December 6, 2008
Studio One occupies so much real estate in the history of television that it’s difficult to know how to even begin to survey it. A dramatic anthology, especially a long-running one, is like the proverbial elephant: every piece of it you lay a hand on is different from any other. Studio One broadcast nearly five hundred shows over ten seasons, from 1948 to 1958, and inevitably it ran the full technological and creative gamut of live television.
That’s why Koch Vision’s exceptionally well curated Studio One Anthology is so valuable. The seventeen shows in this expensive but essential DVD collection give viewers a far better sense of the achievements and the limitations specific to Studio One than any written account of the series could.
Up to now, many of the Studio Ones that have circulated in private collections and public domain video releases came from what I think of as the show’s least interesting period – the early years in which almost every teleplay was an adaptation of a work from some other medium. The emblematic Studio One segment among many TV fans is, I fear, a deadly dull Cliff Notes cut-down of The Taming of the Shrew or Wuthering Heights starring a stiff Charlton Heston (the only member of the show’s initial repertory to become a major star).
The Studio One Anthology includes a handful of these early works, which, like the Victorian “tradition of quality” films from the earliest days of cinema, seemed intent on proving that, yes, television could acquit itself respectably with Shakespeare or Hawthorne or Henry James. Heston’s Heathcliff is here, alongside an opera (“The Medium”), an Easter “Pontius Pilate” from 1952, and the last of Studio One‘s three stagings of “Julius Caesar.”
But the DVD set focuses primarily on what the so-called Golden Age of television did best: the original, personal dramas by young writers who were looking for ways to introduce contemporary concerns into the new medium. There are two episodes apiece by Rod Serling and Gore Vidal. Reginald Rose, the only important live TV playwright who was chiefly associated with Studio One, is properly represented by a whopping five shows.
A great deal has been written about cultural milestones like Serling’s “The Arena” and Rose’s Emmy-winning “Twelve Angry Men” (thought lost until a full kinescope was discovered in a private collection in 2003), but until now they have been impossible to see outside of museums. The Studio One Anthology may well be the classic television event of the year.
From the moment it debuted on CBS in 1948, Studio One was awarded the status of an instant classic. The Kraft Television Theater, the first regular hour-long dramatic anthology, had begun a season earlier, but it was not regarded as highly. Delbert Mann, one of the great live TV directors, once rated the most prestigious live anthologies from an insider’s point of view:
Of the live shows, Philco and Studio One were considered to be the class acts. When Robert Montgomery [Presents] went on the air, it joined that group. Kraft was not in that group, with the exception of a few shows. The Alcoa Hour and Pulitzer Prize Playhouse did quality shows, but they didn’t last long. Playhouse 90 came later. Hallmark was the class of the class, but they were not on a weekly basis.
Studio One‘s initial producer was Worthington H. “Tony” Miner. Miner, who also wrote and directed many early segments, was a sort of D. W. Griffith figure who expanded the possibilities of a potentially static medium. Miner defined a lot of the basic grammar of live TV. He broke the proscenium arch by utilizing sets with moveable walls that could conceal the cameras, allowing for complex movements and cinematic angles. Miner figured out that cleverly timed voiceovers and costume changes would permit flashbacks and other sleight of hand. He looked for ways to defy the basic spatial limitations of the live drama; famously, in 1950, he turned Studio One‘s stage into a gigantic water tank for the submarine drama “The Last Cruise.” Franklin Schaffner, one of the show’s most prolific directors, said that
. . . what made Studio One an attraction was the sense of adventure that Tony Miner brought to that show in terms of challenging the limitations of doing television programs live inside a studio. His insistence on exploring the possibilities for staging in terms of depth made Studio One markedly different from Philco, The U.S. Steel Hour, and Kraft. Everything that I know visually came out of that experience with Tony Miner.
Without disputing the accuracy and importance of any of that, I want to take away some of the credit that historians have conveyed upon Miner and award it instead to his most important successor, Felix Jackson. Jackson took the reigns of Studio One fifteen months after Miner’s departure in spring 1952 (due to a contract dispute with CBS, according to Larry James Gianakos’ helpful DVD liner notes).
