July 24, 2010
The research behind an interview for this blog, like the one with Shirley Knight that I published this month, is often lengthy and complicated. That might seem obvious, but sometimes I forget it myself. For me, writing is the hard part. Everything else I do here falls into the category of fun.
Typically, there are two phases to my research. The first precedes the interview. It involves rooting out as many of the subject’s television, film, or stage credits as possible, and then deciding which ones I want to cover and what I want to ask about them. The second phase comes afterward. That’s when I have to sort out all the corrections, inconsistencies, additional credits, and other surprises that emerge during the interview. In the case of some obscure writers, the resume I’d assembled beforehand had tripled in size by the end of the interview.
With most interviews, I try to arrange for an open-ended session, or to arrange for at least two hours. If the subject lives in or near New York or Los Angeles, my general rule is that at least part of the conversation must be face-to-face. In Ms. Knight’s case, our interview took place over the phone, and I was told that I would only have an hour (although she graciously let that stretch to ninety minutes). Because of those limitations, I had decided that this would be a brief, informal chat, in which I would try to hit just the high points: ten or twelve specific shows I knew I wanted to cover and then some general questions.
(I mean “brief,” I should add, by my own standards. The final edit ran over 6,200 words. That’s longer than many magazine feature stories these days, but still shorter than any of the oral histories archived on my website.)
One consequence of my slightly looser approach to this one was that I didn’t feel the need to pin down every loose end that came up during the interview. Most of them were tangential anyway and, frankly, Knight was a fairly big “name” to get for this blog. I transcribed and edited her comments quickly, and didn’t want the piece collecting dust while I dithered over trivia. Still: those loose ends are nagging at me. That’s why I’ve created the outline that appears below.
Most of the time, I would roll up my sleeves and dig into the reference books, the archives, the clipping files, and the rolodex to sort out these questions prior to publication. All the reader would see is an extra line in a videography or a neat little footnote, each of them possibly the result of hours of research. This time, though, I’m going public with the loose ends, and offering some detail on why each of them remains somewhat difficult to resolve. My hope is that it will provide some specific insight into one part of the process behind my oral history work. And, just maybe, someone out there will have the missing answers.
The Internet Movie Database claims that Knight played an uncredited “bit part” in Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955), which predated any other professional experience by at least two years. That’s the kind of outlier that immediately makes me suspicious, and a clarification was at the top of my list of questions. Knight explained that she and her siblings worked as extras during the film’s central town picnic sequence, which happened to be shot on location near her hometown in Kansas. What surprised me was Knight’s initial recollection, obviously incorrect, that she was “eight or ten” years old at the time. In fact, she was nearly nineteen when Picnic was shot during the spring of 1955. Perhaps the dramatic divide between Knight’s Kansas years and the precocious career that began in Los Angeles in 1957 pushed the Picnic experience further back into her childhood memories.
I loved the idea of Knight wandering through the background of a film classic at a time when she hadn’t even decided to pursue an acting career. But can we, in fact, find her in the film? I had hoped to post a triumphant screen grab here; alas, I could not spot anyone who resembled the “skinny and blonde and young” Knight girls, as Shirley described them. Eagle-eyed readers are invited to conduct their own search.
II. The Missing Credits
During my interview with Knight, she recalled several early television appearances which do not appear on any of her published resumes. The Internet Movie Database even omits her television debut – a showy part in a 1957 Matinee Theater opposite Michael Landon – although this credit does turn up in other Knight videographies. Rigorous spadework in university archives or microfilm stacks could probably match all of these to the right TV episode, but for now they remain missing from Knight’s credits:
- An unidentified television episode in which Myrna Loy starred as a “judge or a lawyer.” Knight probably played a supporting role in one of Loy’s dramatic anthology appearances in the late fifties: Schlitz Playhouse, G.E. Theater, The June Allyson Show, or something similar. Loy played a judge in a 1974 made-for-TV movie called Indict and Convict, but Knight does not (as far as I can determine) appear in it.
- A G.E. Theater segment with a western setting starring Ronald Reagan. This sounds like an easy one, but Knight was active during the last five years (1957-1962) of G.E. Theater’s run, and Ronald Reagan (also the host of the show) starred in multiple segments each season. I can’t find Knight’s name linked to any episodes of the series at all.
