Yet another collection of live television dramas from the 1950s has come along with The Golden Age of Television [Criterion]. The only mundane thing about this three-disc set, containing eight 60-to-90 minute programs, is the title. These items were originally dusted off and rescued in the early 1980s by producer and former kid-show host Sonny Fox, who packaged them for public TV. That might help explain the high quality of the items in this box, seemingly cherry-picked from four separate series ("Playhouse 90," "United States Steel Hour," "Kraft Television Theatre" and "Goodyear Television Playhouse") at a time when the respective owners couldn't imagine much of a monetary future life for these kinescopes.
This is not the place for a discussion of the strictures of live television or the kinescopes. (Simply put, a movie camera filmed the show — as it was broadcast — from a monitor; thus we get a black-and-white picture of a black-and-white picture.) By producing these shows for live broadcast, there was a certain immediacy that you didn't get from film; among other things, this was a "one night only" experience. The television industry soon realized that there were any number of reasons to film its wares, not the least of which was the artistic ability to edit and the commercial ability to repeat, reuse and syndicate the product. Looking at this so-called golden age as a whole, what seems to stand out is the quality of the talents involved. With established Broadway playwrights not especially interested in the limited financial prospects of one-night stands, television producers developed a new breed of younger writers (including Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling). Directors, too, such as Delbert Mann, Alex Segal, and John Frankenheimer. And with production centered in New York, the acting pool was somewhat different than what you'd find in Hollywood. The surprise of these shows, I expect, is how very good much of the acting is; what's more, we get to see some now-familiar faces in formative stages.
Any discussion of the early live television dramas is likely to center around "Marty," Chayefsky's 1953 drama about an unattractive and ordinary Bronx butcher searching for love. "Marty" was instantly recognized as something special, so much so that Chayefsky and his TV director Delbert Mann reconceived it as a full-scale motion picture in 1955 and won Academy Awards for their efforts, with the film winning Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine) and Best Picture Oscars as well. Borgnine's performance has understandably all-but-obliterated the original, one-night-only Marty of Rod Steiger; but Steiger's performance is arresting. Also of note is Nancy Marchand as Clara, the schoolteacher to whom Marty is attracted.
Four other items in the box also made it to the big screen; five out of eight is a pretty impressive number. "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1956), with Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, and the father-son pairing of Ed and Keenan Wynn, is searing drama. (The inclusion of the elder Wynn — a major comedic star of stage, vaudeville and radio on the level of Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny — in a dramatic role was quite a coup, and he is well worth watching here.) "Days of Wine and Roses" (1958), with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, was later made into a film vehicle for Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956) was also eventually filmed; unlike the others, this came many years later in a version that seems not to have been inspired by the teleplay. This one is especially interesting for the presence of Paul Newman in the starring role. Also on hand as co-star — in the role played by Robert DeNiro in the 1973 film — is Albert Salmi, the all-but-forgotten actor who starred on Broadway in the 1955 William Inge hit "Bus Stop" (and who died with his wife in an apparent murder-suicide in 1990). George Peppard is there, in "Bang the Drum Slowly," too. "No Time for Sergeants" (1955), the only comedy included in the set, had perhaps the most far-reaching afterlife. Andy Griffith, a countrified standup comedian from deep in North Carolina, took the role of a bumpkin-of-an-enlisted-man and galvanized audiences on his one-night shot; within four years he had starred not only in the stage and screen adaptations of "No Time for Sergeants" but in a major film (Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd") and a major Broadway musical (David Merrick's Destry Rides Again) as well. "Sergeants" was a durable, long-running Broadway hit and a successful film — but I must say, the television version is pretty sketchy. (There are several logical links between "Sergeants" and the 1960s sitcom "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." — not the least of which is the fact that the latter was a direct spin-off from Griffith's long-running sitcom, "The Andy Griffith Show" — but there seems to be no official connection between the two.)
With all of these familiar titles, my attention was nevertheless taken by the unknown items among the set. (The lesser of these, "A Wind from the South" , is interesting only for the star performance of Julie Harris.) "The Comedian" (1957), a backstage look at television comedy, is altogether riveting. Magazine writer Ernest Lehman — who would later give us screenplays for "North by Northwest," "West Side Story," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," and (more to the point) "The Sweet Smell of Success" — had researched an article on the set of the "Texaco Star Theater," better known as "The Milton Berle Show." His observations served as the basis for a novelette about a tyrannical TV comedian superstar. By 1957 Lehman was busy in Hollywood, so Rod Serling was enlisted for the teleplay. Mickey Rooney gives a lacerating dramatic performance in the lead; don't let anyone tell you that Rooney couldn't act. What's more, he is surrounded by three similarly good performances: Mel Torme as his brother, Edmond O'Brien as his washed-up headwriter, and Kim Hunter as his sister-in-law. Watching Rooney and Torme is like watching a spider pull wings off a fly. Chilling and fascinating.
