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.

What It Was, Was Football

February 6, 2011

Superbowl, Superbowl, Superbowl … let’s see, that one’s football, isn’t it?

What I know, or care, about sports could fill a thimble, but even I understood the importance this week when the Wall Street Journal announced the discovery of a tape of the Superbowl I game that was telecast live on both NBC and CBS in 1967.  In an era when 2″ videotape was expensive and bulky, the television networks routinely reused the tapes or even tossed them out just to conserve space.  Most of the first decade of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show remains the most famous victim of this colossal short-sightedness, but the first Superbowl has always been right behind it on television’s “whoops, we maybe shoulda kept that, huh?” list.  As its curator, Ron Simon, points out in the Journal piece, the Paley Center for Media has had Superbowl I perched forlornly atop its most-wanted list since before it started calling itself the Paley Center For Media.

While I’m as delighted about this find as any sports fan, I can’t help but wonder about the real story behind this story.  Because the Journal‘s reporting raises just as many questions as it answers.

First of all, the reporters, David Roth and Jared Diamond, wait until their third-to-last graf before they mention that the Superbowl I tape is incomplete.  The half-time show and a “large chunk” of the third quarter are missing.  Since 80% of the first Superbowl is a lot more than the 0% of the first Superbowl we had until recently, maybe it’s a bit of a buzz-kill to dwell too long on that fact.  But we also can’t take Superbowl I off the missing list yet, either.  Anybody who’s been searching for the show for the last forty-three years will be searching for the missing quarter.  The “Holy Grail,” as executive Rick Bernstein calls it in the Journal, is now just a smaller and not-so-shiny grail.

The other fact that gets rather buried in the Journal article is that the tape’s owner realized its significance back in 2005 – almost six years ago.  It’s not clear exactly when the Paley Center, which “restored” the tape that had been stored in a Philadelphia attic since 1967, became involved, but evidently it was closer to 2005 than to now.  So why are we just hearing the news this week?  The opportunistic timing of the announcement to coincide with this year’s Superbowl is a little tacky.  Given the magnitude of this discovery, shouldn’t the folks at the Paley Center have felt some obligation to disclose it as soon as they knew it?

One reason behind the timing may be money, another critical issue that the Journal reporters don’t get into until the very end of their report.  At one point, Sports Illustrated estimated the value of a Superbowl I recording at $1 million.  According to a lawyer representing the tape owner (who has not been named publicly, I guess for fear of being descended on by thousands of sports fanatics), the NFL offered $30,000 for it.  If my between-line reading is correct, then the long delay, and the timing of the present announcement, stem from years of dickering between the owner of the tape and the copyright holder, neither of whom can benefit much from the Superbowl I tape without the other.  And until that stalemate is broken, no one can view the recording, apparently not even at the Paley Center.

I don’t know enough about the situation to take sides, but it does seem that someone who was smart enough to hold on to something that two entire television networks didn’t think was worth keeping deserves a decent share of whatever profits that recording might yield.

Lost

May 26, 2010

TO: Those Listed Below

FROM: James A. Glenn
               Director, [NBC] Television Network Operations

DATE: April 22, 1958

RE: KINE RECORDING

……………………………..

2. [NBC's Hollywood studios] will make a videotape of all daytime shows, but will have no kine back-up for any of these shows including Today.

……………………………..

7. Kine re-recordings from videotape can be made on order.  However, because of the scarcity of tape, Hollywood finds it necessary to erase and re-use this tape as soon as practicable in order to meet the requirements of their work-load.  They will erase such tapes within 48 hours following broadcast unless they are notified in sufficient time to prevent tape erasure.

*

Mr. Aaron Rubin
National Broadcasting Corporation
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York 20, New York

January 13, 1961

Dear Mr. Rubin -

Danny Welles asked me to write and officially tell you that you can wipe our FORD STARTIME TALENT SCOUTS color tape.  It is okay, since we will have no use for it in the future.

Sincerely,

Irving Mansfield

*

TO: Mr. Alan B. Fendrick

FROM: Douglas Lutz

DATE: November 18, 1963

RE: DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK
        Tape Retention

The Talent Administration and Legal Departments have completed their investigations, and have commented on our recommendation to erase some of the old DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK programs.

The following programs may now be erased.

               THE BATTLE OF THE PAPER BULLETS
               WONDERFUL WORLD OF TOYS
               TRICK OR TREASON
               HOLLYWOOD, MY HOME TOWN (Ken Murray)
               THE FORGERY
               THE ACTION IN NEW ORLEANS
               A SOUND OF HUNTING
               THE MOVIE STAR
               THE RICHEST MAN IN BOGOTA

All other programs in the DUPONT SHOW OF THE WEEK series must be retained.

*

TO: Joseph Hewes

FROM: Robert J. Dunne

DATE: June 7, 1973

RE: Tape Retention

This Department has no objection to erasing the 17 reels of Ford Startime and the 29 reels of Sunday Showcase currently being stored at NBC.

*

The text above has been excerpted verbatim from NBC correspondence and internal memoranda.  Kinescopes of some, but by no means all, of the television shows mentioned still exist.  In many cases those kinescopes are monochrome recordings of programs created in color.  The Sunday Showcase segment “What Makes Sammy Run” is an example of a color show for which the original tape is presumed to have been erased, and of which only a black-and-white print survives.

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