- An unidentified television episode directed by Ida Lupino. Knight remembered Lupino as one of the first good directors for whom she worked. This could be a G.E. Theater segment (Lupino directed for that series), either the one mentioned above or another. Another candidate is “And Man Created Vanity,” a 1963 segment of the medical drama Eleventh Hour. Lupino directed for most of the dramatic series produced by MGM during the early sixties, including Dr. Kildare, from which Eleventh Hour was spun off. The Classic TV Archive (more about this resource below) credits “And Man Created Vanity” to Allen Reisner, but the site also misspells his name, so I’m not abandoning my hunch just yet.
- A Quinn Martin pilot featuring Beau Bridges and a premise similar to that of Law and Order. In this case, I suspect Knight has conflated the details of several different credits: the pilot episode of Arrest and Trial, which was a precursor to the long-running Dick Wolf series; the pilot for Abby Mann’s Medical Story, which did co-star Beau Bridges (the only occasion on which he worked with Knight, as far as I can tell); and her many guest shots for Quinn Martin. But as far as I can tell, none of Knight’s many QM roles was in a series pilot. Is it just barely possible there’s an unsold QM pilot lurking in here?
Next we come to Buckskin, a little-remembered half-hour western that ran on NBC from 1958-1959. It sounds mildly promising: the frontier as seen through the eyes of a ten year-old boy (Tommy Nolan) in the charge of his widowed mother. During her twenty-third year Shirley Knight may or may not have been a regular or a semi-regular in the cast of Buckskin. The point proves surprisingly difficult to settle.
TV.com lists Shirley Knight as a “star” of Buckskin. The Internet Movie Database places Knight in the cast of twenty of the thirty-nine Buckskin segments, beginning with the very first one, “The Lady From Blackhawk.” However, both sites unreliable in the area of regulars in early television episodes. Turning to the reference shelf, the sixth edition of Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows does not include Knight in the Buckskin cast at all. Alex McNeil’s Total Television claims that Knight and another actress named Marjorie Bennett both played the role of Mrs. Newcomb.
That’s a lead. Perhaps one actress replaced the other? The problem with that theory is that Shirley Knight looked like this:
While Marjorie Bennett (best remembered as Victor Buono’s domineering mother in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) looked like this:
Now things are getting really confusing. Perhaps the character of Mrs. Newcomb underwent a radical midseason reconception? Alone among these sources, Total Television tells us that a young actor named Robert Lipton co-starred in Buckskin as Ben Newcomb, the “town schoolteacher.” McNeil doesn’t specify Mrs. Newcomb’s relationship to Ben. Knight might have played his wife, Bennett his mother. But at the same time? As regulars, or in one-off guest shots?
The accuracy of data on the fan-maintained Classic TV Archive website is highly variable, but the site often provides leads that I can’t find elsewhere on the internet. It presents another alternative. The Archive’s Buckskin page lists Knight as “recurring” as Mrs. Newcomb, but mentions her only once in its cast lists for the individual episodes. Knight supposedly appears in a 1959 episode, “Little Heathen,” as “Marietta.” Is Marietta the given name of Mrs. Newcomb? Or is it possible Knight was a guest in only one segment of the series?
When I asked Knight about Buckskin, she tentatively disputed the credit. “I don’t even remember that,” she told me. “There’s a part of me that thinks it might be a mistake.” Knight’s memory of her Warner Bros. days were quite precise, and I find it unlikely that she filmed twenty or more episodes of a series just prior to Warners and then forgot them completely. However, Knight did accurately associate Buckskin with the former Republic Studios in Studio City, where it was lensed. She must have passed through the series at some point. I lean toward the theory that Knight was a guest on a single episode, and at some point an erroneous press release or reference book elevated her in the historical record to series regular status. There have been similar errors: most reference books list Gena Rowlands as a series regular on 87th Precinct (1961-1962), but she appeared in only three episodes before her character waas written out.
The only way to resolve the matter once and for all may be the primary source: the show itself. It might require a screening of more than one episode, maybe even all of them, to determine the extent of Knight’s participation. But the short-lived Buckskin hasn’t emerged from the vaults of NBC or Universal (the corporate heir to Revue Productions, which made the series) since 1959. At this point it goes the way these things usually go: I find someone who knows someone who has a few tapes of Buckskin, who may be able to let me take a look, eventually. In the meantime, I turn it over to my readership: Does anyone remember Buckskin well enough to settle the question?
I think it’s remarkable that, in the internet age, this many inconsistencies and omissions can remain in relation an actress of Shirley Knight’s stature. And keep in mind, we’re only addressing the question of credits: the most basic yes-or-no, was-she-or-wasn’t-she-in-this-or-that-show of a performer’s early resume.
