Back in the Saddle

October 17, 2012

Lined up on the shelves of the library where I work are a number of television Westerns from Timeless Media, discs that I haven’t purchased (yet) and that Netflix doesn’t carry.  Recently I got around to taking home a stack of episodes from the first through the third seasons of Wagon Train, where I still have a lot of gaps.

Everything I’ve written about Wagon Train so far has been pretty critical.  I was mixed on the rejuvenated seventh season, which expanded to ninety minutes and went to color, and I also mocked the laziness of some of the episodes immediately preceding that change.  But a random survey of a dozen or so early segments reveals a better, cannier show.  Wagon Train doesn’t rank among the best television Westerns, but it can fill up an oppressive August weekend quite effectively.  What better actor to turn to than Ward Bond, with his grating, unmodulated donkey-bellow, to make himself heard over the full blast of my air conditioner?

Wagon Train started with a premise that was extremely well-designed, as simple and sturdy as a Conestoga.  It had two lead characters, Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond) and Flint McCullough (Robert Horton), each of whom could serve as the center of a story or step into the background whenever the guest star of the week took up most of the screen time.  That was important, because most Wagon Trains introduced a guest character in the very title (“The Joe Schmidlapp Story”), and the show was marketed on the basis of its big-name guest stars.

(This was a promise Wagon Train could deliver upon, initially, because it was produced by MCA, which until 1959 was also the biggest talent agency in town.  It’s doubtful that Shelley Winters or Ernest Borgnine, both at the peak of their film careers in 1957, would have deigned to appear in a television Western – a brand new one, no less – without a little arm-twisting by Lew Wasserman or his dark-suited lieutenants.  After MCA was forced to sell its agency business, Wagon Train’s guest stars became slightly less stellar, although they still comprised the top actors working in television.)

Adams and McCullough were modular leading men, versatile moving parts that could be plugged into a variety of different places.  If Adams remained tethered to the train, McCullough, a scout who rode ahead looking for trouble, could roam about and stumble into adventures of almost any sort.  Most dual-lead Westerns had interchangeable characters – the stage drivers of Stagecoach West, the rest stop minders of Laramie – but Wagon Train was conceived from the start to alternate between “home” and “away” stories. 

Think about what a useful blueprint that is, from every point of view.  The writers could tell almost any kind of Western story they could think of, without being constrained by the trail setting or the cumbersome pack of settlers in the train.  The two stars could minimize their screen time and avoid the fatigue that plagued actors who carried a whole show on their backs (although that didn’t spare Ward Bond a fatal heart attack in 1960).  Shooting on multiple episodes could overlap if necessary.  And the audience was treated to a much greater variety of faces and settings than on a typical weekly series.

The Flint McCullough episodes remind me of the “off-campus” event episodes that serial dramas would try decades later.  The West Wing and ER, especially, liked to send a main character – John Carter (Noah Wyle) or C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney) – off on his or her own once per season, to solve a personal problem or star in an action set-piece.  It was Emmy-bait (Janney’s one-off with Donald Moffat as her ailing father is still one of my favorite television hours) but, more importantly, gave the audience a break from the intricate and potentially exhausting multi-character storylines.  Wagon Train has the capacity to loosen up in the same way: just when I start to get tired of watching Ward Bond scream at the idiot settlers who wreak havoc on his train, there’s a breather where the smooth, likable Horton breezes through a less predictable adventure in a less familiar setting.

Wagon Train and ER might seem like apples and oranges, but in fact the Western series was one of the earliest dramas to take some tentative steps toward serialization.  Most seasons began with an episode or two set in St. Louis, at the beginning of the train, and ended with one or two segments set at the end of the trail, in San Francisco.  For instance, the third season opens with an episode (“The Stagecoach Story”) detailing the main characters’ return trip, by stage, from the West Coast to Missouri, following the preceding years’ train.  The next episode (“The Greenhorn Story,” with the inevitable Mickey Rooney in the title role) covers the formation of the new train, with an emphasis on the naïve easterners’ adjustment to a new, harder way of life.

In the middle of the season, episodes do not follow a chronology – some of them span the course of months, and the physical progress from one to the next would probably zigzag back and forth across a map – but the viewer is not discouraged from thinking of each season’s various progatonists as members of the same train, with every individual story one panel in a mosaic of headaches thrust upon Major Adams over the course of a single year.  The first season finale, “The Sacramento Story,” makes this assumption explicit; it is a combined sequel to three earlier episodes.  (The series would continue to “check in” with popular characters, bringing Borgnine back in the second season premiere to reprise his role from the pilot, “The Willy Moran Story,” and revisiting the young lovers from “The Heather and Hamish Story” a year later in “The Last Circle Up” – albeit with both roles recast.)  Since Wagon Train was never truly serialized, I tend to view its unusual commitment to beginning and ending at opposite ends of the trail as less about continuity than variety.  In other words, it was an excuse to plant a few episodes in an urban setting instead of amid the monotonous plains. 

