July 14, 2016
The Defenders is one of the most important television series to air on an American broadcast network. It won more than a dozen Emmys, including three consecutive trophies for best drama (a record not broken for another two decades, by Hill Street Blues). At a moment when the dramatic anthology was on its deathbed, and ongoing series were often (fairly or not) thought of as meritless escapism (Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech depends on this context), The Defenders created the template for what we now think of as quality television. It was a show with both feet in the real world: where other smart dramas gave their elements of social commentary some shelter within genre (Naked City; The Twilight Zone), melodrama (Peyton Place), or abstraction (Route 66), The Defenders was bluntly political. Its basic premise – Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall) and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) run a small Manhattan law firm with an appetite for controversial cases other attorneys might avoid – was in the most literal sense a formula for debating hot-button issues in the guise of fiction. While similar shows have often worn a fig leaf of balance, The Defenders trafficked in advocacy, taking liberal or even radical stances and articulating counterarguments mainly so that it could knock them down. It was pro-abortion and anti-death penalty, anti-nuke and even pro-LSD. Although it lasted for four years in part as CBS’s highbrow show pony (and self-important network chairman William Paley’s unstated apologia for the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island), The Defenders was at least a modest hit, cracking the Nielsen top twenty during its second season. It became the key precedent for shows like The Senator and Lou Grant and a name-checked inspiration for some of the present century’s smartest dramas, including Boston Legal and Mad Men. Had this bold series failed to achieve both popular and critical acclaim, and done so without compromising the elements that made it noteworthy, prime time probably would have been a lot dumber in the decades that followed.
Unfortunately, The Defenders has fallen into apocalyptic obscurity during the fifty-one years since it went off the air. Though it did have a short life in syndication (which is still more than its Plautus Productions siblings, including the excellent three-season medical drama The Nurses and the cult whatsit Coronet Blue, enjoyed), The Defenders had largely disappeared from view by the time VCRs made it possible for collectors to capture and circulate any obscure show that turned up in reruns somewhere. The last known sighting, a short run on the Armed Forces Network circa 1980, is the source of a few of the thirty or so episodes (out of 132) that have found their way into private hands (and eventually onto Youtube). Cerebral shows and black-and-white shows are a hard sell, to be sure, but The Defenders was further hampered commercially by split ownership (between CBS, the corporate successor to its executive producer Herbert Brodkin, and the estate of its creator, Reginald Rose) and possibly by talent deals that established complex, non-standard residual payments. Although short-lived shows often vanish into the studio vaults, it’s extremely unusual for any series that crossed the 100-episode syndication barrier – much less one that took home thirteen Emmys – to remain so thoroughly unseen for more than a generation. That’s why this week’s DVD release of the first season of The Defenders can legitimately be described, at least within the realm of television, as the home video event of the century.
Me being me, I’d like to briefly discuss why this might not be an altogether good thing.
Remember how The Andy Griffith Show spent part of its first season with Andy as a jibbering hillbilly, before Griffith figured out that he was the straight man? Or how M*A*S*H uneasily aped the chaos of Robert Altman’s film before focusing on its core characters, or how Leslie Knope was an idiot at the beginning of Parks and Recreation? First season shakedown cruises are almost a tradition among great sitcoms, but long-running dramas sometimes take them, too. Mannix started with a convoluted, allegorical format and struggled until its second-season reversion to classicism; Kojak needed a year to get off the backlot and flourish in full-on French Connection, Beame-era Big Apple scuzziness. The Good Wife (another recent show with a lot of Defenders DNA in it) and Person of Interest each slogged through half a year of dull standalone stories before committing to bigger, more original narrative arcs.
You probably see where I’m going with this: The Defenders is one of those shows that didn’t hit its stride until its second season. Although there are many strong hours in the first year, and I’m going to enthuse about some of them in a moment, nearly all of the series’ worst duds can be found in this initial DVD set, too.
The Defenders has often been characterized as the anti-Perry Mason. If Mason was an unabashed fantasy of the defense attorney as an infallible white knight, The Defenders was a corrective that depicted the law with an emphasis on realism and moral ambiguity – to the extent of permitting the Prestons to be among the few TV lawyers, then or now, to lose their cases. Reginald Rose’s lawyer, Jerome Leitner, was credited as a consultant on The Defenders, and one suspects that his influence was considerable. As it evolved, The Defenders’ interest in the arcana of legal procedure came to define it. (Long before The Good Wife made it a seasonal tradition, for instance, The Defenders liked to drop its lawyer heroes into non-standard courtrooms and show them struggling to master their procedural quirks. The first season’s “The Point Shaver” takes place in a Senate hearing, and “The Empty Chute” in a military tribunal.)
It’s a shock and a reality-check, then, to find Lawrence and Ken Preston engaging in some very Perry Mason-esque courtroom theatrics in the early episodes, even to the extent (in “The Trial of Jenny Scott” and “Storm at Birch Glen,” among others) of badgering confessions out of the real culprits on the witness stand. Moments like these are a bit of an embarrassment compared to the more serious-minded tone The Defenders would soon adopt; in hindsight, they seem like something from a different series altogether. In general, the first year was overreliant on personal melodrama rather than legal procedure as the basis of stories. “The Accident,” for instance, was the first episode whose climax turned on an obscure point of law; it was the eighth to air. “The Broken Barrelhead,” the first season finale, introduces an intriguing ethical dilemma that’s been revived lately in news coverage of self-driving cars: was a driver right to plow into a group of pedestrians in order to save the passengers in his car? But David Karp’s teleplay sidesteps the question to focus on the very conventional conflict between the callow defendant (Richard Jordan) and his blowhard father (Harold J. Stone).
Were Rose and company, or the executives at CBS, worried that too much legalese would alienate the audience? I’m speculating here because I still don’t really understand why season one of The Defenders is so frustratingly all over the map. The archival record may answer the question definitely (Rose’s and several of the key writers’ papers are at UW-Madison, Brodkin’s at Yale), but I haven’t had the chance to explore much of it; and while I’ve interviewed many people who worked on The Defenders, all of them remembered its glory days with far more clarity than its early missteps. Network interference is an obvious possibility: when I interviewed CBS executive Michael Dann in 2008, he called the famous “The Benefactor” episode “a turning point,” implying that The Defenders didn’t have a mandate to get political until it tackled abortion head-on and got away with it. The eighteenth episode, “The Search,” has a prosecutor (Jack Klugman) and an implausibly naive Lawrence Preston doing a post-mortem on an old trial after they learn that Preston’s client was sent to the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit. The structure of Reginald Rose’s script is misshapen and the ending is a cop-out, and I’ve always suspected “The Search” was a neutered attempt at the kind of death penalty broadside that would become The Defenders’ signature issue – addressed passionately in “The Voices of Death,” glancingly in “Madman,” and definitively in the astounding “Metamorphosis,” all from the second season. The network continued to wring its hands throughout the run of the series, shelving an episode about cannibalism (!) for a year and authorizing the classic “Blacklist” only after the producers agreed to drop a race-themed script in exchange; the difference in these later clashes was just that once the Emmys started to pile up, the producers had more leverage.
Along with the degree of network tinkering, the major unknown in understanding the early content of The Defenders is the extent and nature of Reginald Rose’s contribution. The Defenders was unquestionably Rose’s show, although it’s revealing that throughout the series’ run he received screen credit only as its creator, never as a producer or story editor. Rose was extremely hands-on at the outset, to the extent that TV Guide reported on murmurs from disgruntled freelance writers who deployed pseudonyms to protest Rose’s copious rewrites; indeed, overwork triggered some sort of physical breakdown late in the second season, which required Rose to reduce (but never wholly end) his involvement in the writing. (From 1963 on, it’s likely that David Shaw, credited as a story or script consultant, was the de facto showrunner.) But Rose penned only a dozen original teleplays for The Defenders, a startlingly small number compared to the totals racked up by Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone and Stirling Silliphant on Route 66. A few of those 12 are masterpieces, and the last of them (“Star-Spangled Ghetto”) plays as a kind of mission statement for the what the show wanted to be about; but more of them feel compromised or desperate, as if Rose was bashing out flop-sweat scripts to fill holes in the production schedule. The second season’s “Poltergeist,” an eccentric bottle show in which the Prestons solve a locked-room murder in an isolated beach house, has elements of concealed autobiography (it takes place on Fire Island, where Rose vacationed in those days) and almost seems to be a cry for help, a notice that Rose would rather have spent the winter of 1963 writing anything but The Defenders.
I point all of that out in order to advance a hesitant case that in his approach and his skill set Rose may have been less of a Serling or Silliphant and more like, say, Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek. Roddenberry had a strong, compelling overall vision for his creation, but proved to be a less talented episodic writer than Gene L. Coon, D. C. Fontana, and some others on the show’s staff. It’s hard to point to anything of prodigious quality in Roddenberry’s dialogue or even his prose, and yet every subsequent variation of Star Trek has abandoned the philosophical and structural underpinnings that Roddenberry laid down in the original series at its peril. In Rose’s case, there’s a thematically coherent body of Studio One scripts that establish his preoccupations with ethics and rhetoric, culminating with 12 Angry Men, his declaration of interest in the intersection of jurisprudence and liberal values, and “The Defender,” a live 1957 two-parter that served as a blueprint for the subsequent series. “The Defender,” with Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner as the Prestons and Steve McQueen as the defendant, is pretty clunky, and it’s noteworthy that when Rose reworked the script as the series’ pilot, “Death Across the Counter,” he improved it. (The third episode broadcast, “Death Across the Counter” was shot in Los Angeles more than a year before production began – an atypically long delay, during which the show was all but brought back from the dead in spite of sponsorial indifference – thus adding to the first-season sense of The Defenders being a different show every week.) The crude generational conflicts between the Prestons in “The Defender” are reshaped into more specific clashes over legal strategy and philosophy in “Death Across the Counter,” and this explicit refinement of a theme over time makes me think that Rose, as The Defenders went into production, was still actively working out what he wanted to say and how best to say it. Mining drama from the statutes is one of those conceptually pure ideas that looks obvious in retrospect, but maybe Rose had to chisel through the hysterics of a thousand hacky courtroom dramas to see it. 12 Angry Men, Rose’s best work prior to The Defenders, emphasizes archetypes over specificity – in a way that’s conscious and effective (Henry Fonda’s common-man rectitude takes on symbolic weight in the film version), but is often seen as reductive, self-important, or dated in contemporary critiques of the piece. (See Inside Amy Schumer’s dead-on parody.) As Serling and Silliphant poured forth with high-flown philosophy and idiosyncratic syntax that always felt fully formed and absent of self-doubt, Rose may have been more process-oriented, and messier: did all those pseudonymous writers complain because the best elements of their episodes were the touches that Rose added? (Howard Rodman, the genius to whom Silliphant bequeathed Naked City for much of its run, had a unique, poetic voice – and a tendency to express it through substantial, uncredited, and often objected-to rewrites of other writers’ scripts. So did The Outer Limits’ Joseph Stefano.)
Launching an innovative series is always burdened with a prosaic risk – can you find enough people who will understand how to write it? And Rose, lacking the Serlingian-Silliphantian stamina to pen the lion’s share himself, was at a perilous disadvantage. The first season’s credits are full of one- or two-off writers who weren’t asked back. There are other flaws at work, too, including skimpy production value (something that never really changed; The Defenders was an interior-driven show, and any expectations of further exploring the vintage New York of Naked City must be gently managed), tonal inconsistencies (check out the weirdly overemphatic presentation of the Prestons’ old-school-ties nostalgia at the beginning of “The Point Shaver”), and direction that’s a bit stodgy. Herbert Brodkin’s aesthetic was notably conservative – he favored endless extreme closeups to the extent that his directors referred to this set-up, contemptuously, as a “Brodkin.” (Not to mention that most episodes climaxed in the confines of a courtoom – a setting where convention placed severe constraints on any potential flourishes in set design or composition. Did any of the great directors do their best work filming trials?) The Defenders eventually came to have some of the forceful compositions and contrasty, documentary-styled lighting that one finds in the New York indie films of the day. The series’ most visually imaginative director was Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), who debuted with a late first-season episode and became a regular the following year. Aesthetics, too, were a work in progress.
For skeptics, the best way to tackle The Defenders on DVD might be to skip ahead to “The Attack,” the thirteenth episode broadcast and the first one that is unquestionably great. Featuring Richard Kiley as a surly beat cop whose daughter is sexually assaulted, “The Attack” tackles both pedophilia and vigilantism. The outcome of the trial ends up feeling anticlimactic; what’s notable about the ending of “The Attack” is that Lawrence Preston has grown disgusted with his client, has come to believe in the man’s moral guilt. Think about that for a moment: The Defenders positions Preston as its putative hero, yet here it shows him rejecting the kind of eye-for-an-eye emotionalism that was axiomatic in westerns and crime dramas, in a way that dares the audience to consider him unmanly. In what would become another recurring theme of the series, “The Attack” advocates for the necessity of institutional over individual justice; the catharsis of the latter is a refuge of barbarians. This was almost beyond the pale at a time (and, really, this is still the case today) when television’s vigilantes were often sketched sympathetically even as, say, a reluctant Matt Dillon punished them, and when masculine honor and physical courage were (or are) unassailable. Route 66’s Tod and Buz might’ve been wandering poet-bards of the asphalt frontier, but they still managed the beat the shit out of some unhip lunkhead (or each other, if lunkheads were in short supply) most weeks. Preston prioritizes his ethical obligations over his personal feelings, and does so without a great deal of handwringing or soul-searching. He’s a professional; this is simply how the law works. Other smart, liberal Camelot-era dramas would play on this conflict between duty and personal conviction, but in ways that flattered the hero and the audience. When Ben Casey solemnly invoked the Hippocratic oath and performed life-saving surgery on some maniac who murdered three people before the opening credits, it ennobled him; when the Prestons used legal trickery to get some mobster or neo-nazi off on a technicality, it was an inescapably sordid affair. Moral victories could also be Pyrrhic ones.