Vying for first place with "The Comedian" is "Patterns" (1955), another Rod Serling effort which combines "Executive Suite" (Ernest Lehman's 1954 motion picture) and "Death of a Salesman" in a "Mad Men" world. Cutthroat big business is the world, and how. Conglomerate owner (Everett Sloane) brings in young-man-with-ideas from Cincinnati (Richard Kiley) to replace aging executive (Ed Begley) — and proceeds to virtually cut up the old guy on camera. "Patterns" was quickly forgotten; I, for one, had never even heard of it. Yet it was so successful upon its telecast — The New York Times went on the record to say "in writing, acting and direction, 'Patterns' will stand as one of the high points in the TV medium's evolution" — that the producers were impelled to bring the cast back four weeks later and do it again, making it what might have been TVs first revival. The three stars are well worth watching, as is Elizabeth Wilson in the small but important role of the excised executive's secretary, with one especially good scene.
Let it be added that in fact-checking this column, I discovered that "Patterns," too, was made into a full-scale motion picture in 1956 — with the same director and much of the same cast (but Van Heflin taking on Kiley's role). All told, this "Golden Age of Television" box will provide hours of high-octane and unquestionably interesting viewing.
"Glee" has garnered numerous fans inside the theatre world since its premiere in April. And no wonder; the principal cast includes Matthew Morrison (of Hairspray, Light in the Piazza, and South Pacific) and Lea Michele (of Spring Awakening and the original Ragtime). What's more, this series — centering on the glee club of a Midwest high school — has peppered the guest star list with a constant parade of musical comedy folk of the Victor Garber-Debra Monk-Kristin Chenoweth ilk. Now we have Glee Season 1: Road to Sectionals [Fox]; the first 13 episodes on four DVDs, including the so-called "director's cut" of the pilot. The complete package was not yet available for review, but the special features include "Welcome to McKinley," a behind-the-scenes feature; a "Glee" music video; full-length audition pieces; video diaries; comic little interviews with cast members; and producer/writer Ryan Murphy "Deconstructing Glee." My resident 12-year-old, who has eagerly watched the show week after week, indicates that the bonuses enhance the overall "Glee" experience, add all sorts of interesting highlights, and are "very well done." *
To say that Mel Brooks goes blue would be too easy. The folks at Twentieth Century Fox have seen fit to package nine of their Brooksfilms into a lavish Blu-ray box, The Mel Brooks Collection [Fox]. "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" top the list, joined by "The Twelve Chairs," "Silent Movie," "High Anxiety," "History of the World — Part I," "To Be or Not to Be," "Spaceballs," and "Robin Hood: Men in Tights." (The original 1968 version of "The Producers," which remains my favorite Brooks concoction, is not included as it came prior to Brooks' long-term relationship with Fox.) If the works of Brooks don't necessarily cry out visually for Blu-ray treatment, so be it. This is a lavish, gala, celebratory gift set; sure, it belongs on Blu-ray. (For the record, let it be said that a 2006 DVD set, with eight of the nine movies, is also available.) There are far too many bonuses and special features to enumerate here; some new for Blu-ray, some retained from prior releases, all sorts of items that will keep fans of Mel in stitches for hours and days and weeks. There is also a handsome and informative oversized 120-page book, "It's Good to Be the King," that is highly readable. Based on a small-print hint on one of the back pages, it seems to be written by Stephen J. Smith with the participation — but not smothering oversight — of Mel. In any event, it is an informative and highly-illustrated tome. "The Mel Brooks Collection" offers 969 minutes-worth of motion picture, plus who knows how much additional material. That should be almost enough to please Mr. Brooks himself.
Also on Blu-ray comes a delectable new release of Howards End [Criterion]. This 1992 adaptation of the novel by E. M. Forster, from producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, was something of a modern-day classic, and can't be said to have faded into memory. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning three (including a Best Actress nod for Emma Thompson and Best Screenplay for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala). Ms. Thompson is joined by Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter and Anthony Hopkins, so we get quite a display of acting. Blu-ray brings out the many layered riches in the film — and not only in the production design and cinematography. Bonus features include the documentary "Building Howards End"; a look at the design elements of the film; and a new appreciation of the late Mr. Merchant by Mr. Ivory. (Steven Suskin is author of the forthcoming updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)