Voices From the Studio

January 27, 2009

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One of the great things about Koch’s Studio One DVD set, which I wrote about last month, is its wealth of bonus material.  Several interviews and documentaries, of different lengths and formats, offer an intimate portrait of how the eleven-season anthology series was produced. 

If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that, out of these featurettes, only one – a brief 1987 interview with the director Paul Nickell – offers any information specific to the production of the Studio One segments in the DVD set.  This set me to wondering: would it be possible to supplement the ample DVD extras with some new stories about the seventeen episodes that many new viewers will now be discovering? 

So as I watched these Studio Ones, I contacted some of the surviving individuals whose names I recognized in the credits, and asked them what they remembered.  Here are some of their answers.

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Charles H. “Chiz” Schultz is a television and film producer of some renown; he produced The Judy Garland Show and one of the great American independent films, Ganja and Hess.  Schultz began his career in the mailroom at CBS, and after working as a production assistant on a couple of shows (including Mama), he was promoted to “assistant to the producer” on Studio One.  It was a job that included budgets, schedules, casting, or, as Schultz put it, “a little bit of everything.”

During the live telecasts, Schultz was stationed in the control booth and charged with timing the show using a stopwatch.  “My hands were always perspiring,” Schultz remembered.  “I would always have to be careful not to drop the watch, because the sweat just poured, out of nervousness.”  If the broadcast appeared to be running long or short, Schultz would relay this information to the director and a decision would be reached: trim a scene, revise the script on the spot, or instruct the actors to speed up or slow down their delivery.

If something went wrong on the stage, Schultz and the others in the booth would look on helplessly.  “An actor would just blow his lines,” he recalled.  “Some of them would just go up.  There was just this stillness in the control room, hoping that another actor would jump in.  Which they always did.  They were always terrific professionals.”

Schultz worked on Studio One in 1955 and 1956, during the tenure of Felix Jackson, the anthology’s most talented producer.  Schultz greatly admired Jackson, an early mentor, as well as Florence Britton, the story editor who was essential to Jackson’s success. 

“Both she and Felix had a terrific story sense,” Schultz recalled.  “Florence was a great character, right out of the twenties.  She was a blonde and had a dutchboy haircut.  She always, at her desk, wore this incredibly large, wide-brimmed hat, and had a cigarette holder.  I was just in awe.  As a kid from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I had never seen anything like her.”

Schultz praised Felix Jackson’s strength as a producer, particularly when he clashed with the blacklist.  Schultz recalled:

After I had been working at Studio One for a while, I was in the casting director, Jim Merrick’s, office, and he said, “I want to show you something.”  And he opened up the bottom right drawer of his desk and there was a telephone in there.  I said, “What the hell’s that?” 

He said, “Every time we get ready to cast Studio One, I have to pick up the phone, and I just push zero, or dial zero, and I hear a woman’s voice say, ‘Read the names.’  And I read her all of the names of the people that we’re about to cast, and after each name she either says yes or no.”  No one knew who was at the end of the phone.  And it was just a horror show.

There was a wonderful actress-dancer named Valerie Bettis, and we cast her in a show.  It was announced.  And we got this frantic call saying that we had to immediately get rid of her.  She was listed, she was obviously a communist.  All of this was crap.  It wasn’t true. 

Felix was so upset, and he wanted to clear her name.  So what he did was, he called the head of CBS and he said, “Oh, I’ve made a terrible mistake.  I cast a woman and I’ve just found out that she’s on the Red Channels list.  So I’ve just called a press conference and I’m going to let all the reporters know that Red Channels has blacklisted her.” 

The head of CBS said, “No, no, for Chrissake, don’t do anything like that.  Nobody knows there’s a Red Channels!  Go ahead, put her in, put her in, and we’ll take care of it.” 

So Valerie Bettis appeared on Studio One, and her name was cleared from that point on.  Felix tried to do that in every way he could.  He was passionate about justice.

