
If people called you Hesh or Heshel, that makes me wonder: Is Harry Landers your real name?
No. Harry Sorokin. Landers is my mother’s maiden name. It’s an old Russian name. Seven children. We all took my mother’s maiden name but one brother and the girls, because my father walked out on seven kids. I, and my brothers, out of outrage and heartbreak about my father deserting us, disassociated ourselves from him. A dreadful man, really, a very bad man. But I loved him, in retrospect.
Let me try this one more time though: You said there were two reasons why Sam Jaffe left Ben Casey. What was the other one?
It was Vince’s gopher, who was a rated prizefighter, one of the top fifteen, twenty, I think a lightweight. Not a very nice man. Jaffe, I realized, had developed an intense dislike for him. And his dislike for Vince, as the years went on, increased, because Vince would do things that were not very nice. Scream at a makeup man, just stuff that no gentleman of quality would do.
I haven’t ask you much about your character on Ben Casey, or what you did with it.
I don’t know, what’s your question? How did I interpret the part? I didn’t. Well, I was the second-in-command. Vince was the chief resident and I was the second in command of whatever the unit was, and I was just playing footsies to Vince. He was the big wheel. That’s all it was.
The classic “best friend” role?
Yes. I was just his best friend on the series, and Jaffe’s good friend, but I didn’t have any – my part was indistinguishable. Anybody could have phoned it in. It was not a challenge.
Were you content to be in that kind of secondary role?
Sure! They paid me very well. I became very well-known, and if you’re rather well-known, you’re treated with a – it’s a great lifestyle.
The show was very popular.
Huge! For two years we were number one, number two. I remember once in Louisiana, visiting my ex-wife in Baton Rouge, walking down the street and people screamed. They would tear the clothes off you. You’d walk into a restaurant here, you couldn’t pay the tab: “Please come back.” You go to a movie, you never wait in line. You’re ushered right in. I was a half-assed movie star for a while. I was halfway up the ladder. I like that title. I’ll write a book: Halfway Up the Ladder.
Do you remember any other Ben Casey episodes that used you prominently?
“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw.” Gloria Swanson played my mother. First time I came on the set, I probably had an eight o’clock call, and she was probably there since five in the morning, being made up. When people introduced themselves, she would extend her hand. People would kiss her hand. I never kissed anybody’s hand. So she extended her hand and I took it and said, “How do you do?” I shook it.
Slowly but surely, and I say this without any reservations, she fell madly in love with me. Everybody in the studio thought I was having sex with Gloria Swanson. Totally impossible. She was old enough to be my grandmother. Last time I saw Gloria Swanson, she gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and she took my hand and squeezed it. I opened it and in it was a piece of paper, and she said, “I suppose you can’t be reached?” And I said no. She said, “Here’s my phone number. Call me. Please call me, Harry.” That was the end of Gloria Swanson. I wasn’t very bright about those things.
In one of the episodes, I’m dying of some sort of unknown disease, and they have a big microscope and they look at my body for what was making me sick, a pinprick or whatever. There were a couple of other episodes [in which Ted Hoffman figured prominently], where Vince was ill or he didn’t show up or whatever. But Vince was very zealous about his position in the show and who he was. There was a while – I don’t mind saying this – where you could not hire an actor as tall as Vince, or taller. They once hired an actor who was taller, and when they were in a scene together, Vince sat or the other actor sat. It was never eyeball to eyeball, because Vince would not put up with any kind of competition.
Gloria Swanson and Harry Landers on Ben Casey (“Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw,” March 15, 1965).
You and Vince both directed episodes of Ben Casey.
He was a very good director. He was a better director than I was. For one reason: Vince had a photographic mind, as I told you. He was mechanical. All of the actors who I ever directed loved me. I’m the best acting teacher, best acting director in the world, including Elia Kazan. I’m brilliant at it. But I never really mastered the camera. I should have gotten the cameraman aside, but I did not; I winged it with the camera, and it showed. But, you know, they hired me. I did three shows, so they must have saw something they liked. I was adequate. Out of Ben Casey, I got a Death Valley Days to direct.
Did you do any more directing after that?
No. I’m the second laziest man in America, and probably the most undisciplined person that ever lived. If I had disciplined myself, I would have had a very large career.
Here’s a TV Guide profile of you from the Ben Casey era. I’m curious as to how much they got right. Were you in fact an unofficial technical advisor on Action in the North Atlantic (1943)?
And your wife was Miss Louisiana of 1951, 1952, and 1953?
Yes. But I’ve been divorced for years. If I had a brain in my head I would have stayed married. I would’ve been the governor of Louisiana years ago.
Is it true that you got the audition for Ben Casey because you saw Jim Moser stranded on the side of the road after his car broke down, and stopped to help him?
That was made up by the publicity guy.
Do you remember doing Star Trek?
Yeah. I was a guest star, and it was a dreadful experience for me. I had just got out of the hospital. I’d had a lung removed, and I was not steady on my feet. Usually I was one take, two takes, print. I was always great with dialogue. This time I was not good. The producer, who produced Ben Casey, insisted I do the job. He said, “Oh, Harry, you can do it.”
Oh, right, Fred Freiberger produced the final season of Star Trek.
Yeah. What a guy! He was a member of the Actors Lab. But I was not happy with that show. It was not one of my better [performances].
Why did you have a lung removed?
I was on location doing a movie with Elvis Presley. Charro, I think it was. I was working in Death Valley. I was a gym rat, and I came back and I felt a pull in my right lung, and I had it x-rayed and I had a growth. It was not a good moment for the doctors or Harry. They could have treated me medicinally, but in order to play it safe, they decided to remove the upper right lung. This involved a lot of money. Maybe they were right, but I don’t think so. An incredible, painful nuisance. They cracked every rib in my body.