A German screenwriter who fled the Nazis during the thirties, Jackson became a Hollywood producer, chiefly at Universal Pictures, where he made seven Deanna Durbin musicals – and then married his star. Eventually Jackson’s Hollywood career, and his union with Durbin, derailed and in the fall of 1953 he began a three-year stint as the producer of Studio One, overseeing what I believe is the anthology’s most fertile period.
In the year and a half between Miner’s departure and Jackson’s arrival, a succession of at least five different producers rotated at the helm; the most important were Donald Davis and his wife Dorothy Mathews, and Fletcher Markle, who had originated the radio version of Studio One in 1947. It was during this fallow period at Studio One that Fred Coe, the producer of the Philco Television Playhouse, achieved the major breakthrough in terms of commissioning original material for live anthologies. Paddy Chayefsky and Horton Foote both wrote their first teleplays for Philco during those seventeen months, and on May 24, 1953, the Philco telecast of “Marty” turned the tide irrevocably toward the “kitchen sink.”
Jackson understood this. He and the CBS staffer who became his story editor, a colorful former movie actress named Florence Britton, raided Philco and Kraft for fresh material by star writers like Tad Mosel, Alvin Sapinsley, and A. J. Russell. They groomed young discoveries of their own (among them Frank D. Gilroy and Paul Monash), and promoted some Studio One standbys, including Reginald Rose, from adaptations to originals. Jackson may have been following the trend rather than setting it, but the results were impressive.
Sandy Kenyon in “An Almanac of Liberty”
The biggest question surrounding the Studio One Anthology may be what modern audiences will make of Studio One‘s behind-the-typewriter star, Reginald Rose. I suspect he might be a hard sell.
Horton Foote and Paddy Chayefsky wrote from the heart; their plays are character-driven and emotional, and as such timeless. Reginald Rose wrote from the head: almost everything was an allegory, an intellectual idea or a political point, fictionalized once over lightly. The pitfalls of stridency and pedagogy loomed, and Rose was not always so nimble as to avoid them.
“In a way, almost everything I wrote in the fifties was about McCarthy,” Rose once said. Indeed. The key Rose segments here are his first original, “The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners,” and “An Almanac of Liberty,” studies of intolerance similar enough to one another to invite questions of self-plagiarism. They are almost Marxist in their decentralization of authority. Neither has a single protagonist; they divide their focus instead among large ensembles of small-town archetypes. Both utilize the narrative device of the mock trial. “Carson Corners” has schoolchildren and then their parents crucifying a janitor for a boy’s fatal fall from a damaged staircase, only to realize that the culpability was collective. “Almanac,” ostensibly based on a nonfiction book of the same name by then-supreme court justice William O. Douglas, but in fact an original work synergized for cross-promotion, is a study of scapegoating. Citizens at a town meeting righteously parse the causes of an outsider’s savage beating, finally discerning that the ugliness of a few lies within all.
These democracy-in-action impulses came to an apex in “Twelve Angry Men,” that oft-remade, multi-media civics lesson that remains Rose’s epitaph. At only an hour, and with colorless Robert Cummings rather than magisterial Henry Fonda as the instigator of dissent, the television version plays more as a group dialectic on jurisprudence than as a lone hero’s courageous stand against the mob.
It’s hard for me to separate my reactions to “Twelve Angry Men”‘s Studio One blueprint from my admiration for Sidney Lumet’s film of three years later. More often than not big-screen treatment diluted the impact of live TV material (see Marty or The Days of Wine and Roses), but I think Rose’s screenplay enriched his original considerably. With an extra half hour, everyone gets a fair share of the spotlight. It’s a shock to realize that some of the feature’s more vivid jurors – mainly Robert Webber’s fatuous ad man (“Throw it on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up!”), a cherished figure of Rosean ridicule – are mere placeholders in the original.
Whatever their flaws, these shows illustrate Rose’s conviction that rationalism and communication can affect positive change. That sounds dry, but in each of these three plays there is emotional catharsis when Rose’s characters reach common ground at the conclusion. The problem is that Rose seemed unable to move beyond this representational mode. The samples here of his non-allegorical work – that is to say, Rose’s more ostensibly character-driven shows – are fairly disastrous.
