April 25, 2012
One hundred years and eleven days ago, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, taking 1,514 lives with it. This month, to commemorate (or compound) the disaster, Twentieth Century-Fox has re-released James Cameron’s bloated epic Titanic in fake 3D. The Criterion Collection has gotten into the act by debuting Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958), an earlier, more stately film about the famous sinking, on Blu-ray, with a bounty of new extras.
A Night to Remember was based on a best-selling non-fiction account of the Titanic’s demise by Walter Lord – a book that was also staged, with great fanfare, as a live television drama in 1956, some two years before the Baker film was released. Given its recent habit of licensing live television segments as supplements for its discs (including The Fugitive Kind and 12 Angry Men), one might have expected Criterion to acquire the Kraft Television Theatre version of “A Night to Remember,” too. For whatever reason, they didn’t – but you can watch it on Youtube.
Semi-forgotten today, Kraft’s “A Night to Remember” was remarked upon at the time as one of the (ahem) high-water marks of live television. Dramatically taut, the production was also newsworthy for its deliberate pushing of the physical and technical boundaries of the medium. “A Night to Remember” cost $125,000, slightly more than three times the budget of an average Kraft. One hundred and seven men and women in period costume filled the mock Titanic, and seventy-two of them had speaking parts. There were thirty-one sets, some built at skewed angles to simulate the increasing cant of the sinking vessel, others (seen only for a moment in the final broadcast) in a tank that could be filled with water up to the actors’ waists.
The sets were so vast that the production was moved from NBC’s Studio 8H, to both 8H and 8G, and finally out to the network’s largest available space in exotic Brooklyn. Six cameras, instead of the usual three or four, captured the action. We know these stats because NBC trumpeted them in the press, in a successful campaign to position “A Night to Remember” as one of the year’s most important television events. James Cameron was not the first storyteller tempted to see in the Titanic the makings of a superproduction.
Following an on-camera introduction by Claude Rains, an effectively stentorian and British choice to narrate the show, the first dialogue in “A Night to Remember” is spoken by the familiar actor Marcel Hillaire, here playing a French waiter in the Titanic’s exclusive restaurant with all the hauteur he can muster. Although it also places barbed emphasis upon the cascading incompetence of officers and crew that delayed rescue – we’re teleported over to the nearby SS Californian, where a radio operator misses the distress call because he can’t be bothered to turn a crank – television’s “A Night to Remember” finds its theme in the suddenly lethal class distinctions that informed the outcomes available to the Titanic’s passengers. Hubris and privilege are the boogeymen in “A Night to Remember,” not the iceberg that (thanks to the limitations of the medium) we barely see.
The show’s director and co-writer, George Roy Hill, a Minneapolis-born Yalie who styled himself as a cantankerous Irishman, empathizes with the proletariat in steerage and sneers at the rich twits in first class in a way that resounds in the era of the one-percenter – even though the third-class passengers are sketched more roughly and enjoy less screen time than the swells on the upper decks. Mrs. Astor slices open a life vest to see what it’s made of – cork; “Why, how clever!” – and another young lady expresses delight because she’s never seen an iceberg. Hill practically seems to be opining: good, natural selection is finally catching up with these fools. Perhaps the most effective moment in “A Night to Remember” is the one in which J. Bruce Ismay, the head of the White Star Line, steps into a lifeboat even as he knows that women and children remain on the sinking ship. The glare of utter contempt that the crewman who lowers the raft fixes upon Ismay is unforgettable, and Hill does not even need a close-up to emphasize it.
“A Night to Remember” is a compendium of vignettes like those. It follows certain characters from start to finish, like the Caldicott-and-Charters pairing of Gracie and Smith (Larry Gates and Woodrow Parfrey, cast effectively against type), who meet their fates with stiff-upper-lip reserve. Other famous passengers, like Isidore Straus (Edgar Stehli), whose wife opts to stay on the ship rather than leave him behind, are glimpsed for only seconds. If the 1958 feature finally picks a central character out of Walter Lord’s panoply – Second Officer Lightoller, a minor character here, becomes in Dave Kehr’s words the film’s “hero . . . an upright representative of the emerging middle class and managerial caste” – the shorter television staging resists fixing on any single figure as a spine; although it does hover occasionally around Thomas Andrews (Patrick Macnee, then unknown), the thirty-nine year-old “shipbuilding genius” who had a hand in designing the Titanic, and whose main function here is to deliver, sheepishly, the technical explanation as to why the ship will surely sink. (Macnee and Andrews were both Scots, so the actor attempted a brogue in rehearsals, delivering his key line as “The ship must go doon.” Hill’s reaction: “Less of the Irish, please.”) [Author’s note, 5/23/12: Much of the last sentence, which was sourced from Patrick Macnee’s 1989 autobiography Blind in One Ear, is erroneous. See the comments section for more information.
Rains, whose dulcet and unmistakably British tones supply snippets of Titanic lore in a voiceover so dense that it is almost an audio book, becomes the vital structuring element of this decentralized narrative. “A Night to Remember” is a docudrama, but one of a specific sort that emphasized the panoramic impact of a particular historical incident. Studio One’s “The Night America Trembled” (about the historic “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast), The Seven Lively Arts’s searing “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” and Playhouse 90’s “Seven Against the Wall” (on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) all took the same basic approach. Already in its death throes, live television made a mini-genre out of this kind of pocket historical epic, the size of which attracted press attention and fostered, perhaps, the poignant illusion that the medium could compete on Hollywood’s own terms with the industry that was about to bulldoze it.