In its willingness to make each episode as different from the others as the format would bear, Wagon Train became porous enough to allow for auteurism, among both its writers and directors.  I mentioned few of these cases the last time I wrote about Wagon Train, and I’m still uncovering more of them.  What to make of Jean Holloway, who wrote both the dull “Stagecoach Story” and the lively, appealing “Greenhorn Story”?  Somewhere in the middle, in terms of quality, falls “The C. L. Harding Story,” a “haircut” of Lysistrata in which a muckraking reporter (Claire Trevor) leads the women of the train in a general strike.  It’s tempting to read something into the fact that this very safe excursion into pre-feminism comes from the pen of one of the show’s two regular women writers, and probably much too cheap.  Sometimes the absence of a strong voice is itself revealing: “The Cappy Darrin Story,” with Ed Wynn as a sea captain who takes the term “prairie schooner” a bit too literally, was written by Stanley Kallis, a veteran production man who penned only a handful of scripts.  There’s an incongruous fantasy sequence, in which Cappy and his young grandson (Tommy Nolan) fight off some pirates, that rouses journeyman director Virgil W. Vogel from his slumber to try his hand at some dutch angles (even more incongruous in the world of Wagon Train).  These dead ends take me back to the Western’s long-standing showrunner, Howard Christie, who seems to have favored the rather cloying tone – light at heart but somehow leaden – that “The Cappy Darrin Story” shares with many other segments.

Then there’s “The Ruth Owens Story,” one of two early episodes directed by the great Robert Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Beast With Five Fingers).  This one is set mostly at night and includes many bold close-ups of actors, often in profile, framed against total blackness.  Its expressionistic imagery – the frame grabs assembled below illustrate only a few of the Florey’s bold compositions – doesn’t resemble any other Wagon Train I’ve seen or, indeed any other television episode this side of The Twilight Zone.

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Last month, writing about Wagon Train, I advanced the theory that long-running series sometimes wound their way into strange tangents that only a combination of ratings invulnerability and creative fatigue could explain.  Now that all of Wagon Train’s seventh and penultimate season has been released on DVD, alongside a selection of episodes from all the others, there is ample opportunity to study that phenomenon in practice.

By its sixth season, Wagon Train had experienced the sudden death of one lead, Ward Bond, and the departure of the other, Robert Horton, to pursue other opportunities (mostly dinner theater, as it worked out).  The actors who replaced them were not stars.  Veteran supporting player John McIntire (then best known as the sheriff in Hitchcock’s recent hit Psycho) became the new wagonmaster, and blond ex-movie Tarzan Denny Miller took over as the train’s scout.  I guess NBC figured that the real attraction was the guest stars, although by 1962, Wagon Train wasn’t even spending much money on those.  Judging by the evidence on the screen, Wagon Train barely had enough money to get a completed film in the can.  Episodes routinely opened with stock footage montages, overlaid with meaningless narration by McIntire, in a blatant move to pad their length.  In one case, this drivel runs for a full six minutes before the show gets around to an actual storyline.  I’m convinced that something so shockingly lazy could get on the air only in a  “flyover show” – one so unhip and purely commercial that none of the network or studio executives in charge actually watched it.

In other words, after five years, Wagon Train was a case study of a show that had outlived every reason to endure other than ratings.  Occasionally this creative exhaustion led to fascinating oddities like “The Abel Weatherly Story,” a January 1963 episode with a Twilight Zone-like flavor in which a shipwreck survivor (J. D. Cannon, very good) may or may not be haunted by the ghost of an artist he killed some years before.  Robert Yale Libott’s script takes place, variously, in a New England whaling city, on a ship and then a deserted island, and finally in a small Kansas town – everywhere, in other words, except on the wagon train.  McIntire and Miller do not appear at all; Cannon must make do with the show’s bit players as his interlocutors.  I wonder how Wagon Train’s loyal audience reacted that week, confronted as they were with neither of the show’s stars, and nothing resembling its original premise.

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Yuck: Art Linkletter and friends in “The Sam Darland Story.”

I enjoyed “Abel Weatherly” for its sheer strangeness, but a more typical example of Wagon Train’s sixth year was the preceding week’s outing, “The Sam Darland Story.”  Sam Darland, played by Art Linkletter in a disastrous bit of stunt casting, is an evangelical layman who attempts to settle a ghost town, in hostile Indian territory, with no one other than a band of young orphaned boys.  The one spinster (played by Nancy Reagan!) who ventures that the children should be removed from Sam’s care and adopted by the families in the wagon train is treated an antagonist rather than a voice of sanity.  Religiosity abounds and, needless to say, a modern audience could not watch this show and view Sam as anything other than a deranged pederast.

