Back in the Saddle

October 17, 2012

Lined up on the shelves of the library where I work are a number of television Westerns from Timeless Media, discs that I haven’t purchased (yet) and that Netflix doesn’t carry.  Recently I got around to taking home a stack of episodes from the first through the third seasons of Wagon Train, where I still have a lot of gaps.

Everything I’ve written about Wagon Train so far has been pretty critical.  I was mixed on the rejuvenated seventh season, which expanded to ninety minutes and went to color, and I also mocked the laziness of some of the episodes immediately preceding that change.  But a random survey of a dozen or so early segments reveals a better, cannier show.  Wagon Train doesn’t rank among the best television Westerns, but it can fill up an oppressive August weekend quite effectively.  What better actor to turn to than Ward Bond, with his grating, unmodulated donkey-bellow, to make himself heard over the full blast of my air conditioner?

Wagon Train started with a premise that was extremely well-designed, as simple and sturdy as a Conestoga.  It had two lead characters, Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond) and Flint McCullough (Robert Horton), each of whom could serve as the center of a story or step into the background whenever the guest star of the week took up most of the screen time.  That was important, because most Wagon Trains introduced a guest character in the very title (“The Joe Schmidlapp Story”), and the show was marketed on the basis of its big-name guest stars.

(This was a promise Wagon Train could deliver upon, initially, because it was produced by MCA, which until 1959 was also the biggest talent agency in town.  It’s doubtful that Shelley Winters or Ernest Borgnine, both at the peak of their film careers in 1957, would have deigned to appear in a television Western – a brand new one, no less – without a little arm-twisting by Lew Wasserman or his dark-suited lieutenants.  After MCA was forced to sell its agency business, Wagon Train’s guest stars became slightly less stellar, although they still comprised the top actors working in television.)

Adams and McCullough were modular leading men, versatile moving parts that could be plugged into a variety of different places.  If Adams remained tethered to the train, McCullough, a scout who rode ahead looking for trouble, could roam about and stumble into adventures of almost any sort.  Most dual-lead Westerns had interchangeable characters – the stage drivers of Stagecoach West, the rest stop minders of Laramie – but Wagon Train was conceived from the start to alternate between “home” and “away” stories. 

Think about what a useful blueprint that is, from every point of view.  The writers could tell almost any kind of Western story they could think of, without being constrained by the trail setting or the cumbersome pack of settlers in the train.  The two stars could minimize their screen time and avoid the fatigue that plagued actors who carried a whole show on their backs (although that didn’t spare Ward Bond a fatal heart attack in 1960).  Shooting on multiple episodes could overlap if necessary.  And the audience was treated to a much greater variety of faces and settings than on a typical weekly series.

The Flint McCullough episodes remind me of the “off-campus” event episodes that serial dramas would try decades later.  The West Wing and ER, especially, liked to send a main character – John Carter (Noah Wyle) or C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney) – off on his or her own once per season, to solve a personal problem or star in an action set-piece.  It was Emmy-bait (Janney’s one-off with Donald Moffat as her ailing father is still one of my favorite television hours) but, more importantly, gave the audience a break from the intricate and potentially exhausting multi-character storylines.  Wagon Train has the capacity to loosen up in the same way: just when I start to get tired of watching Ward Bond scream at the idiot settlers who wreak havoc on his train, there’s a breather where the smooth, likable Horton breezes through a less predictable adventure in a less familiar setting.

Wagon Train and ER might seem like apples and oranges, but in fact the Western series was one of the earliest dramas to take some tentative steps toward serialization.  Most seasons began with an episode or two set in St. Louis, at the beginning of the train, and ended with one or two segments set at the end of the trail, in San Francisco.  For instance, the third season opens with an episode (“The Stagecoach Story”) detailing the main characters’ return trip, by stage, from the West Coast to Missouri, following the preceding years’ train.  The next episode (“The Greenhorn Story,” with the inevitable Mickey Rooney in the title role) covers the formation of the new train, with an emphasis on the naïve easterners’ adjustment to a new, harder way of life.

In the middle of the season, episodes do not follow a chronology – some of them span the course of months, and the physical progress from one to the next would probably zigzag back and forth across a map – but the viewer is not discouraged from thinking of each season’s various progatonists as members of the same train, with every individual story one panel in a mosaic of headaches thrust upon Major Adams over the course of a single year.  The first season finale, “The Sacramento Story,” makes this assumption explicit; it is a combined sequel to three earlier episodes.  (The series would continue to “check in” with popular characters, bringing Borgnine back in the second season premiere to reprise his role from the pilot, “The Willy Moran Story,” and revisiting the young lovers from “The Heather and Hamish Story” a year later in “The Last Circle Up” – albeit with both roles recast.)  Since Wagon Train was never truly serialized, I tend to view its unusual commitment to beginning and ending at opposite ends of the trail as less about continuity than variety.  In other words, it was an excuse to plant a few episodes in an urban setting instead of amid the monotonous plains. 

