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Monthly Archives: April 2012

My Television Diary: 4/23/12

I don’t watch as much TV as you might think. Not as much as I’d like, anyway. On a work night I’m lucky to see more than two episodes of anything— there’s never enough time. But until today, I got to enjoy a blissful three-day weekend with nothing I had to do, and nowhere I had to go. Our first heatwave of the year discouraged any outdoor adventures. So I filled the idle hours with pizza, ice cream and vintage television. Lots and lots of all three.

Thriller (2:03, “The Premature Burial”), October 2, 1961

I’ve been wading into the legendary second season of Thriller for the very first time, and I like what I’m seeing. This episode had Boris Karloff in it, but in a supporting role, which turned out to be just as well. For once an Edgar Allan Poe story didn’t have the actual Poe content stripped out of it, and Douglas Heyes did a superb job of directing. Moody and spooky, there was a lot to enjoy here, not the least of which was a fortyish but thoroughly sexy Patricia Medina as the female lead. Last but not least, the transfer on this Image DVD was outstanding, a major improvement over the ridiculously out-of-sync episode I’d seen a week earlier (“The Guillotine”). But what’s with the theme music for this show? Who decided that an upbeat jazz score would be the perfect theme for a horror series?

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One Step Beyond (1:10, “The Vision”), March 24, 1959

I don’t watch One Step Beyond for thrills, but to enjoy an offbeat story about the paranormal, one that’s purportedly true and might actually be true. This one, about the effects of a curiously bright light in the night sky on November 14, 1915, was just okay and never really came to life for me. An unusually heavy and balding pre-Bonanza Pernell Roberts headed the cast. Apparently, something unusual really was seen that night, but a cursory Google search didn’t turn up much, and by then I was too sleepy to dig any further.

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The Streets of San Francisco (1:16, “The Set-Up”), January 25, 1973

I have only the faintest memories of this show’s original run and I never watched it. But now that I live in the San Francisco area, I’m addicted to it. Karl Malden is terrific, and I love the location shooting. For all I can tell, it was shot entirely on location, even the interiors.

I’ll have more to say about this series another time, but this particular episode stood out more for the supporting cast than for anything else. Jack Albertson was on hand as a blind barkeep, Stuart Whitman rode out from his sadly cancelled Cimarron Strip to play a hit man, and there was even an appearance by Claudine Longet, of all people. She’s confined to one short scene, but the fairly pedestrian script sprang to life for it. I wish Quinn Martin had cast her as the shooter, considering her later experience with loaded firearms, but you can’t have everything.

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Suspense (1:02, “Suspicion”), March 15, 1949

I got to wondering what the oldest broadcast in my collection is, and so far this is it. I’d just gotten the Infinity boxed set of 90 episodes, transferred from an unexpected cache of kinescopes that someone turned up somewhere, and I was eager for a taste. (Just for the record, you don’t get 90 episodes of this series; you get 88, plus an episode from an unrelated 1963 series of the same name, and an episode from some other series, I forget which.)

Anyway, this was a Dorothy Sayers story I’d already seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1:08, “Our Cook’s a Treasure”), so there wasn’t a lot of suspense in store for me. But it was all right. Playing the leads were Ernest Truex, an actor who’d worked with Mary Pickford in 1913, and Sylvia Field, who would later become familiar as the sweet old neighbor lady on Dennis the Menace. Not a bad show, and staged pretty well too.

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Overland Trail (1:01, “Perilous Passage”), February 7, 1960

This was a mid-season replacement that didn’t get picked up in the fall, so I was prepared to be disappointed with this. But it was really pretty good.

First, the negative. Series star William Bendix is just plain miscast as a stagecoach boss in the Old West. He doesn’t do a bad job, but he’s just wrong for the part, and there isn’t any chemistry with the second lead, played by a young Doug McClure. Now McClure is perfect, as Bendix’s stage-driving employee, and everything else about the show works too. It was produced by Samuel Peeples, best remembered as one of the creative spirits behind Star Trek.

Guest-starring in this debut episode is Harry Guardino, who doesn’t make much of an impression. Far better is perennial outlaw Robert Foulk, who outdoes himself here as Cole Younger. Menacing and psychotic, he opens the episode by heaving a load of dynamite into the path of an oncoming stagecoach, which blows up noisily practically beneath the hooves of the unfortunate horses.