“Dino,” an earnest take on the juvenile delinquency problem with nuanced performances from Sal Mineo and an atypically restrained Ralph Meeker, languishes in self-congratulatory liberalism. “The Death and Life of Larry Benson” builds to a second-act shocker: a quintessential mid-American family anticipates the return of its veteran son, only to be greeted at the train station by a stranger. It’s Rose’s most intimate early work, and yet his coldest. Pseudo-Larry and his would-be family have no inner lives; they exist only to illustrate a half-baked yin-yang conceit that one man’s life is as good as another. Had Rose articulated his idea more clearly, it might have offended someone.
It may be fair to say that Rose did not find his voice until The Defenders, which liberated him from both allegory and interiority. The legal procedural format enabled Rose to retire his mock trials and orchestrate real ones. Here was a venue wherein his characters had to articulate their feelings, or die.
Strip the credits off “An Almanac of Liberty” and you’d guess it was a Rod Serling work, because it deploys The Twilight Zone‘s raison d’etre of couching social critique within science fiction. “Almanac” incorporates an explicitly paranormal event, an unexplained stoppage of time – wristwatches quit working and people outside the town hall freeze in their tracks – and it’s implied that the victimized stranger (Sandy Kenyon) may be an alien, or a Christ figure, sent to test the mettle of the human race. Rose’s very first teleplay, “The Bus to Nowhere” (for Out There), was also science fiction, but he doesn’t seem terribly engaged by the elements of fantasy in “Almanac”; they’re scalpels on his surgeon’s tray. Recall that Serling was around and paying attention – he was fond enough of one of Rose’s Studio Ones (“The Incredible World of Horace Ford”) to have it filmed for The Twilight Zone – and it becomes reasonable to think of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Eye of the Beholder” as touchdowns scored with a ball that Rose tossed to him.
Though Rod Serling wrote his most important teleplays for other anthologies (mainly Kraft, U. S. Steel, and Playhouse 90), even minor Serling compels attention. The two shows on display here bookend “Patterns,” the 1955 Kraft that put Serling on the map, but it’s the earlier of the two that is the most successful. “The Strike” is a Korean War drama about an outwardly tough officer who crumbles when he realizes that the only way to save his platoon is to order an airstrike that will wipe out a small patrol of his own men. Major Gaylord is a classic Serling white-knuckle character, a nervous man in a snowy Korean pass, and his utter collapse into self-doubt and then self-pity is mesmerizing.
James Daly, as Gaylord, offers the DVD set’s quintessential live TV performance. Acting for live television combined the trickiest elements of theater and film – a performer had to deliver a fully realized characterization in real time, but scaled down for the camera that was often only inches from his or her face. There are many good actors in the casts of these seventeen Studio Ones, but watch Daly: he’s one of the few whose performance is as precisely modulated as anything he ever did for a film camera.
“The Strike”‘s finale, its Solomonic dilemma a foregone conclusion, is a bit too schematic, and it will seem heavy-handed and academic to anyone who has seen Sam Fuller’s unsentimental combat films. Putting the young Serling up against Fuller may be unfair (even though Serling was a combat veteran, too), but the comparison comes naturally in that “The Strike” bears a strong physical resemblance to Fuller’s early masterpiece Fixed Bayonets! That film, also a study of wartime cowardice, occupies a similarly claustrophobic setting, a wintry mountain cavern and the ridge immediately outside of it. I can’t imagine that someone – Serling, director Franklin Schaffner, or the production designer – didn’t recall the Fuller film while putting “The Strike” together.
James Daly and Roy Roberts in “The Strike”
The second Serling episode, “The Arena,” takes the U.S. Congress as its setting, but the political trappings are window dressing for an Oedipal drama of a freshman senator (Wendell Corey, too old for the role) finally stepping out of his domineering, monstrous father’s shadow. I can’t help but think of it as a poor man’s predecessor to Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, the play and later film (directed by Studio One‘s Schaffner) that offered a less naive vision of the professional ethics of politicians.
