GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION, THE (THE CRITERION COLLECTION) - DVD review

The Comedian is a scathing behind-the-scenes look at a fictional variety show hosted by the lovable Sammy Hogarth (Mickey Rooney).

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Christopher
Long

Two weeks ago, ABC proudly announced the reboot of "V" as the "television event of the year." This week, AMC begged to differ, declaring its reboot of "The Prisoner" as the "television event of the year." I think Jon Stewart would describe these as "the television events of the year of the week."

When you can TIVO it, or watch clips online, wait for the re-run, or buy it on DVD a few months later, is it really an "event" anymore? It's more like a product launch, your first of many chances to watch what advertisers tell you everyone else will be watching. It's a commodity before it's ever broadcast, an item to be passed around and sampled at your leisure. Don't worry about being in any particular place at any particular time. You can catch up to it eventually.

In the Golden Age of Television, they had real "television events." These were live dramas broadcast once then usually not seen again unless the cast was assembled later for another performance. If you weren't there last night at eight o' clock, you didn't get to see "Requiem for a Heavyweight." Ever.

Or at least not for a while. Fortunately, the live broadcasts were recorded by kinescope which involved pointing the camera at the live feed on set. The kinescopes were rather poor in quality and were not considered acceptable for re-broadcast in most cases. They remained stored on the shelves until the home video age arrived in the 70s and created a new market. Demand existed not just because of new technology but also because the generation that grew up when the long-term outlook for television was somewhat tenuous now wanted to recapture the early days of the medium that has come to define American culture and often to shape its behavior.

In 1981, public television carried a program called, appropriately enough, "The Golden Age of Television." It was curated by former TV executive Sonny Fox and brought the landmark events of early 50s television to a new audience as well as to their original viewers. These broadcasts had hardly been forgotten. They helped legitimize television as a competitor for stage and cinema, after all. But they had been talked about in text books rather than seen.

This Criterion set, also called "The Golden Age of Television" now brings eight of these early live broadcasts to yet another new generation and once again to their original audience. These shows featured writers, directors and actors whose names remain well-known today. Rod Serling's screenplays for shows like "Patterns" (1955) and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1956) made him a superstar although he is much better known today for "The Twilight Zone." Paddy Chayefsky ("Network") also solidified his reputation here with the groundbreaking "Marty" (1953), the show credited by curator Ron Simon as "a turning point in the development of live television." Directors John Frankenheimer and Delbert Mann also got their starts during this time. The performers represented in this set, some of whom are now identified with the formative years of The Method in America, are still household names in many cases: Paul Newman, Rod Steiger, Cliff Robertson, Andy Griffith, Jack Palance, Mickey Rooney, Kim Hunter, Julie Harris, etc.

Knowing nothing about these landmark broadcasts, I was surprised by the elaborate camerawork. Though this was live theater, the shows were shot with multiple cameras and used frequent dollies and zooms along with on-the-fly editing that required pinpoint precision from the performers as well as the crew. Though scene changes were generally accomplished only after commercial breaks, ambitious directors like Frankenheimer actually used the multiple camera setups to create live montages.

There are eight shows included in the set, of which I have watched five. My favorite is also probably the best known. "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (Oct 11, 1956), written by Rod Serling and directed by Ralph Nelson, features Jack Palance as a washed up boxer, already a broken down horse at the ripe old age of 33, who struggles to find work and an identity after a doctor declares him unfit to continue fighting. His long-time manager Maish (Keenan Wynn) is ready to dump his no-longer reliable meal ticket, leaving the poor innocent palooka shaken to his very core until potential redemption arrives in the form of a helpful employment agency worker with the not-coincidental name of Grace (Kim Hunter). Palance can be overwrought but his Mountain McClintock is an undeniably charming character.

Another Serling-scripted project "The Comedian" (Feb 14, 1957), directed by John Frankenheimer, is a scathing behind-the-scenes look at a fictional variety show hosted by the lovable Sammy Hogarth. Lovable to everyone except the people that know Sammy, that is. Off-screen, he's a selfish, egotistical, womanizing tyrant who sees everyone else as a means to his own ends. Hogarth is played by Mickey Rooney in a darker role than most people usually associate with good ol' Andy Hardy. Rooney is a pint-sized monster who Serling must have been thinking of when he adapted Jerome Bixby's short story for the now iconic Bill Mumy role in "It's a Good Life." Mel Torme isn't quite as accomplished as Sammy's much-abused brother but Edmond O'Brien shines as Sammy's also-abused head writer. Don't look for a neat and tidy ending here.

Most of the live drama broadcasts were dramas, but "No Time for Sergeants" (March 15, 1955) was a rare comic success starring a largely unknown stand-up comic named Andy Griffith. Griffith plays a proto-Gomer Pyle role as Will Stockdale, a bumpkin drafted into the Air Force without a clue in the world as to how life outside his little town in Georgia works. His shenanigans spell trouble for his poor, scheming Sergeant (Harry Clark) and generally disrupt the barracks. I can't say the comedy held up well for me, but it's still a kick to see a young Griffith two years before his star-making turn in "A Face in the Crowd."

