May 21, 2012
Last year, under cover of night, E1 Entertainment let loose DVDs of a pair of rare and fascinating early television dramas. It is unfortunate that “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and “The Dybbuk” received so little publicity, since they are at present – apart from Sidney Lumet’s two-part, four-hour staging of “The Iceman Cometh” – the only commercially available segments of Play of the Week.
Play of the Week was perhaps the grandest outpost of the FCC-mandated Sunday afternoon cultural ghetto of the fifties. Most of its productions were feature-length, and they attracted top-tier talent. The two episodes here were likely chosen not because they represent the very best of Play of the Week, but instead to appeal to a cultural niche. Even for the goyim among us, though, they are of considerable interest.
Both DVDs contain helpful liner notes by the brilliant J. Hoberman, the recently, scandalously laid-off Village Voice film critic (and a specialist in Jewish cinema). Hoberman details the history of the two properties, both of which derived from modern theatrical adaptations of late nineteenth or early twentieth century works, contextualizing them within the oeuvres of the original writers, within Yiddish culture, and within the New York theater of the fifties. But the two Play of the Weeks are also worth examining as examples of the talent-heavy event productions that flourished briefly in the late fifties and early sixties, the period in which videotape displaced live transmission as the technological mode by which anthological television was shown.
“The World of Sholom Aleichem” was adapted by Arnold Perl, who would go on to become one of the most talented and uncompromising writer-producers working in sixties television. But the secret author of the piece was the blacklist. Perl and most of the show’s repertory cast had been blacklisted, and would remain unemployable on the networks for many more years. Play of the Week was able to hire them only because it was an independent, unsponsored production. (Using blacklisted talent was still a courageous move on the part of the producers, Henry T. Weinstein and Lewis Freedman, and upon its broadcast “The World of Sholom Aleichem” became a predictable magnet for right-wing froth-at-the-mouthers.) The successful 1955 stage version of The World of Sholom Aleichem had probably saved Perl from professional oblivion, since his most substantial pre-blacklist work had been done in a medium (radio) and later for a television company (Bernard Prockter Productions, which had used Perl as a story editor on Treasury Men in Action and Big Story) which were long defunct by the time the blacklist crested.
Perl’s mature, post-blacklist work tends to fall into one of two categories – the blunt, accusatory rhetoric of his leftist passion plays for East Side / West Side (including the Emmy-nominated “Who Do You Kill,” about the fatal consequences of urban poverty and institutionalized racism) and the eccentric, quasi-existentialist black comedies he wrote for The Chrysler Theater. “The World of Sholom Aleichem” harnesses both of these impulses, and the distinctive tension between them may represent Perl’s primary stamp on material that was not, of course, his own.
Indeed, the “world” of Mr. Aleichem (a nom de plume for Solomon Rabinovich) is very loosely defined. Perl’s decision to include a piece by a different writer, Y. L. Peretz, in between two actual Aleichem works is already a bold assertion of editorial control. “Bontche Schweig,” in Hoberman’s phrase “an allegory of proletarian passivity,” follows a much-abused nobody (Jack Gilford) through the gates of heaven; exhorted by the angels to finally speak out for himself, Schweig at last makes the humblest request imaginable. The expert timing of the long build-up and quick reversal in this mordant, loaded vignette is worthy of early Woody Allen, although I think the true topper to Peretz’s punchline came not from Perl but from one of his contemporaries, Ernest Kinoy, when he took “B. Schweig” as his pseudonym. (“Schweig,” just to explain the joke, is Yiddish for “silent.”)
As Hoberman notes, the first segment, “A Tale of Chelm,” diverges broadly from Aleichem’s original fable, in which a tailor is driven to economic ruin and madness by the inexplicable sex changes of his goat. Perl, abetted by the casting of the comedic actors Zero Mostel and Nancy Walker, turns the Aleichem story into almost a Hebrew Honeymooners, a farce of home and community that offers an earthly explanation for the bovine’s gender reassignment and makes room for much of the kind of verbal wit that one associates with “Jewish humor.” By contrast, the final story, “The High School,” has no humor at all. Perl expresses his didactic streak in this nearly hour-long piece, which casts Goldbergs matriarch Gertrude Berg in a rare straight role. An East Side / West Side for the turn of the century, “The High School” methodically chronicles a father’s acceptance of the merits of higher education for his teenaged son, and then the family’s lengthy and appalling struggle to triumph over the quotas that excluded Jews from most institutions of learning.
If “The World of Sholom Aleichem” was executed by a writer of some distinction and a journeyman director – Don Richardson, who slid quickly from The Defenders to Lost in Space after a move to Hollywood – then “The Dybbuk” reverses that equation. Its source, a play by S. Ansky, was adapted by Joseph Liss, a minor writer who toiled amid the legendary talents who emerged from The Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One. But the director of “The Dybbuk” was Sidney Lumet, already (at thirty-six) an Academy Award-nominated feature director and soon to leave television behind for good. Looking nervous and struggling to remember (or read) his lines, Lumet appears at the beginning of “The Dybbuk” to explain his personal investment in the material: his father starred in a production of the play in 1927, which also happened to be the first play Lumet saw in the Yiddish theater. His presence on camera reminds us that the director was a bigger star than anyone in his cast save the ingenue, Carol Lawrence, who was then playing Maria on Broadway in West Side Story. (Don Richardson may have been just as personally invested in “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” but no one was going to give him a chance to tell that to the world.)
“The Dybbuk” captures Lumet’s television style at its apex, and the show is of interest primarily as a kind of auteurist snapshot. Regardless of his personal (and ethnic) connection to the material, Lumet was, in some ways, an odd match for “The Dybbuk.” Lumet was one of the cinema’s great rationalists, and despite its folkloric trappings “The Dybbuk” is essentially a ghost story, one that culminates with incidents of demonic possession and exorcism. It’s easy to imagine someone like John Frankenheimer (who had staged “The Turn of the Screw” on Sunday Showcase a year earlier) devising clever trick shots and turning the show into a look-what-we-can-do-on-videotape extravaganza.
Lumet, true to his nature, de-emphasizes the paranormal elements. There are no special effects in “The Dybbuk.” When the spirit of the doomed Channon (Michael Tolan) appears on screen, he simply rises from behind a mound of dirt or, in the moving final scene, stands in the gloom, a row of tall candles acting as the bars between him and the corporeal world. Lumet orchestrates the demonic possession simply by having Lawrence, playing the possessed, and the off-screen Tolan speak in unison. The effect of the male and female voices blending is disturbing, even when the actors slip out of synch with one another.
Despite its subject matter, “The Dybbuk” evinces a certain distaste for the supernatural. The wizened elder (Ludwig Donath) who narrates the play – initially unidentified as he addresses the audience directly, this character later turns out to be the community’s rabbi – refers to the Kabbalah as “a mountain of foolishness.” The Kabbalah is what gets Channon in trouble; Hoberman describes his sudden death as punishment for blasphemy, but I think the cause, in Lumet’s staging, remains more ambiguous. Lumet cuts away from Tolan, staring upward and addressing God, just before he falls. Channon’s mortal distress in this split second is so hard to discern that it comes as a surprise when his body is discovered some time later. Could Frankenheimer have resisted a lightning bolt here? It is as if Lumet cannot bear either the melodramatic or the metaphysical implications of a vengeful god.
Lumet’s staging of that moment is unexpected and effective, but his restraint works less well in other sections of “The Dybbuk.” Lumet puts his faith in the text and the performers; his only repeated visual flourish in “The Dybbuk” is a camera crane, which he uses imaginatively at times (pulling up to a heavenly point of view, for instance, during Channon’s final speech to God). But the first act is talky and confined (to two rooms in a synagogue), and Lumet’s stiff compositions and timid camera placement cannot sustain the nearly forty minutes of expository Torah instruction and kibitzing from Channon’s fellow students (Stefan Gierasch, Jerry Rockwood, and Gene Saks, all charming and funny) that pass before the play’s tragic romance is activated. “The Dybbuk” doesn’t come alive, as it were, until Channon’s soul enters Leah’s body.