If directors like Sidney Lumet or Paul Bogart, a consummate lover of actors who died this month, were content to work with material that was essentially stage-worthy and intimate, there was another class of live television director that tried to tug the primitive medium toward the art of the cinema. Franklin Schaffner and John Frankenheimer led this pack, with George Roy Hill following close behind; all three achieved a destiny as epic-scaled filmmakers that is difficult, on the surface, to reconcile with their origins in television. (At least until one recalls that Hill wasn’t the only member of this daredevil trio to seek out the foolhardy challenge of filling a television studio with a large quantity of water: Schaffner nearly electrocuted the cast while sinking a submarine in Studio One’s “Dry Run,” and Frankenheimer built a huge water tank to simulate the flooding of the Mississippi River in Playhouse 90’s “Old Man.”) Inevitably, all three men were determined careerists – an ambition to work on a huge canvas seems inextricable from a large ego – and “A Night to Remember” plays as a very self-conscious calling card on the part of a young director eager to be noticed.
One of the least contestable auteurist entries in live television, “A Night to Remember” was not only directed but also co-written – with John Whedon, later a sitcom writer and also the grandfather of Joss Whedon – by Hill; and while Kraft at that time had a producer, Stanley Quinn, he was an ad agency lifer with few creative bona fides apart from Kraft. Quinn also took no screen credit on “A Night to Remember,” leaving many published accounts to list Hill as the producer, perhaps not wholly inaccurately. Hill may also have exerted influence through a key personal relationship. When last we encountered George Roy Hill, he was seducing the underage star of one of his early features. During that time, and possibly as early as 1956, Hill was also having an extramarital affair with Marion Dougherty, who was the uncredited casting director of Kraft and therefore, without question, a key creative component in a live show boasting a telephone book-sized cast list.
A control-room director’s dream, “A Night to Remember” supposedly featured over one hundred cues (that is, cuts) in its first act alone. The personality that Hill imposes upon it is an omniscient one: an unseen hand – whether it be that of God, George Roy Hill, or Claude Rains, clutching Lord’s book and in a sense standing in for the author – directing our attention, rapidly, forcefully, toward a succession of brief moments on the surface of a vast event. Andrew Horton, the chief chronicler of Hill’s career, finds “A Night to Remember” interesting mainly for the way in which it anticipates the complex editing schemes of later films like Slaughterhouse-Five. Indeed, the director’s cutting is masterful. Early on, Hill introduces the characters in steerage with a fade from a violinist, entertaining the haughty diners in first class, to a bagpiper, leading an exuberant dance below decks. Near the end, when an immigrant family that has fought its way up from steerage to the top deck arrives just in time to watch the last lifeboat being lowered, Hill drops out the cacophonous sound, scoring the moment of dreadful realization with a second of total silence. Hill superimposes the dangling boat cable over the family’s stunned faces. “A Night to Remember” is subtle at times, blunt at others – but amid the chaos of disaster, the tonal shifts make sense.
“A Night to Remember” enjoyed a rapturous reception. Every major critic, even the tough two titans, Jack Gould (of the New York Times) and John Crosby (of the Herald Tribune), approved. NBC took out a full-page ad in the Times to tout its a repeat of the kinescope on May 2, a rerun that, because of reuse payments due to the gargantuan cast, cost the network more than putting on a new play would have.
(“A Night to Remember” was not restaged live, as some sources claim. And, incidentally, if you look in the wrong places you’ll also find Hill deprived of his co-writing credit, or read that Hill won Emmys for writing and directing the show. Although he was nominated for both, and “A Night to Remember” for best dramatic program, the only Emmy win was for its live camerawork).
The live television dramas that tend to hold up best are the small, claustrophobic character pieces – the storied “kitchen sink” opuses. Adaptations of books and plays, or shows that give off a whiff of the “tradition of quality,” are the most likely to seem stodgy and ancient. But, despite its unconcealed self-importance, “A Night to Remember” works both as a drama and, more vitally, as an action piece. It moves at a terrific pace and builds real suspense along the way. Only the ending seems somewhat crude. Hill wisely uses as little stock footage as possible (like the 1958 film, this version borrowed its Titanic exteriors from a 1943 German film that built some impressive miniatures), but that decision renders the climax necessarily brief. Hill tries for a pair of shock effects, neither of which really comes off – at least to the extent that we can observe today.
The show ends in the main stateroom, empty except for a steward and the shell-shocked designer Andrews. As the stewart flees, the entire set tips forward, toward the camera, and the sea sweeps away the steward and rushes toward the viewer – an effect achieved, none too convincingly, by shooting through a fishtank that was rapidly filled with frothy water. Just before that, allegedly, we see Andrews crushed (or decapitated, according to one account from the set) by a gigantic chandelier that falls from the stateroom ceiling. Hill staged the effect through a multi-camera sleight-of-hand, by cutting quickly from a close-up of Patrick Macnee to a long shot, from another angle, in which Andrews is represented by a dummy. Contemporary reviews record some shocked reactions to this graphic image. But, in the surviving kinescope, the effect is lost. The Andrews dummy is barely visible at the left edge of the frame, and one would never notice his “death” unless, as I did, one goes back for a second look with the knowledge of what’s supposed to be there. On a first viewing of the extant “A Night to Remember,” the final image of Andrews is now a stunned, guilt-ridden close-up of Macnee’s face. Not a bad ending at all – but also a sobering reminder of how the poor positioning of a kinescope camera can rewrite television history.
January 26, 2012
“One of the problems for historians of most arts is the ‘transitional figure.’”
- Dennis Bingham, “Shot From the Sky: The Gypsy Moths and the End of Something,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film
“[H]e spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what had gone wrong.”
