Hard to Find

June 4, 2013

I used to do an occasional roundup post wherein I would comment upon interesting new TV-related articles I’d read.  Ever since I’ve been on Twitter (@smilingcobra), I’ve just been posting those links there — it’s more efficient and I never liked putting a lot of effort into writing posts that would become instantly disposable.

However, I can’t resist a little annotation on two recent articles that are totally unrelated but still strike me as two halves of the same whole.  One is Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to make an auteurist case for the episodic television director.  The other is a DGA Magazine article about directing The Good Wife.  Where Seitz compiles through-lines by looking at the TV shows themselves, Ann Farmer comes at it from the other direction, by polling some Good Wife producers and directors in search of concrete examples of the directors’ contributions to specific episodes.  (Totally irrelevant coincidence: When I interviewed veteran TV director Michael Zinberg for last year’s “Turkeys Away” oral history, he called me from the set of The Good Wife.  Which reminds me, I’m still waiting for that introduction to Archie Panjabi.)

Whereas the role of the television writer changed seismically when episodic television shifted from a freelance to a staff model, the  of the episodic director is essentially the same as it has been since the fifties.  The almost complete separation of filmic and three-camera sitcom directors, the director’s hierarchical disadvantage relative to producers and actors and cameramen who work on their shows full-time, the gulf between A-listers who direct the hot shows and rank-and-file directors who get stuck with everything else — none of those factors have changed much since the late fifties.  There have been some intriguing exceptions to these old patterns in recent years – a director’s occasional commitment to a staff job on a show, as Seitz noted, or the relatively new form of the one-camera sitcom – but none of them have become the rule.  Plus, even those new things aren’t that new: in the old days, a director would turn producer once in a while (Walter Grauman on Felony Squad, Boris Sagal on T.H.E. Cat), and hybrid half-hour dramedies like The Law and Mr. Jones, which were the closest antecedent to single-camera comedies, attracted an odd mix of comedic and dramatic directors, just as today’s single-cams pull in both established TV comedy directors and indie-film outsiders (whose widespread infiltration of episodic TV during the HBO era of the early 2000s is also something that a few older shows like East Side / West Side and The Bold Ones tried).

So, nothing is new under the sun — which is why it’s remarkable, and frustrating, and revealing, that the subtext of that Good Wife piece is one of defensiveness, and that the idea Seitz is getting at is so hard to pin down.  It’s easy to talk out one’s ass about “the director” — to simply default to auteurist lingo in criticism and write that Thomas Schlamme did this or that, without actually investigating who came up with what idea.  But to really write authoritatively about a TV director’s work, or style, is extremely challenging.  A glance at Seitz’s scattershot examples shows how much work is left to be done: there are nods to The Twilight Zone (John Brahm) and All in the Family (Paul Bogart), but most are from post-2000 shows Seitz has written about elsewhere.  Of course, there are TV director auteurs from every era, but we’ve only scratched the surface in picking them out or isolating what qualities differentiate them from their peers.  John Frankenheimer’s roving camera made him a behind-the-scenes star of the Playhouse 90 period, and most of my fellow sixties television cultists have figured out that Sutton Roley – the Orson Welles of early television – crammed nearly every TV episode he directed with a ton of strange angles and extreme lenses.   But there are dozens of other early episodic directors with an eye almost as bold as Roley’s, and an especially problematic class of “actor’s directors” (like Paul Bogart, whom Seitz mentions) whose touch is probably only detectable by subtraction.  (Many episodic TV directors had, or have, their own “stock companies” — but while we know all of those beloved John Ford and Preston Sturges actors well, we haven’t yet enumerated Paul Bogart’s or Ralph Senensky’s favorites.)

Most of us watch television by program, whether it’s one episode per week or in marathon form.  To write knowledgeably about an episodic director’s work, you’d have to turn that sideways, and scrutinize specific episodes of dozens of different series, with an eye peeled for formal connections that aren’t always obvious.  Then you’d have to try to account for factors that derived from other creative contributors, or “house styles.”   Series like Ben Casey or Star Trek had such distinctive lighting schemes that you would expect any director’s episodes of those shows to vary from their personal “look,” whatever it might be.  A series star’s performances aren’t likely to vary much from episode to episode (or are they?), but what can be discerned by comparing actors’ one-off work across many shows, for particular directors?  Why might Don Gordon have walked through a dozen guest shots and then absolutely nailed the title role in The Defenders‘ “Madman”?  Was it simply a response to stronger-than-usual material, or was the director (Stuart Rosenberg) the x factor?  Or why, to put it another way, might Sutton Roley’s touch be more muted on some series than others?  Probably because of budget constraints, or producers and cinematographers who preferred a less showy style.  Roley always fought the system, which is why his body of work stands out, but there are other directors who did extremely innovative work on “friendly” shows and totally anonymous work on other series.

In the DVD-and-torrenting era, the texts are available for this kind of scrutiny in a way that they weren’t until ten or fifteen years ago — but I haven’t taken it on, and I’m not aware of anyone else who has, either.  (Actually, I do know some gonzo cinephiles who are expert on some of the TV-movie directors of the seventies, but little or none of their work has been published yet.)  Finding the director’s touch, I think, is the ultimate brain-teaser of television scholarship.

P.S. So, I’ve been missing in action for a while, huh?  Writing for money and sundry other things have kept me away from the important work for longer than planned.  If things go as planned, though, this space should be sputtering slowly back to life over the next couple of weeks.

Milner LHO

My first piece for The AV Club ran last Friday.  It’s a look at the ritual of preempting or editing television shows in the aftermath of tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing – a ritual that extends back at least as far as the murder of John F. Kennedy.  (That’s Martin Milner above, in the strange Route 66 episode “I’m Here to Kill a King,” which was meant to air on November 22, 1963, and bears some disturbing parallels to the assassination.)

As I was researching the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, I noticed that the original broadcast dates for at least two of the preempted television episodes have been recorded incorrectly in nearly every reference source.  Presumably that’s because historians consulted newspapers’ TV listings without discovering that sudden changes were made after the listings were published.  As a sort of wonky footnote,  I thought I would untangle those errors here.

Channing, the one-season college drama with Jason Evers and Henry Jones,  had an episode entitled “A Window on the War” slated for November 27, five days after the president’s death.  An early work by the noted screenwriter David Rayfiel, who was adapting his play P.S. 193, “A Window on the War” involved an adult student’s plot to kill a professor (who is sort of a variation on the teacher character in All Quiet on the Western Front).  The subject matter led ABC to push the episode back two weeks, to December 11.  The episode that was substituted was Juarez Roberts‘s boxing story “Beyond His Reach,” which had evidently been penciled in for December 11.  Wikipedia supplies the correct dates but the Internet Movie Database and the Classic TV Archive still have it wrong.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour had planned to show “The Cadaver,” a Michael Parks-starring episode about a practical joke involving medical students and a cadaver, as the first post-Kennedy episode, on November 29.  Instead, the episode that had been preempted on the night of the assassination, “Body in the Barn,” was shown on November 29, and “The Cadaver” (evidently because of its morbid subject matter) was pushed back until January 17.  Most references claim that “The Cadaver” aired as scheduled on November 29 and that “Body in the Barn” didn’t resurface until July 3, in the middle of summer reruns.  That’s wrong.

What’s interesting here is that, in their book The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, Martin Grams Jr. and Patrick Wikstrom figured this out and printed the correct dates, with an explanation as to why they were given incorrectly elsewhere.  That book was published in 2000, and yet all of the data aggregation sites on the internet – the IMDb, Wikipedia, TV.com, Epguides, the Classic TV Archive – still reflect the incorrect dates.  It’s a good example of how sites like those tend to grab the low-hanging fruit and overlook more obscure sources.  Rely upon them at your own peril.

As documentation, I’ve reproduced some pages from some relevant TV listings below.  First, an early Los Angeles Times listing for Channing‘s “A Window on the War” on November 27:

Channing 11-27B

Then a New York Times listing for November 27, giving the evening’s episode correctly as “Beyond His Reach”:

Channing 11-27A

A Chicago Tribune listing for “A Window on the War” on its eventual broadcast date, December 11:

Channing 12-11

A Hartford Courant listing for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s “Body in the Barn” on its original airdate, November 29 (no date is given on the clipping, but the episode titles for other series correspond to 11/29):AHH 11-29

“The Cadaver” debuting on January 17, 1964, per the Los Angeles Times:

AHH 1-17

This New York Times TV listing for July 3 is one of several that declares “Body in the Barn” a repeat:

AHH 7-3

Also in the AV Club article, I mentioned that Espionage switched around its schedule in order to delay an assassination-themed story.  That episode was “A Camel to Ride, a Sheep to Eat,” which was pushed back from November 27 to December 18.  “The Light of a Friendly Star,” originally scheduled for December 4, was moved up a week.  I’m not sure of the original sequence for the episodes in between, but the Classic TV Archive has the final airdates right.  (Apropos of nothing, can I tell you how annoyed I am that the British DVD release of Espionage went out of print before I snagged one?)