Lumet sets up what I think is a deliberate clash of performance styles in “The Dybbuk,” using his actors to delineate a line between reason and emotion. While the actors playing the Jewish elders remain contained, the pair playing the young lovers – Tolan and Lawrence – give expressive, Method-styled performances. Lumet stages their first meeting almost entirely with voiceover, as they stare at each other across a room, forbidden by social custom from interacting for more than a moment.
The two actors generate real heat in this scene – if they didn’t, “The Dybbuk” would collapse completely at this point – and later Tolan’s intensity as he turns to the Kabbalah is mesmerizing. (Tolan rightly considered this one of his best performances). The final exorcism of the dybbuk again defies the conventions of the genre. In his boldest directorial choice, Lumet stages it as a modern dance piece, choreographed by Anna Sokolow and beautifully executed by Lawrence.
Lumet insists on precise, minimalist work from all of the older actors – Ludwig Donath and Michael Shillo as the rabbis and especially Theodore Bikel, who, as the father of the bride and the target of the spirits’ anger, gives perhaps the most unadorned performance of a generally flamboyant career. The Judaic Van Helsings who dominate the second half of “The Dybbuk” feel like transplants from a later era of genre filmmaking. They affect the same implacable, matter-of-fact approach toward the unknown as Nigel Kneale’s Professor Quatermass or The Exorcist’s Father Karras and Father Merrin. (The Dybbuk’s incongruously doubled voice also anticipates Linda Blair’s growling demon voice in the Friedkin film.) The rabbis pore over the ancient texts and debate the finer points of theology like scientists testing a thesis; then debate with the disembodied like lawyers in a (literal) trial; then finally perform the exorcism like surgeons probing for a tumor. The possession of Leah, though clearly a paranormal event, does not inspire fear. Rather, it is a social problem that must be solved through careful consideration and concerted action. Upon a text rooted in ancient myth – Ansky derived “The Dybbuk” from Hasidic folklore he collected on an ethnographic expedition through the Ukraine – Lumet casts a modern and somewhat secular gaze.
If “The Dybbuk” remains in some ways a remote, flawed work, it may be because the strands of logic and emotionalism set up by Lumet (who structured many of his films, beginning with 12 Angry Men, along the same schematic lines) often seem to coexist rather than cohere. As Hoberman points out, Lawrence’s West Side Story association provides a key subtext for “The Dybbuk.” The Romeo and Juliet template of star-crossed lovers is present in the Ansky play; it is a universal idea amid an ocean of specific cultural references, and Lumet seizes upon it. Lawrence’s dark beauty, which dominates the climax, appears to have been his chief inspiration.
The doomed romance in “The Dybbuk” serves as an entry point into a show that, like “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” does not pander to gentiles. Both shows deploy on-screen narrators – Sam Levene as Mendele the Bookseller in “Sholom Aleichem” and Donath in “The Dybbuk” – who make a token attempt to explain Yiddish culture to the uninitiated, but many of the finer points will be lost on non-Jews. The axiom that television was parochial enough in the fifties to permit ethnic art like The Goldbergs, but quickly turned homogeneous once the cross-country cable was connected, is probably too simplistic. Still, Play of the Week, with its proto-PBS diagram for highbrow quality television, was a defiant exercise in courting a niche audience long before the days of the cable multiverse.
July 18, 2011
Although it’s been three months since his death, it’s the season of Sidney this summer in New York. On June 27, which would have been Lumet’s eighty-seventh birthday, a celebrity-packed memorial service at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall featured eulogies by Lauren Bacall, Gene Saks, Walter Bernstein, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Phyllis Newman, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, David Mamet, and others.
Starting tomorrow, the Film Society of Lincoln Center begins a week-long tribute to Lumet, with screenings of sixteen of his films. Among those being shown are his debut, the live television adaptation 12 Angry Men (1957), and Fail-Safe (1964), followed by a question-and-answer session with screenwriter Walter Bernstein. At ninety-one, Bernstein is perhaps the oldest living television dramatist of consequence, and of course he also scripted (anonymously, because he was blacklisted at the time) many live episodes of Danger and You Are There that Lumet directed during the early fifties.
After I wrote about Lumet’s directorial style in some of his live shows in April, I decided that it might be worthwhile to approach Lumet from another angle. Since then, I’ve been speaking and corresponding with some of the actors and craftspeople who worked with Lumet in the early years of his career. What follows, then, is a sort of oral history of Lumet as a live television director. Each of the speakers is identified below by their credits that were directed by Lumet, and their remarks are ordered in a loose chronology based on the sequence of their initial collaborations with him.
Actress, Danger (1951)
Married to Sidney Lumet, 1949-1955
His was a quintessentially American story. He was the ultimate self-made man. Sidney was always going forward. He had a tremendous positiveness about him, and a practicality. He was the most immediate person that ever lived. Everything had to be solved, could be solved, would be solved.
Sidney and I met when we were eighteen. He was a friend of my brother’s, and I was just starting out as an actress. Actually, we met in a play called A Flag Is Born, and I replaced my brother as Young King David. That was his last acting part. He replaced Marlon Brando.
He lived with his sister at the time. He had moved out of his house when he was about twelve, with his sister Fay. Fay brought him up. Sidney was not close to his father [Baruch Lumet]. But I liked his father. He was sweet, or seemed sweet, but tough. A 2nd Avenue Jewish actor, who lived in California by this time. He lived in a motel, and he always kept his door open so he would always have visitors come in whenever they wanted.
Sidney and I got an apartment together on Fifteenth Street. We still weren’t married. My parents were in shock, for this expensively educated girl to go off and live with an actor! I modeled, and that paid the rent. Sidney took job as a teacher at the High School For Performing Arts for $65 a week, and he adored it.
At about the same time, we had a workshop, an actors’ workshop. I said, “Sidney, there isn’t anyone to direct. Why don’t you be a director, too? I mean, you’re so good. You can do everything.” So he became a director. And we just had a jolly good time. We just loved theater, and never thought of the big picture. Making it wasn’t in our mind; in our mind was, what wonderful work can we do?
Sidney was kicked out of the Actors Studio, in the first round of dropouts, because they didn’t think he was going to be anything special. This was Bobby Lewis, who had been his mentor when he was a cute little child. Bobby, who was this nasty old queen, was disappointed that he grew up to be heterosexual and not beautiful.
His real break came once I was doing a commercial for Colgate Toothpaste. Our best friend at the time was another unemployed actor named Yul Brynner, who used to play guitar at parties. I was doing this commercial at CBS Studio, and suddenly Yul comes down on a break and sees me. He said, “Hey, Rita, how are you doing? How’s Sidney?” And, “How would he like to come in and be a director of television?” I said, “What a great idea. Call him tonight and ask him.” I went home and I said, “Yul’s going to call and ask you to come in as a director at CBS. It’s a new medium.” He said, “I’m not interested. I really like being a teacher.” I said, “I don’t think you’re right, Sidney. I think this is an opportunity.”
Anyway, Yul called, and Sidney said, “I’m not interested.” I stood behind him and I said, “I’m going to leave you if you don’t say yes!” It was a very funny conversation. He said, “All right, I’ll come down.” And he went down to 42nd Street the next day to see what it was all about, and just fell in love with it. He immediately came in as Yul’s assistant.
The intensity of the control room was just his tempo. The whole complication of having to direct the cameras and the actors all at the same time just appealed to him. He was very quick, very bright, very immediate, very tactile. He loved running between the control room and the floor and the actors. Within four months, Yul Brynner went off to be the king in The King and I, and Sidney went on to fill in for him as a director. Within eight months, he was one of the biggest directors at CBS.
I didn’t act much for Sidney, except at the workshop, and then on Danger a couple of times. One time I played a walk-on, and one time I played the lead. But I had my own career. There was a Life magazine article about six of us – the six leading television actresses. One of them was Grace Kelly, before she was a big star. I met her on the set of You Are There. That’s where I was introduced to her, on the floor, by Sidney. She was playing Dulcinea in Don Quixote.