All of this strikes me as a huge advance over even 12 Angry Men, with its unthreatening man-against-the-mob calculus, and other high water marks of live anthology drama. The Defenders insisted that the audience respond to the material intellectually as well as emotionally, and it confounded traditional, unquestioning identification with a show’s protagonists to a greater extent than anything else on television prior the antihero cycle of The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men, et cetera, forty years later.
After “The Attack,” episodes that are just as complex and confrontational start to alternate with the clumsy ones. “The Iron Man” is a profile of a young neo-nazi (Ben Piazza) that wades into the paradoxical weeds of free speech absolutism. “The Hickory Indian” draws a moral parallel between the mob and prosecutors using strongarm tactics to pressure an informer into testifying. “The Best Defense” features Martin Balsam as a matter-of-fact career criminal railroaded on a bogus murder charge; the Prestons agree to defend him on the grounds that crooks deserve good legal representation as much as anybody else, and they’re rewarded for their naivete when Balsam’s character, scorpion-and-the-frog-style, implicates them in a false alibi. “The Locked Room” uses a Rashomon structure to chronicle a “Scotch verdict” case, in which the prosecution can’t prove guilt but the defense can’t mount a persuasive case for innocence, either. Its themes are existential: lawyers often don’t know or even need to know whether their clients are guilty; trials often fail to get anywhere close to the actual truths of a crime.
I suspect that “The Locked Room” – the title refers to the jury’s place of deliberation – was a conscious, semi-critical reply to the idealism of 12 Angry Men. Its author was Ernest Kinoy, whom I would single out as the key writer of The Defenders – even more so than Reginald Rose, and in fact it’s possible that Kinoy’s first-season scripts (which also include “The Best Defense”) influenced the direction in which Rose took the series. Something of a legend among his peers, Kinoy won Emmys for The Defenders and Roots, and reliably wrote the best episodes of half a dozen series in between. An adoptive Vermonter for most of his professional life, Kinoy kept one foot out of the industry; he’s semi-forgotten today, and I deeply regret that he never used one of those Emmys as leverage to get his own series on the air. Rose and story editor William Woolfolk acknowledged him as the only Defenders contributor who always turned in shootable first drafts; the filmed versions of these suggest that Kinoy had an ease with naturalistic dialogue and realistic behavior that made other good writers’ work seem phony or overwrought. Like The Defenders itself, Kinoy kept getting better as he went along; his greatest triumphs were “Blood County” (a clever analogy for violence against civil rights activists), “The Heathen” (a defense of atheism), “Blacklist,” and “The Non-Violent” (James Earl Jones as a Martin Luther King, Jr. figure), all from the second and third seasons.
The infamous abortion episode, shown in April 1962, was The Defenders’ trial by fire; I wrote about it in detail in 2008, when Mad Men wrapped a “C” story around it. Produced in the middle of the season, “The Benefactor” endured its sponsor revolt and aired as the third-to-last episode. Positioned as such, it’s something of a moral and aesthetic cliffhanger: the culmination of The Defenders’ evolution from a brainier version of Perry Mason to courageous political art.
I hope that by writing this I haven’t rained on the parade of everyone who has been looking forward to seeing The Defenders, or even sabotaged the show’s chances of continuing on DVD. (Shout Factory, its distributor, has indicated that future releases depend on the sales figures for this one.) Even the weaker episodes have something to offer, whether it’s the gritty New York atmosphere or the chance to spot important Broadway and New Hollywood actors a decade or so prior to their next recorded performances.
(Some favorites: Gene Hackman as the father of a “mongoloid baby” in “A Quality of Mercy”; an uncredited Godfrey Cambridge as a prison guard in “The Riot”; Barry Newman as a reporter in “The Prowler”; Jerry Stiller and Richard Mulligan as soldiers in “The Empty Chute”; Roscoe Lee Browne as the jury foreman in “The Benefactor”; James Earl Jones, above, as a cop in “Along Came a Spider”; Gene Wilder as a waiter in “Reunion With Death.”)
Rather, my purpose here is to preemptively shore up the reputation of The Defenders in anticipation of contemporary reviewers who may note the early episodes’ creakier elements and wonder, “What’s the big deal?” The Defenders’ first season has a rough draft feel; it tests out all the blind alleys and bad ideas and rejects them in favor of greater complexity and commitment and innovation. The first season is a journey; let’s hope that Shout Factory gives us the destination.
Note: The frame grabs illustrating this post are not taken from the DVD release, which hopefully will look better.
March 7, 2013
Last month, my old friend Stuart Galbraith IV and I compiled an instant message conversation for simultaneous publication on both our blogs. The subject was streaming video, but as we chattered back and forth, the topic broadened – inevitably – into the related subject of how lovers movie and television watch what they watch.
I worked with Stuart, a film historian (The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune) and a reviewer at DVDTalk.com for more than ten years, at USC’s Warner Bros. Archives in the late nineties. Now we live in opposite corners of the world – he in Kyoto and I in Manhattan – but we still correspond regularly about the media we enjoy and, more wonkily, the delivery systems that put it in front of our eyeballs.
As aficionados who both cover the subject in our own corners of the internet, we have for the past few years shared an urge to shout “You’re doing it wrong!” at the home video industry and its consumers. Specifically, we believe that the shift from physical media to internet streaming as a primary means of viewing film and television is playing out in some alarming ways – ways that may have a longterm negative impact on cinephiles and on a more general public as well.
One Facebook friend told me that taking on streaming video would be “like trying to stop the rain.” But Stuart and I feel that now – before the metamorphosis is complete, and before it’s too late to have any impact on the shape it takes – is the right time to initiate an urgent discussion of the subject. We hope that you will come to share some of our concerns, and that you’ll join in the conversation in the comments.
Stephen Bowie: Just to frame the conversation a bit: It seems like we’re at a sea change moment in terms of both theatrical & home video exhibition, with the digital switchover from 35mm to DCP, and then the apparent movement from physical media to online streaming. And yet, while I’ve read a lot of articles mourning the loss of celluloid, it feels like no one is talking about the latter.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes, why is that? And why are people who love film taking it lying down, resigned as they seem to be to its inevitability?
Stephen Bowie: I feel like there was a little bit of a fight to preserve 35mm, but it started too late and was lost quickly, except maybe in repertory houses (which is still an important ongoing battle). But I think that while no one is really happy about striking a match to celluloid, the streaming thing has divided the cinephile community. Or seduced it, perhaps I should say.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I think partly there’s a misconception that every new technology improves upon the one in current use. But here, both with the demise of 35mm film in movie theaters and the trend away from physical media toward streaming and downloading, what’s driving it is actually something else entirely, namely studios wanting to eliminate distribution and exhibition costs.
Stephen Bowie: And everybody gets that about DCP – there’s no clear upside for the consumer – but streaming offers users “convenience,” or the illusion thereof. Shrewd of Netflix to brand its streaming as “Instant!” Also, not only can you watch a movie right now, but you can watch it on your telephone or your tablet.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Back around 2002, when I was working in the Technical Services Department at MGM, streaming and downloading was already, even then, viewed as a foregone conclusion, that even though DVD was a huge cash cow for the industry like never before, and far cheaper to manufacture than VHS and laserdisc, they were already ready to kill that golden goose. And Blu-ray was never seen as anything more than a niche or transitional technology like laserdiscs. And yet both have stubbornly hung on with Blu-ray doing extremely well worldwide. I mean, Blu-ray was never going to be “the new DVD,” but I imagine its success has exceeded expectations.
Stephen Bowie: Didn’t realize it went back that far! Wonder what they’re planning to do to us in 2025.
Stuart Galbraith IV: What Price, Hollywood?
Stephen Bowie: I mean, to be clear, I’m not totally negative about streaming, nor am I being a kneejerk Luddite here. But first, what are your own experiences with the technology?
Stuart Galbraith IV: I should preface this by saying while I’ve never found it difficult to hook up a VCR or DVD or Blu-ray player, for me streaming and downloading are another matter. I have very limited computer skills. I struggled mightily trying to figure out how to do firmware updates on my Blu-ray players, and heavily rely on more computer-savvy people, various friends and my wife, Yukiyo, to anything more involved. It was her, not me, who first became interested in streaming – I was happy to watch only Blu-ray and DVD content – but she ended up getting a Roku for her birthday last fall and later an Apple TV for Christmas. Though she managed to hook everything up with relative ease, the service has been extremely unreliable. Particularly whenever I wanted to watch anything. Partly this was due to us living in Japan yet much preferring to watch Hulu Plus content originating from America. That entailed routing everything through a dummy ISP (is that terminology right?), which complicated things.
Stephen Bowie: And have you actually succeeded in watching anything? How did it look?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Hulu Plus especially almost literally never, and I mean 99% of the time, works properly. Eventually, after Yukiyo spent a great many hours trying to figure out what the problem was, aided by a friend who is literally a computer expert employed by Nintendo, we determined that at least part of the problem was Yukiyo had a laptop that somehow deactivated everything every time she took it out of the house, which was most every day. But the problem still persists and I’ve largely given up on it. The only things I’ve managed to see on Hulu Plus are the first 20 minutes of Snow Trail, Toshiro Mifune’s starring debut (that I once owned on laserdisc, without subtitles) and an episode of Dark Shadows. Mind you, everything is hooked up to the small monitor Yukiyo, not me, primarily uses, which is only a 36” screen or so. Dark Shadows, shot presumably on 1” tape, isn’t a good title on which to judge, but the quality seemed OK. On the other hand, the signal caused the picture to jam several times, interrupting the flow of those narratives. I mean, if the selling point of streaming is convenience, the ability to instantly watch and choose from a wide selection of movies and television shows, well, then, for me so far it’s been a total failure. Between Yukiyo and I, not to mention our friend who spent maybe three hours, so far we’ve invested something like 20 hours resulting in probably less than three hours of viewing.
Stephen Bowie: I’ve sampled most of the streaming providers in the US – Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube – and I’ve gotten most of them to work, using my Blu-ray player to send the video feed to my plasma TV. But as you suggest, troubleshooting is like standing on shifting sands. If you have a problem, the streaming provider will blame it on your ISP, and your ISP will blame it on Netflix, and good luck figuring out what’s actually going in. You’re generally at the mercy of how much traffic there is over shared bandwidth in terms of image quality, and Netflix’s servers are notorious for going dead on Friday and Saturday nights. So even if I’m able to learn the technology up to an expert level, it seems like this leaves a lot outside my control. And a lot of what appealed to me about the evolution of home video over the early 00s was control: more movies available to cinephile than at any point in history before, and often in better condition. That’s one thing that feels like it’s being rolled back.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes, there is a feeling of complete helplessness that I find intensely irritating.
Stephen Bowie: Having to learn a whole new technology may be part of the game, and fine, I’ll do it. But I can make a Blu-ray player do what I want if I understand how it works; the same can’t be said of Time Warner Cable.
Stephen Bowie: I’m still worried that we sound like a couple of grandpas, so let me bring us up to what gave us the idea of starting a conversation about this: Over the long weekend last month, Criterion (which has a large, mouth-watering library of rare, streaming-only movies that it has never released on disc) did a promotion where they gave everyone free access to its “channel” on Hulu Plus. The catch was, there would be a few commercials embedded in each movie. And what surprised me was that I saw a lot of excitement about this offer in my “social media” world, which is mostly movie buffs. Now, the catch is, you can subscribe to Hulu for a month for EIGHT BUCKS. What blew my mind was, are there really cinephiles out there who will watch Bresson’s L’Argent with commercials just to save eight bucks?! I mean, the last time I watched a commercial was probably around 1995.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The same here!
Stephen Bowie: The fact that cinephile culture has not left them completely behind really floored me. You know, if a Colbert clip or something comes up with a commercial in front of it, I just close the window, immediately – I don’t care what I’m missing. I don’t object to paying for content – if there were a meter on my screen and I could pay, say, two cents for each Bill Maher monologue, I probably would. But you can’t have my time.
Stuart Galbraith IV: With DVD I think what happened was that the studios exploited all their A-list titles as far as they could, re- and re-re-re-releasing them ad nauseum. Cinephiles refuse to understand that deep catalog titles just don’t make anything like that kind of money. I think it was Mike Schlesinger who said Hudson Hawk sold 500 times as many units as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But, anyway, what with Warner Archive, Sony’s Choice Collection and whatnot, even the most obscure films anyone could possibly want are available somewhere, most in video transfers vastly superior to what used to be available on VHS and in 16mm TV prints, and now maybe the only way to market them as “conveniences” available on your iPhone with the press of a button.I mean, sure, if I was stuck on a Greyhound bus for 14 hours with nothing to do, watching a movie on my iPad would be preferable to twiddling my thumbs, but …
Stephen Bowie: At the risk of sounding like a snob, I feel like DVD was a semi-luxury product that went mainstream, and that streaming is a McDonald’s kind of product. (So far.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: I agree. Blu-ray was released to the marketplace before it was really ready, hence the endless frustration of consumers who had players that wouldn’t play certain discs, even with firmware updates. Streaming to me is far worse, putting the onus on the consumer for absolutely everything.
