One hundred years and eleven days ago, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, taking 1,514 lives with it.  This month, to commemorate (or compound) the disaster, Twentieth Century-Fox has re-released James Cameron’s bloated epic Titanic in fake 3D.  The Criterion Collection has gotten into the act by debuting Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958), an earlier, more stately film about the famous sinking, on Blu-ray, with a bounty of new extras.

A Night to Remember was based on a best-selling non-fiction account of the Titanic’s demise by Walter Lord – a book that was also staged, with great fanfare, as a live television drama in 1956, some two years before the Baker film was released.  Given its recent habit of licensing live television segments as supplements for its discs (including The Fugitive Kind and 12 Angry Men), one might have expected Criterion to acquire the Kraft Television Theatre version of “A Night to Remember,” too.  For whatever reason, they didn’t – but you can watch it on Youtube.

Semi-forgotten today, Kraft’s “A Night to Remember” was remarked upon at the time as one of the (ahem) high-water marks of live television.  Dramatically taut, the production was also newsworthy for its deliberate pushing of the physical and technical boundaries of the medium.  “A Night to Remember” cost $125,000, slightly more than three times the budget of an average Kraft.  One hundred and seven men and women in period costume filled the mock Titanic, and seventy-two of them had speaking parts.  There were thirty-one sets, some built at skewed angles to simulate the increasing cant of the sinking vessel, others (seen only for a moment in the final broadcast) in a tank that could be filled with water up to the actors’ waists.

The sets were so vast that the production was moved from NBC’s Studio 8H, to both 8H and 8G, and finally out to the network’s largest available space in exotic Brooklyn.  Six cameras, instead of the usual three or four, captured the action.  We know these stats because NBC trumpeted them in the press, in a successful campaign to position “A Night to Remember” as one of the year’s most important television events.  James Cameron was not the first storyteller tempted to see in the Titanic the makings of a superproduction.

Following an on-camera introduction by Claude Rains, an effectively stentorian and British choice to narrate the show, the first dialogue in “A Night to Remember” is spoken by the familiar actor Marcel Hillaire, here playing a French waiter in the Titanic’s exclusive restaurant with all the hauteur he can muster.  Although it also places barbed emphasis upon the cascading incompetence of officers and crew that delayed rescue – we’re teleported over to the nearby SS Californian, where a radio operator misses the distress call because he can’t be bothered to turn a crank – television’s “A Night to Remember” finds its theme in the suddenly lethal class distinctions that informed the outcomes available to the Titanic’s passengers.  Hubris and privilege are the boogeymen in “A Night to Remember,” not the iceberg that (thanks to the limitations of the medium) we barely see.

The show’s director and co-writer, George Roy Hill, a Minneapolis-born Yalie who styled himself as a cantankerous Irishman, empathizes with the proletariat in steerage and sneers at the rich twits in first class in a way that resounds in the era of the one-percenter – even though the third-class passengers are sketched more roughly and enjoy less screen time than the swells on the upper decks.  Mrs. Astor slices open a life vest to see what it’s made of – cork; “Why, how clever!” – and another young lady expresses delight because she’s never seen an iceberg.  Hill practically seems to be opining: good, natural selection is finally catching up with these fools.  Perhaps the most effective moment in “A Night to Remember” is the one in which J. Bruce Ismay, the head of the White Star Line, steps into a lifeboat even as he knows that women and children remain on the sinking ship.  The glare of utter contempt that the crewman who lowers the raft fixes upon Ismay is unforgettable, and Hill does not even need a close-up to emphasize it.

“A Night to Remember” is a compendium of vignettes like those.  It follows certain characters from start to finish, like the Caldicott-and-Charters pairing of Gracie and Smith (Larry Gates and Woodrow Parfrey, cast effectively against type), who meet their fates with stiff-upper-lip reserve.  Other famous passengers, like Isidore Straus (Edgar Stehli), whose wife opts to stay on the ship rather than leave him behind, are glimpsed for only seconds.  If the 1958 feature finally picks a central character out of Walter Lord’s panoply – Second Officer Lightoller, a minor character here, becomes in Dave Kehr’s words the film’s “hero . . . an upright representative of the emerging middle class and managerial caste” – the shorter television staging resists fixing on any single figure as a spine; although it does hover occasionally around Thomas Andrews (Patrick Macnee, then unknown), the thirty-nine year-old “shipbuilding genius” who had a hand in designing the Titanic, and whose main function here is to deliver, sheepishly, the technical explanation as to why the ship will surely sink.  (Macnee and Andrews were both Scots, so the actor attempted a brogue in rehearsals, delivering his key line as “The ship must go doon.”  Hill’s reaction: “Less of the Irish, please.”) [Author’s note, 5/23/12: Much of the last sentence, which was sourced from Patrick Macnee’s 1989 autobiography Blind in One Ear, is erroneous.  See the comments section for more information.

