QM Minus Two

September 17, 2009

vlcsnap-112254
Paul Burke and Nancy Malone in Naked City (“Requiem For a Sunday Afternoon,” 1961)

The grim reaper has been working overtime this month: Larry Gelbart, Army Archerd, Patrick Swayze, Henry Gibson, Zakes Mokae, Mary Travers, and the estimable Dick Berg, who granted me a good interview last year.  One of the weird coincidences in television history is that many of the major players – actors, writers, directors, crew – from the Quinn Martin factory are or, until recently, were still alive and available for interviews.  If you were writing about Bewitched or Ben Casey, you were out of luck, but if you tackled a QM show you could compile a decent production narrative by way of oral history.

Now death finally seems to be catching up with QM, claiming Philip Saltzman (a producer of The FBI and Barnaby Jones) a couple of weeks ago, and now both Paul Burke and George Eckstein over the weekend.  Burke, of course, was the second star of QM’s World War II drama 12 O’Clock High, replacing Robert Lansing, whom Martin found too diffident and remote to headline his series.  Burke had a more likeable, down-to-earth quality than Lansing, although he was a less gifted actor.  He was Leno to Lansing’s Letterman.

Burke had also been the replacement star of Naked City, taking over for James Franciscus in what the New York Times’s obituarist, Margalit Fox, called Naked City’s second season.  Technically that’s accurate, but Fox’s phrasing reminded me of how it has never felt true.  In my mind, there were two Naked Citys, the half-hour and the subsequent hour-long version.  Both sprang originally from the pen of the prolific Stirling Silliphant, and both took great advantage of the practical outdoor locations available in New York City.  But the casts were different (save for a pair of supporting players), a full TV season separated them, and the extended length of the later episodes occasioned a major shift in tone. 

The Los Angeles Times’s obit for Burke called Naked City “gritty,” but that’s more true of the Franciscus version, a lean, action-centric genre piece that turned Manhattan into a giant playground for foot and car chases.  The half-hour City had more in common with other contemporary half-hour crime melodramas – there were a wave of these made in New York City in the late fifties, including Big Story, Decoy, and Brenner – than with its own sixty-minute incarnation, which told character-based stories in a much wider tonal range.  The Stirling Silliphant of the first Naked City was the terse pulp writer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and late films noir (The Lineup, Five Against the House).  By 1960, when the hour Naked City debuted, he was the loquacious beat poet of Route 66, a personal writer working an in an ever more idiosyncratic voice.  Because not even Silliphant was prolific enough to write both shows at once, he gradually delegated Naked City to Howard Rodman, whose scripts were even more lyrical and offbeat.

If I haven’t said too much about Paul Burke, it’s because he always struck me as a passive personality, just on the good side of dull.  That sounds like a knock, but it may have made Burke ideal for the hour Naked City, which required the regulars to step aside most weeks to let some grand stage actor – Eli Wallach or Lee J. Cobb or George C. Scott – take a whack at one of Silliphant’s or Rodman’s verbose eccentrics.  One of the best things about Naked City was the relationship between Burke’s Detective Adam Flint and his girlfriend Libby, played by Nancy Malone, that resided on the margins of the show.  The pair were friends as well as lovers, and quite clearly (thanks less to the dialogue than to the sidelong glances between the two actors) sleeping together.  Adam and Libby were one of TV’s first modern, urbane, adult couples: Rob and Laura Petrie without the farce.  Burke may have done his finest work in those scenes.

*

George Eckstein produced Banacek, Steven Spielberg’s Duel, and a number of other important television movies of the seventies.  But I suspect more TV fans remember him as a story editor and primary writer for Quinn Martin’s two finest hours, The Fugitive (for which Eckstein co-wrote the two-hour series finale) and The Invaders

Last month Ed Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured, chastized me for expressing only modest enthusiasm toward Philip Saltzman’s Fugitive episodes, which included one of Ed’s favorites, “Cry Uncle.”  Well, I’m relieved to report that Eckstein wrote some of my favorite episodes, chiefly “The Survivors” (about Richard Kimble’s complex relationship with his in-laws), “See Hollywood and Die,” and “This’ll Kill You.” 

