From the Golden Age of television…
In the early days of television, live plays were staged with all the enthusiasm of a newly discovered work of Shakespeare. Every drama seeped gravitas, free of the shackles of irony. And in between acts, earnest spokesmodels touted the latest in consumer products that would enable you to conform to the rigors of post-war affluence. Case in point: Westinghouse, maker of refrigerators and military weaponry, sponsored the CBS program Studio One. This was, mind you, long before Westinghouse actually owned the entire network, but its commitment to quality programming and quality products was firmly in place.
And so, preserved in slightly blurry kinescope, for your viewing pleasure, is The Defender, complete with commercials. This 1957 teleplay, written by Reginald Rose, stars Ralph Bellamy as a crusty defense lawyer taking on a case for a client he is sure is guilty as sin. At his side, his son, a young William Shatner (and would you believe he actually underplays his part?), is prepared to try any dirty trick to win the case. Across the aisle, Martin Balsam chews scenery as the grandstanding prosecutor.
Oh, and you might also recognize the defendant, on trial for the murder of a woman during a robbery of her apartment: Steve McQueen, who did quite a bit of television before his breakthrough role in The Blob.
While it is great to see all these powerhouse performers together in The Defender, a two-part tale from the Studio One series, the actual courtroom drama turns out to be pretty routine. There is a lot of padding, although for an audience in 1957, the technical details of trial procedure might have seemed a novelty. This was the same year that Perry Mason debuted on television, and the tropes of the courtroom drama had not become so dust-covered. This might explain why the trial in this teleplay never worries about such technicalities as fingerprints or other forensic evidence. Instead, attention is focused on defender Preston's ethical quandary in defending a man he considers "such a gross human being." Should he throw the case, or vigorously defend his client in the name of equal justice? Fortunately, Bellamy carries off Preston's struggle with an excellent performance. Surprisingly, Shatner, as the younger Preston, is pretty good as well: he was a fine actor in the days before his ego blossomed into such gems as, well, "The Transformed Man" album or Star Trek V. Martin Balsam does the best he can with the overzealous prosecutor part. But the real disappointment here is McQueen, who is simply terrible, moping and moaning his way through the whole business.
Although the story itself feels dated, it certainly played well in 1957. Reginald Rose nailed the whole "ethics of justice" theme that same year with his Studio One script for 12 Angry Men, now a theatrical classic, and he was able to expand the father-son Preston team into an entire television series, The Defenders in 1961 (with E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed). All of this makes The Defender more of a historical curiosity, worth checking out more for its cast and influence than on its own merits.
The only notable extra on this disc, part of a series of Studio One releases by Goldhil Media, is an 11 minute featurette on the original television series, with interview quotes from such participants as Charlton Heston, John Frankenheimer, and a visibly near-death Jack Klugman. There are lots of clips of famous stars who got their start doing the live show, like James Dean, but not much information on the show itself or how live television was put together in those days.
Much more revealing are the commercials that run between acts of The Defender. Betty Furness, professional spokesmodel, shows off everything from electrical switching systems to "broad band" televisions. If The Defender seems to be about the individual's role in the justice system, the overall message of the Studio One series is about power. Power is out there—electrical, media, social—and ready for the taking. Westinghouse has the switching system, the technical means, to control this power. And in the end, isn't that what the history of commercial television has been all about?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Goldhil Home Media
• Featurette on the Studio One Series
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