In its willingness to make each episode as different from the others as the format would bear, Wagon Train became porous enough to allow for auteurism, among both its writers and directors.  I mentioned few of these cases the last time I wrote about Wagon Train, and I’m still uncovering more of them.  What to make of Jean Holloway, who wrote both the dull “Stagecoach Story” and the lively, appealing “Greenhorn Story”?  Somewhere in the middle, in terms of quality, falls “The C. L. Harding Story,” a “haircut” of Lysistrata in which a muckraking reporter (Claire Trevor) leads the women of the train in a general strike.  It’s tempting to read something into the fact that this very safe excursion into pre-feminism comes from the pen of one of the show’s two regular women writers, and probably much too cheap.  Sometimes the absence of a strong voice is itself revealing: “The Cappy Darrin Story,” with Ed Wynn as a sea captain who takes the term “prairie schooner” a bit too literally, was written by Stanley Kallis, a veteran production man who penned only a handful of scripts.  There’s an incongruous fantasy sequence, in which Cappy and his young grandson (Tommy Nolan) fight off some pirates, that rouses journeyman director Virgil W. Vogel from his slumber to try his hand at some dutch angles (even more incongruous in the world of Wagon Train).  These dead ends take me back to the Western’s long-standing showrunner, Howard Christie, who seems to have favored the rather cloying tone – light at heart but somehow leaden – that “The Cappy Darrin Story” shares with many other segments.

Then there’s “The Ruth Owens Story,” one of two early episodes directed by the great Robert Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Beast With Five Fingers).  This one is set mostly at night and includes many bold close-ups of actors, often in profile, framed against total blackness.  Its expressionistic imagery – the frame grabs assembled below illustrate only a few of the Florey’s bold compositions – doesn’t resemble any other Wagon Train I’ve seen or, indeed any other television episode this side of The Twilight Zone.

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.

Me and The Defenders

August 1, 2012

Todd VanDerWerff of The AV Club has an important piece about The Defenders, that cornerstone courtroom drama of the sixties that remains frustratingly out of reach for most ordinary mortals.

I’m quoted at some length by Todd, who buys into my theory that the early sixties are a “Platinum Age” of early television in which the best traditions of the live New York dramas were transmuted into ongoing series, in ways that remain unacknowledged or misunderstood.  (I think I might be the first person to use that phrase as a corollary to the legendary “Golden Age” of the fifties, and I hope it sticks.)

For someone who’s only seen a handful of episodes, I think Todd does a great job of capturing the gist of The Defenders and sketching in some of the context within which it originally aired. The commenters make some valuable points, too; for one thing, both Todd and I forgot that for a time Law & Order indulged in those “we’re fucked” endings, where the bad guys walk and the prosecutors end up with egg on their faces.  The tone of those is very similar to some of the Defenders episodes in which the Prestons lost their cases, and I bet Dick Wolf was well aware of the precedent.

Trust me, if more people could see more episodes of The Defenders, it would be cited in fanboy discussions of the all-time greats just as often as The Fugitive or The Twilight Zone or The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Maybe someday.

LSD

April 29, 2012

On last week’s Mad Men, “Far Away Places,”  Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and his trophy wife Jane dropped acid.  Roger’s trip involved a magazine model with a weird hairdo who turned out to be Ted Baxter – well, not the Mary Tyler Moore Show news anchor, but the actor who played him, Ted Knight, who evidently supported himself with modeling gigs during his lean years as a bit player on Combat and The Outer Limits.

Matt Zoller Seitz, my go-to guy for Mad Men parsing, called the acid trip sequence “the least judgmental, most period-innocent depiction of the cosmic insight that people took LSD to experience in the mid-sixties.”  This season of Mad Men is set in 1966, a moment when experimenting with LSD really did enter the mainstream.  I’ll bet many Mad Men watchers were surprised by the idea that there were a few years – after LSD emerged from the counterculture of Ken Kesey and Owsley Stanley, before it was criminalized in 1968 and Richard Nixon called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America” – when hard-drinking, out-of-touch middle-aged guys like Roger might have taken a dose.  Even Cary Grant dropped acid around this time.

What may surprise TV fans even more is that Roger Sterling isn’t the first TV character in a suit to enjoy a beneficial acid trip.  In fact, even in “TV time,” Kenneth Preston (Robert Reed) beat him to it by more than a year, in an amazing 1965 episode of The Defenders called “Fires of the Mind.”

In that show (and for the record, I’m self-plagiarizing this description from a post I wrote two years ago), Donald Pleasence plays a Timothy Leary-like LSD advocate who is tried for murder after one of his patients commits suicide. What is remarkable about this show is its unwillingness to take as a given the idea that psychotropic drugs are harmful. The father-and-son attorneys fall on either side of a generational split on LSD, with Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall) so disgusted that he drops out of the case and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) curious enough to take an acid trip. Ken is permitted to enthuse about his expanded consciousness without rebuke, and on the witness stand the LSD doctor demonstrates some of the positive effects that drugs have had on his perception and memory.