I was at CBS all the time. I’d sit in the control room and just make fatuous notes. Sidney was in such total control of everything. He had a producer by the name of Charlie Russell. Charlie was a typical advertising agency, buttoned-up guy who adored Sidney. Anything Sidney said, went. We also became very good friends with Marlene Dietrich because Sidney sort of discovered Maria Riva, who was Marlene’s daughter. Very nice girl, and he would use her a lot. Marlene would cook us Sunday night supper all the time, and Marlene just adored Sidney. She thought the world began and ended with him, and she flattered him into thinking he was a great director.
Sidney had a main chance aspect to his personality. Sidney had the kind of personality that attracted people and then formed a little clique, a little coterie, around him. He used the same cameramen all the time, and his ADs. He had that “love me, I’m a talented child actor” [quality]. Sidney was very stubborn. Sidney always had to win his points. He never compromised himself, or he never compromised to make the circumstances easier for himself. He was a tough little fighter. That’s what was interesting about him – he was a really strong person who was also very anxious to please, and make other people happy.
We decided to get married because we got tired of living in one room with a bathroom in the hall. We both figured out that my parents, who were good middle-class parents, would furnish an apartment for us. Maybe we’d lift ourselves up if we had a little bit more security, because we had a decent place to live! So we got married. It was a lovely wedding, actually. It was at my mom and dad’s house. Yul Brynner was there, and [his wife] Virginia Gilmore, and our other close theater friends. Sidney finally bought a blue suit for the wedding, a navy blue suit, three-button. That’s the first suit I think he’d ever owned. His typical look was a sweater and sneakers and dungarees.
Then we moved up to 110th Street after we got married. It was only a studio apartment, just a little bandbox apartment, but really it was home. He was a lousy cook, but I was worse. Once we got married, I think he gave me The Gourmet Cookbook as a Christmas present. I started digging in and doing all those things. It was a young, fun marriage. We didn’t break apart until the world became serious, and Hollywood money and all that stuff became involved.
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)
Sidney and I first met on Danger. First of all, he was my age. We were exactly the same age. He had this amazing background in theatre which I envied, with the Group Theatre. His father was a great actor in the Jewish theatre, and he [Sidney] was an incredibly fine actor.
On Danger, I was the set designer and he was the assistant director. The director was Yul Brynner and the producer was Marty Ritt. And John Frankenheimer was the commercial director! Sidney was a wonderful assistant director. He loved Yul, and I think it was reciprocated. He was right on time. I think, in his head, he was able to conceive and anticipate –a live television room was the equivalent of everything you do in film post-production. You were editing, bringing effects in, bringing sound in, bringing music in, all simultaneously. So the director, literally, had to say “Take one” or “take two” or “take three,” take whichever camera, plus when the effects went in and the sound effects went in. And the assistant director had to anticipate this, and Sidney was awfully good at it.
What happened was this: Yul and Marty had some kind of fight with either the agency or the sponsor, I don’t know which. I have in my mind an image of a photograph they sent me of both of them throwing the Danger card into a trash can and holding their noses as they both quit. I’m not sure why. The position of the director was open. Sidney did not get it automatically. It was given to Ted Post and Curt Conway, and they did it for a while. And Sidney was, I guess, looking for it or trying to get it, although these two guys were relatively well-known directors. And sooner or later, he got the show, as a director.
Rita Gam and my wife were close, and Sidney would come up to the house. We would go over my floor plans and he would figure his shots out. I remember him in my kitchen one day when Curt Conway and Teddy left and he was going to start directing. He wanted to really be sure he knew what he was doing, and so he came here. But otherwise we didn’t really socialize. We just were different people.
I knew, when I did something with Sid, it was experimental. We did a lot of experimenting in those days. Generally on Danger, but especially on You Are There, in terms of visual effects. I had to create with rear screen and other effects all kinds of things that they do with computer generated scenery now. If the director didn’t use it correctly, it would get all screwed up. I always knew I could depend on Sidney. He would keep the perspective correct, he would keep the people in proportion to the picture in back.
Danger was a regular weekly detective show, but You Are There I had to create everything from the Oklahoma land run to Genghis Khan and the burning of Saint Joan. We did a show called “Mallory on Mount Everest,” and he and I guess Charlie Russell got some stock footage of the real Mallory on Mount Everest. The rule in those days was you could never use white. Blue was the equivalent of white on television. Nobody was ever allowed to wear a white shirt or anything like that. I had a wonderful lighting director at the time working with us, Bob Barry. I said to Bob, “You know, we can’t paint the snowflakes blue. Let’s just see what happens if we put everything white.” Now, I needed the cooperation of the director and the technical director and everybody else to do that, because they had all the dials and tools at their disposal to change the intensity of the light and stuff like that. Sidney didn’t fight me. He said, “Let’s give it a go. Let’s try the white.” I mean, another director would say, “You’re not supposed to do that. It’ll give us a lot of trouble.” So we did the scene white, literally white. What happened was because it was so hard for the TV cameras, because it was so bright, it suddenly became the same as the stock footage they had from these old movies. It integrated beautifully. And I got my first Emmy in 1954 for “Mount Everest.”
I’d go to a rehearsal with Sidney and the production assistant would have taped out on the floor my entire floor plan. They would block the show, and Sidney would indeed be the camera. One time I think it was either Jack Klugman or Jack Warden, where Sidney would go right up to his nose, nose to nose, for the famous close-up. And I remember Klugman or Warden saying, “Sidney, what lens are you on?” They were good days.
Associate Director, Studio One (1957-1958)
Sidney was wonderful. He’d get very intense, but never lost his temper. First of all, he was very good with the way he dealt with people. But more than that, he was never at a loss. In live television, there were so many things that always went wrong. Once I remember him climbing up a ladder to fix something, and the stagehands would let him do that. He deserved it, and they gave it to him.
But you knew he was an actor’s director. They all loved working with him. Because Sid was spontaneous. Some directors would map it all out at home over a week, and they wouldn’t budge. That’s the way they were going to do it. Sid would block well, but he was ready to make a change whenever he had to. He wasn’t locked into it.
Actor, Danger; You Are There; The Alcoa Hour: “The Sentry” (1956); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Family Business (1989)
He was a guest in our home, with George C. Scott and his wife [Colleen Dewhurst], and Sidney and his wife, at an event that we had in our Forest Hills home. We were dear, close friends for many years.
I don’t know how many people did this with him, but I rehearsed two of his scripts in the same week. One in the afternoon and one in the evening. You Are There was shown on Sunday, and then Danger, which was the other one, was shown during the week, and the rehearsal periods were the morning for one and the afternoon for the other. Isn’t that amazing? I worked with him at least eight times in live television, and another couple of movies, including Fail-Safe, where I played the radio operator in that bomber that bombed Moscow.
He was an actor himself before he started directing, and he brought all that experience to his television work. It was always personal, always just the two of you. He would give you a hint of what was in his mind, and see what you did, and adjust that if he felt he had to.
Van Dyke Parks
Actor, The Elgin Hour: “Crime in the Streets” (1955); The Alcoa Hour: “Man on Fire” (1956)
The reason that I ended up in live television was to pay for my board and rooms at the Columbus Boychoir School. I had no ambition to be an actor. My parents were quite dubious about it, my father especially. There was no show biz mom or so forth. A tutor would go up with me to New York City when I had a show. But it paid for my tuition. I was probably getting about $450 a week for participation in a show by the time I met Mr. Lumet.
On the show “Crime in the Streets,” which was directed by Sidney, my elder brother was being played by John Cassavetes, and I said something to him that was confrontational or accusatory. It was then his job to slap me on the face, and then I was to start crying and say, “But, Frankie, you’re my brother.” I learned to jerk my head to the left, because of course he would pull his punch and not hit me. Well, it came to the show, the live show, and he landed one across my nose and I started to bleed. Cut to commercial. The blood is gushing from my nose, and I cannot remember the specifics of what was done to staunch that flow, but it did not stop. And of course when we came back from commercial, [the setting] was the next day! I was doing everything I could to keep from bleeding. Cassavetes felt awful, but not as bad as I did.
