The Golden Age of Television [DVD]
Director : John Frankenheimer
Stars : Cliff Robertson (Joe Clay), Piper Laurie (Kirsten Arensen Clay)
On May 9, 1961, Newton Minow, then chair of the Federal Communications Commission, delivered a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C., that will forever be known as the “Vast Wasteland Speech.” In it, Minow excoriated the three major networks for turning the medium of television, which at the time was not even 15 years old, into a “vast wasteland”: “a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials--many screaming, cajoling, and offending.”
Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time watching television, especially in the years since Minow’s speech, will recognize the hard edges of truth in the chairman’s blunt criticism. Yet, what is often forgotten is that the “vast wasteland” section of the speech began with an important statement: “When television is good, nothing--not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers--nothing is better.” Thus, although the speech is always remembered as an indictment of television, it was also a reminder of the medium’s great potential as true art, rather than a repository for junk.
And no period in the history of television demonstrates the potential for greatness better than the decade immediately preceding Minow’s speech. Although the 1950s, television’s first decade as it were, had its share of game shows and formulaic comedies and cajoling commercials, it was also an era of artistic experimentation and promise. The medium, still wet behind the ears, had yet to be defined and was therefore open to any and all possibilities, including the idea of television as a repository for great human drama, the kind that was regularly associated with Broadway and other forms of legitimate theater. And, because of the built-in intimacy that television offered--its placement in the home, its emphasis on close-ups that resembled the actual dimensions of the human face, its constant direct address--the medium could work as a bridge over which the high art of the live stage could be brought directly into the living rooms of those who might otherwise never have the experience.
Thus was born the so-called “Golden Age” of television, which had at its core a dozen or so live anthology drama series that aired to great acclaim from the late 1940s into the early 1960s. Broadcast live on Sunday evenings (the only night of the week without performances on Broadway), these single-sponsor series were a revelation. Not only did they bring quality theatrical experiences into the home, but they also served as a springboard for some of the greatest writing talent of the second half of the 20th century.
At the time, the rights for the majority of well-known books and plays had already been snapped up by Hollywood producers who wanted to make film versions and then sell the rights to the television networks, rather than allow the networks to make their own versions. This meant that the networks needed writers to supply original stories on a weekly basis, which resulted in an influx of hungry young scribes, many of whom were born and raised on the East Coast and reflected a mostly liberal mindset in an era known for its conservatism. Influenced by Group Theater and the plays of Arthur Miller (especially Death of a Salesman), these writers, including Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, and Reginald Rose, wanted to write plays about common men and their struggle to attain the American dream despite the social institutions that regularly stood in their way. They wanted to write about racism and anti-Semitism and the crushing conformity of corporations and mass culture, and even though they regularly ran into resistance from the networks and especially sponsors (not to mention the constant threat of blacklisting), they managed to create a lasting body of work that is both profoundly moving on the human scale and sharply critical of society’s shortcomings.
The Criterion Collection’s new DVD set The Golden Age of Television, which packages eight of the most memorable and important anthology drama episodes (which were originally compiled by PBS and aired in 1981 for the first time since their initial live broadcasts in the 1950s), is a veritable compendium of everything that was great about this era in television, even as it represents the merest tip of the proverbial iceberg, as the vast majority of programming from this era remains locked in various network vaults and museums. The most influential of writers are well represented, all of whom found great acclaim in various media: Rod Serling, who would become famous for creating The Twilight Zone; Paddy Chayefsky, who won an Oscar for writing Network (1976); and Ira Levin, whose novels, including Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys From Brazil, as well as his play Deathtrap, were made into successful films. The anthology series also proved a fertile launching pad for notable directors, including Ralph Nelson, who directed Sidney Poitier and Cliff Robertson to Oscars in Lilies of the Field (1963) and Charly (1968), respectively; John Frankenheimer, who made such Hollywood thrillers as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and French Connection II (1975) before returning to television in the 1990s; Daniel Petrie, who successfully balanced work in film (including 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun) and television; and Delbert Mann, whose 1955 film version of Marty, which he directed as a live television episode in 1953, won him an Oscar and also became one of the first breakout American independent films.
