Five Things I Learned While Working on the “Evening Primrose” DVD
March 21, 2011
1. Avid enthusiasts of the work of the famous lyricist Stephen Sondheim refer to themselves as Sondheimites. They use this term without irony or self-consciousness and if you crack a joke about it (say it out loud, fast, if you’re not following me here), they do not find it funny.
That was only my first faux pas as I entered the world of Sondheim, an artist whose work I’m afraid I fail to get after my admittedly limited exposure. Sondheim’s lyrics are viewed as extremely complex and sophisticated, but he still works within the tradition of the twentieth-century American musical theater, and that’s a tradition that always puts me to sleep.
So let’s say that, like me, you dig old TV shows but you don’t have any particular affinity for the musical theater. That’s okay because, while Sondheim’s four songs are the marketing hook for this DVD release (and the only reason it exists), there are a lot of other ways into “Evening Primrose,” which was, for the record, an original hour-long musical created in 1966 for the short-lived prime-time anthology ABC Stage 67.
One way in is through John Collier, upon whose short story “Primrose” is based. Collier was a terrifically witty and macabre writer, who has been compared to Roald Dahl (although I think Collier is the bigger talent). It’s because of Collier’s tone that “Evening Primrose” has sometimes been categorized as a kind of lost Twilight Zone episode. And while “Primrose” only intermittently achieves that flavor, it does more or less duplicate the plot of “The After Hours,” the Zone episode in which Anne Francis gets locked in a department store after closing time and discovers that the mannequins are alive. Or perhaps I have that backwards, since Collier’s story was first collected in Fancies and Goodnights in 1951, and Rod Serling was known for unconsciously regurgitating ideas from works of fantasy that he’d read while planning The Twilight Zone.
Another way is through James Goldman, who wrote the teleplay (or the book) for “Evening Primrose.” Goldman, the lesser-known brother of screenwriter William Goldman, was a witty and facile writer in his own right, best known for the play and film The Lion in Winter, in which Eleanor of Aquitaine says things like, “Of course I have a knife. We all have knives. It’s 1183, and we’re barbarians!”
Another way in is through Anthony Perkins. Although both Sondheim and Perkins himself were vocally critical of his performance, I find Perkins charming and wistful here, an ideal actor for the material and a far cry from the creepiness of Norman Bates. And a final way in is through the expert staging of Paul Bogart, who was almost certainly the most accomplished American television director to specialize in shooting on videotape.
2. Paul Bogart is the nicest guy in the world. Paul is a barrel-chested man, with a fully white beard, whose visage, in repose, fixes itself into an ominous scowl. It’s silly, but his appearance is so imposing that I put off contacting him for some time after I decided that I needed to interview him. But once Paul begins to speak, his welcoming smile and soft voice express his true personality. Most directors develop an imposing demeanor, and a certain ego; after all, on a set, dozens of people await his or her orders. Lamont Johnson, who died late last year, was compact in size and not at all physically imposing, but he had a general’s demeanor; when I visited him in Monterey, he never once cracked a smile in ninety minutes, and basically intimidated the hell out of me. Paul, by contrast, is an unfailingly sweet and easygoing person, and also an unnecessarily self-deprecating artist. You’ll see, in the interview we did for the DVD, that Paul is sometimes quite critical of his work on “Evening Primrose.” Don’t take his word for it. Watch the show yourself, and see how skillfully he pulled together all the disparate elements of this odd musical on an incredibly tough schedule.
3. You can’t always get what you want. The “Evening Primrose” presented on the DVD is a black-and-white copy of a show originally telecast in color. That’s a heartbreaking shame, especially since Jane Klain, Research Manager at the Paley Center For Media, undertook an Ahab-like quest to track down the original color tape in time for the DVD. I really wanted to see her zealous efforts rewarded with success.
Jane has compiled a number of theories as to why the color tape for “Evening Primrose” went missing, and hasn’t proven any one of them to her satisfaction. Because the master tapes of many other Stage 67s still exist, and because of certain other anecdotal evidence compiled by Jane, I lean toward the notion that the tape was pilfered years ago by some knowledgeable but unscrupulous Sondheimite. But we’ll probably never know for sure.
In fact, during her search, Jane unearthed a new kinescope that far eclipsed the other known elements in image quality. (Remastering the new kine is why the DVD was delayed from an initial release date in April until last fall.) So now “Evening Primrose” looks better than it has any right to, but it’s still a (literally) pallid rendering of a show telecast in vivid color back in 1966.