In 1963, in an effort to imitate the successful The Virginian, Universal expanded Wagon Train from the sixty minutes it could barely fill to a whopping ninety, and began to film the show in color.  Robert Fuller, fresh off the studio’s cancelled Laramie, joined the show as a rotating star, effectively demoting Scott Miller back to sidekick.  The same production team, led by Howard Christie and comprised of a small pool of regular freelance writers (Norman Jolley, Steven Ritch, Gene L. Coon, Allen H. Miner) and directors (William Witney, Virgil W. Vogel, Miner), remained the same as during the previous season.  There was no reason to hope that the changes in length and hue might give Wagon Train a shot in the arm, but somehow – and to my considerable relief, because the DVDs contain all thirty-two of these things – it did.

To skip straight to the top, Wagon Train produced one undeniable masterwork during its supersized year.  This is “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story,” which features Michael Rennie as a master hunter (with a Sikh attendant, played by an unrecognizable Henry Silva) who tags along with the train in search of American game.  Clarke hunts for sport, and the cowhands’ mechanical methods of rounding up cattle and slaughtering them for sustenance sicken him; at the same time, the westerners are put off by Clarke’s exoticism and veddy British hauteur.  Brian Keith takes a small part as a world-weary cavalry scout, and his presence is a mystery until some of the parties end up trapped in a ruined fort, under siege by Indians.  As this group contemplates its limited options, Gene L. Coon’s script turns into a thoughtful study of courage in the face of death.  Clarke and the Americans, represented by Keith’s taciturn Sergeant Galt, come to accept their differences once they realize that they share a kind of Hawksian stoicism and masculine competence.  At first Coon aligns our sympathies against the unbearably arrogant Clarke, but then he gradually redeems the character; it is Clarke’s fancy hunting rifle, seemingly useless on the rough-and-tumble frontier, which fires the shot of salvation.

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John McIntire, Robert Fuller, and Michael Rennie in “The Robert Harrison Clarke Story.”

Coon, best known as one of the producers of Star Trek, was one of the finest writers of westerns during the fifties and sixties, and sort of a secret weapon for Wagon Train (even though he also claims credit for “Clyde,” the unsuccessful comedy that I mocked in my earlier post).  Coon also wrote the seventh season’s premiere, “The Molly Kincaid Story,” which stars Carolyn Jones as a white woman reclaimed from captivity among the Indians.  The story is familiar, but Coon treats the subject with a startling toughness, beginning with the gruesome facial scarring that Molly suffered during her ordeal.

After Coon, Wagon Train’s other noteworthy auteur was Allen H. Miner, one of the few freelance writer-directors to work as a hyphenate on a multitude of fifties and sixties shows without ever creating his own.  (Douglas Heyes and John Meredyth Lucas, both overlooked talents, were among the others.)  Miner’s segments tend to start off with a catchy premise and then lose their way, either through a gradual dissipation of narrative tension or a sharp left turn into conventionality.  In “The Sam Pulaski Story,” Miner stages some effective comedy by dropping a trio of Runyonseque Brooklyn toughs into the old west, but the fun stops as soon as an element of genuine menace is introduced.  “The Kitty Pryer Story” begins as a dark, perverse love triangle, then shifts into a more conventional tale of lovers (Diana Hyland and Bradford Dillman, both superb) on the run.  Miner also wrote and directed the season finale, “The Last Circle Up,” which nostalgizes the camaraderie of the wagon train and suggests (without really explaining why) that the settlers may fall upon each other now that they’ve arrived at their destination.  John Ford, in his westerns, often addressed these notions of community versus individualism, but Miner does not know what to do with them.

Some of the other ninety-minute segments work because of an inspired guest turn.  Ronald Reagan, in one of his final acting roles, is surprisingly good as an army officer torn between his professional responsibilities and his duty to his alcoholic wife in “The Fort Pierce Story.”  Peter Falk, marshalling a steely restraint absent from his Columbo-era persona, faces off against McIntire after leaving the wagonmaster for dead to save his brother’s life in “The Gus Morgan Story,” an episode that espouses an admirable commitment to reason over vengeance and anger.  Even some of the failures are bizarre enough to hold one’s interest for an hour and a half.  “The Widow O’Rourke Story,” for instance, casts Broadway star Carol Lawrence as an elderly Chinese woman who runs her western plantation with an iron fist; flashbacks, in which Robert Fuller assumes a second role as the red-headed sailor who purchased her from slavers, explain how she ended up so far from home.