“Fires of the Mind” was one of the last works by Arnold Manoff, the blacklisted writer who enjoyed a too-short revival of his career, under the pseudonym “Joel Carpenter,” in the early sixties.  Manoff’s episodes of Route 66 and Naked City are quirky, off-beat comedies.  But for his single Defenders, Manoff contributed a straightforward, frank script, clear-eyed and questioning in a manner typical of the taboo-busting legal drama.  It feels like the work of someone who needed to stick up either for the experience of LSD or, at least, for its proponents who were being demonized in the press.

For the most part, early television was monolithically anti-drug, rarely mentioning illicit substances and then only in the most hysterical, unhip terms.  “Fires of the Mind” aired for the first time on February 18, 1965.  Manoff, who had a weak heart, had died eight days earlier.  Roger Sterling took his acid trip in September 1966.  Four months later, on January 12, 1967, Benjy “Blue Boy” Carver died of an acid overdose in the now-famous, latter-day camp classic Dragnet episode “The LSD Story,” effectively ending the conversation – on television, at least – about the possible benefits of lysergic acid diethylamide. 

Robert Reed on acid!

One hundred years and eleven days ago, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, taking 1,514 lives with it.  This month, to commemorate (or compound) the disaster, Twentieth Century-Fox has re-released James Cameron’s bloated epic Titanic in fake 3D.  The Criterion Collection has gotten into the act by debuting Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958), an earlier, more stately film about the famous sinking, on Blu-ray, with a bounty of new extras.

A Night to Remember was based on a best-selling non-fiction account of the Titanic’s demise by Walter Lord – a book that was also staged, with great fanfare, as a live television drama in 1956, some two years before the Baker film was released.  Given its recent habit of licensing live television segments as supplements for its discs (including The Fugitive Kind and 12 Angry Men), one might have expected Criterion to acquire the Kraft Television Theatre version of “A Night to Remember,” too.  For whatever reason, they didn’t – but you can watch it on Youtube.

Semi-forgotten today, Kraft’s “A Night to Remember” was remarked upon at the time as one of the (ahem) high-water marks of live television.  Dramatically taut, the production was also newsworthy for its deliberate pushing of the physical and technical boundaries of the medium.  “A Night to Remember” cost $125,000, slightly more than three times the budget of an average Kraft.  One hundred and seven men and women in period costume filled the mock Titanic, and seventy-two of them had speaking parts.  There were thirty-one sets, some built at skewed angles to simulate the increasing cant of the sinking vessel, others (seen only for a moment in the final broadcast) in a tank that could be filled with water up to the actors’ waists.

The sets were so vast that the production was moved from NBC’s Studio 8H, to both 8H and 8G, and finally out to the network’s largest available space in exotic Brooklyn.  Six cameras, instead of the usual three or four, captured the action.  We know these stats because NBC trumpeted them in the press, in a successful campaign to position “A Night to Remember” as one of the year’s most important television events.  James Cameron was not the first storyteller tempted to see in the Titanic the makings of a superproduction.

Following an on-camera introduction by Claude Rains, an effectively stentorian and British choice to narrate the show, the first dialogue in “A Night to Remember” is spoken by the familiar actor Marcel Hillaire, here playing a French waiter in the Titanic’s exclusive restaurant with all the hauteur he can muster.  Although it also places barbed emphasis upon the cascading incompetence of officers and crew that delayed rescue – we’re teleported over to the nearby SS Californian, where a radio operator misses the distress call because he can’t be bothered to turn a crank – television’s “A Night to Remember” finds its theme in the suddenly lethal class distinctions that informed the outcomes available to the Titanic’s passengers.  Hubris and privilege are the boogeymen in “A Night to Remember,” not the iceberg that (thanks to the limitations of the medium) we barely see.

The show’s director and co-writer, George Roy Hill, a Minneapolis-born Yalie who styled himself as a cantankerous Irishman, empathizes with the proletariat in steerage and sneers at the rich twits in first class in a way that resounds in the era of the one-percenter – even though the third-class passengers are sketched more roughly and enjoy less screen time than the swells on the upper decks.  Mrs. Astor slices open a life vest to see what it’s made of – cork; “Why, how clever!” – and another young lady expresses delight because she’s never seen an iceberg.  Hill practically seems to be opining: good, natural selection is finally catching up with these fools.  Perhaps the most effective moment in “A Night to Remember” is the one in which J. Bruce Ismay, the head of the White Star Line, steps into a lifeboat even as he knows that women and children remain on the sinking ship.  The glare of utter contempt that the crewman who lowers the raft fixes upon Ismay is unforgettable, and Hill does not even need a close-up to emphasize it.

