The endless, fragmented world of viral videos has made the moving image commonplace, if not bastardized. With video posts throughout the virtual universe, they have gone the way of Twitter – clipped, at times to the point of senselessness. The closest thing to the wonder of television today is in the face of toddlers, watching an ATM spit out cash. In a desensitized culture, they have discovered that money can grow on trees, and for them, that’s more than enough.
YouTube and other online video sources are time-wasters more than sources of entertainment. So for now, we movie and TV buffs needs to stick to DVDs for retrospective viewing. One of the most reliable (if costly) sources, the Criterion Collection, has released a set of live dramatic shows that made television as magical as were the first movie screens. “The Golden Age of Television” was originally a PBS miniseries of kinescopes (i.e., a filmed video screen – at the time, the only way to record live broadcasts). The 1981 series featured new introductions and interviews with cast members and behind-the-camera talents. While early Regan-age footage may seem stale (kind of YouTube-ish, in a way), it is worth inclusion on the new Criterion set. The retrospective series was quite an event, as the first occasion many of the dramas reappeared on television. Host Jack Klugman, full of glee talking about his passion, seems ready to go off his queue cards when introducing Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
Done live on television, these 1950s-era shows were vivid, if rough-hewn. Viewers didn’t care, either way – they were happy that the wizards at General Electric or Emerson could bring picture shows to living rooms. This once-popular form of entertainment has a style that will never appear again. With reality TV planned and hackneyed, the closest thing we have to the spontaneity of classic live television is a video blog, from which we sane folks steer away or “X” out.
Criterion’s new set includes classics of live drama, many of which were later adapted to the big screen. Though these shows are essentially filmed stage plays, with each scene bound to one set. The drawbacks are countered with fine writing, much of it sentimental and family-values orientated. (We are talking the Eisenhower era, after all.) But viewers who love a well-made script, tight and told passionately, will love getting acquainted with television’s golden age.
Some of these shows are unseen legends behind their big-screen counterparts. An example would be Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” (air date May 24, 1953), starring Rod Steiger in the Ernest Borgnine role, and directed by Delbert Mann, as was the film. Steiger’s is a looser, more reactive Marty – his resignations to his bossy friends are more restrained, and his final assertion more passionate. When Marty claims his girl (which his friends have deemed not a looker), Steiger bursts with a method-actor’s rage, as if filling a theater instead of playing to the camera. As lovable as Borgnine’s Marty is, in comparison he’s still rehearsed, controlled, a more mainstreamed everyman. A similar point could be made about Serling’s “Patterns” (air date January 12, 1955), which was rougher and vivid in its teleplay form. The theatrical version, still a success, attempted to recreate the roughness the script inherited from its first version. Here we have the source.
Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (air date October 11, 1956), one of a few feature-length entries here (most fit into an hour time slot), pulls much pathos from a traditional fallen battler tale. “Mountain” McClintock (Jack Palance) would face permanent injury if he were to fight again. The trouble is his manager is in the red, having betted on the fights and lost. Along with another, more benevolent manager, we have an alternate family unit crumbling. Mountain is the real victim, as a gentle soul who never fought out of anger or aggression, just duty. With his manager leading him towards the humiliation of pro wrestling, Mountain must escape and find redemption. Redemptive themes run through the Criterion set, in “Days of Wine and Roses” (air date October 2, 1958; about battling alcoholism), “A Wind from the South” (air date September 14, 1955; on the uplift of love, if unrequited), and “Bang the Drum Slowly” (air date September 26, 1956; in which a ball player [Paul Newman] matures by helping a dying teammate).
No one here seems more comfortable in live drama than Mickey Rooney, who gave a high-energy performance in “The Comedian” (air date February 14, 1957) as a self-involved TV performer. Meanwhile, the set’s oddball entry is “No Time for Sergeants” (air date March 15, 1955), a barracks comedy starring Andy Griffith. At this time better known for his stand-up, Griffith plays Will Stockdale, a rollicking buffoon who causes all kinds of trouble for his platoon and drill sergeant. This comic style precedes the low-brow approach of many 1960s sitcoms, including “Green Acres,” “F-Troop,” and the like. It’s as if Griffith were summoning his future compadre, Gomer Pyle, years before he showed up on the former’s title series.
A stretch of interview footage features John Frankenheimer, one of many live television directors to go on to the big screen. He recalls someone describing the high-pressure environment of live television to be like “Summer Stock in an iron lung.” It left may directors with back problems and the actors about to swoon at a show’s conclusion. Perhaps the programs’ invigorating style required such energy. “Golden Age of Television” provides a fine sampling, though it cannot match the scope of KOCH Vision’s “Studio One Anthology,” released last year. This set includes 17 dramas on six discs, with a list price of $59.99, while Criterion’s offers eight shows on three discs, for ten dollars less. Each set has a different focus, with KOCH’s including a variety from the said program, and Criterion’s sticking to the legendary episodes. Both are essentials.