NETFLIXAGEDDON0413

Nope, that’s not a SyFy original. Alas.

Here we go again.

Yesterday, the internet made a big deal out of the nearly 1800 movies that were about to disappear from Netflix’s streaming video library.  Netflix had disclosed a while ago that this was going to happen, so I was surprised at how viral the story went.  There was chatter about it pretty much everywhere I went on the net: social media, forums, blogs, Slate, C-Net, Gothamist (from whom I shamelessly swiped the above graphic, which, incidentally, I find hilarious: nuts to you, streaming family!), etc, etc.  The tone of the coverage was: these movies are disappearing tonight, so hurry up and watch as many as you can.

I’ve said my piece about Netflix ad nauseum, and I was on deadline yesterday, so I was initially planning not to weigh in. But much of what I’ve seen about this is either wrong or just wrong-headed so, as I said, here we go again. Sorry.

First, factually wrong: Initial reports claimed that these titles were expiring because they were going to move over to Warner Archive’s new, and competing, streaming service. Nope. Warner Archive has explicitly denied it on Twitter. The wording of Warner’s statement was a little strange, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were angling to license the 1800 catalog titles (which are mostly owned by MGM but were linked to Netflix via a third party called Epix; it’s complicated). But it definitely won’t be an immediate transition. I’ve been trying to trace the source of that rumor and I think there isn’t one. Probably some yob on the internet said, hey, Warner Archive is mostly old movies, and these are mostly old movies, so I bet that’s where they’re going! And that’s still being reported as fact, a day after Warner’s denial. So among other things, Streamageddon marks yet another dispiriting failure of online journalism.

Second, wrong-headed.

Let’s start with this: Any time movies go from being more accessible to less accessible, that’s a bad thing.  In that sense, I’ll join with the Streamageddon mourners.

But, as we’ve noted before, streaming is not a good way to watch movies.  Of course, streaming varies based on a lot of things, so that statement should be heavily qualified.  But let’s drill in on these 1800 movies.  Start with film critic Sam Adams’s selections of MGM-owned films that he’ll miss among the 1800 Netflix refugees.  I’m pretty sure that every one of those eighteen films is or has been available on DVD, and Netflix carries many of those DVDs.  Four of them (The Bed Sitting Room, Kes, and the two Bond films) are available on Blu-ray.  Kes is a even a Criterion Blu-ray, and it looks gorgeous.  Also, the longer, superior cut of Altman’s Vincent & Theo is available on DVD in the UK.

You can argue about the relative quality of a standard DVD vs. an HD stream, but let’s agree that for every film Adams mentions, that there’s a relatively convenient alternative that’s at least as good.  For many of those films, there’s a better option than Netflix streaming.  Streamageddon is not a crisis of the magnitude that some are claiming.

Let me put that a different way: If one single person ends up watching Goldfinger on Blu-ray instead of via Netflix streaming, then I think I’m actually in favor of Streamageddon.

Now, it’s true that there are rarer films that were among the 1800 that should cause a little more agitation.  Adams does not mention any of these, so I will name a few interesting ones: Philip Kaufman’s Fearless Frank (1967).  Robert Thom’s Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969).  Norman Jewison’s Gaily, Gaily (1969).  Richard Brooks’s brilliant The Happy Ending (1969) and Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977).  Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Adventures of Gerard (1970).  Walter Grauman’s The Last Escape (1970). John Boorman’s Leo the Last (1970).  Elia Kazan’s The Visitors (1972).  Bruce Geller’s Harry in Your Pocket (1973).  Robert Benton’s Still of the Night (1982).  Nicolas Roeg’s Castaway (1986). And so on.

(And I’m actually not sure about TV: Were any of the MGM-controlled TV series, like the Ziv action shows or Flipper, on Netflix Instant?  I do know that a handful of ’80s TV movies, such as Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal (1982), evaporated from my streaming queue.)

None of the films I listed above ever been available in the US on pre-recorded discs.  A few of them (Leo the Last, Harry in Your Pocket, and Still of the Night) were released by MGM as burn-on-demand DVDs, but those were mostly subpar.  In theory, those films would’ve looked better via Netflix streaming than through any other commercially available way to see them.  But there’s a catch: the Epix library was riddled with bad encodes.  By that I mean that the streaming copies of many films had severe technical glitches.  Early on I came across two films (Daniel Haller’s The Devil’s Angels and the Leslie Stevens oddity Fanfare For a Death Scene) that were corrupted at length by a severe digital stutter.  At which point I stopped futzing with the Epix library, because I don’t care to have viewing experiences ruined unpredictably and there was no good way to QC the streaming encodes ahead of time.  Incidentally, one film fan who works for MGM tried repeatedly to get the bad encode for another film, Beyond the Time Barrier, fixed, and no one would listen.

(Another factor to keep in mind is that most of those MGM films were on Netflix in HD because MGM created hi-def masters for its cable channel.  So it is or was possible to record your own copy of them, at the same quality level you would have gotten from Netflix.  And nobody can take that copy away from you.)

When Stuart Galbraith IV and I discussed this here a few months ago, one of our complaints about streaming was precisely this: that content could vanish en masse and without warning.  But I’m not crowing I told you so because that was never my main complaint.  Streaming simply looks lousy relative to the other options, so the disappearance of this content is a dubious loss.

If you’re resistant to that argument, perhaps you’ll counter with something like this: Yes, but most people don’t care about image quality and they find Netflix’s one-stop shopping convenient and they don’t have the time or money to look for the best available version of every movie. Well, okay: in any endeavor, you get in what you put out.  I get that.

But consider this: Netflix streaming (and the concept of an online streaming library in general) is a relatively new phenomenon.  It was only five years ago that selecting a movie to watch and finding that movie and getting it home required a certain expenditure of effort.  I’m not pushing nostalgia for that model, but I do think it’s alarming any time someone becomes totally dependent on a particular technology, and helpless when it fails.  The tenor of much of the Streamageddon comment I read was along the lines of: these movies are not just gone from Netflix but gone completely, and HELP.  I don’t think it’s healthy that movie lovers’ ability to find things to watch begins and ends with Netflix.  That deprives those viewers of some things they’ll like and it hurts the rest of us in that it gives Netflix too much power, and cuts off support to alternative (and superior) distribution channels.  Those 1800 movies will probably turn up somewhere else soon, but you’re going to have to look for them.  In fact, you’re going to have to look for a lot of stuff over the next few years.  Netflix’s acquisition of catalog titles (that is, older movies) was essentially flat for the last couple of years; now, it’s dropping.  That’s because Netflix, with its present emphasis on producing original TV series, is reshaping itself as an on-line competitor to HBO, not to the local video store it helpfully put out of business a few years ago.  The supply chain for old movies and TV episodes, both online and physically, is in the middle of a big shift. Any of us who watch a lot of stuff are all going to reacquire the habit of figuring out where our next rental is coming from. If Streamageddon is a wake-up call for anyone who has become too Netflix-dependent, then, again: that’s a big silver lining.

And let me put that a different way: if you’re a fan of Netflix streaming AND you’re complaining about the loss of these movies, that’s a contradiction you have to resolve.  Because huge swaths of disappearing content IS Netflix streaming.  It’s not a fuck-up or an aberration.  It is the nature of the beast.

And the most important point here is that Streamageddon is trivial compared to the Netflix’s more significant and still ongoing betrayal of its customers: its decision three years ago to stop adding to and replenishing its physical library of films.  Anyone who cares enough to notice that a bunch of catalog films disappeared from Netflix’s streaming supply should care even more about Discpocalypse.  And yet I didn’t notice any wailing from Slate or CNET or my Facebook feed or Twitter back when that started (or now).  Where were you guys when we needed you?

Master Index

April 25, 2013

We’re in reruns this week … but, hey, it’s a lot of reruns!

A couple of years ago I noticed that the blog had started to get unwieldly.  Even with the very rough array of categories on the right, it’s hard to navigate to the older pieces.  And some of those have become inexplicably Google-proof — in fact, sometimes I even have a hard time finding an old post when I need to refresh my memory.  So, finally, I’ve gotten around to putting together a master list with links to all of the longer essays on the blog — one-stop shopping, as it were.  If you’ve been a regular reader for a while, but not from the very beginning (five and a half years ago!), maybe you’ll find something of interest here that you haven’t already read.