Though Schultz’s duties never brought him in close proximity to Studio One‘s writers, he did get to know the show’s primary alternating directors well. 

“Frank Schaffner always dressed in a suit and vest, ramrod straight, almost like an army general.  Like Patton, in a way.  Very stern,” Schultz said. 

“But he had a crazy, wonderful sense of humor.  I had been there maybe three weeks when he came into my office, he didn’t say a word, he walked up to me, reached out, took my tie, pulled out scissors, and just cut it in half.  And walked out of the room.  That was Frank.  You never knew what to expect.”

Schaffner went on to become an Academy Award-winning movie director, not only of Patton, but also of The Best Man, Planet of the Apes, and Papillon.  Paul Nickell, by contrast, fell into obscurity following his Studio One decade.  Nickell had a minor career as an episodic television director (Ben Casey, Sam Benedict) before moving into academia.

“Paul Nickell was a very nice man,” Schultz told me.  “I never knew Paul too well.  I always had a feeling he was sort of out of the loop in a funny way.  A very quiet person, and I think he had his own personal problems.” 

Schultz pointed out the intriguing fact that Schaffner and Nickell divided the Studio One scripts in a way that matched their personalities.  Nickell “went for the love stories, softer stuff.  He was kind of a soft person himself.” 

Schaffner, on the other hand, “was wonderful with war stories.  Men’s stories,” said Schultz.  “He never wanted to do a love story, he never wanted to do a comedy.  He wanted to do serious dramas, and particularly with a male cast.”  Indeed, while Nickell and Schaffner split Reginald Rose’s many Studio One plays, all of the Rod Serling segments were directed by Schaffner.

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It’s a bit harder to find actors who remember single performances they gave more than a half-century ago.  It might seem that a live broadcast would so jangle the nerves that the memory would be retained forever – but then, some actors appeared in scores or even hundreds of live shows.  And perhaps the most terrifying ordeals before the live cameras tended to blank out memories instead.

Helen Auerbach was the ingenue in “Dark Possession,” the bright young woman who initiates some amateur sleuthing into the identity of a blackmailer who seems to be tormenting her older sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald).  Auerbach didn’t remember anything about “Dark Possession” – not even after I told her about the new DVD collection, and she watched the show again. 

“That’s the kind of part I got,” Auerbach said of her “Dark Possession” character.  “I was thin and sort of wimpy, and I generally got what we called at the time ‘second sad’ parts.”  That was “second” as in second lead, or second-billed: never the juiciest role in the script.

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Helen Auerbach in “Dark Possession”

Auerbach, who gave up acting professionally after she moved to Europe with her family in 1961, did remember that she had appeared opposite her “Dark Possession” leading man, Leslie Nielsen, in another Studio One from two years earlier, “The Hospital.” 

Even more than Nielsen, Auerbach remembered the director of both those shows, Franklin Schaffner.  “He was absolutely the most stunning guy, and very, very nice.  He was gorgeous, with his beautiful leather jackets,” Auerbach said. 

Method-actor leather jackets, like Brando in The Wild One, I wondered?  “No,” Auerbach explained, “Very soft, like suede.  Pale-colored suede, like a shirt, almost.  He seemed to wear that a lot.  And as far as being a good director, I couldn’t possibly know whether he was or not, I was so young!”

Auerbach also described her technique for avoiding those nerves that plagued live television actors.  “The most curious thing about it that I keep remembering is putting a couple of chairs together backstage, and going to sleep,” she explained.  “Somehow it was the way I controlled being nervous: I used to take a nap very shortly before we went on air.”

“In subsequent acting things, the very idea of that is so astonishing, because the nerves just got worse and worse.”

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Chester Morris and Frances Sternhagen in “The Arena”

Frances Sternhagen became famous well past middle age, for her roles as Cliff Claven’s possessive mother on Cheers, and John Carter’s patrician grandmother on ER.  But she was only in her mid-twenties when she appeared on Studio One, as a no-nonsense, seen-it-all Washington secretary in Rod Serling’s “The Arena.”