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Also this weekend, I saw a startlingly bad episode of an obscure series which has otherwise been a joy for me to discover. I hate to poison the well by mentioning the series now, but I’ll have more to say about it later. It’s a good little show, believe me.

I expected the highlight of the weekend to be the Twin Peaks pilot. I’ve only seen the series twice, and not at all in the past decade, so it’s high time to revisit this old favorite and watch it again from the very beginning. Only when the moment arrived, and I had a warm pizza box in my lap did I discover to my dismay that the old edition of Season One on my shelf didn’t include the pilot. It kicks off with the first episode of the regular series, whose “Previously… on Twin Peaks” opening flashback sequence only irritated me about what I wasn’t getting to see.

I made a hasty substitution and watched Deal (1977) instead, a behind-the-scenes documentary about Let’s Make a Deal that was bound to be mostly boring and was.

Oh well. There’s always next weekend.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2012 in My Television Diary

 

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The Kinescope Collector

The surviving examples of early live television only exist because they were recorded on 16mm film. (Basically, a movie camera was pointed at a TV monitor in the studio, or at a TV station. The resulting film was called a kinescope.) Collecting 16mm film prints is a hobby that’s been around for decades, but the vast majority of collectors have been movie buffs who regard television as the hated interloper that destroyed the Golden Age of Hollywood. Okay, I’m embellishing a little. Most of them are just more intrigued with entertainment of the 1920s-1940s than with stuff from the 1950s-1960s, and I can understand that. I was that way myself. I was an active film collector for a third of a century, but all I ever bought were silent movies— apart from a few episodes of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and an ep of Kung Fu that I still haven’t gotten around to watching.

Nowadays I’m pumping my collector friends for stories about any rare kinescopes they’ve found over the years. One of the best things about finding one is that you very possibly have the only existing copy of a broadcast that’s otherwise lost.

I know of a long-time collector in Southern California who was devoted to searching out rare early kinescopes. He prefers to remain anonymous here, but he’s justifiably proud of the rarities he’s found, and he agreed to a little interview.

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Me: Thanks so much for taking part. How did you happen to become interested in collecting 16mm kinescopes?

Mr. X: I did some minor collecting of 8mm films after my grandparents gave me a late-1940s Revere projector (which I still have, and it still runs). I was one of those audio-visual geeks in elementary school, junior- and high-school, up until college. I started operating 16mm projectors around 1963, but never really developed an interest for 16mm until the late ’70s.

Captain Video and His Video Rangers

In 1979, when I was living in Northern California, I was watching Creature Features on KTVU Channel 2. They advertised a retrospective of early ’50s science fiction TV shows at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley. I went to this, and an instant interest developed. They showed TV episodes such as Space Patrol, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, and Tales of Tomorrow, among others that were made before I was born and had never seen before.

I started out as a novice collector, getting a little of everything– TV shows, features, cartoons, serials, etc. I subscribed to The Big Reel and other periodicals. I soon made contact with some people who had kinescopes for sale or trade. No stopping from there!

In the 1980s, and in the pre-eBay days of the 1990s, there were many kinescopes around for sale. However, as more and more collectors began to seek them out, they became scarcer and scarcer. I moved to Southern California and met a lot of collectors in Los Angeles. I really started to seek out kinescopes everywhere. However, even at that time they were becoming harder to find.

Man Against Crime

Then eBay hit. Suddenly there were no more fixed prices, and now I had to compete in bidding wars with deep-pocketed collectors, archives and international groups, so it started to slow to a crawl, unfortunately. A few people I knew kept an eye open for me on private lists, contacts and off-eBay sites. I still found a few pieces. However, the days of easy pickings and low prices drew to a close in the ’90s.

On that day when I attended that showing at the Lawrence Hall of Science, one of the films they showed had an unusual network ID. “This is the DuMont television network.” I had never heard of television networks other than the big three (NBC, CBS, ABC). What was this “DuMont” network? I then searched and discovered there had been a fourth network, started by television pioneer Dr. Alan B. DuMont from 1946 to 1955, and later closed/sold to Metromedia in 1956.

There were no 16mm kinescopes of their shows around, as they supposedly were destroyed in the late 1950s. Later on in my collecting days, suddenly some 16mm kinescopes (aka telerecordings) of DuMont TV shows showed up, and I was able to pick up a few, such as The Adventures of Ellery Queen, Rocky King: Inside Detective, and Captain Video and His Video Rangers.