“A Night to Remember” is a compendium of vignettes like those.  It follows certain characters from start to finish, like the Caldicott-and-Charters pairing of Gracie and Smith (Larry Gates and Woodrow Parfrey, cast effectively against type), who meet their fates with stiff-upper-lip reserve.  Other famous passengers, like Isidore Straus (Edgar Stehli), whose wife opts to stay on the ship rather than leave him behind, are glimpsed for only seconds.  If the 1958 feature finally picks a central character out of Walter Lord’s panoply – Second Officer Lightoller, a minor character here, becomes in Dave Kehr’s words the film’s “hero . . . an upright representative of the emerging middle class and managerial caste” – the shorter television staging resists fixing on any single figure as a spine; although it does hover occasionally around Thomas Andrews (Patrick Macnee, then unknown), the thirty-nine year-old “shipbuilding genius” who had a hand in designing the Titanic, and whose main function here is to deliver, sheepishly, the technical explanation as to why the ship will surely sink.  (Macnee and Andrews were both Scots, so the actor attempted a brogue in rehearsals, delivering his key line as “The ship must go doon.”  Hill’s reaction: “Less of the Irish, please.”) [Author’s note, 5/23/12: Much of the last sentence, which was sourced from Patrick Macnee’s 1989 autobiography Blind in One Ear, is erroneous.  See the comments section for more information.

Rains, whose dulcet and unmistakably British tones supply snippets of Titanic lore in a voiceover so dense that it is almost an audio book, becomes the vital structuring element of this decentralized narrative.  “A Night to Remember” is a docudrama, but one of a specific sort that emphasized the panoramic impact of a particular historical incident.  Studio One’s “The Night America Trembled” (about the historic “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast), The Seven Lively Arts’s searing “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” and Playhouse 90’s “Seven Against the Wall” (on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) all took the same basic approach.  Already in its death throes, live television made a mini-genre out of this kind of pocket historical epic, the size of which attracted press attention and fostered, perhaps, the poignant illusion that the medium could compete on Hollywood’s own terms with the industry that was about to bulldoze it.

If directors like Sidney Lumet or Paul Bogart, a consummate lover of actors who died this month, were content to work with material that was essentially stage-worthy and intimate, there was another class of live television director that tried to tug the primitive medium toward the art of the cinema.  Franklin Schaffner and John Frankenheimer led this pack, with George Roy Hill following close behind; all three achieved a destiny as epic-scaled filmmakers that is difficult, on the surface, to reconcile with their origins in television.  (At least until one recalls that Hill wasn’t the only member of this daredevil trio to seek out the foolhardy challenge of filling a television studio with a large quantity of water: Schaffner nearly electrocuted the cast while sinking a submarine in Studio One’s “Dry Run,” and Frankenheimer built a huge water tank to simulate the flooding of the Mississippi River in Playhouse 90’s “Old Man.”)  Inevitably, all three men were determined careerists – an ambition to work on a huge canvas seems inextricable from a large ego – and “A Night to Remember” plays as a very self-conscious calling card on the part of a young director eager to be noticed.

One of the least contestable auteurist entries in live television, “A Night to Remember” was not only directed but also co-written – with John Whedon, later a sitcom writer and also the grandfather of Joss Whedon – by Hill; and while Kraft at that time had a producer, Stanley Quinn, he was an ad agency lifer with few creative bona fides apart from Kraft.  Quinn also took no screen credit on “A Night to Remember,” leaving many published accounts to list Hill as the producer, perhaps not wholly inaccurately.  Hill may also have exerted influence through a key personal relationship.  When last we encountered George Roy Hill, he was seducing the underage star of one of his early features.  During that time, and possibly as early as 1956, Hill was also having an extramarital affair with Marion Dougherty, who was the uncredited casting director of Kraft and therefore, without question, a key creative component in a live show boasting a telephone book-sized cast list.

A control-room director’s dream, “A Night to Remember” supposedly featured over one hundred cues (that is, cuts) in its first act alone.  The personality that Hill imposes upon it is an omniscient one: an unseen hand – whether it be that of God, George Roy Hill, or Claude Rains, clutching Lord’s book and in a sense standing in for the author –  directing our attention, rapidly, forcefully, toward a succession of brief moments on the surface of a vast event.  Andrew Horton, the chief chronicler of Hill’s career, finds “A Night to Remember” interesting mainly for the way in which it anticipates the complex editing schemes of later films like Slaughterhouse-Five.  Indeed, the director’s cutting is masterful.  Early on, Hill introduces the characters in steerage with a fade from a violinist, entertaining the haughty diners in first class, to a bagpiper, leading an exuberant dance below decks.  Near the end, when an immigrant family that has fought its way up from steerage to the top deck arrives just in time to watch the last lifeboat being lowered, Hill drops out the cacophonous sound, scoring the moment of dreadful realization with a second of total silence.  Hill superimposes the dangling boat cable over the family’s stunned faces.  “A Night to Remember” is subtle at times, blunt at others – but amid the chaos of disaster, the tonal shifts make sense.