Landers with William Shatner (left) on Star Trek (“Turnabout Intruder,” the final episode, June 3, 1969)
Is that why you didn’t act much in the years immediately following the Star Trek episode? You kind of disappeared for a long time.
I just didn’t want to work. I don’t know why. I had a lot of money. In fact, I even turned down a lead opposite Shelley Winters in some movie she was doing. I always felt that once you reach a certain plateau, which I did, people always want you. What I didn’t realize was: out of sight, out of mind. All of a sudden it was like, who? what? So I just sort of disappeared. It was a period of eight, ten years where I didn’t work. I didn’t care. I don’t think I had an agent. I didn’t bother.
What were you doing during that period?
Collecting art, and selling art, which I do today. I’m a huge art collector.
What kind of art?
All kinds. I’m very good with antique art, old art. I know the Picasso, Chagall, Miro, Calder and all that stuff, but I’m partially colorblind, so I stay away from that. I buy antique art.
You mentioned that Jack Klugman was a friend. Is that why you appeared several times on Quincy?
Yes. I didn’t want to do them. Walking by Universal, going in and out, Jack saw me and he stopped. “Harry, get in here!” He said, “Please do one of the shows.” They were minor parts. I just did them to please him, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Finally, I guess we should talk about Taster’s Choice.
Out of the blue my agent called me: “They want you to do a commercial.” I said, “Okay, I’ve done a few commercials. Quite a few, in fact. What is it?” One of the sponsors’ wives saw me in one of the episodes of Ben Casey. I did the video version here, on tape: “Hi, my name is Harry Landers, and I drink Taster’s Choice coffee because it gives me diarrhea. Taster’s Choice coffee comes in small packets. It’s instant brewed coffee. It’s fucking delicious!” I do a lot of improvising. So, I did it, and then they flew me to Chicago to do the audio version. It was on the air so often, it got to the point where the disc jockeys would say, “Who the hell is Harry Landers?”
This interview was conducted in Sherman Oaks, California, on April 30, 2010. The image at the top is from The Untouchables (“Portrait of a Thief,” April 7, 1960). I’m not entirely clear on what this is, but it features Harry in a recent acting role.
May 21, 2011
Charles F. Haas, a prolific television and film director, died on May 12 at the age of 97.
Haas began his career at Universal in 1935, through nepotism; his stepfather was a friend of studio chief Carl Laemmle. He rose from the production office and the cutting room to become, after the war, a producer and a screenwriter. Haas directed ten B-movies in the late fifties, some of which – Girls Town, The Beat Generation, Platinum High School – are now remembered as minor camp classics. But if Haas, whom Mamie Van Doren once proclaimed the best director she ever had, has any standing among cinephiles, it probably resides on Moonrise, the one feature he wrote (and also produced). A dangerous, dreamy melodrama, Moonrise was directed by the presently fashionable auteur Frank Borzage, after Haas’s original choice, William Wellman, dropped out.
After Moonrise, Haas found himself eminently employable as a screenwriter, work that he hated, and insisted on making a transition into directing (for which there was far less demand). The night before he was to throw in the towel and accept a writing job, following a six-month drought, his agent came up with a debut directing job in industrial films. Haas moved quickly into television and directed much of Big Town, a newspaper drama produced by the low-budget indie outfit Gross-Krasne.
Crossing over to the majors, Haas worked regularly for Warner Bros. (on their carbon-copied westerns and detective shows) and Disney (on Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club, among others). Haas moved up to direct for a number of A-list dramatic series, including Route 66, The Dick Powell Show, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but on all of them he tended to move on after one or two episodes. That peripatetic pattern led me to wonder if he had trouble delivering an above-par product. But Haas claimed that he didn’t like to stay in one place for too long, and also blamed his unwillingness to court the friendship of production managers (especially at Revue, but also on Bonanza and other shows) as a reason why he sometimes wasn’t hired back. In any case, it remains difficult to discern an authorial style in most of Haas’s television work, although there are high points. In The American Vein, Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi describe Haas’s “Forecast: Low Clouds and Coastal Fog” as “one of the moodiest Hitchcock segments” I’m partial to “Cry of Silence,” the underrated “killer tumbleweed” episode of The Outer Limits, in which Haas conjured more tension and atmosphere than one would think possible on a soundstage facsimile of the nighttime desert.
When I interviewed Haas in 2007, he was 93 and retained a detailed memory. He told me wonderful stories about Borzage, John Ford, William Wyler, and other Hollywood giants, and discussed own his directing career. Never one to engage his actors in discussions of motivation and the like, Haas explained this theory of non-involvement with an example involving David Janssen, whose gifts he recognized:
In a picture at Universal [Showdown at Abilene], I had David Janssen. I had him with [Jock Mahoney], who . . . was basically a stuntman. Stunts were easy for him, but as an actor he lacked a certain energy. So I couldn’t afford to have David Janssen as his assistant, but he was under contract at Universal, and I had to [use] him. So I had him leaning against a door in every scene. He never understood why. The reason was, if I hadn’t had him leaning against a door in every scene that he was in, he would’ve outdone [Mahoney], who was the star. So it was a very indirect kind of thing. You have to keep in mind that these are all talented people, and what you want to do is furnish them with energy, not with your idea.
