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.
May 21, 2012
Last year, under cover of night, E1 Entertainment let loose DVDs of a pair of rare and fascinating early television dramas. It is unfortunate that “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and “The Dybbuk” received so little publicity, since they are at present – apart from Sidney Lumet’s two-part, four-hour staging of “The Iceman Cometh” – the only commercially available segments of Play of the Week.
Play of the Week was perhaps the grandest outpost of the FCC-mandated Sunday afternoon cultural ghetto of the fifties. Most of its productions were feature-length, and they attracted top-tier talent. The two episodes here were likely chosen not because they represent the very best of Play of the Week, but instead to appeal to a cultural niche. Even for the goyim among us, though, they are of considerable interest.
Both DVDs contain helpful liner notes by the brilliant J. Hoberman, the recently, scandalously laid-off Village Voice film critic (and a specialist in Jewish cinema). Hoberman details the history of the two properties, both of which derived from modern theatrical adaptations of late nineteenth or early twentieth century works, contextualizing them within the oeuvres of the original writers, within Yiddish culture, and within the New York theater of the fifties. But the two Play of the Weeks are also worth examining as examples of the talent-heavy event productions that flourished briefly in the late fifties and early sixties, the period in which videotape displaced live transmission as the technological mode by which anthological television was shown.
“The World of Sholom Aleichem” was adapted by Arnold Perl, who would go on to become one of the most talented and uncompromising writer-producers working in sixties television. But the secret author of the piece was the blacklist. Perl and most of the show’s repertory cast had been blacklisted, and would remain unemployable on the networks for many more years. Play of the Week was able to hire them only because it was an independent, unsponsored production. (Using blacklisted talent was still a courageous move on the part of the producers, Henry T. Weinstein and Lewis Freedman, and upon its broadcast “The World of Sholom Aleichem” became a predictable magnet for right-wing froth-at-the-mouthers.) The successful 1955 stage version of The World of Sholom Aleichem had probably saved Perl from professional oblivion, since his most substantial pre-blacklist work had been done in a medium (radio) and later for a television company (Bernard Prockter Productions, which had used Perl as a story editor on Treasury Men in Action and Big Story) which were long defunct by the time the blacklist crested.
Perl’s mature, post-blacklist work tends to fall into one of two categories – the blunt, accusatory rhetoric of his leftist passion plays for East Side / West Side (including the Emmy-nominated “Who Do You Kill,” about the fatal consequences of urban poverty and institutionalized racism) and the eccentric, quasi-existentialist black comedies he wrote for The Chrysler Theater. “The World of Sholom Aleichem” harnesses both of these impulses, and the distinctive tension between them may represent Perl’s primary stamp on material that was not, of course, his own.
Indeed, the “world” of Mr. Aleichem (a nom de plume for Solomon Rabinovich) is very loosely defined. Perl’s decision to include a piece by a different writer, Y. L. Peretz, in between two actual Aleichem works is already a bold assertion of editorial control. “Bontche Schweig,” in Hoberman’s phrase “an allegory of proletarian passivity,” follows a much-abused nobody (Jack Gilford) through the gates of heaven; exhorted by the angels to finally speak out for himself, Schweig at last makes the humblest request imaginable. The expert timing of the long build-up and quick reversal in this mordant, loaded vignette is worthy of early Woody Allen, although I think the true topper to Peretz’s punchline came not from Perl but from one of his contemporaries, Ernest Kinoy, when he took “B. Schweig” as his pseudonym. (“Schweig,” just to explain the joke, is Yiddish for “silent.”)
As Hoberman notes, the first segment, “A Tale of Chelm,” diverges broadly from Aleichem’s original fable, in which a tailor is driven to economic ruin and madness by the inexplicable sex changes of his goat. Perl, abetted by the casting of the comedic actors Zero Mostel and Nancy Walker, turns the Aleichem story into almost a Hebrew Honeymooners, a farce of home and community that offers an earthly explanation for the bovine’s gender reassignment and makes room for much of the kind of verbal wit that one associates with “Jewish humor.” By contrast, the final story, “The High School,” has no humor at all. Perl expresses his didactic streak in this nearly hour-long piece, which casts Goldbergs matriarch Gertrude Berg in a rare straight role. An East Side / West Side for the turn of the century, “The High School” methodically chronicles a father’s acceptance of the merits of higher education for his teenaged son, and then the family’s lengthy and appalling struggle to triumph over the quotas that excluded Jews from most institutions of learning.