For Sternhagen, “The Arena” was an instance a particular actor’s nightmare: missing a call.  “I was about two hours late for the shooting,” she told me.  “I was pregnant and I was sick, and my husband had thought that I needed to sleep and had turned off the alarm.”

The stagehands dressed Sternhagen “as quickly as they could” and she made it onto the air without missing a cue.  “But I was so mortified that I couldn’t even apologize to Frank Schaffner, and of course he didn’t speak to me,” Sternhagen recalled.  “I wrote him a letter after it was over and never heard anything.  But I thought, ‘Oh, that’s probably why I haven’t gotten another job from Frank Schaffner.'”

Sternhagen recalled her co-stars, Wendell Corey and Chester Morris, as old hands, swapping stories at the table where the actors read and rehearsed the script.  “They were very kind when I finally arrived,” she added.

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When a live TV broadcast ran longer than it was timed in rehearsals, one thing that often got sacrificed was the closing credits.  (Conversely, if an end credit roll lasts for four minutes, it’s safe to guess that the show ran short.)  Rod Serling’s “The Strike” was such a show, but fortunately the DVD liner notes include a long list of supporting actors – some of them very familiar faces – to fill in for the missing screen credits.

One of those supporting players was Cy Chermak.  Then a young New York actor struggling to make a living, Chermak would soon turn to writing and then producing.  At Universal in the late sixties, he oversaw a succession of hit shows, including The Virginian, Ironside, and The Bold Ones.  Later Chermak was the show-runner of CHiPs for most of its lengthy run.

In “The Strike,” Chermak plays one of several radio operators in the stranded platoon commanded by James Daly’s Major Gaylord.  “It was a nice part,” Chermak recalled in an e-mail.  “I worked the radio with an actor named Fred Scollay.  I pretty much keep repeating the same lines over and over as I was trying to contact another unit.”  Tasked with contacting the unit’s out-of-range headquarters, Chermak’s radio man repeats a call sign that becomes a sort of nerve-wracking chorus as tension in the icy cave mounts.  One of Rod Serling’s biographers, Gordon F. Sander, singled out Chermak’s refrain – “Razor Red, this is Razor Blue CP, come in, Razor Red” – as the most effective detail in “The Strike,” a device that drew upon Serling’s use of “aural details” during his radio writing days.

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Cy Chermak (left), James Daly, and Fred J. Scollay in “The Strike”

Like Chiz Schultz, Chermak recalled the physical effects of the stress of performing live.  “The final camera shot [in "The Strike"] was a close-up of me as the camera moved in,” he recalled.  “As it did I got nervous and developed a tic in my face.” 

After the broadcast, the director, Franklin Schaffner, told Chermak that he loved this touch.  Schaffner had assumed that the young actor’s tic was a clever improvisation rather than an involuntary spasm.

“The Strike” wasn’t the first time that Studio One had cast Chermak (who had in fact served in the army, as a drill instructor, from 1951-1953) in the specialized role of a battlefield technician.  Six months earlier, also for Schaffner, he had appeared in the famous 1953 segment “Dry Run,” with Walter Matthau as a submarine commander, a show for which the entire studio was flooded.  “I played a bow planesman,” Chermak wrote.  “Simply repeated commands given me like, ‘Up ten degrees,’ and ‘Dive, dive, dive!'”

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“If you’re talking about Studio One, my goodness, that was one of the benchmarks of the drama series of television,” said Kim Swados, who alternated as the series’ set designer from 1952 until about 1954.  Swados, assigned to director Paul Nickell’s unit, worked on every other show.  Willard Levitas, whom Swados praised as “a brilliant designer,” created the sets for Franklin Schaffner’s segments.