Rains, whose dulcet and unmistakably British tones supply snippets of Titanic lore in a voiceover so dense that it is almost an audio book, becomes the vital structuring element of this decentralized narrative.  “A Night to Remember” is a docudrama, but one of a specific sort that emphasized the panoramic impact of a particular historical incident.  Studio One’s “The Night America Trembled” (about the historic “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast), The Seven Lively Arts’s searing “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” and Playhouse 90’s “Seven Against the Wall” (on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) all took the same basic approach.  Already in its death throes, live television made a mini-genre out of this kind of pocket historical epic, the size of which attracted press attention and fostered, perhaps, the poignant illusion that the medium could compete on Hollywood’s own terms with the industry that was about to bulldoze it.

If directors like Sidney Lumet or Paul Bogart, a consummate lover of actors who died this month, were content to work with material that was essentially stage-worthy and intimate, there was another class of live television director that tried to tug the primitive medium toward the art of the cinema.  Franklin Schaffner and John Frankenheimer led this pack, with George Roy Hill following close behind; all three achieved a destiny as epic-scaled filmmakers that is difficult, on the surface, to reconcile with their origins in television.  (At least until one recalls that Hill wasn’t the only member of this daredevil trio to seek out the foolhardy challenge of filling a television studio with a large quantity of water: Schaffner nearly electrocuted the cast while sinking a submarine in Studio One’s “Dry Run,” and Frankenheimer built a huge water tank to simulate the flooding of the Mississippi River in Playhouse 90’s “Old Man.”)  Inevitably, all three men were determined careerists – an ambition to work on a huge canvas seems inextricable from a large ego – and “A Night to Remember” plays as a very self-conscious calling card on the part of a young director eager to be noticed.

One of the least contestable auteurist entries in live television, “A Night to Remember” was not only directed but also co-written – with John Whedon, later a sitcom writer and also the grandfather of Joss Whedon – by Hill; and while Kraft at that time had a producer, Stanley Quinn, he was an ad agency lifer with few creative bona fides apart from Kraft.  Quinn also took no screen credit on “A Night to Remember,” leaving many published accounts to list Hill as the producer, perhaps not wholly inaccurately.  Hill may also have exerted influence through a key personal relationship.  When last we encountered George Roy Hill, he was seducing the underage star of one of his early features.  During that time, and possibly as early as 1956, Hill was also having an extramarital affair with Marion Dougherty, who was the uncredited casting director of Kraft and therefore, without question, a key creative component in a live show boasting a telephone book-sized cast list.

A control-room director’s dream, “A Night to Remember” supposedly featured over one hundred cues (that is, cuts) in its first act alone.  The personality that Hill imposes upon it is an omniscient one: an unseen hand – whether it be that of God, George Roy Hill, or Claude Rains, clutching Lord’s book and in a sense standing in for the author –  directing our attention, rapidly, forcefully, toward a succession of brief moments on the surface of a vast event.  Andrew Horton, the chief chronicler of Hill’s career, finds “A Night to Remember” interesting mainly for the way in which it anticipates the complex editing schemes of later films like Slaughterhouse-Five.  Indeed, the director’s cutting is masterful.  Early on, Hill introduces the characters in steerage with a fade from a violinist, entertaining the haughty diners in first class, to a bagpiper, leading an exuberant dance below decks.  Near the end, when an immigrant family that has fought its way up from steerage to the top deck arrives just in time to watch the last lifeboat being lowered, Hill drops out the cacophonous sound, scoring the moment of dreadful realization with a second of total silence.  Hill superimposes the dangling boat cable over the family’s stunned faces.  “A Night to Remember” is subtle at times, blunt at others – but amid the chaos of disaster, the tonal shifts make sense.

“A Night to Remember” enjoyed a rapturous reception.  Every major critic, even the tough two titans, Jack Gould (of the New York Times) and John Crosby (of the Herald Tribune), approved.  NBC took out a full-page ad in the Times to tout its a repeat of the kinescope on May 2, a rerun that, because of reuse payments due to the gargantuan cast, cost the network more than putting on a new play would have.