“A Night to Remember” enjoyed a rapturous reception.  Every major critic, even the tough two titans, Jack Gould (of the New York Times) and John Crosby (of the Herald Tribune), approved.  NBC took out a full-page ad in the Times to tout its a repeat of the kinescope on May 2, a rerun that, because of reuse payments due to the gargantuan cast, cost the network more than putting on a new play would have.

(“A Night to Remember” was not restaged live, as some sources claim.  And, incidentally, if you look in the wrong places you’ll also find Hill deprived of his co-writing credit, or read that Hill won Emmys for writing and directing the show.  Although he was nominated for both, and “A Night to Remember” for best dramatic program, the only Emmy win was for its live camerawork).

The live television dramas that tend to hold up best are the small, claustrophobic character pieces – the storied “kitchen sink” opuses.  Adaptations of books and plays, or shows that give off a whiff of the “tradition of quality,” are the most likely to seem stodgy and ancient.  But, despite its unconcealed self-importance, “A Night to Remember” works both as a drama and, more vitally, as an action piece.  It moves at a terrific pace and builds real suspense along the way.  Only the ending seems somewhat crude.  Hill wisely uses as little stock footage as possible (like the 1958 film, this version borrowed its Titanic exteriors from a 1943 German film that built some impressive miniatures), but that decision renders the climax necessarily brief.  Hill tries for a pair of shock effects, neither of which really comes off – at least to the extent that we can observe today.

The show ends in the main stateroom, empty except for a steward and the shell-shocked designer Andrews.  As the stewart flees, the entire set tips forward, toward the camera, and the sea sweeps away the steward and rushes toward the viewer – an effect achieved, none too convincingly, by shooting through a fishtank that was rapidly filled with frothy water.  Just before that, allegedly, we see Andrews crushed (or decapitated, according to one account from the set) by a gigantic chandelier that falls from the stateroom ceiling.  Hill staged the effect through a multi-camera sleight-of-hand, by cutting quickly from a close-up of Patrick Macnee to a long shot, from another angle, in which Andrews is represented by a dummy.  Contemporary reviews record some shocked reactions to this graphic image.  But, in the surviving kinescope, the effect is lost.  The Andrews dummy is barely visible at the left edge of the frame, and one would never notice his “death” unless, as I did, one goes back for a second look with the knowledge of what’s supposed to be there.  On a first viewing of the extant “A Night to Remember,” the final image of Andrews is now a stunned, guilt-ridden close-up of Macnee’s face.  Not a bad ending at all – but also a sobering reminder of how the poor positioning of a kinescope camera can rewrite television history.

My ten-year career as a corporate office drone ended in the following manner: An instant message, sent to my computer screen by a human resources underling, summoned me to a conference room.  The room was occupied only by two executives I had never met before.  They introduced themselves by sliding a severance agreement across the table.  “So . . . tough toimes!” was how the senior executive (a Brit) began his spiel.  My boss, to whom I had reported, on and off, for the whole ten years, was not present.  He learned that I’d been laid off when I told him.

That day came to mind when I revisited “The Noise of Death,” the seminal, turning-point episode of The Untouchables that blueprinted the series’ transformation from a simplistic cops-and-robbers shoot-’em-up into a richer, more character-driven melodrama.  “The Noise of Death” chronicles the fall of one Joseph Bucco (J. Carrol Naish), an aging mafioso who’s being put out to pasture for no special reason, other than change for change’s sake.  Nobody tells Joe Bucco that he’s done.  They just start doing things around him – collecting extra from the business owners in his territory without telling him, rubbing out miscreants without his approval.  Bucco has to ask around to find out what everybody else knows already – that his young rival, Little Charlie (Henry Silva), has taken over.  Redundancy – the term that my former corporate overlords favored – is executed not in a hail of bullets from the window of a shiny black sedan, but with a passive backroom shrug of the sort that David Chase would later stage so brilliantly in The Sopranos.  (Chase’s series is a mafia text that “The Noise of Death” resembles more closely than the thirties gangster films which inspired The Untouchables).  Your final exit has nothing to do with your own record of success or failure.  You don’t see it coming.  You don’t get to face your executioner.

That’s not to suggest that Bucco does not eventually meet a violent fate.  He does, but his final encounter with a bullet is one that is foretold, ritualized, in a manner that the author of “The Noise of Death,” a blacklisted genius named Ben Maddow, does not feel the need to fully diagram.  The end of Joe Bucco is not motivated by a chain of crystalline events; it moves forward with its own momentum, a momentum that not only cannot be stopped but that also does not appear to be precipitated by any of the players, not even Little Charlie, who stands to benefit from a Bucco-less world.  “The Noise of Death” is about the inevitability of fate.

*

It takes a triumvirate to execute a piece as fragile and strange as “The Noise of Death.”  A visionary screenwriter, of course, but also a producer who understands the ideas in it and has the courage not to conventionalize them, and a director who knows how to visualize them.  Of course, “The Noise of Death” hit the trifecta, or we wouldn’t be discussing it.  It marked the initial collaboration of Quinn Martin and Walter Grauman, a producer and director whose sensibilities aligned perfectly; they would work together often for the next twenty years, on The Fugitive and later The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones, a number of made-for-television movies.