Sidney was tremendously invitational. Bob Altman is so famous for his what seems like laissez-faire attitude toward actors. Sidney Lumet was equally empowering, drawing on his subjects’ invention and contributions. He was not disciplinary in any way.
Writer, Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957)
I met Sidney Lumet at the first day of rehearsal for a Studio One play, “The Rice Sprout Song.” We rehearsed, in those days, in Central Plaza, formerly and later to be reborn as a concert hall on 2nd Avenue in the fabled Lower East Side of Manhattan. But in 1957, it was – floor by floor – a ladder of rehearsal halls served by a large, creaky elevator. Food service was from Ratner’s Kosher restaurant on the main floor. Studio One seemed to have dibs on the 4th.
While a production assistant taped the outlines of the sets on the floor, the cast sat around a large table, Sidney at the head. He was very energized, and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to engage his actors, almost all of whom were only recently freed from the blacklist. The first two days of rehearsal never moved from the table to actual blocking of scenes. Of the leading actors, only John Colicos, a Canadian, was not ethnically at home on 2nd Avenue. And Sidney, who began as a child actor in the Yiddish Theater, was more at home than any of them.
He took pleasure in telling of his European trips and great meals with his wife, Gloria Vanderbilt, as if to underscore what a great distance this little Jew had traveled. And yet he reveled in the Lower East Side. He took us to Moskowitz and Lupowitz, to Sam’s Roumanian Restaurant, a vivid and informative guide. But most of all, he loved telling stories of the Yiddish theater.
On the third day, he began the more serious business of directing the play. There were strange overtones: after all, these actors had all suffered for their political leanings toward the Left, and the play itself was a bitter diatribe against the Chinese Communist government.
Plagued by technical problems that in turn disrupted the actors’ performances, “The Rice Sprout Song” became one of the legendarily disastrous live television broadcasts. Mandel related that story in my video interview with him for the Archive of American Television, and also wrote about the incident for Television Quarterly.
I showed Sidney the article before I sent it in for publication. I asked him to tell me if he felt anything was unfair or untrue. He told me he didn’t have exactly the same feelings as I did about the resultant show, but he had no problem with what I’d written.
Sidney negotiated himself the opportunity to direct the film 12 Angry Men. I heard about this both from my friend Frank Schaffner, who had directed that property for Studio One, and from Jerome Hellman, Frank’s agent and mine. Frank very much wanted to direct the film, and felt he had some claim to do so. Sidney (according to Hellman) was reaching the end of his commitment to his agent, and said that if the agent got him the assignment, he would stay with that agency. And so he got the job, pretty much devastating Frank and, I think, rupturing Frank’s relationship with Reginald Rose. I have to say, for myself, I think the film was pretty much a duplication of Frank’s direction of the television version.
The last time I saw Sidney was at an Motion Picture Academy function in 2002 or 2003. We had a brief conversation about my HBO film Conspiracy. He said he had voted for it in every catagory for which it was nominated (for the Emmy). Which, you will have no problem understanding, thoroughly endeared him to me. He had become a prodigious worker, a man who sought the substance beneath the surface of each film he led. I would have preferred that he not write what he directed, when he reached that stage in his life where he wanted to do both. But my admiration for him is immense.
Bob Markell (continued)
Production Designer, Danger (1951-1953); You Are There (1953-1955); 12 Angry Men (1957); Studio One: “The Rice Sprout Song” (1957); Play of the Week: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960); Associate Producer, Playhouse 90: “The Hiding Place” (1960)
We both learned about film because You Are There went to film for thirteen shows. We went to the old Edison Studios, in the Bronx, and we shot these final thirteen shows, before it was taken away from us and sent to Hollywood. The first one we did was the Hindenburg disaster. Sid had never done a film prior to You Are There, and he was fabulous with the film camera.
12 Angry Men was my first feature, and it was Sid’s first feature. I went and took pictures of the exterior of the courthouse [as the basis for the backdrop behind the jury room windows]. The drop came in from Hollywood and it was a translucency, not a transparency, so that they could drop it in and the lights could go on and stuff like that. When it showed up, everybody who was from Hollywood was very upset. They said, “Gee, that’s not good. In Hollywood, the lines are sharper, the details are stronger.” They may well have been correct, but it had to be used anyway, because we had it up.
I was hoping that Sidney would recognize that it was okay, and would back me up more than he did. Henry Fonda was also the producer, and it was his money, and he was getting antsy once in a while. Boris Kaufman was a very famous photographer. He’d just come off of Kazan’s movies. He even got the [Academy] Award for On the Waterfront. And so I was left hanging. I was the guy who was kind of blamed if anything went wrong and they had to go into overtime. If I put myself in Sid’s position, he couldn’t back me up the way he should have, or that I felt he should have. And I understood. But I was hoping for more than that.
In [television] or stage, you’d get together and try to fix it. I suddenly realized that in film, you looked for a fall guy. And I was the fall guy. [Associate producer] George Justin kept saying to me, “Fight back. Tell him.” I said, “I can’t. I don’t know what to say.”
My problem with Sidney actually was that he gave me a second show [Lumet’s next film, Stage Struck, which he filmed in color in 1958] to do after 12 Angry Men, and I started working on it. Meanwhile, Fonda was giving him a hard time, and blaming me. I got a call from George Justin, who was also on the show, saying, “You know, of course, that you’re not on that second show, that it’s being taken away from you.”
I said to George, “Who is going to be the designer? Who is taking my job?” He said they’d gone to [another designer with experience in live television]. Well, it was his first movie, and I knew that he had trouble with color recognition. But I found that I couldn’t say to George, “George, he’s the wrong guy,” because it would sound like I was being ugly.
Later, I’m designing “The Rice Sprout Song,” and I’m going in for my first meeting with Sidney. I hadn’t seen him for a while since he dumped me. I walk in. I say, “Hi, Sidney.” Sidney looks up and he says, “How come you never told me he was colorblind?” I said, “Oh, Sidney. I knew you’d get me one way or the other.” Then he and I laughed. I said, “I was trying to figure out what you’d end up saying to me when I walked in.”
But that’s show business, and I was really not angry at Sidney at all. We worked together a lot, even after the movie. We did a Studio One, a Playhouse 90, and “The Iceman Cometh.” The sad thing was that we totally lost touch with each other. He never really went back to his live television people, because he was on a course himself, meeting new people, new wives, new this, new that.
Fred J. Scollay
Actor, Danger; You Are There; Kraft Theatre: “Fifty Grand” (1958); Kraft Theatre: “All the King’s Men” (1958); Playhouse 90: “John Brown’s Body” (1960); A View From the Bridge (1962)
He was a little crazy, but very nice. He was an ex-actor himself. He acted when he was younger, and he really had great empathy for actors. He knew the pressure that we were under. Everything was live then. You didn’t get a break.
One thing actors loved about the guy is he let you do stuff. He’d see something in what you were doing in a scene and he’d say, “Oh, boy, let’s elaborate on that.”
He was, not loose, completely, but he’d say, “What do you want to do in that scene?” And then he’d look at it and say, “That’s good. Let’s use it.” Or, “Let’s try something else.” Like in one show, I got some bad news, and I got a little woozy. He said, “Let’s have you faint.”
So it was creative fun in working with him, because you contributed something. There were some directors who said, “In the book it says, ‘Turn left,’ so you’d better turn left.” I don’t mean to denigrate anybody, but some directors had a very standard, by-the-book [approach] – they really didn’t have the creative [impulse].
[On Danger] he hired a young, real fighter, a professional fighter, and Jack Warden played the fighter, and fought with this guy. Sidney said to Jack, “The kid’s a little nervous, so when we start doing the show, give him a little belt.” So Jack gave him a little belt and the guy went crazy, almost killed Jack.
He was a lot of fun. A situation on the set, because of the tension, would make things a little more tense, and he’d throw a donut at you or something like that, or trip you, something to break the tension. I did A View From the Bridge. He directed that. One of the actors was told to go down the street – Sidney said, “Go down there” – and at the end of the scene the guy never came back. So Sidney would break up. He’d never get mad at anybody.