Stephen Bowie: I mean, I always thought a great home theater was every movie fan’s goal, and it was just a question of whether his or her circumstances made that possible, or not.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Exactly. Few of us, certainly not me, can afford to remodel our homes as elaborately as some of the incredible home theaters I’ve seen on-line, or afford the most expensive, top-of-the-line sound systems and players. But big, widescreen TVs got much better around the turn of the century and they became affordable. (I’m amazed what you can get in 2013 for less than $5,000, or even $1,000!) That, coupled with the low-cost, high-quality of DVD made building libraries and home theaters much more attractive.
Stephen Bowie: But now it feels like streaming, and the iPod, have proven that a lot of movie fans really don’t care how a movie looks. Is that true? How can that be possible?
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s like being at a movie theater where the film is out of focus but there’s no one in the booth, and booth is locked so that even you can’t fix it.
Stephen Bowie: And you’re the only one in the theater who knows it’s out of focus! Everybody else thinks it’s supposed to be that way! And that’s happened to me, literally.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Some years back, I was chatting with friends in the lobby of the restored Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, a beautiful 1,700-seat or so movie palace built in the late twenties. A teenager strolled in and saw all the unmarked doors leading into the auditorium, as well as the grand staircase leading to the balcony. Looking at us, totally confused, he asked, “Uh, which theater is the movie in?” I think the younger generation, my five year old included, are growing up watching everything primarily via computer screens, even iPhones. And, of course, TVs are now basically computers themselves, and becoming more and more computer-like with each model. Maybe 20 years from we’ll be nostalgically recalling putting discs into players the way older generations (gulp, myself included) recall affixing speakers to car windows at the drive-in.
Stephen Bowie: One thing we were discussing a while back is how the aspect ratio war was a sort of unexpected triumph – through a probably unreproducible series of events, the movie fans won that battle over the people who didn’t understand the “black bars” at the beginning of the DVD era. It sort of feels like we need that kind of unity and purpose now, not to defeat streaming, but to set some baselines to make it as acceptable for high-end home theaters as well as cellular phones. I don’t care about the medium so much as the file size.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, what drives any business is money. What’s so odd about what’s happening now is that Blu-ray is making a lot of money worldwide, and even DVD is hanging on. People like those technologies. They’re completely happy with them. How much money will Skyfall (2012) make this month worldwide in Blu-ray and DVD sales? Another $500 million? You’re in New York and I’m in Japan, and we’re seeing very different things. In Manhattan video rental shops are all but extinct but, seemingly, they continue to thrive here in Japan. Japan is always on the leading edge of new technologies, so why are people here still renting DVDs and buying Blu-ray discs if streaming is the wave of the future?
Stephen Bowie: And there are still some niche labels that seem to do okay with just physical media (Olive, Twilight Time, Shout! Factory); they’re just not the same ones that were in the game 10 years ago. One factor that may be a tipping point is Warner Archive. If their new streaming service is a success, will they phase out burn-on-demand discs?
Stuart Galbraith IV: What, for instance, would your top baselines concerns be?
Stephen Bowie: Well, again, I can’t get into this too much technically, but it feels like we’re on a collision course in terms of bandwidth: the more people use streaming, the more we’re fighting for the same resources and the more our movies will get compressed or stuttered or cut off in the middle. I also can’t think of any good examples of content libraries that have remastered titles specifically for streaming. Everything – good (MGM’s good HD cable masters on Netflix), bad (Paramount’s atrocious old SD cable masters on Netflix), and mixed (Criterion’s leftovers on Hulu) – is basically an off-the-shelf data dump. That’s kind of scary.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, again, that’s the whole point: spend the least amount of money to make the most amount of money.
Stephen Bowie: Something else that doesn’t really exist in the world of streaming: bonus content. And the lack of an outcry, frankly, has been so deafening that it’s almost a repudiation of that aspect of the DVD era: Naaah, we never really cared about that “film school in a box” shit anyway!
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, to be honest, unless I’m reviewing the disc I doubt that I look or listen to even one-fifth the special feature content on the DVDs and Blu-rays anymore, even when it’s obviously good stuff. If I watch, say, a really great Melville film, instead of spending four or five hours looking at supplements accompanying that disc, I’d rather spend that time watching another Melville instead. Also, does the world really need to see deleted scenes and listen to an audio commentary to Barbershop 2?
Stephen Bowie: Which is hilarious, in a way. I don’t disagree, entirely. But: if I’m going to watch Barbershop 2, I want it to be a goddamn gorgeous transfer, even if it is Barbershop 2. Right?
Stuart Galbraith IV: The transfer, yes. That’s my whole point. The movie’s the thing. Going back to some of your original points, for me watching movies at home has always been about two basic things: recreating the theatrical experience and having access to the movies I want when I want to see them. I’ve no doubt that steaming technologies will improve over time and might even be fantastic and highly desirable within just a few years. But we’re a long way from there at the moment. As you point out, the quality is variable, with a lot of it VHS quality. It’s not reliable and when something is wrong the consumer better have a computer expert on 24-hour call otherwise he’s SOL. Can you imagine inviting a bunch of friends over to watch something this way only to lose your Internet connection three-quarters of the way into the film? Who needs that?
Stephen Bowie: Right, and that will happen, the way things are now. I’ll use Netflix streaming as a sort of supplement – for documentaries or so-so TV shows – things I won’t care too much if they don’t look great or are interrupted. But the idea of that system, as it is now, becoming my primary supplier of cinema is terrifying. It could be the end of me as a cinephile, I think. That’s why I’m making a big deal now, while this tech is still in its formative stage.
The arrival of streaming has been a whole foundation-shaking process, for me, of realizing that many movie buffs – serious, intelligent, widely-published ones, in many cases – don’t agree with that, at least not passionately. They’ll watch it in whatever form is in front of them and that’s fine with them. There’s a great irony here, in that just as we’ve reached the point where you can have a great home video setup for a less than astonomical sum – a multi-region Blu-ray player and a 50” or 60” plasma TV for under $1500 total – it’s portability that’s become a more buzzworthy commodity. I know not just film fans but filmmakers (let me underline that, filmmakers) who don’t even own TVs; they watch everything on a 14” laptop. What a waste. I don’t even think there’s a lot of awareness of how much better suited the plasma technology is to cinema than LCD or LED TVs, and I worry that they’ll stop making the plasmas (in part because they’re less “green”). Am I wrong about this, or unfair?
Stuart Galbraith IV: No, it’s not unfair. Perhaps for them it’s a novelty that’ll wear off. I mentioned drive-ins earlier. Drive-ins were a really fun and novel way to watch movies on a cool summer night. Unless, that is, you really wanted to watch the movie. One or two visits each summer was my limit, so perhaps these misguided souls will come around in the same way. Yeah, being able to watch Citizen Kane (1941) on a tablet in the subway during one’s commute is amazing from a technological standpoint. But that doesn’t mean one ought to watch movies that way.
Stephen Bowie: It might be a novelty but for now “them” includes people like Roger Ebert, who used his TV show to explain letterboxing to a wide audience; now he seems to be shilling indiscriminately for whatever he finds streaming on Netflix. Or here’s a quote from Tim Lucas’s blog (Tim being the founder and editor of Video Watchdog, which remains an epicenter of videophile culture): “I watched Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (1973) tonight via Netflix on my Kindle Fire HD. It turned out to be an unexpectedly wonderful way of watching it, making it a more intimate and book-like experience.” Whaaat?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, Jess Franco may be the only director in the world whose movies might actually benefit from a poor bit rate and iPhone-size screen! Have either Lucas or Ebert been challenged about their allegedly uncritical support?
Stephen Bowie: Not that I’ve observed, although honestly, I don’t know to what extent it’s come up in Video Watchdog (although I should). And it may not be uncritical so much as uncontextualized – they’re saying “hey look, I found this” without the follow-up of “but wait, here’s a better way to see it,” which needs to be there. Consumer reports. Consider this – you write for DVDTalk.com. Where’s StreamingTalk.com? I can’t think of a single website or blog devoted to reviewing individual films for A/V quality on streaming platforms (and there are/were dozens for physical media).
Stuart Galbraith IV: I see streaming as basically HBO, geared for people who come home from work or maybe they’re sitting in a hotel room looking for something to watch. From what I can tell, a lot of these services rotate programming in and out of availability, like pay cable. Who’s to say the movie you’ve been thinking about watching the last three months will still be there when you’re ready to sit down and watch it? Who’s to say it’ll stream properly even if it’s there? Physical media is tangible. Streaming is like owning soybean futures.
Stephen Bowie: Absolutely. In fact, when I first editorialized about Netflix on my blog, I did give them credit for having whole runs of a few shows (Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel) that weren’t complete on DVD at the time. Now those are gone! There has unquestionably been a net loss of catalog titles on Netflix streaming in the three years since I’ve been paying attention. It’s a business model where they can take away anything at any time, which of course is exactly how the studios have wanted it all along. That alone should make film buffs very skeptical.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Of course, this actually discourages ownership of physical film collections. Forty years ago, people with private film collections, often composed of discarded prints found in the Dumpster, were prosecuted, and the earliest days of VHS saw a great debate over the idea of consumers actually owning a copy of a copyrighted work belonging to them.
Stephen Bowie: The idea of renting movies is also sort of a bubble market, without a direct equivalent in music. Without it, I would never have been able to afford to become a film buff. So I guess that’s an argument in favor of the all-you-can-eat $8 Criterion buffet. At the same time, I just hope people who start that way are educating their eyes, and that there are still Blu-rays being published when it dawns on them (as it eventually dawned on me, the teenager who first watched 2001: A Space Odyssey on a 13” TV in my bedroom) that you need to see movies in a better state than that. In other words, the conversation is not just about technology; it’s about how cinephiles (and everyone else) choose to watch movies. The tech is driving the discussion, but it should be the aesthetics that come first.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The thing is I’ve never thought of myself as a “collector.” Instead, over the years I’ve built a video library, a library in the classical sense of it being a resource for me to use in my work, and to be able to lend titles to friends, especially to introduce them to great films they may have never heard of. And it’s already a library I’m sharing with my five-year-old daughter who I hope will continue to use it for the next dozen years or more. Moreover, this library of a reflection of me: my tastes and interests. It expresses who I am.
Stephen Bowie: Yes, although in my case, even “library” is almost overkill. I got over the idea of wanting to own movies pretty early. That’s why it’s ironic that I’ve taken such an extreme stance on streaming, because I’m not married to physical media. So I feel like I’m a potential customer for streaming (or at least downloading in some form) who is being ignored. Because they gotta get it right, and there’s no market pressure to make that happen (yet). I’d be more than happy to let somebody store movies in the cloud for me, as long as it comes with some guarantees that (1) they won’t all evaporate and (2) they won’t look any worse than what I’m accustomed to on discs.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Perhaps subconsciously my determination to build my video library was for exactly the reasons you describe, a fear that what’s available to me now, and in a high-quality form, may not be available tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find working DVD and Blu-ray players 20 years from now. I feel a bit like Harlan Ellison stocking up on Remington Rand typewriters! But what happens if you build a massive personal library on a cloud and one day it vanishes?
Stephen Bowie: You couldn’t do anything, under the current parameters. This is interesting in terms of Netflix: One of the main complaints I see on blogs like HackingNetflix.com is that a movie someone wanted to see used to be there but “expired,” or a TV series disappeared before the watcher reached the end. But while this is seen as a negative, it doesn’t seem to be a dealbreaker for a lot of users.
I’m thinking now about how many intangibles separate movie lovers on issues like this. I don’t revisit movies nearly as often as I think you do, so the question of having a library is less essential. We’re all aligned or opposed so unpredictably based on the different ways we watch and appreciate movies. Harlan’s typewriters will probably outlive him, but once I bought a few DVDs that were upgraded before I pulled off the shrinkwrap, that essentially cured me of needing to “collect” movies. They will slip through your grasp, one way or another.
Stuart Galbraith IV: That’s true to a point, but I also have hundreds of out-of-print movies that may never come back. And, when if they do, at least I’ll have the option to upgrade or not and still have the film in some form.
Stephen Bowie: Sure, but I just got tired of playing that game, worrying about whether I should buy something now or wait or…. I mean, this week, a critic named Bilge Ebiri wrote a piece about an obscure and supposedly magnificent Gillian Armstrong film called High Tide (1987), in which he said that it’s only available via Netflix streaming or an Australian DVD in the wrong aspect ratio. I knew – because I keep track of these things – that this was wrong and that Umbrella Entertainment had done an anamorphic special edition of the film a couple of years ago, with a commentary from Armstrong and other extras. But I looked again and now that version, which I never got around to buying, is out of print. There’s a newer one that looks suspiciously like a bootleg, so I’m left with taking a chance on that, spending a lot of time and/or money seeking out the good OOP version, or just caving in and slurping up the Netflix copy, which looks okay but lacks the extras. If you’re not completely obsessive about this stuff, you’re going to go for the last option, right?