If “The World of Sholom Aleichem” was executed by a writer of some distinction and a journeyman director – Don Richardson, who slid quickly from The Defenders to Lost in Space after a move to Hollywood – then “The Dybbuk” reverses that equation. Its source, a play by S. Ansky, was adapted by Joseph Liss, a minor writer who toiled amid the legendary talents who emerged from The Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One. But the director of “The Dybbuk” was Sidney Lumet, already (at thirty-six) an Academy Award-nominated feature director and soon to leave television behind for good. Looking nervous and struggling to remember (or read) his lines, Lumet appears at the beginning of “The Dybbuk” to explain his personal investment in the material: his father starred in a production of the play in 1927, which also happened to be the first play Lumet saw in the Yiddish theater. His presence on camera reminds us that the director was a bigger star than anyone in his cast save the ingenue, Carol Lawrence, who was then playing Maria on Broadway in West Side Story. (Don Richardson may have been just as personally invested in “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” but no one was going to give him a chance to tell that to the world.)
“The Dybbuk” captures Lumet’s television style at its apex, and the show is of interest primarily as a kind of auteurist snapshot. Regardless of his personal (and ethnic) connection to the material, Lumet was, in some ways, an odd match for “The Dybbuk.” Lumet was one of the cinema’s great rationalists, and despite its folkloric trappings “The Dybbuk” is essentially a ghost story, one that culminates with incidents of demonic possession and exorcism. It’s easy to imagine someone like John Frankenheimer (who had staged “The Turn of the Screw” on Sunday Showcase a year earlier) devising clever trick shots and turning the show into a look-what-we-can-do-on-videotape extravaganza.
Lumet, true to his nature, de-emphasizes the paranormal elements. There are no special effects in “The Dybbuk.” When the spirit of the doomed Channon (Michael Tolan) appears on screen, he simply rises from behind a mound of dirt or, in the moving final scene, stands in the gloom, a row of tall candles acting as the bars between him and the corporeal world. Lumet orchestrates the demonic possession simply by having Lawrence, playing the possessed, and the off-screen Tolan speak in unison. The effect of the male and female voices blending is disturbing, even when the actors slip out of synch with one another.
Despite its subject matter, “The Dybbuk” evinces a certain distaste for the supernatural. The wizened elder (Ludwig Donath) who narrates the play – initially unidentified as he addresses the audience directly, this character later turns out to be the community’s rabbi – refers to the Kabbalah as “a mountain of foolishness.” The Kabbalah is what gets Channon in trouble; Hoberman describes his sudden death as punishment for blasphemy, but I think the cause, in Lumet’s staging, remains more ambiguous. Lumet cuts away from Tolan, staring upward and addressing God, just before he falls. Channon’s mortal distress in this split second is so hard to discern that it comes as a surprise when his body is discovered some time later. Could Frankenheimer have resisted a lightning bolt here? It is as if Lumet cannot bear either the melodramatic or the metaphysical implications of a vengeful god.
Lumet’s staging of that moment is unexpected and effective, but his restraint works less well in other sections of “The Dybbuk.” Lumet puts his faith in the text and the performers; his only repeated visual flourish in “The Dybbuk” is a camera crane, which he uses imaginatively at times (pulling up to a heavenly point of view, for instance, during Channon’s final speech to God). But the first act is talky and confined (to two rooms in a synagogue), and Lumet’s stiff compositions and timid camera placement cannot sustain the nearly forty minutes of expository Torah instruction and kibitzing from Channon’s fellow students (Stefan Gierasch, Jerry Rockwood, and Gene Saks, all charming and funny) that pass before the play’s tragic romance is activated. “The Dybbuk” doesn’t come alive, as it were, until Channon’s soul enters Leah’s body.