Rocky King: Inside Detective

The only shows that seemed to exist on film were in archives such as UCLA’s, or (now) digitally at some other museums. These are by far the most interesting, since they are virtually non-existent (especially for collectors).

There are so many interesting kinescopes to mention, some of which I still have— and some I do not, for various reasons (primarily financial). An interesting genre that I have a few examples of are the TV detectives, such as Rocky King on DuMont, but also NBC’s Man Against Crime starring Ralph Bellamy and Martin Kane: Private Eye, starring Lee Tracy.

I’ve always been partial to science fiction, such as Space Patrol, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet and Tales of Tomorrow, and I have some fine kinescope examples of these shows. Despite limited budgets and crude technology, for their time they provided entertainment for both children and adults.

Lastly, a big area for me in my collection is dramatic anthologies, such as Studio One, Playhouse 90, The U.S. Steel Hour, Motorola TV Playhouse, Philco TV Playhouse, Robert Montgomery Presents, Climax! and others, when a new play was presented every week, live from New York.

Most TV shows from 1948-1958 were telecast from New York, and only a few like Playhouse 90, Climax! and Space Patrol originated in Hollywood.

Me: Have you found many one-off broadcasts? In other words, specials, newscasts, or local broadcasts from the Golden Age?

Mr. X: There are several I’ve had in my collection that are worth mentioning. One is especially timely, with the passing of Mike Wallace. I have a local New York CBS show he hosted on location in 1950, called All Around the Town, before its CBS network run in 1951/52. They visit a Standard Oil refinery in New Jersey, just across the river from New York City. Lots of technical problems, bad monitors, cameras etc. Quite crude but still very enjoyable! I still have this in my collection.

Another one was a local TV pilot show from Philadelphia with Hollywood actor Dick Foran, called The Phantom Sheriff. No one seems to know anything about this, and it appeared to be a work print (edits, grease pencil marks, cues etc.), which may or may not have been aired. It’s a western, shot back east on a TV station backlot, circa 1950s, so this is a real mystery. A collector friend from Philadelphia desperately wanted this, so I no longer have it.

Finally, I have some prints of a long-running TV show from San Francisco (it ran from 1952 to 1966, apparently), called Science in Action, produced by the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, in SF. Wonderfully crude, but entertaining at the same time. I have several of these, and they were run on local TV in San Francisco in that time period.

I look forward to your blog.

Me: Thanks, Mr. X!

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2012 in 1950s Shows

 

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My Television Diary: 4/18/12

Medic (1:11, “The Wild Intruder”), December 6, 1954

I bought Timeless’ recent DVD release of Medic purely on the hunch that I’d like it if I gave it a try. And I do like it, very much.

Simply put, Medic is to healthcare what Dragnet is to police work. You meet someone who’s got a health situation, and then you follow along the whole journey from discovery to diagnosis to treatment to… whatever the consequences are. The medical procedures are covered in quite a lot of detail, and actual doctors and nurses are seen at work.

All in the Family drew a lot of attention in the 1970s with an episode in which Edith Bunker discovers a lump in her breast. That was very daring television for the time. But it had already been done twenty years earlier, tastefully but just as frankly, in this Medic episode. Vera Miles plays a troubled young woman who tells her fiance she can’t marry him after all.

They sit together on her porch in half-darkness. Reluctantly, she whispers the truth. “I’m sick— there’s something… wrong with me…(long pause)… I’ve got a… lump in my chest.”

Breast cancer has already killed other women in her family, and she sees no possibility for herself but an early grave. But she’s persuaded to talk to her doctor. He encourages her to be optimistic. She’s not very convinced, but she agrees to undergo testing. Next comes a biopsy.

During this procedure (as narrator Richard Boone tells us), a surgeon takes a tissue sample from the lump. In the pathology lab, thin slices of the tissue are examined under a microscope, all while the patient remains in surgery.

You can guess what will happen next. The news will come back that the tumor is benign. She’s going to be fine.

But no. Not this time. The pathologist returns to the operating room. “Sorry, George,” he tells the surgeon. “It’s malignant.”

Grim-faced, the surgeon wastes no time. A radical mastectomy is performed immediately. That was all they could do in the 1950s.

The rest of the episode concerns the patient’s attempts to come to grips with it all.The script is very good, and Vera Miles proves what a fine actress she was, with or without Alfred Hitchcock.

