Welcome to Nukeland.

Here in these United States it’s been a long time since we’ve had a good, scary dose of nuclear fear.  Remember walking around feeling like some unseen enemy (or just the power plant upstate) could suddenly vaporize you or leave you glowing green while your guts slowly leak out of every orifice?

I’m just old enough to have experienced the last one, in the early eighties, when Reagan desperately pumped more life into the flagging Cold War.  Movies like The Day After and Testament played on television downstairs while I huddled in bed, peering out my window and waiting for the inevitable mushroom cloud to bloom in the night sky.

Nuclear paranoia is one of my favorite little subgenres of television drama (and even comedy: think Sledge Hammer!).  It reached full bloom in the eighties but you can trace it all the way back to the early days of Uh-murr-kuh’s throwdown with the Russkies.  There’s a Medic episode that has Los Angeles glowing green, a truly disturbing Way Out in which the devil infiltrates an Air Force bunker to launch some nukes, a Nevada nuclear test that irradiated some key characters on Crime Story (made in the eighties, of course, but set in the fifties), a fistful of post-apocalyptic Twilight Zones, and even a Dr. Kildare about H-bomb survivors that’s a sort of Nagasaki, Mon Amour.

I’ve seen all of those and they’re great, but there’s one that’s driving me crazy, that I’ve looked for for years and can’t get my hands on: “Alas, Babylon,” Playhouse 90’s 1960 adaptation of the Pat Frank novel about survival in a post-Holocaust world.

Frank’s novel is straightforward, quietly terrifying account of a one-day war and the year that follows, in which a young loafer, Randy Bragg, gradually toughens and matures and becomes the leader of a motley community of survivors.  Frank, a hard-drinking ex-reporter, was an adoptive Floridian and he nails the atmosphere of that sweaty, sun-drenched, slow-moving place better than any Florida writer I’ve read, except maybe John D. MacDonald.

Alas, Babylon was published in 1959, the same year that Stanley Kramer made On the Beach, that movie stars-on-a-submarine white elephant that is the blandest of all movies about the end of human civilization (an impossibility, one would think, but no).  More closely than either the Kramer film or the Nevil Shute novel upon which it is based, Frank’s book resembles Lynne Littman’s astonishing Testament (1983), perhaps the best (or at least the most depressing) American film of the eighties, which chronicles the slow, quiet, inexorable death of a small town as it succumbs to fallout, starvation, and infrastructure collapse.

*

By 1959, Playhouse 90 was falling apart.  Three years earlier it had begun life as the showpiece of the live anthologies.  Now it was something of an albatross, a loss leader that CBS could point to as evidence that quality television was still alive and well (even if it wasn’t).  After two seasons in the hands of the capable Martin Manulis, Playhouse 90 had been split between three big-name live dramatic producers: Fred Coe, Herbert Brodkin, and John Houseman.  If anything, the year under their tenure – which included “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Child of Our Time,” “The Velvet Alley,” and “Judgment at Nuremberg” – was even better than the first two.

For the fourth season, the multi-producer arrangement continued, with Coe and Houseman handling six each of a planned twenty-three segments, according to a Variety story dated July 15, 1959.  The remaining eleven were to be divided between Brodkin and Peter Kortner, who had been a story editor and associate producer on Playhouse 90 since the show’s debut.  A journeyman among giants, Kortner was nevertheless given the first two airdates in the 1959-1960 season, and prepared two ambitious shows for them: Rod Serling’s original “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” for October 1 and “Alas, Babylon” for October 8.

But things did not go as planned.

By midseason, CBS had cut the episode order down to seventeen and dislodged Playhouse 90 from its Thursday night timeslot.  The fourth season had been a last-minute reprieve in the first place, and fully half of the series’ commercial spots remained unbought, leaving CBS about $4 million in the red.  The final episodes drifted around the schedule, airing as special events.