- Bill Krohn, “Jonah,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film
Brian Kellow’s new biography of Pauline Kael, one of my lifelong inspirations as a writer, has so many flaws that it would take a second book to enumerate them. Since Kael falls outside the purview of this blog – regrettably, “television” was something of a dirty word to her, a shorthand for commercial aspirations and diminished attention spans; although Kael may have had some enthusiasm for the made-for-television movies of the seventies, this is one of several points on which Kellow contradicts himself – I don’t have to do any enumerating. But I will point out one comparatively minor flaw in Kellow’s book that got under my skin: Kellow indulges in a few snotty asides against “academia,” a phrase he uses so generically that it’s hard to tell exactly who he’s trying to insult, or why. Like Bill Maher or Keith Olbermann, Kellow comes off as so obnoxious that we want to argue back, even when we agree with him. (The royal “we” is used in honor of La Pauline, although it’s one of her devices that makes me uneasy; I’m afraid to emulate it, although Kael often deploys it with great power.) I’ve staked out my own position as essentially anti-academic, but even I have to acknowledge that it’s absurd to suggest that no one on a tenure track is doing valuable writing or research on art and culture. The question is whether those scholars who are creating good work represent the rule or the exception.
Which brings us to the first item in today’s book report: a recent collection of scholarly essays that examine the work of the director John Frankenheimer. I picked up the book, which was compiled and edited by Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer, in part because I discovered that its contributors cite my own work a few times (yes, it is possible to accidentally search your own name on Google Books; really, I swear that’s how it happened), and also because I remain obsessed with every outpost of Frankenheimeriana. As far as I can recall, I’ve only returned to the subject of Frankenheimer’s early television productions once since I wrote that Senses of Cinema essay, but I know I’ll go back again someday. As Frankenheimer’s work was in its time the most pyrotechnic, the most resistant to the technological limitations of early television, so it stands out today as the most durable, the most modern, the most cinematic, the most alive.
The title of Pomerance and Palmer’s collection is a famous refrain from The Manchurian Candidate, and an odd choice, since (unless I dozed off for a minute) none of the writers in the book quote it. I would have liked to know why the editors felt that line had an overarching meaning within Frankenheimer’s oeuvre – a meaning even more potent than the trope of paranoia, a word that’s used in nearly every essay in the book. The title characterizes Frankenheimer as a maverick, a loner. But while the director may have thought of himself that way, one of the tragedies of the his career is that he was unable to function as a true independent. Not only did Frankenheimer’s vision require budgets of some size, but in interviews he made it clear that he was invested in the idea of a commercial cinema, of box office victory and mainstream recognition.
Within that context, the book’s key essay may be Jerry Mosher’s well-researched account of the making of Frankenheimer’s Impossible Object (1973), a film that self-consciously attempted a non-linear, ambiguous narrative in the style of Resnais or, in particular, Losey. Mosher carefully places the ideas behind Impossible Object (incidentally, the only theatrical Frankenheimer feature I have not seen), and its catastrophic post-production phase and consequent non-release, within the context of the personal and professional lives of the director and his collaborators (chiefly Nicholas Mosley, the original writer and later a memoirist who wrote insightfully about Frankenheimer). Impossible Object became a self-fulfilling prophecy (or Prophecy, as it turned out): Frankenheimer took the film’s failure as an affirmation that art cinema was not a viable path for him, and probably as an excuse to embrace a belief system to which he was he already bound.
Other writers who delve in detail into the production histories of individual films include Matthew R. Bernstein, who describes some of the fascinating real-life figures and incidents upon which The Train was based, and James Morrison, whose essay on The Iceman Cometh is a model diagram of how a film’s meaning emerges from its maker’s technical choices. Charles Ramírez Berg’s astute formal analysis of The Manchurian Candidate properly contextualizes the film’s imagery as an outgrowth of Frankenheimer’s live television technique. Berg includes a detailed consideration of “The Comedian” (a terrific Rod Serling-scripted Playhouse 90) as an exemplar of the director’s televisual style. And I was pleased to see my two favorite underdogs in the Frankenheimer filmography, The Gypsy Moths and I Walk the Line, become the subjects of thoughtful consideration, in pieces by Dennis Bingham and Linda Ruth Williams, respectively.
A Little Solitaire also offers ample coverage of Frankenheimer’s perhaps overstated “comeback” in cable television during the nineties. Most of these pieces are problematic, but Bill Krohn’s ambitious “Jonah,” fittingly the final chapter in the book, uses the late television productions and some of Frankenheimer’s worst theatrical features (as well as “Forbidden Area,” the premiere segment of Playhouse 90, which has only recently resurfaced in private collections), to stitch together the intriguing argument that, following the assassination of his friend Robert F. Kennedy, Frankenheimer became something of a covert, disillusioned radical/nihilist, who consistently charted “the decline and fall of American liberalism.” I wasn’t entirely persuaded (for one thing, “Jonah” offers without irony the phrase “a superb, understated performance by Ben Affleck”), but Krohn is the liveliest writer in this book, which counts for a lot.
“Coffee has yet another meaning. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch points out, while there is a connection between daze (the condition produced by the consumption of alcohol) and mystification, and more generally between the use of liquors and group feeling, the coffeehouse has throughout its history been dedicated to the support and preservation of the individual identity: ‘In coffeehouses the I is central.’”