Executive-produced by Studio One veteran Worthington Miner with the support of the Los Angeles County Medical Association, Medic tried to be more than just another hospital melodrama. It succeeded. The patients are unglamorous. The women are pleasantly plain-looking and the guys wear bow ties and old shoes. They’re middle Americans in the middle of the American Century. Everyday people. People who live in little houses or little apartments, people who walk to work because they don’t have a car, people whose greatest ambition is to marry and raise a family and live their lives together.

The show introduces them to you— one or two of them, as each episode gets under way— and has you on their side in no time. You sympathize with whatever malady they’re dealing with (a bad heart, hearing loss, whatever it is), and you root for their full recovery and a return to normalcy.

Sometimes they get it. Sometimes not.

You can yank yourself out of Medic‘s spell, if you want to. It’s just an old TV show, after all. But it’s better if you don’t. Let it move you, and it will.

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Arthur Godfrey Time, date unknown (circa 1958)

Arthur Godfrey is sort of an enigma. You can’t really grasp who he was, or what he did on the air, without sampling his work. But there isn’t a lot of it out there.

You can read about him, but that gives you knowledge without understanding (and much of what’s accessible, like Wikipedia’s entry, is fairly hostile to him).

You just have to experience him. Throughout the 1950s, he was on television virtually on a daily basis. There was Arthur Godfrey Time, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, numerous guest appearances— hundreds if not thousands of hours of it all. Very little of it survives now. I do have this one episode, though, a copy of a copy of a kinescope.

I wish I could summarize Godfrey’s power and appeal in a couple of pithy, insightful paragraphs, but I can’t. I doubt anyone could. They’re unexplainable.

The television version of Arthur Godfrey Time was an extension of his full-length radio show. It’s basically fifteen minutes of Godfrey, sitting in a chair and talking. Muttering, almost. But talking— and not to an audience, not to his guests, but to you. You personally.

It’s a nearly empty stage. Godfrey slouches languidly in a chair, as relaxed as a man can be and still remain conscious. Seated in a semi-circle around him are several guests, all of whom are visibly tense to varying degrees. They include Meredith Willson, who chats a little about The Music Man, and Faye Emerson, who sits bolt upright with her hands tightly folded in her lap and never stops grinning.

And Godfrey rambles along. About anything and nothing. There was a moment in there about how he used to woo his future wife by playing the ukelele for her while they drifted along the Potomac. He gets up and does a live commercial, demonstrating how well Glamorene will clean your carpet. And he rambles some more. And suddenly— seemingly after only four or five minutes of all this— the quarter-hour is up. We see a flash of the big CBS eye logo and it’s all over.

The next day, you can’t remember a single thing you saw or heard. But you remember he had your full attention.

I submit to you one helpless shrug. I can’t explain it.

 
 

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Blood on the Hands of Gomer Pyle

I’m not writing in praise of Gomer Pyle – USMC, or to sneer at it. I haven’t really watched it since I was a kid. I remember it being an okay show, the sort of thing you watched because something you really liked was coming on afterward, or because it was too hot to go outside.

Jim Nabors did a fine job in the title role, proving himself a very capable comic actor and one with considerable personal charm as well.

But in spite of his friendly grin and folksy drawl, Gomer Pyle was a killer. A competition killer. A cold, remorseless destroyer of anything a network might send against him.

The first and most familiar example was Jack Benny, unquestionably one of the greatest and most popular performers in the history of broadcasting. I would argue that Benny lost a step in the late 1950s, when he stopped recording his show in front of a live audience— I think it threw his comedic timing off a little, but that’s a debate for another time. The Jack Benny Program was still great. It continued to be a hit too, tied for 12th place in the Nielsens for the 1963/64 season.

And then came Gomer, his finger on the trigger.

In May 1964, the last episode of The Andy Griffith Show‘s season was basically the debut of Gomer Pyle – USMC. The spin-off was already a go, and the series held the 9:30 slot on CBS’s Friday night schedule throughout the 1964/65 season. Its competition was Twelve O’Clock High on ABC and The Jack Benny Program on NBC. The result was a pair of notches on Gomer’s gun.

ABC shows tended to underperform in the ratings anyway, but the mortal blow to The Jack Benny Program was a shock. Benny had been a primetime staple since 1932 on radio, and on television since 1950.