Maddow’s script for “The Noise of Death,” likely written as an unproduced feature and then adapted for The Untouchables, was eighty-three pages long, an impossible length for an hour-long episode.  (The Hollywood rule of thumb is a page per minute.)  And yet Quinn Martin put it into production, had Maddow cut it down some and then still let Grauman overshoot during the six shooting days in August and September of 1959. 

“I don’t sleep, Mr. Bucco.  I dream, but I don’t sleep,” says Bucco’s imbecile henchman Abe (Mike Kellin) at one point.  The line is never explained further.  It is the most blatant of the many off-beat, quasi-existentalist asides that Maddow interjects in “The Noise of Death.”  Grauman or Quinn Martin could have easily breezed past them or deleted them altogether, but both indulged Maddow, carefully underlining his best dialogue and his most radical ideas.  Maddow’s real coup is to render Joe Bucco as a sympathetic character, a Lear figure, even as Ness correctly insists that he is a monster responsible for many deaths.  There is little, qualitatively, that separates Bucco from Charlie.  Towards the end, Little Charlie holds a glass of wine to the lips of a B-girl (Ruth Batchelor) who has mildly defied him, and violently forces her to drink.  Charlie laughs harshly, enjoying the moment.  The scene clarifies Charlie’s sadism, his inhumanity; and perhaps by this point the viewer has forgotten an earlier sequence in which Bucco casually orders Abe to hop around and imitate a monkey, as a way of demonstrating to Ness the blind loyalty his subjects have for him. 

It is not an accident or a flaw that Bucco and Charlie remain nearly indistinguishable.  The arbitrariness of Bucco’s removal – a more conventional script would have shown him falling down on the job, being taken advantage of due to his age, but Maddow includes no suggestion of dwindling competence – is what makes him a perversely sympathetic figure.

*

“I want to make something clear to you,” Walter Grauman said to the cast of “The Noise of Death.”  “This is probably the best script I have ever read, and there is a rhythm to the speech.  So please do not change a word.” 

Grauman loved “The Noise of Death.”  When Martin sent it to him in June 1959, Grauman read it three times in the same night, so excited by its possibilities that he couldn’t sleep.  A relatively untested director, Grauman had done a lot of low budget live television (four years on Matinee Theater), one minor feature, and a few half-hour filmed shows, out of which only a series of Alcoa-Goodyear Theaters indicated his prodigious skill with both camera and performers.  Quinn Martin, an equally green producer – a few years earlier, he had been a lowly sound editor for Ziv – saw one of the Alcoas and hired Grauman for his new series about Eliot Ness and his squad of thirties G-Men.  The Untouchables would be a hit, would elevate both Martin and Grauman to the big time, although neither knew it yet; “The Noise of Death” was only the third episode on the shooting schedule.  (The fact that it was the fourteenth to be broadcast suggests that someone, either Martin or the network, sought to establish the show’s gun-blazing bona fides before loosing the more cerebral entries.)

“The Noise of Death” begins with a flourish, a scene in which a woman in widow’s weeds screams at Bucco from the lawn of his nondescript suburban home.  This is the stuff of darkness, and when we next see this woman (Norma Crane), it will be on a shadowy street and then a inside a matchlit meat locker where her husband’s corpse dangles from a hook.  But Grauman stages this opener in blindingly bright sunlight, with Crane’s black dress contrasting harshly against the blown-out white brick of Bucco’s house.  The contrast between this wraith and her surroundings signals the strangeness that will follow throughout in “The Noise of Death.”

Grauman’s signature shot was a low angle framing of a person, or, more often, a Los Angeles high rise or a Lincoln Continental; power appealed to him, as both a narrative element and a compositional strategy.  In “The Noise of Death,” even though he requested that ceilings be built over two sets, Grauman uses his low angles sparingly.  There is corpse-eye view in the mordant morgue sequence, in which Bucco clings to an unforgettable litany (“I respectfully request permission to phone inta my lawyer”) as Ness tries to convince him to turn on the mob, but I prefer the pointed wit in an earlier composition that places the word “cadaver” above Bucco’s head.

Like the low-angle image of Norma Crane above, “The Noise of Death” assembles a series of unusually powerful close-ups of its players.  Like almost all of the sixties episodic A-listers, Grauman was a “total package” director, one who could shape compelling images as well as encourage rich performances from their guest stars.  J. Carrol Naish, who played Joe Bucco, was a limited actor, one of those dialect specialists (like Vito Scotti) who usually played ethnic caricatures, often very broadly.  Grauman’s chief contribution to “The Noise of Death” may have been to anchor Naish in the realm of reality.  Though Naish speaks with a thick accent, it feels authentic, and his wooden-Indian acting translates into a kind of Old World remoteness.  As Little Charlie, a young Henry Silva tries out an early version of the stone-faced psychosis that would become his trademark, and grow gradually more campy.  In “The Noise of Death,” he’s scary and mesmerizing, and a focal point for Grauman, who felt an instant affinity for the actor.  Grauman cast Silva in an Alcoa Theater only a week later, used him as a last-minute replacement in another Untouchables (“The Mark of Cain”) after another actor was injured on set, and even wrote an outline for an unproduced sequel that would have brought back the Little Charlie character.