At this point, we took a break, experimented a bit more with streaming video in the interim, and then reconvened a few days later.We exchanged links to a few rare films (Luigi Zampa’s To Live in Peace ; Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her So Well ; Claude Chabrol’s Alice ou la dernière fugue ) that one of us found on YouTube, which appeared to be unavailable for purchase legally – probably rips of foreign DVDs with added “fansubs.” In the end, neither of us felt like watching them in this form – at least not yet.
Stephen Bowie: Have you “streamed” anything since we left off? (And why am I using quotation marks? I just refuse to confront this without holding my nose, I guess.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: I watched a couple of cartoon shows with Sadie, both of which paused in the middle with no clear indication that they would resume, though eventually both did. I also sampled some of the YouTube material you recommended. I’d really like to watch those films … on DVD at least (Blu would be better) … but not on YouTube. It’s weird, I have this innate resistance to watching anything longer than a couple of minutes on YouTube. It’s okay to watch a 55-year-old clip from I’ve Got a Secret or a goofy number from some obscure Turkish musical. But I’d never want to sit through, say, Citizen Kane on my computer. With YouTube on a larger television the picture quality on most stuff is so mediocre, even on my wife’s 36” monitor, I’d rather wait and hope it turns up on DVD or Blu.
Stephen Bowie: I won’t watch anything on a computer monitor, except for cat videos. And if there’s an ad in front of it, I close the window; I just don’t care enough about that Jon Stewart bit, or whatever, to endure being advertised at, even for ten seconds. It’s likely that your AppleTV can play YouTube videos, but the question becomes, will they look like anything other than a pixilated mess on a TV that’s – what size? Probably bigger than mine.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Mine is 45-46”, I think. Exactly. Laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray have spoiled me. Like you said earlier, I can’t imagine watching a movie now panned-and-scanned (although amazingly a tiny handful are still getting released). PD releases from companies like Alpha Video I pretty much can’t look at anymore, except maybe on my laptop while on a 12-hour flight somewhere, where the PQ is about par with what airlines offer. Even regular primetime sitcoms. I watch everything on DVD or Blu these days. How do people stand all those ads and banners and watermarks and 20 minutes of commercials per 40 minutes of show? I’d go nuts!
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, there’s so much to choose from, I just reject a lot of stuff for image quality outright. Fox releases a pan & scan MOD disc? Screw it, maybe in five years somebody will have fixed that, and I have plenty to entertain me in the meantime. But I guess a lot of people make the opposite choice, for gratification now, even if the only option is deeply flawed? I dunno. Not me. (And I want to come back to the ads and banners and watermarks a little later; I have a theory about that.) But: That’s a learned behavior. In the VHS / pay cable era, for the most part, you only had one home video option, and it usually sucked. So if streaming is lowering our standards, it may represent a return to an old norm.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I recently made the decision to buy the British Blu-ray of The Devil Rides Out, the well-regarded Hammer film. As you’re aware, the release was controversial because about five seconds of special effects footage was altered, “improved” so somebody believed. Because of this many of the film’s biggest fans are “boycotting” this release. The same thing is happening now with another Hammer title, Dracula (or Horror of Dracula, its US title), for which absurdly anachronistic color timing was done in an attempt to make it look more “modern.” Obviously, both were stupid, short-sighted decisions oblivious to the basic tenets of film preservation and restoration. But what angry fans don’t realize is that, at least in the world of home video, boycotts either have no effect at all on commercially marginal titles like this — or they have exactly the opposite effect, which is that bean counters will look only at sales figures (do you really they’ve got the time to research comments on the Home Theater Forum or Classic Horror Film Board?) and never release it again because “sales were poor.”
Stephen Bowie: Personally, I can’t think in terms of the larger picture on this; I make the decision on whether to rent or buy the disc based on whether I want to watch the film in its compromised state. I wouldn’t have bought the British Blu-rays (or watched them if you gave ’em to me). There are a lot of films and TV shows lodged in this personal twilight. I’ll never watch the first season of Kung Fu on DVD because it was cropped to 16:9 and, as a result, I’ve never gotten around to the subsequent seasons, either. It’s just another damn thing I have to track down the hard way before I can do anything with it. I’m still trying to figure out my relationship with streaming in this regard, too. There’s a basic instability to the image (ironically, it reminds me of VHS or cable noise) and I still haven’t quite figured out how I rank that against other technical flaws in deciding what edition of a film counts as the best available, or whether or not this is perhaps a dealbreaker any time I notice it.
On the other hand, I’m not as inflexible as you might expect. I’m pretty forgiving of good transfers of dodgy film elements. I have a tin ear so bad sound mixes usually get a pass. And I’ll never understand why you would boycott a foreign film because the subtitles are yellow instead of white – that drives some people nuts, but I’m totally neutral on it.
Stuart Galbraith IV: As both a consumer and someone once on the technical services side of things, I think polite, well-researched emails to project managers and others actually handling video transfers is probably the most effective approach. I’ve known project managers who were film buffs themselves, and who really went the extra mile to make something right. Conversely, I’ve also known project managers who have no idea what they’re doing. They don’t know squat about film history and for them it’s just a job; they might just as well be an assistant manager at The Gap for all the difference it makes to them. On the other hand, an angry email saying, “I SAW this movie in 1958 when I was five years old and it was 1.66:1, not 1.85:1!!!” isn’t going to persuade anyone. A trade ad or article in Variety from 1958 stating the film is 1.66:1 is a lot more convincing.
Stephen Bowie: They’ll either fix it when the first reviews come out because they care, or they’ll stonewall and ignore it. I think fan boycotts and letter campaigns do zilch, sadly. When CBS decided to fix the replaced music in The Fugitive TV series, it wasn’t because people like me moaned about it. It was either because Variety humiliated them in its pages, or because somebody there actually wanted to get it right, or both. As an aside, all these fights over the intermediate aspect ratios are absurd. There’s usually ample evidence of what the original projection ratio was, and yet there’s this handful of battleground films that draw out all kinds of magical thinking as to what the director or DP might have been composing for. I usually applaud completism but I really had a hard time caring about the Blu-ray releases of Touch of Evil and On the Waterfront in all the three ratios.
Stuart Galbraith IV: And because these are commercially marginal titles, it’s not reasonable to expect a home video label to spend $100,000 for home video rights on a ten-second music clip on a movie that’s going to generate $30,000 in revenue. I’d rather see, say, Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain with ten seconds of Beatles music removed than not at all. Conversely, in extreme cases, such as the removal/alteration of music from WKRP in Cincinnati, fans of that series are clearly better off recording uncut broadcast versions.
Stephen Bowie: There is a clear catch-22 with something like WKRP in Cincinnati, which was always doomed. Gut it with song replacement or don’t release it at all: it’s a no-win scenario. (When I interviewed Hugh Wilson, the show’s creator, last year, I could tell he was still pretty wrecked about it.) And it’s really not a conversation that consumers have a voice in, although it’s encouraging that a few labels have figured out that music clearance can be a marketable commodity. Shout! Factory put out a list of songs in each episode to promote its upcoming China Beach release.
Stuart Galbraith IV: One last comment about boycotting. I find it odd that certain people get so upset about relatively minor things while completely ignoring, or even approving, what I consider shameful alterations done in the name of political correctness. To wit: Via an agreement with the Writers Guild of America, credits on ‘50s and ‘60s movies – The Bridge on the River Kwai being one famous example – are being altered to acknowledge the authorship of various blacklisted writers who either worked without credit or wrote under a pseudonym or through a front. I’m all for placing a title card before the movie stating something like, “Pierre Boulle is credited with the screenplay of the film you are about to see but in fact it was written by uncredited Blacklist victims Carl Foreman and Michael G. Wilson.” But to physically alter the original film is like the altering of history books, the kind of thing we used to criticize the Soviet Union for all the time. It’s an injustice that should be acknowledged, not hidden away without comment. Why aren’t people complaining about that?
Stephen Bowie: The revised credits issue is infuriating. And it makes me think of another kind of Orwellian technical rewriting I think has been underreported: the replacement on Blu-ray releases of the optical opening and/or end credit sequences with new, digital credits in films where the original background plates can be located. Usually it’s a really close match, but last year this came to light last year when Universal released Hitchcock’s Frenzy on Blu and bungled the new credits badly, even misspelling some names. But I sometimes see Blu-rays of older films where the credits a little too crisp and I worry that this is happening more often than you’d think, and not being documented. With Frenzy, Universal fixed the misspellings after the review copies were widely mocked – but that’s almost not the point, because if you look at the two sets of credits side-by-side, you can see that the font and the size of the type are not really that close a match. If someone in post thinks it’s worth it to alter a movie this substantively just to scrub some optical debris or avoid some unsightly edge enhancement around the original lettering, then they’re in the wrong job.
Then you have more obvious instances where Blu-ray provides a temptation for directors or DPs (like the notorious Vittorio Storaro, with his demented crusade to reframe all his old films in a new aspect ratio) to rewrite their work and then discard, or actively suppress, the original versions. George Lucas has been flayed by the fanboys for this, but William Friedkin and Michael Mann also like to brag about subtly tweaking every new transfer of their films. And I really think Criterion’s indulgence of Michael Cimino, who radically altered the color palette of Heaven’s Gate for their recent Blu-ray, is a bad precedent. Yes, we have an earlier DVD that’s more accurate, but as of now the only High Def edition is the one Cimino repainted. You talk about compromises and when they become self-defeating – well, honestly, I would have preferred that Criterion insist on including an alternate transfer that attempted to replicate the original release prints, and walk away from the deal if Cimino vetoed that.
Stephen Bowie: After we talked last, to make sure I wasn’t being unfair, so I ran a few episodes of Glee via Netflix Instant. This is a show that’s on Blu-ray, and looks great on Blu-ray, so presumably it was sourced from a competent HD master. And when the image had no movement, like a CU of someone’s face, it looked very crisp, like a frame grab from a Blu-ray. I think that’s what people are thinking of when they argue that streaming in HD is superior to standard-def DVD. But at times the image seemed to break down and display a lot of prominent digital “artifacts.” Usually when there was a lot of motion (like in a dance number), but sometimes just at random, it seemed. Sort of like shots of ocean waves or wheat fields in an early DVD! It was like setting the image quality clock back to 1999. So I have summoned the rest of this season of Glee(the third) on Blu-ray, which, thankfully, Netflix still provides – for now.
Plus, just as you experienced, the transmission froze up twice during the six episodes I watched, and each time I had to shut down the device and reboot it. That’s “only” two three or four minute interruptions, but they both came in the middle of dance numbers – really big-time breaking the spell of the show.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Exactly. Who needs that?
Stephen Bowie: But, people are going to read this and laugh. It’s probably anachronistic to even expect, or try, to watch something without interruptions. It takes a real effort, even for a purist like me, to shut out all the phones and the social media. But we have to do it, and encourage young cinephiles to do it. If you slice up La règle du jeu into ten minute bits, you’re just not going to get much out of it. I don’t care how rigid or old-fashioned that might sound: you are doing it wrong. And, of course, if we have technology that normalizes the interruption (like the dropped call as an accepted feature of cell phone culture) then it becomes harder to argue against conceptually.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I got into a very bad habit with my iPad. I’d watch something then want to look up an actor on the IMDb while I was watching, and then, Hey, let’s check email, and I wonder if that Blu-ray is still on sale? Pretty soon I had completely zoned out of the film. Now I keep the iPad in a different room so I’m not tempted.
Stephen Bowie: Pause the movie for a bathroom break, and hey, might as well check Facebook while I’m up. Bad habit. You’re degrading your own pleasure. Although, you remind me: when I was a teenager and every movie actor was a new face, I had to make myself quit stopping tapes to look them all up in Halliwell or Katz! So ADD is not purely technological.
Stuart Galbraith IV: How do you watch movies? I’m particular to the point where I know I drive certain people crazy. For instance, I can’t watch movies with the lights on. When I have guests over, I make ’em turn off their cellphones before we start. Admittedly, I’m extreme. I once stopped going to movies with one friend because he made a slight whistling noise breathing through his nose that drove me crazy!
Stephen Bowie: Oh, I remember, once I went to your house and we ordered dinner in the middle of the movie, and you got mad when I turned on a lamp just to eat for five minutes. I’m like, do you really want half this pizza in your couch? But, yes, for the most part, I’m pretty intense about stuff like that. My biggest problem now is noise pollution from some sources around my apartment – I have to watch most things at night (as in, weekend all-nighters) and that issue by itself is enough to have me contemplating a move! And incidentally, there’s a nose-whistler who frequents the repertory theaters in New York – could be the nicest guy in the world, but I still get up and move over to the other side of the theater whenever I see him come in.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I often quote the late Gene Siskel who made a great point about spectatorship: “You can only see a movie for the first time once.”