I’ve broken the list down into a few basic types, and listed everything in reverse chronological order.  I’ve deliberately excluded link roundups, short obits, and anything else that I thought was dated or ephemeral.  In other words, this isn’t a full index of every blog post, just those that may have some lasting value.  Unless I get lazy, I’ll continue to append new pieces to this list, so that it will remain an up-to-date table of contents (accessible via the MASTER LIST link in the Categories section at right).

Old TV Shows

Playhouse 90. (3/28/14)

Peyton Place (for The A.V. Club). (11/11/13)

The Fugitive (for The A.V. Club). (9/11/13)

Ben Casey (for The A.V. Club) and a follow-up. (8/5/13, 10/4/13)

The Gallant Men. (4/2/13)

Dorothy. (11/5/12)

Wagon Train (follow-up). (10/17/12)

“Alas, Babylon” (Playhouse 90).  (8/23/12)

Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” (Goodyear Playhouse) and “The Traveling Lady” (Studio One). (8/10/12)

“The World of Sholom Aleichem” and “The Dybbuk” (Play of the Week) and a sidebar with Conrad Bromberg. (5/21/12)

“A Night to Remember” (Kraft Television Theatre). (4/25/12)

“The Noise of Death” (The Untouchables). (3/23/12)

McCloud. (2/15/12)

Mike Hammer and a follow-up. (1/8/12, 6/20/13)

Dennis the Menace. (7/29/11)

Kojak. (10/18/11)

The Haunted and Stryker (unsold pilots) and a follow-up. (3/1/11 & 4/5/11)

The Restless Gun. (9/19/10)

Late Innings: Notes on Late Episodes of Have Gun – Will Travel, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Hawaii Five-O, Dr. Kildare, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (9/7/10)

“A Sound of Different Drummers” (Playhouse 90). (8/19/10)

“Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” (Kraft Television Theatre). (6/23/10)

The Bill Cosby Show and Love American Style.  (4/19/10)

Rawhide. (3/12/10)

The Patty Duke Show. (2/11/10)

The Paper Chase. (11/1/09)

Wagon Train and Ironside (follow-up). (10/13/09)

Thirteen Underrated and Overlooked Episodes of The Twilight Zone. (10/2/09)

“What Makes Sammy Run?” (Sunday Showcase). (9/30/09)

Wagon Train and Ironside. (9/15/09)

Studio One and interviews with some people who worked on it. (12/6/08 & 1/27/09)

The Donna Reed Show. (11/14/08)

Man With a Camera, Tate, and Laredo. (10/10/08)

Brenner. (7/7/08)

Banacek. (4/23/08)

Crime Story Parts One and Two. (12/7/07)

Arrest and Trial. (1998; revised 2008)

The Invaders. (1998)

East Side / West Side. (1997; revised 2007)

Recent TV Shows

Breaking Bad. (for The A.V. Club). (8/12/13)

Leverage. (2/19/13)

Lie to Me. (7/25/12)

Recasting Mad Men. (3/26/12)

Fringe (follow-up), Nurse Jackie, and The Good Wife. (3/7/12)

Southland. (1/31/12)

24 (follow-up). (5/19/11)

Fringe. (10/15/10)

The New Classics: The Best TV Series of 2000-2009. (12/30/09)

24 and Swingtown. (7/9/09)

Interviews

Joy Munnecke on Playhouse 90. (4/3/14)

Ralph A. Woolsey. (1/22/14)

Everett Chambers on Peyton Place. (11/26/13)

Ed Lauter (interview by Tom Donahue, text by me). (10/18/13)

Gail Kobe. (9/6/13)

Richard C. Sarafian on The Gallant Men. (4/12/13)

Cliff Osmond Parts One and Two. (1/3-8/13)

Robert Pine. (7/12/12)

Burton Armus on Kojak. (11/1/11)

Gerald S. O’Loughlin. (8/26/11)

Harry Landers. (5/31/11)

Leigh Chapman. (12/8/10)

Shirley Knight and a follow-up. (7/10-24/10)

Jason Wingreen Parts One and Two. (5/13-21/10)

Tim O’Connor. (2/26/10)

Collin Wilcox. (3/25/09)

Lonny Chapman. (12/19/07)

Oral Histories with Early Television Writers. (2007-2009)

Obituaries

Gordon Hessler (1/31/14).

Nate Esformes. (8/6/13)

Norman Borisoff. (6/13/13)

Gerry Day. (2/27/13)

Winrich Kolbe. (10/23/12).

Frank R. Pierson. (8/12/12)

Edward Adler. (6/15/12)

Jerome Ross. (3/1/12)

Ben Gazzara and Zalman King. (2/4/12)

Walter Doniger. (12/13/11)

Tom Donovan and Robert Collins. (11/3/11)

Allan A. Buckhantz. (10/15/11)

David Pressman. (9/19/11)

Alfred Brenner and Lyman Hallowell. (8/23/11)

James H. Brown. (8/3/11)

Charles F. Haas. (5/21/11)

Sidney Lumet and an oral history of his television years. (4/22/11 & 7/18/11)

Gerald Perry Finnerman. (4/12/11)

Donald S. Sanford. (3/4/11)

John McGreevey. (2/12/11)

Janet MacLachlan. (10/21/10)

Arthur Penn. (10/11/10)

Alvin Boretz. (7/30/10)

Peter Haskell. (5/7/10)

Robert Culp. (4/12/10)

Mary Scott. (12/18/09)

Paul Wendkos. (12/3/09)

Collin Wilcox. (10/22/09)

Paul Burke and George Eckstein. (9/21/09)

Clement Fowler. (8/22/09)

Philip Saltzman. (8/20/09)

Mort Thaw. (7/25/09)

Steven Gilborn and Pat Hingle. (1/15/09)

Earl Booth. (12/18/08)

Paul Schneider and Thomas Y. Drake. (11/21/08)

Nina Laemmle. (11/6/08)

Luther Davis. (8/2/08)

Irving Pearlberg. (7/2/08)

Eliot Asinof. (6/26/08)

C. M. (Chris) Gampel. (5/14/08)

Harry Kleiner. (2/11/08)

Barry Morse. (2/6/08)

Frank Lewin. (1/20/08)

Miscellany

Book Reviews: Steve Taravella’s Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary and Lou and Ted and Rhoda, Sally Kellerman’s Read My Lips: Stories of a Hollywood Life, and Herbie J. Pilato’s Twitch Upon a Star. (3/5/14)

How Long Is Yours? (On Long Takes). (2/20/14)

Where Were You the Day Mia Farrow Cut Her Hair?: A Micro Oral History. (2/11/14)

In Praise of David E. Kelley (for The A.V. Club). (11/20/13)

The Nurses of Ben Casey. (10/16/13)

Richard Kimble Was Guilty. (9/17/13)

The Casting Files of Marion Dougherty. (8/29/13)

Le Cinéma de Vince Edwards. (7/25/13)

Hard to Find (on auteurism among television directors). (6/4/13)

Why Pulling an Episode of Hannibal After the Boston Bombings Was a Mistake (for The A.V. Club) and a sidebar about airdates. (5/3/13)

Book Reviews: Alice Denham’s Sleeping With Bad Boys and Laura Wagner’s Anne Francis: The Life and Career. (4/18/13)

Doing It Right (A Conversation with Stuart Galbraith IV About Home Video and Streaming Media). (3/7/13)

The Candy Fudge Sundae Girl (about actress Kathleen Murray). (2/11/13)

Stanley Milgram Goes to Medical Center. (12/20/12)

Turkeys Away: An Oral History of the Famous WKRP Thanksgiving Episode. (11/21/12)

Well I Heard Mister Young Sing About Her: On Nostalgia, or My War with the Home Theater Forum: Part II (6/27/12)

A Kettle of Precious Fish (Untangling the Rights to Naked City and Route 66). (6/12/12)

End of the Road (Salesman, Run For Your Life, and Route 66). (3/15/12)

Procrustes Comes to Syndication. (2/25/12)

Book Reviews: A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film and The Garner Files: A Memoir. (1/26/12)

The Golden Age of the Episode Title, or: Guess Who’s Going to Vomit? (12/1/11)

A Life at the Video Store. (11/10/11)

Late Bloomers (Series That Peaked Late in Their Runs). (10/24/11)

3 x 87 (Early TV Adaptations of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct Novels). (7/7/11)

The Empty Envelope (and several subsequent ruminations on How Netflix Blew It). (3/28/11)

The Uncredited Actors of Naked City: Parts One, Two, and Three (March 2011); and a belated Four (12/9/13).