Even whittled down to episodic length, Maddow’s script ran long, and Grauman, working with only a six-day shooting schedule, had to pick his battles.  Much of the show plays out in standard television set-ups – static long shots, over-the-shoulders.  It is chiefly in the final act of “The Noise of Death” that feels one feels the confident touch of a strong director at work.  The climax of Maddow’s script is a long sequence set in a mostly empty restaurant, in which Bucco finally capitulates and attempts to negotiate a retirement that will permit him to save face.  Little Charlie steps into the washroom, leaving Bucco alone for a moment.  Slowly, the trio of musicians who have been playing in the background through the scene edge forward, toward Bucco.  Are they there to assassinate him, or are they just the band?  The answer actually remains slightly ambiguous, but somehow Bucco ends up freaked out enough to duck out onto the fire escape, where a waiting gunman mows him down.

It is an authentically surreal moment, one that Grauman stages and extends for maximum effect.  The musicians all have unusual, unreadable faces – the selection of a less interesting set of extras would have ruined the scene.  There’s a topper, too: when Bucco stumbles back in through the window after he has been shot, doing a grotesque dance of death, a burlap sack is tied around his head.  (Why and exactly how Bucco’s killer has done this is  another thing that Maddow and Grauman do not attempt to explain.)  Grauman echoes the startling image a moment later, when we see Bucco lying in a hospital bed, his head completely swathed in bandages.  In death, he is a faceless man.  “The Noise of Death” concludes with a series of cross-generic ideas – the weird forward creep of the musicians; the off-screen murder, indicated only with the violent sound effect of a tommy-gun burst; the out-of-place scarecrow/mummy imagery – which hint that Grauman, whose first feature (1957’s The Disembodied) was a low-budget horror film, may have been under the influence of Val Lewton.  Certainly, it’s appropriate that Maddow’s horror over the nature of mafia violence – divorced, much like my corporate severance, from normal human feeling by ruthless procedure or collective psychosis – should bubble up, finally, in the form of images associated more closely with horror movies than with gangster films.

*

Grauman directed eighteen more Untouchables before moving on to other projects (including Martin’s next series, The New Breed), and some of them contain even more dazzling work, especially “The Underground Railway” (an action-packed noir with a heavily made-up Cliff Robertson doing a Lon Chaney-esque tour-de-force) and “Head of Fire – Feet of Clay” (also from a Maddow script).  His selection of “The Noise of Death” as a career high point implies a certain professional modesty.  Some of the cult directors of early episodic television – Sutton Roley, Walter Doniger, John Peyser – were willing to smother a script in technique, but Grauman always protected the writing.  Abe’s murder in “The Noise of Death,” for instance, is an abrupt, brutal act, and afterwards Grauman quickly cuts to Bucco, who is seated nearby on a shoeshine stand.  The shoeshine boy starts to run away in fear, but Bucco grabs him and delivers another astounding Maddow line: “Go on, boy, finish.  Ya start something, ya finish.”  Grauman holds on this tableau of man and boy for an extra second, giving us time to register the awful non sequitir of Bucco’s reaction, and to contemplate the boy’s future, the extent to which the witnessing of this bloody act may damage him as he grows to manhood.

Apart from a well-placed close-up of a skipping record, Grauman does very little with the episode’s twist ending, a gag that is transgressive in both its sheer corniness and in the way it emphasizes how ineffectual Ness, the putative hero, has been throughout the story.  Grauman so enjoyed Maddow’s punchline that he retold it with relish when I interviewed him more than fifty years later:

Ness has been told a message: go to my vault.  He and the guys go to the bank, and they come out with a recording.  They go back to their office and the recording’s put on an old-fashioned turntable.  Ness puts the needle down on it and it goes scratch, scratch, scratch.  “My name’s Giueseppe Bucco, and like I tole you, Ness, I’m a-gonna sing.”  Scratch, scratch, scratch.  “O sole mio . . .”  Ness turns to his cohorts, and they don’t say anything, they just look at each other.  He takes the record off and he drops it into the wastebasket, and that’s the end of the picture.

*

Walter Grauman hears still the noise of life; he turned ninety last week.  Tonight Walter will speak in person at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which will screen “The Noise of Death” and – perhaps more significantly – a print of an unaired version of “Fear in a Desert City,” the 1963 pilot for The Fugitive.  The opportunity to see a television segment from that era projected on 35 millimeter occurs infrequently, and Walter himself is a master raconteur.   Not to be missed.