Lumet sets up what I think is a deliberate clash of performance styles in “The Dybbuk,” using his actors to delineate a line between reason and emotion. While the actors playing the Jewish elders remain contained, the pair playing the young lovers – Tolan and Lawrence – give expressive, Method-styled performances. Lumet stages their first meeting almost entirely with voiceover, as they stare at each other across a room, forbidden by social custom from interacting for more than a moment.
The two actors generate real heat in this scene – if they didn’t, “The Dybbuk” would collapse completely at this point – and later Tolan’s intensity as he turns to the Kabbalah is mesmerizing. (Tolan rightly considered this one of his best performances). The final exorcism of the dybbuk again defies the conventions of the genre. In his boldest directorial choice, Lumet stages it as a modern dance piece, choreographed by Anna Sokolow and beautifully executed by Lawrence.
Lumet insists on precise, minimalist work from all of the older actors – Ludwig Donath and Michael Shillo as the rabbis and especially Theodore Bikel, who, as the father of the bride and the target of the spirits’ anger, gives perhaps the most unadorned performance of a generally flamboyant career. The Judaic Van Helsings who dominate the second half of “The Dybbuk” feel like transplants from a later era of genre filmmaking. They affect the same implacable, matter-of-fact approach toward the unknown as Nigel Kneale’s Professor Quatermass or The Exorcist’s Father Karras and Father Merrin. (The Dybbuk’s incongruously doubled voice also anticipates Linda Blair’s growling demon voice in the Friedkin film.) The rabbis pore over the ancient texts and debate the finer points of theology like scientists testing a thesis; then debate with the disembodied like lawyers in a (literal) trial; then finally perform the exorcism like surgeons probing for a tumor. The possession of Leah, though clearly a paranormal event, does not inspire fear. Rather, it is a social problem that must be solved through careful consideration and concerted action. Upon a text rooted in ancient myth – Ansky derived “The Dybbuk” from Hasidic folklore he collected on an ethnographic expedition through the Ukraine – Lumet casts a modern and somewhat secular gaze.
If “The Dybbuk” remains in some ways a remote, flawed work, it may be because the strands of logic and emotionalism set up by Lumet (who structured many of his films, beginning with 12 Angry Men, along the same schematic lines) often seem to coexist rather than cohere. As Hoberman points out, Lawrence’s West Side Story association provides a key subtext for “The Dybbuk.” The Romeo and Juliet template of star-crossed lovers is present in the Ansky play; it is a universal idea amid an ocean of specific cultural references, and Lumet seizes upon it. Lawrence’s dark beauty, which dominates the climax, appears to have been his chief inspiration.
The doomed romance in “The Dybbuk” serves as an entry point into a show that, like “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” does not pander to gentiles. Both shows deploy on-screen narrators – Sam Levene as Mendele the Bookseller in “Sholom Aleichem” and Donath in “The Dybbuk” – who make a token attempt to explain Yiddish culture to the uninitiated, but many of the finer points will be lost on non-Jews. The axiom that television was parochial enough in the fifties to permit ethnic art like The Goldbergs, but quickly turned homogeneous once the cross-country cable was connected, is probably too simplistic. Still, Play of the Week, with its proto-PBS diagram for highbrow quality television, was a defiant exercise in courting a niche audience long before the days of the cable multiverse.
June 21, 2011
In the current issue of Film Comment, the distinguished film scholar David Bordwell offers a vital piece called “Never the Twain Shall Meet: Why Can’t Cinephiles and Academics Just Get Along?” In it, Bordwell points out that cinema, to a far greater extent than more rarified art forms (literature, visual arts, music, architecture), has inspired popular and scholarly traditions of criticism that rarely overlap. In fact, the approaches of popular film critics (or “cinephiles,” as Bordwell calls them) and university scholars are so far apart that their members are often actively hostile toward one another. Bordwell, a career academic at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and also a blogger widely respected among unaffiliated movie buffs, is an ideal figure of compromise to broach the subject, and he concludes that a “hands across the aisle” rapprochement between the two camps could be brokered via the internet.
Sorry, but I’m not ready to surrender my arms just yet.