Hilda & Hildy (on Hildy Brooks, aka Hilda Brawner). (2/7/11)

Who and Where Is Hudson Faussett? (11/17/10)

Book Review: Stephen Battaglio’s David Susskind: A Televised Life. (10/19/10)

Two Cop Shows and One Missing Producer (Bob Markell, Hawk, and N.Y.P.D.). (9/22/10)

Sixteen Footprints of the New Wave. (8/12/10)

Dirt in the Bathtub: Shilling for Screeners, and Leave It to Beaver. (6/30/10)

Cloud Minder Girl  (Charlene Polite). (3/21/10)

Trickle-Down Stupidity: My War with the Home Theater Forum, Part I. (3/20/10)

Murder, He Wrote (on Laurence Heath, the Television Writer Who Killed) plus comments thread and a follow-up. (12/7/09)

Book Review: Martin Grams, Jr.’s The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. (8/26/09)

Perception Studies in Seventies Crime Shows. (7/30/09)

Networking (Live Television Directors and the Movies). (6/12/09)

Confessions of a Recovering Trekkie. (5/14/09)

The Class of ’69 (Don Carpenter and Then Came Bronson). (4/28/09)

Dear Bobbie (Roberta Collins). (9/5/08)

Benefactors (The Defenders, Mad Men, and Abortion). (8/15/08)

Mannix, The Paper Chase, USC, and Some Personal Geography. (8/6/08)

Lawyers, Guns and Money: Fugitive Musical Scores from a Fugitive DVD Release. (6/13/08)

Something About Sydney Pollack. (5/27/08)

The TV Writer and the Playboy Bunny (Jack Laird and Jeri Emmett). (3/31/08)

Another Good Reason to Hate the Internet Movie Database (on its unholy bargain with the WGA). (1/28/08)

Starting a List of Great TV Episodes. (December 2007)

Dining Out on Tony Randall. (12/14/07)

On Cinema

The Upper Crust (1981): Frank Gorshin Gives the Performance of His Career in a Forgotten Austrian Thriller (for World Cinema Paradise) (4/19/14).

Scorsese / Walsh (for BAMcinématek) (3/11/14).

No Love For Jacques Rivette (for World Cinema Paradise) (1/17/14).

Finding My Way Into Schlock (for World Cinema Paradise) (12/19/13).

Andrzej Zulawski: Untameable Heroines (for BAMcinématek) (3/7/12).

Great Directors: John Frankenheimer (for Senses of Cinema) (11/2006).

Bad Girls, Good Girls

April 18, 2013

DenhamBook

Lately I’ve been sleeping with bad boys.

Whoops, I mean I’ve been reading Sleeping with Bad Boys (Book Republic, 2006), novelist and Playboy centerfold model Alice Denham’s memoir of the fifties and sixties literary scene in New York.  She crossed paths with most of the major American writers during that period and, as the title implies, bedded many of them.  And even though she dishes on dick size now and then, the book is more of a literary memoir than a boudoir tell-all.   Denham’s frankness about her drive to succeed as a novelist, and to be recognized as an equal by her male peers, is an appealing story, and she sketches a detailed, fascinating portrait of the boozy, thuddingly sexist Manhattan of the immediate pre-Mad Men era.

If you’re wondering why I’m writing about this here, it’s because inevitably Denham also met (and, yes, bedded) a lot of people who were active in television in the fifties.  The scenes overlapped; the literary crowd, including Denham, could make a quick buck in television (or on it, in Denham’s case, since she was cute enough to get hired for TV ads).  Denham describes brief encounters with sometime TV scribes like Gore Vidal, Vance Bourjaily, and Barnaby Conrad.  She had an intimate friendship with James Dean during his live TV days, and grew up (in Washington, D.C.) with Dean’s friend Christine White, an actress who played leads on The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents but disappeared by the mid-sixties.  (Denham writes that White became a “Jesus freak,” recruiting converts on street corners).  Denham dated Ralph Meeker for a while, and Gary Crosby – one of Bing’s balding, no-talent actor sons – once offered her a hundred bucks for sex.  (Did she accept?  Read the book.)

One of Denham’s most interesting brushes with television came just before the quiz show scandals.  She knew Steve Carlin, the producer of The $64,000 Challenge, and Carlin hired her for a “test” broadcast of the show.  Because it wasn’t “real,” Carlin told her which question to lose on, even though she knew the answer, and Denham did as she was told.  Only after the scandals broke did she realize that Carlin probably did that with everyone.  That’s an especially duplicitous method for rigging the shows that I hadn’t heard of before.

Finally there’s Gardner McKay, another of Denham’s fifties boyfriends.  I knew that McKay left Hollywood to become a painter, but I’d always imagined him dabbing away at godawful still lifes on a beach somewhere.  In fact, Denham’s sketch of the six-foot-five dreamboat portrays him as a serious artist, struggling to express himself as she was, and venturing reluctantly into acting out of the same economic necessity that compelled her to shuck her clothes.  Maybe that’s why I always found McKay so fascinating on Adventures in Paradise.  Beneath his woodenness, there was an aloof quality, a hardcore indifference that made him just right to play a footloose, beachcombing adventurer, unfazed by any of the trouble he encountered on the seas and in sketchy ports.  Those other stiffs, the Robert Conrads and the Troy Donahues, were trying too hard.  McKay, as they always used to say of Robert Mitchum, really didn’t give a damn.

 *

FrancisBook

Anne Francis was a more prominent and more ambiguous sex symbol than Denham, a creature unique to the fifties-sixties celluloid realm in which screen goddesses were either lushly available (Kim Novak) or coyly off-limits (Doris Day).  More than anyone else, Francis mashed up both into a confusing package: she had Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark, adorning a bobbysoxer’s cute, dimpled smile.  She was eminently feminine but, like the equally fascinating Beverly Garland, also a pants-wearing ass-kicker.  Francis had her career-defining role in an action hero role that broke down gender barriers.  Honey West was a terrible show, a condescending and brain-dead dud that producer Aaron Spelling dumbed down from a sparkling Link & Levinson premise.  And yet so many of us bend over backwards to pretend that Honey West doesn’t suck, and that’s entirely because of Francis.  She played the blithe, lithe private eye so confidently, so deliciously, that in our heads it morphs from cartoonish junk that pitted poor Honey against Robin Hood and guys in gorilla suits into a sophisticated show about a heroine who vanquishes serious bad guys (and sleeps with bad boys).

Francis was never quite an A-list star but she remains universally adored by movie and TV buffs, an object of desire for the men and of empowerment for women.  That puts her in the category of performers who warrant book-length treatment, but only – and so often to their detriment – by semi-professional authors working for semi-professional trade presses like McFarland or Bear Manor Media.  Francis’s turn came two years ago in a book by Laura Wagner.

Something of a minor cult figure herself, Laura Wagner has a loyal circle on Facebook, where she writes a de facto blog profiling Golden Age movie actors (many of them tantalizingly obscure).  These “birthday salutes” are pithy, well-researched, and often enriched with revealing quotes from widows and children.  But sometimes the real attraction seems to be the cathartic scorn that Wagner (who also writes for Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age) heaps upon readers who leave comments or ask questions without actually reading her articles.  (You’d think people would stop making that mistake after a while, but they don’t.)

So I was disappointed to find that Wagner’s Anne Francis: The Life and Career (McFarland, 2011) has little of the energy or the inquisitive rigor of her short-form work.  It’s a dutiful, conservative, and surprisingly incurious account of Francis’s eighty years, one that gathers enough facts to intrigue readers but ultimately fails to suss out whatever inner life fueled Francis’s ineffably perky-sexy screen personality.  Francis had two early, failed marriages, one to a troubled filmmaker-poseur named Bamlet Price, the other to a Beverly Hills dentist; and she had two children, one by the dentist and the other adopted when she was forty.  She was a single mother of two daughters when it was still uncommon (her adoption was one of the first granted to an unmarried woman by a California court), and also a flaky enlightenment-seeker of a uniquely SoCal stripe; there were associations with obscure metaphysical churches, forays into motivational speaking, and even a barely-published autobiography called Voices From Home: An Inner Journey.