On The General Electric Theatre, Haas directed Ronald Reagan, and thought him rather strange:
It’s pretty hard to characterize Ron so that anybody can understand. He was very easy to work with. He was interesting and cooperative. We didn’t agree about anything, but we never fought about it. He was perfectly reasonable, but he was a total nut. Really. One time while they were lighting the set, he said to me, “Chuck, what do you think is the worst thing that ever happened to the United States?”
So I’m thinking and pondering, and I said, “Well, the Civil War.” He said no. “World War I?” No. I said, “Ronald, what?”
He said, “The graduated income tax.”
(Haas had another funny Reagan story, but I’m holding that one back until I have a place to publish the whole interview.)
Haas retired from directing in 1967, when he was only in his mid-fifties, and devoted much of his later life to overseeing the Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley that he had co-founded when his children were young.
April 22, 2011
“Sidney Lumet was wonderful. He does homework like no other director, and he is the warmest guy. Everybody was ‘my love,’ and ‘you gorgeous wonderful thing,’ and rehearsals were filled with kissing and hugging and wild exclamations of joy. Actors have never been more loved than when they were loved by Sidney Lumet.”
– Reginald Rose, in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961
He was supposed to last forever. His fraternal twin among the live television-era directors, Arthur Penn, was frail and mostly out of the limelight during his final decades; but Sidney Lumet kept making movies, and seemed to be everywhere. His last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, came only four years ago. A good one to go out on, it found new wrinkles in the worn-out caper genre (was that suburban mini-mall jewel heist the cinema’s first?), and reimagined faded ingenue Marisa Tomei as a fortysomething sex symbol and a sought-after actress.
More than that, Lumet was a boon to the film historian: modest, accessible, efficient, always willing to sit for an interview. No surprise that he turned out to be one of the subjects who sat for a video obituary for the New York Times. When he didn’t show for a widely publicized screening of 12 Angry Men introduced by Sonia Sotomayor last fall – the new Supreme Court justice has often cited Lumet’s debut film as an inspiration – I knew we were in trouble.
I’ve already written this next part so many times, in obituaries for Penn and for others, that I don’t want to belabor it again. But let’s lay it out before we plunge in: Lumet’s early career in television has been, and will continue to be, ignored, glossed over, or reported inaccurately in the tributes. The Times wrote that Lumet directed the live television version of 12 Angry Men as well as the film. But the former belonged to Franklin Schaffner, a fact that Lumet pointed out at every opportunity, and yet it took the paper of record eight days to notice and correct that.
Most of the shows themselves are locked away in the vaults or lost. We don’t even have a good list of them. The obits threw around a total of 200 live broadcasts (Lumet’s own estimate?) but at the moment the Internet Movie Database lists only about fifty. The on-line catalogs of the Paley Center and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and my own unpublished research, contribute a few more, but that still leaves the majority unidentified.
Rather than dwell on that, I want to take a close look at a few of Lumet’s live television dramas that are accounted for and extant. Since his death on April 9, I’ve been watching some of Lumet’s segments of the dramatic hour sponsored alternately by Goodyear (The Goodyear Playhouse) and Alcoa Aluminum (The Alcoa Hour); specifically, six of the twelve segments that Lumet directed for this umbrella anthology, a linear descendant of the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse (which yielded “Marty”), between the fall of 1955 and the spring of 1956. Lumet’s Goodyears and Alcoas were among his first hour-long dramas after a period of directing less prestigious (but no less formally challenging) half-hour genre shows. They were also his final works for television prior to stepping onto the set of 12 Angry Men in June 1956.
“Sidney didn’t like talking to the actors on the loudspeaker, so he would tear down the spiral staircase to the stage, talk to the actor, and tear back up the staircase. O. Tamburri, our TD [technical director], once said to me, ‘If Sidney does that a little faster, he’s gonna screw himself into the ceiling.’”
– Philip Barry, Jr., associate producer of The Alcoa Hour / The Goodyear Playhouse, in The Box
“The Mechanical Heart” (November 6, 1955), Lumet’s Goodyear Playhouse debut, is a prototypical mid-fifties anthology drama. It concerns a mid-level toy manufacturer, Steve Carter (Ralph Bellamy), who operates on a razor-thin margin and faces bankruptcy when a complicated three-way deal unravels. The only way he can see to survive is to steal the sole major client of a small-time competitor (Jack Warden), who considers him a friend. The script, by a minor writer named Alfred D. Geto, is an obvious knock-off of Rod Serling’s “Patterns”; it considers some of the same ethical dilemmas faced by corporate climbers in the postwar boom, but with little of Serling’s intensity or ambiguity.
Lumet’s chief contributions to “The Mechanical Heart” are to shape the performances, and then to avoid distracting from them with fancy cutting or camera movements. Many key scenes (like the one pictured below) play out in long takes with a stationary camera. Lumet’s self-effacing staging is not an absence of style, but an aesthetic choice not to foreground content over technique. At this point in their careers, Lumet’s approach can be placed at an opposite pole as that of John Frankenheimer, another live television wunderkind who was busy exploring the technical possibilities of the medium – unusual lenses, showy camera moves, rapid cuts – without always worrying whether the material justified them.
Prominent among the supporting cast of “The Mechanical Heart” are three of the future 12 Angry Men (two more than Schaffner’s version contained), and all of them – Edward Binns, Jack Klugman, and Warden – do terrific work. Viewers who remember Klugman from his hambone Quincy days, or even his full-throttle guest spots on The Twilight Zone and Naked City, just a few years after this piece, will be startled by his restraint in “The Mechanical Heart.” When Carter suggests a shady maneuver to Klugman’s character, the company accountant, he replies, “But Steve . . . I don’t know.” The obvious choice would be to inflect the line with uncertainty or unease, but Klugman offers it as a simple statement of fact: his character literally doesn’t know what his boss should do.