Bordwell’s topic might seem like a pointless exercise in inside baseball, and one not particularly germane to this blog (although I will connect it to the subject of television, if you’ll bear with me). But most of the other film critics and enthusiasts of my personal acquaintance hold strong opinions on the subject, and it has certainly colored my own fifteen years as a semi-professional media historian.
Bordwell’s article resonated with me because it brought back a lot of memories from my own undergraduate education, which was perpetrated during the late nineties in the University of Southern California’s cinema-television program. At the time, the program was dominated by scholars huddled under the umbrella of “Grand Theory” – a collection of cultural-studies disciplines (semiotics, reception studies, psychoanalysis, feminism & queer theory) which connected only tangentially to art appreciation and aesthetics. In practice, this meant reading a lot of essays about movies in which no individual film was discussed or even named. Bordwell uses the phrase “smother living work under a blanket of Grand Theory,” and that accurately describes the dispiriting attitude I encountered all too often. Instead of embodying a broad curiosity about film as a medium, these cultural scholars tended to cherry-pick texts and trends that supported whatever specialty they had staked out on the Grand Theory map. (Bordwell: “the habit of interpreting films as charade-like enactments of theoretical doctrines.”)
The few USC faculty to whom I was able to relate – like Rick Jewell, a rigorous historian of Hollywood production methods – seemed to exist on the margins of this not-really-about-films film school in which I found myself mired. I took what I could from teachers like Jewell, but on the whole I emerged from USC with a sense of resentment towards a curriculum that often seemed to condescend to the material I went there to learn about. A big part of that problem was the basic indifference or even contempt toward the craft of writing that I encountered in the critical literature I read. The impenetrability of academic writing is an old joke, but it bears repeating that, as Chris Fujiwara puts it in a response to Bordwell’s article, “there is probably no professional sphere in which the lack of desire to write and the lack of interest in writing are more endemic than academia.” My own formal education therefore had the effect of alienating me from its auspices: although I’ve occasionally written pieces that drew in part on some cultural-theory notions gleaned from college (for instance, this post-feminist reading of The Donna Reed Show), I’ve made a conscious decision to place my work on the popular side of cinephilia (or telephilia, as the case may be) because I want to reach an audience who will read about East Side / West Side or The Patty Duke Show because they want to, not because they have to. (Fujiwara: “The system of ‘publish or perish,’ together with the reliable assurance that what gets published will remain unread (not infrequently, I imagine, even by those who get paid to edit and review it), guarantees an abundance of terrible academic writing.”)
One quibble I have with Bordwell’s piece is that, perhaps for reasons of space, he uses the term “research” a lot without ever defining it precisely. For Bordwell, research seems to represent the serious work of scholars; whenever non-academics produce valuable research, it’s a happy accident. (Bordwell writes that Joseph McBride’s heavily footnoted Spielberg biography “is academic in the best sense.”) Of course, Bordwell’s own work is prodigiously detailed and specific (see, for instance, his blog post about flashbacks-within-flashbacks), so I suspect he would be surprised and disappointed by how infrequently I encountered the same breadth of curiosity and rigor among the faculty and grad students in my USC program. Bordwell suggests that “academic research is less geared to evaluation” but I often found that academics were highly evaluative. It’s just that they were quick to judge texts based on their usefulness to a particular scholarly discipline or approach rather than on their value as art.
I hit my breaking point with this form of myopia when Jeff Kisseloff published his pioneering work The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 during my USC years. Kisseloff’s book gave me more insight into understanding how television was made than anything I’ve read before or since. And yet, when I recommended it to one of my television professors, not only did she have no interest in teaching the book, but she wouldn’t even read it. It was inconceivable to her that oral history could teach her anything useful about television. I encountered that attitude – that the work of the scholar should be abstract and contemplative rather than nuts-and-bolts – all the time, and it’s why I take exception to Bordwell’s non-definition of “research.”
My own definition of research, then, would be along the lines of investigative journalism: perusal of archival records, excavation of contemporary publications, viewings of obscure works, and yes, actually talking to people who created the objects of one’s study. Bordwell’s implication that the success of non-academic scholar like McBride in this area was somehow exceptional offended me slightly because, in my view, McBride is the rule, not the exception. Much of the best movie and television history (if not always the best criticism, which is Bordwell’s primary focus) is the work of outsiders, not of academics. Of course, that’s the opposite of how it ought to be.