But we learn little about any of that, or any deeper or darker stories in Francis’s life, apart from what was reported in the personality columns.  Wagner rounds up hundreds of generic Francis quotes from impersonal newspaper interviews, and some livelier and slightly more introspective lines from the chatty and now sadly defunct website that Francis maintained in the early 2000s (an archive of which would probably have more value than this book).  Here and there, the batting about of quotes works.  If you’ve ever wondered why Francis has such a nothing part in William Wyler’s Funny Girl, Wagner stitches together a plausible explanation, and untangles the minor controversy of what complaints Francis did or did not lodge publicly against her co-star Barbra Streisand.  But much of the book is perversely dry.  Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen gives a somewhat juicier peek at Francis’s romantic life, citing flings with Buddy Bregman, actor Liam Sullivan, and director Herman Hoffman, all of which remain uninvestigated by Wagner.  And Tom Weaver, a more incisive historian who knew Francis well and who should have written this book, has published anecdotes that portray her as youthful and down-to-earth:

My favorite day with her: Riding around Westchester County (NY) with her and my brother: Going to Ossining (where she was born), showing her Sing Sing (the Francis family physician was unavailable, so she was delivered by the Sing Sing doctor), finding her childhood home in Peekskill, going to some cemetery and finding the grave of her mother (or father? I forget), etc.

Then a whole bunch of us (two cars worth) got together at some steak house in Irvington for lunch. On the highway afterwards, I realized I’d brought along a couple VHS tapes to give to a buddy (a guy who’d been at the lunch), and forgotten. But my brother pointed ahead on the road and said, “Well, there’s his car.” Anne (riding shotgun) said, “Give me the tapes!” We got up to about 75 or 80 MPH to catch up with the other car, and she kinda got up and stuck her head and shoulders out the window and, at 75 or 80 MPH, she handed the tapes to the driver of the other car.

Why aren’t those stories in the book?  Instead Wagner contents herself by weighing in on just about every Francis performance, which she does in two separate, consecutive slogs through the actress’s CV: a biographical narrative with a heavy emphasis on the work over the personal life, and then an arguably redundant annotated filmography (which comprises almost half of the book’s 257 pages).  This tack does permit Wagner to highlight some overlooked performances and dig up some obscure odds and ends that any Francis cultist will covet.  For instance, there’s Survival, the essentially unreleased experimental debut film (filmed in 1969, unfinished until 1976) by director Michael Campus (The Mack), which was written by the great John D.F. Black and seems to be unfindable today.  There’s Gemini Rising, the only thing Francis directed, a short film set at a rodeo; Francis was a buff,  and it’s unsurprising that she was at home in such an incongruously masculine environment.  Then there was the unsold pilot for a syndicated proto-reality series in which Anne would have fixed up things around the house each week (“plumbing, carpentry, and electricity”!).  Anne Francis, plunging a toilet: I would have watched that show.

Unfortunately, Wagner’s filmography double-tap also draws out a lot of self-indulgent stabs at criticism that are dubiously relevant and mostly devoid of insight.  Here’s one of the strangest misreadings of The Fugitive that I’ve ever run across:

Week after week, Kimble would travel around, befriending strangers, all of whom were supposed to sense his innate goodness and innocence and allow him to move on to the next town to resume his search.  The problem with this is quite apparent herein.  Janssen played Kimble as brooding, mumbling, never making eye contact, always giving evasive answers.  There was nothing attractive or honest about him.

And a review of an Alfred Hitchcock Hour that might have been written for a junior high school newspaper:

Anne gives a sympathetic showing here as a woman dissatisfied with her life and feeling trapped by her loveless marriage, turning to booze and boys to fill the void.  (Nice work, if you can get it.)

            The suspense is palpable in this episode, but it is almost ruined by Rhodes’ one-note performance and Strauss’ wildly fluctuating one.  Physically the darkly gorgeous Rhodes, who was dating Anne at the time, is perfect for the part, and he is convincing in their love scenes, but someone should have coached him on his lines.  Ah, the beautiful but the dumb…

            Strauss is supposed to be childlike, overly possessive, and just a complete fool.  Yet, Strauss’ leer and ominous intonations just about give the twist away.  And what can you say about the supposedly unsettling twist ending?  Sorry, but I laughed.

Meanwhile, Francis’s four-year battle with lung cancer and her death in 2011 are covered in exactly one paragraph.

The tragically missed opportunity here, of course, is that Wagner chose not to talk to any of the dozens of co-workers or relatives who might have offered a peek at the real Anne Francis.  (There’s one odd and somehow appropriately irrelevant exception: novelist Gloria Fickling, the co-creator of Honey West, who had little to do with the television series).  Francis’s Forbidden Planet co-stars (at least four of whom outlived her) and John Ericson, her Honey West leading man, are particularly important sources who go unqueried.  The reasons behind Francis’s firing from Riptide are not explored, even though Jo Swerling, the producer cited as having given the pink-slip to her agent, is still around.  And what about Rhodes – still living and working in Vancouver – or some of the other men Francis dated during the second half of her life?  Francis’s daughters are not hard to find and, amazingly, Dr. Robert Abeloff still lives and practices in Beverly Hills.  How could Wagner resist asking how a dentist seduced one of the most desirable movie stars of her generation?

Wagner does not make a case for her hands-off approach in her introduction but, whatever her reasoning, I think it’s a terrible mistake.  I once complained that one of Martin Grams’s encyclopedic tomes wasn’t a book, it was a file cabinet.  Less ambitious, equally flawed, Anne Francis: The Life and Career isn’t a biography; it’s just a clipping file.

Sarafian Credit

Best remembered for his existential chase movie Vanishing Point (1971), Richard C. Sarafian remains one of the neglected figures of the New Hollywood era.  Before he moved wholly into feature filmmaking in the late sixties, Sarafian spent eight years on the A-list of episodic television directors, starting with a brief stint at Warner Bros.    A veteran of industrial filmmaking in the Midwest, Sarafian was thirty when he went to Los Angeles and directed his first television episode.  He rotated through almost all of the Westerns and private eye shows that were the studio’s mainstay, but concentrated on Lawman, a half-hour horse opera starring John Russell and Peter Brown that still has a small cult following today.  During his third year at Warners, The Gallant Men joined the studio’s roster; Sarafian directed nine of the twenty-six episodes.  In a telephone interview last month, Sarafian shared his memories of working on the short-lived World War II drama.

 

How did you land on The Gallant Men?

I got a contract after having directed one episode of a Western called Bronco.  They appreciated the fact that I was a first-time director and did well, and signed me to a seven-year contract.  So I was a contract director at Warner Bros. at the time, and I did maybe sixty or seventy Westerns.  Somewhere in the mix was The Gallant Men.

The pilot was directed by Robert Altman.  I’m his brother-in-law, but that had nothing to do with it.  I was just a good director.  I mean, I considered myself a pretty hot TV director, and the network, ABC, really liked my work.  And while I was doing Gallant Men, Robert Altman jumped onto Combat.  Basically, I was in competition – it was unwritten, between Robert Altman and myself.

Who do you remember among the cast of The Gallant Men?

Richard Slattery was one.  He was a hard-drinking Irishman.  Bill Reynolds, he in every way I think fit the character in his personal life as well as in his role within the series.  Robert McQueeney had the texture of someone that would fit that role.  I can remember his face a little bit, in that he had acne.

What about Eddie Fontaine?

Eddie Fontaine fit the character, and he could sing.  After work there was a place nearby where he would go and sing.  He had a pretty good voice.  But he was definitely “street,” and Italian, and had natural charm.

And Robert Ridgely?

Yeah …. He was a sycophant.  He had his nose so far up Robert Altman’s ass that it was bleeding.  So, naturally, after he did the pilot with Bob Altman, he remained loyal to him.  None of that really meant anything to me, nor was I aware of – I knew that they maintained a relationship, and it wasn’t until [years later when] my sons were at a party where he was trying to undermine me to Bob, and because my children were there, Bob took offense at that and didn’t want to hear it and came and spent most of the time with my kids.  Ridgely was a toady.

Did you have trouble working with him during the production of The Gallant Men though?

I never had trouble with anybody.  Nobody ever gave me a hard time.  I was too strong a director to be countermanded.  I had earned the respect of all of them, because I credit myself as – I liked actors, and later on I acted myself, and I probably should have done it earlier on.  But I was sensitive to their fears, their insecurities.

The Office of Army Information sent someone from the Pentagon to be an advisor, and I told my cast, I says, “Tell this guy that I was a Medal of Honor winner, that I killed thirty-four North Koreans with an entrenching tool after I lost my bayonet.”  We were going to meet him in a local joint where we all gathered after a shoot.  So he came down and I was introduced and he stood up erect and saluted me.  Anyhow, he would put his hand over the lens if he didn’t think that the moment I was shooting was in the army rule book.  Well, I stopped that very quickly.  How dare he, you know, censor my work!  That’s something you don’t do during a shoot.  If you have the power, you might do it later, but not when I’m working.

Slattery

Richard X. Slattery in “Signals For an End Run.”

Essentially you alternated episodes on The Gallant Men with another director, Charles Rondeau.  What can you tell me about him?