One can sense Lumet working with the actors to make intellectual, rather than instinctive, choices in interpreting the material. Warden’s habit of repeatedly wiping the back of his neck with his handkerchief is such a choice. The gesture conveys his character’s nervous, underdog status, and adds a bit of atmosphere – it’s hot and humid in those midtown offices in the summer – and of course Warden would reuse it in 12 Angry Men. A more ambiguous touch comes in a later scene in which Klugman’s character again questions Carter’s ethics. “What’s the matter, Greenfield?” Bellamy sneers, with an ugly emphasis on the man’s name, and Greenfield comes back with just, “Aww, Steve.” Klugman delivers that simple line with a note of weary disappointment, then moves into an uninflected recital of some financial details. The implication of anti-semitism probably wasn’t spelled out in the script and, indeed, Lumet is so constitutionally unsuited to beating any idea to death that one can’t be entirely certain it exists within the show, either.
Lumet’s second Goodyear show was a light comedic caper called “One Mummy Too Many” (November 20, 1956), with Tony Randall as an American air conditioner salesman in Egypt who stumbles into a mystery of stolen sarcophagi. Lumet probably had to take whatever script fell into his slots on this series, but the change of pace undoubtedly suited him, just as he would later take pains to avoid being pigeonholed in any particular cinematic genre. Referring to the 1968 black comedy Bye Bye Braverman (which I find hilarious, but which many, including Lumet, thought too heavy), Lumet said that he took a long time to figure out how to direct comedy, and didn’t succeed with it until Murder on the Orient Express. But “One Mummy,” which bears some tonal similarities to Lumet’s hit 1974 film, is an agreeable trifle in which the three stars – Randall, Eva Gabor, and Henry Jones – effectively pass the fun they seem to be having along to the audience.
Lumet experiments with formal strategies for creating humor in “One Mummy,” especially in his use of depth of field to convey to the audience a punchline to which the characters remain oblivious. In one scene, Gabor’s ingenue explains to Randall’s milquetoast hero that the theft of a crate will mean his certain demise; in the background, unseen by either of them, porters enter and remove the crate in question. Another bit of slapstick, constructed in the same way, can be encapsulated in a single frame requiring no caption.
“The Trees” (December 4, 1955) is a lesser entry in another quintessential genre of early live television, the tenement drama. It’s perfect for Lumet, whose films famously teemed with the eccentric street life of Manhattan. Jerome Ross’s sentimental story concerns a neighborhood effort to raise money to plant trees along a slum sidewalk, which is threatened by the actions of, among others, a young hoodlum (Sal Mineo) and a genteel older woman (Frances Starr) angling to sell out and move to the suburbs. Lumet again favors long takes, but this time with a more peripatetic camera, which roves back and forth between rival camps that group and regroup on opposite sides of the street. The primary challenge of 12 Angry Men would be choreographing the movements of the twelve actors within a confined space, and “The Trees” shows Lumet experimenting with ways to fill the frame with people, grouping and regrouping his large cast in clusters that emphasize the cramped nature of the urban setting.
“Man on Fire” (March 4, 1956) fumbles a good, topical idea through miscasting and an underdeveloped script (by the West Coast team of Malvin Wald and Jack Jacobs). It’s a proto-Kramer vs. Kramer, a study of a successful divorced man (Tom Ewell) who cracks up when he loses custody of his only son. The role called for a sensitive, versatile actor like Warden or Klugman or George Grizzard (another Lumet favorite, the star of his final Goodyear, “The Sentry”); instead, Lumet found himself saddled with Tom Ewell, an unlikely stage and film star thanks to the recent hit The Seven-Year Itch.
The inexpressive Ewell, whom Lumet had known but not necessarily admired at the Actors Studio (he relates an encounter with Ewell there in mildly derogatory terms in his Archive of American Television interview), is a sponge for all the free-floating self-pity in Wald’s and Jacobs’s treatment; in his hands a character who should have been sympathetic turns repellent. It’s the only wholly unsuccessful performance in any of the six Lumet shows discussed here – although, in general, Lumet seems to have responded to Alcoa/Goodyear’s habit of hiring Hollywood stars by turning his attention more to the supporting casts, comprised of actors he had used dozens of times on Danger or You Are There. (In “Man on Fire,” the one effective scene belongs to Patricia Barry, the wife of Alcoa/Goodyear’s associate producer. Usually a polished ingenue, Barry shows a vulnerable side that I had not seen before when as she gently fends off a sloppy pass by Ewell, who plays her boss. Barry’s character, a career girl, explains that she has several boyfriends, none of whom she loves, and supposes she’ll marry one of them because it’s what’s done. Lumet seems more engaged by this speech, and Barry’s wistful reading of it, than anything else in the show; as a director, he always picked his battles.)
Lumet had attended the Actors Studio briefly, but he detested Method affectations. If there is a single unifying element among his live television work, it is the consistent naturalism in the performance styles, down to the smallest bit parts. Any deviation from that principle tended to occur at the top. Lumet’s results with imported stars were mixed: a failure with Tom Ewell; a split decision on Ralph Bellamy, who tears into “The Mechanical Heart” with an atypical intensity but little nuance; and a stunning success with the ingeniously reteamed ’30s Warner Bros. contract players who headlined his next segment.
“His big theory, since most people had ten or twelve-inch sets, was close-up, close-up, close-up. I would argue with him a lot, because if everything’s going to be close-up, there’s no point of emphasis. When you really need it . . . you’ve used it up.”