According to Swados, the two-week process of creating an entire set for a show began with a reading of the script, then consultations with Felix Jackson and Nickell.  Once the producer and director approved of his ideas, Swados said, “my responsibility was to draw them up and get an okay on the budget and from the director, and then supervise them in the shop and then the setup.”  The stage crew erected the sets on Saturday, and Swados remained on hand to make changes during Sunday’s technical and dress rehearsals.  During the broadcast, Swados often watched from the control booth, seated behind the director.  

“We never had any sets fall down, thank goodness, but sometimes a door would stick,” Swados said of the on-air gaffes that made live television an adventure.  A more common mishap, he recalled, would be a camera failure, which would require the director to change his original plan and cut to one of the two other cameras while the third cameraman worked frantically to repair his machine.

Among the shows he designed, Swados’ favorites included period pieces with a continental flavor starring Michele Morgan (1953’s “Silent the Song”) and Claude Dauphin (1954’s “Cardinal Mindszenty”).  For the Morgan segment, Swados created an all-white set and outfitted the actors in white gloves, so that they appeared as disembodied figures against his backdrop.

But Swados’ sharpest memories were of the Studio One superproduction, also cited by Paul Nickell (in the DVD interview) as a turning point for both the series and his own career: the September 1953 adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984.” 

“It’s the one I am very proud of,” Swados told me.  “It was done as a stark, documentary-like, very frightening attempt to explore the anxiety that Mr. Orwell had about fascism and about how terrible it was to [live in] that kind of evil society.”  Swados added that

One of the big problems that we had was with Big Brother.  I was asked to design a poster for him, which I did, and they had a marvelous idea, the director, Paul Nickell.  We made twenty or thirty copies of the poster that I had done in charcoal, with “Big Brother Is Watching You.”  They were used as cards or shields, very much like what Hitler did with the swastika.  It was quite frightening and unnatural when you saw ten or fifteen or twenty of these things in confrontation. 

I remember that the worst thing that a person was frightened of, which is taken of course from the text of the book, was a door that had 101 on it.  That was the door that you were sent through to confront the worst fear of your life.  We had a big discussion about what the door should look like.

Swados went on to become the art director on The Deer Hunter and The Amityville Horror, as well as the television series Dallas.  A production injury left him disabled and forced him to retire in the mid-eighties.

Now living in Kansas, Swados looks back on his live television days with unbridled fondness.  “It was a brand new discipline, where nobody really knew what was right to do and what wasn’t right to do,” he told me.  “That was indeed the age of what was referred to as golden days of television.”

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Kim Swados’ Big Brother sketches surround Eddie Albert in “1984”

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Thanks to David Kalat, Stuart Galbraith IV, Frank Marth, and of course to the individuals interviewed for this piece.  For more stories from Chiz Schultz (and from Kim Swados’ counterpart, the late Willard Levitas, among others), take a look at the most essential of the interview segments on the Koch DVD, a ninety-minute recording of a Museum of Broadcasting panel discussion on Studio One.

Studio One

December 6, 2008

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Studio One occupies so much real estate in the history of television that it’s difficult to know how to even begin to survey it.  A dramatic anthology, especially a long-running one, is like the proverbial elephant: every piece of it you lay a hand on is different from any other.  Studio One broadcast nearly five hundred shows over ten seasons, from 1948 to 1958, and inevitably it ran the full technological and creative gamut of live television.

That’s why Koch Vision’s exceptionally well curated Studio One Anthology is so valuable.  The seventeen shows in this expensive but essential DVD collection give viewers a far better sense of the achievements and the limitations specific to Studio One than any written account of the series could. 

Up to now, many of the Studio Ones that have circulated in private collections and public domain video releases came from what I think of as the show’s least interesting period – the early years in which almost every teleplay was an adaptation of a work from some other medium.  The emblematic Studio One segment among many TV fans is, I fear, a deadly dull Cliff Notes cut-down of The Taming of the Shrew or Wuthering Heights starring a stiff Charlton Heston (the only member of the show’s initial repertory to become a major star). 