I promised to apply some of these thoughts to television, and I think the best way to do that is to question another generalization of Bordwell’s: that mainstream or cinephile critics are mainly auteurists. I guess there’s a broad tradition, perhaps more among editors than writers, of following the DGA’s possessory-credit lead and referring to most films as the work of their directors, without any investigation of who actually did what; but I also think that many good mainstream critics are equally likely to come at movies from a context of national cinemas, movie star personas, zeitgeist notions, or any of a dozen other frameworks.
Anyway, it occurs to me that the idea of an auteurist approach breaks down completely when you try to apply it to television.
That’s because the episodic director is rarely the primary creative force in television (except for cases where a Michael Mann or a Martin Scorsese directs an HBO pilot), and understanding the process of who fills that power vacuum is work that few mainstream (and academic?) critics have attempted. The “showrunner,” a relatively new term and a relatively modern conception, has become a sort of default auteurist figure among television critics, but it’s often misunderstood and selectively applied. Most critics probably don’t realize that a showrunner may or may not be the same thing as an executive producer or a head writer (for instance, Dick Wolf’s Law & Order shows and Jerry Bruckheimer’s C.S.I. franchises all have their own showrunners, and yet more strongly reflect the sensibilities of Wolf and Bruckheimer). And I don’t understand why Mad Men and Deadwood are widely understood as the singular visions of their particular creators, and yet I’ve never read any auteurist criticism devoted to, say, John Wells or Ryan Murphy (even though ER and The West Wing, once it passed from Aaron Sorkin’s to Wells’s control, have a great deal in common, and Murphy’s superficially very different Nip/Tuck and Glee are of a philosophical piece). There are also cases where actors, cinematographers, executives, and other less-than-obvious figures who set the tone in television – not to mention exceptional television directors who really are auteurs but whose work is so spread out that they haven’t been recognized as such – but I’ve seen little work that tries to grasp any of that.
The popular/academic schism in film culture in film culture may be bad, but at least it’s indicative that some approaches have been codified. In the television realm, I sense that the academics are still chasing their trends instead of doing serious research (can I tell you how many Buffy-loving hipsters I ran afoul of during my USC sojourn?) and most popular critics are just trying to keep up with the screeners that land on their desks, without looking hard enough at the bigger picture.
Speaking of academics: Lynn Reed is a graduate student at Skidmore College who has been exploring ideas related to her master’s thesis in a good blog. Her starting point is Mad Men, which she follows into tangents as inevitable as feminism and as unlikely as Remington Steele. Reed has a fascinating piece up about a Mary Tyler Moore-like sitcom that Sex and the Single Girl author Helen Gurley Brown pitched to Warner Bros. and ABC – in 1962. Needless to say, this proposed show that envisioned a female protagonist with a sometime boyfriend she “had no plans to marry” was a bit ahead of its time. I’d love to read what, if anything, resides in the Warner Bros. Archives at USC to document the reaction of the studio’s television executives (at that time a typically cigar-chomping, old-school bunch) to Brown’s salvo of premature feminism.
Speaking of journalists: My pal Tom Lisanti has a fine three-part interview with sultry France Nuyen on his blog. He doesn’t say why it was omitted, but evidently the Nuyen profile is a leftover from one of his worthwhile books about sixties ingenues. Nuyen was Eurasian and hard to cast, but I always thought she was a subtle, wistful actress, with a sexy, marbly voice. Nuyen is pretty frank but Lisanti didn’t get the one quote I was looking for – a response to the strange, cryptic, misogynistic barbs about his brief marriage to Nuyen that Robert Culp delivered on his I Spy audio commentaries. Culp evidently had some unresolved issues on the subject, and didn’t mind telling the world about them.
And blogger Mel Neuhaus has another amazing three-parter, this one with child actress turned sixties ingenue Sherry Jackson. Jackson is forthright about her entire career, but the really eye-popping revelations come in the first installment, during which she reveals the truly toxic environment on the set of the happy-family sitcom Make Room For Daddy. The whole series (including part two and part three) is a must-read. There is equal room in my philosophy, I’m proud to say, for both thoughtful criticism of shows like Mad Men and salacious gossip about Danny “Plate Man” Thomas’s kinky sexual proclivities.