Stephen Bowie: Essential quote from Siskel (so much so, I thought I’d coined it myself!). Particularly since I won’t ever go back to most movies – not out of some Kaelian contempt for the idea but just because my tastes are broad and life is, literally, too short. I still cringe over first viewings ruined in years past. Sweet Smell of Success: 35mm print with a horrible scratch on the audio track for four reels. Still have never managed to “recapture” that film for myself. Just the other day, I got a migraine, the kind where you can’t see properly for a while, right in the middle of Guillermin’s Rapture. I’ll watch it again, of course, but it won’t be the same.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The circumstances in which one watches a film can profoundly impact the experience, much more than people realize. I’d seen House of Wax (1953) in 35mm and 3-D probably seven or eight times through the years. Then the American Cinematheque had a 3-D screening on the Paramount lot (oddly enough) with director Andre de Toth in attendance. The screening was arranged by hardcore 3-D preservationists who knew what they were doing, and it was the only time I had seen the film projected on a silver screen, as was done in the fifties. Although the movie was by this time very familiar, the experience was completely different. Similarly, I first saw Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 35mm on a medium-sized screen. It wasn’t until I saw it again in 70mm, with six-track magnetic stereo sound, on a 70-foot screen, that I finally “got it.” And of course, it’s not just the print. I’ve had “first time only once” experiences totally ruined because of chatty people sitting next to or near me. My good pal Ted Newsom does this and sees nothing wrong with commenting throughout in a normal voice, even at a repertory theater. But, for me, his yacking yanks me rightout of the experience. Regardless of whether it’s a good movie or a bad one, I want to be sucked right in. That’s where the best movie-watching experiences happen, whether it’s Seven Samurai or Lawrence of Arabia or Wild Strawberries or Night of the Living Dead or Singin’ in the Rain or Jason and the Argonauts or whatever.
Stephen Bowie: And I feel like these points are obvious, but you need to make them once in a while. Nobody’s born a viewing-experience zealot. Somebody has to teach you about aspect ratios and stuff. In my case, it was a slightly older film nerd I met at the library when I was about 15, who wrote laserdisc reviews and explained widescreen and pan & scan to me. Until then I’d never understood how badly TV and VHS butchered some movies. So I think it’s worth it for us to be doing this, even if readers feel like they’re being lectured at (although I hope that’s not the case).
And yeah, I don’t go to first-run movie theaters any more; I finally gave up on fighting rude audiences when texting became prominent. I really miss it. Oddly, when DCP came along, instead of grief, I felt a backward sense of relief, because now I wasn’t missing anything any more! That’s some kind of Stockholm syndrome or something, I realize.
Stuart Galbraith IV: My daughter’s five, and when we sit down to watch, say, Disney’s Cinderella (1950), I make it a point to buy the Blu-ray and, as closely as possible, recreate an idealized movie-watching experience for her. Now, I know a lot of parents out there are more than happy to plop their kids in front of computer to watch the film downloaded from somewhere, or (here in Japan) to buy a 500-yen public domain version of Cinderella that looks like dog meat. My daughter, of course, has no awareness of what I’m doing, yet I’m confident introducing movies to her the way I am, it’s making a subtly lasting impression different from what a lot of other kids are experiencing. Add to that, by running Max & Dave Fleischer Popeye cartoons and Our Gang shorts and Buster Keaton silent films, I’m also getting her acclimated to the concept of black and white.
Stephen Bowie: This is the point where someone will smugly remind us that in the 30s-50s, it was customary to wander into theaters in the middle of the movie, and probably audience manners were appalling, if not enhanced by disruptive technology. Respectful audience behavior is probably another learned behavior (a boon of the film culture movement of the 50s-60s-70s) but it, too, is not something I’d like to see slide back into the muck, which seems to be happening.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Audiences in Japan are much more polite. In ten years my worst complaint was when someone knocked over a beer bottle and it comically rolled slowly down toward the screen over several minutes. Conversely, seeing movies theatrically is now obscenely expensive, yet we’re still subjected to a mountain of ads easily bypassed on home video. And, frankly, home video is rapidly approaching, even surpassing the theatrical experience. On the other hand, I miss the communal viewing experience that, though rare, made certain screenings truly special shared experiences.
Stephen Bowie: Being a child of the home video era, I never really had that. I prefer to watch alone. The presence of other people always distracts me at least a little bit, even if they’re behaving. This is theoretically contrary to the original idea of how movies are “supposed” to be experienced, but I’ll make an argument for it. Plus, TV (and I’m a TV specialist, of course) complicates that; the magazine ads always showed the whole family gathered around the set, but of course TV made private viewing possible.
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s learned behavior. Neither of us grew up watching silent movies. We had to learn how to watch and appreciate them. These days I’m game for just about anything, but 30 years ago the idea of watching a four-hour reconstruction of Intolerance was a daunting proposition. In a way I feel part of my mission as a film critic and historian is to introduce people to giving old movies a chance. I mean, I’ve probably gotten at least two dozen co-workers and acquaintances over the years to watch Casablanca, which in most cases was probably the only black & white movie they’d ever seen, with the possible exceptions of It’s a Wonderful Life and maybe Miracle on 34th Street. Yet without exception these same people always respond, “That movie was great! Where can I find more stuff like that?!”
Stephen Bowie: I’ve found that my openness to movies has only expanded. Stuff I never cared about at one time suddenly seems intriguing, because I have a context for it, or just a growing curiosity (starting with “furrin” films in film school). DVD, incidentally, came along at the right time to open a lot of doors for me – the technology drove, or fed, my exploration in a really great way. I like your DVD reviews because you’re interested in things I don’t really care about – Three Stooges shorts, singing cowboys, British TV detectives – but you make them sound like fun; you’re laying the groundwork for me to go there someday. I get really impatient with film/TV “fans” (and this includes some of my readers) whose boundaries are already proscribed.
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s certainly true that it’s easier to “lose oneself” watching movies (or TV shows) alone. But, conversely, there is also something magical about experiencing a movie with a receptive, like-minded audience. I regret that audiences can never again experience Star Wars as I did, with an audience that had no idea what they were getting, who by the end was literally cheering at the end. Or evenings in Ann Arbor, Michigan at their “Top of the Park” 16mm screenings of old movies outdoors, in the cool summer air, movies like Double Indemnity and The Band Wagon. I really miss that.
Stephen Bowie: I’ve had that from time to time, but not enough to make me crave it. Conversely, I’ve gone perhaps in the opposite direction…. I’ve gotten interested in the idea of curation – “programming” a weekend, or an evening, or a year of movies or TV shows. Picking up specific ideas (a director, an actor, a national cinema, a widescreen process, an era or movement) and exploring them in depth, or from start to finish. Combining or cross-matching those things: Jean Harlow at MGM or Richard Fleischer in the ‘70s or French ’Scope crime films from the 60s.Or creating ideal double or triple features.Figuring out which movies complement each other; creating flow from one to another.Sort of like ikebana, or fengshui, but with movies. I’m not really interested in having a physical collection, but this might be a sort of equivalent to it.
And of course, to do that is a form of asserting control – of being active rather than passive in what you choose to watch – and one of my instinctive reactions against streaming platforms is that they seem to encourage the opposite. Watch what we throw in front of you, not what you seek out. (Netflix’s famous $1 million recommendation algorithm is based on that principle; conveniently, it’s designed to conceal the big gaps of what movies they don’t stream, and it appears to accomplish that goal very well.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: You have to be open to, if not everything, at least a willingness and curiosity to want to experience the best-regarded examples, if only to further your education about movies. For instance, a lot of hardcore Western fans would never sit through a B-Western, i.e. Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. Yet the Bs probably outnumber the A-Westerns ten to one. I often take you to task for sitting through eight seasons of Harry O without ever having experienced I, Claudius or The Singing Detective or even Cracker. If I were to ship you a box of DVDs of that stuff would you commit to spending three hours a week with it?
Stephen Bowie: Honestly, no, but I promise I will get to those one day. Part of my “zen” curation idea is waiting until you’re ready to be open to something to watch it. No “eating your vegetables” viewing.
Stuart Galbraith IV: That’s what good movies do. When, nearly 30 years ago now, I stumbled up Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours, I immediately tracked down VHS copies or scanned TV Guide of every other Sturges film out there. (I’m still looking for The French They Are a Funny Race.)
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, I feel like I have a road map (and lots of unwatched acorns tucked away for harsh winters), but I hope there are more surprises I don’t know about yet. And I’m lucky enough to live in a city where you can still see prints of a lot of obscurities that you can get on home video (or stream!). Plus, I haven’t turned my back on the new, unlike a lot of movie & TV buffs, so there’s the knowledge that more stuff I’m going to dig is still being made.
Stuart Galbraith IV: But you have to push yourself a little, or you’ll never get around to it. I avoided Last Year at Marienbad for years but when a cheap Blu-ray turned up, I made sure I watched it that night, to ensure it wouldn’t end up in the great unwatched.
Stephen Bowie: It’s a marathon, not a race. I program for maximum “variety,” so that I don’t use up, say, all the French New Wave movies now – or all of those Harry O episodes, since there are, alas, only TWO seasons – or get burned out by watching too much of the same thing.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I do the same thing these days, and take a certain pride watching, say, Pierrot le Fou and Hoppy Serves a Writ on the same evening. Indeed, last night I watched William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters which, coincidentally, also turned out to be a Richard Johnson double feature.
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, exactly. Or go in the opposite direction of being a completist. You can take some obscure ‘40s studio director and assemble a dozen of his movies all in a row now, thanks to Warner Archive and the other MOD lines. Or, just to pay the devil its due, watch 35 films (!) by Kinoshita on Hulu that Criterion will probably never get around to releasing on disc. Although that’s very much the exception rather than the rule for deep catalog via streaming.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Again, I’m old enough to remember that if you wanted to watch, say, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, your options were limited to scanning TV Guide each week and hope one of the six or seven channels available back then might run it. Then you had to sit through commercial interruptions, awkward edits made to fit the film into a particular timeslot, all kinds of crap. My cup ain’t half-empty, it’s a dam burst! Who’d have guessed 30 years ago that one day you could watch This Is Cinerama in Smilebox format, in multi-track stereo sound, on a 50-inch TV in high-definition? Or a restored Metropolis? Or Lawrence of Arabia? Or Snow Trail, an obscure Japanese film I had wanted to see for three decades?
Stephen Bowie: Huge generational shift. I feel like we’re making an “It gets better” video for our teenaged selves. And yet, Dave Kehr always complains that we’re losing films with each technological shift, that lots of stuff that could be rented on 16mm in the 60s-70s never made the transition to VHS or DVD. I think that’s myopic (it emphasizes American studio films over everything else) but it’s a point worth keeping in mind. And it may also apply to US TV – certainly for classic TV buffs there were shows that aired in syndication just before the VHS era, and thus still remain tantalizingly out of reach. You could see them in 1975, but not now.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Kehr has a point. I mean, it’s weird if not criminal that, say, practically every Jess Franco movie is out on DVD while, say, there’s not one by Tadashi Imai with English subtitles. On the other hand, Kehr’s list can’t be very long now, not in 2013. I sometimes refer to DVD Savant’s “wish list,” published on his site, and I’m always amazed how, every year, a big chunk of it disappears.
Stephen Bowie: Bringing this back to streaming: I haven’t found this on my own Netflix platform yet, but last August some users reported that Netflix was minimizing the end credits of TV shows and some movies, to prompt viewers toward the next episode. There was a lot of negative reaction to this, as intruding upon the experience. And you know what it reminds me of? TV. My prediction is that streaming, which is replacing cable (i.e., cord-cutting), will just become cable once it moves everyone over. As soon as everyone’s hooked, you’ll get watermarks, crawls on the screen, shrunken or talked-over credits and, finally, ads (only now you won’t be able to fast-forward through them).
Stuart Galbraith IV: Oh I think you’re absolutely right. I guess there are some people out there who still turn on HBO and say to themselves, “Hey look at that, Kindergarten Cop! I think I’ll watch the last 40 minutes of that.” But I can’t see that lasting much longer. The idea of a primetime network schedule of comedies and dramas seems to be dissipating into other media, and pay and even free cable don’t seem too far behind.
Stephen Bowie: Which may offer more choice in the short term (the much-vaunted House of Cards marathon option) but not necessarily in the long-term (if ads are embedded and recording for a personal library is blocked). It’s easy to go too doom-and-gloom when a paradigm shift looms (dig my rhyming!), but I do feel like we could be brontosauri, happily chowing down on our physical media while the giant asteroid is hurtling toward us. Ever watch Cinemania? That documentary about obsessive movie fans who will only watch films on 35mm? Well, they were the dinosaurs that got wiped out by the DCP meteor. Are we next?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes and no. Physical media may not be an option for, say, my daughter by the time she’s an adult. But the reality is no matter how hard they try to kill it, people around the world are still buying DVDs and Blu-rays, and especially in second- and third-world countries, I don’t see streaming replacing DVD in places like Cambodia or Panama anytime in the near future. There are millions of us over 35 that, while hardly the ideal demographic, still represent billions of dollars of revenue to the home video industry, who aren’t confident about our computer skills, and I just don’t think it’s inevitable like the transition from records to CDs or VHS to DVD because the benefits are countered by an equal or greater number of deal-killer problems even average consumers aren’t going to accept.
Stephen Bowie: I would like it not to be so generational – I’d like for younger people to insist on Blu-ray (and then 4K!) as a niche, sort of like has happened with vinyl, and for some mainstream insistence on better image quality and selection via streaming to get some traction. But still, that’s a more optimistic note to end on than I was expecting.
Also posted on Stuart Galbraith IV’s Cineblogarama.
March 28, 2011
UPDATE, 3/31/11: Since I posted this on Monday, it has been re-blogged by Missing Remote, Home Media Magazine, the Steve Hoffman Music Forums, and the Hacking Netflix blog. The last two links in particular contain a number of reader comments that are worth a look – and not just because the overwhelming majority echo my disappointment with Netflix’s dwindling selection of physical media. Unlike this space, some of those blogs are probably on the radar of Netflix’s management. Hopefully, some of the executive types there will get the message.