Benny claimed in an unpublished autobiography that his show was still a hit that fateful season of 1964/65, citing a weekly audience figure of 18,000,000. But the Nielsen figures don’t agree, not even close— the only show of the season with such an audience was Bonanza at 19,130.100. Gomer Pyle – USMC emerged in third place in the Nielsens for the season, with an average audience of 16,178,900. Benny’s show didn’t finish in Nielsen’s top thirty.

For the 1965/66 season, Gomer continued on Fridays on CBS, airing a half-hour earlier. The opposition was a pair of debuts— Honey West on ABC and the last half of Convoy on NBC. Neither show returned for a second season, and neither finished in Nielsen’s top thirty. Gomer Pyle – USMC rated #2 for the season.

For 1966/67, Gomer marched over to Wednesdays, looking for new victims. His opposition in the 9:30 time slot was Peyton Place on ABC and the last half-hour of Bob Hope’s show on NBC. (Hope’s comedy/variety series alternated weeks with Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater.) The results were predictable. Gomer came away with a bruise or two, slipping to a tie for tenth place in the Nielsens. But Hope’s Chrysler Theater scored only 26th and did not return in the fall. Peyton Place was relocated to Mondays with its lowest ratings to date.

Gomer Pyle – USMC returned to CBS’s Friday evening lineup for the 1967/68 season, airing at 8:30. This time, the competition was ABC’s Hondo and the first half-hour of the legendary Star Trek on NBC.

The previous season, Star Trek had survived CBS’s My Three Sons on Thursdays with ratings that were okay but not great. Its small but passionate legion of fans had every reason to feel apprehensive now. Gomer Pyle loomed as menacingly as a Klingon battle cruiser, and was even more destructive. His ratings actually improved, scoring third place in the Nielsens for the season. Hondo was obliterated and Star Trek was slated for cancellation as well. Only a well-publicized outpouring of begging and pleading from its fan base saved the show for a final season, which it spent in a later time slot.

Gomer was as formidable as ever in the 1968/69 season, remaining on Fridays at 8:30. ABC moved its veteran crime show Felony Squad into position to shoot it out with the Mayberry Marine, only to be cut down by plunging ratings. Its last episode aired in January 1969.

Perhaps surprisingly, NBC fared better with The Name of the Game, which failed to crack the top thirty but nevertheless survived until March 1971. The clear winner as always was Gomer Pyle – USMC, scoring #2 in the Nielsens. It was also CBS’s highest-rated show for that season.

And then— it was suddenly over. Just as Andy Griffith had done with his own show the year before, Jim Nabors left to pursue new opportunities. With sighs of relief gusting through the halls of NBC and ABC, Gomer Pyle hung up his rifle. The carnage was over.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2012 in 1960s Shows

 

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My Television Diary: 4/11/12

Tales of Tomorrow (1:13, “Sneak Attack”), December 7, 1951

When you look into the early days of live television, one thing you learn in a hurry is that it wasn’t all Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Steiger. Your towering legendary powerhouse productions were the exception, not the rule.

The typical live TV drama was less like “Requiem for a Heavyweight” than like this Tales of Tomorrow episode. I’m not saying it was bad, and I’m not saying it can be enjoyed only to the extent that one can laugh at it. I’m just saying it was ordinary.

But an ordinary silent melodrama of 1925 can still be fascinating as an historical document, and so it is with this. And just like the silent, there’s a lot to enjoy if you’re attuned to it.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was exactly one slender decade old when this little spy drama went over the air, and the script mentions Pearl Harbor specifically. A certain large and powerful Eastern European country has landed giant drone airplanes at every large American city. One by one, they explode by remote control, destroying everything for miles around and killing thousands. But it just so happens that an American spy is recovering in an Eastern European hospital, and you’ll never guess what’s in the room right next door to his. That’s right, it’s the headquarters for the entire sinister operation!

Zachary Scott, a promising mid-1940s film actor now on his way down the ladder, plays the leading role with all the brash cockiness you’d expect from a fictional mid-century American spy. Danger? Ha! He laughs at danger! And his irresistible sex appeal soon wins the heart of his heavily-accented doctor (Barbara Joyce)— not to mention her cooperation.

I don’t need to watch this episode again any time soon, but it was good fun, and an interesting time capsule. The plot device of unmanned aircraft wreaking such massive destruction was a typical sci-fi howler for the 1950s, but it’s uncomfortably close to reality today.