(“A Night to Remember” was not restaged live, as some sources claim.  And, incidentally, if you look in the wrong places you’ll also find Hill deprived of his co-writing credit, or read that Hill won Emmys for writing and directing the show.  Although he was nominated for both, and “A Night to Remember” for best dramatic program, the only Emmy win was for its live camerawork).

The live television dramas that tend to hold up best are the small, claustrophobic character pieces – the storied “kitchen sink” opuses.  Adaptations of books and plays, or shows that give off a whiff of the “tradition of quality,” are the most likely to seem stodgy and ancient.  But, despite its unconcealed self-importance, “A Night to Remember” works both as a drama and, more vitally, as an action piece.  It moves at a terrific pace and builds real suspense along the way.  Only the ending seems somewhat crude.  Hill wisely uses as little stock footage as possible (like the 1958 film, this version borrowed its Titanic exteriors from a 1943 German film that built some impressive miniatures), but that decision renders the climax necessarily brief.  Hill tries for a pair of shock effects, neither of which really comes off – at least to the extent that we can observe today.

The show ends in the main stateroom, empty except for a steward and the shell-shocked designer Andrews.  As the stewart flees, the entire set tips forward, toward the camera, and the sea sweeps away the steward and rushes toward the viewer – an effect achieved, none too convincingly, by shooting through a fishtank that was rapidly filled with frothy water.  Just before that, allegedly, we see Andrews crushed (or decapitated, according to one account from the set) by a gigantic chandelier that falls from the stateroom ceiling.  Hill staged the effect through a multi-camera sleight-of-hand, by cutting quickly from a close-up of Patrick Macnee to a long shot, from another angle, in which Andrews is represented by a dummy.  Contemporary reviews record some shocked reactions to this graphic image.  But, in the surviving kinescope, the effect is lost.  The Andrews dummy is barely visible at the left edge of the frame, and one would never notice his “death” unless, as I did, one goes back for a second look with the knowledge of what’s supposed to be there.  On a first viewing of the extant “A Night to Remember,” the final image of Andrews is now a stunned, guilt-ridden close-up of Macnee’s face.  Not a bad ending at all – but also a sobering reminder of how the poor positioning of a kinescope camera can rewrite television history.

Networking

June 12, 2009

Here’s a list I’ve been noodling with lately.  The first entry kind of gives it away, but see how quickly you can guess what these films have in common:

1955
Marty (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)

1956
Patterns (Rod Serling/Fielder Cook)
The Rack (Rod Serling/Arnold Laven)
The Catered Affair (Paddy Chayefsky/Richard Brooks)
Crime in the Streets (Reginald Rose/Don Siegel)
1984 (William P. Templeton/Michael Anderson)
Ransom (Cyril Hume & Richard Maibaum/Alex Segal)
The Fastest Gun Alive (Frank D. Gilroy/Russell Rouse)

1957
Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose/Sidney Lumet)
The Bachelor Party (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
Dino (Reginald Rose/Thomas Carr)
Edge of the City (Robert Alan Aurthur/Martin Ritt)
Spring Reunion (Robert Alan Aurthur/Robert Pirosh)
The Young Stranger (Robert Dozier/John Frankenheimer)
Fear Strikes Out (Mel Goldberg/Robert Mulligan)
Man on Fire (Malvin Wald & Jack Jacobs/Ranald MacDougall)
The D.I. (James Lee Barrett/Jack Webb)

1958
The Left-Handed Gun (Gore Vidal/Arthur Penn)
No Time For Sergeants (Ira Levin/Mervyn LeRoy)
Sing Boy Sing (Paul Monash/Henry Ephron)

1959
Middle of the Night (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
The Rabbit Trap (JP Miller/Philip Leacock)

1960
Visit to a Small Planet (Gore Vidal/Norman Taurog)
One Foot in Hell (Aaron Spelling/James B. Clark)

1961
Judgment at Nuremberg (Abby Mann/Stanley Kramer)
The Outsider (Merle Miller/Delbert Mann)
The Hellions (Harold Swanton/Irwin Allen & Ken Annakin)

1962
Days of Wine and Roses (JP Miller/Blake Edwards)
The Miracle Worker (William Gibson/Arthur Penn)
Requiem For a Heavyweight (Rod Serling/Ralph Nelson)
Incident in an Alley (Rod Serling/Edward L. Cahn)
Pressure Point (S. Lee Pogostin/Hubert Cornfield)