– Sidney Lumet, referring to Alcoa/Goodyear producer Herbert Brodkin, in his Archive of American Television interview
“Doll Face” (March 18, 1956), set entirely in an Atlantic City hotel, concerns a faded beauty queen (Glenda Farrell) who returns to the current edition of the pageant that crowned her back in 1930. In tow are her surly adult daughter (Nancy Malone) and genial husband (Frank McHugh), who conveniently is vying for a promotion at a business conference held at the same hotel. This script, also by Jerome Ross, contains as many cliches as “The Trees,” but it offers greater emotional possibilities for Lumet to explore. Lumet tamps down his actors, per usual, and ensures that each of the three main characters – any one of whom could turn grotesque, as Ewell’s distraught dad does in “Man on Fire” – is recognizably human and sympathetic. In “Doll Face” Farrell is not restrained, but she also does not turn the title character into a caricature (as a more obvious casting choice, like Shirley Booth or Joan Blondell, might have). No one overacts in any of these early Lumet shows. In part that reflects Lumet’s skill in working with actors, but it is also a consequence of his formal choices. Farrell benefits enormously from Lumet’s theory of the close-up; when he finally deploys them at the climax, her character’s distress as she is made to see herself as others see her is quite moving.
In “Doll Face” Lumet repeats a composition from “One Mummy Too Many” almost exactly: a person leans into the foreground from the left, directing the viewer’s eye to action in the middle distance toward the center and right of the frame. In “One Mummy” the effect was comedic; here it is expository (the man at left pops in to shush loud revelers).
In the space of four months, Lumet’s playful use of depth of field in “One Mummy” has evolved into a powerful, coherent compositional strategy for “Doll Face.” In a careful ballet of performers and cameras, the three principals group and regroup themselves into three-dimensional tableaux, again and again, each time with a different actor occupying the foreground, middle, and background space. “Doll Face” is essentially a three-character family drama, and Lumet uses dimensionality to signify the shifting emotional dynamic between father, mother, and child. It is the same kind of conceptual – a skeptic might say schematic or overly intellectual – strategy that Lumet would later apply to his filmmaking, as with (to use Lumet’s own example from the Times video obit) the selection of a red building as a location in Prince of the City to presage, almost subliminally, a coming bloodletting.
Chronologically, I have skipped over “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” (February 19, 1956), which is both the most famous of the Alcoa/Goodyear hours and the most directorially accomplished of the Lumet efforts in this survey. Another civics lesson from Reginald Rose, “Town” is typically pedagogic in its argument but less compromised by censorship than most. Lumet would have brought his best to the table before he even opened the script, for it was he who had produced Rose’s first teleplay on Danger in 1951. In the five years hence, each had risen to the top ranks of his profession in the New York television world, and it would be Rose who would handpick Lumet to direct his screenplay for 12 Angry Men.
A heated study of mob violence in an itinerant, working-class community of dam builders and their families, “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” has little to say on the subject of lynching (spoiler alert: it’s bad) that wasn’t already covered in The Ox-Bow Incident. But when you parse Rose’s narrative as an allegory for McCarthyism, its sly cynicism and political courage become more evident. Just as American communism was an empty threat and HUAC a hysterical overcorrection, so respectively are the attack on a teenaged girl in “Town” (a man barely touches her shoulder before running off) and the hyperactive shantytown kangaroo court that forms in response. This penny ante inquisition is ridiculous on his face. The girl never saw her attacker’s face and heard him say only one syllable, so the doofus vigilantes require every male in camp to utter the word “Hey” and press the young woman to try to make an impossible identification. The poor girl (Betty Lou Keim) is more thoroughly victimized by her defenders than by her putative attacker.
Rose scores his other major rhetorical point in his depiction of the ostensible and none-too-subtly named hero Alec Beggs (Lloyd Bridges), who is scarcely better than his opposites. Beggs abstains from the mob shenanigans but also declines to stick up for the Puerto Rican family who are marked from the beginning as inevitable scapegoats. When Beggs finally screws up his courage to confront the mob and disperses them in shame, it’s only after they have achieved their bloody catharsis by beating the shit out of the innocent Puerto Rican boy (Rafael Campos) with a thick stick of firewood. Beggs’s ineffectual liberalism and hypocrisy point a finger at various players on different sides of the blacklist, and the provocative casting of Lloyd Bridges (a HUAC friendly witness) must have resonated with Lumet (a narrow escapee of the blacklist, compelled at one point to grovel before clearance thug Harvey Matusow). Lumet was too professional to have tormented Bridges with his informer status, but still one would love to know just how much of the script’s subtext was articulated between star and director.
“Town” finds Lumet at his most expressive and illustrates a movement toward a somewhat bolder compositional style. Many of his images here (above and below, for instance) are more painterly than anything attempted in “The Mechanical Heart” or “One Mummy Too Many.” Lumet orchestrates complex crowd scenes, photographing some with a bird’s-eye camera, all of which must have given Herbert Brodkin fits. The episode’s nighttime setting all but compelled Lumet toward dramatic extremes of light and shadow. Lumet illuminates the lynch mob finale in part with the actual headlights of the vigilantes’ automobiles. Earlier, amid the harsh blacks and whites, there is one moment where Lumet flouts half a dozen tenets of television lighting and achieves a backlit effect unlike anything I’ve observed in a kinescope (or even a filmed episode).