The latter two paired Kimble, the innocent man on the lam, with actual hoodlums of one variety or another, allowing Eckstein to zero in one of the more intriguing aspects of the show’s premise: how does one live among the underworld of criminals without becoming one of them?  “This’ll Kill You” showcases Mickey Rooney as a washed-up, mobbed-up comedian, whose infatuation with a treacherous moll (the great Nita Talbot) leads him to his doom.  It seems like every TV drama of the sixties wrapped a segment specifically around Rooney’s fireball energy; some were dynamite (Arrest and Trial’s “Funny Man With a Monkey,” with Rooney as a desperate heroin-popper) and some disastrous (The Twilight Zone’s “Last Night of a Jockey,” with Rooney as, well, an annoying short guy).  Eckstein’s seedy little neo-noir gave Rooney some scenery worth chewing.

I interviewed Eckstein briefly in 1998 while researching my article on The Invaders.  Eckstein is only quoted in the published version a few times, because he was incredibly circumspect.  Not only would he not say anything bad about anyone, he’d barely say anything at all about them.  I suspect Eckstein agreed to talk to me only because I had gotten his number from another gentleman of the old school, Alan Armer, who had been his boss on the two QM shows.  I wish I could have asked him more – especially now, as I am just reaching the point in the run of The Untouchables (which I had never seen before its DVD release) when Eckstein, making his TV debut, became a significant contributor.  It’s always a race against time.

vlcsnap-108728

vlcsnap-735721

In 1958, ABC lobbed an eight-year nightmare of emasculation onto the airwaves, cloaking it under an innocuous title: The Donna Reed Show.  Less blatantly Freudian than the same year’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, this domestic situation comedy nevertheless postulated its housewife protagonist as a superwoman capable of rendering the male of the species all but obsolete.  The surname of Reed’s emblematic TV family was Stone – same as the stuff they build prisons out of.

The eponymous star kept her own first name as the all-purpose wife/mother.  Two kids (teenaged Mary and younger son Jeff) and work-at-home pediatrician dad Alex made up the rest of The Donna Reed Show‘s prototypically nuclear clan, huddled together in a cramped-looking suburban two-story. 

The standard rap on The Donna Reed Show is that it presents Reed as an impossibly idealized image of domesticity.  But in digging through the first ten or so episodes, I was struck by how far Donna’s superpowers extended beyond the regimen of mending clothes and packing lunches. 

The debut outing, “Weekend Trip,” has Donna scheming to clear the family schedule so they can enjoy a brief vacation together.  And I mean scheming: think Lady Macbeth.  Donna manipulates Alex’s colleagues and friends into covering his patients or dropping their demands on his time.  She even usurps his professional status, figuring out a psychological motive behind a boy’s illness that eludes Dr. Stone.  Alex still manages to wreck things at the last minute, by forgetting to deliver an important phone message – Carl Betz’s “oh, fuck” reaction shot is the biggest laugh in the episode – but Donna has this problem solved in seconds, and doesn’t even deign to issue the expected scolding.  From the outset the message is clear: Hubby might be the breadwinner, but his stethoscope is as limp as his … well, you know. 

With each new episode, Donna seems to annex another sector of masculine territory.  She teaches Jeff how to box (episode two, “Pardon My Gloves”).  She takes a group of boys on a camping trip (episode three, “The Hike”).  Finally the question of Donna’s incontrovertible superiority comes to the fore in the fourth segment, “Male Ego,” which really chucks poor Alex under the bus: Mary delivers an overblown speech extolling her mother’s virtues, and dad comes off as a whinging ingrate when he bristles at being undervalued.  By the time the infamous twin beds turn up in the spousal bedroom during in the final scene of “Male Ego,” you can’t help but muse that it’s Donna who decides if and when they get pushed together, and Alex who’s on the bottom during the activity that ensues.