- Murray Pomerance, “Ashes, Ashes: Structuring Emptiness in All Fall Down,” collected in A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film
About half of the essays in A Little Solitaire didn’t sell me on their theses; or, to be less charitable, they read as pointless exercises in publish-or-perish log-rolling. That may be a better-than-average success rate for this type of collection. It’s disappointing to see not even a single essay focused solely on Frankenheimer’s early television work (although the book’s invaluable appendix compiles a more complete Frankenheimer videography than I’ve seen before); but it’s also unsurprising, given that one would have to be a collector, or else log considerable archival hours in Los Angeles or New York, in order to see a large amount of that material.
What I find less easy to excuse is the narrowness of the methodologies on display in this collection. Only a few of the authors (Bernstein; Pomerance, writing about All Fall Down; and Morrison, who dredged up cinematographer Ralph Woolsey’s memories of filming The Iceman Cometh in an obscure AFI seminar) attempted any archival research, even though Frankenheimer’s tempting and extensive papers are available at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And the only original oral history in evidence is in Pomerance’s introductory essay, which includes a few superficial quotes from the actress Evans Evans (the director’s widow), and Richard Dysart, who appeared in a single Frankenheimer film (Prophecy, perhaps his worst). I don’t understand why these approaches, which would yield more concrete insights and discoveries than the kind of tautological interdisciplinary lint-picking that is evident even in some of the better essays in this book (does Birdman of Alcatraz really benefit from being “read” “through” Foucault?), are undertaken so infrequently. Are they just out of fashion in academia? Is picking up the phone or getting on a plane somehow behaviorally (or, in the second case, financially) beyond the pale for a college professor? Or would the weight of actual history be too much of a reality check on a writer who prefers instead to mash an artist’s work into the mold of his or her own professional specialty, whether or not it fits?
“Didn’t enjoy working with Tony Franciosa, who kept abusing the stunt men. He purposely wasn’t pulling his punches in fight scenes, and he kept doing it despite my warnings to stop . . . so I had to pop him one.”
- James Garner, The Garner Files
The succinct sketch of John Frankenheimer that James Garner offers in his long-awaited memoir, The Garner Files, is probably as valuable an observation as any offered in A Little Solitaire. Garner, who starred in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, thought the director was something of a humorless control freak, who “didn’t want anyone with an opinion” in the cast. But Garner admired Frankenheimer’s encyclopedic attention to detail and his ability to command a production as huge and potentially dangerous as Grand Prix.
A number of my friends, of both the real and Facebook varieties, have been praising and quoting from The Garner Files. I assume that’s because Garner is one of the few living stars from whom many of us would really want to hear at some length, and also (more importantly) because Garner does not shy away from, and indeed even seems to relish, naming and shaming anyone who ever pissed him off. It’s a long and entertaining list, one that includes Charles Bronson (“a pain in the ass”), Glen A. Larson (a “thief”), and Lee Marvin (another “pain in the ass”), among others.
In The Garner Files, Garner comes across as a straight shooter, smarter and more introspective than the most of characters he played. He is, for instance, quite conscious of how the laid-back, “natural” quality that was his trademark was in fact carefully constructed. (Garner’s theory is that his studied casualness emerged out of a process of getting past his stage fright.) The book ends with a section of testimonials from Garner’s family and friends, which include major movie stars as well as racing pals and “below the line” crew members. That kind of victory roll would constitute an exhibition of appalling arrogance in almost anyone else’s memoirs, but Garner has allowed his friends to tell stories on him. Some of them are flattering, but others hint at Garner’s fallibility and his legendary temper. (The words of Rockford Files co-star Joe Santos, in their entirety: “Garner says he’s easygoing, but he’s lying. He’s angry and desperate, just like I am. That’s why Rockford has always worked so well, because Jim is coming from a very passionate, driven place.”)
Garner is so resolutely forthright that his book is worth reading, but it’s hardly one of the great or even very good autobiographies. Garner acknowledges his collaborator, Jon Winokur, with typical generosity, but that doesn’t prevent the book from coming to a dead stop whenever Winokur takes over to fill in the basic facts about Garner’s movies and television projects. The sections on the star’s two major TV series, Maverick and The Rockford Files, feel especially ghost-written, and add little or nothing to the stories told in Ed Robertson’s books on those shows. Garner comes to life a bit more when discussing his favorite films (The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix), but I sense that his real passions are for boring shit like golf, auto racing, making money, and (to use his oft-repeated term) “decking” people.
Garner presents himself as a defender of the little guy, and I don’t doubt the truth of that. But he also seems to have enjoyed maneuvering himself into situations in which he could punch out people and – because the punchee was behaving badly in some way – still hold onto his image as a good guy. One such person, a golf course heckler, turned out to be a Rockford fan with alcohol and drug problems, who cried after Garner knocked him down. (Again, full credit to Garner for leaving those details in, even if they are presented with a not-my-fault shrug.)
Garner’s particular ethics of violence may make him less of a bully than some of the bullies he criticizes (including Frankenheimer), but he strikes me as a bully nonetheless, a hothead who cultivated his temper and unloaded on people whenever he knew he could get away with it. Is a wealthy, powerful, and well-liked movie star ever likely to find himself in situations where he has to hit someone? Was socking Tony Franciosa really an act of standing up for defenseless stuntmen (note the oxymoronic aspect of that phrase) – many of whom probably later found themselves on sets where Franciosa had the power to fire them and Garner wasn’t around to intercede – or was it just an ostentatious display of machismo? I still love the television James Garner, the pragmatic, risk-averse “reluctant hero” (Garner’s own term) who made Maverick and Rockford so distinctive and down-to-earth and compulsively watchable. But after reading his book, I wonder whether I would like the real James Garner.
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 cord 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.