He gave me my first big break. He cast me in something, a leading role before I was getting leading roles, and I really appreciated that. The name of the show was “Fifty Grand,” with Ralph Meeker. That was my first big part. I walked on the set and we started reading the script, and I kept saying, “They made a mistake. This is one of the lead roles. When are they going to find out they got the wrong guy?” I did a lot of extra work. I was a very busy extra. And out of the blue he called and said, “I’ve got a part I want you to do.” No audition or anything. He said, “I want you to do it. Now here’s a rehearsal schedule.”
When we did “All the King’s Men,” I had the third part. He gave a big shot in that. There was Neville Brand who played the lead, and Maureen Stapleton, and I had the third role. But in the credits, Bill Prince got third billing and I had fourth or or fifth or something. So he got a very nice review for me doing my part! He got my review. They thought, well, he got the third credit, he must have been the actor that played that part. That was kind of heartbreaking.
[Technically] he was perfect. He’d say, “Cut two seconds.” Or, “We’ve got to cut four seconds out of this scene.” He had a mind like a clock.
Associate Producer, Kraft Theatre (1958)
David Susskind was in charge of Kraft Theatre. He was executive producer, and Herridge was producer, under him. Susskind had his own outfit, and Herridge was like a lone hippie. Susskind was the suit and the tie and Mister Executive, and Herridge was the creative artist, almost a Greenwich Village type. The two were just real opposites. I think Susskind brought him in because he respected the work that Herridge had done, and I don’t think he knew much about him. Sidney got along well with [both of them]. He knew how to handle people.
Sidney was extremely short, and the first day when the cast was assembled and waiting for him on the floor, Sidney came down and he had taken a newspaper and folded it into a little Napoleon-like hat and put it on his head. He was wearing this ridiculous little Napoleonic hat, and he put his hand in his shirt like Napoleon, and he walked on and he said, “Okay, I hope you all know who’s boss.” It was just hysterical. People just screamed with laughter, and Sidney laughed. Everyone loved Sidney.
When he was working, he was just the opposite. He was intense. He was super-serious. Technically brilliant. He would check every shot with the camera person during rehearsal, and in the control room he was like a hawk watching that everything was right. He knew his lighting, he knew his camera, he knew his lenses, and he certainly knew performance. I don’t know anyone who could get better performances out of anyone. Franklin Schaffner was a brilliant director, but very remote from his cast. He really kept an arm’s length. But Sidney was a hugger, an embracer. He kissed everybody. Sidney combined everything good.
“All the King’s Men” was a very intense shoot, because it was a two-parter. Neville Brand had done features, and was the second most decorated hero to come out of World War II, and a really rough [type]. I liked Neville a lot. Sidney had to work with him and really got an extraordinary performance out of him.
Then when we finally finished the whole thing, Herridge invited everyone up to my apartment for a wrap party. Herridge never wanted anyone to go to his place. I worked with Herridge for years and I never even knew where he lived. I had this really seedy apartment four flights up on West 56th Street. It had a convertible couch with a spring sticking out, and my coffee table was a mirror over four sewer pipes. Everybody came. Susskind came. Sidney brought Gloria Vanderbilt, who was then his wife. The apartment was just jammed. People were having a good time. Music was playing. Maureen Stapleton passed out onto Gloria Vanderbilt’s lap. I remember that because Maureen was fairly large at the time, and she was just out. Vanderbilt was sort of very sweet but also you could see she was like, oh my god, how do I get out of this?
Then a friend of mine whom I had invited, a young actress, Georgine Hall, was dancing with the production designer, and he tripped and she fell backwards onto the coffee table, and he on top of her. All the shards went up into her back. We got her up and she went into the bathroom and said, “Let me check how I am.” I went in to see how she was. When I opened the door, she was just kind of soaked in blood. So I gave her some towels and I said, “Wrap up. I’m going to get you to Roosevelt Hospital right away.” I came out and I said, “I’ve got to take Georgine to the hospital. We’ll be back as soon as we can.” It was about midnight, or maybe eleven o’clock. I ran out of the apartment with Georgine, got a cab, went to Roosevelt Hospital, and stayed with her until they had stitched her up, and never gave a thought about the party. All I cared about was Georgine.
Georgine lived in Princeton. I said, “You’ve got to stay over here. You can’t go back to Princeton.” We went up to the apartment and the door was locked, so I opened it. And everyone was there! It was three in the morning, and Neville was standing by the door. He said, “You know what, Chiz? All these sons of bitches, the minute you left with her, wanted to run. They were scared. And I told them they stayed until we found out how she was.” Neville had stood in front of the door and kept everyone in until three o’clock in the morning. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. People were just – I mean, Sidney and you can imagine Gloria Vanderbilt were just so kind of pissed off, but in a way I guess sort of respected what Neville had done, maybe, to say, “We’ve got to make sure that woman’s okay. Don’t run from this.” That was his code. I think it came right out of the war, out of battle. You don’t leave unless all your buddies are accounted for. I can’t imagine what went on while we were gone, during those three hours.
Actor, You Are There; The Doctor’s Dilemma (Off-Broadway, 1955); Studio One: “The Deaf Heart” (1957); The DuPont Show of the Week: “Beyond This Place” (1957); Fail-Safe (1964); Power (1986)
There was a play called “The Deaf Heart,” with Piper Laurie, which I did for Studio One. My son was about to be born at that time. We reached the dress rehearsal. My wife had gone to the hospital, and was ready to give birth. But it was a dress rehearsal, and I didn’t see any easy way out. Sidney came over to me on the set and said, “What are you doing here? You belong with your wife. Get out of here.” I remember thinking, “Well, yes, of course, that’s exactly how I feel.” But, you know, the pressures you were under with live television in those days. It was like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The rules got suspended somehow. But not him. He just excused me from the dress rehearsal, had the dress rehearsal with an understudy, and I came in for the live television presentation. I mean, that was taking a huge chance on his part. But he was a gambler.
I was always aware, even as a young, inexperienced actor, that he was on my side. He once said to me, “If I can’t get it with love, I don’t want it.” I was a complete partisan of Sidney Lumet because I just wasn’t used to that. I wasn’t used to directors who thought of themselves as cooperating in a creative process with the actor, and loving what he was getting from the actor. He would say, “Keep that in.”
In Fail-Safe, I finished a take and he said, in a very quiet voice, “I don’t want a better one than that.” I was walking on air after that one.
We were a company. We were rehearsing for two weeks in a warehouse on the West Side, and we got to know each other as actors and as people. We were playing frisbee out on the floor, and everybody became quite friendly, and quite helpful to other actors. I was still relatively young when I did Fail-Safe, but I can remember the encouragement I got from people like Walter Matthau.
Sidney did an interesting thing. He offered me several parts in it, and I understand he did it to other actors in the company, too. He said, “Which one would you like to play?” He let us have some choice in the matter, which was unusual, to say the least. And I chose a different part. I wasn’t particularly close to Colonel Cascio. Then, after thinking it over, he said, “I’ve decided for the balance of the company that you should play Colonel Cascio.” And he said it in such a gentle, persuasive way that of course I accepted with enthusiasm. I wanted to play Walter Matthau’s part. It was very similar to a part I had just played on Broadway, and I thought, “I know how to do that one. That’s easy for me. I know how to have fun with that.” I was wrong. If you see the finished film and you see what Walter did with the role, you’ll know that I was too young for that part.
We were having problems with how [Colonel Cascio] breaks down. The character breaks down at one point and actually attacks his commanding offer, because there was a violent diagreement about the choices that have to be made. He’s in favor of being tough on the Russians and even dropping the bomb, and when he is overruled, he goes crazy. Authentically crazy. And I had trouble with that one. So Sidney and I got together and we tried several things. One thing we came up with – and it was kind of a mutual thing, but I suspect that I got most of it from him – was just a violent physical convulsion. Locking of the jaw, trembling, to the point where I was out of control physically before actually doing the deed. I don’t know if it worked or not. But it was a physical solution to a mental problem, and it seemed to work for me.