The Studio One Anthology includes a handful of these early works, which, like the Victorian “tradition of quality” films from the earliest days of cinema, seemed intent on proving that, yes, television could acquit itself respectably with Shakespeare or Hawthorne or Henry James.  Heston’s Heathcliff is here, alongside an opera (“The Medium”), an Easter “Pontius Pilate” from 1952, and the last of Studio One‘s three stagings of “Julius Caesar.” 

But the DVD set focuses primarily on what the so-called Golden Age of television did best: the original, personal dramas by young writers who were looking for ways to introduce contemporary concerns into the new medium.  There are two episodes apiece by Rod Serling and Gore Vidal.  Reginald Rose, the only important live TV playwright who was chiefly associated with Studio One, is properly represented by a whopping five shows. 

A great deal has been written about cultural milestones like Serling’s “The Arena” and Rose’s Emmy-winning “Twelve Angry Men” (thought lost until a full kinescope was discovered in a private collection in 2003), but until now they have been impossible to see outside of museums.  The Studio One Anthology may well be the classic television event of the year.

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From the moment it debuted on CBS in 1948, Studio One was awarded the status of an instant classic.  The Kraft Television Theater, the first regular hour-long dramatic anthology, had begun a season earlier, but it was not regarded as highly.  Delbert Mann, one of the great live TV directors, once rated the most prestigious live anthologies from an insider’s point of view:

Of the live shows, Philco and Studio One were considered to be the class acts.  When Robert Montgomery [Presents] went on the air, it joined that group.  Kraft was not in that group, with the exception of a few shows.  The Alcoa Hour and Pulitzer Prize Playhouse did quality shows, but they didn’t last long.  Playhouse 90 came later.  Hallmark was the class of the class, but they were not on a weekly basis.

Studio One‘s initial producer was Worthington H. “Tony” Miner.  Miner, who also wrote and directed many early segments, was a sort of D. W. Griffith figure who expanded the possibilities of a potentially static medium.  Miner defined a lot of the basic grammar of live TV.  He broke the proscenium arch by utilizing sets with moveable walls that could conceal the cameras, allowing for complex movements and cinematic angles.  Miner figured out that cleverly timed voiceovers and costume changes would permit flashbacks and other sleight of hand.  He looked for ways to defy the basic spatial limitations of the live drama; famously, in 1950, he turned Studio One‘s stage into a gigantic water tank for the submarine drama “The Last Cruise.”   Franklin Schaffner, one of the show’s most prolific directors, said that

. . . what made Studio One an attraction was the sense of adventure that Tony Miner brought to that show in terms of challenging the limitations of doing television programs live inside a studio.  His insistence on exploring the possibilities for staging in terms of depth made Studio One markedly different from Philco, The U.S. Steel Hour, and Kraft.  Everything that I know visually came out of that experience with Tony Miner.

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Without disputing the accuracy and importance of any of that, I want to take away some of the credit that historians have conveyed upon Miner and award it instead to his most important successor, Felix Jackson.  Jackson took the reigns of Studio One fifteen months after Miner’s departure in spring 1952 (due to a contract dispute with CBS, according to Larry James Gianakos’ helpful DVD liner notes).

A German screenwriter who fled the Nazis during the thirties, Jackson became a Hollywood producer, chiefly at Universal Pictures, where he made seven Deanna Durbin musicals – and then married his star.  Eventually Jackson’s Hollywood career, and his union with Durbin, derailed and in the fall of 1953 he began a three-year stint as the producer of Studio One, overseeing what I believe is the anthology’s most fertile period. 

In the year and a half between Miner’s departure and Jackson’s arrival, a succession of at least five different producers rotated at the helm; the most important were Donald Davis and his wife Dorothy Mathews, and Fletcher Markle, who had originated the radio version of Studio One in 1947.  It was during this fallow period at Studio One that Fred Coe, the producer of the Philco Television Playhouse, achieved the major breakthrough in terms of commissioning original material for live anthologies.  Paddy Chayefsky and Horton Foote both wrote their first teleplays for Philco during those seventeen months, and on May 24, 1953, the Philco telecast of “Marty” turned the tide irrevocably toward the “kitchen sink.”