The punchlines to these gags undercut a full-on feminist reading.  Hopeless at tent construction and other outdoor skills, Donna hires a caterer to provide the hunter’s stew.  But the overwhelming impression is of a family unit in which husband and even kids are superfluous appendages. 

It’s possible to assess much of the popular American entertainment of the fifties as a post-war retrenchment of traditional gender roles.  This is especially relevant in television, where the major works of the first generation of dramatists (Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, Stirling Silliphant) often retreated into all-male worlds, or unfolded as one-sided and rather hysterical monologues on female sexuality and independence.  (Silliphant’s early Route 66 segment “A Lance of Straw,” available on DVD, gives this type of anxiety a rigorous workout.)  In that context, The Donna Reed Show seems less about female empowerment (or its opposite) than male fear.

vlcsnap-730811

*

I have, of course, offered a somewhat radical counter-reading here.  But I think the worthwhile comedy shows of the fifties sustain these kinds of sidelong interpretations, and even encourage them.  Programs like The Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best are thought of as reinforcing social norms – the Eisenhower ideal of the nuclear family, pounded into your head until you want to impale yourself on a white picket fence.  But humor derives from the defiance of expectations, so it follows that only the most banal (and now forgotten) early sitcoms could have failed to challenge, in some way, the institutions that they depicted. 

For instance.  I’ve always thought of Leave It to Beaver not as a wholesome family show but as an exercise in witty insult humor.  You have June’s cheery putdowns of Ward’s stuffiness; his slow-on-the-uptake double takes; Lumpy Rutherford and his father Fred, sharply etched caricatures of mediocrity; and of course Eddie Haskell, a human diarrhea of sarcasm that splatters all over every totem of ethics or decorum.  And watch Wally Cleaver closely.  Tony Dow’s “aw, shucks” delivery, and the long penumbra of Ken Osmond’s more verbal Eddie, conceal a steady, passive-aggressive stream of unanswered rebukes to every correction offered by his parents, and a devastatingly accurate assessment of “the little creep”‘s (Beaver’s) shortcomings.  It’s the prototype for a later, raunchier classic of spoofed suburban malaise, Married with Children, and I’m very much convinced that Beaver’s original audience was in on the joke.

Apart from a few clips, I’ve never seen The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but I’m fascinated by Tim Lucas’s considerations of the surrealism and technical innovation in that series – qualities which would seem to refute, or at least sidestep, the common perceptions of the Nelsons’ fourteen-season opus as a simple-minded exercise in domestic harmony.  Lucas’s work strikes me as a useful example of how to look at media that might seem dated or irrelevant today: through contemporary eyes, but with a close and open-minded examination of the texts. 

Fifties sitcoms seem particularly vulnerable to brutalization at the hands of ideologues.  Nostalgists respond to them with misty-eyed diatribes exalting the narrow-minded, conformist “family values” of the fifties.  In this limited view, The Donna Reed Show becomes a club to wield against today’s more permissive popular culture or even (by devaluing that which the Stones’ world excludes) against the sort of social progress that has made possible the election of a black president.  Where’s that African-American version of the Stone family?  Oh, right – they were busy getting block-busted out of the suburbs over on East Side/West Side.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve run into academics who see fifties sitcoms as objects of condescension or ridicule.  When I was in film school, the old cliche of June Cleaver wearing pearls while doing housework came up as an example of how out of touch shows like Leave It to Beaver were with the reality of their own era.  When I pointed out that June wore pearls because the cameraman sought to conceal Barbara Billingsley’s unattractive neck – and cited a source, Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 – no one was particularly interested.  But to me, such clues are critical in trying to gauge the gap between reality and representation.

*

I’ve drifted pretty far away from The Donna Reed Show, which I had not sampled until its first season appeared on DVD (in an attractive, well-produced set from Arts Alliance).  Is the show any good?  It’s certainly competent: there are a few laughs in every episode, and more wit and intelligence than I expected. 