He directed me on stage, too. He directed Doctor’s Dilemma, the Bernard Shaw play, at the old Phoenix Theater. I played a very small part in it; it was my first part with him. There again, I was in his rooting camp forever from that production, because of the care he took with the young actors. Because I had done that with him, and I had done some Shakespeare at the Shakespeare Festival, Sidney used to say that Beatrice Straight and I were his “classical actors.” He had another category called his “New York actors.” And we tried very hard, Beatrice and I both, to break out of that category! We wanted to be among these “New York actors” as well, because he was famous for his New York movies, and his understanding of New York. I would have been thought of [by Lumet] as the senator, or perhaps some extreme right-wing character or someone who had some familiarity with language. I always wanted to be among the “New York actors” as well, because I thought I could do it. I couldn’t change his point of view. But I saw his point.
Actor, Danger; Kraft Theatre: “Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” (1958)
Sidney was always intense, and charming, and somehow that made for a very good working combination. I worked with him on a show called Danger, and he had this great brilliance and intensity. He was all over the place. He knew everything. He enjoyed it like a Baryshnikov. He fiddled. Physically, he flew, and in his mind flew. He thought at twice the intensity of anybody else. Keeping the house in order, and keeping this actor here and that actor there, and enjoying the unexpected that came from his actors. But always at an intense, high decibel.
I joined a group that he and Ted Post were the head of, when at a certain point Bobby Lewis threw his class out of the Actors Studio. Eli [Wallach] and a bunch of people went to work in a separate group, and Sidney was the head of it. We did all kinds of exercises and all kinds of scenes, and he directed me in a lot of them. It was a very important experience for me, a big growth experience.
He was a Method director, of course. All of us were part of that – Stella, Lee Strasberg, Sandy Meisner – we all came out of that new acting. What I remember is you doing it, not that he talked to you beforehand. The comments he would make would be small pushes in one direction or another, but never anything he sat down and talked to you about. That’s not the way he worked.
[“Three Plays by Tennessee Williams” was] deep in the blacklist, and I wasn’t working on television at all. I don’t know how Sidney pulled strings, or David Susskind, the producer, but it was like a miracle that they managed to get me on. Then I did it, and I didn’t like myself in it at all. I had done that play on stage, and I’d done it brilliantly. It had come out of the group that Sidney and I were in, with Sidney directing. A lot of times when you do something for the second time, you lean on what you’ve done before, and so it wasn’t fresh.
When I went into directing myself, and I hit a problem, we were both doing post work at the same studio, I would run into him there, and anything I had a problem with I knew I could ask him about it. He was, as he always was, generous, open, interested in any problem. He was that kind of friend, that’s all.
Looking back, I had no idea how privileged I was to be working with young people who were all so energized and gifted and talented, and who had no barriers in front of them. Sidney kind of exemplified the “no barriers.” He exemplified leaping first before anyone, and taking all kinds of chances. He maintained that all of his life, that almost childhood thing of leap before you look. There was an excitement and a courage about him that nobody else had.
All of the interviews above were conducted between May and July 2011, by the author and by telephone, except in the cases of Rita Gam (in person, in New York City) and Loring Mandel (by e-mail).
April 22, 2011
“Sidney Lumet was wonderful. He does homework like no other director, and he is the warmest guy. Everybody was ‘my love,’ and ‘you gorgeous wonderful thing,’ and rehearsals were filled with kissing and hugging and wild exclamations of joy. Actors have never been more loved than when they were loved by Sidney Lumet.”
– Reginald Rose, in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1929-1961
He was supposed to last forever. His fraternal twin among the live television-era directors, Arthur Penn, was frail and mostly out of the limelight during his final decades; but Sidney Lumet kept making movies, and seemed to be everywhere. His last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, came only four years ago. A good one to go out on, it found new wrinkles in the worn-out caper genre (was that suburban mini-mall jewel heist the cinema’s first?), and reimagined faded ingenue Marisa Tomei as a fortysomething sex symbol and a sought-after actress.
More than that, Lumet was a boon to the film historian: modest, accessible, efficient, always willing to sit for an interview. No surprise that he turned out to be one of the subjects who sat for a video obituary for the New York Times. When he didn’t show for a widely publicized screening of 12 Angry Men introduced by Sonia Sotomayor last fall – the new Supreme Court justice has often cited Lumet’s debut film as an inspiration – I knew we were in trouble.
I’ve already written this next part so many times, in obituaries for Penn and for others, that I don’t want to belabor it again. But let’s lay it out before we plunge in: Lumet’s early career in television has been, and will continue to be, ignored, glossed over, or reported inaccurately in the tributes. The Times wrote that Lumet directed the live television version of 12 Angry Men as well as the film. But the former belonged to Franklin Schaffner, a fact that Lumet pointed out at every opportunity, and yet it took the paper of record eight days to notice and correct that.
Most of the shows themselves are locked away in the vaults or lost. We don’t even have a good list of them. The obits threw around a total of 200 live broadcasts (Lumet’s own estimate?) but at the moment the Internet Movie Database lists only about fifty. The on-line catalogs of the Paley Center and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and my own unpublished research, contribute a few more, but that still leaves the majority unidentified.
Rather than dwell on that, I want to take a close look at a few of Lumet’s live television dramas that are accounted for and extant. Since his death on April 9, I’ve been watching some of Lumet’s segments of the dramatic hour sponsored alternately by Goodyear (The Goodyear Playhouse) and Alcoa Aluminum (The Alcoa Hour); specifically, six of the twelve segments that Lumet directed for this umbrella anthology, a linear descendant of the Philco-Goodyear Playhouse (which yielded “Marty”), between the fall of 1955 and the spring of 1956. Lumet’s Goodyears and Alcoas were among his first hour-long dramas after a period of directing less prestigious (but no less formally challenging) half-hour genre shows. They were also his final works for television prior to stepping onto the set of 12 Angry Men in June 1956.
“Sidney didn’t like talking to the actors on the loudspeaker, so he would tear down the spiral staircase to the stage, talk to the actor, and tear back up the staircase. O. Tamburri, our TD [technical director], once said to me, ‘If Sidney does that a little faster, he’s gonna screw himself into the ceiling.’”
– Philip Barry, Jr., associate producer of The Alcoa Hour / The Goodyear Playhouse, in The Box
“The Mechanical Heart” (November 6, 1955), Lumet’s Goodyear Playhouse debut, is a prototypical mid-fifties anthology drama. It concerns a mid-level toy manufacturer, Steve Carter (Ralph Bellamy), who operates on a razor-thin margin and faces bankruptcy when a complicated three-way deal unravels. The only way he can see to survive is to steal the sole major client of a small-time competitor (Jack Warden), who considers him a friend. The script, by a minor writer named Alfred D. Geto, is an obvious knock-off of Rod Serling’s “Patterns”; it considers some of the same ethical dilemmas faced by corporate climbers in the postwar boom, but with little of Serling’s intensity or ambiguity.
Lumet’s chief contributions to “The Mechanical Heart” are to shape the performances, and then to avoid distracting from them with fancy cutting or camera movements. Many key scenes (like the one pictured below) play out in long takes with a stationary camera. Lumet’s self-effacing staging is not an absence of style, but an aesthetic choice not to foreground content over technique. At this point in their careers, Lumet’s approach can be placed at an opposite pole as that of John Frankenheimer, another live television wunderkind who was busy exploring the technical possibilities of the medium – unusual lenses, showy camera moves, rapid cuts – without always worrying whether the material justified them.
Prominent among the supporting cast of “The Mechanical Heart” are three of the future 12 Angry Men (two more than Schaffner’s version contained), and all of them – Edward Binns, Jack Klugman, and Warden – do terrific work. Viewers who remember Klugman from his hambone Quincy days, or even his full-throttle guest spots on The Twilight Zone and Naked City, just a few years after this piece, will be startled by his restraint in “The Mechanical Heart.” When Carter suggests a shady maneuver to Klugman’s character, the company accountant, he replies, “But Steve . . . I don’t know.” The obvious choice would be to inflect the line with uncertainty or unease, but Klugman offers it as a simple statement of fact: his character literally doesn’t know what his boss should do.