1963
A Child Is Waiting (Abby Mann/John Cassavetes)

1964
Dear Heart (Tad Mosel/Delbert Mann)

1965
Baby the Rain Must Fall (Horton Foote/Robert Mulligan)

1966
A Big Hand For the Little Lady (Sidney Carroll/Fielder Cook)

1967
The Incident (Nicholas E. Baehr/Larry Peerce)

1968
Charly (James Yaffe/Cliff Robertson)
The Legend of Lylah Clare (Robert Thom/Robert Aldrich)

1972
Tomorrow (Horton Foote/Joseph Anthony)

1973
Bang the Drum Slowly (Arnold Schulman/John Hancock)

1985
The Trip to Bountiful (Horton Foote/Peter Masterson)

As you’ve probably deduced already, all of the movies above were adapted from live or videotaped dramas from the “golden age” television anthologies.  The writer of the teleplay (but not necessarily of the subsequent screenplay) and the director of the film (but not necessarily of the original TV show) are listed, respectively, in parentheses.

I think it’s a revealing compilation because, once you get beyond the Serling and Chayefsky scripts, many of the films are not often cited as having their origins in live television.  Mainly that’s because most of the authors and the original teleplays never became famous on their own, as Serling and Chayefsky and “Marty” and “Patterns” did.

I can only scratch the surface of this idea here, but I’d like to posit this list as Exhibit A in a theory that the live television adaptation represents a genuine and unacknowledged movement in the history of American cinema.  How significant a movement?  Less influential, certainly, than Italian neorealism or the French or Japanese New Waves were upon their national cinemas – but perhaps as discrete and coherent as any of those.

One thing that fascinates me about this list is the chronological curve it forms.  If you mapped this data on a graph, the line would trace Hollywood’s explosion of interest in live television following the success of Marty; the early peak in 1956-1957 during which just about any live TV writer could make a lucrative movie-rights sale; and the gradual falling off as escapism regained ground in mainstream American filmmaking for a time during the mid-sixties.

“Kitchen sink” realism was the umbrella term for the elements of the archetypal fifties television drama: working class characters, urban and ethnic milieus, claustrophobic settings, center-left politics.  All of these concerns migrated west to Hollywood on the backs of teleplays purchased from early New York-based TV dramas.  So did a new style of emotionally intimate acting that developed in tandem with, and partly within the pressure-cooker workshop of, live television.  The American theatrical renaissance of the postwar era – the influence of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, the Actors Studio, Stella Adler – is often and correctly credited with importing many of these ideas into the cinema.  But television was an equally vital conduit.

If this wave of derived-from-live-television films is not enshrined as part of the historical canon, it may be because it foundered so quickly.  Part of the problem was simply the process of filmmaking itself, which tended to dilute the characteristics that made television-derived material distinctive.  Hour-long scripts were padded to feature length.  Shooting in Hollywood studios, with cinematographers and production designers trained to make movie stars and their surroundings look as appealing as possible, added a visual gloss that no amount of carefully positioned garbage in backlot alleys could diminish.  The commercial imperative to attract a wider, more mainstream audience led to the de-ethnicization and de-urbanization of characters and scenarios.  Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair were happier and prettier than television’s Marty and Clara.

Another factor in the diminution of the live television school’s influence on the movies is the extent to which its major practitioners deviated from the styles they had developed in television.  There was no reason to expect otherwise; consider how quickly the Italian neorealist auteurs diverged into maximalism (Fellini), minimalism (Rossellini), abstraction (Antonioni), decadence (Visconti), or banality (De Sica).  Here’s another list to illustrate this point – a roster of the major live television directors who transitioned into features, with a chronological selection in parentheses of some of their most significant films.  The directors are also listed chronologically, according to each man’s initial foray into filmmaking:

Delbert Mann (Marty; Separate Tables; That Touch of Mink)
Fielder Cook (Patterns; A Big Hand For the Little Lady; Seize the Day)
Alex Segal (Ransom; All the Way Home; Harlow)
Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men; Long Day’s Journey Into Night; The Pawnbroker)
Martin Ritt (Edge of the City; Hud; The Molly Maguires)
John Frankenheimer (The Young Stranger; The Manchurian Candidate; Grand Prix)
Robert Mulligan (Fear Strikes Out; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Stalking Moon)
Robert Stevens (The Big Caper; In the Cool of the Day; Change of Mind)
Jeffrey Hayden (The Vintage)
Arthur Penn (The Left-Handed Gun; Bonnie and Clyde; Little Big Man)
Vincent Donehue (Lonelyhearts; Sunrise at Campobello)
Daniel Petrie (The Bramble Bush; A Raisin in the Sun; The Neptune Factor)
Buzz Kulik (The Explosive Generation; Warning Shot; Villa Rides)
Ralph Nelson (Requiem For a Heavyweight; Father Goose; Soldier Blue)
George Roy Hill (Period of Adjustment; Hawaii; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Franklin Schaffner (The Stripper; Planet of the Apes; Patton)
Jack Smight (I’d Rather Be Rich; Harper; Midway)
Elliot Silverstein (Cat Ballou; The Happening; A Man Called Horse)
Paul Bogart (The Three Sisters; Marlowe; Skin Game)
George Schaefer (Pendulum; Doctors’ Wives; An Enemy of the People)

I’ve handpicked the films listed above (and potentially stacked the deck, I realize) to diagram the seemingly inescapable expansion of their directors from television-sized projects into larger-scaled and more stylistically varied films.  Instead of building upon the techniques of live TV to develop radically new methods of filmmaking (of the type, say, that John Cassavetes, an actor but never a director in live TV, would do), the live directors all moved toward established Hollywood practices.  The directors who resisted or failed to master these conventions are the ones who struggled.

Jeffrey Hayden, in a recent interview, told me that he felt underprepared and overwhelmed when MGM sent him to France with a veteran film crew to make his first (and only) feature.  For Hayden, devoting two years to the planning of a single project translated into crushing boredom, and he returned to episodic television.  Vincent Donehue is a case study in how live television experience can fail to prepare a director for working on film; nearly every camera angle, blocking choice, and cut in his two films is conspicuously ill-chosen.  Delbert Mann, who hewed more closely than most to the kind of material he had directed in television, found worthwhile projects scarce after the mid-sixties.  George Roy Hill and Franklin Schaffner were talented filmmakers, but they became such efficient purveyors of large-scaled, star-driven dramas that their roots in television (not to mention their own personalities) are difficult to discern in their work.

The richest filmographies among the directors above belong to those who fused what they learned in television with the broader possibilities of the cinema.  Lumet adopted an intimate, mainly realistic approach that relied upon extensive rehearsal to foreground the work of his actors.  He developed a preference for practical locations over the soundstages of live TV, and yet returned again and again to a vision of a grimy, teeming New York City.

Frankenheimer, almost a polar opposite, developed an aggressive visual pallet that drew heavily upon, but extended and refined, the tools available to him in live television: daring camera movements; frequent and extreme shifts in focal length; and complex, assertive editing.  Where Lumet rarely chose to draw attention to his camera, Frankenheimer often abdicated in the area of performance, deferring to his actors to make their own choices (and often to overindulge themselves).  Yet the basics of both styles derive measurably from live television.

To extend these musings one step further, I wonder to what extent certain aesthetics of live television may have resurfaced in the reborn “New Hollywood” of the seventies.  Penn, Lumet, and to a lesser extent Ritt and Mulligan were still making major films at the time, films that attempted to interrogate or dismantle the classicism of their earliest features.  The studiously drab imagery of Network and Night Moves, the Method-style acting of Little Big Man and Dog Day Afternoon circle back to the television that Penn and Lumet were directing in the fifties, even though both had flirted with a range of contradictory styles in the interim.

I’ve always been struck by how many of the key American filmmakers of the seventies who did not come out of live television apprenticed instead in its West Coast counterpart, the episodic filmed TV of the sixties.  Altman, Peckinpah, Rafelson, Cassavetes, Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Michael Ritchie, Stuart Rosenberg, Lamont Johnson, Robert Towne, Alvin Sargent, Frank Pierson, and others all did significant early work there.  Any serious pre-history of the New Hollywood movement must take television into account.  The initial question that comes to mind: was TV any kind of a positive influence on the mature work of these filmmakers, or just the holding pen from which they broke loose in order to innovate?

Thanks to Jonah Horwitz for correcting some technical errors in my earlier writing on John Frankenheimer, and for adding to my understanding of Frankenheimer’s and Lumet’s visual strategies. An earlier draft of this piece omitted A Child Is Waiting (1963), Dear Heart (1964), A Big Hand For the Little Lady (1966), and several other films from the first list.

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