August 19, 2010
The forty-third episode of Playhouse 90 aired on CBS on October 3, 1957. It was a science fiction story called “A Sound of Different Drummers.” It told of a totalitarian future in which books are outlawed (because they encourage people to think for themselves). A squad of “bookmen” goes around incinerating books using mean-looking flamethrower pistols. They torch the people who hide the books, too.
Gordon (Sterling Hayden), a bookman, is getting burned out, so to speak, on his job. He’s losing the plot on why books are so bad. He meets a pretty blonde who sorts confiscated books on a conveyor belt to oblivion. The blonde, Susan (Diana Lynn, Playhouse 90’s go-to ingenue), snatches a book off the belt once in a while. Gordon and Susan mark each other as kindred spirits. She introduces him to an underground of kindly bibliophiles. They fall in love. They’re in constant danger of getting toasted by Gordon’s colleagues. They look for a way out, a permanent one.
The story takes some twists and turns, but let’s just say things don’t end well. For Gordon or for the rest of the bookless world. I won’t exactly spoil the big reveal (not that you’ll ever get to see this thing anyway), but it turns out that the oppressors and the resistance are the same thing. “A Sound of Different Drummers” was prescient, which is only one reason why it’s so good.
“A Sound of Different Drummers” was written by Robert Alan Aurthur. That’s the credit: read it for yourself.
You’re thinking: But, but, but. Yeah. We’ll get to that.
Back in April 1951, suspected commie Sterling Hayden appeared in Washington and staged a public finkathon before a happy HUAC. Six years later, someone with a diabolical mind thought of him for “Drummers.” During the climax, Gordon is interrogated, asked to give the names of other readers. “You mean I have a choice?” he asks. Was “Drummers” a ritual of atonement for Hayden? It’s fascinating to study his face during this sequence. Not like it gives anything away: Hayden always made you guess what emotions were roiling behind that unblinking glare.
Gordon’s partner and pal Ben, an avid reader-hater who stands in for all humanity’s clueless sheep, is played by John Ireland. For fans of fifties film noir, the idea of Ireland and Hayden sharing scenes is something akin to the famous superstar standoff between Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. As in Michael Mann’s film, the event is anticlimactic. Hayden and Ireland were the same kind of actor – angry and scary in ways that transcended the characters they played. They’re a meal in which all the courses are the same. Diana Lynn makes the better foil for Hayden. She’s all Southern sweetness, open and genuine, and the contrast complements Hayden’s opacity. Lynn clues us to Hayden’s subtext: she projects the sensitivity that Gordon can’t express, that he’s struggling to find beneath the layers of fascist-cop conditioning.
The director of “A Sound of Different Drummers” was John Frankenheimer. It was a perfect match. The future-world setting and the constant atmosphere of dread and paranoia meant that Frankenheimer could go full-bore with his camera and editing tricks without ever overwhelming the material. Constant camera movement advances the story at a freight-train pace. None of the sets have back walls; the people of the future live in murky blackness. The futuristic props (super-fast cars, robotic psychoanalysts) are cleverly designed and there are special effects I still can’t figure out. The most impressive of those is a videophone screen that appears to project the giant, disembodied head of the speaker against a dark wall.
Frankenheimer was a madman. “I’d never done more than six pages at a track and there I was with 127 pages and I was terrified,” said Sterling Hayden, who was making his live television debut, in a 1984 interview with Gerald Peary. “Frankenheimer loved to move the camera so fast. Christ, it was wild . . . . I went into one set to do a scene and there were no cameras! Then around the corner, like an old San Francisco fire truck, comes the camera on a dolly. And a guy comes along, puts up a light, and BANG, we go.
“I was so scared, but I roared through that goddamned thing.”
“Drummers” contains my new favorite on-air live-TV gaffe. Sterling Hayden and Diana Lynn are making eyes at each other over a meal materialized by a Star Trek-style machine. It’s a quiet, tender love scene. From off-stage, there’s a loud “AHHHH-CHOO!” Someone has sneezed into an open mike. Hayden visibly loses his concentration, gets it back a second later, maybe blows a line in between. The mood has been, shall we say, broken. Up in the control room, Frankenheimer must have blown a gasket.
So: Fahrenheit 451. “Firemen” instead of “bookmen” but, yeah, it’s the same story. I had always seen “A Sound of Different Drummers” described as an adaptation (meaning, an official one) of the Ray Bradbury novel. So when I finally saw the show and Bradbury’s name appeared nowhere in the credits, I was surprised.
Back in 1957, Bradbury had the same reaction. He sued the shit out of CBS.
But first: Who was Robert Alan Aurthur? He was perhaps the least well-known (and most misspelled) of the first wave of live television playrights. A multi-tasker who died young (well, youngish), Aurthur was part of the Philco Playhouse gang, the group of gifted writers discovered and nurtured by Fred Coe. Of that group, David Shaw was Aurthur’s best friend and probably the writer closest to him in sensibility. Talented but impersonal, or rather all-purpose, Aurthur was a man of many genres and inclined to prefer adaptations over originals. He won an Emmy for dramatizing “Darkness at Noon” for Producers Showcase, but he never found a niche like the ones that made Serling or Chayefsky or Horton Foote famous. His best-known live TV script was “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” a story of union strife and interracial friendship that launched Martin Ritt as a film director (the movie version was called Edge of the City) and Sidney Poitier as a star.