During his climactic speech (“you’re all pigs”), Bridges begins to demolish the scenery – literally – carrying his intensity beyond the level upon which he and Lumet had agreed during rehearsals. But Lumet has built the tension so effectively to this point that “Town” can withstand such a volcanic release. As in some of Lumet’s other Alcoa/Goodyears, the supporting cast appears to be working in a different register – more detailed, more restrained, consciously (even self-consciously) resisting obvious choices. At first I had a hard time figuring out why Milton Selzer, usually one of Lumet’s underplaying ringers, is so atypically twitchy in as one of the nastier vigilantes. Then it occurred to me that actor and director probably agreed that Selzer should play the character as a closeted or self-hating homosexual – something that’s not in the text at all, and only perceptible one screen if you’re looking for it. Jack Warden, quietly upstaging Bridges, plays the lynch mob leader with a maddening calm and a visible irritation towards the more voluble hotheads. There’s a moment where Warden’s character asserts his authority by placing a hand on Beggs’s chest; Bridges casually removes it and Warden barely reacts. The gesture tells volumes about both characters: they will not lose their cool over unimportant things.
“Town” offers the clearest examples of Lumet’s strategy of expressing concise ideas through concrete filmmaking choices. His control extends beyond acting and camera movement all the way down into costuming and sound design. One of my favorite elements in “Town” is the baggy black V-necked sweater that Warden wears; a good fit for Kim Novak’s Bell Book and Candle closet, it’s the absolute opposite of what you’d expect a redneck brute to be caught dead in. The earlier Alcoa-Goodyear segments are marred by cliched symphonic scores (by Glenn Osser, moonlighting as “Arthur Meisel”); in “Town” Lumet, weaned on Tony Mottola’s minimalist guitar scores for Danger, managed to banish Meisel and eschew almost all musical accompaniment. For much of “Town,” the only background noise is the ambient sound of crickets. The most powerful element of the final image, in which Beggs’s son carries off the maimed boy, is its utter silence.
Note Milton Selzer’s effeminate gesture (center), and Jack Warden’s sweater (right).
“People always think that the smaller a thing is, the simpler it is. It is quite the reverse.”
– Sidney Lumet, in a 1965 interview with Robin Bean
Like Lumet, John Frankenheimer released his first feature film in 1957. But The Young Stranger was a flop, and Frankenheimer retreated back to television to lick his wounds. Meanwhile, the thirty-three year-old Lumet collected an Oscar nominationand became a hot property in multiple media. He made three more movies before the end of the decade – but returned to television, as Frankenheimer had, whenever he wasn’t shooting one of them. He must have loved it enough to incur the slight risk that, even with the nomination, he’d be tainted as a television guy. Lumet got the prestige assignments, of course: back to work for Herbert Brodkin to fight over close-ups on Studio One and then Playhouse 90; literary adaptations for David Susskind on the retooled Kraft Theatre and then Play of the Week; a legendary two-part Reginald Rose teleplay about Sacco and Vanzetti. He stopped in 1960 with an adaptation of the stage version of Rashomon, and more importantly, a four-hour “Iceman Cometh” that recorded Jason Robards, Jr.’s legendary Off-Broadway performance and earned raves.
But the movies beckoned, and live television was a dying medium anyway. Like Frankenheimer, Lumet made his exeunt in 1960, bequeathing a final socially conscious script that he had developed with Reginald Rose, Play of the Week’s “Black Monday,” to Ralph Nelson. (I’m not counting the autumnal return for a few episodes of 100 Centre Street, even though I’m sort of curious about them.) The films remain underrated and many of them are overlooked – Lumet has yet to fully emerge from the ghetto of “Strained Seriousness” into which Andrew Sarris dumped him in The American Cinema back in 1968. The tendency to ignore, or damn with faint praise, directors who were catholic in their choice of material and mise-en-scene – Huston, Kazan, Lumet – persists. Along with, or more than, the established classics, I’m partial to That Kind of Woman, Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Deadly Affair, and Lovin’ Molly. Some of those are no less scarce than the television episodes I’ve written about here. Seek them out.
April 12, 2011
I’m surprised to see that, outside of a paid death notice in the Los Angeles Times and a post on the Archive of American Television’s Facebook page on Friday, no one has yet published an obituary for Gerald Perry Finnerman. Finnerman, who died on April 6, was the primary director of photography for Star Trek and then, two decades later, Moonlighting. In between came Night Gallery, The Bold Ones, Kojak, Police Woman, and a number of TV movies (he won an Emmy for 1978’s Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women).
Star Trek was Finnerman’s debut as a DP. Prior to his voyage on the Enterprise, Finnerman had been a camera operator for the legendary cinematographer Harry Stradling (Suspicion, Johnny Guitar, A Face in the Crowd, My Fair Lady), who personally recommended him to Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Finnerman had another mentor in the family: his the British-born Perry Finnerman, was also a director of photography who spent his last few years (he died in 1960) shooting episodes of Maverick, Lawman, and Adventures in Paradise.
It’s difficult to write about cinematographers without looking at the work again, but the imagery of the original Star Trek is certainly stamped on my brain. Idiots chortle over how the original Star Trek looks “dated” – they’ve even replaced the special effects with digital upgrades, which look cool but miss the point. But it’s precisely the look of Star Trek – the costume and set design, the makeup, the visual effects – that make Star Trek special, much more than the scripts or the utopian ideas of Gene Roddenberry. I love the bright colors and the strange shapes and spaces of the Star Trek world. The show’s budget meant that the Enterprise consisted of a lot of bare walls – and Finnerman wasn’t afraid to shine an orange or green or fuchsia lamp on them, for no particular reason.