I wish I knew more about the production history of the series.  The producer was Tony Owen – Reed’s husband – and the associate producer, William Roberts, who is also credited with creating the characters, was apparently the same screenwriter who co-wrote The Magnificent Seven.  Roberts penned the funniest episode I’ve seen so far (“Change Partners and Dance”), but The Donna Reed Show doesn’t appear to be the work of a single distinctive voice.  Instead, it’s a professional, anonymous effort assembled by a large pool of busy freelance comedy writers.  The scripts are inconsistent, not only in quality but in sophistication.  “Pardon My Gloves” includes a Hitchcock joke and a subplot about a mangled local theatre production of A Doll’s House that’s only funny if you know a little bit about Ibsen.  But in the same episode, Jeff comes home with a black eye (and then another one), and each time his family seems concerned primarily with whether or not he succeeded in beating the other boy even more savagely.

vlcsnap-743539

The direction, mostly by Oscar Rudolph, is routine, although the timing and energy of the cast is pretty lively.  Someone made the clever decision to write all of Jeff Stone’s lines at an adult level, and Paul Petersen’s delivery of these precocious throwaways is often hilarious (much more so than Danny Bonaduce’s obnoxious take on a similar character in The Partridge Family).  Petersen and Shelly Fabares have a fast-paced, natural chemistry, and – as in Leave It to Beaver – their banter is more insult-based than one might expect.  (Sample lines from the episode “Change Partners and Dance.”  Mary: “What a revolting little freak . . . He makes me sick.  I think if I had my way I’d drown all boys at birth.”  Jeff: “A formula guaranteed to get rid of ten pounds of ugly fat . . . Cut off your head!”)  

Even Carl Betz, a total stiff in his dramatic turn as Judd For the Defense (for which he won an Emmy), proves a nimble straight man.

Oddly, the weakest member of the ensemble is Donna Reed herself.  Reed is monotonous, even cloying, in her unflappability; her perma-smile has a robotic quality, like an android grandma from The Twilight Zone.  Much more than the material, it’s the star’s unwillingness to bestow any hint of human frailty upon Donna Stone that gives The Donna Reed Show its Stepford reputation.  Donna Stone is the antithesis of the warm (and, not insignificantly, ethnic) mama figure of Molly Goldberg. 

It’s easy to imagine a child burying his or her face in Mrs. Goldberg’s ample bosom for comfort, but in a similar scene on The Donna Reed Show, I’d be scrutinizing Reed’s face for subtext: will this embrace muss my hair or wrinkle my apron?  She’s the kind of parent whose perfection most kids would compare themselves against and come up lacking.  How could Jeff and Mary hope to reach their twenties without becoming seething, rebellious head cases?  Now that’s one made-for-TV reunion movie I would have liked to see.

Update, 9/15/08: I haven’t purchased the reissued Season 1 Route 66 DVD set yet.  But word on the street has it that while the second half has been redone in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the first fifteen episodes are still presented in the original mediocre 16mm transfers.  I guess it’s up to the individual consumer to decide whether the glass is half full, or half empty.  The complete Season 2 will be released on October 21.  7/14/09: The name of the Infinity Entertainment spokesman with whom I corresponded for this piece has been redacted at his request.  He is no longer affiliated with Infinity.

Thus far I’ve refrained from turning this blog into a report on home video issues, even though I do keep tabs on them, because there are many other sites which perform that function ably.  I’m also not fond of people who use their blogs as bully pulpits to harangue others less civilly than they would in person.  But I’m suspending precedent and decorum today because I’m outraged by the offense that’s been committed against one of my favorite TV shows of the ’60s, Route 66

Last week, a new collection of Route 66 episodes was released on DVD.  This time, unlike in the preceding batch, every episode was shown in an incorrect aspect ratio that deletes a large swath of picture in a brutal effort to make the image conform to the dimensions of high definition TV sets.  This has been tried by the studios before, when Warner Bros. released the first season of Kung Fu in faux widescreen.  Outraged fans shamed the studio into correcting its mistake in subsequent volumes.  But now it’s happening all over again, and to a TV classic far more important than Kung Fu.