I wonder if these writers ever thought of doing a story about America six decades in the future, in which the country spends a trillion dollars a year on defense and still doesn’t feel safe.

Nahh… who’d believe it?

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Lights Out (3:44, “The Passage Beyond”), June 25, 1951

I’d never heard anything good about NBC’s Lights Out television show, so I wasn’t in any hurry to watch one until I discovered I had this beautiful kinescope on a compilation disc.

The episode opens radio-style, with a creepy host (veteran radio announcer Frank Gallop) introducing the story. The good news is that it’s a gothic ghost story, set in a big dark mansion. The bad news is that for a long time, nothing happens but conversation.

Actually, that’s not so bad, because the script is pretty solid. A love triangle has developed in a mansion where, long ago, a similar love triangle had ended in murder. The murderess is now said to haunt the place.

I really have to hand it to director William Corrigan, who had one big stage to work with and made a spooky old mansion out of it, largely by shadows and flickering firelight. A story like this really needs atmosphere to work, and Corrigan delivered.

The actors were just about perfect as well. About 98% of the episode was carried by only three performers, who had a great deal of heavy dialogue to lift. And all of that was delivered flawlessly in elegant Mid-Atlantic accents. There wasn’t a stammer or stutter to be heard, and no panicked searching for off-stage cue-cards, either.

I said earlier that it seemed like this episode is all about people talking. Well, that’s true up to a point. But once character development is out of the way, the love triangle is revealed and ghost stories are told, things start moving. I don’t want to give away too much, but the script pretty much delivers exactly what you want it to, and there’s even a happy ending.

The bells were tolling for Lights Out itself, though, and there wasn’t a happy ending in store for the series. It was haunted this season by the red-headed specter of Lucille Ball, whose I Love Lucy was its direct competition over on CBS. In September the following year, the lights went out forever.

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Captain Z-Ro (“Magellan”), syndicated 1955/56

“Contact has been established. We now transmit you direct to the laboratory of Captain Z-Ro! Please stand by.”

So begins another adventure through time and space with the Captain, whose lab is equipped with all sorts of futuristic-looking gizmos, including a teleportation chamber with a stylish Art Deco design entirely lacking in Star Trek‘s utilitarian version.

From an undisclosed location “somewhere in a remote uncharted region” of the Earth, the Captain monitors the past, as scenes from history appear on his giant video screen. When he finds things unfolding in an historically inaccurate way, he teleports back in time to set things back on course.

In this episode, he scans the year 1520, and spies Ferdinand Magellan’s crew threatening to mutiny, which would have kept the explorer from being the first man to sail around the world. Zipping back through time, Captain Z-Ro prevents the mutiny and the voyage continues. It would’ve been nice for Magellan if Captain Z-Ro had also prevented his upcoming death at the hands of angry Filipinos, but apparently there was pressing business back at the lab.

Originally produced by San Francisco’s KRON as a 15-minute local show, Captain Z-Ro graduated to a half-hour filmed production, syndicated for the 1955/56 season. By all indications, the venture was successful, but a legal dispute between the producers and the syndicator put the Captain out of business thereafter.

Yes, the show is silly kid stuff, but that’s its charm. There’s a lot of imagination, a brisk pace, and a discreet history lesson or two. The Captain enlists his 13-year-old assistant “Jet” to do a lot of the time-traveling by himself, providing his young audience someone to envy.

Those of us watching from a more cynical era may wonder if Jet’s parents are aware that their son is spending a lot of unsupervised time alone with a flamboyant mentor who doesn’t seem to have a wife or girlfriend. But then educational television is supposed to be thought-provoking, isn’t it?

 
 

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My Television Diary: 4/7/12

The Jerry Lewis Show (November 5, 1957)

Jerry Lewis has always been a love-him-or-hate-him comedian. He has fans who will explain at length why he ranks among the very greatest comedians of the 20th Century. Most of us would need a whole lot of persuasion to accept that idea. I’m not particularly a Lewis fan, but he does have his moments, so I watched this 1957 special with an open mind.

It’s a blend of the best and worst of Jerry Lewis. Right at the opening, we’re treated to Jerry’s familiar Al Jolson impression, which he always performed very straight and very sincerely. Personally, I think every Jolson impression is a bad Jolson impression, but at least this one doesn’t last long.

