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Thursday, December 03, 2020

When Live TV Reinvented Drama


Home Viewing Where Anything Might Happen

Amazon Prime surprised me with a pair of fossils now in rotation, both from a so-called “Golden Age” of live television, an era old-timers saw as last gasp for quality before junk dealing became tube norm and drama for cultivated folk gave way to cowboys and retard comedy. Ones who lived it are mostly gone, or past a point of capable recall, leaving others of us with little that survive of the lot, kinescopes dug from depths (at least look it), or nothing at all. Ones I saw this week were The Defender (1957) and The Arena (1956), both earnest and loaded with big head confrontations. Close shooting was an only way to put across strong emotions for 50’s sitters in front of a box nearly small as what breakfast cereals came in. It also disguised paucity of space for drama to be staged. Watching today means making allowance, same as old movies really old on their face. Much of live drama clicked in the day for being different, trying at least to act grown-up, and best of all, free, plus watched in home comfort.

Some imagine all of it was good as Marty, Twelve Angry Men
, others that made a leap to feature screens. Those in trenches knew that wasn’t so. One writer of so-called blessed time said ninety-five percent of what he and others wrote was “hack work,” done in continuous pinch, all due yesterday. Anything at least half-baked was ready to serve, though live drama written well enough, provided one forgave crudity of cameras and production, plus flubs when players forgot lines or crew wandered into shots, was fruit of anything-might-happen energy not to be got from ossified movies too canned for anyone’s good or pleasure. Actors also were unlike ripe cheese of many stars on theatre screens. Here were youngsters who’d break rules, fly to pieces, be things a player never dared before. Forget sun-kissed starlets or glamor boys that took elocution, riding, or fencing lessons to make studio grade. These rebels went out of ways to do the unexpected, live TV dealing daily in same. Drama unplugged was like boxing matches popularly telecast where you didn’t know which fighter might kiss the canvas.

Pinnacle was reached by ‘54-55 or so, lasted till a decade end when networks, sponsors, ad agencies, wanted safer bets, as in conventional and easier to manage from office sanctums. Writer/director talent turned loose and emoting live was chancy, the more so when crusaders among them put “serious issues” before viewers, a habit that would date much of what seemed vital then. Live TV, once done and past, was a definition of ephemeral. Networks either junked remains or put them on warehouse shelves no one paid heed to. Inkling of interest in the early 80’s, from stalwart of the medium Sonny Fox, saw a representative group dredged for a PBS series Fox curated, The Golden Age of Television, which made a splash for content so long unseen, plus primitive power much of it still exerted. Fox had to search far/wide for Kinescopes, get permissions to use them, overcome everyone’s assumption that they had seen these dramas before, as indeed they had, except it was movie versions, not the originals from TV (Marty, Twelve Angry Men, Requiem For a Heavyweight). The PBS series was a novelty, but wasn’t followed up. It took home video to mine gold from the Golden Age, but as sales were modest, much of that was brass. Even committed buffs were pressed to get through stuff archaic enough to be carved in caves. Best of revivals was possible when enough artists were above ground to reminisce, latter breathing life into cloudy images to convey what it was like to live-do these shows. Now with most of voices stilled, we are left with artifacts only, like pyramids found but no Egyptians to describe the building of them.

The Defender
took place almost entirely in a courtroom, initially in two-parts so it goes 102 minutes. Rough edges abound, a camera at one point lumbering forward, then quickly back from action. Books to celebrate the era are full of actors/crew telling how high pressure it all was, funny in retrospect, but tense to a breaking point when it was day-to-day 50’s reality. Age v. youth is the dominant theme, a murder trial incidental to it. Verbal combatants are vet lawyer Ralph Bellamy and son-defense partner William Shatner. Defendant is “Steven McQueen,” the prosecuting D.A. Martin Balsam. Fireworks are as much between differing styles of acting as contest re guilt/innocence. Reginald Rose, who had written Twelve Angry Men, puts as many curly-cues into this legal showdown as before, his idea to pick societal scabs per habit of NY writers. 50’s TV drama was defined by rules concise enough to jot on a matchbook, leanings predictable as subway stops. Bellamy the rigid Dad is opposed by R. Rose surrogate Shatner, removing all doubt as to who will prevail. McQueen is intense and on the attack for our nerve ends, shouting “Whaddya doin’ ta me?” as if it will be a next catch phrase for disaffected youth. Bellamy got patience tested by Actor’s Studio’ing let loose at his expense, account shared in a 1979 memoir, When The Smoke Hit The Fan. He didn’t name McQueen, but object of aggravation couldn’t have been anyone else. Seems “Steven” mumbled words and even wandered off their live set at one point, leaving Ralph alone with egg on his face. “Method” players were bane of seasoned pros like Bellamy, his cutting loose on them late as the ’79 book a proof he knew phony/baloney where smelling it.