Jackson understood this.  He and the CBS staffer who became his story editor, a colorful former movie actress named Florence Britton, raided Philco and Kraft for fresh material by star writers like Tad Mosel, Alvin Sapinsley, and A. J. Russell.  They groomed young discoveries of their own (among them Frank D. Gilroy and Paul Monash), and promoted some Studio One standbys, including Reginald Rose, from adaptations to originals.  Jackson may have been following the trend rather than setting it, but the results were impressive. 

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Sandy Kenyon in “An Almanac of Liberty”

The biggest question surrounding the Studio One Anthology may be what modern audiences will make of Studio One‘s behind-the-typewriter star, Reginald Rose.  I suspect he might be a hard sell.

Horton Foote and Paddy Chayefsky wrote from the heart; their plays are character-driven and emotional, and as such timeless.  Reginald Rose wrote from the head: almost everything was an allegory, an intellectual idea or a political point, fictionalized once over lightly.  The pitfalls of stridency and pedagogy loomed, and Rose was not always so nimble as to avoid them.

“In a way, almost everything I wrote in the fifties was about McCarthy,” Rose once said.  Indeed.  The key Rose segments here are his first original, “The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners,” and “An Almanac of Liberty,” studies of intolerance similar enough to one another to invite questions of self-plagiarism.  They are almost Marxist in their decentralization of authority.  Neither has a single protagonist; they divide their focus instead among large ensembles of small-town archetypes.  Both utilize the narrative device of the mock trial.  “Carson Corners” has schoolchildren and then their parents crucifying a janitor for a boy’s fatal fall from a damaged staircase, only to realize that the culpability was collective.  “Almanac,” ostensibly based on a nonfiction book of the same name by then-supreme court justice William O. Douglas, but in fact an original work synergized for cross-promotion, is a study of scapegoating.  Citizens at a town meeting righteously parse the causes of an outsider’s savage beating, finally discerning that the ugliness of a few lies within all.

These democracy-in-action impulses came to an apex in “Twelve Angry Men,” that oft-remade, multi-media civics lesson that remains Rose’s epitaph.  At only an hour, and with colorless Robert Cummings rather than magisterial Henry Fonda as the instigator of dissent, the television version plays more as a group dialectic on jurisprudence than as a lone hero’s courageous stand against the mob. 

It’s hard for me to separate my reactions to “Twelve Angry Men”‘s Studio One blueprint from my admiration for Sidney Lumet’s film of three years later.  More often than not big-screen treatment diluted the impact of live TV material (see Marty or The Days of Wine and Roses), but I think Rose’s screenplay enriched his original considerably.  With an extra half hour, everyone gets a fair share of the spotlight.  It’s a shock to realize that some of the feature’s more vivid jurors – mainly Robert Webber’s fatuous ad man (“Throw it on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up!”), a cherished figure of Rosean ridicule – are mere placeholders in the original.

Whatever their flaws, these shows illustrate Rose’s conviction that rationalism and communication can affect positive change.  That sounds dry, but in each of these three plays there is emotional catharsis when Rose’s characters reach common ground at the conclusion.  The problem is that Rose seemed unable to move beyond this representational mode.  The samples here of his non-allegorical work – that is to say, Rose’s more ostensibly character-driven shows – are fairly disastrous. 

“Dino,” an earnest take on the juvenile delinquency problem with nuanced performances from Sal Mineo and an atypically restrained Ralph Meeker, languishes in self-congratulatory liberalism.  “The Death and Life of Larry Benson” builds to a second-act shocker: a quintessential mid-American family anticipates the return of its veteran son, only to be greeted at the train station by a stranger.  It’s Rose’s most intimate early work, and yet his coldest.  Pseudo-Larry and his would-be family have no inner lives; they exist only to illustrate a half-baked yin-yang conceit that one man’s life is as good as another.  Had Rose articulated his idea more clearly, it might have offended someone. 

