Appellate Judge Tom Becker remembers the Golden Age of AOL.
Coming to you live…
Eight classic productions from television's "golden age," the 1950s. These teleplays were performed live and featured the work of writers like Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, and Ira Levin, directors like John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, and Ralph Nelson, and actors like Paul Newman, Julie Harris, Jack Palance, and Rod Steiger.
• Marty (May 24, 1953,
Goodyear Television Playhouse)
Sensitively written and beautifully acted, Marty is a timeless character study, no less meaningful today than it must have been over 50 years ago. As the earnest but unglamorous title character, Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night) is affecting, even if his performance is a bit mannered in spots. Even better is Nancy Marchand (The Sopranos) as the girl, all dignified self-defense and aching vulnerability.
The real marvel here is Chayefsky, whose writing is honest and perceptive, free of the self-congratulatory cynicism that marked much of his later work.
• Patterns (Jan. 12, 1955, Kraft Television
Fred genuinely likes and respects Andy, and is pleased to be working with him. When they collaborate on a report, Fred gets a better understanding of how smart and professional Andy is. But Ramsey refuses to give Andy any credit for the report, insisting that Fred did all the work and just added Andy's name as an act of charity. As the three men argue, Andy makes a declaration that stuns Ramsey and Fred, and we see the terrible toll that a life given over to the American business ideal takes on a man.
An intense and disturbing drama, Patterns was the one that put Rod Serling on the map. While not as well known as Requiem for a Heavyweight, Patterns is no less affecting, thanks in no small measure to the performances of Begley, Sloane, and Kiley.
• No Time for
Sergeants (March 18, 1955, US Steel Hour)
No Time for Sergeants started out as a Broadway play starring Andy Griffith. This TV adaptation is shorter than the play (about half the length), but it provides a great showcase for Griffith (who went on to play Will Stockdale yet again in a film adaptation). Griffith made a career out of playing bumpkin characters—besides Will Stockdale, he's best remembered as Sheriff Andy Taylor, lawyer Ben Matlock, and arguably his best role, "Lonesome" Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd.
No Time for Sergeants is a fun, if forgettable, production. Like many comedies, it hasn't held up all that well—humor seems to date much more quickly than drama. Still, it's an enjoyable ride, and on this set, a nice respite from the more thought-provoking pieces.
• A Wind From the South (Sept. 14, 1955, US Steel
One guest who takes an interest in Shevawn is Robert (Donald Woods, Watch on the Rhine), who's at The Willows with his wife. Robert encourages Shevawn to accompany a visiting soldier to a dance, but when things don't go as planned, Shevawn learns that a single night of being loved can make up for a lifetime of being alone.
Reminiscent of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, James Costigan's A Wind From the South is a touching little drama of momentarily requited love, with a terrific central performance from Julie Harris. For a 1950s drama—actually, even for a much later film—the story's resolution is a bit surprising, even daring. It upends our expectations of a "happy ending" and gives us something much deeper and more satisfying.
• Bang the Drum Slowly (September 26, 1956, US Steel
It's a little ironic that the production with the most star power is also, arguably, the weakest entry on this set. Bang the Drum Slowly is a lovely little tale of friendship, and it's very well played—Newman is great, and he gets fine support from Salmi, Bert Remsen, Rudy Bond, and a ridiculously young George Peppard—but alongside the likes of Patterns, Marty, and Requiem for a Heavyweight, it feels a bit slight.
• Requiem for a Heavyweight (Oct. 11, 1956, Playhouse
Mountain tries to find legitimate work, but even with the help of an employment specialist (Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire), his prospects look dim. Then his manager starts talking to a wrestling promoter, and it looks like Mountain will be earning again—only at the expense of his dignity.
• The Comedian (February 14, 1957, Playhouse 90)
Of course, Sammy has one surefire routine: needling his weak-willed brother, Lester (singer Mel Tormé). Sammy's jokes have made Lester a national laughingstock, but since Sammy pays Lester good money as an assistant, Lester feels there's nothing he can do. But his wife (Kim Hunter) thinks otherwise, and Lester, fearful that she's going to leave and emboldened by knowledge that could hurt Sammy's career, sets out to take a stand.
Another Serling gem, this one adapted from a story by Ernest Lehman. Rooney and O'Brien are outstanding performances as the nasty, petty, but successful comic and his brow-beaten gag writer. Serling throws us some very cool plot twists, and between the writing and the acting, what could have been just another story of a diva becomes an intriguing and complex character study.
• Days of Wine and Roses
(Oct/ 2, 1958, Playhouse 90)
Robertson and Laurie play an upwardly mobile couple whose lives are derailed by alcohol. One degradation follows another until they bottom out completely One is able to find the strength to attend AA and get straight…but will the other follow?
The Golden Age of Television was a limited-run series that aired on PBS in the early '80s. Produced by Sonny Fox, the series presented kinescopes of live broadcasts of these eight television plays. Criterion brings us this set complete with the original introductions and interviews with various participants, including Julie Harris, Rod Steiger, Kim Hunter, Andy Griffith, James Costigan, Mickey Rooney, and Cliff Robertson. For this set, we also get commentaries by 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). A 36-page booklet offers background, insights, and trivia about the shows.
The transfers here are probably as good as you're going to see—kinescopes were not made to be preserved, and while the clean-up is decent, there are still nicks, jumps, blurriness, and all that you would expect from television shows more than 50 years old. In addition, since these were live broadcasts, you'll get the occasional bad or clumsy shot, flubbed line, missed cue, and so on, but that, of course, was all part of the "live TV" experience.
The staging is primitive compared to today's TV technology—or even theater technology. There are no tricky moving sets or special effects. Sets were built on a soundstage, and the actors went from one location to another during blackouts. This was all about the acting and the writing, which, in these programs, are exemplary. Audiences accustomed to seeing dramatic presentations on cable will notice that these productions all adhere to the TV standards of the time, meaning no profanity or overt sexuality.
Of course, it's impossible to view these without considering their historical context. It was programs such as the ones included here that raised the profile of television from "the idiot box" to a truly artistic medium. Writers like Serling, Chayefsky, and Miller pushed the boundaries and exposed the possibilities; they, and other TV pioneers, were ultimately responsible for the wave of epic films produced in the second half of the '50s, as studios pushed to give audiences the kind entertainment that they couldn't get at home. In a kind of funny twist, the film version of Marty—with Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair replacing Steiger and Marchand—went on to win the Best Picture Oscar over bigger-budgeted Hollywood fare such as Mister Roberts, Picnic, and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.
These are landmark productions, major signposts in our cultural history. With decent transfers and comprehensive and enlightening supplements, this set is required viewing.
A must-see collection. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• IMDb: The Golden Age of Television
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