Just about every interview I’ve done has generated a task list like the one above. As you might surmise, the list can grow quite a bit longer for a lesser-known television writer or director on whom I’m doing the first substantial work. I’ve done interviews in which my initial list of episodic credits has tripled in size by the time I’ve exhausted the memory of the subject.
Has this post been pedantic in the extreme? Well, yes. But I love this kind of work. And if you made it all the way to the end, maybe you’re ready to declare yourself a media historian, too.
January 28, 2008
I’m extremely skeptical of the Internet Movie Database for a number of reasons, most of them basic conceptual flaws: the complete lack of sourcing for any of its information; its failure to designate entries which may be incomplete or unverified; its labyrinthine and opaque process for accepting (or ignoring) corrections; and its disinterest in consulting experts in lieu of accepting unpaid “submissions” by people who must, like the old joke about people who can’t get out of jury duty, have too much time on their hands and no productive outlet for their knowledge. But recently I noticed a practice that’s disturbing and wrong-headed even by the IMDb’s dubious standards. On the IMDb page for most major recent American films, the acronym (WGA) appears in parentheses next to the film’s writing credits. The “WGA” is clickable and leads to this page, which explains that since 1999 the Writers Guild of America “has been furnishing credits directly” to IMDb. Following that are a handy explanation of both the WGA’s jurisdiction (which extends to “USA-controlled live-action film and TV projects, produced . . . by studios or major independent producers,” i.e., signatories to the Guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement – the same companies that are being struck by the Guild right now) and its rather intricate process for determining those credits.
However, buried in the next-to-last paragraph of this lengthy document is a crucial disclaimer:
The IMDb will not accept uncredited writers for titles with WGA-determined credits.
In other words, for the past nine years, the IMDb has been colluding with the Writers Guild of America to suppress critical information about how some movies were written.
I guess I should step back a moment and explain the WGA’s process for determining screen credits. It’s always been common, from the early days of the Hollywood studios up to the present day, for movies and TV shows to be written by committee – by a succession of different writers put on the project by a producer or director. In the 1930s, the studios treated writers as interchangeable and disposable; weird on-screen credits like “adaptation by” or “additional dialogue by” proliferated, and it wasn’t uncommon for an unscrupulous producer to steal the writer’s credit for himself (or a flunky or nephew). Outrage over these practices were part of what led to the formation of the Screen Writers Guild (now the WGA) in 1933. Wresting control of writers’ on-screen credits from the studios was a major victory for the nascent Guild.
Today the WGA has, in its own words, a “strong feeling against a multiplicity of credits” on a film. In other words, not every writer who contributes a few lines, or even certain major ideas, to a screenplay will receive credit. When multiple writers have taken a whack at a troubled screenplay, only those who contributed substantially to the finished film will be awarded credit. When a dispute arises, the matter goes to the WGA’s arbitration committee, a group of members who read all the drafts of the screenplay and issue a binding version of the final credits. The arbitration process is viewed by most in the industry as essentially honorable and fair – albeit responsible on occasion for a perplexingly bad call. In some cases even writers who “won” screen credit have opined publicly that they didn’t deserve it.
The problem is that while the WGA system might serve the interests of working writers, it’s counterproductive for historians. Those of us who write about movies need, very obviously, as much insight into the production history of a film as possible. If you’re writing about John Frankenheimer, for instance, you need to know that The Train was “really written” not by the credited team of Frank Davis and Franklin Coen, but by the blacklisted writers Ned Young and Howard Dimsdale.
