Television followed lots of different performing-arts models in its formative years, but the two that really stuck are television as “radio with pictures” (static and dialogue-driven), and television as “mini-movies” (action-packed and sensationalistic). One model that’s all but been abandoned: television as immersive live theater. Saturday Night Live, sporting events, and some reality competitions have preserved the spontaneity of live, televised performances, but they’re all still essentially stagebound. When people talk about the danger and thrill of live broadcasts in TV’s 1950s “Golden Age,” they aren’t just referring to the possibility of flubbed lines, missed marks, and bacon-saving ad-libs. Watching kinescopes of old live anthology series like Playhouse 90 or Kraft Television Theater is like watching a magic trick unfold, as the cast and crew work in concert to conjure a whole reality out of a soundstage and a single take.
The three-disc Criterion DVD set The Golden Age Of Television contains two Playhouse 90 productions directed by John Frankenheimer, considered by many to be the master of staging live TV drama. One, Days Of Wine And Roses, aired in 1958, after live broadcasts began mixing in some pre-taped material. But in spite of some choppy transitions between the live and recorded scenes, Days Of Wine And Roses is still a marvel of blocking and camera moves, as Frankenheimer pushes right into the faces of Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, playing married alcoholics who love the bottle more than each other. J.P. Miller’s teleplay deals bluntly with a problem that wasn’t discussed openly in 1958, and Miller doesn’t offer any pat solutions. The drama is harrowing and masterfully performed, by the people on both sides of the camera.
The Frankenheimer-directed Playhouse 90 drama The Comedian has a lot to recommend it too, including a stunning turn by Mickey Rooney as a beloved TV comic whose offscreen obnoxiousness sours the lives of his brother (Mel Tormé) and his head writer (Edmond O’Brien). Rooney is fearless in his portrayal of a man too talented to ignore and too vicious to love, and Frankenheimer’s staging is brilliant, using TV monitors and mirrors to create frames with frames, thus fitting more visual information into a shot. The problem with The Comedian is Rod Serling’s script (based on a novella by Ernest Lehman), which broadly paints every character as something of a heel, and makes it difficult to root for anybody.
Serling was more successful with his script for the similar Patterns, directed by Fielder Cook for Kraft Television Theatre in 1955. Everett Sloane plays a tyrannical corporate boss who’s trying to drive out aging employee Ed Begley—the conscience of the company—to make room for innovative newcomer Richard Kiley. As was his wont, Serling hits his points about the soullessness of American business way too hard, but he’s nowhere near as bleak or didactic as he’d get with The Comedian. These characters have redeeming qualities as pertinent as their weaknesses, and Patterns’ jargon-filled look inside the boardroom feels true even now. The original telecast was such a sensation that it was repeated—again, live—a month later, and it established Serling’s reputation as a daring writer in a medium that usually played it safe.
Serling cemented that rep a year later with the Playhouse 90 production of Requiem For A Heavyweight, starring Jack Palance as a punch-drunk palooka contemplating retirement, and Keenan Wynn as his bankrupt manager. As one of the first 90-minute TV dramas, Requiem is more leisurely than usual, finding time for Palance’s budding friendship with employment-agency counselor Kim Hunter, and Keenan Wynn’s ethical debates with cut-man Ed Wynn (Keenan’s real-life father, which added another layer to the piece). But director Ralph Nelson still uses clever camera moves to capture moments as economically and unobtrusively as possible, and Serling provides Nelson with plenty of emotionally charged moments to capture.
Requiem has a sweetness that’s all too rare in Serling’s pre-Twilight Zone work, and a complexity of characterization that’s missing from Bang The Drum Slowly, the other classic sports drama on the Golden Age Of Television set. Paul Newman is charismatic as the star pitcher who doubles as the story’s narrator, and Albert Salmi is heartbreaking as a dim catcher dying of Hodgkin’s, but aside from some well-observed business about how guys rag on each other to avoid confronting their emotions, Bang The Drum Slowly is excessively maudlin.
The same could be said of A Wind From The South, a morose bit of Irish kitsch starring Julie Harris as a spinster innkeeper who has a fling with a married American adman and inadvertently exposes the emptiness of both their lives. Merv Griffin provides a lovely theme song (sung live, off-camera), and Harris is riveting, but it’s a shame that the dramas best remembered from TV’s golden age tend to be the ones that explore drab little lives and/or banal evil. Perhaps these seemed refreshingly honest in the Eisenhower era; now, they often seem needlessly dreary.
But there are exceptions. Requiem is one; Marty another. In fact, the emphasis on proletarian melodrama in TV’s golden age is largely due to the success of Marty, which aired on The Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1953 and offered a fresh alternative to all the literary adaptations that had previously been live TV’s stock in trade. Paddy Chayefsky’s simple story follows a homely middle-aged man (Rod Steiger) as he deals with friends and family who pester him about getting married, but don’t like it when he connects with the equally plain-looking Nancy Marchand. The big-screen version of Marty (made two years later) won Oscars and made a star out of Ernest Borgnine, but the original is superior in almost every way, from the heart-on-the-sleeve performances to Chayefsky’s naturalistic dialogue, which plays more “real” in a live setting.
The last item on the Criterion set is something of an outlier. The 1955 United States Steel Hour production of No Time For Sergeants is a comedy, staged before a live audience encouraged to laugh out loud. Andy Griffith stars as a can-do hayseed whose induction into the military wreaks havoc on his superior officers, who continually underestimate him. Griffith went on to play the same role on Broadway and in a movie adaptation, rocketing him from the stand-up circuit to nationwide fame, but he already seems polished and unstoppable in his first appearance as Pvt. Will Stockdale, talking to the camera and grinning like a man who knows a secret he could never share. The kinescopes on The Golden Age Of Television don’t look or sound great, and all these productions have their share of mistakes. (In an interview on the set, John Frankenheimer says that all the great TV directors developed bad backs from the stress of the job.) But Griffith’s performance—like those of Steiger, Newman, Rooney, Laurie, Marchand, Harris, Palance, the Wynns, and Robertson—shows what live TV could do that no other form of the medium can. It isn’t just that Griffith brings the charm, it’s that he does it on cue, without a net, and for one night only.
Key features: The kinescopes in this set all aired as part of an early-’80s PBS series, with intros and interviews that are included here. This set also includes director-commentary tracks by Delmer Daves on Marty, Donald Petrie on Bang The Drum Slowly, Ralph Nelson on Requiem For A Heavyweight, and John Frankenheimer on The Comedian.