4. But look anyway. “Oh, and I still have some test footage we shot on film with Anthony Perkins,” Paul Bogart said in passing as we made plans for my trip to North Carolina to record his interview for the DVD. This was news. On a previous visit to Chapel Hill, I had plundered the attic of Paul’s rustic home, which was lined with ¾” videotapes of hundreds of his television shows. But I hadn’t encountered any film reels. The “Evening Primrose” canisters, it turned out, were in a closet downstairs.
When Paul handed the film cans over to me, he explained what they were. The footage consists of establishing shots of Anthony Perkins in and around Macy’s, and outside the store in Herald Square; and then shots of two extras (different from the pair used in the final version) who feature prominently in the show’s twist ending. They’re not “deleted scenes,” although DVD consumers might tend to pigeonhole them in that category. I’m also not quite it’s accurate to call them “test footage,” as we labeled it for the DVD, because upon reflection I suspect much of this MOS material was in fact intended to be used in “Evening Primrose.”
When Bogart shot the scenes, on September 13, 1966, the idea was probably to use them in the finished production. But sometime prior to the start of taping on September 25, Macy’s opted out, and the producers hurriedly arranged a move to Stern’s (a now-defunct department store across the street from Bryant Park). All of the Macy’s-related footage was now useless. And that’s why it ended up in Paul Bogart’s closet instead of an editing suite and, eventually, oblivion.
As I carried the film cans to the airport, a thought struck me: could I be holding the only surviving color footage of “Evening Primrose”? Since the show was going to be in color, it wouldn’t have made sense for the film to be shot or even developed in black and white. Bogart and his collaborators would have wanted to see how the location and the costumes looked in color. But perhaps the film had faded after forty years in Paul’s closet?
Eventually the DVD producer, Jason Viteritti, confirmed that the footage was, in fact, in color. But my part in the production was done as soon as I handed over the film cans, so I didn’t get a chance to actually see the footage until the DVD arrived. When I finally did look at the footage, it struck me as a revelation – a reason to have the DVD in and of itself.
As you can imagine, these twenty-odd minutes of location footage represent a priceless Manhattan time capsule: a long look, over multiple takes in a variety of set-ups, of mid-sixties Macy’s shoppers and Herald Square pedestrians, all going about their daily business (or, perhaps, trying conspicuously to ignore the camera in their presence). But it’s also a unique opportunity to observe both director and actor formulating their approach to the material, and to compare their first stabs at it to the final version.
For instance, many of Bogart’s set-ups in Macy’s are nearly identical to their counterparts in Stern’s (compare the frame grab below to the title card at the top of this post). As I watched take after take of Perkins mingling with authentic department store customers in the opening sequence, I realized how essential Bogart’s conception of these scenes was to the success of the whole piece. Bogart emphasizes the realistic world of the store in daytime – his use of the handheld camera in these shots is very cinema verite and, indeed, without Perkins in the mix, one could mistake them for outtakes from Frederick Wiseman’s The Store. Once Perkins enters the nighttime world of the store dwellers, Bogart favors a look that complements the artifice of the fantasy world into which Charles has entered. Studio sets replace practical locations and Bogart (influenced, no doubt, by the limitations of shooting on videotape) uses more deliberate camera movements, and more static compositions. Bogart was a director who shunned any kind of showy stylistic flourishes, and this peek at his outtakes offers a valuable chance to study an “invisible” television director’s modus operandi in detail.
As for Perkins, there’s the wonderful moment where he tries to remain in character as a passerby – unaware of the camera stationed high atop a nearby building – recognizes and approaches him. At least one of the other people in the department store is clearly a professional extra – the young brunette digging through the bin of dress shirts – but I can’t make up my mind about the woman in green seated on the park bench next to Perkins. She could be a plant, but I think she’s just playing along with the scene, as any good New Yorker would.
5. Sondheim wasn’t first. Actually I discovered this information after the “Evening Primrose” DVD was finished, but it’s worth recording here nonetheless. It turns out that John Collier’s story came close to being adapted for television a decade before the Goldman-Sondheim version. In 1956, David Susskind paid writer David Swift, the creator of Mister Peepers, five thousand dollars to adapt “Evening Primrose” as a live television spectacular. Susskind got as far as changing the title to “Primrose Path” and drafting a list of casting ideas for the two leading roles. Those lists of names include some possibilities that are exciting (Paul Newman, Natalie Wood) and some that are unlikely (Richard Boone, Richard Widmark, Jean Simmons). I have a hunch that the names atop each list were Susskind’s favored choices, since they were less well-known than most of the others and more likely to fit the budgetary realities of a live TV production. Who were they? Barry Nelson as Charles and Lois Smith as Ella. As to why did this version of “Primrose” never went beyond the planning stages…? At least for now, that remains a mystery.