He was a colorful, very competent director.  He loved cars.  I would see him with a new one every two or three months.  Once I was sitting with him at a local bar where we went after work, and he said to me, “What is ‘debriss’?”  I said, “What do you mean?”  He said “Every time I read a script, it says, “The streets are covered with debriss.”  I said, “Charlie.  Debris!  It means trash and broken buildings.”

Anyhow, Charlie was fun to be around, and actors felt comfortable with him.  Charlie was a good director.  He knew where to put the camera, and when to say cut.  You had to know when you got it – when it was done, and you were able to yell out, “All right, let’s move the camera.  That’s it.  Print it.”  He and I alternated, and competed in a way.  I mean, we had no way of choosing the scripts.  They were just handed to us.

In what way did the two of you compete?

I always wanted my shows to be the best, in terms of style and performance.  But the cast carried it through.  It was an interesting ensemble of people.  One of the major contributors creatively was Bill D’Angelo.  I think he helped orchestrated the quality of the scripts.  He, and his superior was somebody by the name of Richard Bluel.

Bluel was the producer of The Gallant Men.

Bluel was the producer, but the real producer in terms of casting, and who had his thumb on the quality of the shows, was Bill D’Angelo.

That’s interesting, because William P. D’Angelo (later of Batman) wasn’t credited at all, except with a story credit on one episode.

He may have written some of them, but why he wasn’t credited was just the way things go.  I don’t think he ever cared.  But he was there, working with Richard Bluel, as his sort of sidekick and confidante and creative ally.

Were they good producers?

They were fun to be around.  I liked anybody who liked me!  That was the main qualification: if they liked me, they appreciated me, and they didn’t lean on me too hard, and I had gained their trust, that’s all I cared about.

There was always the pressure of not only making a good show, but bringing it in within the parameters of the amount of time and money.  I remember asking Charlie Greenwell, the head of production at that time, “Charlie, if we took out all the special effects, if we took out all the extras, if we distilled the show down to its barest minimum, how much would it cost?”  Because they complained that the budgets were too high.

He said, “$92,000 per episode.”

I said, “Well, strip it.  Strip it of all the whipped cream.”  Strip it of all the special effects, the construction, and whatever else goes into creating an episode.  The basic cost would be $92,000.  You couldn’t bring it in for any less than that.  [Variety reported the show’s budget as $114,000 per episode – incidentally, $6,000 more than Combat, which arguably looked like the more expensive show.]

So I enjoyed the series, the cast, the production people, Hugh Benson, who worked as the associate with William Orr, who was the head of television production.  Bill D’Angelo, I think, was my main ally and fan, and really appreciated my work.  I was able to work on the show with the security of knowing that I was appreciated.  I could pretty much resculpt the scripts if I felt there was the opportunity for further improvement.

Do you remember your directors of photography, Jack Marquette and Carl Guthrie?

Carl Guthrie sat in a chair and was able to instruct his electricians by hand motions.  Never got up out of his chair.  Never took out a meter.  He was an old-timer.

How would you describe your visual style, early on, when you were doing the Warner Bros. shows?

Well … adding pace.  I learned early on that I was a pretty good editor.  When I was an embryo director, I was sitting in a bar, and there was a guy sitting next to me who had drank too much.  His name was Bill Lyon.  We got to talking.  I told him I was a director and he said, “Oh, shit.”  He said, “Let me give you a bit of advice, kid.  When you cover a scene, move the camera.  Move it a little bit.  Change the angle.”  That was, of course, good advice.  And he said, “Second, let me tell you.  Every time you make a cut, there’s got to be twelve reasons for making a cut.  Either in terms of story, or nuance, or motion.  But there should be more than just one reason, not just arbitrarily make the cut.”  And this was advice given to me by an Academy Award winning editor [for From Here to Eternity and Picnic].

And one of my closest friends was Floyd Crosby.  Floyd, early on in his career [shot] films for Murnau and was a cinematographer on a film called Tabu, and had worked also with Flaherty, the documentarian.  He was the cinematographer on High Noon.  I was able to get him to come to Kansas City and he guided me through my first effort in directing a movie that I wrote [Terror at Black Falls].  Floyd was my mentor and became like a father figure to me, guiding me if I had questions.  The one main [piece of] advice, and the one thing that he hated was for me to shoot into the sun and flare the lens.  Later on that seemed to be okay, and was a technique that some directors [used].

But everything had its own needs.  What I liked to do was rehearse and then allow the actors to have a lot of leeway, and not have them worry about hitting their marks.  I never restricted the actors to meeting chalk marks.  So I gave my actors a lot of freedom, and I also was pretty adept at improvisation.

Did you have that luxury to rehearse even on the early Warner Bros. shows?

Yeah, pretty much, but not to the extent that I did later.  Within every moment there’s an improvisational opportunity that comes up.  I think back on Gallant Men when I didn’t take the advice of Richard Slattery, who had a thing that he wanted to do, and I said no.  This was a moment where they were in some sort of tight situation with the Germans, and he ended up with the hat of one of the German officers, and as they marched away for the final moment, he says, “Can I throw the hat away?”  And I said no.  And to this day, I regret the fact that I didn’t allow him to do that, to let him throw the hat away and while it was still kind of shaking or wobbling on the dirt road, with the troops moving off into the distance, that the final moment was on the German hat.  I mean, maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but it was a touch that I think would have been a much better denouement.

I remember the show and how much hard work I devoted to it to give it reality.  I remember trying to get a child to cry, that Eddie Fontaine was holding in his arms, and telling the child not to cry, but to laugh.  That was able to produce tears, because it unlocked him.  That’s how I got lucky, in terms of finding the key to getting the emotion out of the child.

Fontaine Child

Eddie Fontaine and guest star Anna Bruno-Lena in “Retreat to Concord.”

Where was the show filmed?

It was all shot on the backlot.  Some of them were shot in Thousand Oaks.  We did some battle sequences there, where we needed more terrain.  But as far as the “debriss,” all the debriss was on the backlot.  There was one formation of rocks, part of it was called the B-52 rocks, and we were able to – we had a pretty good art director, I think his name was William Campbell – and he was able to create the illusion of being somewhere in the streets or in the trenches during that moment in history.

Were you able to get into the editing room?

There was nothing that could stop me!  One of the editors that I remember was Stefan Arnsten.  He had lost one leg in the Second World War.  But I didn’t have the time, really, to spend as much time as I would [have liked with the editors].  You pretty much finished the show and jumped right on to another.  You would look at the first cut, give some suggestions, and that’s it.  But so much of the editing is driven by the way you shoot a scene and how it’s covered.  It’s not like I gave the editor a lot of choices.  You pretty much were locked in to my style.

Did you like The Gallant Men?  Was it a good show?

Pretty much.  Did I like it?  Of course.  I don’t see how I can say I didn’t like it.  I thought that the show was pretty well-crafted, based on bringing reality to that period in time, in terms of the sets, the locations, and the details that we were able to bring to each episode.  But in my early career, early on, I was scared to death most of the time.  Not to the extreme that I just described, but scared that I could not deliver both quantitatively and qualitatively the show that I had envisioned.  And bring life to the words.

So who won that rivalry with Altman?

I had to respect his style of shooting, and his cast.  Vic Morrow was a friend of mine.  Altman brought his gift to Combat, and I couldn’t compete with that.  Altman knew how to shoot.  Altman could should them himself – he could get behind that camera, and he could get into the editing room, and he had a free style of shooting.  He was able to get the respect, the attention of all of his cast.  So he did a hell of a good job.  It was just two different types of shows.  I think that Altman’s shows were better, more realistic, with a better cast.

And when The Gallant Men was cancelled after just one season, were you unhappy?

What I was unhappy [about] was that the whole studio was cancelled!  It wasn’t just my show.  It was The Roaring 20s, it was the Westerns.  I had my ham hand in all of them.  Jack Webb came in, and he was the broom.  It was his job to cancel those shows.  ABC was very unhappy with what Warner Bros. was doing.  They had about eight to ten shows on the air but ABC didn’t like the quality, I guess, as a result of which the licensing fee for all of these shows was cancelled, and Jack Webb came in and took over.  I was the last director to be fired.  I was the last person under contract.  I never had any physical contact with Jack Webb – never one word.  Was I sad?  Yeah, because it was work.  Listen, I had three kids, then five, and I had to bring home the bacon.  That was my home for so many years.  It was my genesis.  But as soon as I was let go, I went on to do Ben Casey and Kildare and Slattery’s People and some of the other episodic shows.  I was in demand.  Mainly because the networks felt, I think, from [what I heard], that my contribution as a director was a touch more than the others’, in terms of style and quality.