Each of the hour-long episodes included here reflects the unique artistry of television at this time, as well as the personal traits of the writers involved. “Marty” explores a few days in the life of the titular character, a self-described “ugly little man” played with great tenderness by Rod Steiger. Many critics have noted the similarities between Marty’s downtrodden view of himself and writer Paddy Chayefsky’s own struggles with self-image. Similarly, we can see Rod Serling’s preoccupation with issues of aging and irrelevance in both “Patterns” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” The former, for which Serling won the first of his eventual six Emmys, is about a young executive who is brought on by a corporation’s ruthless CEO to replace an older executive whose refusal to sacrifice his concerns for others in order to grow the business is viewed as outdated, while the latter is a heartbreaking portrait of a washed-up boxer coming to grips with the end of the career. “Requiem” is particularly notable for the central performance by Jack Palance, whose childlike enthusiasm and geniality barely masks the sadness he feels upon realizing that he has nothing to offer outside the ring.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Serling was attracted to the adaption of Ernest Lehman’s novella “The Comedian,” a scathing and uncompromising indictment of the narcissism of the entertainment industry that is brought brilliantly to life by director John Frankenheimer, whose command of complex staging and an intricate ballet of camerawork was unrivaled in live television. The themes of men pushed to the end of their ropes by the despotic sadism of those in charge give every moment of “The Comedian” a brutal charge, underscored by Mickey Rooney’s against-type casting as the tyrannical Sammy Hogarth, who could very well be the twisted love-child of Milton Berle and Adolf Hitler. Frankenheimer’s command of the medium is also on display in “Days of Wine and Roses,” which follows the decade in the life of a young couple (Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie) who are self-destructing alcoholics. Robertson and Laurie’s performances are exceptional in their emotional nakedness, and the episode falters only when it starts to sound like a public service announcement for Alcoholics Anonymous.
Not all the anthology dramas were strictly dramatic, though, as evidenced by “No Time for Sergeants,” a hilarious military farce that introduced the world to Andy Griffith. Griffith plays a genial country bumpkin bumbling his way through both the Army and the Navy, and the episode is notable for its theatrical design in terms of both the spare sets (missing walls, obvious lighting cues) and the manner in which Griffith directly addresses the audience. A similar aesthetic strategy is used for “Bang the Drum Slowly,” in which Paul Newman, playing a sensitive baseball played named Henry “Author” Wiggin, maintains the original novel’s first-person perspective by speaking directly to the audience and leading us from scene to scene in a highly theatrical style. It works for the material, although the play as a whole, which focuses on Author’s relationship with a dying teammate, is a bit too forced as a tearjerker.
|The Golden Age of Television Criterion Collection Three-Disc DVD Set|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||November 24, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|As is explained in quite some detail in Criterion’s liner notes, the only record we have of live television broadcasts from this era are Kinescopes, which are 16mm film recordings that were made by pointing a camera directly at a monitor displaying the live video feed. Thus, the quality of these television episodes is going to be inherently limited by their source, which explains why they are defined primarily by a lack of contrast, artificial sharpness, and slight bulging at the corners. The liner notes don’t say where the transfers for this DVD set were made, and I can only assume that these are the same transfers that were used back in 1981 for the PBS broadcasts that later made their way to VHS. No doubt, the Criterion DVDs look better than the old videotapes (much brighter and with better detail), but they still betray all of the same instances of damage and age, suggesting that the transfers were simply repurposed from the old video material, rather than being newly scanned from the original Kinescopes. The monaural soundtrack reflects the same limitations, with a good deal of ambient hiss in most of the productions, although never so much as to be distracting.|
|Criterion’s DVD set includes all of the original PBS introductions to the anthology drama episodes, which were originally aired in 1981. Each introduction was hosted by a notable live television actor and featured interviews with several of the creative personnel involved in the production, including directors John Frankenheimer, Daniel Petrie and Ralph Nelson and actors Andy Griffith, Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, Richard Kiley, Piper Laurie, Nancy Marchand, Jack Palance, Cliff Robertson, Mickey Rooney, Carol Serling, Rod Steiger, and Mel Tormé. Criterion has also assembled several audio commentaries by editing together bits and pieces of interviews with several directors (Delbert Mann on “Marty,” John Frankenheimer on “The Comedian,” Daniel Petrie on “Bang the Drum Slowly,” and Ralph Nelson on “Requiem for a Heavyweight), which results in commentaries that are illuminating, although somewhat spotty and not always feature-length. The 36-page insert booklet includes a lengthy essay about live television and notes on each program by Ron Simon, the curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media.|
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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