One can sense Lumet working with the actors to make intellectual, rather than instinctive, choices in interpreting the material. Warden’s habit of repeatedly wiping the back of his neck with his handkerchief is such a choice. The gesture conveys his character’s nervous, underdog status, and adds a bit of atmosphere – it’s hot and humid in those midtown offices in the summer – and of course Warden would reuse it in 12 Angry Men. A more ambiguous touch comes in a later scene in which Klugman’s character again questions Carter’s ethics. “What’s the matter, Greenfield?” Bellamy sneers, with an ugly emphasis on the man’s name, and Greenfield comes back with just, “Aww, Steve.” Klugman delivers that simple line with a note of weary disappointment, then moves into an uninflected recital of some financial details. The implication of anti-semitism probably wasn’t spelled out in the script and, indeed, Lumet is so constitutionally unsuited to beating any idea to death that one can’t be entirely certain it exists within the show, either.
Lumet’s second Goodyear show was a light comedic caper called “One Mummy Too Many” (November 20, 1956), with Tony Randall as an American air conditioner salesman in Egypt who stumbles into a mystery of stolen sarcophagi. Lumet probably had to take whatever script fell into his slots on this series, but the change of pace undoubtedly suited him, just as he would later take pains to avoid being pigeonholed in any particular cinematic genre. Referring to the 1968 black comedy Bye Bye Braverman (which I find hilarious, but which many, including Lumet, thought too heavy), Lumet said that he took a long time to figure out how to direct comedy, and didn’t succeed with it until Murder on the Orient Express. But “One Mummy,” which bears some tonal similarities to Lumet’s hit 1974 film, is an agreeable trifle in which the three stars – Randall, Eva Gabor, and Henry Jones – effectively pass the fun they seem to be having along to the audience.
Lumet experiments with formal strategies for creating humor in “One Mummy,” especially in his use of depth of field to convey to the audience a punchline to which the characters remain oblivious. In one scene, Gabor’s ingenue explains to Randall’s milquetoast hero that the theft of a crate will mean his certain demise; in the background, unseen by either of them, porters enter and remove the crate in question. Another bit of slapstick, constructed in the same way, can be encapsulated in a single frame requiring no caption.
“The Trees” (December 4, 1955) is a lesser entry in another quintessential genre of early live television, the tenement drama. It’s perfect for Lumet, whose films famously teemed with the eccentric street life of Manhattan. Jerome Ross’s sentimental story concerns a neighborhood effort to raise money to plant trees along a slum sidewalk, which is threatened by the actions of, among others, a young hoodlum (Sal Mineo) and a genteel older woman (Frances Starr) angling to sell out and move to the suburbs. Lumet again favors long takes, but this time with a more peripatetic camera, which roves back and forth between rival camps that group and regroup on opposite sides of the street. The primary challenge of 12 Angry Men would be choreographing the movements of the twelve actors within a confined space, and “The Trees” shows Lumet experimenting with ways to fill the frame with people, grouping and regrouping his large cast in clusters that emphasize the cramped nature of the urban setting.
“Man on Fire” (March 4, 1956) fumbles a good, topical idea through miscasting and an underdeveloped script (by the West Coast team of Malvin Wald and Jack Jacobs). It’s a proto-Kramer vs. Kramer, a study of a successful divorced man (Tom Ewell) who cracks up when he loses custody of his only son. The role called for a sensitive, versatile actor like Warden or Klugman or George Grizzard (another Lumet favorite, the star of his final Goodyear, “The Sentry”); instead, Lumet found himself saddled with Tom Ewell, an unlikely stage and film star thanks to the recent hit The Seven-Year Itch.
The inexpressive Ewell, whom Lumet had known but not necessarily admired at the Actors Studio (he relates an encounter with Ewell there in mildly derogatory terms in his Archive of American Television interview), is a sponge for all the free-floating self-pity in Wald’s and Jacobs’s treatment; in his hands a character who should have been sympathetic turns repellent. It’s the only wholly unsuccessful performance in any of the six Lumet shows discussed here – although, in general, Lumet seems to have responded to Alcoa/Goodyear’s habit of hiring Hollywood stars by turning his attention more to the supporting casts, comprised of actors he had used dozens of times on Danger or You Are There. (In “Man on Fire,” the one effective scene belongs to Patricia Barry, the wife of Alcoa/Goodyear’s associate producer. Usually a polished ingenue, Barry shows a vulnerable side that I had not seen before when as she gently fends off a sloppy pass by Ewell, who plays her boss. Barry’s character, a career girl, explains that she has several boyfriends, none of whom she loves, and supposes she’ll marry one of them because it’s what’s done. Lumet seems more engaged by this speech, and Barry’s wistful reading of it, than anything else in the show; as a director, he always picked his battles.)
Lumet had attended the Actors Studio briefly, but he detested Method affectations. If there is a single unifying element among his live television work, it is the consistent naturalism in the performance styles, down to the smallest bit parts. Any deviation from that principle tended to occur at the top. Lumet’s results with imported stars were mixed: a failure with Tom Ewell; a split decision on Ralph Bellamy, who tears into “The Mechanical Heart” with an atypical intensity but little nuance; and a stunning success with the ingeniously reteamed ’30s Warner Bros. contract players who headlined his next segment.
“His big theory, since most people had ten or twelve-inch sets, was close-up, close-up, close-up. I would argue with him a lot, because if everything’s going to be close-up, there’s no point of emphasis. When you really need it . . . you’ve used it up.”
– Sidney Lumet, referring to Alcoa/Goodyear producer Herbert Brodkin, in his Archive of American Television interview
“Doll Face” (March 18, 1956), set entirely in an Atlantic City hotel, concerns a faded beauty queen (Glenda Farrell) who returns to the current edition of the pageant that crowned her back in 1930. In tow are her surly adult daughter (Nancy Malone) and genial husband (Frank McHugh), who conveniently is vying for a promotion at a business conference held at the same hotel. This script, also by Jerome Ross, contains as many cliches as “The Trees,” but it offers greater emotional possibilities for Lumet to explore. Lumet tamps down his actors, per usual, and ensures that each of the three main characters – any one of whom could turn grotesque, as Ewell’s distraught dad does in “Man on Fire” – is recognizably human and sympathetic. In “Doll Face” Farrell is not restrained, but she also does not turn the title character into a caricature (as a more obvious casting choice, like Shirley Booth or Joan Blondell, might have). No one overacts in any of these early Lumet shows. In part that reflects Lumet’s skill in working with actors, but it is also a consequence of his formal choices. Farrell benefits enormously from Lumet’s theory of the close-up; when he finally deploys them at the climax, her character’s distress as she is made to see herself as others see her is quite moving.
In “Doll Face” Lumet repeats a composition from “One Mummy Too Many” almost exactly: a person leans into the foreground from the left, directing the viewer’s eye to action in the middle distance toward the center and right of the frame. In “One Mummy” the effect was comedic; here it is expository (the man at left pops in to shush loud revelers).
In the space of four months, Lumet’s playful use of depth of field in “One Mummy” has evolved into a powerful, coherent compositional strategy for “Doll Face.” In a careful ballet of performers and cameras, the three principals group and regroup themselves into three-dimensional tableaux, again and again, each time with a different actor occupying the foreground, middle, and background space. “Doll Face” is essentially a three-character family drama, and Lumet uses dimensionality to signify the shifting emotional dynamic between father, mother, and child. It is the same kind of conceptual – a skeptic might say schematic or overly intellectual – strategy that Lumet would later apply to his filmmaking, as with (to use Lumet’s own example from the Times video obit) the selection of a red building as a location in Prince of the City to presage, almost subliminally, a coming bloodletting.
Chronologically, I have skipped over “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” (February 19, 1956), which is both the most famous of the Alcoa/Goodyear hours and the most directorially accomplished of the Lumet efforts in this survey. Another civics lesson from Reginald Rose, “Town” is typically pedagogic in its argument but less compromised by censorship than most. Lumet would have brought his best to the table before he even opened the script, for it was he who had produced Rose’s first teleplay on Danger in 1951. In the five years hence, each had risen to the top ranks of his profession in the New York television world, and it would be Rose who would handpick Lumet to direct his screenplay for 12 Angry Men.
