The Golden Age of Television
Marty/Patterns/No Time for Sergeants/A Wind from the South/Bang the Drum Slowly/Requiem for a Heavyweight/The Comedian/Days of Wine and Roses
Directed by Delbert Mann, Fielder Cook, John Frankenheimer, et al
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 485 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 49.95
Release Date: November 24, 2009
Review Date: November 17, 2009
Eight of the greatest live broadcasts from the golden age of television in the 1950s (hence the title of this collection) have been gathered together into this treasurable anthology that presents some of the greatest actors of the era performing teleplays from the era’s greatest television dramatists and all done live without the benefit of retakes, do-overs, or false starts. You’ll see some slip-ups, both actors stumbling over some words and technicians with out of focus cameras or lighting that washes out the picture. But none of the small snafus matter a whit when you have dramas this involving and with actors operating at the top of their profession. Live television may not have had the golden cachet of a major studio feature film or an acclaimed Broadway presentation, but luckily for viewers today, these magic moments were caught by the technology of kinescopes (a movie camera shooting the broadcast off of a television monitor) thus preserving these wonderful works and these glorious (often award winning) performances for us to enjoy more than half a century later.
The collection begins with 1953’s Marty, a one hour drama written by Oscar and Emmy winning playwright Paddy Chayefsky. Concerning the searching for love of a plain Bronx butcher (Rod Steiger) who’s almost thirty-seven years old with no prospects for marriage even though every sibling and relative harangues him daily about his bachelor status, Marty reflects its New York Italian roots firmly based on family interference mixed with tough love. It’s a spare, terse drama with especially winning work from Steiger and his concerned mother played by Esther Minciotti. Nancy Marchand plays the drab school teacher who’s drawn to Marty’s quiet decency, and buried in the cast in small roles are Betsy Palmer, Nehemiah Persoff, and Don Gordon.
Rod Serling’s first Emmy came via Patterns, his 1955 drama with two rival industrial relations men, one going up (Richard Kiley) and one on the way down (Ed Begley). Both are under the thumb of driven chief executive Mr. Ramsie (Everett Sloane). The heated board room exchanges between these three men make for some of the most electrifying drama contained on any of the set’s programs, performances that hold up today despite having to be delivered live without missing a beat. Both Begley and Sloane received Emmy nominations for their work, and Kiley matches them every step of the way. Elizabeth Wilson makes a fine dedicated secretary for the two rivals while June Dayton etches a cunning portrait of an ambitious wife proud of her husband’s accomplishments and not above pushing for his promotion every chance she can. Look fast and you’ll see Elizabeth Montgomery in a tiny role as one of the girls in the secretarial pool.
No Time for Sergeants reintroduced the folksy Andy Griffith to a 1955 national television audience in a charming performance as simple-minded do-gooder Will Stockdale recently inducted into the Air Force, a man who goes out of his way to make his sergeant (Harry Clark) proud and managing to involve others in his innocent schemes while he himself comes out of them smelling like a rose. Performed before an appreciative studio audience who laughs long and loud at the various shenanigans (and the quick changing sets and lots of props still impress decades later; kudos to director Alex Segal), No Time for Sergeants was such a hit (nominated for an Emmy as Program of the Year) that it was immediately snapped up for Broadway (with an almost two year run) and then a hit movie version, all starring Griffith.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the set is the delectable romance A Wind from the South, undoubtedly the least well known of these eight collected works. Written by future Emmy winner James Costigan, it starred Julie Harris (at the time becoming one of the most acclaimed actresses in America with a string of Broadway hits and some notable movie roles already to her credit) as a repressed Irish colleen trapped in a stifling partnership with her embittered brother Liam (Michael Higgins) running a bed and breakfast in Ireland. Into her life comes unhappily married Robert (Donald Woods) who’s instantly smitten but who waits until the evening before his departure to tell her how he feels. Their one night together in the lovely evening under the willows wakes her up to the possibilities that life has to offer her only if she’s willing to unwind herself from her brother’s poisonous sullenness and pursue it. With delicate, touching portrayals by the two lovers (Harris earned an Emmy nomination) and elegant direction by Daniel Petrie, this one hour drama is a real gem. Roy Scheider can be glimpsed as extra during the dance hall sequence.
Bang the Drum Slowly is the first dramatic incarnation of Mark Harris’ moving novel, and it stars Paul Newman as ace pitcher Henry Wiggen who tells the story of his road roommate, catcher Bruce Pearson (Albert Salmi), who learns he’s got a degenerative disease and less than a year to live but who wants to keep on playing baseball despite his ill health. Henry refuses to sign a new contract unless he can have the owner's word that Bruce won’t be cut for any reason. Paul Newman is alternately funny (his character is a penny-pinching worrier who’s always writing letters of complaint against those he feel are robbing him) and quite moving as his friend struggles with his illness, and Albert Salmi steals every scene with his beautifully etched portrayal of a simpleton who still clings to his dignity. Much like Griffith in No Time for Sergeants, Newman’s Henry narrates the story as it’s happening, and Daniel Petrie’s fluid direction guiding Newman though many set changes is masterful.