Thanks for your six years of valued patronage, and the several thousand dollars you’ve spent on our service. You, however, are now the kind of Luddite for whom we no longer have any use. You with your Blu-ray player and your fetish for things like comprehensive selection and image quality. Get lost, jerk. Take your business to Blockbuster (even though they suck far more than we ever could), or to your local brick-and-mortar store (even though we drove the last of those out of business long ago; oops!), or Amazon.com (although if you could afford to buy all those DVDs, you wouldn’t have needed us in the first place, would you?).
So have fun in the new world of streaming video, and don’t let the mailbox door hit you on your way out!
No, I didn’t actually receive that letter. But I might as well have. And if you’re both a Netflix subscriber and the kind of person who reads this blog, I’ll bet you’ve gotten the same message in one way or another.
What am I talking about? Just this: Within the last year or two, Netflix has quietly stopped purchasing the majority of new catalog titles that debut on home video.
As of this writing, Netflix still buys most Criterion DVDs, but not necessarily their Blu-rays or the vital box sets on their sub-label Eclipse. Almost every other independent label is shut out, and even the major studios’ catalog releases are often passed over.
As a way of taking stock, here are a few of the catalog DVDs singled out for attention so far this year by the New York Times’s home video columnist, Dave Kehr: Luchino Visconti’s Technicolor melodrama Senso (Criterion); Fellini’s I Clowns and the Fernando Di Leo Collection of Italian crime movies (Raro/Entertainment One); the twisted film noir classic The Prowler (VCI); a remastered trio of early Roger Corman sci-fi flicks including Not of This Earth and War of the Satellites (Shout Factory); and a Rita Hayworth set (Sony) including the DVD debuts of Miss Sadie Thompson and Salome.
How many of those films does Netflix carry? Not one of them.
One distributor, told by Netflix that they would acquire a film if an unspecified number of users “saved” it to their rental queues, started a successful Facebook campaign to force Netflix to stock one of its recent releases. But most old movies that come out on DVD don’t have a grass-roots organization to get Netflix’s attention.
(Netflix has since disclosed this policy publicly, although I haven’t seen it work in any other instance. If you’re reading this and you’re a Netflix customer, try “saving” some of the films I mentioned in the New York Times list above. Some of them, including The Prowler and the Corman titles, aren’t even in Netflix’s database with a “save” option.)
Blockbuster, my old arch-enemy, has actually distinguished itself by continuing to stock a lot of this new stuff. Even though its catalog was never very deep compared to Netflix’s, I’ve set up a rental queue on that site that currently contains about fifty discs that are unavailable from its red rival. So there it is: for the first time in twenty-five years as a home video consumer, I must endure Blockbuster.
Since this is a blog about classic TV, let’s get on topic and look at some of Netflix’s deficiencies in that department. The most recent DVD releases of The Rockford Files, The Fugitive, Leave It to Beaver, The Patty Duke Show, The Donna Reed Show, Route 66, The Lucy Show, and Vega$ are all unavailable. The Twilight Zone and recent seasons of C.S.I. are not rentable on Blu-ray, a format for which Netflix has lately developed a particular aversion. Nearly the whole catalog of Timeless Media, presently the most important independent label specializing in television, is unknown to Netflix. That means no Wagon Train, no The Virginian, no Johnny Staccato, no Arrest and Trial, no Soldiers of Fortune, no Coronado 9, and only a stingy helping of Checkmate.
Worst of all, earlier seasons of many popular series – Hawaii Five-O, Murder She Wrote, The Outer Limits, Father Knows Best – have disappeared recently, even though Netflix used to offer them. All of these shows are still in print, so the likelihood is that Netflix has chosen not to replace discs that get lost or damaged. And even though it’s not necessary, it appears that Netflix deletes an entire TV season as soon as just one disc from that set is depleted from its inventory. I suspect that what I’ve noticed is just the tip of the iceberg, and that unless Netflix reverses its policy of not replacing lost discs, we will soon see an epidemic of unavailable classics.
Availability Unknown: An unaltered screen grab of part of my Netflix queue as of March 23, 2011.
How can Netflix abandon DVDs when it is, or was, a disc rental business? Because of streaming video. In December, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that his management team was devoting 98% of its attention to streaming and only 2% on rental by mail. “Pretty soon, we’re going to be a streaming business that rents some DVDs,” said Hastings.
Watching movies over the internet is an inevitable future. Already, you can watch content on the internet that you can’t get on DVD. Later seasons of Have Gun Will Travel and Wagon Train suddenly popped up on Netflix last year, an unexpected bounty for fans accustomed to the agonizing pace of season-by-season DVD releases. For several years, the online video provider Hulu has offered The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which at Universal’s present rate of progress (in ten years they’ve managed only four out of seven seasons of the half-hour Hitchcock) won’t see a disc release until about 2020.
But the selection of films and TV shows that can be streamed via Netflix or any other online platform is dwarfed by the amount of material that exists on DVD – and Netflix already has a reputation of bulking up its streaming volume with junky public-domain fare. Netflix brags about how rapidly its streaming catalog is growing, but it makes no effort to match those acquisitions to its existing disc library. In other words, Netflix passes over films or allows them to drop out of the disc inventory before it acquires streaming licenses for the same films.
What’s even more problematic is that there are many more technical variables with streaming video, and few widely accepted technical standards. If you get a disc in the mail and there are no scratches on it, you’re good to go. But to stream a movie successfully, you need (a) an adequate supply of bandwidth from your ISP; (b) an adequate supply of bandwidth on Netflix’s end (apparently streaming video commonly loses quality or experiences interruptions during peak viewing periods); and (c) a good interface to port the digital content to your television (unless you are, to paraphrase David Lynch, one of those people who tries to watch movies on a telephone). Then there’s the issue of special features – deleted scenes, interviews, audio commentaries – created for DVDs. So far, when you “stream” a film, you don’t get any of them.
In terms of video masters, Netflix takes whatever it’s given. A recent deal with the supplier Epix, for instance, added a number of rare Paramount and MGM-owned films to the Netflix catalog. But while the MGM films were generally backed by pristine HD masters in the right aspect ratio (likely created for MGM’s high-definition cable channel), the Paramount offerings were almost all ancient, unwatchable transfers, cropped on the sides and/or digitally compressed to excess. In some cases (Jack Smight’s strange dark comedy No Way to Treat a Lady, for instance), a good, widescreen DVD is now out of print and has been superceded by a inferior full-frame streaming master. And Netflix, like the honey badger, don’t care.
As a pop culture historian, I often cross paths with nostalgists and collectors – people who feel a need to own, in a physical form, the media that holds meaning for them. So far these good folks have been leading the fight against streaming video. Unlike them, I don’t care whether or not all twelve seasons of Murder, She Wrote are sitting on my shelf. In fact, I would rather have an uncluttered home, with all of the TV shows I enjoy stored on a hard drive in some other city. But not – and this is the battle that we are in danger of losing – not if image quality is sacrificed for convenience, and not unless the extras that were on the disc remain available online.
Netflix, in devoting itself so slavishly to streaming technology, seems to think it can position itself at the iTunes of movies. I’m not so sure. I think Netflix is more likely to end up as the Vestron Video of the twenty-first century. Vestron, you’ll recall, was an independent label that thrived in the mid-eighties by licensing movies from the major studios and releasing them on VHS – until the studios realized that there was serious money to be made in videotape. Suddenly, no more Vestron. I don’t believe that the studios will ever license their most valuable content – the newest hits, the Academy Award winners, the current Nielsen champions – to Netflix for streaming. The big content owners will build their own platforms, separately or together, and leave Netflix out in the cold.
But that’s Netflix’s problem, not mine, and as yet I don’t really care who wins the streaming war. What does infuriate me is that Netflix is abandoning DVD before it should, and that it has not been honest with its customers in this regard. The once-mighty stream of DVD releases has slowed to a trickle now. Netflix could continue to stock every major disc release using only a fraction of the acquisitions budget that it once required. Instead its leadership chooses not to devote even those meager sums to physical media – sums that account for the margin between profit and loss for many small DVD companies that still fight the good fight to put out rare films and TV shows.
The disc will be dead on its own soon enough. Netflix should not be an accomplice to its murder.
1. Avid enthusiasts of the work of the famous lyricist Stephen Sondheim refer to themselves as Sondheimites. They use this term without irony or self-consciousness and if you crack a joke about it (say it out loud, fast, if you’re not following me here), they do not find it funny.
That was only my first faux pas as I entered the world of Sondheim, an artist whose work I’m afraid I fail to get after my admittedly limited exposure. Sondheim’s lyrics are viewed as extremely complex and sophisticated, but he still works within the tradition of the twentieth-century American musical theater, and that’s a tradition that always puts me to sleep.
So let’s say that, like me, you dig old TV shows but you don’t have any particular affinity for the musical theater. That’s okay because, while Sondheim’s four songs are the marketing hook for this DVD release (and the only reason it exists), there are a lot of other ways into “Evening Primrose,” which was, for the record, an original hour-long musical created in 1966 for the short-lived prime-time anthology ABC Stage 67.
One way in is through John Collier, upon whose short story “Primrose” is based. Collier was a terrifically witty and macabre writer, who has been compared to Roald Dahl (although I think Collier is the bigger talent). It’s because of Collier’s tone that “Evening Primrose” has sometimes been categorized as a kind of lost Twilight Zone episode. And while “Primrose” only intermittently achieves that flavor, it does more or less duplicate the plot of “The After Hours,” the Zone episode in which Anne Francis gets locked in a department store after closing time and discovers that the mannequins are alive. Or perhaps I have that backwards, since Collier’s story was first collected in Fancies and Goodnights in 1951, and Rod Serling was known for unconsciously regurgitating ideas from works of fantasy that he’d read while planning The Twilight Zone.
Another way is through James Goldman, who wrote the teleplay (or the book) for “Evening Primrose.” Goldman, the lesser-known brother of screenwriter William Goldman, was a witty and facile writer in his own right, best known for the play and film The Lion in Winter, in which Eleanor of Aquitaine says things like, “Of course I have a knife. We all have knives. It’s 1183, and we’re barbarians!”
Another way in is through Anthony Perkins. Although both Sondheim and Perkins himself were vocally critical of his performance, I find Perkins charming and wistful here, an ideal actor for the material and a far cry from the creepiness of Norman Bates. And a final way in is through the expert staging of Paul Bogart, who was almost certainly the most accomplished American television director to specialize in shooting on videotape.
2. Paul Bogart is the nicest guy in the world. Paul is a barrel-chested man, with a fully white beard, whose visage, in repose, fixes itself into an ominous scowl. It’s silly, but his appearance is so imposing that I put off contacting him for some time after I decided that I needed to interview him. But once Paul begins to speak, his welcoming smile and soft voice express his true personality. Most directors develop an imposing demeanor, and a certain ego; after all, on a set, dozens of people await his or her orders. Lamont Johnson, who died late last year, was compact in size and not at all physically imposing, but he had a general’s demeanor; when I visited him in Monterey, he never once cracked a smile in ninety minutes, and basically intimidated the hell out of me. Paul, by contrast, is an unfailingly sweet and easygoing person, and also an unnecessarily self-deprecating artist. You’ll see, in the interview we did for the DVD, that Paul is sometimes quite critical of his work on “Evening Primrose.” Don’t take his word for it. Watch the show yourself, and see how skillfully he pulled together all the disparate elements of this odd musical on an incredibly tough schedule.
3. You can’t always get what you want. The “Evening Primrose” presented on the DVD is a black-and-white copy of a show originally telecast in color. That’s a heartbreaking shame, especially since Jane Klain, Research Manager at the Paley Center For Media, undertook an Ahab-like quest to track down the original color tape in time for the DVD. I really wanted to see her zealous efforts rewarded with success.
Jane has compiled a number of theories as to why the color tape for “Evening Primrose” went missing, and hasn’t proven any one of them to her satisfaction. Because the master tapes of many other Stage 67s still exist, and because of certain other anecdotal evidence compiled by Jane, I lean toward the notion that the tape was pilfered years ago by some knowledgeable but unscrupulous Sondheimite. But we’ll probably never know for sure.
In fact, during her search, Jane unearthed a new kinescope that far eclipsed the other known elements in image quality. (Remastering the new kine is why the DVD was delayed from an initial release date in April until last fall.) So now “Evening Primrose” looks better than it has any right to, but it’s still a (literally) pallid rendering of a show telecast in vivid color back in 1966.
4. But look anyway. “Oh, and I still have some test footage we shot on film with Anthony Perkins,” Paul Bogart said in passing as we made plans for my trip to North Carolina to record his interview for the DVD. This was news. On a previous visit to Chapel Hill, I had plundered the attic of Paul’s rustic home, which was lined with ¾” videotapes of hundreds of his television shows. But I hadn’t encountered any film reels. The “Evening Primrose” canisters, it turned out, were in a closet downstairs.
When Paul handed the film cans over to me, he explained what they were. The footage consists of establishing shots of Anthony Perkins in and around Macy’s, and outside the store in Herald Square; and then shots of two extras (different from the pair used in the final version) who feature prominently in the show’s twist ending. They’re not “deleted scenes,” although DVD consumers might tend to pigeonhole them in that category. I’m also not quite it’s accurate to call them “test footage,” as we labeled it for the DVD, because upon reflection I suspect much of this MOS material was in fact intended to be used in “Evening Primrose.”