Other details: There was a brief marriage to Bea Arthur (who kept his name but spelled it wrong). There were three plays on Broadway: they all flopped. Aurthur scored high-profile screenwriting assignments (Warlock, Lilith). As with all of the movies written by the live TV generation, except maybe Chayefsky, they weren’t as good as they should have been. The Hollywood system diluted them. Aurthur backed out of the job of writing The Magnificent Seven so that Walter Bernstein could do it and get off the blacklist. (It didn’t quite work out that way, but that’s another story.) A non-nonconformist, Aurthur ascended to executive jobs at Talent Associates and United Artists, a thing that Serling or Chayefsky would have spat upon. As a VP of TV at UA, he had something to do with the creation of East Side/West Side and backed pilot scripts by Mel Brooks and Neil Simon and Woody Allen that CBS wouldn’t buy. He became a (sympathetic) character in Only You, Dick Daring, Merle Miller’s scathing expose of a pilot undone by executive buffoonery.
After the plagiarism judgment, his path re-crossed with old compatriots from live TV. Poitier let him direct a film, The Lost Man, and Frankenheimer hired him on Grand Prix (but had William Hanley rewrite Aurthur’s script). Were they doing him favors or getting the better end of the deal? After The Lost Man, there was a lost decade that I can’t find out much about (Aurthur taught at NYU for some this time), and then a final, posthumous screen credit on a masterpiece, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Jazz has always been tagged as autobiographical for Fosse, but I’d love to know if there’s any of Aurthur’s life in it, too.
A book agent named Robert Kirsch blew the whistle on “A Sound of Different Drummers” even before the live broadcast went off the air. Kirsch called Bradbury. Bradbury watched the end of the show. He blew his stack, right around the same time Frankenheimer blew that gasket. He called his lawyer the next day.
Gene Beley’s Ray Bradbury Uncensored: The Unauthorized Biography! (iUniverse, 2006) covers the details of the ensuing litigation, which dragged on for years. The upshot: Bradbury lost in court but won on appeal. CBS coughed up the proverbial “undisclosed sum.” Bradbury’s attorney, Gerson Marks, found a paper trail proving that CBS had almost bought the TV rights to the book in 1952, and that Robert Alan Aurthur had considered buying it when he was story-editing Philco at NBC during its final (1954-1955) season. Aurthur testified. He fessed up to having seen an old summary prepared by Bernard Wolfe, the CBS story editor who optioned Fahrenheit 451 in 1952. But he denied having read the book itself.
Marks lobbed scorn at the idea that Aurthur had been willing to stage Fahrenheit 451 on Philco without actually reading it first. Beley quotes Gerson Marks, in part, as follows: “Aurthur had stature in the industry, and he had to make a moral and legal choice – say nothing or expose himself to the consequences of using unauthorized intellectual work. He made his choice on the witness stand . . . .”
My translation of Marks’s careful legalspeak: Aurthur lied under oath to save his ass.
It’s hard to imagine a time when someone could think of ripping off Ray Bradbury and getting away with it. But “A Sound of Different Drummers” came only four years after Fahrenheit 451 was published, and before Ray Bradbury was Ray Bradbury.
Michael Zagor, later a television writer himself, was working as a publicist at Universal in late 1961. One of his assignments was to keep Ray Bradbury happy during the filming of the (non-plagiarized) Alcoa Premiere adaptation of Bradbury’s story “The Jail.” It was less than a year after the suit was settled. Zagor recently told me that
Ray Bradbury was such a nice man. He said to me, “I don’t think Robert Alan Aurthur did it deliberately. I think he just thought it up one night and thought it was his, and then wrote it.” So he didn’t bear any visible animosity toward Robert Alan Aurthur.
He said, “It’s an awful business to sue. It takes a long, long time.” But he said he had to do it.
Though I love Fahrenheit 451, I’m less interested in Bradbury’s role in “A Sound of Different Drummers” and its aftermath than in Robert Alan Aurthur’s. Was Aurthur a callous plagiarist or an unconscious mimic? The latter sounds implausible, but live television moved fast, like Frankenheimer’s San Francisco firetruck camera, and I think every writer nurses a secret fear of disgorging some spontaneous nugget without realizing that it originated someplace else. Whether he was guilty or not, or something in between, and whether he lied or told the truth on the stand, Aurthur must have been utterly humiliated by the whole affair.
What personal and professional consequences did Aurthur suffer? Why doesn’t he have a single film or television credit between 1969 and 1979? Did he lose jobs and friends in the industry? Did he feel that CBS had thrown him under the bus back in 1957? If it’s true that Aurthur did lie: was no one else complicit in ripping off Bradbury? Could Frankenheimer and the producer, Martin Manulis, really have staged a plagiarized version of Fahrenheit 451 without realizing it? A Playhouse 90 show rehearsed for three weeks and employed scores, maybe hundreds of people – and none of them knew the Bradbury book?
One last thing I wonder about: Did Aurthur go to see the François Truffaut’s film when it came out in 1966? Did he understand that his and Frankenheimer’s version of Fahrenheit 451 was better than Truffaut’s? Did he ever dare say so?
Ray Bradbury will turn 90 on August 22.