End of the Road

March 15, 2012

Albert and David Maysles’ direct cinema documentary Salesman follows the exhausting professional lives of four door-to-door bible salesmen.  It’s an acute, funny, and ultimately depressing movie, and an anomaly in the Maysles filmography in that it deals with working class people rather than celebrity or society figures.

Early in the film, for just a few frames, there is a glimpse of a television set in the salesmen’s motel room, a set that’s tuned in to a identifiable program.  Although the Maysles’ work has been written about extensively, I can’t find any literature that mentions the salesmen’s taste in television.  But the show they’re watching is Run For Your Life.

The Maysles photographed Salesman in the winter of 1965-66, during Run For Your Life’s first season.  By the time the documentary received a proper release, in 1969, the show was off the air.

Maybe it’s foolish to place any significance in Run For Your Life’s little cameo in Salesman.  I wonder if even the Maysles Brothers paid much attention to what was on television in that scene.  But, for what it’s worth, that there could hardly have been a more appropriate show for these faith peddlers to follow.  In different ways, both texts were about men on the run.

Run For Your Life starred Ben Gazzara as a lawyer who, after contracting a terminal illness, decides to spend his remaining days travelling the globe in search of adventure.  Maysles’ bible salesmen lead a peripatetic existence, taking long trips out of town and then schlepping from house to house by car and on foot as they search for fresh prey.  Even the names are consonant.  Gazzara’s character is named Paul Bryan.  The salesman who comes to occupy the center of the Maysles’ film is a man named Paul Brennan.

The similarity pretty much ends there.  Paul Bryan doesn’t have long to live, but he has all his free time to live it up.  His disease is painless and symptom-free.  He has enough money to party with the jet set, to visit exotic places, to experience the adrenaline rush of extreme sports.  His hell is existential – he’s burdened with the knowledge of when he’ll die – while the Maysles’ bible salesmen are trapped in a more mundane kind of purgatory.  Tasked with selling tacky fifty-dollar bibles to people who can’t afford them, they need all their wits to eke out a stressful, uncertain living with no end in sight.

By the movie’s conclusion, Paul Brennan seems to be on the verge of some kind of breakdown, or at least a change of occupation.  I imagine that Run For Your Life would have seemed like an escapist fantasy to him.  If Brennan and his co-workers had wanted a TV hero with whom to empathize, they might have switched over to ABC to watch David Janssen as The Fugitive.  Richard Kimble’s hardscrabble existence had a bit more in common with theirs.

*

One other idea that occurred to me as I watched Salesman is how much its images of Florida, where most of the second half of the film takes place, remind me of the Route 66 episodes set in the same state.

In her audio commentary for the DVD, Salesman’s editor, the late Charlotte Zwerin, points out how “barren” the Florida landscape looks.  Zwerin is right: you’d imagine that Florida could not help but look cheerful on film, all sun-spackled and pastel-colored, but the Maysles’ grainy sixteen-millimeter black-and-white makes the sunshine seem harsh and oppressive.  The subtropical landscape is scrubby and dotted with wilted palm trees, a dreary, anonymous place.

The Florida of Route 66 looks the same way – so flat, spread out, sun-blasted, and hot that might as well be Mars.  The screen-doored houses are quaint but bland.  It was a great, unique location for the show, so distinctive that Tod and Linc toured Florida twice, late in both the third and fourth seasons.  Their Corvette looked pretty cool tooling down those long, straight freeways, surrounded only by sand and sky.  At least, that’s what I remember of “Who Will Cheer My Bonnie Bride?,” the Cape Coral kidnapping-and-pursuit episode that has Gene Hackman in a cameo as a doofus “motorist,” as they used to put it in the credits.

There’s a wonderful website that documents, photographically, some of the Route 66 locations.  Take a look at the then-and-now images from “Shadows of an Afternoon” (filmed in Punta Gorda) and “The Cruelest Sea of All” (filmed in Crystal River, Florida, and featuring the famous Mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs, who saved a remarkable scrapbook of snapshots documenting Route 66’s visit), and you’ll see what I’m getting at, as well as the visual correlation to Salesman.

The four protagonists of Salesman are led to expect to find easy pickings in Florida, but their targets there are culturally and ethnically far removed from these Boston Irishmen, and they prove to be tough sells.  The Miami outskirts where the salesmen flail about, getting lost in monotonous suburban streets with nonsensical names, provide an objective correlative to Paul Brennan’s mounting frustration.

Florida was the end of the road in Route 66, too.  It was in Tampa, in the two-part series finale, that Tod (Martin Milner) decided to get married (to Barbara Eden!), and decided to part ways with Linc (Glenn Corbett), who kept the Corvette and drove off towards a more ambiguous future.  Just what is it about Florida, anyway?  My other favorite television-related association with Florida is from one of Michael Moore’s TV shows, from right after the 2000 election in which Floridians enabled the theft of the presidency.  Moore’s advice: “Snip it off.”

Salesman or Route 66?  The image is from “Shadows of an Afternoon” (1963), and swiped from the Ohio66 website.

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