Horton Foote Takes the Bus

August 10, 2012

Another historian once told me that his attempt to interview Horton Foote got off on the wrong, er, foot when he referred to his subject as a “regional writer.”  Mr. Foote undoubtedly felt that his work contained more multitudes than that, and perhaps it does, but his reputation remains that of an East Texas memoirist and a chronicler of gentle Southern lore.  On the arc of live television dramatists, Foote’s Southern stories reside at a far end of specificity, counterbalancing Paddy Chayefsky’s equally acute catalog of Jewish (and Jewish-disguised-as-other-ethniticies) masturbators and mamas.

Foote reworked many of his teleplays for the stage or the big screen, with enough success that in many cases the original works have been forgotten.  The Paley Center seeks to rectify that oversight this month with a small but well-chosen series of the reluctant regionalist’s television work, beginning with “The Trip to Bountiful” (a 1953 Goodyear Television Playhouse) on Sunday and then “The Traveling Lady” (a 1957 Studio One) on August 19.

“The Trip to Bountiful” concerns old Mother Watts (Lillian Gish), a semi-senile senior who shares a two-room apartment in Houston with her married son but yearns to return to the tiny Texas hamlet where she once worked a farm and raised two children by herself.  This was a barnstorming comeback for Gish, who had starred for D.W. Griffith in the silent films, and she milks it for all it’s worth, weeping and literally rending the scenery (or at least a crucial prop) at the finale.  Gish probably owed her memorable role in The Night of the Hunter to this performance, but a middle section of the show is stolen from her by twenty-nine year-old Eva Marie Saint, only a year away from On the Waterfront and major, if fleeting, stardom.  Saint, playing a helpful stranger, herself adrift on a lonely journey, is lovely, capable, and respectfully sympathetic toward her frail traveling companion.  Even though Foote fills the vacuum almost immediately with another helpmate, a soft-hearted sheriff (Frank Overton), “The Trip to Bountiful” deflates a bit after Saint exits at the midpoint.  In scarcely twenty minutes, she establishes herself as Gish’s equal, perhaps exceeding Foote’s intentions; the part almost calls for a less radiant ingenue, one whose own story we don’t feel the need to see completed.

The justly famous centerpiece of “The Trip to Bountiful” is the unbroken nine-minute take in which the bus riders played by Gish and Saint exchange backstories.  Carrie Watts’s anecdote about the man she loved but was forbidden to marry is only a small part of this conversation, and yet it formed the basis for a quartet of Foote teleplays.  The simplicity of this scene is breathtaking; a single cut would have broken the spell.  If the stereotypical idea of the live television director is that of John Frankenheimer, chain-smoking his way through a broadcast and snapping “take one, take two, take one,” then “The Trip to Bountiful” conjures a competing control booth image of Vincent J. Donehue, feet propped up and skimming most of the evening edition during the second act of “The Trip to Bountiful.”

Although one tends to think of Foote as a Grand Old Man, “The Trip to Bountiful” (which Donehue and producer Fred Coe staged on Broadway eight months after the telecast) is a young man’s play, sympathic to outsiders and scornful of establishment values.  Bottomless in his empathy for Mrs. Watts, Foote falters in his characterizations of the spineless son and the shrewish daughter-in-law (whose preference for Hollywood over Bountiful is carefully underlined).  Like Chayefsky’s “Marty,” Foote’s script concerns itself with the relations between parents and their adult children.  Because Goodyear can render Bountiful as little more than a single dilapidated, weed-choked front porch, the visceral experience of the Foote and the Chayefsky shows is not terribly dissimilar, even as the respective film versions of each, shot in authentic outdoor locations, feel worlds apart.  The disconnect between Foote’s rural Texas settings and their soundstage approximations forces the viewer’s attention toward the thematic and universal elements in his work – a process that has no equivalent in the early scripts of Chayefsky, Serling, or Rose, most of which took place in hot, dingy little rooms that were more easily evoked in a TV studio.

The ending of “The Trip to Bountiful” is nostalgic but hardly sentimental.  Indeed, one almost longs for Foote to fell Mother Watts, sifting the soil of her ruined homestead through withered fingers, with the fatal heart attack that is foreshadowed throughout.  But no: instead he gives us a testy reconciliation between parent, child, and in-law that plays out as a pathetic exercise in self-deception on the part of everyone concerned.