June 12, 2009
Here’s a list I’ve been noodling with lately. The first entry kind of gives it away, but see how quickly you can guess what these films have in common:
Marty (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
Patterns (Rod Serling/Fielder Cook)
The Rack (Rod Serling/Arnold Laven)
The Catered Affair (Paddy Chayefsky/Richard Brooks)
Crime in the Streets (Reginald Rose/Don Siegel)
1984 (William P. Templeton/Michael Anderson)
Ransom (Cyril Hume & Richard Maibaum/Alex Segal)
The Fastest Gun Alive (Frank D. Gilroy/Russell Rouse)
Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose/Sidney Lumet)
The Bachelor Party (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
Dino (Reginald Rose/Thomas Carr)
Edge of the City (Robert Alan Aurthur/Martin Ritt)
Spring Reunion (Robert Alan Aurthur/Robert Pirosh)
The Young Stranger (Robert Dozier/John Frankenheimer)
Fear Strikes Out (Mel Goldberg/Robert Mulligan)
Man on Fire (Malvin Wald & Jack Jacobs/Ranald MacDougall)
The D.I. (James Lee Barrett/Jack Webb)
The Left-Handed Gun (Gore Vidal/Arthur Penn)
No Time For Sergeants (Ira Levin/Mervyn LeRoy)
Sing Boy Sing (Paul Monash/Henry Ephron)
Middle of the Night (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
The Rabbit Trap (JP Miller/Philip Leacock)
Visit to a Small Planet (Gore Vidal/Norman Taurog)
One Foot in Hell (Aaron Spelling/James B. Clark)
Judgment at Nuremberg (Abby Mann/Stanley Kramer)
The Outsider (Merle Miller/Delbert Mann)
The Hellions (Harold Swanton/Irwin Allen & Ken Annakin)
Days of Wine and Roses (JP Miller/Blake Edwards)
The Miracle Worker (William Gibson/Arthur Penn)
Requiem For a Heavyweight (Rod Serling/Ralph Nelson)
Incident in an Alley (Rod Serling/Edward L. Cahn)
Pressure Point (S. Lee Pogostin/Hubert Cornfield)
A Child Is Waiting (Abby Mann/John Cassavetes)
Dear Heart (Tad Mosel/Delbert Mann)
Baby the Rain Must Fall (Horton Foote/Robert Mulligan)
A Big Hand For the Little Lady (Sidney Carroll/Fielder Cook)
The Incident (Nicholas E. Baehr/Larry Peerce)
Charly (James Yaffe/Cliff Robertson)
The Legend of Lylah Clare (Robert Thom/Robert Aldrich)
Tomorrow (Horton Foote/Joseph Anthony)
Bang the Drum Slowly (Arnold Schulman/John Hancock)
The Trip to Bountiful (Horton Foote/Peter Masterson)
As you’ve probably deduced already, all of the movies above were adapted from live or videotaped dramas from the “golden age” television anthologies. The writer of the teleplay (but not necessarily of the subsequent screenplay) and the director of the film (but not necessarily of the original TV show) are listed, respectively, in parentheses.
I think it’s a revealing compilation because, once you get beyond the Serling and Chayefsky scripts, many of the films are not often cited as having their origins in live television. Mainly that’s because most of the authors and the original teleplays never became famous on their own, as Serling and Chayefsky and “Marty” and “Patterns” did.
I can only scratch the surface of this idea here, but I’d like to posit this list as Exhibit A in a theory that the live television adaptation represents a genuine and unacknowledged movement in the history of American cinema. How significant a movement? Less influential, certainly, than Italian neorealism or the French or Japanese New Waves were upon their national cinemas – but perhaps as discrete and coherent as any of those.
One thing that fascinates me about this list is the chronological curve it forms. If you mapped this data on a graph, the line would trace Hollywood’s explosion of interest in live television following the success of Marty; the early peak in 1956-1957 during which just about any live TV writer could make a lucrative movie-rights sale; and the gradual falling off as escapism regained ground in mainstream American filmmaking for a time during the mid-sixties.
“Kitchen sink” realism was the umbrella term for the elements of the archetypal fifties television drama: working class characters, urban and ethnic milieus, claustrophobic settings, center-left politics. All of these concerns migrated west to Hollywood on the backs of teleplays purchased from early New York-based TV dramas. So did a new style of emotionally intimate acting that developed in tandem with, and partly within the pressure-cooker workshop of, live television. The American theatrical renaissance of the postwar era – the influence of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, the Actors Studio, Stella Adler – is often and correctly credited with importing many of these ideas into the cinema. But television was an equally vital conduit.
If this wave of derived-from-live-television films is not enshrined as part of the historical canon, it may be because it foundered so quickly. Part of the problem was simply the process of filmmaking itself, which tended to dilute the characteristics that made television-derived material distinctive. Hour-long scripts were padded to feature length. Shooting in Hollywood studios, with cinematographers and production designers trained to make movie stars and their surroundings look as appealing as possible, added a visual gloss that no amount of carefully positioned garbage in backlot alleys could diminish. The commercial imperative to attract a wider, more mainstream audience led to the de-ethnicization and de-urbanization of characters and scenarios. Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair were happier and prettier than television’s Marty and Clara.
