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Monday, June 17, 2024

Stuff of Comedy Turned Serious


Why Shouldn't Quiz Shows Be Crooked?

There once were public intellectuals that walked the Earth. They spoke on radio, sparred with comedians, and enriched millions, not disdained for being cultivated but adored because they were. Wit was what many (most?) wanted supply of, good vocabulary to be admired and emulated. Bing Crosby displayed erudition weekly and that became part of his ongoing appeal. We’d tune in nightly broadcasts to laugh and learn. Information Please really was informational, plus it had personalities to keep fun in the mix. Oscar Levant raised laughs not in spite of being smart, but because he was smart. Deems Taylor was egghead lite, never to take himself too serious and an eager guest to Duffy’s Tavern where invited. Newspaper columnists were also treasured asset. They could read, write, spell, and often amuse. Folks quoted a columnist and took personal credit for the insight, hoped others had not read the squib, as one of them might be waiting to spring same gag. There were “Quiz Kids” to ennoble what we’d later call geek behavior. Acquire of knowledge could in fact make one rich. Postwar emphasis on education opened collegiate doors not just to veterans, but for all who wanted smarts like what guessers after cash displayed on radio and lately television where geniuses had faces to go with mental agility. To this phenomenon came Champagne for Caesar, where bookworm Ronald Colman turns media sensation for his know-it-all-ness, a goal we’d all aspire to in 1950, and in fact many did.

Good sport KTLA permitted its camera to be used, “Milady Soap” quiz show presumably theirs, except I wonder if real stuff on primitive air was as lavish as depicted here, contest in terms of staging and large studio audience more like radio and resources that medium could manage (radio/TV simulcast is suggested). What televised game shows from 1950 survive? Little enough is around from later in the decade, and Caesar notion that cash prize for knowledge could reach into millions is fanciful beyond anyone’s concept of then-reality. Premise is Colman as eccentric “Beauregard Bottomley” driving double-or-nothing toward bankrupt point for soap manufacturer and sponsor Vincent Price. Champagne for Caesar is comedy with a thinking cap on, us invited to ponder comedown for culture that TV represented. Colman/Beauregard’s is voice in a wilderness for literacy exploited by slick operators who want him to win until suddenly they don’t. We are to understand that it is all about money, television at dawn of evil it would do for fullest share of an audience. Everyone around Beauregard sees his store of knowledge as useless but for moment’s blip he will register as human encyclopedia repurposed to sell soap. Champagne for Caesar came at a peaking time for education so far as a general public regarded it, college doable thanks to the GI Bill and recognition that learning was needed to vault out of a working class. Beauregard was thus figure of fun but up to a point, his not profiting from genius but from what genius might earn in hard cash. Toward settling for comforts of life, he’ll blithely sell out champ status and throw the game, his own corruption a neat two-hander to see everyone happy for Caesar’s fun fade.

Happy Sellouts: Rigged Gaming is Good Enough for Celeste Holm and Ronald Colman

That last is what endears me to Champagne for Caesar, Beauregard knowing all the world’s a sham and making sure he gets his end of it, “wrong” answer a right one toward tooling off with wealth, new wheels, and Celeste Holm who will toss his books away for their not needing them on a honeymoon. Caesar’s is a cheerfully cynical wrap plus raspberry to 1994’s Quiz Show, which dealt with a same racket, but took cribbing plus false wins seriously as Vietnam and Watergate filmmakers claimed such conduct led up to. Righteous Robert Redford as producer/director did not write Quiz Show, but his weighty thumb is upon proceeds start to end, exposure of crooked game shows during the fifties where America “lost its innocence.” How often have chalk-walkers charted past events that cost us innocence, as if we ever had it, and how many viewers cared a fig in 1956 that NBC fixed Twenty-One? Quiz Show bases upright self upon too tragic truth by nineties definition, a dark night of our national soul. Evil men of television warp principles in service to big business and only public confession from high-profile winner Charles Van Doren can redeem us. Quiz Show doubled with Champagne for Caesar is best evidence of how self-serious movies became over a forty-year canyon, made by ones who always get to be right backed by fawning reviews to assure them that of course they are always right. Only difference between Beauregard and Van Doren is former really knowing answers but taking a dive for profit, the girl, and getting back his private life, all sane and sensible reasons for chucking a championship that really meant nothing to begin with. Champagne for Caesar posits itself, and a frankly farcical theme, as comedy it was and is.

Could a “senate oversight” investigator have been bothered in 1950 to investigate perfidies of some dumb game show? Champagne for Caesar suggests not … could it have even occurred to them? Maybe it was good sense we lost, not innocence, but common sense, where so much was made of Van Doren being fed right answers and walking a public plank for it. Were same jealous forces that later framed a payola scandal to wreck rock and roll behind this imbroglio? I enjoy Quiz Show, parts are funny, truer truth spoke by Martin Scorsese as string-pulling sponsor that is Geritol, his speech good a time as any to exit Quiz Show and figure this was where best lesson of the movie lay. He’s like Lonesome Rhodes knowing the score on Vitajex and saying sure, I’ll sell your phony pills, and let’s all get rich doing it. I’m a sucker for “villains” in movies voicing wisdom by my admittedly singular lights, as if preachers with pens and directors with pretensions inadvertently left a free thinker in their movie to voice for those who won’t buy into agenda so resolutely pushed. Not by design does Scorsese’s character and “Robert Kintner,” played by Allan Rich, emerge as heroes and role models for warped sort as I, but thanks be to Quiz Show for including them. Who knows but what Disney might “correct” Quiz Show with edits to better confirm who should be hissable among folk it portrays. And don’t laugh, for this conglom won’t shrink from heavy hand upon past inventory to stay on “the right side of history,” as shown vivid by before-afters all over You Tube.

