I recently celebrated a birthday a little over a week ago, and my sister Kat gifted me with a copy of David Bianculli’s The Platinum Age of Television, a book that posits that while the 1950s may have been the medium’s “Golden Age,” the offerings on what the late Harlan Ellison sardonically called “the glass teat” have seen so much of an uptick in quality that the boob tube age of today should be designated with the same distinction we give to record albums (yes, I still call them that) which sell far in excess of “gold” ones. I won’t argue that much of today’s “prestige” TV is capable of making folks opine “What the hell was that Newton Minow guy going on about anyway?” (far superior to what you plunk down nine bucks to see in your local googolplex) but irritatingly, many of today’s critics have developed a kind of snobbish contempt for the age of television in its infancy.
“It wasn’t as great as people remember,” they never hesitate to remind those of us who enjoy pouring a nice glass of Nostalgia ‘53 that we saved in the cellar for a special occasion. To an extent, they’re not wrong: “the glass furnace” was in constant need of fuel, and a lot of that was unquestionably the equivalent of unseasoned firewood. Yet when TV was live, there was an immediacy to it that I (and like-minded people) find positively exhilarating. I enjoy vintage TV for the same reason I love listening to old-time radio: that “working-without-a-net, anything-goes” atmosphere made for many an entertaining experience. (In fairness, there are occasional live performances on the tube nowadays—notably Saturday Night Live, which I might enjoy more if it were funnier.)
I stepped up on that soapbox because Jeff Joseph of SabuCat Productions is the mastermind behind a wonderful Blu-ray/DVD released this week entitled Television’s Lost Classics, Volume 1—a collection of “Golden Age Television” treasures in conjunction with both VCI and MVD Entertainment, who’s handling the distribution. (MVD’s Clint Weiler was gracious enough to provide the blog with a screener—the release came out on September 11.) Joseph, a film archivist, historian, author, and producer (plus cars washed while you wait), has cobbled together collections of rare and “lost” vintage TV programs (Volume 2 will be released October 9, and I’ve requested a screener of that as well) beautifully restored in high definition from the best archival film elements available. Some of these shows have not been seen since their original telecast. Volume 1 looks positively amazing; I know it’s asking a lot of kinescopes, but I was really bowled over by the visual quality of the shows.
Volume 1 has a theme: both of the presentations feature performances from one of my all-time favorite actors—John Cassavetes. The first is a March 8, 1955 telecast of The Elgin Hour, a dramatic anthology that lasted a season on ABC-TV (1954-55), alternating weekly with The U.S. Steel Hour. It’s Reginald Rose’s “Crime in the Streets,” an hour-long social relevance drama with Cassavetes as a sullen juvenile delinquent named Frankie Dane, who’s vowed to snuff out a neighbor (what finked on one of his fellow gang members) with his two pals (future director Mark Rydell, Ivan Cury) unless do-gooder social worker Ben Wagner (Robert Preston) can stop him.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because the teleplay later became a 1956 feature film with Cassavetes reprising his TV role (James Whitmore played Wagner). (The other Elgin Hour carryovers were Rydell as “Lou,” and Will Kuluva as the father of Cury’s character, played in the film by Sal Mineo.) The Crime in the Streets movie was directed by Don Siegel, but the original TV version was helmed by a guy named Sidney Lumet…who didn’t do too badly for himself when it came time to graduate to movies, from what I hear. The Elgin Hour presentation of “Crime” makes for fascinating television; sure, it’s preachy and Cassavetes likes to gnaw a little too much on the scenery…but it’s quite similar to the experience of watching a live stage performance, and I don’t think having more of that on TV nowadays would be a terrible thing (though I could do without the singing and dancing). (I made the right call, by the way, in watching this after my mother went to bed because she would have spent the entire hour bitching about how much she hates Robert Preston.) TDOY fave Glenda Farrell plays Cassavetes’ mother, future film/TV composer Van Dyke Parks is John’s kid brudder, and the announcer for the evening is none other than the legendary Jackson Beck. (You get commercials for Elgin Watches as well as a reminder that next week on The U.S. Steel Hour, it’s their fondly remembered presentation of “No Time for Sergeants,” with Andy Griffith.)