Sarafian Hills

Another Sarafian composition from “Signals For an End Run,” with guest star Mala Powers at left.

The Gallant Men

April 2, 2013

Title card

Mud as a unit of measurement for a war movie’s authenticity: It’s a stand-in for blood, at least in shows made before actual gore became a possibility, and also a signal that the performers and the filmmakers were committed to putting themselves through at least a fraction of the hardships that actual soldiers endured.  The Gallant Men, a World War II drama that ran on ABC during the 1962-1963 season, has mud in ample measure.

In particular, there’s a tactile set piece near the beginning of the pilot, where the hero, a somewhat overwhelmed journalist (Robert McQueeney), tromps through a foot of goopy muck to hitch a ride with the truckload of G.I.s that he’ll end up sticking with for the remainder of the series.  The boxy compositions in this sequence, probably dictated by the constraints of the location (Los Angeles, remember, is a desert, and another reason that mud measured a film company’s commitment was the tempting expendability of a water truck as a line item on the budget), are defined with an appealing clarity: a tree-lined ridge on the left, a ditch on the right, a hill rising toward the background.

Robert Altman directed this hour, and like most of his early television work, it’s filled with the kind of details that make it stand out from more generic gung-ho action shows.  The pilot – which has no on-screen episode title; some sources refer to it as “Battle Zone,” but that was more likely an early title for the series – is a platoon narrative, formulaic in its scenario and characters.  But it has an unusually specific chronological-geographical progression, beginning with the soldiers’ amphibious landing at Salerno and then following them toward and through the battle of San Pietro.  That particular conflict had already been immortalized in a famous film, John Huston’s startlingly frank documentary The Battle of San Pietro.  And since the pilot (more than the subsequent series) shows us the war through the eyes of a hardened war correspondent, The Gallant Men also calls to mind The Story of G. I. Joe, William Wellman’s film about Ernie Pyle (a template for McQueeney’s character, Conley Wright).  I’ll bet Altman was aware of those imposing cinematic touchstones, both of which privilege the dogface’s point of view over the rear echelon officer’s.  (There are, in other words, no scenes of generals pushing toy tanks around on maps.)  If the Gallant Men pilot never reaches the heights of its big-screen antecedents, it’s still a respectable entry in the genre, more interested in ideas and ambiguities than violence and spectacle.

There are several subplots, but the main narrative line in Halsted Welles’s script (adapted from a magazine story by James Merriam Moore) concerns Jake Miller, a member of the platoon with a secret.  Conley recognizes Miller (William Windom) and gradually figures out that he’s actually an officer, a disgraced major who turned tail under pressure and is now hiding out under a dead enlisted man’s name.  Miller beseeches Conley not to write about him, but Conley is noncommittal; he doesn’t think Miller is helping himself by ducking his past.

Windom

Working mainly through performance, Altman reduces this farfetched conflict to a series of crystalline emotional beats.  A sort of second-rate Barry Sullivan, McQueeney was not a versatile actor, but he had a craggy, pock-marked, high-cheekboned visage, and a gravelly voice – all of which Altman knew how to align as a sort of stolid wall for Windom to bounce off of.  And Windom has never been better than he is here.  Windom was an actor who could go very big, and his most indelible roles had him doing that, quite literally clawing at the scenery both in his Twilight Zone (“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”) and as the mad starship captain in Star Trek’s “The Doomsday Machine.”  But Windom knew how to work at the opposite end of the scale, too, and his Gallant Men performance is entirely free of histrionics.  He could have played his confrontation scene with Conley as abject, pathetic, but instead he’s matter-of-fact, laying out his case like a soft-selling salesman, with just a strain of desperation creeping in to let us know how desperate he is.  Windom (and Altman) make it clear that Miller, coward or no, is hardened in a way that the other characters are not.  They give the man dignity, which is the only reason that his rather contrived plight becomes moving.

A fairly complex psychological dynamic comes into focus in the second half, when the platoon’s new leader, Captain Benedict (William Reynolds), appears.  Benedict is young, new to command, and unsure of himself.  Again, there’s an avoidance of hysterics –Benedict knows that he’s green and scared, and he’s smart enough to be open to whatever help he can collect – and once again Altman teases out a limited actor’s most usable traits.  In this case, Reynolds’s narrow range of expression approximates Benedict’s uncertainty; he plays the character as an alert but tentative man who’s afraid to commit or even express himself, for fear of revealing himself as unfit.  Reynolds’s eyes flit around, looking for cover.

Of course, the obvious trajectory here is for Miller to step up and rescue the platoon by revealing his own fitness for command.  The conclusion plays out as a fairly predictable ritual of bravery and sacrifice, but the situation is complicated by two factors: the fact that Benedict, the weak and potentially unsympathetic character, will remain with the show while Miller will not; and Altman’s utter disinterest in convention.  Altman presents Miller’s hidden past not as a secret weapon, there to tidy up the plot, but as an existential tragedy.  He has the skills and the knowledge to lead, but not the temperament.  He can offer tactical advice that may save this day, but as soon as the burden of men’s lives falls upon Miller’s soldiers, he will crumble.  Miller can’t take the pressure of command; Benedict can, but he hasn’t the experience to succeed.  Each of them is half a man and Altman, I think, wanted to underline this idea that two halves don’t make a whole – that our limitations define us as much as or more than our good qualities – even though a fairly subtle change in emphasis could have turned this into a triumphal story of redemption and victory through teamwork.

Hugueny

The avoidance of emotional resolution in Miller’s arc extends into an evasion of narrative resolution elsewhere – a harbinger of Altman’s feature work.  In the end, Conley allows his friend to be buried under his assumed identity, seemingly in keeping with his wishes.  But unpack that uneasy moment: it means that the heroism of Jake Miller’s final hours will never balance the scales against the cowardice that closed the file on Major Robert Clinton.  My favorite scene in the pilot is a brief touch of surrealism: suddenly the grunts’ jaws drop as a beautiful young woman (Sharon Hugueny) suddenly appears out of nowhere, running across the battlefield toward them, an oasis of beauty amid a landscape of destruction.  Eventually there’s some exposition to explain this – somehow she knows the platoon’s resident ladies’ man, Private D’Angelo – but Altman cares so little about the literal explanation that the point remains muddled.  (The suggestion is that D’Angelo has been carrying on with the girl while scavenging in San Pietro, but in Hugueny’s scene it appears that the platoon is coming upon the town for the first time.)  After San Pietro has been taken, D’Angelo searches the rubble, calling out the girl’s name.  Altman pans down to the cross that D’Angelo gave to Rosa in the earlier scene, concealed under a pile of concrete.  D’Angelo does not see it.  Miller’s identity remained a secret between Miller, Conley, and the audience; Rosa’s fate is an even more privileged moment, a bit of grim news that Altman shares only with us.

This kind of untied loose end could not survive in a weekly series in 1962 – nor, as it turned out, could any of the pilot’s other welcome ambiguities, or even the key players behind the camera.  Halsted Welles – a skilled adapter of prose source material, with episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Night Gallery and the classic Western 3:10 to Yuma among his credits – did not write for the show again.  Altman left The Gallant Men to write, direct, and eventually produce a very similar series for ABC.  Combat became a big hit, and Altman did some of his best early work there – biting anti-heroic, anti-war stories that expanded in triplicate upon the best ideas in his Gallant Men pilot, and got him fired before the end of the first season.

Meanwhile, working with lesser writers, the series’ journeyman producer, Richard Bluel, smoothed The Gallant Men out into a more standard-issue combat melodrama.  (Something similar would happen to Combat after Altman left that show, too.)  The greatest loss was the concept of Captain Benedict as an untested novice.  In the pilot, he receives counsel not only from Miller, but from Conley Wright, who is even further outside the chain of command.  He comes off as so inexperienced that he’s almost a danger to his men.  War narratives about indecisive battlefield Hamlets who lead their men into disaster had already been done in the movies (see Robert Aldrich’s astoundingly pessimistic Attack!), but the suggestion that a platoon leader might be unfit for command would not fly in a weekly series.  Captain Benedict became a steely, square-jawed hero, and Reynolds’s comforting blandness lost its intriguing subtext of mediocrity.  In a less obvious way, Conley Wright’s identity as a war correspondent was also minimized.  Although it was used as a plot device on occasion, the idea of his typewriter as his “weapon” (as he puts it in the first scene of the pilot), and the dynamic of Conley as an outsider, with an agenda distinct from that of the soldiers, was lost.  In most episodes, Conley is simply the member of the squad who doesn’t happen to carry a gun.