Somehow, Serling’s “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” went from the first to the last.  The writer’s only contribution to Playhouse 90’s last season, Serling’s Warsaw ghetto story (with Charles Laughton as a rabbi) wasn’t broadcast until May 18, 1960, when it became the series’ final episode.

As for “Alas, Babylon,” it was swapped with the Serling piece and announced, on July 27, as the fourth season premiere.  The symmetry was irresistible.  The very first episode of Playhouse 90, “Forbidden Area,” had also been an adaptation of a Pat Frank novel; now another one would open what was certain to be the final season of the show.  (The two Frank-derived segments bookended a trilogy of nuclear 90s, with another story of post-atomic survival, Dorothy and Howard Baker’s “The Ninth Day,” in the middle.)  But on August 20, the network announced that “Alas, Babylon” would be pushed back to an unspecified date, to accommodate the availability of Charlton Heston, who had agreed to star in it.  In its place to kick off the season was “Target For Three,” a well-reviewed fictionalization of the recent revolution in Cuba.

The status of “Alas, Babylon” remained unclear until, finally, CBS announced on February 4 that it would be shown on April 3, 1960 (making it, ironically, the penultimate original Playhouse 90).  The cast now comprised Don Murray as Randy Bragg and Dana Andrews as his Air Force officer brother, along with Rita Moreno, Barbara Rush, Everett Sloane, Kim Hunter, Don Gordon, and a very young Burt Reynolds.  No mention was made of Heston (and it’s uncertain which of the brothers he would have played; it’s hard to imagine him as the easygoing wastrel Randy, but Mark Bragg was probably too secondary a role for Heston).

In the interim, the film version of On the Beach – a December 1959 release – had opened to generally good reviews and, in effect, “scooped” “Alas, Babylon,” which had blown its chance to debut ahead of the similar and much more high-profile Kramer project.

New York Times television columnist Val Adams sniffed a conspiracy, writing an October 4 piece subtitled “Alas, Babylon – Alas, CBS, where is it?” in which he hinted that the Heston excuse was a fiction.  Adams speculated that the network had become gun-shy as a result of an old controversy over the third season premiere, “The Plot to Kill Stalin,” which had so annoyed the Soviet Union that it kicked CBS’s correspondent out of Moscow.  Could “Alas, Babylon” cause another international incident?

In fact, though, the Heston story was plausible.  His atypical commitment to live television even after establishing himself as a movie star (“Actor Charlton Heston likes doing live TV,” was the headline for a June 14, 1959 Hartford Courant interview) had of necessity ended with the extended location filming of Ben-Hur in 1958.  But Heston noted in his autobiography that he spent an idle “few months” mostly playing with his young son in Los Angeles in between the lensing of The Wreck of the Mary Deare during the summer of 1959 and publicity duties prior to the premiere of Ben-Hur in December.  “Alas, Babylon” was probably taped during that window and it could indeed have been rescheduled following a tentative commitment from Heston.

And had “The Plot to Kill Stalin” really been the problem, wouldn’t CBS have killed “Alas, Babylon” long before it went in front of the camera?  Still, the unusual duration of “Alas, Babylon”’s limbo – it was benched for six months, nearly the entirety of the television season – does suggest a deficit of enthusiasm on the network’s part.

*

Speaking only in terms of prestige, “Alas, Babylon” was a product of Playhouse 90’s “B team.”  David Shaw, who wrote the teleplay, was the humblest of the major television playwrights, content to adapt others’ work and more chameleonesque in his style than Chayefsky, Serling, or Reginald Rose.  But some of his originals, especially for The Defenders, are urgent and precise; he may have been a better match than the verbose Serling for Frank’s matter-of-fact prose.

The director of “Alas, Babylon” was Robert Stevens, who had also done “Target For Three.”  The most famously temperamental of live television directors – Jeff Kisseloff’s industry survey The Box contains a section of “Robert Stevens stories” – Stevens was also an underrated talent with a penchant for chiaroscuro lighting and fluid, sweeping camera movements.  Equally versatile on film, he became the only director to win an Emmy for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Hitchcock himself never did) with the scary episode “The Glass Eye.”