When Bogart shot the scenes, on September 13, 1966, the idea was probably to use them in the finished production. But sometime prior to the start of taping on September 25, Macy’s opted out, and the producers hurriedly arranged a move to Stern’s (a now-defunct department store across the street from Bryant Park). All of the Macy’s-related footage was now useless. And that’s why it ended up in Paul Bogart’s closet instead of an editing suite and, eventually, oblivion.
As I carried the film cans to the airport, a thought struck me: could I be holding the only surviving color footage of “Evening Primrose”? Since the show was going to be in color, it wouldn’t have made sense for the film to be shot or even developed in black and white. Bogart and his collaborators would have wanted to see how the location and the costumes looked in color. But perhaps the film had faded after forty years in Paul’s closet?
Eventually the DVD producer, Jason Viteritti, confirmed that the footage was, in fact, in color. But my part in the production was done as soon as I handed over the film cans, so I didn’t get a chance to actually see the footage until the DVD arrived. When I finally did look at the footage, it struck me as a revelation – a reason to have the DVD in and of itself.
As you can imagine, these twenty-odd minutes of location footage represent a priceless Manhattan time capsule: a long look, over multiple takes in a variety of set-ups, of mid-sixties Macy’s shoppers and Herald Square pedestrians, all going about their daily business (or, perhaps, trying conspicuously to ignore the camera in their presence). But it’s also a unique opportunity to observe both director and actor formulating their approach to the material, and to compare their first stabs at it to the final version.
For instance, many of Bogart’s set-ups in Macy’s are nearly identical to their counterparts in Stern’s (compare the frame grab below to the title card at the top of this post). As I watched take after take of Perkins mingling with authentic department store customers in the opening sequence, I realized how essential Bogart’s conception of these scenes was to the success of the whole piece. Bogart emphasizes the realistic world of the store in daytime – his use of the handheld camera in these shots is very cinema verite and, indeed, without Perkins in the mix, one could mistake them for outtakes from Frederick Wiseman’s The Store. Once Perkins enters the nighttime world of the store dwellers, Bogart favors a look that complements the artifice of the fantasy world into which Charles has entered. Studio sets replace practical locations and Bogart (influenced, no doubt, by the limitations of shooting on videotape) uses more deliberate camera movements, and more static compositions. Bogart was a director who shunned any kind of showy stylistic flourishes, and this peek at his outtakes offers a valuable chance to study an “invisible” television director’s modus operandi in detail.
As for Perkins, there’s the wonderful moment where he tries to remain in character as a passerby – unaware of the camera stationed high atop a nearby building – recognizes and approaches him. At least one of the other people in the department store is clearly a professional extra – the young brunette digging through the bin of dress shirts – but I can’t make up my mind about the woman in green seated on the park bench next to Perkins. She could be a plant, but I think she’s just playing along with the scene, as any good New Yorker would.
5. Sondheim wasn’t first. Actually I discovered this information after the “Evening Primrose” DVD was finished, but it’s worth recording here nonetheless. It turns out that John Collier’s story came close to being adapted for television a decade before the Goldman-Sondheim version. In 1956, David Susskind paid writer David Swift, the creator of Mister Peepers, five thousand dollars to adapt “Evening Primrose” as a live television spectacular. Susskind got as far as changing the title to “Primrose Path” and drafting a list of casting ideas for the two leading roles. Those lists of names include some possibilities that are exciting (Paul Newman, Natalie Wood) and some that are unlikely (Richard Boone, Richard Widmark, Jean Simmons). I have a hunch that the names atop each list were Susskind’s favored choices, since they were less well-known than most of the others and more likely to fit the budgetary realities of a live TV production. Who were they? Barry Nelson as Charles and Lois Smith as Ella. As to why did this version of “Primrose” never went beyond the planning stages…? At least for now, that remains a mystery.
June 23, 2010
Back in April, the Criterion Collection released a welcome DVD of Sidney Lumet’s fourth feature, The Fugitive Kind. An adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s 1957 play Orpheus Descending, The Fugitive Kind is an underrated work, an atmospheric movie wrapped around a searing performance from Marlon Brando (who would never interpret Williams on film again).
But the major rediscovery in this release is an “extra,” a one-hour live television drama called “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams,” which aired as a segment of The Kraft Theatre on April 16, 1958, and has so far as I know been unavailable outside of museums and archives ever since. Last year Criterion released a box set of eight key live television dramas, which comprised canonical works like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” and Rod Serling’s “Patterns.” While it was delight to see these masterpieces in the limelight again, they had all been in circulation on cable and on videotape since the early eighties. The arrival of “Three Plays” implies a commitment to plow a little deeper into the vaults and unearth some classic television that’s not only good but also rare. I’m not sure that Criterion quite understood what they had in “Three Plays” (for one thing, they’ve managed to spell the name of one of its stars, Ben Gazzara, incorrectly on the DVD packaging)*, and most reviewers of the disc have either brushed past the television segment or failed to contextualize it accurately. But all that matters is that it’s out there for all of us to discover on our own.
“Three Plays,” which appears in its entirety (except for the original commercial segments) in the Fugitive Kind release, comprises three one-act plays written by Tennessee Williams in the lean years before A Streetcar Named Desire established him as one of the essential American writers. Apart from Williams, the connection between “Three Plays” and The Fugitive Kind is the director of both, Sidney Lumet, who had a nuanced understanding of Williams’s preoccupations and, crucially, his use of language. All three of the plays are unapologetically verbose, and Lumet’s key contribution is to stage them so that nothing distracts from the almost unbroken exchanges of dialogue in each.
Between them, the three one-acts encapsulate many of Williams’s recognizable motifs in an undiluted form: the naked emotionalism, the fragile female psyches, the decaying grandeur of the Old South, the complex depiction of nostalgia, and what Lumet calls “the destruction of our sensitive souls.” They’re an essential corollary for anyone who ranks the best cinematic adaptations of Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Night of the Iguana) among the most vital of American movies during the fifties and early sixties.
“Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry” opens the hour, either because it was the earliest of the plays chronologically, or because it features the cast’s only marquee names: the graylisted Lee Grant and Gazzara, who had originated the role of Brick in the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Contemporary reviewers scolded Gazzara for overacting, and in “Moony” he does revel in full-on torn-shirt mode. The layer of self-conscious cool that would be an element in his great performances (in the films for Cassavetes and Bogdanovich) is nowhere in sight here, even though Gazzara had it down as early as Anatomy of a Murder, only a year later. “Moony” is bait for Method-haters, two sweaty people screeching at each other in a squalid room without pause, and if the exercise succeeds it’s because Lumet positions the excess of Moony’s and his wife’s outbursts as the prelude to a single, gentle gesture at the finale.
“The Last of the Solid Gold Watches” is the weakest of the trio, a kind of get-off-my-lawn harangue delivered by Broadway actor Thomas Chalmers with a somber dignity that drags against the youthful vitality of the surrounding performances. Zina Bethune, only thirteen at the time, offers the best performance in “Three Plays,” as the grotesquely-dressed Willie Starr, who lives in the ruins of her family home and clings to the treasured memory of her deceased older sister Alva. The technical limitations of live television catch up with “This Property Is Condemned,” in that Bethune speaks so fast and so breathily that some of Williams’s dialogue can’t be caught by the studio microphone. Still, Lumet gets the point across, gradually peeling off the layers of Willie’s monologue to reveal her as an unreliable narrator and a forlorn and tragic figure.
It’s useful to compare Lumet’s succinct vignette to the wreck of a movie directed by Sydney Pollack, which bears the title This Property Is Condemned but deviates from Williams’s material to personify the unseen Alva in the form of Natalie Wood. The Willie Starr scene dramatized in “Three Plays” becomes an expository prologue, sandwiched in the middle of the opening credits. Pollack’s staging of that scene, along a curve in a defunct railroad track, resembles Lumet’s, despite the contrast between the film’s sunny outdoor location and the TV production’s cramped interior set. I suspect that Pollack had seen the Kraft Theatre, and he may have understood that even this bastardized remnant of Williams’s play was better than any subsequent scene in his film. Mary Badham, Pollack’s Willie Starr, is more hardened and less vulnerable than Bethune, so we have a record of two different and, I think, equally valid approaches to the character.
“To live is to change, to change is to live,” says Tennessee Williams, in his live, on-camera introduction to “Three Plays.” Understandably, Williams takes care to label these short works as early efforts, perhaps not up to the level of the famous plays and films for which viewers would know him. He also seems nervous, stepping on the announcer’s intro with his first line and often looking upward at his cue cards. How did the Kraft Theatre land both Williams and his trio of short plays for this broadcast? The answer involves some television heavyweights, and much change of the sort to which Williams alludes.
Williams was a hot literary commodity in 1958, with a decade of important plays and movies to his credit and the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Elizabeth Taylor, due in theaters in the fall. But Williams’s plays were dense, and too adult to be a natural fit for television. Even in the “Three Plays,” which have little overt sexual content, it’s surprising that the suggestion of Willie’s casual promiscuity comes through so clearly. The person who fought to bring “Three Plays” to television without a great deal of censorship or simplification seems to have been Robert Herridge, one of the great forgotten producers of the live era.
Herridge had passed briefly through prime time, with a summer stint on Studio One – summer was when the heavyweight TV producers fled sweltering Manhattan and let the “B” team take over for thirteen weeks. But he was known mainly for non-commercial programming that ran in the Sunday “cultural ghetto,” minimalist dramas that echoed the style of avant-garde theater and documentaries showcasing the jazz and folk music for which Herridge had a passion. (Camera Three, The Seven Lively Arts, and The Robert Herridge Theatre were some of the umbrella titles for Herridge’s programs.) On Kraft he was subordinate to David Susskind, a talent agent who had become a big wheel in the industry as a “packager” of television properties.
With live drama, and its own Television Theatre hour (which dated back to 1947), in their death throes, Kraft took a chance on bringing in a big wheel like Susskind. Someone, either Susskind or Kraft or Herridge, hatched the idea of adapting a series of important modern literary works on the KraftTheatre. The idea was to attract more talent, more publicity, more viewers than the usual Kraft fare of original, written-for-television dramas. These shows kicked of with “Three Plays” and also included “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Hemingway’s “Fifty Grand,” Fitzgerald’s “The Last of the Belles,” and a two-part, Don Mankiewicz-scripted version of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” that Herridge partisan Nat Hentoff deemed “a far more seizing transformation of the book than Robert Rossen’s screen version.” Sidney Lumet, who had just been nominated for the Oscar for Twelve Angry Men and had his pick of television assignments, signed on to direct “Three Plays” and “All the King’s Men.”
Susskind, remembered today as a defender of quality television, was no philistine. He launched East Side / West Side and brought a number of other difficult plays and novels to television on the DuPont Show of the Month and Play of the Week. But Herridge was too far out for Susskind, who called him a “kook” and carped that Herridge “tried to substitute nonconformity of dress for talent.” Herridge earned Susskind’s lasting enmity by shouldering the senior producer aside on the Kraft shows, literally barring Susskind from some of the rehearsals. Susskind’s staffers Jacqueline Babbin and Audrey Gellen, who worked on the DuPont Show and Play of the Week adaptations (sometimes fronting for blacklisted writers), are credited on “Three Plays” as story editors. But I would guess that whatever changes were made to Williams’s text were done by Herridge, or by Williams himself with Herridge’s input.
(Charles H. “Chiz” Schultz, late of Studio One, also appears in the credits of “Three Plays,” as an associate producer. I have no idea whether he was attached to Susskind, Herridge, Kraft, or NBC at that point.)
What’s fascinating about Kraft’s experiment in literature is how short-lived it was. Susskind and Herridge may have produced as few as a half-dozen segments for Kraft, which morphed into the Kraft Mystery Theatre for the summer and dropped from high- to low-brow with adaptations of pulpy short stories (including a couple of Ed McBain’s early 87th Precinct tales). In October of 1958, The Kraft Theatre went off the air for good.
I’d love to see Criterion follow up this release with a package of the other Susskind-produced Krafts, which survive. But to be honest, what I’d like even more is a collection of the lesser-known original dramas from the year or two preceding the Susskind shows. These were teleplays written by some of the finest writers of the late-live television era: James Leo Herlihy, James Lee Barrett, John Gay, Paul Monash, Will Lorin, David Davidson, Robert Crean, Richard DeRoy, Robert Van Scoyk, Alfred Brenner. Larry Cohen, only twenty and still in the army, contributed some of the Mystery scripts, and even Jack Klugman (yes, that Jack Klugman) wrote a couple. I’ll bet an audit of those kinescopes would yield some fine, forgotten work.
Tennessee Williams, television host.
* Update, 6/24/2010: The original version of this piece also noted the misspelling of Gazzara’s name on the Criterion website, which was corrected shortly after publication. Notes on sources: Sidney Lumet quote is from a video interview on the Fugitive Kind DVD; Nat Hentoff quote and some of the Robert Herridge background are from “A TV Exclusive! The Passion of Huckleberry Dracula,” collected in The Nat Hentoff Reader (Da Capo, 2001).
January 27, 2009
One of the great things about Koch’s Studio One DVD set, which I wrote about last month, is its wealth of bonus material. Several interviews and documentaries, of different lengths and formats, offer an intimate portrait of how the eleven-season anthology series was produced.
If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that, out of these featurettes, only one – a brief 1987 interview with the director Paul Nickell – offers any information specific to the production of the Studio One segments in the DVD set. This set me to wondering: would it be possible to supplement the ample DVD extras with some new stories about the seventeen episodes that many new viewers will now be discovering?