December 3, 2009
Paradise Cove Is Too Far: It could’ve been the name of one of the sixties TV dramas Paul Wendkos directed, during the years when shows like Naked City and Ben Casey competed to come up with the longest and most cryptic segment titles. “Ten Days For a Shirt-Tail” and “The Wild, Wild, Wild Waltzing World” were actual television episodes from Wendkos’s resume.
But Paradise Cove Is Too Far is not one of his credits; it’s a note I found scrawled on my folder for Wendkos, at the end of a set of directions to his Malibu home. I never made the trip to just-before-Paradise Cove. For the last few years, I’d been talking to his wife, Lin Bolen Wendkos (the inspiration for Faye Dunaway’s character in Network, according to rumor, but hopefully not for the more terrifying aspects of that character) about meeting Paul for an interview. But he’d suffered a stroke shortly before I got in touch and remained too frail for the kind of in-depth questioning that I would have needed to toss his way. I kept calling every time I was in Los Angeles, hoping that I’d catch him on a good day, but I never did. Wendkos died last month, on November 12.
Since I started making notes for this piece, good obituaries have appeared in the New York Times and the Independent, so I don’t feel obligated to outline the whole of Wendkos’s long career. He began with a regional independent film, The Burglar, which is a common way for directors to enter television now, but was extremely unusual then. The Burglar is an impeccable film noir. It derives from a novel by David Goodis, the reclusive Philadelphia native whose home town figures essentially in most of his prose. Wendkos also hailed from Philly and deployed his camera along its streets with a knowing eye; he was a perfect match for the material, as was surly sad-sack star Dan Duryea.
The Burglar led immediately to a feature contract and a number of mostly commercial films for Columbia, including Gidget and its two sequels, which led off most of his obits. Wendkos disowned most of his studio films, considering them too compromised, although film buffs make claims for The Case Against Brooklyn and the western Face of a Fugitive. The oddity from among Wendkos’s early films, another indie called Angel Baby, has a small cult following that may grow following its recent sort-of DVD release (in Warners’ new burn-on-demand library). More on Angel Baby further down.
Once he escaped his Columbia pact, Wendkos spent most of a decade in episodic television. He directed for most of the top shows – Naked City (his favorite), Ben Casey, Mr. Novak, Dr. Kildare, The Untouchables, I Spy, The Invaders, The FBI, the pilot for Hawaii Five-O – and, in the same 1968 interview that found Wendkos dyspeptic on the subject of his feature career, he expressed some guarded satisfaction about his work in the newer medium:
Television is a talk medium. The cinema is basically a behavioral medium, an action medium, people do things to generate a story. [I]n television they talk about doing things. You’re dealing with incredible professionalism in this field. All the scripts are tailored for five to seven day schedules and it’s so much easier to shoot characters talking about something than having them go through the actions. Television has an affinity for the minutiae of emotions as opposed to the broad sweep, the spectacle, the action of a motion picture. The difference is in the complexity of the mounting.
Though he directed a few more theatrical films (including the creepy The Mephisto Waltz, TV producer Quinn Martin’s only foray into features), Wendkos spent most of the seventies on directing made-for-television movies and mini-series, many of which were quite highly regarded. The first of them, a chiller called Fear No Evil, continues to attract obsessive attention; the second, The Brotherhood of the Bell, was a look at a Skull and Bones-type organization that earned Wendkos a DGA award nomination. The Legend of Lizzie Borden, with Elizabeth Montgomery wielding the axe, was a big deal in its day, and The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story netted Wendkos an Emmy nomination. And so on.