Last October, Route 66 made its DVD debut in a package consisting of the series’ first fifteen episodes.  I was overjoyed, because Route 66‘s combination of powerful writing (Stirling Silliphant’s beat-styled dialogue and existential, wanderlust-driven narratives introduced the counterculture into mainstream television), exceptional guest stars (New York-based casting gave unknown actors like Gene Hackman and Alan Alda key early roles), and location shooting in cities all over the U.S. made it a unique treasure.  I’d seen all 116 episodes already, but I was delighted that a new, younger audience would have the opportunity to become conversant with this offbeat masterpiece.

Then reality set in.  The first fifteen episodes were transferred to DVD mostly from sixteen-millimeter prints, rather than the far better looking tape masters that were broadcast on the Nick at Nite network in the late ’80s.  The image quality wasn’t abysmal, but it was fuzzy and flat-looking enough to turn off many viewers who might be discovering the show for the first time; and there was the further problem that one of the first season’s strongest episodes, “A Fury Slinging Flame” (about nuclear paranoia), was cut by five minutes.  All of this was especially frustrating that Route 66‘s “sister show,” Naked City, had received a partial DVD release on the Image label a few years earlier, and those transfers were jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

The problems seemed to stem from the fact that Sony, which owns Route 66 (along with the rest of the old Screen Gems TV library), had licensed the show out to an entity called Roxbury Entertainment which is, to put it kindly, inexperienced in the arena of home video.  Roxbury is the operation of one Kirk Hallam, a producer of hack movies who optioned the property’s film rights and is currently trying to leverage a Route 66 remake out of development hell (which is exactly where it belongs).  I guess DVD rights to the original series were part of the deal – the best part, some might say, but so far they’re being treated more like that piece of toilet paper that sticks to your shoe when you leave the bathroom.

Then, last week, Infinity Entertainment Group (Roxbury’s distribution partner) released Season 1, Volume 2, in a form that had many fans longing for the battered 16mm transfers from the first batch.  Mr. Hallam had kept his promise to begin transferring the episodes from superior elements (what he referred to as “fine grain masters of film” in an interview), and indeed the level of clarity and detail was beautiful.  But someone made a catastrophically wrong-headed decision: to “enhance” the image for widescreen televisions by cropping the shows from their original 1.33:1 (4:3) compositions to a 1.78:1 (16:9) framing.  If you don’t understand the technical jargon, it means simply that 25% of the original image has been lopped off the top and bottom of the frame. 

The unique circumstances of Route 66‘s production – it was the only major television show of its era to be filmed largely outside New York or Los Angeles – make it the worst possible candidate for this butchery.  On the margins, the part that Infinity/Roxbury have seen fit to efface, is precisely where Route 66‘s cultural significance is located: in the architecture, the advertisements, the un-Hollywood faces of the local “background artists,” the uncluttered skylines that share the frame with Martin Milner and George Maharis. 

Today Infinity issued a press release which crushed fans’ hopes that this was a mistake soon to be corrected, and went on to insult the intelligence of those who complained by claiming that there’s “some confusion in the marketplace about some of the technical aspects of this restoration process.”  No, Infinity, we’re not the ones who are confused. 

Then there’s a ludicrous attempt to put a positive spin on the mutilation of the image.  Quoting the press release: “High Definition transfer which requires an update to the 16×9 aspect ratio for new HD TV Broadcast and future Digital Media delivery, i.e. Blu Ray DVD and HD Internet.” [Sic]  Wrong: there are films (like Casablanca) with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio available in HD, and those have mostly been presented on hi-def DVD in a proper pillarboxed format.  Cropping to 1.78:1 for HD is not a requirement, it’s a (bad) choice.  More press release excuses: “During the film transfer, the post production house used a process called tilt and scan which allows a Telecine technician to examine each scene individually and center the frame on the action.”  Terrific!  I’ll enjoy watching these so much more knowing that the 25% of deleted picture was chosen judiciously by a technician fifty years removed from the original production rather than simply chopped off the top and bottom. 