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Carol Lawrence and Robert Fuller in “The Widow O’Rourke Story.”

None of the ninety minute episodes that I’ve seen so far proselytizes as blatantly as “The Sam Darland Story.”  But Jesus does make a cameo in enough of them to make me wonder if Christie had a message to send, and no qualms about using a wagon train instead of Western Union.  “The Michael Malone Story,” written by my friend Gerry Day (who is in fact a devout Catholic), chronicles a priest’s crisis of faith without ever contemplating that the priesthood might not be right for him.  (Personally, I was rooting for Michael Parks and Joyce Bulifant, one of television’s stranger romantic pairings, to blow off those vows and get it on.)  “The Whipping,” bearable only due to Martin Balsam’s sensitive performance as a self-hating drunk, builds its story around the assertion that atheism and alcoholism are morally equivalent.  (Faith and sobriety, we are told, are also interchangeable).  The story’s climax contains an unambiguous miracle which, somewhat atypically for television, does not bother to offer an alternate, earthly interpretation of the events.  At least the writer, Leonard Praskins, had the courage of his convictions.

That may sound like I’m anti-religion – and I am.  But I’m capable of enjoying programs that examine faith with respect and intelligence, and from more than one point of view.  Wagon Train does not take this approach; it simply turns preachy now and again.  Commentators who actually believe we have a “liberal media” ignore not only the underlying truth that our media companies are all controlled by wealthy conservatives, but that there have always been popular television shows which espouse a semi-overt, pro-religious agenda.  This is just as true today (this decade’s Joan of Arcadia was especially obnoxious) as it was in the era of Wagon Train.  And then there’s the “new” Battlestar: Galactica.  Watching the series’ finale this year, I was bemused to discover that the answer to many of that show’s long-running mysteries was, in essence: God(s) did it.

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Continuing on with the third season of Ironside, one of my favorite undemanding popcorn shows of its era, I find it harder than ever to ignore the budgetary constraints that are so obvious on screen.  Universal was always cheap, even going back to Wagon Train; those ninety-minute shows cut back and forth between outdoor locations and unconvincing soundstage “exteriors” in the same scene, with complete indifference to the jarring lack of resemblance between the two.  But it wasn’t until 1969 or 1970 that the studio’s legendarily penny-pinching production department really clamped down, hobbling the efforts of even the most creative or defiant producers.  Except for some second unit shooting, I don’t think Ironside left the backlot once during the whole season.

The nadir is “Good Will Tour,” a romance in which Eve (Barbara Anderson) gives a visiting prince (Bradford Dillman, sporting a stillborn mittel-European accent) a lengthy rear-projection tour of San Francisco.  It’s a decent if slight script by another writer friend, the late Norman Katkov, but why on earth would the producers commission such a location-dependent story?  Ironside overlapped with The Streets of San Francisco for three years of its original run (on the same night of the week), and I can’t understand how the contrast with the actual Bay Area locations of Quinn Martin’s superior cop drama didn’t get Ironside laughed off the airwaves.

On the other hand, I can report that Ironside returned partly to form in the latter half of its third season, offering a few of the traditional cop stories that distinguished its first two years.  One such episode is “Programmed For Danger,” in which Ironside and undercover singleton Eve go up against a dating service operator cum serial molester (slick Roger Perry, well cast) who uses a punch-card computer to select his victims.  Along with the computer, True Boardman’s script places an odd emphasis on gadgets like Ironside’s telephone answering machine and the portable cassette player that Perry carries along on his attacks.  Did you have something you wanted to say about modern technology, Mr. Boardman?  The message was clearer in that Twilight Zone where Richard Haydn gets taken out by a homicidal electric razor.

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Also during my staycation I pulled down a pair of memoirs that had been gathering dust on the bookshelf for a couple of years: Richard L. Bare’s Confessions of a Hollywood Director (Scarecrow, 2001) and John Rich’s Warm Up the Snake: A Hollywood Memoir (University of Michigan Press, 2006).  Bare and Rich (insert name joke here) were two of the very top television directors of the sixties.  Their books complement each other in a rather amusing way.

Richard Bare directed the pilots for Cheyenne and 77 Sunset Strip, thereby launching both the western and detective cycles that swelled the coffers of Warner Bros. and ABC in the late fifties; he later helmed nearly every episode of another certified classic, the subversive Green Acres.  John Rich directed the first three years of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the first five of All in the Family.  Before James Burrows, he was the undisputed king among sitcom directors.  At his peak, Rich could command huge fees just for consulting on finished pilots and pointing out what was wrong with them.  Rich’s brief association with Gilligan’s Island amounted to little more than that but, according to Warm Up the Snake, Sherwood Schwartz rewarded him with a ten per cent ownership of the series.