The Arena
was written by Rod Serling, him a chef for well heated confrontation scenes, magnified faces hollering at one another to make our at-home heads jangle. Watch The Arena or another Serling drama that was subsequently adapted as a movie (Patterns) to see, better hear, this writer picking fights. No wonder he went over to spooky T. Zone themes later … gave him a chance to cool off. Rod was another, like Jack Webb, who let TV literally work him to death. His standards stayed high, even as he held more cigarettes than pencils and so went Murrow-ways, both well known for intros done w/ fag in hand, a Surgeon General’s best visual argument. The Arena, like all of what was best about live drama, gave actors a chance to really act, proceedings about them and not big skies or extras crowded round. If the 50’s had a stop-gap between legit and movies, it was stories tube-told as they happened, a purity salvaged from stages these players would have preferred working on. So long as the runt medium could use them, they'd be game, TV handing nation-stretch exposure to make a Rod Steiger or Kim Stanley overnight known and wanted. The Arena, plus ones like it, were opportunity too for longtime strut-and-fretters to show what they had always been capable of, but that features seldom let them display. Consider Chester Morris, his performance ace-high here, enriched by good Serling dialogue, a 1956 tour-de-force for Chet, for what had he got from movies that same year? The She-Creature … and nothing else. Enough to make you weep for such an artist (not that he isn’t plenty good in The She-Creature). Wendell Corey excelled also in 1956's The Killer Is Loose, a feature where he was a revelation. Biggest Arena surprise for me was John Cromwell, better known to us as a director, but he could character-act paint off the walls. In short, terrific effort by all, and reason abundant to access this, The Defender, and whatever other of vintage live drama is available at Amazon and elsewhere. Revelation awaits from that Golden Age.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Amazon Prime has a 1960 episode of "Desilu Playhouse" entitled "The Man in the Funny Suit", about the utter agony-turned-triumph of Ed Wynn's casting in the live broadcast of "Requiem for a Heavyweight". Gives you a good idea of the pressure live TV was, particularly when one of your actors had a replacement ready to take over after the first commercial break if necessary.

9:54 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

A DVD somewhere -- think it was a serial -- had an interview with Frankie Thomas. His postwar career included a lot of live television, and he recalled one symbolic drama that played faster than expected. He was sent out to improvise a monologue to the camera, in character, to fill the last few minutes.

"The Front" looked at live television drama during the blacklist years, casting Woody Allen as a schlep who lends his name to banned writers and Zero Mostel as a comic who goes from star to untouchable.

Being fundamentally shallow, I'm a fan of those old musical "spectaculars". By the time they petered out in the early 70s I don't think any were live. Among the last I remember were "Damn Yankees" with Phil Silvers as the devil (cartoony set pieces included cutout people to augment a compact cast) and "Of Thee I Sing" (a stripped-down version of the Gershwin classic, with a new sitcommy book).

Today you can get legit, if variable, 1950s kinescopes of Mary Martin as "Peter Pan" (the first two broadcasts), Julie Andrews as "Cinderella", Basil Rathbone as "The Stingiest Man in Town", and a disc with two broadcasts of "Babes in Toyland", separated by a year and a few casting changes. You often sense they're shooting in tight quarters, with tricks to cover costume changes (When Scrooge clings to a ghost's robes, they zoom in very tight on what are supposed to be his hands as Rathbone delivers his lines off-camera). "Cinderella" is excellent, with a pleasant 50s vibe. "Stingiest Man in Town" boasts good songs and Rathbone playing it straight, overcoming a meh kinescope and some comically compressed sets.

Early on, cable channels snapped up a lot of current stage shows; some recorded before an audience. In recent years "Great Performances" has been broadcasting and streaming recordings of live Broadway performances. Many are excellent, but they've been rehearsed and polished onstage for weeks before the cameras arrived. You're seeing assurance instead of terror. I strongly recommend "She Loves Me", a great production of the best adaptation of "Little Shop Around the Corner".

As for the recent wave of network live event musicals, I've somehow missed all of them.