On his website, the television director Ralph Senensky enumerates Finnerman’s technical skill far more precisely than I could. For the episode “Metamorphosis,” Senensky writes, “it was Jerry who decided the sky would be purple” on that week’s alien planet. Finnerman introduced Senensky to the now-ubiquitous 9mm “fisheye” lens, and Finnerman who came up with creative solutions (like an hanging a rock outcropping at the top of the frame) when the wide lens exposed the ceiling of Star Trek‘s small soundstage. Senensky describes Finnerman as a DP “who knew how to photograph women,” citing his closeups of Jill Ireland in “This Side of Paradise” (Finnerman backlit her with a baby spot, positioning it so precisely that Ireland couldn’t move off her mark without ruining the shot) and Diana Muldaur in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”
Both Senensky and Finnerman were victims of Star Trek‘s third-season regime change. Finnerman left to shoot a feature, The Lost Man (1969), after new Trek producer Fred Freiberger asked him to accept cuts in both his salary and lighting budget. His final association with Star Trek was tragic: Finnerman was badly injured in, but survived, a 1969 plane crash that killed television director Robert Sparr (Batman, The Wild Wild West). Sparr had worked with Jerry Finnerman on a Star Trek (“Shore Leave”) and with his father on Lawman.
Senensky and Finnerman worked together again on Search and the short-lived TV version of Planet of the Apes. In an e-mail to me today, Senensky paid Finnerman the ultimate compliment for a cinematographer: “He was not only good, he was fast.” Senensky added:
Jerry was a very kind guy. He was portly, and didn’t physically reflect the sensitivity that he possessed. On the set he was very quiet, no yelling and barking of orders. Like Billy Spencer [Senensky's DP on The F.B.I.] he got his lights set efficiently (and he set everything, not physically of course but by instruction) and almost effortlessly. He was great when it came to lighting closeups (which I think has become a lost art) ….
Ironically he was hired to do some newspaper series [Capital News] because of his great work on Moonlighting and that turned into a very unhappy experience for him. The producers constantly criticized his work for having too many shadows; they wanted flat toss it in lighting ….
Jerry loved cars. He had a station wagon to transport his dogs (he always had two) to the vets. But he also had a Mercedes, a Lamborghini and a Maserati.
I’ve been able to lay off the obit beat for a couple of months, but it was a sad weekend for television buffs. I’ll be back in a few days with some thoughts about Sidney Lumet, after I’ve had time to do what no one else who’s writing tributes to him will do: watch some of his live TV work.
March 28, 2011
UPDATE, 3/31/11: Since I posted this on Monday, it has been re-blogged by Missing Remote, Home Media Magazine, the Steve Hoffman Music Forums, and the Hacking Netflix blog. The last two links in particular contain a number of reader comments that are worth a look – and not just because the overwhelming majority echo my disappointment with Netflix’s dwindling selection of physical media. Unlike this space, some of those blogs are probably on the radar of Netflix’s management. Hopefully, some of the executive types there will get the message.
Thanks for your six years of valued patronage, and the several thousand dollars you’ve spent on our service. You, however, are now the kind of Luddite for whom we no longer have any use. You with your Blu-ray player and your fetish for things like comprehensive selection and image quality. Get lost, jerk. Take your business to Blockbuster (even though they suck far more than we ever could), or to your local brick-and-mortar store (even though we drove the last of those out of business long ago; oops!), or Amazon.com (although if you could afford to buy all those DVDs, you wouldn’t have needed us in the first place, would you?).
So have fun in the new world of streaming video, and don’t let the mailbox door hit you on your way out!
No, I didn’t actually receive that letter. But I might as well have. And if you’re both a Netflix subscriber and the kind of person who reads this blog, I’ll bet you’ve gotten the same message in one way or another.
What am I talking about? Just this: Within the last year or two, Netflix has quietly stopped purchasing the majority of new catalog titles that debut on home video.
As of this writing, Netflix still buys most Criterion DVDs, but not necessarily their Blu-rays or the vital box sets on their sub-label Eclipse. Almost every other independent label is shut out, and even the major studios’ catalog releases are often passed over.
As a way of taking stock, here are a few of the catalog DVDs singled out for attention so far this year by the New York Times’s home video columnist, Dave Kehr: Luchino Visconti’s Technicolor melodrama Senso (Criterion); Fellini’s I Clowns and the Fernando Di Leo Collection of Italian crime movies (Raro/Entertainment One); the twisted film noir classic The Prowler (VCI); a remastered trio of early Roger Corman sci-fi flicks including Not of This Earth and War of the Satellites (Shout Factory); and a Rita Hayworth set (Sony) including the DVD debuts of Miss Sadie Thompson and Salome.
How many of those films does Netflix carry? Not one of them.
One distributor, told by Netflix that they would acquire a film if an unspecified number of users “saved” it to their rental queues, started a successful Facebook campaign to force Netflix to stock one of its recent releases. But most old movies that come out on DVD don’t have a grass-roots organization to get Netflix’s attention.
(Netflix has since disclosed this policy publicly, although I haven’t seen it work in any other instance. If you’re reading this and you’re a Netflix customer, try “saving” some of the films I mentioned in the New York Times list above. Some of them, including The Prowler and the Corman titles, aren’t even in Netflix’s database with a “save” option.)
Blockbuster, my old arch-enemy, has actually distinguished itself by continuing to stock a lot of this new stuff. Even though its catalog was never very deep compared to Netflix’s, I’ve set up a rental queue on that site that currently contains about fifty discs that are unavailable from its red rival. So there it is: for the first time in twenty-five years as a home video consumer, I must endure Blockbuster.