UPDATE 6/17/2024 --- GIFTS FROM GRIFF --- Earlier today he corrected me re spelling of Vitajex and sent along neat images for which many thanks, Griff:


Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff writes in to comment on CAESAR and QUIZ SHOW:

Dear John:

CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR is among my favorite comedies; I am grateful for your enthusiastic post about it on a grayish morning. Everything you say here is on target; feel free and go back and say some more.

It would have been fun to be in a crowded movie theatre in 1950 for the scene when Colman's answer to a complex question regarding Einstein's theory is judged incorrect on live television, and in quick order, we hear a phone ring backstage... and we realize that the call is coming from Princeton, New Jersey. The famous caller, it seems, feels that Colman's answer was right in the ballpark.

Lots of good jokes in this movie, nearly all of them well set-up and executed.

I have little use for QUIZ SHOW except perhaps for Paul Scofield's skillful performance as famed academic Mark Van Doren -- the look on his face when he realizes that the scandal involving his son might somehow affect his family (and own reputation) is strangely priceless and moving at the same time. I like that turn of a phrase about how Redford's "weighty thumb is upon proceeds start to end." That approach didn't just take almost all of the fun out of the picture; it took most of the movie out of it.

I could imagine a kind of original comedy-drama being crafted from the basic story of the quiz show scandals, and probably one more than a little Altmanesque in tone. A wide-ranging, energetic satire about the ambitious, sleazy guys who concocted the fixed game shows, the benignly corrupt network guys mostly happy to look the other way, the volunteer contestants ecstatic to play along until they get shut out of the dough and glory. But it would take a better and more imaginative filmmaker than Mr. Redford to find that movie, and certainly one less ready to relentlessly point heavy blame in every direction. You're right, the warped characters played by Miller and Scorsese at the end of QUIZ SHOW are almost refreshing because they're at least honest and forthright about their role in the corruption.


11:05 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

"There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman." -- Sherlock Holmes, "A Case of Identity"

We all have our favored delusions, some harmless and some not. Having seen neither of these films, I found myself thinking of pro wrestling -- then and now Big Business, but with barely a pretense of reality. Imagine a somber "expose" of rehearsed moves and manufactured feuds. Would anyone be shocked or disillusioned? Have you heard of anybody betting on pro wrestling? The same can be said of most reality television (read somewhere that writers are disguised as "producers" in the credits).

At least some game shows are still taken seriously. Dirty work on "Jeopardy" would make headlines. And while the celebrities on "Hollywood Squares" and the like may well have prepped their snappy answers, we want to believe the actual take-money-home ordinary folk contestants are playing for real.

We still have a degraded form of public intellectual. Now they're called commentators or pundits, persons of presumed expertise who peddle their opinions. Some had at least fleeting practical experience away from the microphone; others seem to have no existence, past pr present, other than discussing what they think on camera. Today their primary function is to confirm previously held views.

My mind also went to "Calloway Went Thataway", a gentle comedy about a washed-up matinee cowboy suddenly becoming superstar on television (Greenbriar previously revealed how Hopalong Cassidy's lawyers help neuter it). A major point is that fans unironically link the character's onscreen virtues to the actor, so the marketers dare not reveal he's a surly drunkard. An unstressed subtext is that the idol of millions of children isn't just an actor who plays a hero. He's a guy impersonating the actor who plays a hero. Because the impersonator is a nice guy (and a genuine cowhand besides), the happy ending is the fraud succeeding.

In real life, there are still plenty of actors who at least aspire to match their onscreen personas. Robert Redford has earned / cultivated an image as a sophisticated good guy; Tom Hanks has a reputation that allows him to play Walt Disney and Fred Rogers. A few go into politics, their big / small screen images constituting their real-life biography.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I think the number of people who were genuinely upset over the crooked quiz shows were those who watched them. Those who didn't, weren't. In fact, the latter probably thought the shows were all rigged anyway. I live in hope for another quiz show scandal but read somewhere that all of them have a representative from the government -- the IRS, maybe? -- hanging around backstage to keep an eye on things.

Probably the longest-lasting quiz show of the time, "You Bet Your Life", depended on the host -- not big winnings or eggheads or rigged questions -- to put it over, which is why it was one of the few major programs of its type to avoid scandal. Although it's really obvious when Groucho tried to get Joe Louis to say the secret word -- he might as well have been holding up a cue card. And Joe still didn't say it!

6:39 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

This is why I’m still watching “What’s My Line” on YouTube. The panelists were (for the most part) smart AND entertaining, and I’m constantly impressed with the erudition of John Charles Daly. He succinctness with which he rewords answers from both celebrities and everyday people remains impressive.

And we’re unlikely ever to see a Jack Paar, or a Dick Cavet again. Intelligent conversation has disappeared from TV.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

The sign in the first still that proclaims "This broadcast is being televised" is quite interesting.

11:52 AM  

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