It may be fair to say that Rose did not find his voice until The Defenders, which liberated him from both allegory and interiority.  The legal procedural format enabled Rose to retire his mock trials and orchestrate real ones.  Here was a venue wherein his characters had to articulate their feelings, or die.

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Strip the credits off “An Almanac of Liberty” and you’d guess it was a Rod Serling work, because it deploys The Twilight Zone‘s raison d’etre of couching social critique within science fiction.  “Almanac” incorporates an explicitly paranormal event, an unexplained stoppage of time – wristwatches quit working and people outside the town hall freeze in their tracks – and it’s implied that the victimized stranger (Sandy Kenyon) may be an alien, or a Christ figure, sent to test the mettle of the human race.  Rose’s very first teleplay, “The Bus to Nowhere” (for Out There), was also science fiction, but he doesn’t seem terribly engaged by the elements of fantasy in “Almanac”; they’re scalpels on his surgeon’s tray.  Recall that Serling was around and paying attention – he was fond enough of one of Rose’s Studio Ones (“The Incredible World of Horace Ford”) to have it filmed for The Twilight Zone – and it becomes reasonable to think of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Eye of the Beholder” as touchdowns scored with a ball that Rose tossed to him.

Though Rod Serling wrote his most important teleplays for other anthologies (mainly Kraft, U. S. Steel, and Playhouse 90), even minor Serling compels attention.  The two shows on display here bookend “Patterns,” the 1955 Kraft that put Serling on the map, but it’s the earlier of the two that is the most successful.  “The Strike” is a Korean War drama about an outwardly tough officer who crumbles when he realizes that the only way to save his platoon is to order an airstrike that will wipe out a small patrol of his own men.  Major Gaylord is a classic Serling white-knuckle character, a nervous man in a snowy Korean pass, and his utter collapse into self-doubt and then self-pity is mesmerizing. 

James Daly, as Gaylord, offers the DVD set’s quintessential live TV performance.  Acting for live television combined the trickiest elements of theater and film – a performer had to deliver a fully realized characterization in real time, but scaled down for the camera that was often only inches from his or her face.  There are many good actors in the casts of these seventeen Studio Ones, but watch Daly: he’s one of the few whose performance is as precisely modulated as anything he ever did for a film camera.

“The Strike”‘s finale, its Solomonic dilemma a foregone conclusion, is a bit too schematic, and it will seem heavy-handed and academic to anyone who has seen Sam Fuller’s unsentimental combat films.  Putting the young Serling up against Fuller may be unfair (even though Serling was a combat veteran, too), but the comparison comes naturally in that “The Strike” bears a strong physical resemblance to Fuller’s early masterpiece Fixed Bayonets!  That film, also a study of wartime cowardice, occupies a similarly claustrophobic setting, a wintry mountain cavern and the ridge immediately outside of it.  I can’t imagine that someone – Serling, director Franklin Schaffner, or the production designer – didn’t recall the Fuller film while putting “The Strike” together.

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James Daly and Roy Roberts in “The Strike”

The second Serling episode, “The Arena,” takes the U.S. Congress as its setting, but the political trappings are window dressing for an Oedipal drama of a freshman senator (Wendell Corey, too old for the role) finally stepping out of his domineering, monstrous father’s shadow.  I can’t help but think of it as a poor man’s predecessor to Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, the play and later film (directed by Studio One‘s Schaffner) that offered a less naive vision of the professional ethics of politicians.

Vidal may be the major discovery of the Studio One Anthology.  Vidal was the last of the major TV playwrights to emerge; he turned from a stalled career as a novelist to the live anthologies in 1954, after “Marty,” and his work received considerable attention as the trade papers and the mainstream press wondered who would be the next Paddy Chayefsky.  As with Serling, Vidal’s best-known TV plays – “Visit to a Small Planet” and “The Death of Billy the Kid,” later filmed as The Left-Handed Gun – aired elsewhere, but the two Studio One originals on display here offer ample evidence of the then twentysomething Vidal’s talent. 