I should, at this point, be able to offer some specific insights on what made Wendkos one of the best among his generation of TV directors. But that’s tougher than it sounds, even for a specialist like myself. It’s at least a measurable task to isolate the elements in scripts that make a TV writer unique – the repeated themes, the “voice” of the dialogue, the broader control that can come via elevation to producer or story editorship. But to do the equivalent for an episodic director requires a close viewing of many segments, in close proximity, and even then the common elements may remain elusive, or mislead. How does one grapple with the fact that, as a production necessity, episodic television directors (even the best ones) routinely had less involvement in pre- and post-production than the hackiest of movie directors? How many presumably directorial choices were in fact the director’s, and how many were dictated by the producer or the star or the house style of a particular show? Do his Invaders segments more closely resemble Wendkos’s segments of other series, or those Invaders segments helmed by others? TV movies are easier – one can presume a bit more creative control on the part of the director – but most of them are maddeningly hard to come by these days. Little wonder that the expert cinephiles at Dave Kehr’s blog struggled last month to define the Wendkos touch, even as they agreed upon their admiration for it.
Tise Vahimagi and the late Christopher Wicking, in their book The American Vein, contemplate this authorial question with mixed success, but I think their take on Wendkos is sound:
In his best work, there is a clinical detachment from his characters, which prevents any easy transference from the viewer. His analytic view intensifies the feeling that we are watching insects under a microscope. Some of the insects run bewildered from the various physical and psychological hounds on their trail, whilst others do the pursuing — implacable and imperious. Wendkos’s framing of a cold world is usually meticulously correct, frustratingly proper. It conveys a Langian sense of fate, against which individuals are powerless.
To which I’ll add only that the best dramatic TV directors of the sixties, of whom Wendkos was one, had to be equally proficient in their guidance of actors and in their use of the camera. This is an obvious point. But the fact that there are few television auteurs who managed to specialize in one area to the exclusion of the other (in the way that, say, Kazan was an “actor’s director” or Hitchcock a meticulous planner of compositions) makes it all the more difficult to differentiate amidst their work.
If I can’t offer a full analysis of Wendkos’s mise-en-scene, I can at least shed some light on one mystery which emerged from that discussion on Mr. Kehr’s site. The authorship of Angel Baby has always been disputed in the reference books. Though Wendkos bears the sole screen credit, the project originated with another director, Hubert Cornfield, who had a similarly uneven and interesting early screen career. (Although when Wendkos segued into television, Cornfield simply disappeared). The press reported during the film’s production in 1960 that appendicitis forced Cornfield off the film, without indicating how much of it he completed before Wendkos took over. In that 1968 interview, Wendkos distanced himself a bit from Angel Baby – he claimed he was promised script changes which never materialized – but also neglected to say how much of the finished work actually bore his stamp.
This week I put in a call to Angel Baby’s lovely and talented star, Salome Jens, whose portrayal of the title character, a phony (or is she?) faith healer, is one of the film’s chief assets. According to Jens, Cornfield was fired after one or two days (“he had a lot of ideas, but none of them worked”) and all of his footage was reshot by Wendkos. Of the two credited cinematographers, Jens remembered Haskell Wexler as Wendkos’s primary collaborator; Jack Marta (soon to become the DP on TV’s Route 66) was there mainly to protect the picture’s union status. (Wexler was not yet a member of the A.S.C.)
Angel Baby began shooting on location in Florida and Georgia, but was forced back to Los Angeles by uncooperative weather. That may account for the film’s uneven mixture of steamy tropical authenticity and cramped, flimsy-looking sets. Apart from Jens, the visual energy Wendkos brings to the film – lots of tracking shots and low angles, perhaps to suggest the faithful gazing skyward – is the best thing about it.
“I had a lovely experience with Paul,” said Jens, who also did an Untouchables for Wendkos two years later. “I felt that he enhanced what it was I brought him. I already had ideas about what it was I was going to do, and he was very supportive. I loved Angel Baby. I thought it was a sweet little film.”
There’s one discrepancy I haven’t resolved, and that’s the question of Wendkos’s age. Most reference books report his date of birth as September 20, 1922, but the obits all state that he 84 rather than 87. If I sort out the facts, I’ll report back.
UPDATE, 12/3/09: Lin Bolen Wendkos says that Paul’s birth certificate bears the 1925 date. No one in the family seems to know how that 1922 business got started. Intriguing! Also, Paul was his middle name; his given name was Abraham.