The most honored of the titles in the set comes next, Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight which won five Emmys including Program of the Year, Best Actor, Best Teleplay, and Best Director. It’s the heartbreaking story of Mountain McClintock (Jack Palance) who, after taking a fierce beating in the ring by an up and coming challenger, is told his boxing career is over. Having only a ninth grade education and having done nothing but fight for fourteen years (he’s 33 and looks 50), he’s unsure what to do with the rest of his life. His manager Maish (Keenan Wynn), heavily in debt for making foolish wagers on Mountain’s probable losses, wants him to go into wrestling. Trainer Army (Ed Wynn) knows Mountain’s pride will never allow that. A pretty, helpful worker at the unemployment office (Kim Hunter) suggests working with youths in camps and in boys’ homes, but his guilt over thinking he owes Maish for his years of support keeps Mountain undecided. Palance gives such an anguished, tender performance that memories of his evil Oscar-nominated roles in Sudden Fear and Shane seem to have come from someone else entirely (clearly the sign of a great, versatile actor). Ed Wynn, in his first-ever dramatic performance after decades of playing a clown, received an Emmy nomination for his startling change of pace role. His son Keenan equally deserved a bid for his insensitive blowhard manager who’d sell his mother to the devil for a few bucks. The play has lost none of its power over the succeeding decades, and few can forget Mountain’s final encounter with Maish or his teaching a young boy some fundamentals of boxing in the play’s final moments.
Mickey Rooney’s galvanizing performance as a megalomaniacal television comic electrifies Rod Serling’s adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s The Comedian. Rooney’s Sammy Hogarth runs roughshod over his soft-spoken brother (Mel Tormé) and his exasperated wife (Kim Hunter), his head comedy writer (Edmond O’Brien), his director (King Donovan), and even a vindictive gossip columnist (Whit Bissell), all while trying to pull off a ninety-minute comedy spectacular that’s lacking two dynamite sketches that could put it over the top. John Frankenheimer’s hyperactive direction keeps the play going at a jumpy pace, all the better to keep up with Rooney’s nonstop performance. Edmond O’Brien pretty much walks away with supporting honors in several terrifically dramatized scenes as he grapples with his conscience over some plagiarized comedy sketches penned by a dead writer. The telecast won three Emmys including Program of the Year and yet another Emmy for Serling’s masterful script. Sadly, none of the talented cast nor the charismatic director took home any honors for their sterling work in this wonderfully tense, acerbic look at a genuine heel.
The set concludes with one of the most powerful of the dramas in the collection: J.P. Miller’s Days of Wine and Roses. Telling the story of an alcoholic husband and wife whose love of drink proves toxic for them both, Days of Wine and Roses pulled no punches in making the two protagonists fall down drunks, at one point committed to Bellevue to dry out and get their lives back on sound footing. Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie played the leading roles in the television adaptation, beautifully directed by John Frankenheimer, the show being the first to incorporate some pre-taped footage (Robertson addressing an AA meeting), not thought particularly relevant at the time but definitely a precursor to the end of live drama on CBS and the other networks. Piper Laurie and J.P. Miller were Emmy-nominated but lost in their individual categories to one of the year’s big winners, Little Moon of Alban.
All of the programs are presented in their televised aspect ratios of 1.33:1. Criterion has performed no miracles of presentation with these ancient kinescopes, and the earliest of them - Marty - looks terrible from any perspective (heavy scratches, loads of dirt and debris, contrast that varies from shot to shot), and The Comedian features big chunks of debris which fly through the projector gate as the show was being filmed. Some are relatively scratch free (A Wind from the South, No Time for Sergeants), but every program has that flat, soft look that kinescopes of the period almost always contain. The programs vary in their chapter designations, but Criterion has thoughtfully provided a chapter menu with each program. Generally, the hour programs have 7 chapters and the ninety-minute broadcasts come in with 9 (except The Comedian which has 13 chapters), but even that isn’t consistent.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound is as primitive as one might expect from these ancient broadcasts. Once again, Marty is in the worst shape, but almost all of the programs have light to moderate hiss and Patterns and Days of Wine and Roses have some faint crackling while No Time for Sergeants has some audio distortion. Requiem for a Heavyweight features no audible artifacts and has the best of the set’s audio encodes.
Each of the eight programs features an introduction recorded in 1981-1982 when these kinescopes were first broadcast on KCET and other PBS stations as part of Sonny Fox’s “The Golden Age of Television” series. Each of them features interviews with the show’s director and key surviving members of the cast, and the hosts for each broadcast change with each introduction:
Marty – 5 ¾ minutes with host Eva Marie Saint
Patterns – 6 ½ minutes with host Keenan Wynn
No Time for Sergeants – 6 minutes with host Roddy McDowall
A Wind from the South – 5 minutes with host Merv Griffin
Bang the Drum Slowly – 7 minutes with host Cliff Robertson
Requiem for a Heavyweight – 16 minutes with host Jack Klugman
The Comedian – 17 ¼ minutes with host Carl Reiner
Days of Wine and Roses – 10 minutes with host Julie Harris
The following programs contain audio commentaries by their respective directors: Marty, Bang the Drum Slowly, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and The Comedian. Several of the directors don’t talk through the entire program, and Ralph Nelson’s comments during Requiem barely touch of that program specifically, the majority of his talk concerning his early career in television.
Two separate interviews with John Frankenheimer run 9 minutes (The Comedian) and 10 minutes (Days of Wine and Roses), each one having been excerpted in the introductions for the specific programs.
The enclosed thirty-five page booklet contains an incisive essay on the nature and history of live television broadcasts plus individual essays on each of the eight programs in this package, all written by film curator Ron Simon.
4/5 (not an average)
For lovers of classic television live drama, these eight productions are among the greatest ever produced during the early years of the medium. No, the presentations aren’t spotless, but to have these programs in one set with their 1981 introductions alongside them and intact along with some interesting commentaries and a helpful booklet of essays on each show makes a collection that’s a must-have for admirers of the genre. Highly recommended!