So as I watched these Studio Ones, I contacted some of the surviving individuals whose names I recognized in the credits, and asked them what they remembered. Here are some of their answers.
Charles H. “Chiz” Schultz is a television and film producer of some renown; he produced The Judy Garland Show and one of the great American independent films, Ganja and Hess. Schultz began his career in the mailroom at CBS, and after working as a production assistant on a couple of shows (including Mama), he was promoted to “assistant to the producer” on Studio One. It was a job that included budgets, schedules, casting, or, as Schultz put it, “a little bit of everything.”
During the live telecasts, Schultz was stationed in the control booth and charged with timing the show using a stopwatch. “My hands were always perspiring,” Schultz remembered. “I would always have to be careful not to drop the watch, because the sweat just poured, out of nervousness.” If the broadcast appeared to be running long or short, Schultz would relay this information to the director and a decision would be reached: trim a scene, revise the script on the spot, or instruct the actors to speed up or slow down their delivery.
If something went wrong on the stage, Schultz and the others in the booth would look on helplessly. “An actor would just blow his lines,” he recalled. “Some of them would just go up. There was just this stillness in the control room, hoping that another actor would jump in. Which they always did. They were always terrific professionals.”
Schultz worked on Studio One in 1955 and 1956, during the tenure of Felix Jackson, the anthology’s most talented producer. Schultz greatly admired Jackson, an early mentor, as well as Florence Britton, the story editor who was essential to Jackson’s success.
“Both she and Felix had a terrific story sense,” Schultz recalled. “Florence was a great character, right out of the twenties. She was a blonde and had a dutchboy haircut. She always, at her desk, wore this incredibly large, wide-brimmed hat, and had a cigarette holder. I was just in awe. As a kid from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I had never seen anything like her.”
Schultz praised Felix Jackson’s strength as a producer, particularly when he clashed with the blacklist. Schultz recalled:
After I had been working at Studio One for a while, I was in the casting director, Jim Merrick’s, office, and he said, “I want to show you something.” And he opened up the bottom right drawer of his desk and there was a telephone in there. I said, “What the hell’s that?”
He said, “Every time we get ready to cast Studio One, I have to pick up the phone, and I just push zero, or dial zero, and I hear a woman’s voice say, ‘Read the names.’ And I read her all of the names of the people that we’re about to cast, and after each name she either says yes or no.” No one knew who was at the end of the phone. And it was just a horror show.
There was a wonderful actress-dancer named Valerie Bettis, and we cast her in a show. It was announced. And we got this frantic call saying that we had to immediately get rid of her. She was listed, she was obviously a communist. All of this was crap. It wasn’t true.
Felix was so upset, and he wanted to clear her name. So what he did was, he called the head of CBS and he said, “Oh, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I cast a woman and I’ve just found out that she’s on the Red Channels list. So I’ve just called a press conference and I’m going to let all the reporters know that Red Channels has blacklisted her.”
The head of CBS said, “No, no, for Chrissake, don’t do anything like that. Nobody knows there’s a Red Channels! Go ahead, put her in, put her in, and we’ll take care of it.”
So Valerie Bettis appeared on Studio One, and her name was cleared from that point on. Felix tried to do that in every way he could. He was passionate about justice.
Though Schultz’s duties never brought him in close proximity to Studio One‘s writers, he did get to know the show’s primary alternating directors well.
“Frank Schaffner always dressed in a suit and vest, ramrod straight, almost like an army general. Like Patton, in a way. Very stern,” Schultz said.
“But he had a crazy, wonderful sense of humor. I had been there maybe three weeks when he came into my office, he didn’t say a word, he walked up to me, reached out, took my tie, pulled out scissors, and just cut it in half. And walked out of the room. That was Frank. You never knew what to expect.”
Schaffner went on to become an Academy Award-winning movie director, not only of Patton, but also of The Best Man, Planet of the Apes, and Papillon. Paul Nickell, by contrast, fell into obscurity following his Studio One decade. Nickell had a minor career as an episodic television director (Ben Casey, Sam Benedict) before moving into academia.
“Paul Nickell was a very nice man,” Schultz told me. “I never knew Paul too well. I always had a feeling he was sort of out of the loop in a funny way. A very quiet person, and I think he had his own personal problems.”
Schultz pointed out the intriguing fact that Schaffner and Nickell divided the Studio One scripts in a way that matched their personalities. Nickell “went for the love stories, softer stuff. He was kind of a soft person himself.”
Schaffner, on the other hand, “was wonderful with war stories. Men’s stories,” said Schultz. “He never wanted to do a love story, he never wanted to do a comedy. He wanted to do serious dramas, and particularly with a male cast.” Indeed, while Nickell and Schaffner split Reginald Rose’s many Studio One plays, all of the Rod Serling segments were directed by Schaffner.
It’s a bit harder to find actors who remember single performances they gave more than a half-century ago. It might seem that a live broadcast would so jangle the nerves that the memory would be retained forever – but then, some actors appeared in scores or even hundreds of live shows. And perhaps the most terrifying ordeals before the live cameras tended to blank out memories instead.
Helen Auerbach was the ingenue in “Dark Possession,” the bright young woman who initiates some amateur sleuthing into the identity of a blackmailer who seems to be tormenting her older sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Auerbach didn’t remember anything about “Dark Possession” – not even after I told her about the new DVD collection, and she watched the show again.
“That’s the kind of part I got,” Auerbach said of her “Dark Possession” character. “I was thin and sort of wimpy, and I generally got what we called at the time ‘second sad’ parts.” That was “second” as in second lead, or second-billed: never the juiciest role in the script.
Helen Auerbach in “Dark Possession”
Auerbach, who gave up acting professionally after she moved to Europe with her family in 1961, did remember that she had appeared opposite her “Dark Possession” leading man, Leslie Nielsen, in another Studio One from two years earlier, “The Hospital.”
Even more than Nielsen, Auerbach remembered the director of both those shows, Franklin Schaffner. “He was absolutely the most stunning guy, and very, very nice. He was gorgeous, with his beautiful leather jackets,” Auerbach said.
Method-actor leather jackets, like Brando in The Wild One, I wondered? “No,” Auerbach explained, “Very soft, like suede. Pale-colored suede, like a shirt, almost. He seemed to wear that a lot. And as far as being a good director, I couldn’t possibly know whether he was or not, I was so young!”
Auerbach also described her technique for avoiding those nerves that plagued live television actors. “The most curious thing about it that I keep remembering is putting a couple of chairs together backstage, and going to sleep,” she explained. “Somehow it was the way I controlled being nervous: I used to take a nap very shortly before we went on air.”
“In subsequent acting things, the very idea of that is so astonishing, because the nerves just got worse and worse.”
Chester Morris and Frances Sternhagen in “The Arena”
Frances Sternhagen became famous well past middle age, for her roles as Cliff Claven’s possessive mother on Cheers, and John Carter’s patrician grandmother on ER. But she was only in her mid-twenties when she appeared on Studio One, as a no-nonsense, seen-it-all Washington secretary in Rod Serling’s “The Arena.”
For Sternhagen, “The Arena” was an instance a particular actor’s nightmare: missing a call. “I was about two hours late for the shooting,” she told me. “I was pregnant and I was sick, and my husband had thought that I needed to sleep and had turned off the alarm.”
The stagehands dressed Sternhagen “as quickly as they could” and she made it onto the air without missing a cue. “But I was so mortified that I couldn’t even apologize to Frank Schaffner, and of course he didn’t speak to me,” Sternhagen recalled. “I wrote him a letter after it was over and never heard anything. But I thought, ‘Oh, that’s probably why I haven’t gotten another job from Frank Schaffner.'”
Sternhagen recalled her co-stars, Wendell Corey and Chester Morris, as old hands, swapping stories at the table where the actors read and rehearsed the script. “They were very kind when I finally arrived,” she added.
When a live TV broadcast ran longer than it was timed in rehearsals, one thing that often got sacrificed was the closing credits. (Conversely, if an end credit roll lasts for four minutes, it’s safe to guess that the show ran short.) Rod Serling’s “The Strike” was such a show, but fortunately the DVD liner notes include a long list of supporting actors – some of them very familiar faces – to fill in for the missing screen credits.
One of those supporting players was Cy Chermak. Then a young New York actor struggling to make a living, Chermak would soon turn to writing and then producing. At Universal in the late sixties, he oversaw a succession of hit shows, including The Virginian, Ironside, and The Bold Ones. Later Chermak was the show-runner of CHiPs for most of its lengthy run.
In “The Strike,” Chermak plays one of several radio operators in the stranded platoon commanded by James Daly’s Major Gaylord. “It was a nice part,” Chermak recalled in an e-mail. “I worked the radio with an actor named Fred Scollay. I pretty much keep repeating the same lines over and over as I was trying to contact another unit.” Tasked with contacting the unit’s out-of-range headquarters, Chermak’s radio man repeats a call sign that becomes a sort of nerve-wracking chorus as tension in the icy cave mounts. One of Rod Serling’s biographers, Gordon F. Sander, singled out Chermak’s refrain – “Razor Red, this is Razor Blue CP, come in, Razor Red” – as the most effective detail in “The Strike,” a device that drew upon Serling’s use of “aural details” during his radio writing days.
Cy Chermak (left), James Daly, and Fred J. Scollay in “The Strike”
Like Chiz Schultz, Chermak recalled the physical effects of the stress of performing live. “The final camera shot [in “The Strike”] was a close-up of me as the camera moved in,” he recalled. “As it did I got nervous and developed a tic in my face.”
After the broadcast, the director, Franklin Schaffner, told Chermak that he loved this touch. Schaffner had assumed that the young actor’s tic was a clever improvisation rather than an involuntary spasm.
“The Strike” wasn’t the first time that Studio One had cast Chermak (who had in fact served in the army, as a drill instructor, from 1951-1953) in the specialized role of a battlefield technician. Six months earlier, also for Schaffner, he had appeared in the famous 1953 segment “Dry Run,” with Walter Matthau as a submarine commander, a show for which the entire studio was flooded. “I played a bow planesman,” Chermak wrote. “Simply repeated commands given me like, ‘Up ten degrees,’ and ‘Dive, dive, dive!'”
“If you’re talking about Studio One, my goodness, that was one of the benchmarks of the drama series of television,” said Kim Swados, who alternated as the series’ set designer from 1952 until about 1954. Swados, assigned to director Paul Nickell’s unit, worked on every other show. Willard Levitas, whom Swados praised as “a brilliant designer,” created the sets for Franklin Schaffner’s segments.
According to Swados, the two-week process of creating an entire set for a show began with a reading of the script, then consultations with Felix Jackson and Nickell. Once the producer and director approved of his ideas, Swados said, “my responsibility was to draw them up and get an okay on the budget and from the director, and then supervise them in the shop and then the setup.” The stage crew erected the sets on Saturday, and Swados remained on hand to make changes during Sunday’s technical and dress rehearsals. During the broadcast, Swados often watched from the control booth, seated behind the director.
“We never had any sets fall down, thank goodness, but sometimes a door would stick,” Swados said of the on-air gaffes that made live television an adventure. A more common mishap, he recalled, would be a camera failure, which would require the director to change his original plan and cut to one of the two other cameras while the third cameraman worked frantically to repair his machine.
Among the shows he designed, Swados’ favorites included period pieces with a continental flavor starring Michele Morgan (1953’s “Silent the Song”) and Claude Dauphin (1954’s “Cardinal Mindszenty”). For the Morgan segment, Swados created an all-white set and outfitted the actors in white gloves, so that they appeared as disembodied figures against his backdrop.
But Swados’ sharpest memories were of the Studio One superproduction, also cited by Paul Nickell (in the DVD interview) as a turning point for both the series and his own career: the September 1953 adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984.”
“It’s the one I am very proud of,” Swados told me. “It was done as a stark, documentary-like, very frightening attempt to explore the anxiety that Mr. Orwell had about fascism and about how terrible it was to [live in] that kind of evil society.” Swados added that
One of the big problems that we had was with Big Brother. I was asked to design a poster for him, which I did, and they had a marvelous idea, the director, Paul Nickell. We made twenty or thirty copies of the poster that I had done in charcoal, with “Big Brother Is Watching You.” They were used as cards or shields, very much like what Hitler did with the swastika. It was quite frightening and unnatural when you saw ten or fifteen or twenty of these things in confrontation.
I remember that the worst thing that a person was frightened of, which is taken of course from the text of the book, was a door that had 101 on it. That was the door that you were sent through to confront the worst fear of your life. We had a big discussion about what the door should look like.
Swados went on to become the art director on The Deer Hunter and The Amityville Horror, as well as the television series Dallas. A production injury left him disabled and forced him to retire in the mid-eighties.
Now living in Kansas, Swados looks back on his live television days with unbridled fondness. “It was a brand new discipline, where nobody really knew what was right to do and what wasn’t right to do,” he told me. “That was indeed the age of what was referred to as golden days of television.”
Kim Swados’ Big Brother sketches surround Eddie Albert in “1984”
Thanks to David Kalat, Stuart Galbraith IV, Frank Marth, and of course to the individuals interviewed for this piece. For more stories from Chiz Schultz (and from Kim Swados’ counterpart, the late Willard Levitas, among others), take a look at the most essential of the interview segments on the Koch DVD, a ninety-minute recording of a Museum of Broadcasting panel discussion on Studio One.