May 2, 2016
The made-for-television movie wasn’t invented, in its modern form, until the mid-sixties – See How They Run (1964) is usually cited as the first one – and it didn’t become a big deal until NBC and ABC dedicated weekly prime-time blocks to them around the end of the decade. Prior to that, though, there were many one-off dramatic specials, in prime time and also tucked into daytime slots and the FCC-dictated Sunday afternoon “cultural ghetto.” In the fifties these were often star-driven adaptations of plays or musicals – Laurence Olivier in The Moon and Sixpence (1959), for instance. During the early sixties, as stark dramas like The Defenders flourished briefly and many in the industry mourned the demise of the live anthology, some smaller-scaled, more austere playlets in the kitchen drama vein cropped up. They’re all completely forgotten today.
Here’s one example, chosen essentially at random. (I stumbled across a file on it at work.) The 91st Day, broadcast on public television stations during the month of JFK’s assassination, was a case study of mental illness and an indictment of the inadequate public health remedies for it. The protagonist, Loren Benson, was a high school music teacher who suffers a breakdown; his wife Maggie, the other main character, becomes an advocate for his care as the system fails him. The title refers to the state-mandated discontinuation of Benson’s institutionalization: at the end of ninety days, the mental patient is kicked to the curb, cured or not.
The 91st Day commands interest first and foremost for its stars: Patrick O’Neal, a sardonic, hard-drinking Florida-born Irishman who seemed custom-built to understudy Jason Robards in the complete works of Eugene O’Neill; and Madeleine Sherwood, an Actors Studio doyenne who could come off as both matronly and high-strung. Sherwood died last month (that’s what prompted me to finish this half-drafted, half-forgotten piece); despite having appeared in the original Broadway production of The Crucible and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and films for Elia Kazan (Baby Doll) and Otto Preminger (Hurry Sundown), Sherwood was best known for her most ridiculous credit, the role of The Flying Nun’s Mother Superior. The supporting cast, drawn from the crowd of New York-based theater and television actors – The 91st Day was filmed in studios on West End Avenue, in June 1963, with a location trip to a hospital outside Reading, Pennsylvania – included Staats Cotsworth, Royal Beal, and Robert Gerringer (a stolid Frank Lovejoy type who served as one of The Defenders’ rotating prosecutors).
At almost ninety minutes, The 91st Day was a feature-length work, and yet it was created by outsiders to the world of scripted film and television. Lee R. Bobker, its director, was an independent filmmaker, an Oscar-nominated documentarian, and an NYU instructor. (Bobker’s company, Vision Associates, had produced Frank Perry’s independent film David and Lisa the year before, and both projects had the same film editor, Irving Oshman; The 91st Day was probably an offshoot of David and Lisa, which also dealt with mental illness.) The writers, Emily and David Alman, were novelist-playwrights better known as neighbors of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who sought publicly to clear their names after the Rosenbergs were executed for espionage in 1953. The Almans employed a pseudonym, “Emily David,” possibly to deflect attention from their leftist associations – although publicity materials identified them, and their involvement was mentioned in The New York Times’s coverage of the show. The Ford Foundation-funded NET, the precursor to PBS, produced and aired The 91st Day, and the budgetary limitations of public television meant that it was likely made for a quarter, or less, of what a comparable network program cost. (The single sponsor was the pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline & French, a corporate forerunner of GlaxoSmithKline.) Most mainstream talent probably discovered that they had prior commitments that month.
Was it any good? The reviews were mixed. TV Guide wrote that it “grinds no axes, calls no names, but forcibly reveals a few of life’s truths.” John Horn, in The New York Herald Tribune, thought it “badly needed substance, point and human engagement.” Without much else from Bobker’s or the Almans’ resumes to compare it to, it’s hard to judge whether The 91st Day would seem earnest and amateurish today, like an afterschool special, or sensitive and urgent, like a lost two-parter from Ben Casey or The Nurses.
The 91st Day doesn’t turn up in the catalogs of either the UCLA Film and Television Archive or the Paley Center For Media – and Worldcat doesn’t locate it in any libraries, which is surprising, given that it was likely made with the idea that it could have a long afterlife in educational and institutional settings. (Perhaps its length kept it out of the repository of 16mm films your school library stocked for those days when your teacher was hungover.) It’s likely that prints of it exist, though, if not in the archives of PBS or The 91st Day’s corporate sponsors, then in the basement of one of its makers. The show doesn’t come up in the Library of Congress’s database, but the NET archives are housed there, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they have an uncataloged copy. If not, though, you’re crazy if you think you have a chance of seeing The 91st Day.