Reynolds

Like many Warner Bros. shows of this era (as well as Combat), The Gallant Men was structured to split its focus between dual leading men, both to reduce the actors’ workload and to multiply the possibility of a launching a breakout heartthrob.  But McQueeney and Reynolds (above) were so dull that the supporting cast carried the series to an unprecedented degree.  Robert Ridgely, playing the tough-as-nails second-in-command, Lt. Kimbro, was probably always meant to dominate some episodes; it’s Kimbro who gets the booby prize of the obligatory psychosomatic blindness storyline, “Lesson For a Lover.”  (Ridgely became a prominent character actor specializing in pompous suits and weasels – he’s perhaps best remembered for his films with Mel Brooks or his last role, as a pederast porn king in Boogie Nights – and it’s very difficult to reconcile that image with his stone-faced, deep-voiced performance here.)  But jut-jawed Richard X. Slattery, as the platoon sergeant, and boxer Roland LaStarza, as comic relief hustler Lucavich, are occasionally front-and-center, and singer Eddie Fontaine (below, holding money), as the charismatic everyman D’Angelo, ends up almost an equal to the series’ putative leads.

Combat had a similar character, Private Kirby (Jack Hogan), who performed a similar function.  Kirby got a bump in screen time any time the writers needed a character to do something unprofessional or unheroic, which was verboten for the static-heroic lieutenant and sergeant played by Rick Jason and Vic Morrow.  But Hogan’s appealing, squirrelly trickster figured never shunted that show’s leading men completely to the side in the way that D’Angelo does in The Gallant Men.  This was partly because D’Angelo spoke Italian, and was therefore essential to any storyline involving the locals, but mostly because Fontaine was the only cast member with any charisma.  (Coincidentally, or not, his desultory career as a supporting player ended in 1984, when Fontaine was charged with trying to hire a hit man to kill his wife.)

Hooker

Pimp

“Advance and Be Recognized,” the only really interesting episode I’ve found other than the pilot, is a D’Angelo vehicle, in which he falls for a local girl who is quite clearly identified as a prostitute, censors be damned.  A long, atmospheric sequence in a little cafe where the soldiers flirt with the Italian girls examines the G.I.s’ relative comfort level with women, and records the knowing looks of the town pimp, with an unusual empathy and eye for detail.  As is often the case with failed TV shows, there are little crumbs that show you what might have been had the series reached its potential; this is one.  “Advance and Be Recognized” was written by George and James O’Hanlon (yes, George Jetson and his brother), and directed by the twenty-five year-old Robert Totten, who is best remembered for a run of late-sixties Gunsmokes that I’m told are very good.

*

One pedantic game for bored TV historians might consist of attempting meaningful distinctions between The Gallant Men and Combat – two nearly identical programs that debuted simultaneously, a network television phenomenon that’s more common than it ought to be.  (Think of the doctor doppelgangers – Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare, Medical Center and Marcus Welby, ER and Chicago Hope – that all debuted in the same season, or the trifecta of alien invasion shows – Surface, Invasion, and Threshold – that canceled each other out in 2005.)  Combat takes place in occupied France; The Gallant Men in Italy.  The geography varies: The Gallant Men roamed the scrubby hills of the western San Fernando Valley, more often a home to plains Westerns like Rawhide, while Combat was shot in the more verdant Franklin Canyon, on the other side of the hill.

In general, Combat was more of a director’s show, initially thanks to the exuberant imaginations of Robert Altman and the first season producer, who alternated with him Burt Kennedy.  (After the first season, replacement producer Gene Levitt kept the scripts toothless but allowed a handful of gonzo visual stylists, especially Sutton Roley and John Peyser, to execute some astounding action sequences.)  Historians tend to identify Altman’s primary stylistic fingerprint upon Combat as the show’s restless camerawork, but that’s a lazy bit of shorthand that’s debatable on both ends.  Combat’s documentary-inspired handheld camera doesn’t resemble the slow track-and-zoom aesthetic of Altman’s seventies films very closely; also, Combat’s cinematographer, the great Robert Hauser, took his signature shoulder-mounted long-takes with him to his next assignment, Peyton Place, thereby muddying the auteurist claims for Altman.  In The Gallant Men’s pilot, the action sequences are surprisingly perfunctory, laced with stock footage and composed without a lot of variety or movement.  Altman excels elsewhere, in the still moments and in particular with the performances; indeed, his most permanent contribution to The Gallant Men was getting regular or semi-regular roles for a few members of his early stock company, chiefly Ridgely and Robert Fortier.

If The Gallant Men had a “look,” it originated with Richard C. Sarafian, a young Turk who directed nine episodes (chiefly in rotation with Charles R. Rondeau, who did eleven).  In contrast to the handheld, newsreel-influenced look of Combat, Sarafian favored forceful tracking and crane shots.  Although restricted somewhat by budgets and schedules, Sarafian managed to consistently compose many shots that are boldly framed and lit.  His finest Gallant Men hour is the otherwise undistinguished resistance story “Signals For an End Run.”  Like many young directors of his generation, Sarafian was bewitched by the influx of foreign films that appeared in the United States, and his images of the stone-faced partisans, dotting a rocky cliffside and outlined against an expansive sky, suggest the influence of Italian neorealism (particularly the late neorealist work of Francesco Rosi and Gillo Pontecorvo, who made use of newer telephoto lenses and high-contrast film stocks).  Although the visual pleasures of The Gallant Men are intermittent, to put it mildly, Warner Archive’s recent DVD release of this long-unavailable series does reveal that there are important exceptions to the general understanding of Warner’s early TV output as cookie-cutter dull and directed by hacks.

Sky

*

Postscript(s): On February 19, 1963, ABC announced that it would not extend The Gallant Men’s episode order beyond the initial 26 episodes.  (Presumably a “back four” or “back six” would have extended the first season to a more typical length had the show been a hit.)  Although the show’s ratings were not disastrous, The Gallant Men was in an odd situation at ABC, which was also home to Combat and to McHale’s Navy, a service comedy that had debuted in 1962.  It’s likely that the three military-themed shows were always seen as being in competition with one another, and that at least one of them was doomed to die in 1963.  Another factor may have been that Oliver Treyz, the ABC executive who developed all three series, had been fired even before their debut – and that afterward Treyz had gone to work for Warner Bros., home to The Gallant Men.  Warners had built an empire of shoddily-cloned, cheaply-made Westerns and detective shows, almost all of them sold to ABC (with Treyz as the key middle man), and clearly the studio proceeded in the hope that The Gallant Men could spawn a third cluster of wartime dramas.  Two of the twenty-six episodes, “The Leathernecks” (with Philip Carey) and “Operation Secret” (aka Avalanche, with Ray Danton) were backdoor pilots, but neither went to series – probably a foregone conclusion, given that ABC reportedly had difficulty in signing initial sponsors for both Combat and The Gallant Men.

The timing of the show’s cancellation also coincided with a seismic shift at Warner Bros.  On February 25, the news broke that longtime Warners television vice president William T. Orr and his head of production, Hugh Benson, had been ousted in favor of actor-director Jack Webb.  Webb carried out a clean sweep of both series and contract personnel, either orchestrated by or meant to appease ABC.  (Whatever revival Webb might have had in mind for Warner Bros. Television did not come to fruition – a shame, since the shows he produced during that period, especially G.E. True and the final season of 77 Sunset Strip, were stylish and fascinatingly eccentric.  Warners would remain a relatively minor player in prime time for years to come.)

One particularly intriguing tidbit in Variety’s cancellation announcement is this: “Warners had ordered additional scripts on the World War II series in anticipation of a pickup, and when notified of the [network’s] decision, immediately sought to sell the extra scripts to TV’s other war series, Combat, also on ABC-TV.”  Did this happen?   There are three episodes from the middle of Combat’s second (1963-1964) season credited to Gallant Men scribes who did not write any other Combat segments: “Gideon’s Army” (written by Charles B. Smith), “The Pillbox” (story by Gallant Men regular Ken Pettus, rewritten by frequent Combat contributor Don Tait), and “The Hostages” (written by Richard L. Adams).  The timing is perfect, and it seems an odd coincidence that Combat (which tended to rely upon a small stable of prolific freelancers) would commission scripts from three individual Gallant Men writers, and then invite none of them back again.  At the moment I have no way of verifying it (production files for The Gallant Men, housed at USC’s Warner Bros. Archives, might or might not yield the answer), but I’d wager that one or more of those episodes are repurposed Gallant Men scripts.

Next Week: Director Richard C. Sarafian remembers The Gallant Men.

Correction (4/19/13): The original version of this piece referred to the primary setting of Combat as Germany, rather than France.

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