The well-publicized delay in getting “Alas, Babylon” on the air, coupled with Playhouse 90’s clear lame-duck status, was blood in the water for the critics, who were not kind to the show.  Lawrence Laurent of the Washington Post, Times Herald had liked Frank’s novel but sniffed that its “sweep of grandeur . . . was reduced, on television, to an unhappy love story.”  Fred Danzig of UPI was more specific, complaining that Shaw’s “pompous, obvious dialogue . . . served to magnify the artificiality of the characters” and that his adaptation “managed to grab all the stereotyped, sharp-edged blocks of action and emotion in the book and reject all the subtleties.”

John Crosby, one of the nation’s most respected television critics, wrote:

The narrative moved like lightning from uneasy peace to total disaster with a sure-footed mounting excitement that left me breathless.  The transitions . . . were particularly dramatic.  In one of them, for example, the action shifted suddenly, explosively from a character quoting the Alas, Babylon passage from the Bible to jet bombers streaming through the sky; in another from the drunken hero at a supermarket to the quiet orderliness of the underground “push button” headquarters.

But Crosby, somewhat unfairly, used the occasion to proclaim an overall fatigue for apocalyptic fiction.  Had “Alas, Babylon” been shown half a year earlier, the headline over Crosby’s Hartford Courant review might not have been “End of World Fiction Is Getting Boring.”

In The New York Times, John P. Shanley just seemed shell-shocked.  Shanley praised the show’s dramatic effectiveness but wondered

what good purpose could be served by many of the vivid moments of terror and hysteria depicted during the program.  A small child runs back into her home after a nuclear explosion, screaming “I’m blind, I’m blind.”  A physician is brutally beaten by a group of addicts after the blasts have cut off their regular source of supply.

But, you know what?  All that stuff that freaked out the critics back in 1960 sounds pretty fucking awesome now.

The show opens with a dead man’s narration (a device that Laurent correctly noted was cribbed from Sunset Boulevard): “My name is Mark Bragg.  I’m dead.  Ninety-two percent of the world’s population is dead.  I was one of the first.  I was lucky.”  If the remaining eighty-nine minutes are as stark as that one, then I’m in.  Was “Alas, Babylon” a dud?  Or could it have been ahead of its time, miles ahead if its time, too hard to take except maybe now, at a remove, when the nukes are still out there but the sweaty thumbs aren’t twitching quite so hard over the buttons?

*

The UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Paley Center for Media both possess large caches of Playhouse 90 episodes – between them, more than half of the 134 episodes are available for study – but neither has a copy of “Alas, Babylon.”  It’s also not among the cataloged holdings of the Library of Congress, the Museum of Broadcasting in Chicago, or the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research.

It is likely that CBS has the original 2” master tape, or at least a kinescope, of “Alas, Babylon” in its vaults.  Playhouse 90 was a prestige product from the outset, less likely than just about any other show to have had its elements tossed or reused.  I’ve even heard that CBS’s Playhouse 90 tapes were preserved and transferred to a more stable video format at some point.

Of course, that’s of little use to anyone who would actually like to see the show, and judging from the internet comments of some fellow nuclear paranoiaphiles (see here and here), I’m not the only one in that camp.  It’s only enough to whet the appetite, but Getty Images does have a small selection of production and publicity stills from “Alas, Babylon” on its website.  For now, that will have to suffice.

*

In what will be an occasional column on this blog, I’m going to start writing about some television shows that I haven’t seen – and that you haven’t, either, unless you were born during the baby boom or earlier. 

I’m talking about live, or videotaped, or even occasional filmed shows that are verifiably lost, or that, if they do exist, reside only in a corporate vault, inaccessible to the public.

My idea here is to pick out a few specific episodes or specials that I, personally, would really love to see, and create a little virtual shrine for them.  And, who knows, perhaps a little attention paid will help coax a last copy out of the closet or the vault . . . .

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 198 other followers