Since this is a blog about classic TV, let’s get on topic and look at some of Netflix’s deficiencies in that department. The most recent DVD releases of The Rockford Files, The Fugitive, Leave It to Beaver, The Patty Duke Show, The Donna Reed Show, Route 66, The Lucy Show, and Vega$ are all unavailable. The Twilight Zone and recent seasons of C.S.I. are not rentable on Blu-ray, a format for which Netflix has lately developed a particular aversion. Nearly the whole catalog of Timeless Media, presently the most important independent label specializing in television, is unknown to Netflix. That means no Wagon Train, no The Virginian, no Johnny Staccato, no Arrest and Trial, no Soldiers of Fortune, no Coronado 9, and only a stingy helping of Checkmate.
Worst of all, earlier seasons of many popular series – Hawaii Five-O, Murder She Wrote, The Outer Limits, Father Knows Best – have disappeared recently, even though Netflix used to offer them. All of these shows are still in print, so the likelihood is that Netflix has chosen not to replace discs that get lost or damaged. And even though it’s not necessary, it appears that Netflix deletes an entire TV season as soon as just one disc from that set is depleted from its inventory. I suspect that what I’ve noticed is just the tip of the iceberg, and that unless Netflix reverses its policy of not replacing lost discs, we will soon see an epidemic of unavailable classics.
Availability Unknown: An unaltered screen grab of part of my Netflix queue as of March 23, 2011.
How can Netflix abandon DVDs when it is, or was, a disc rental business? Because of streaming video. In December, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that his management team was devoting 98% of its attention to streaming and only 2% on rental by mail. “Pretty soon, we’re going to be a streaming business that rents some DVDs,” said Hastings.
Watching movies over the internet is an inevitable future. Already, you can watch content on the internet that you can’t get on DVD. Later seasons of Have Gun Will Travel and Wagon Train suddenly popped up on Netflix last year, an unexpected bounty for fans accustomed to the agonizing pace of season-by-season DVD releases. For several years, the online video provider Hulu has offered The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which at Universal’s present rate of progress (in ten years they’ve managed only four out of seven seasons of the half-hour Hitchcock) won’t see a disc release until about 2020.
But the selection of films and TV shows that can be streamed via Netflix or any other online platform is dwarfed by the amount of material that exists on DVD – and Netflix already has a reputation of bulking up its streaming volume with junky public-domain fare. Netflix brags about how rapidly its streaming catalog is growing, but it makes no effort to match those acquisitions to its existing disc library. In other words, Netflix passes over films or allows them to drop out of the disc inventory before it acquires streaming licenses for the same films.
What’s even more problematic is that there are many more technical variables with streaming video, and few widely accepted technical standards. If you get a disc in the mail and there are no scratches on it, you’re good to go. But to stream a movie successfully, you need (a) an adequate supply of bandwidth from your ISP; (b) an adequate supply of bandwidth on Netflix’s end (apparently streaming video commonly loses quality or experiences interruptions during peak viewing periods); and (c) a good interface to port the digital content to your television (unless you are, to paraphrase David Lynch, one of those people who tries to watch movies on a telephone). Then there’s the issue of special features – deleted scenes, interviews, audio commentaries – created for DVDs. So far, when you “stream” a film, you don’t get any of them.
In terms of video masters, Netflix takes whatever it’s given. A recent deal with the supplier Epix, for instance, added a number of rare Paramount and MGM-owned films to the Netflix catalog. But while the MGM films were generally backed by pristine HD masters in the right aspect ratio (likely created for MGM’s high-definition cable channel), the Paramount offerings were almost all ancient, unwatchable transfers, cropped on the sides and/or digitally compressed to excess. In some cases (Jack Smight’s strange dark comedy No Way to Treat a Lady, for instance), a good, widescreen DVD is now out of print and has been superceded by a inferior full-frame streaming master. And Netflix, like the honey badger, don’t care.
As a pop culture historian, I often cross paths with nostalgists and collectors – people who feel a need to own, in a physical form, the media that holds meaning for them. So far these good folks have been leading the fight against streaming video. Unlike them, I don’t care whether or not all twelve seasons of Murder, She Wrote are sitting on my shelf. In fact, I would rather have an uncluttered home, with all of the TV shows I enjoy stored on a hard drive in some other city. But not – and this is the battle that we are in danger of losing – not if image quality is sacrificed for convenience, and not unless the extras that were on the disc remain available online.
Netflix, in devoting itself so slavishly to streaming technology, seems to think it can position itself at the iTunes of movies. I’m not so sure. I think Netflix is more likely to end up as the Vestron Video of the twenty-first century. Vestron, you’ll recall, was an independent label that thrived in the mid-eighties by licensing movies from the major studios and releasing them on VHS – until the studios realized that there was serious money to be made in videotape. Suddenly, no more Vestron. I don’t believe that the studios will ever license their most valuable content – the newest hits, the Academy Award winners, the current Nielsen champions – to Netflix for streaming. The big content owners will build their own platforms, separately or together, and leave Netflix out in the cold.
But that’s Netflix’s problem, not mine, and as yet I don’t really care who wins the streaming war. What does infuriate me is that Netflix is abandoning DVD before it should, and that it has not been honest with its customers in this regard. The once-mighty stream of DVD releases has slowed to a trickle now. Netflix could continue to stock every major disc release using only a fraction of the acquisitions budget that it once required. Instead its leadership chooses not to devote even those meager sums to physical media – sums that account for the margin between profit and loss for many small DVD companies that still fight the good fight to put out rare films and TV shows.
The disc will be dead on its own soon enough. Netflix should not be an accomplice to its murder.