A heated study of mob violence in an itinerant, working-class community of dam builders and their families, “Tragedy in a Temporary Town” has little to say on the subject of lynching (spoiler alert: it’s bad) that wasn’t already covered in The Ox-Bow Incident. But when you parse Rose’s narrative as an allegory for McCarthyism, its sly cynicism and political courage become more evident. Just as American communism was an empty threat and HUAC a hysterical overcorrection, so respectively are the attack on a teenaged girl in “Town” (a man barely touches her shoulder before running off) and the hyperactive shantytown kangaroo court that forms in response. This penny ante inquisition is ridiculous on his face. The girl never saw her attacker’s face and heard him say only one syllable, so the doofus vigilantes require every male in camp to utter the word “Hey” and press the young woman to try to make an impossible identification. The poor girl (Betty Lou Keim) is more thoroughly victimized by her defenders than by her putative attacker.
Rose scores his other major rhetorical point in his depiction of the ostensible and none-too-subtly named hero Alec Beggs (Lloyd Bridges), who is scarcely better than his opposites. Beggs abstains from the mob shenanigans but also declines to stick up for the Puerto Rican family who are marked from the beginning as inevitable scapegoats. When Beggs finally screws up his courage to confront the mob and disperses them in shame, it’s only after they have achieved their bloody catharsis by beating the shit out of the innocent Puerto Rican boy (Rafael Campos) with a thick stick of firewood. Beggs’s ineffectual liberalism and hypocrisy point a finger at various players on different sides of the blacklist, and the provocative casting of Lloyd Bridges (a HUAC friendly witness) must have resonated with Lumet (a narrow escapee of the blacklist, compelled at one point to grovel before clearance thug Harvey Matusow). Lumet was too professional to have tormented Bridges with his informer status, but still one would love to know just how much of the script’s subtext was articulated between star and director.
“Town” finds Lumet at his most expressive and illustrates a movement toward a somewhat bolder compositional style. Many of his images here (above and below, for instance) are more painterly than anything attempted in “The Mechanical Heart” or “One Mummy Too Many.” Lumet orchestrates complex crowd scenes, photographing some with a bird’s-eye camera, all of which must have given Herbert Brodkin fits. The episode’s nighttime setting all but compelled Lumet toward dramatic extremes of light and shadow. Lumet illuminates the lynch mob finale in part with the actual headlights of the vigilantes’ automobiles. Earlier, amid the harsh blacks and whites, there is one moment where Lumet flouts half a dozen tenets of television lighting and achieves a backlit effect unlike anything I’ve observed in a kinescope (or even a filmed episode).
During his climactic speech (“you’re all pigs”), Bridges begins to demolish the scenery – literally – carrying his intensity beyond the level upon which he and Lumet had agreed during rehearsals. But Lumet has built the tension so effectively to this point that “Town” can withstand such a volcanic release. As in some of Lumet’s other Alcoa/Goodyears, the supporting cast appears to be working in a different register – more detailed, more restrained, consciously (even self-consciously) resisting obvious choices. At first I had a hard time figuring out why Milton Selzer, usually one of Lumet’s underplaying ringers, is so atypically twitchy in as one of the nastier vigilantes. Then it occurred to me that actor and director probably agreed that Selzer should play the character as a closeted or self-hating homosexual – something that’s not in the text at all, and only perceptible one screen if you’re looking for it. Jack Warden, quietly upstaging Bridges, plays the lynch mob leader with a maddening calm and a visible irritation towards the more voluble hotheads. There’s a moment where Warden’s character asserts his authority by placing a hand on Beggs’s chest; Bridges casually removes it and Warden barely reacts. The gesture tells volumes about both characters: they will not lose their cool over unimportant things.
“Town” offers the clearest examples of Lumet’s strategy of expressing concise ideas through concrete filmmaking choices. His control extends beyond acting and camera movement all the way down into costuming and sound design. One of my favorite elements in “Town” is the baggy black V-necked sweater that Warden wears; a good fit for Kim Novak’s Bell Book and Candle closet, it’s the absolute opposite of what you’d expect a redneck brute to be caught dead in. The earlier Alcoa-Goodyear segments are marred by cliched symphonic scores (by Glenn Osser, moonlighting as “Arthur Meisel”); in “Town” Lumet, weaned on Tony Mottola’s minimalist guitar scores for Danger, managed to banish Meisel and eschew almost all musical accompaniment. For much of “Town,” the only background noise is the ambient sound of crickets. The most powerful element of the final image, in which Beggs’s son carries off the maimed boy, is its utter silence.
Note Milton Selzer’s effeminate gesture (center), and Jack Warden’s sweater (right).
“People always think that the smaller a thing is, the simpler it is. It is quite the reverse.”
– Sidney Lumet, in a 1965 interview with Robin Bean
Like Lumet, John Frankenheimer released his first feature film in 1957. But The Young Stranger was a flop, and Frankenheimer retreated back to television to lick his wounds. Meanwhile, the thirty-three year-old Lumet collected an Oscar nominationand became a hot property in multiple media. He made three more movies before the end of the decade – but returned to television, as Frankenheimer had, whenever he wasn’t shooting one of them. He must have loved it enough to incur the slight risk that, even with the nomination, he’d be tainted as a television guy. Lumet got the prestige assignments, of course: back to work for Herbert Brodkin to fight over close-ups on Studio One and then Playhouse 90; literary adaptations for David Susskind on the retooled Kraft Theatre and then Play of the Week; a legendary two-part Reginald Rose teleplay about Sacco and Vanzetti. He stopped in 1960 with an adaptation of the stage version of Rashomon, and more importantly, a four-hour “Iceman Cometh” that recorded Jason Robards, Jr.’s legendary Off-Broadway performance and earned raves.
But the movies beckoned, and live television was a dying medium anyway. Like Frankenheimer, Lumet made his exeunt in 1960, bequeathing a final socially conscious script that he had developed with Reginald Rose, Play of the Week’s “Black Monday,” to Ralph Nelson. (I’m not counting the autumnal return for a few episodes of 100 Centre Street, even though I’m sort of curious about them.) The films remain underrated and many of them are overlooked – Lumet has yet to fully emerge from the ghetto of “Strained Seriousness” into which Andrew Sarris dumped him in The American Cinema back in 1968. The tendency to ignore, or damn with faint praise, directors who were catholic in their choice of material and mise-en-scene – Huston, Kazan, Lumet – persists. Along with, or more than, the established classics, I’m partial to That Kind of Woman, Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Deadly Affair, and Lovin’ Molly. Some of those are no less scarce than the television episodes I’ve written about here. Seek them out.
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).
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:
Marty (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
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)
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)
The Left-Handed Gun (Gore Vidal/Arthur Penn)
No Time For Sergeants (Ira Levin/Mervyn LeRoy)
Sing Boy Sing (Paul Monash/Henry Ephron)
Middle of the Night (Paddy Chayefsky/Delbert Mann)
The Rabbit Trap (JP Miller/Philip Leacock)
Visit to a Small Planet (Gore Vidal/Norman Taurog)
One Foot in Hell (Aaron Spelling/James B. Clark)
Judgment at Nuremberg (Abby Mann/Stanley Kramer)
The Outsider (Merle Miller/Delbert Mann)
The Hellions (Harold Swanton/Irwin Allen & Ken Annakin)
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)
A Child Is Waiting (Abby Mann/John Cassavetes)
Dear Heart (Tad Mosel/Delbert Mann)
Baby the Rain Must Fall (Horton Foote/Robert Mulligan)
A Big Hand For the Little Lady (Sidney Carroll/Fielder Cook)
The Incident (Nicholas E. Baehr/Larry Peerce)
Charly (James Yaffe/Ralph Nelson)
The Legend of Lylah Clare (Robert Thom/Robert Aldrich)
Tomorrow (Horton Foote/Joseph Anthony)
Bang the Drum Slowly (Arnold Schulman/John Hancock)
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 style 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.