The CBS-TV series Climax! (1954-58) was distinctive in that it was one of the few Tiffany Network programs of that era to be broadcast in color (at a time when, what—six people had a color TV?). The surviving kinescopes are in monochrome, however, and one of those is “No Right to Kill” (08/09/56), in which scribe Victor Wolfson cribs from Fyodor Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment) to fashion a tale about a young writer named Malcolm McCloud (our boy Johnny) who, unknown and not commercially viable despite his talent, decides to off a neighborhood pawn shop lady (Augusta Ciolli). (They make the pawnbroker really despicable, so you sympathize with the McCloud character.) Is Malcolm insane? Is he just misunderstood? Thankfully, “Kill” decides to sidestep the moralizing and instead allows you to watch in suspense as a cop named Porfear (Robert H. Harris of The Goldbergs—the one with Molly Berg, natch) plays a cat-and-mouse game waiting for McCloud to crack. (Spoiler alert: he does, though it’s in the middle of a neighborhood “block party,” which was a nice touch.) Terry Moore is Rosa, a waitress in a dive run by Joe Mantell (yes, seeing both Mantell and Ciolli—who were in Marty—did make me chuckle) who has strong feelings for McCloud despite being engaged to Mantell. I thought this love triangle aspect of the play was far more interesting than the murder investigation, chiefly because Moore and Mantell’s characters are endearingly sympathetic despite the Noo Yawk stereotypes. (Okay, and I would have really enjoyed it if he said: “Forget it, Malcolm…it’s Chinatown.”)
“No Right to Kill” can’t quite measure up to the intensity of “Crime in the Streets” but I still got a kick out of Cassavetes’ tortured performance (I am just a huge fan of his work…and yes, I have been told by [former] friends that I should seek professional help) and the entire presentation is well-handled by Buzz Kulik, one of true veterans of the medium. (I particularly liked the pre-recorded voiceovers from Cassavetes’ character that simulate voices in his head.) Climax! was hosted by William Lundigan, who’s on hand here (along with co-host Mary Costa) to extol the value of owning a Chrysler automobile…and to plug Terry Moore’s latest film, Between Heaven and Hell (1956). (Since I remember Moore chiefly for three films—Mighty Joe Young , Come Back, Little Sheba , and Shack Out on 101 —I suspect she’s wearing a blonde wig instead of going “once more into the bleach” for her role…but it’s still a little jarring, to be honest.) Art Gilmore is also present and accounted for, overseeing the announcing chores at the beginning and end of the telecast.
You may think I’m crazy (though I’m sure some of you reached that conclusion quite some time ago), but there’s something truly electrifying about watching these vintage telecasts. As the back of the Blu-ray notes: “They are surprisingly cinematic, especially considering the impediments those behind the camera had to face — clunky cameras, hot lights, quick set changes, live music and sound effects and always being mindful of keeping microphones out of the frame.” According to TV history, there was a classic Climax! presentation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye where actor Tris Coffin did a Lazarus (he was supposed to be dead) and got up to walk offstage while he was still in the camera shot. It’s what made live TV so fun, as was the case in radio when someone like Mary Livingstone could muff a line about a swiss cheese sandwich (“chiss sweese”) to the delight of the audience (and show writers, who milked the gag in subsequent broadcasts).
There’s also a nifty bonus included with Television’s Lost Classics: since Herbert Brodkin was the producer on The Elgin Hour, there’s a “blooper reel” of goofs and muffs from his other celebrated TV shows like The Nurses and The Defenders, demonstrating that there’s nothing more satisfying than hearing E.G. Marshall drop a few F-bombs. (Shout! Factory—if you’re reading this—you’re way behind on the Defenders releases. Just sayin’.) Pick up this wonderful disc and join us in October when Volume 2 will be released (with goodies that include the pilot for Racket Squad, a busted Nero Wolfe audition, and The Life of Riley…with Lon Chaney, Jr.?).