There’s plenty more to mock in that press release, but instead I’ll move on to report some clarifications that an Infinity spokesman was gracious enough to provide in an e-mail today.  Regarding my most crucial questions, as to whether Roxbury would reissue the Season 1, Volume 2 set in 4:3 transfers and what aspect ratio future volumes (if any) would use, the spokesman would comment only that: “The state of future releases is unknown as of now.  Discussions have been going on between IEG and Roxbury continually.”

When I pressed for details on whose idea it was to hack off part of the image for 16:9 formatting and why, the spokesman fingered a third party: “The post production house took it to widescreen without our knowledge.  We received complaints about the picture quality on Volume 1, so we decided to invest a large sum of money to telecine the second volume for the ‘die hard fans.’ Ultimately, we caused a larger problem when it was taken to HD/Widescreen.”  That represents a more forthright admission of error than anything in today’s press release. 

But wait, what about this part of the press release: “While we tried to remain as true as possible to the original programming, our overall goal is to not only make the program available once again on television, but to optimize it for the next generation of broadcast and television standards.”  Or the Infinity spokesman’s response when I asked who, exactly, made the decision to crop for widescreen, Infinity (which has distributed some exceedingly well-produced early TV packages, like Suspense and Man With a Camera) or Roxbury (which has no such track record).  The spokesman wrote that “it was a joint agreement between the two parties. The decision was made without knowing that making it widescreen would ruin the cinematic qualities.”  Well, okay, I’m with him on the “ruin” part, but now I’m confused.  It seems to me that Infinity is trying to have it both ways: Oops, we messed up and Forced widescreen is good for you – learn to like it.

But I’m hoping it’s really true that this was just a telecine gaffe, because that means it can be fixed easily on future Route 66 DVDs – and because it would put to rest the speculation that Infinity/Roxbury opted cynically to sacrifice their DVD consumers in order to peddle new 16:9 Route 66 masters to hi-def TV channels whose viewers want their screen filled with image no matter what the cost.  Just like in the good old pan-and-scan days of VHS.  It’s maddening to have to combat this ignorance over and over again.  Come on, people: remember Procrustes?  That thing with the bed did not end well for him.

I do think there’s some sliver of hope that we’ll see subsequent seasons of Route 66 in their proper format (and they’d better be derived from those same pristine film elements).  But that’s still not good enough for fans who would quite reasonably like to own the entire series in a watchable format.  And though I strongly encourage Infinity to find a way to remaster and reissue their Season 1, Volume 2 set (and ideally the entire first season), I can’t imagine that such an endeavor would be economically feasible even for a much larger company.  (That Kung Fu fix from Warners?  Still waiting on it.) 

To illustrate the impact of the cropping, here are a few image comparisons between the DVD and one of my bleary old tapes.  They’re all from the first half of  “The Opponent,” an episode from Season 1, Volume 2 selected more or less at random (except for the fact that the great Lois Nettleton has been on my mind lately).  It’s a skid-row story in which the atmospheric ugliness of Youngstown, Ohio is as essential to the meaning as anything in the script.

Each of these may be a couple of frames off, but I hope they illustrate more eloquently than I have above why, to slip into consumer-ese, I’m giving this package the strongest possible DO NOT BUY advisory:  

pdvd_005.jpg

r66-3.jpg

Expansive skylines on the open highway?  Not so much any more:

pdvd_001.jpg

r66-1.jpg

Not nearly so much feeling of bustling Youngstown, Ohio in the claustrophobic DVD version:

pdvd_006.jpg

r66-4.jpg

A cool store sign . . . that would never catch your eye on the DVD:

pdvd_008.jpg

r66-6.jpg

The lovely Lois . . . with hat, and without:

pdvd_010.jpg

r66-8.jpg

Here’s Darren McGavin (giving a genuinely disturbing performance as a broken-down boxer) in a shot that loses all its seedy power when cropped:

pdvd_011.jpg

r66-9.jpg

Whither Otto Zempski?  For those of you who bought the DVD, it turns out he’s at a “Pre-Fight Gala.”  I’m thinking that Telecine technician scanned when he should’ve tilted on this one:

pdvd_012.jpg

r66-10.jpg

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 198 other followers