Rich has given a lot of interviews about Dick Van Dyke and All in the Family, but even if you’ve read or heard them already, his book offers a concise, revealing portrait of both series from a director’s point of view.  Rich’s stories about shows with which he is less often associated, like Gunsmoke and MacGyver, have even more value.  Unfortunately, Warm Up the Snake is padded with a lot of really stale jokes and anecdotes that have little to do with Rich’s own career, and those will be old news for most readers.  There’s a whole chapter devoted to explaining odd industry terms like “M.O.S.” and the “Abby Singer shot,” and when Rich finally explains his title, it’s not exactly a gutbuster.  (In fact, Walter Grauman, another veteran director, told me a much funnier story about defrosting a snake for a TV scene, which I will share one day.)  Rich and Bare even recount one of the same old Hollywood jokes, about the director who ordered a crowd of spear carriers to “Lunge!” and instead the whole company went to lunch.  But Rich says the director in question was Michael Curtiz, while Bare fingers Cecil B. DeMille!

Rich’s prose has an impersonal, smoothed-over feel to it, and he includes hardly anything about his childhood or non-professional life.  The closest he comes to a confessional tone is a good-natured admission that he sometimes wielded a bad temper on the set.  (He once broke his foot by kicking a chair during an All in the Family table read.)  I found Rich’s reticence particularly disappointing, because I would haved liked to know more about his older brother, David Lowell Rich, a director of television dramas who did some fine work on M Squad, Route 66, and Kraft Suspense Theater.  David Lowell Rich retired to my home town of Raleigh and, while I was in college, he drove me crazy by turning down repeated requests for an interview.  After I sent him (without being asked) some tapes of his rarer shows, Rich thanked me and finally agreed to a meeting – but then died before my next trip back to Raleigh.  I have heard, from several sources, that the Rich brothers did not get along, and that they were not on speaking terms for much of their adult lives.  So I guess I’m not surprised that David receives nary a mention in John’s autobiography.

In contrast to Rich’s approach, Confessions of a Hollywood Director focuses mainly on Richard Bare’s personal life.  He’s still in film school (at my alma mater, USC) on page 100, and when he gets to Green Acres around page 290, Bare has only a handful of anecdotes to tell.  That may make the book sound as dull as unbuttered toast and, indeed, I wish Bare had chosen to share more about his contributions to Maverick and The Twilight Zone and The Virginian.  But Bare’s memoir is so breezy and detailed, and his enthusiasm for old friends and childhood shenanigans so infectious, that I thoroughly enjoyed it.  A Modesto native, Bare (whose childhood friends included George Lucas’s father!) was a true Zelig of the California coast, who stumbled into amusing encounters with everyone from Walt Disney to Dwain Esper to Langston Hughes to Marilyn Monroe.

Richard Bare is still with us, and his name made the rounds on the internet recently because his last birthday, on August 12, was alleged by many sources to be his one hundredth.  Except that when I chatted briefly with Bare ten years ago, he insisted that he was actually born in 1913, and even named the reference book (Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia) in which he felt the inaccurate date had originated.  Bare expressed anger at the error, because he felt it had cost him work toward the end of his career.

At the time, I was convinced.  But Confessions of a Hollywood Director gives no birthdate for Bare, and his narrative remains a bit, well, slippery on the subject.  At one point Bare claims that he was nineteen in 1934, and a subsequent mention of his age also supports a 1914 or 1915 birth.  If Bare was willing to cheat his age forward a little in the book, could he have been fibbing to me as well?  In the book Bare states that Julio Gallo, the winemaker, sat next to him in an algebra class at Modesto High School.  Gallo was born in March 1910, so either he was an unusually slow math student, or . . . well, with all due respect to Mr. Bare, let’s just say that I’d welcome a peek at his driver’s license.

After a somewhat longer summer hiatus than planned, I’m back with some notes on a few recent early television discoveries.  By now there aren’t too many TV shows from the fifties or sixties with which I’m totally unfamiliar, but until last year’s complete DVD release of the series, Man with a Camera (1958-60) fell into that category. This was one of the few half-hour action series of the late fifties of which (to my knowledge) no episodes had circulated among private libraries, and I suspect many TV enthusiasts were curious about it for two reasons.  First, it starred Charles Bronson, long before Bronson became the movies’ oldest action hero; and second, for us hard-core TV wonks, it was the show that the talented producer Buck Houghton was running immediately before he moved to MGM to oversee the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone.  Houghton was a line producer, not a writer, so one doesn’t expect to find any kind of thematic or stylistic connection, but this modest little low-budget effort was assembled with the same care that make the grander MGM-backlot fantasies of The Twilight Zone so visually compelling.