“Dark Possession,” skillfully evoking a frosty turn-of-the-century setting, begins as a melodrama of emotional repression and, with the entry of handsome doctor-turned-amateur sleuth Leslie Nielsen, morphs nimbly into a sort of medical mystery.  “Summer Pavilion,” a contemporary story that Vidal writes was “based pretty much on my own life and times,” also nails its milieu in a few brush strokes, a changing New Orleans in which Southern aristocrats are being literally bulldozed by progress. 

I have to wonder what Vidal, a cousin of Al Gore, meant exactly by that tantalizing remark: is the manipulative matriarch who makes a last futile stand against change, essayed to perfection by fading movie star Miriam Hopkins, a figure from his family history?  Or is the touching story of love blooming between Southern belle (radiant Elizabeth Montgomery) and Yankee (wooden Charles Drake) a bit of gender-switched autobiography, a plea for the pursuit of romance in defiance of convention?  In any case, though there’s no kitchen sink in sight, “Summer Pavilion” is the DVD set’s most emblematic example of live television, a delicate flower that would have crumbled had it been projected onto a sixty-foot screen or bellowed from a Broadway stage.

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Miriam Hopkins in “Summer Pavilion”

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There are other riches here that I hardly have room for: “June Moon,” the highlight of the five Miner-produced episodes, a sprightly comedy starring the barely-out-of-diapers Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint; Felix Jackson’s battering-down-the-door debut, a sweeping adaptation of “1984” that was the basis for the 1956 film; and “Confessions of a Nervous Man,” a twisty, self-reflexive, hilarious bit of self-promotion in which newly lauded playwright George Axelrod (played both by himself and by Art Carney) demonstrates exactly how his smash Broadway hit, The Seven-Year Itch, has ruined his life.  Even more than “Twelve Angry Men,” this is the DVD collection’s prize for cinephiles, because “Confessions” is loaded with the same brand of fast-paced, cartoon-styled humor and cynical, up-to-the-minute media satire that made the extraordinary Frank Tashlin film of Axelrod’s next play, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, one of the best American (and one of the most American) movies of the fifties.

It goes without saying that further volumes of Studio One DVDs would be welcome.  Curiously, in the liner notes, Larry James Gianakos takes care to list the insignificant interim Studio One producers who came after Worthington Miner, but he omits the men who followed Felix Jackson’s departure in 1956.  The first of them, Robert Herridge, was a champion of quality television so far ahead of his time that he worked mainly in the dead zone of non-commercial Sunday programming offered to keep the FCC off the networks’ back.  As a substitute producer during the 1956 summer edition of Studio One, Herridge did some of his best (or at least most mainstream) work. 

During the final two seasons, other notable names took a turn at the helm: Gordon Duff, who had succeeded Fred Coe on Philco; Norman Felton, later executive producer of Dr. Kildare and The Man From UNCLE; and Herbert Brodkin.  Brodkin, of course, was the man who teamed with Reginald Rose to produce The Defenders, a show that had its origins in one of the most famous Studio Ones, Rose’s two-part “The Defender,” with William Shatner and Steve McQueen.  “The Defender” is available on DVD (although not in the Koch collection), but few of the other Studio Ones from the final two seasons – during which the show reached its technical peak, and moved from New York to CBS’s Television City facility in Los Angeles – have been seen since their initial transmission.  I suspect there’s an unmined vein of the Golden Age there, and I hope Koch has the commitment to tap it.

Endnotes: The Franklin Schaffner quote is from The Days of Live, Ira Skutch, ed. (Scarecrow, 1998), page 50; the Delbert Mann and Reginald Rose quotes are from Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box (Penguin, 1995), pages 235 and 238, respectively; the Gore Vidal quote is from a short essay by Vidal in the Studio One Anthology liner notes.

Stay tuned for more Studio One coverage later this month, featuring comments from some of the series’ surviving participants.

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