4:03 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

John, thanks for the tip on "The Defender" being on Amazon Prime. I enjoyed it. I've read a lot about live TV in the 50's but haven't seen much of it. I was either too young or spinning the dial looking for cowboys. But that ending! As my dad would have said, "Oh brother!" Thanks also for the mention of Ralph Bellamy's memoir. I just ordered a used one off Amazon. I can't get enough of old Hollywood.

10:21 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts considers the Golden Age of live TV:


The Golden Age of Television definitely offered a number of actors chances to stretch their wings in directions different than what Hollywood films have to offer, on TV, people got to see Buster Keaton and various Marx Brothers in dramatic roles, Boris Karloff in several versions of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, as well as THE LARK, DON QUIXOTE, HEART OF DARKNESS, and TREASURE ISLAND, the afore mentioned Chester Morris in many good dramatic roles that made up for not seeing in many movies in those years, many more. That era of TV gave us the wonderful mix of old pros who may have worn out Studio welcomes on the big screen, but many opportunities on the small screen, working alongside the last generation of great new actors learning their craft, as big a brain-drain as television later became, there was a much better percentage of interesting and quality material on it in the 50's and 60's than there has ever been since.

Here's one you may not have seen that Jeff Joseph put up on Youtube a few weeks ago: a 1957 STUDIO ONE production of Mark Twsin's THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, featuring Christopher Plummer, John Carradine, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Hurd Hatfield:


11:48 AM  
Blogger Realist said...

Great article on "The Golden Age of Television." I think we tend to forget that audiences in New York (Eastern Time Zone) saw these broadcasts "live" without the softness of recorded Kinnescope (a 16mm camera pointed at a TV screen). For the rest of the country we had to put up with softer images, downgraded from 30 frames per second (FPS)to film's 24 fps which lost the images "live" (or soap opera effect. As to the color broadcast of Julie Andrews "Cinderella", this was lost to black and white filming only. Of special note is a company taking these Kinnescopes and through some clever software are able to recreate the 30 fps on the images and give us a "live" recording again from these. You can find "The Defenders" here;

3:58 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff offers a welcome and detailed summary of footage from THE DEFENDER being used decades for an episode of BOSTON LEGAL focusing on William Shatner's character:

Dear John:

"The Defender" two-parter and "The Arena" are very good shows. I would also recommend Serling's "Patterns" (it's fascinating to compare this 1955 teleplay to the very similar 1957 feature film), Rose's "12 Angry Men" (also similar in many ways to the later feature version, but more feral in tone), "Bang the Drum Slowly," and the astonishing "The Comedian," scripted by Serling from Ernest Lehman's novella and directed by John Frankenheimer (it's easily the most technically brilliant and daring live show from the '50s that I've ever seen). There are many other interesting shows well worth checking out -- that "Man in the Funny Suit" that Kevin K cites is very good.

Forty years after "The Defender" aired on Studio One, "Boston Legal" writer-creator-producer David E. Kelley used some significant portions of the show as flashback/backstory for William Shatner's Denny Crane character. In the 1997 episode "Son of the Defender," a man wearing a bomb takes hostages at the offices of Crane, Poole and Schmidt. He's the son of a woman who was murdered by a man that Crane and his father had successfully defended in one of their early cases, and he has come to seek justice for his mother; he forces the hostages to "re-try" the case, using the original court transcripts, to prove that defendant in the case was actually guilty. The details of the case in the "Boston Legal" differ significantly in some ways from the case in "The Defenders," but Kelley is here very selectively using kinescope footage to focus on the troubled relationship of the younger lawyer (Shatner) and his inflexible father (Ralph Bellamy), which was the nexus of Rose's original teleplay. During the tense "re-trial," Shatner's character inwardly drifts in time and memory; his recollections -- footage of Shatner/Bellamy hotly arguing from "The Defenders" -- create some thoughtful and solid emotional context for the Crane character, so often seen as hilariously boorish and egomaniacal on the program. It was very effectively handled.

No, Steve McQueen does not appear in the excerpted footage. I can't recall whether either Rose or Bellamy were mentioned in the credits of this "Boston Legal" episode, but I'd like to think their estates received compensation.

-- Griff

5:28 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

This item recalls to my mind an old tale, concerning a visit to a miserable and solitary old miser one dark and stormy winter night by three spooky visions - the ghost of silent films, the spirit of old-time radio, and the snowy wraith of live B&W television....

9:02 AM  

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