In Man with a Camera Bronson plays a freelance photographer named Mike Kovic.  He runs his own business, in consultation with his father (Ludwig Stossel) from the old country.  Kovic even suffers a few ethnic slurs along the lines of Banacek, and it’s possible to view this ethnically-identified but still mainstream-assimilated character as a transition point between early melting-pot shows like The Goldbergs and the totally deracinated TV landscape of the sixties.

Bronson always struck me as the unlikeliest of stars, and Man with a Camera is something of a case study in how his frozen visage and monotone voice can produce a kind of anti-charismatic charisma.  Whatever his deficiencies as an actor, Bronson had confidence, and he’s surprisingly loose when the opportunity presents himself.  In “The Bride,” for instance, Kovic briefly poses as a naïve, heavily-accented immigrant negotiating a mail-order marriage, and the fun that Bronson has with this goofy scene is contagious.

Based on the little I had read, I wasn’t sure exactly what form Man with a Camera would take.  Newspaper drama?  International adventure?  It turns out to be a de facto detective drama, one of those shows in which people with no business fighting crime nevertheless do so.  Johnny Staccato, a Greenwich Village nightclub owner/unlicensed private dick, was a contemporaneous figure, and they still crop up on TV now and then – Hack (2002-2004) starred David Morse as a Philadelphia cab driver who doubled as a vigilante for hire.  These series make one wonder: why not just make a show about actual private eyes (or cops), instead of burdening the writers with the chore of explaining every week how a photographer or a restaurateur got himself into this mess?

In the case of Man with a Camera, the first dozen or so episodes tell plausible, if cliched, stories consistent with actual photojournalism, at least if you grant that Kovic is the rush-off-to-battle-zone macho-adventurer type of photojournalist.  Kovic tries to snap a shot of an Appalachia-style gangsters’ summit (“The Big Squeeze”), gets accused of doctoring a pic of a bigwig politician (“Turntable”), and exposes crimes while covering a boxing match (“Second Avenue Assassin”) and the testing of a new military plane (“Another Barrier”).

Over time, the number of actual photographers credited as technical advisors dwindled from three to one, and later scripts barely attempted to justify why Kovic was investigating Mexican drug smuggling (“Missing”) or bodyguarding an arrogant movie star in Cannes (“Kangaroo Court”).  “But there’s a picture angle!” insists a client as he begs Kovic to investigate a blackmail ring preying on adopted children in “Girl in the Dark.”  Thanks for the reminder.

A little more often than most fifties crime dramas, Man with a Camera varied the standard mystery-plus-fisticuffs equation.   The most unusual episode, the lynch mob story “Six Faces of Satan,” is essentially The Twilight Zone‘s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” minus the science fiction angle.  The earnest script, by David P. Harmon, is as subtle as a brick against the back of the head, but director Boris Sagal stages it with a claustrophobic fervor that never allows the tension to subside.  It’s all tight angles, angry faces shoved into the lens, crowds converging and dispersing as the camera probes the tiny interior New York street set.

The milder pleasures of “Hot Ice Cream,” an amusement park murder story, chiefly stem from the oddball pairing of guest stars Yvonne Craig (delightful as a precocious teenaged camera buff) and Lawrence Tierney, the latter’s bald dome, if not his surly disposition, concealed by a jaunty ice cream vendor’s cap.  And speaking of guest stars, does anyone recognize this actor, who makes a very early, and uncredited, appearance in the episode “The Bride”:

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If Man with a Camera stands out as an above average example of the sort of undemanding escapism that was becoming the bread and butter of late-fifties network TV, then Tate (1960), the entire run of which has also been disgorged on DVD in a single chunk, is a more exciting kind of revelation: a serious, important, and unjustly forgotten western.

Tate was created and story-edited by Harry Julian Fink, a talented writer who probably received a deal for his own series on the strength of a number of thoughtful Have Gun Will Travel episodes.  Fink’s show is a western which confronts directly the one aspect of the generally very adult Have Gun that was gussied up a little for television: the hero’s profession.  Have Gun‘s Paladin sought and carried out assignments that made use of his skill with a firearm, but in practice the show was never as mercenary as its title.  The tone of the stories varied from grim to frothy, and Paladin (and the series’ writers) took pride in concocting intricate, non-violent forms of conflict resolution.  Tate, on the other hand, is simply and bluntly a hired killer, something about which he has no illusions and makes no apologies.  He doesn’t live in an ornate San Francisco hotel suite or savor expensive cigars.  Tate is dusty and beat-down and often wears a serape to conceal his handicap, a useless left arm that he keeps holstered in a mean-looking, elbow-length leather glove.