Vidal may be the major discovery of the Studio One Anthology. Vidal was the last of the major TV playwrights to emerge; he turned from a stalled career as a novelist to the live anthologies in 1954, after “Marty,” and his work received considerable attention as the trade papers and the mainstream press wondered who would be the next Paddy Chayefsky. As with Serling, Vidal’s best-known TV plays – “Visit to a Small Planet” and “The Death of Billy the Kid,” later filmed as The Left-Handed Gun – aired elsewhere, but the two Studio One originals on display here offer ample evidence of the then twentysomething Vidal’s talent.
“Dark Possession,” skillfully evoking a frosty turn-of-the-century setting, begins as a melodrama of emotional repression and, with the entry of handsome doctor-turned-amateur sleuth Leslie Nielsen, morphs nimbly into a sort of medical mystery. “Summer Pavilion,” a contemporary story that Vidal writes was “based pretty much on my own life and times,” also nails its milieu in a few brush strokes, a changing New Orleans in which Southern aristocrats are being literally bulldozed by progress.
I have to wonder what Vidal, a cousin of Al Gore, meant exactly by that tantalizing remark: is the manipulative matriarch who makes a last futile stand against change, essayed to perfection by fading movie star Miriam Hopkins, a figure from his family history? Or is the touching story of love blooming between Southern belle (radiant Elizabeth Montgomery) and Yankee (wooden Charles Drake) a bit of gender-switched autobiography, a plea for the pursuit of romance in defiance of convention? In any case, though there’s no kitchen sink in sight, “Summer Pavilion” is the DVD set’s most emblematic example of live television, a delicate flower that would have crumbled had it been projected onto a sixty-foot screen or bellowed from a Broadway stage.
Miriam Hopkins in “Summer Pavilion”
There are other riches here that I hardly have room for: “June Moon,” the highlight of the five Miner-produced episodes, a sprightly comedy starring the barely-out-of-diapers Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint; Felix Jackson’s battering-down-the-door debut, a sweeping adaptation of “1984″ that was the basis for the 1956 film; and “Confessions of a Nervous Man,” a twisty, self-reflexive, hilarious bit of self-promotion in which newly lauded playwright George Axelrod (played both by himself and by Art Carney) demonstrates exactly how his smash Broadway hit, The Seven-Year Itch, has ruined his life. Even more than “Twelve Angry Men,” this is the DVD collection’s prize for cinephiles, because “Confessions” is loaded with the same brand of fast-paced, cartoon-styled humor and cynical, up-to-the-minute media satire that made the extraordinary Frank Tashlin film of Axelrod’s next play, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, one of the best American (and one of the most American) movies of the fifties.
It goes without saying that further volumes of Studio One DVDs would be welcome. Curiously, in the liner notes, Larry James Gianakos takes care to list the insignificant interim Studio One producers who came after Worthington Miner, but he omits the men who followed Felix Jackson’s departure in 1956. The first of them, Robert Herridge, was a champion of quality television so far ahead of his time that he worked mainly in the dead zone of non-commercial Sunday programming offered to keep the FCC off the networks’ back. As a substitute producer during the 1956 summer edition of Studio One, Herridge did some of his best (or at least most mainstream) work.
During the final two seasons, other notable names took a turn at the helm: Gordon Duff, who had succeeded Fred Coe on Philco; Norman Felton, later executive producer of Dr. Kildare and The Man From UNCLE; and Herbert Brodkin. Brodkin, of course, was the man who teamed with Reginald Rose to produce The Defenders, a show that had its origins in one of the most famous Studio Ones, Rose’s two-part “The Defender,” with William Shatner and Steve McQueen. “The Defender” is available on DVD (although not in the Koch collection), but few of the other Studio Ones from the final two seasons – during which the show reached its technical peak, and moved from New York to CBS’s Television City facility in Los Angeles – have been seen since their initial transmission. I suspect there’s an unmined vein of the Golden Age there, and I hope Koch has the commitment to tap it.
Endnotes: The Franklin Schaffner quote is from The Days of Live, Ira Skutch, ed. (Scarecrow, 1998), page 50; the Delbert Mann and Reginald Rose quotes are from Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box (Penguin, 1995), pages 235 and 238, respectively; the Gore Vidal quote is from a short essay by Vidal in the Studio One Anthology liner notes.
Stay tuned for more Studio One coverage later this month, featuring comments from some of the series’ surviving participants.