Another factor in the diminution of the live television school’s influence on the movies is the extent to which its major practitioners deviated from the styles they had developed in television. There was no reason to expect otherwise; consider how quickly the Italian neorealist auteurs diverged into maximalism (Fellini), minimalism (Rossellini), abstraction (Antonioni), decadence (Visconti), or banality (De Sica). Here’s another list to illustrate this point – a roster of the major live television directors who transitioned into features, with a chronological selection in parentheses of some of their most significant films. The directors are also listed chronologically, according to each man’s initial foray into filmmaking:
Delbert Mann (Marty; Separate Tables; That Touch of Mink)
Fielder Cook (Patterns; A Big Hand For the Little Lady; Seize the Day)
Alex Segal (Ransom; All the Way Home; Harlow)
Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men; Long Day’s Journey Into Night; The Pawnbroker)
Martin Ritt (Edge of the City; Hud; The Molly Maguires)
John Frankenheimer (The Young Stranger; The Manchurian Candidate; Grand Prix)
Robert Mulligan (Fear Strikes Out; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Stalking Moon)
Robert Stevens (The Big Caper; In the Cool of the Day; Change of Mind)
Jeffrey Hayden (The Vintage)
Arthur Penn (The Left-Handed Gun; Bonnie and Clyde; Little Big Man)
Vincent Donehue (Lonelyhearts; Sunrise at Campobello)
Daniel Petrie (The Bramble Bush; A Raisin in the Sun; The Neptune Factor)
Buzz Kulik (The Explosive Generation; Warning Shot; Villa Rides)
Ralph Nelson (Requiem For a Heavyweight; Father Goose; Soldier Blue)
George Roy Hill (Period of Adjustment; Hawaii; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Franklin Schaffner (The Stripper; Planet of the Apes; Patton)
Jack Smight (I’d Rather Be Rich; Harper; Midway)
Elliot Silverstein (Cat Ballou; The Happening; A Man Called Horse)
Paul Bogart (The Three Sisters; Marlowe; Skin Game)
George Schaefer (Pendulum; Doctors’ Wives; An Enemy of the People)
I’ve handpicked the films listed above (and potentially stacked the deck, I realize) to diagram the seemingly inescapable expansion of their directors from television-sized projects into larger-scaled and more stylistically varied films. Instead of building upon the techniques of live TV to develop radically new methods of filmmaking (of the type, say, that John Cassavetes, an actor but never a director in live TV, would do), the live directors all moved toward established Hollywood practices. The directors who resisted or failed to master these conventions are the ones who struggled.
Jeffrey Hayden, in a recent interview, told me that he felt underprepared and overwhelmed when MGM sent him to France with a veteran film crew to make his first (and only) feature. For Hayden, devoting two years to the planning of a single project translated into crushing boredom, and he returned to episodic television. Vincent Donehue is a case study in how live television experience can fail to prepare a director for working on film; nearly every camera angle, blocking choice, and cut in his two films is conspicuously ill-chosen. Delbert Mann, who hewed more closely than most to the kind of material he had directed in television, found worthwhile projects scarce after the mid-sixties. George Roy Hill and Franklin Schaffner were talented filmmakers, but they became such efficient purveyors of large-scaled, star-driven dramas that their roots in television (not to mention their own personalities) are difficult to discern in their work.
The richest filmographies among the directors above belong to those who fused what they learned in television with the broader possibilities of the cinema. Lumet adopted an intimate, mainly realistic approach that relied upon extensive rehearsal to foreground the work of his actors. He developed a preference for practical locations over the soundstages of live TV, and yet returned again and again to a vision of a grimy, teeming New York City.
Frankenheimer, almost a polar opposite, developed an aggressive visual pallet that drew heavily upon, but extended and refined, the tools available to him in live television: daring camera movements; frequent and extreme shifts in focal length; and complex, assertive editing. Where Lumet rarely chose to draw attention to his camera, Frankenheimer often abdicated in the area of performance, deferring to his actors to make their own choices (and often to overindulge themselves). Yet the basics of both styles derive measurably from live television.
To extend these musings one step further, I wonder to what extent certain aesthetics of live television may have resurfaced in the reborn “New Hollywood” of the seventies. Penn, Lumet, and to a lesser extent Ritt and Mulligan were still making major films at the time, films that attempted to interrogate or dismantle the classicism of their earliest features. The studiously drab imagery of Network and Night Moves, the Method-style acting of Little Big Man and Dog Day Afternoon circle back to the television that Penn and Lumet were directing in the fifties, even though both had flirted with a range of contradictory styles in the interim.
I’ve always been struck by how many of the key American filmmakers of the seventies who did not come out of live television apprenticed instead in its West Coast counterpart, the episodic filmed TV of the sixties. Altman, Peckinpah, Rafelson, Cassavetes, Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Michael Ritchie, Stuart Rosenberg, Lamont Johnson, Robert Towne, Alvin Sargent, Frank Pierson, and others all did significant early work there. Any serious pre-history of the New Hollywood movement must take television into account. The initial question that comes to mind: was TV any kind of a positive influence on the mature work of these filmmakers, or just the holding pen from which they broke loose in order to innovate?
Thanks to Jonah Horwitz for correcting some technical errors in my earlier writing on John Frankenheimer, and for adding to my understanding of Frankenheimer’s and Lumet’s visual strategies. An earlier draft of this piece omitted A Child Is Waiting (1963), Dear Heart (1964), A Big Hand For the Little Lady (1966), and several other films from the first list.
January 7, 2009
The Archive has done videotaped interviews with over 600 people who worked in early television in various capacities, so they’re obviously operating in the same wheelhouse as this blog. Much of my own research in recent years has focused on oral history. Since it began to emerge on Google Video, the Archive’s output has done a great deal to inspire me, and to validate the methodology that I’ve chosen to pursue.
It’s obvious that the Archive is a treasure trove for historians like myself, but many of the interviews are enormously entertaining for the casual spectator too. Often they achieve an intimacy that’s akin to the experience of attending a dinner party and listening to a veteran entertainer hold court with a lifetime of stories. The segments with Andy Griffith, Ed Asner, the actress Maxine Stuart, the director Robert Butler, and the writer Ernest Kinoy all succeed in that way.
My own favorite is probably the interview with John Frankenheimer, who’s such a polished raconteur that I’m surprised he never enjoyed a sideline as a character actor, along the lines of his protege Sydney Pollack. The next time you have fifteen minutes to spare, check out the long anecdote Frankenheimer tells at the beginning of Part 7 of his oral history. It may be the ultimate live television disaster story . . . and it’s never failed to crack up anyone to whom I’ve recommended it.