Next there’s a sketch in which Jerry’s a goony kid in the audience of a teenage dance show, hoping to win the new bicycle they’re giving away. It’s not a bad sketch, and there was one throwaway line I loved. Jerry gives his name to the show’s host (Jan Murray), a long silly name. “How do you spell that?” “My mother helps me.”

But the sketch runs on too long, and ends on a sad note— Jerry doesn’t win the bike. What should have been a bittersweet, wistful little finale instead becomes a protractedly mawkish one as Lewis lathers on the pathos. But that’s all right. The sketch is okay. There’s another lengthy one in the second half, in which Jerry’s a repairman atop a telephone pole, watching a theatrical producer plan a show with his staff. Jerry climbs in through the window to share some ideas with the producer (Paul Lynde, of all people!), and generally get in trouble. There are some very good moments, but once again the sketch is too long, and ends badly as Jerry turns a soprano’s solo rehearsal into an unwelcome duet. Lewis’ loveable little schnook character sometimes morphs into an overbearing jerk, and it happens here.

Throughout the show, the strategy of Jerry making silly faces into the camera is employed in place of actual material. To a point, that works. But only to a point. The scripted stuff isn’t bad at all, and Lewis performs it perfectly well, but he can’t stop with the monkey faces.

Unexpectedly, the show concludes with a fresh idea, in which Jerry’s studio orchestra gets into a musical duel with the Woody Herman Orchestra. This bit is very satisfying, but suddenly the hour is over. If this special had been trimmed to a half-hour by a wise but firm producer (one able to say no to Mr. Lewis), this would’ve been a solid show. Instead, it’s an interesting curio.

Who Do You Trust? (date unknown, circa 1960)

So far, the only thing I’ve gotten around to watching on Mill Creek’s four-disc set The Best of Johnny Carson and Friends was this one program, which I selected at random. It was a lucky choice.

In the late 1950s, Johnny Carson was more or less demoted to daytime television after an ABC variety show sputtered out. But his Midwestern charm and a genius for witty conversation rescued this You Bet Your Life knockoff, and resurrected his career in the process.

I’ll bet he remembered this particular episode for a good little while, because his first contestant becomes trapped in the show’s isolation booth when its door won’t open.

It’s a live broadcast. Unable to force the door open himself, Johnny is clearly flustered, but he soldiers on with the show, moving on to the next pair of contestants. A stagehand can be seen in the background setting up a giant ladder next to the isolation booth. The camera occasionally cuts away to the trapped contestant, who grins helplessly and eventually sits down cross-legged inside the booth to wait out his confinement.

Johnny does his best to engage his new contestants in snappy repartee, but his eyes constantly dart to an off-screen monitor to see how the stagehand is doing with that door.

Finally, the contestant is freed, and in the background he can be seen walking off-stage, waving affably to the studio audience. Johnny carries on with the show. All in a day’s work.

 

 

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (3:2, “The Werewolf,” September 25, 1966)

When I realized I had an episode of this show with a werewolf in it, I watched it immediately.

As usual for an Irwin Allen series, the first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was quite good, with a lot of imagination and action (not to mention impressive stock footage, lifted from his adventure movies). But by the third season, the monster-of-the-week syndrome had set in. Plot complexity and character development went out the porthole, but at least there were spooks and weird-looking aliens to look at. Lost in Space fans know what I’m talking about

This episode is pretty much what you’d expect. After exploring a mysterious South Pacific island, where he’s attacked by a wolf (evidently a Polynesian wolf), a crew member returns to the Seaview, where he becomes a bloodthirsty werewolf and goes berserk. In the struggle to contain him, Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart) is attacked. It isn’t long before the admiral is sprouting tufts of course hair, and the story kind of goes on from there.

Isn’t this pretty stupid? Well, sure, of course it is. And you have to feel sorry for Richard Basehart, who was really a very fine actor, inexplicably trapped in the silliest program on network television (yes, even sillier than Gilligan’s Island). But if you take it in the spirit in which it’s offered, it’s a fun show. My inner eight-year-old enjoyed this episode. The werewolf make-up was pretty good and there were a lot of things to chuckle at. In fact, if you’re ever looking for a show to watch while drunk, this is it.

 
 

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Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck

A late-comer to the golden age of television anthology was Barbara Stanwyck, whose film career had been on the downswing since the early 1950s. She was eager to do her own television show, but she had no interest in presenting herself as a glamorous film star, or in playing the sort of noble, wise and pure roles that Loretta Young was performing every week. In fact, what she really wanted to do was a western.