 

The first episode, “Home Town,” is a near-perfect examination of masculine stoicism and obligation.  In it Tate returns to the town of his birth to help his mentor, an aging marshal (Royal Dano), protect a prisoner from a lynch mob.  It’s a futile endeavor, of course, in the sense that the unrepentant murderer will likely hang anyway, and that’s the point.  Fink seems to challenge himself to convey Tate’s backstory as unsentimentally as possible.  Here’s an exchange that includes the only explanation we ever get for Tate’s dead arm:

MARSHAL: How long’s it been?

TATE: Ten years.

MARSHAL: The war and then some.  Where’d it happen?

TATE: Vicksburg.  I didn’t run fast enough, Morty.

MARSHAL: You’re home, son.  What do you think of it?

TATE: The same.  A little smaller, a little dirtier.  Just a memory, Morty, it doesn’t exist any more.

Tate’s wife is buried in the same town, and again Fink conveys this element of the character’s psychological makeup obliquely.  There’s a lovely scene between Tate and a waitress (Sandra Knight) who turns out to be his wife’s cousin.  They discuss the girl’s resemblance to Mary Tate, but Tate never tells her that Mary was his wife.  All the emotion remains unspoken.  The scene ends with an iris into the cousin’s face: a technique from the silent cinema so powerful that, by 1960, it was often used ironically.   But here it’s perfect, a way of releasing the pent-up sadness of the moment through form instead of dialogue.

“Stopover,” the second, and perhaps best, episode, is even more avant-garde.  Fink, who wrote the script, underlines a local law officer’s disgust when Tate rides into town with a corpse across his saddle.  While the sheriff executes some bureaucratic maneuvers to delay the payment of the bounty, Tate cools his heels in a saloon where he runs smack into a twitchy punk who wants to test his gun against him.  It’s a familiar setup, but Fink fills it with unexpected ideas: an emphasis on money (the bounty is $2,080, and Tate insists on the $80); the extreme lengths to which Tate goes to avoid a gun duel that won’t yield a profit; the lack of ambiguity concerning a saloon girl’s actual profession (she charges five dollars to bring the guests an “extra blanket”).  Smith, the young gunslinger, is not just an analogue to the modern juvenile delinquents of the fifties (a common notion in films like Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James and Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun).  He’s quite clearly a psychopath in a clinical sense.  Fink makes this point mainly through the young man’s speech, which is fanciful to the point of incomprehensibility.  At one point, he refers to man Tate has killed as “a magical person,” an anachronistic, New Age-y phrase that startles one into thinking of Smith more in terms of Manson worship than of western villainy.

Indeed, “Stopover” is about language, or the failure of communication.  Tate and the young gun talk past each other throughout their encounter: the gunman wants to know who he’s challenging, but Tate won’t tell him his name, while Tate keeps probing to find out the relationship between Smith and the dead man.  He can’t wrap his mind around the idea that there might not be any connection between them – that violence can occur without a rational motive.

Television westerns were, of course, plentiful in the extreme during the fifties and sixties, a fact that necessitated as much differentiation as possible.  A wide range of generic traditions and storytelling approaches characterize the major TV westerns: The Virginian told sweeping, epic tales which emphasized the vastness of the effort to settle the frontier; Wagon Train was a dramatic anthology in disguise, eschewing western naturalism in favor of character-driven stories; The Rifleman was a bildungsroman that reduced the west to a canvas for illustrating life lessons; and so on.

I think the most productive model for the TV western, the one best suited to the limitations of the small screen, was the sort of spare, unsentimental ultra-minimalism that characterizes Budd Boetticher’s and some of Anthony Mann’s film westerns.  The two key series in this mode were Sam Peckinpah’s quirky The Westerner and Rod Serling’s blatantly existential The LonerTate belongs within this tradition, although it’s not quite at the same level as those two masterworks.

One problem is David McLean, who plays Tate (“Just Tate,” incidentally, the missing first name a midpoint marker on the way to Eastwood’s Man with No Name).  McLean has the right world-weary look and gruff voice for the role – he was later famous as a cowboy-styled cigarette pitchman.   But his performance lacks depth; as the series progresses it becomes evident that McLean is cycling through the same four or five line readings, and the guest stars nudge him off the screen.  (It doesn’t help McLean that Tate‘s uncredited but canny casting director paired him with an unusual number of future stars: Louise Fletcher, Martin Landau, Robert Culp, James Coburn, Warren Oates, and, in small but showy roles in two episodes, Robert Redford.)