Other shows in the set include the original version of the baseball tragedy "Bang the Drum Slowly" (featuring Paul Newman), "Marty" starring Rod Steiger in the role that would later net Ernest Borgnine an Oscar, office drama "Patterns" (also written by Serling), and two shows I haven't yet seen: "A Wind from the South" starring Julie Harris and the alcoholic drama "Days of Wine and Roses" starring Cliff Robertson.

There are three discs in the set:

DISC ONE

"Marty" – 52 min. – Originally broadcast on "Goodyear Television Playhouse" on May 24, 1953. Dir. Delbert Mann. Written by Paddy Chayefsky. Starring Rod Steiger.

"Patterns" – 53 min. - Originally broadcast on "Kraft Television Theatre" on Jan 12, 1955. Dir. Fielder Cook. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Everett Sloane, Ed Begley, Richard Kiley and Elizabeth Wilson.

"No Time for Sergeants" – 50 min. - Originally broadcast on "The United States Steel Hour" on March 15, 1955. Dir. Alex Segal, Adapted by Ira Levin, Based on the Novel by Mac Hyman. Starring Andy Griffith, Harry Clark, and Eddie Le Roy.

DISC TWO

"A Wind from the South" – 51 min. - Originally broadcast on "The United States Steel Hour" on Sep 11, 1955. Dir. Daniel Petrie, Written by James Costigan. Starring Julie Harris and Donald Woods.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" – 52 min. - Originally broadcast on "The United States Steel Hour" on Sep 26, 1956. Dir. Daniel Petrie, Adapted by Arnold Schulman From the Book by Mark Harris. Starring Paul Newman and Albert Salmi.

"Requiem for a Heavyweight" – 73 min. - Originally broadcast on "Playhouse 90" on Oct 11, 1956. Dir. Ralph Nelson, Written by Rod Serling. Starring Jack Palance, Keenan Wynn, Ed Wynn, and Kim Hunter.

DISC THREE

"The Comedian" – 74 min. - Originally broadcast on "Playhouse 90" on Feb 14, 1957. Dir. John Frankenheimer, Written by Rod Serling from a Novelette by Ernest Lehman. Starring Mickey Rooney, Kim Hunter, Edmond O'Brien and Mel Torme.

"Days of Wine and Roses" – 80 min. - Originally broadcast on "Playhouse 90" on Oct 2, 1958. Dir. John Frankenheimer, Written by J.P. Miller. Starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie.

VIDEO

All of the episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 full screen ratios as originally broadcast. The kinescopes aren't great in quality. They were recorded by pointing the camera at the live video feed, after all. I would guess that Criterion has performed some video enhancement to improve the resolution because these all look a lot better than previous kinescopes I have seen. The biggest drawback to the kinescopes is not the mediocre image resolution but the poor black-and-white contrast, but it can't be helped. These look a far sight better than plenty of movies I have on VHS, and there's nothing that will hinder your enjoyment of the shows.

AUDIO

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio and are helpful in some sequences with somewhat spotty audio. The audio has its share of rough spots, but it's generally solid.

EXTRAS

In 1981, the public television anthology series "The Golden Age of Television" broadcast these eight shows. These broadcasts were preceded by substantial introductions hosted by well-known actors and including brief interviews with some cast and crew from the show. These introductions are included with each of the shows in the boxed set. Hosts include Eva Marie Saint, Keenan Wynn, Roddy McDowell, Merv Griffin, Cliff Robertson, Jack Klugman, Carl Reiner, and Julie Harris.

Criterion has also included four commentary tracks that I believe were recorded at the time of the 1981 public television broadcasts. They are partial and spotty. Delbert Mann offers commentary on "Marty;" Daniel Petrie on "Bang the Drum Slowly;" Ralph Nelson on "Requiem for a Heavyweight;" John Frankenheimer on "The Comedian."

"The Comedian" also includes excerpts from a 1980 interview with Frankenheimer (9 min.)

The insert booklet is indispensable for anyone trying to navigate this expansive set, and particularly for critics trying to cover it. Ron Simon is the curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media. He offers an introduction to the set and extensive descriptions for each individual program.

SET VALUE

Rod Serling fans will certainly be interested in a set that features three of his career-making screenplays: "Patterns," "Requiem for a Heavyweight," and "The Comedian." The package has plenty to offer for other viewers as well. To my taste, the acting in these live dramas is sometimes too over the top, giving the impression that we are, at times, watching stage actors who haven't toned it down for the intimacy of the close-up shot. But the live broadcasts are also far more technically polished than I ever would have expected. "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and "The Comedian" were the two highlights of the set for me, the second of which shows a nasty side that I never knew Mickey Rooney had. He's really sensational.

As an archival project, this is invaluable for offering a glimpse at the early dramas (and one comedy) that helped to establish a medium that has defined the past sixty years. Criterion has expanded its canon once again, and "The Golden Age of Television" is a welcome addition to the collection.

Ratings

Video
6
Audio
6
Extras
6
Film Value
8