As it happens, the IMDb doesn’t record that tidbit about The Train, but for older films it does often list uncredited contributors to the script. Its Ben Hur page, for instance, offers this breakdown of the film’s on-screen writing credits:
Lew Wallace (novel) (as General Lew Wallace)
Karl Tunberg (screenplay)
and then the following:
Maxwell Anderson uncredited and
Christopher Fry uncredited and
Gore Vidal uncredited
The names of the unacknowledged writers (and the prospect of analyzing their work on the film) are far more tantalizing than that of the journeyman, Karl Tunberg, who received sole screenplay credit. And that’s a relatively minor example. How could anyone hope to untangle the creation of The Wizard of Oz if its list of uncredited writers were unavailable? Again, a reproduction of the IMDb’s writing credits for the film:
L. Frank Baum (novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”)
Noel Langley (screenplay) and
Florence Ryerson (screenplay) and
Edgar Allan Woolf (screenplay)
Irving Brecher uncredited
William H. Cannon uncredited
Herbert Fields uncredited
Arthur Freed uncredited
Jack Haley additional dialogue (uncredited)
E.Y. Harburg uncredited
Samuel Hoffenstein uncredited
Bert Lahr additional dialogue (uncredited)
Noel Langley adaptation
John Lee Mahin uncredited
Herman J. Mankiewicz uncredited
Jack Mintz uncredited
Or, to approach it from the other direction, anyone writing a biography one of Hollywood’s legendary “script doctors” – first-rank screenwriters like Robert Towne, Bo Goldman, or Alvin Sargent who have earned much of their living by punching up high-profile screenplays without credit – will have a tough time of it. Such a figure’s involvement in a project is often a closely guarded secret, rarely reported in the press or the trades and disseminated only by word of mouth. The IMDb could and should function as a repository to collect this data.
Of course, uncredited script revisions are “facts” that lie outside of a film’s official history, and should as such be treated cautiously. And one of the IMDb’s major weaknesses is that one can’t evaluate the sources of its data; if, for instance, I managed to add Young’s and Dimsdale’s names to its page for The Train, you wouldn’t know that I gleaned their names from Frankenheimer himself, via his audio commentary on the DVD of the film.
Still, there’s nothing to stop the IMDb from adding Young and Dimsdale to their page for the The Train. But for any film made after 1999, that would be specifically forbidden.
How important is this matter? Essential, given that it’s still common practice for major blockbusters to be worked over by many (even dozens) of writers. If the Los Angeles Times considered it newsworthy that such well-known writers as Ron Shelton, Jerry Stahl, and John Lee Hancock took a pass at the screenplay (if you can call it that) for Bad Boys 2, then it’s inexcusable that this reporting cannot be archived somewhere in the one place that is (for better or worse) everyone’s first stop for information about movies.
And, since this is a blog about classic television, consider what triggered my musings on the subject in the first place: the fact that Horton Foote wrote a draft of Denzel Washington’s new film The Great Debaters. Bad Boys 2 might provoke a scoff, but Foote is one of the most significant television writers and playwrights of his generation. Any project on which he labored, no matter how insignificantly or futilely, is of interest to historians. Foote’s participation in The Great Debaters is not recorded on the IMDb, nor will it ever be under the IMDb’s current policy.
It all reminds me of the cringeworthy conclusion to the Guild’s otherwise laudable project to restore the credits of blacklisted writers who worked under the table due to political oppression during McCarthy era. During the 1990s the WGA undertook a comprehensive review of movies known to have been written by blacklistees, and to restore those writers’ names to the official credits (credits that originally went to fronts or pseudonyms) in its records. The research was rigorous and conservative, and for all the credits it amended, the Guild reluctantly denied many that could not be substantiated.
A heroic effort. But then the WGA somehow convinced the major studios to physically alter the onscreen credits of many of the affected films. The Bridge on the River Kwai‘s title card “Screenplay by Pierre Boulle” – notorious because Boulle spoke no English – was optically or digitally changed to “Screenplay by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman” on all new prints and home video editions. Not only was this historical revisionism at its most Orwellian, but in a savagely ironic way it contradicts the purpose of the Guild’s project. By effacing Boulle’s absurd screen credit, the Guild erased evidence of the bitter farce that was McCarthyism. (Plus, it was unnecessary: Why not simply add a new title card at the beginning or end of the film, with the names of the actual writers and an explanation of their initial omission, similar to the preservation credits appended to films that have undergone restoration?)
According to Craig Mazin, a Guild member whose blog contains the only other discussion of this issue I could find on the internet, the WGA pushed for its relationship with the IMDb as part of a general preference for keeping its arbitration backstories confidential. Fair enough. But why should the IMDb roll over for a special interest group whose goals run contrary to its own? All that’s admitted on its WGA page is that the Guild has now spared the IMDb staff the oh-so-arduous task of retrieving certain TV and movie credits from published sources. Hmmm . . . I wonder if there’s anything else the WGA might also have offered to secure the cooperation of the IMDb (or its corporate owner, Amazon.com)?
I don’t really expect any better than this from the Internet Movie Database, and I realize it’s ill-timed to bash the Writers Guild when it’s fighting for its relevance in a critical strike. But come on, WGA: you guys are my heroes, and you’re letting me down.