But the primary failure of Tate was a lack of sustainability.  Unlike Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone or Stirling Silliphant on Route 66, Harry Julian Fink fumbled the critical step of finding gifted, complementary voices to fill in the gaps between his own contributions.  The six Tates written by Fink, all but one of them gems, and the seven episodes penned by lesser writers might as well be from two wholly different series.  By the last episode, Gerry Day’s “The Return of Jessica Jackson,” there’s a lamentable scene in which Tate pulls out a Bible and proselytizes to the distraught heroine.  This Tate is a far more conventional TV hero than the Tate of the pilot, a terse pragmatist of uncertain morality, adrift on a sea of grief and regret.

Not that it mattered much: Tate ran as a replacement series in the summer of 1960, meaning that NBC had likely abandoned any plans for renewing it even before the series debuted.  Just like The Westerner and The Loner, both of which were short-lived, Tate was too cerebral and too downbeat for the mainstream.

(A brief note for the Corrections Department: One frustrating bit of misinformation which has proliferated across the internet, even on the official page for the Tate DVD, is that the series was videotaped.  In fact, the quickest glimpse at any Tate episode reveals that it was shot on film, not with the clunky video cameras of the era, which were limited in both resolution and range of motion.   I’m not sure how that idea got started, except perhaps that the show carries an onscreen copyright in the name of Roncom Video Films – Perry Como’s production company.  But the term “video,” at that time, was an industry synonym for television.)

*

At the other end of the scale is Laredo (1965-1967), which lives down to its reputation as one of the least distinguished of nineteen-sixties westerns.  In fact, it’s one of the worst TV shows, period, and perhaps a minor benchmark in the dumbing down of the medium.

Laredo concerns the adventures of three rowdy Texas rangers, played by Neville Brand, Peter Brown, and William Smith.  (Philip Carey, cashing a paycheck, delivers a scene’s worth of exposition in each episode and then disappears, just as Rick Jason had taken to doing in the later years of Combat.)  It’s distinguished from the glut of other westerns of its time mainly by its strident efforts to maintain a would-be comedic tone.  Mainly, this means that, in the midst of carrying out the usual lawman’s duties of leading posses and fighting Indians, the heroes incessantly needle and play elaborate pranks upon one another.  It’s the first, but by no means the last, TV show I can think of in which adults behave like hyperactive pre-teens for no discernible reason – except, perhaps, kinship with a target demographic.

What’s startling about Laredo is how cruel and violent its prank subplots are.  In the first episode, for example, Reese Bennett (Brand) retaliates against the other two rangers for their earlier mockery by leaving them bound in an Indian camp, where they’re later tortured.  In that instance, Reese gets the upper hand, but in most episodes Cooper (Brown) and Riley (Smith) outfox him.  Brand’s performance makes this dynamic extremely uncomfortable.  I can imagine that Brand was trying to create a Paul Bunyanesque caricature – a Texan who was so dumb that he, et cetera, et cetera.  But Reese is so helplessly stupid, and his chums are so smug and superior, that the experience is akin to watching schoolyard bullies taunt a retarded child.  Laredo unavoidably implicates the viewer in its peculiar brand of cruelty – never is civility imposed on any of the characters – and I, for one, didn’t feel like playing.  Perhaps I’ve just lost my capacity, over the last, oh, eight or so years, to be amused by imbecilic Texan authority figures whose chief character traits are a cartoonish understanding of violence and an utter absence of basic human empathy.

Laredo, which carries no creator credit, was produced by veteran Universal staffers, all journeymen, including Wagon Train‘s Howard Christie and the director Richard Irving.  So it’s no surprise that the results were undistinguished, but it’s worth noting that the odious premise of Laredo reliably defeated the efforts of some talented writers (John D. F. Black, Gene L. Coon), directors (Harvey Hart, Paul Stanley), and guest stars (Burgess Meredith, Jack Lord, Julie Harris).  In the first dozen or so episodes, only a single performance struck me as original and worthwhile: Shelley Morrison’s recurring role (in a pair of Black-scripted segments) as Linda Little Trees, a slightly-smarter-than-her-tribe female Indian chief who has the catchphrase, “Oooookay.”  It doesn’t sound like much, but Morrison’s befuddled delivery is priceless.

*

If Laredo weren’t so awful, it would be a shame that Timeless’s two DVD collections (which contain the entire first season) cram five hour-long episodes onto each disc, coating Universal’s serviceable if slightly drab video masters in a thick blanket of artifacts and edge enhancement.  Tate, also from Timeless, looks a little better.  But  it was Infinity’s Man with a Camera package that really impressed me.  The episodes are transferred from 16mm, but the prints – from the collection of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, also the source of Mister Peepers and hopefully more classic TV gems to come – are in excellent condition, and they have been rendered onto DVD with about as much detail as one could hope from that format.

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