If “Bountiful” is a journey that ends in stasis, then “The Traveling Lady” is a static work that ends on the cusp of a journey.  Arguably more mature in its characterizations than “Bountiful,” “Lady” – another piece partly about a vulnerable young woman’s bus trip – is nevertheless the lesser work.  “Lady”’s path to television was the inverse of “Bountiful”’s: after The Trip to Bountiful flopped on Broadway, Foote and Donehue reteamed to mount The Traveling Lady for the 1954 season.  It, too, closed in a month, and was revived three years later by Herbert Brodkin on Studio One, probably less out of devotion to Foote’s work (even though he was by then a sought-after scribe) than as an excuse for Kim Stanley to recreate the title role, that of a single mother reuniting with her husband following his six-year jail sentence, for a wider audience.

A New Mexican who liked to tell people she was from Texas, Stanley fit Horton’s delicate dialogue like a glove.  She’s extraordinary in “The Traveling Lady,” a model of Method acting at its most precise, hitting different emotional beats on every Footean syllable and many of her own pauses in between.  The viewer can hardly keep up. 

It’s too bad that “The Traveling Lady,” already a collection of characters in search of a play, suffers from the miscasting of nearly all the supporting roles.  Less nonsensical on the page, one hopes, Mildred Dunnock’s floridly dotty Mrs. Mavis is a Tennessee Williams reject, and no one could have picked two less Texan leading men for Stanley than Steven Hill and Robert Loggia.  Loggia essentially pulls off the rogue who wants to make a home for his family but cannot escape violence and alcoholism; Hill, wooden and tripping up on a vague attempt at an accent, is a disaster as Slim, the deputy sheriff who falls at first sight for our traveler.  (And Slim has the best monologue, too, sharing a painful secret about his late wife.)  Lonny Chapman and Jack Lord, who did the male leads on Broadway, likely came closer, and a dream cast of Pat Hingle and Andy Griffith might have nailed it. 

As it was, the director of “The Traveling Lady,” Robert Mulligan, tried again, with a feature version in 1965 retitled Baby the Rain Must Fall.  He finally perfected the casting – Lee Remick, Steve McQueen, Don Murray – but still Foote’s difficult souffle did not rise.  Amazingly, Stanley essayed the role a third time in 1958 – for ITV’s Armchair Theatre, with Denholm Elliott and Ronan O’Casey as her leading men.  I’d love to hear how they managed the East Texas brogues.

Sources: Together Jon Krampner’s excellent Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television (Rutgers UP, 1997) and Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley (Back Stage Books, 2006) form a sort of penumbral biography of Horton Foote.

Networking

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:

1955
Marty (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)

1956
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)

1957
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)

1958
The Left-Handed Gun (Gore Vidal/Arthur Penn)
No Time For Sergeants (Ira Levin/Mervyn LeRoy)
Sing Boy Sing (Paul Monash/Henry Ephron)

1959
Middle of the Night (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
The Rabbit Trap (JP Miller/Philip Leacock)

1960
Visit to a Small Planet (Gore Vidal/Norman Taurog)
One Foot in Hell (Aaron Spelling/James B. Clark)

1961
Judgment at Nuremberg (Abby Mann/Stanley Kramer)
The Outsider (Merle Miller/Delbert Mann)
The Hellions (Harold Swanton/Irwin Allen & Ken Annakin)

1962
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)

1963
A Child Is Waiting (Abby Mann/John Cassavetes)

1964
Dear Heart (Tad Mosel/Delbert Mann)

1965
Baby the Rain Must Fall (Horton Foote/Robert Mulligan)

1966
A Big Hand For the Little Lady (Sidney Carroll/Fielder Cook)

1967
The Incident (Nicholas E. Baehr/Larry Peerce)

1968
Charly (James Yaffe/Ralph Nelson)
The Legend of Lylah Clare (Robert Thom/Robert Aldrich)

1972
Tomorrow (Horton Foote/Joseph Anthony)

1973
Bang the Drum Slowly (Arnold Schulman/John Hancock)

1985
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.

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