Ultimately, she did (The Big Valley, 1965-1969), but first came her own anthology program. The Barbara Stanwyck Show debuted in September 1960 on NBC. Produced by longtime friend Louis Edelman, the program was tailored just for her. Now in her mid-50s, she didn’t try to play girlish roles, and she didn’t darken her rapidly greying hair. As in her most memorable films, she played women who were resourceful, smart, and strong, which is not to say that her characters were necessarily invincible, wise or law-abiding. She played everything from reporter Nellie Bly to a nuclear physicist to an embezzler to a Barbary Coast saloon-keeper to a corporate executive, throwing the same energy and fire into these roles that she’d displayed in her Warner Bros. Pre-Codes. The stories themselves are just as varied: suspense, crime, romance, and even a western or two.

The show enlisted some notable Hollywood talent. Many episodes were shot by Hal Mohr or Nick Musuraca; among its directors were Robert Florey and Jacques Tourneur. Sharing the co-starring duties were stars like Lew Ayres, Dana Andrews, Joseph Cotten, Joan Blondell, Charles Bickford and Ralph Bellamy. The next generation was represented too, by the likes of Lee Marvin, Vic Morrow, Yvonne Craig and (in the season opener, which now seems to be lost) Jack Nicholson.

Thirty minutes an episode, the show ran on NBC, Monday nights at 10:00. That evening’s line-up was pretty weak at the time, offering only token competition to a CBS juggernaut that was led by Danny Thomas and Andy Griffith. Stanwyck’s lead-in was the lackluster Dante, with Jackpot Bowling on after her. The Barbara Stanwyck Show lasted for a full three dozen episodes, but it was not renewed— in fact, NBC replaced its entire Monday night line-up the following season.

Sponsorship issues might also have shortened the show’s lifespan. Alberto VO-5 was the sponsor for a while, whereas in other episodes Stanwyck introduces the program as “your Gas Company Playhouse.” Then again, maybe audiences were just tiring of anthology shows, or turning apprehensive about those offering a whiff of serious drama (as Richard Boone was soon to discover). Science fiction and fantasy anthologies tended to do better at this point, but not even The Twilight Zone was really a ratings hit.

Cancellation must have been a terrible disappointment for Stanwyck, though she put a brave face on it. Watching the available episodes now, you can easily see that she’s giving every role 100%, and she’d worked extremely hard throughout the show’s run, personally starring in all but four episodes. “She arrived on the set before anybody else,” recalled Edelman’s daughter Kate, “and knew everyone’s lines so she could fully support her co-workers. She knew every crew member and their families by name.” The effort paid off. She’s dynamic, elevating a lot of episodes that would otherwise have been mundane anthology stories.

Stanwyck was awarded the Emmy for Best Actress in 1961. (The awards ceremony saw one final moment of drama, when she rose from her chair to discover that the train of her gown was caught on producer Edelman’s cufflink!) She was soon back to work, with a plum role in the controversial 1962 film Walk on the Wild Side, while the greatest popular success of her television career still lay ahead, in The Big Valley.

Anyway, back to The Barbara Stanwyck Show. 28 of the original 36 episodes have been released on DVD, along with a 1956 pilot for a Stanwyck western that wasn’t picked up. These are all available in two volumes (sold separately) by E1 Entertainment, available from Amazon and all the usual suspects.

Each set is handsomely packaged. But the original 35mm elements seem to be long gone, and what we have here are sharp but occasionally worn 16mm originals. I wouldn’t recommend these to the fussbudget home theater folks who demand absolute utterly flawless perfection. But everyone else can relax: the transfers are very good, and assuming you can put up with an occasional emulsion scratch, there’s a lot to enjoy here. It’s a solid show, intelligent and entertaining.

I haven’t watched all of these episodes yet, but I like what I’ve seen. My favorites so far are “High Tension” (March 27, 1961), in which Stanwyck is among the passengers on a bus that becomes an electrified death trap after it plows into a utility pole on a rainy night, and “Confession” (February 20, 1961), in which she frames her husband for murder with Lee Marvin’s help. It’s a return to the cynical film noir territory of her film Double Indemnity (Stanwyck even says so in her introduction!). Great stuff.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2012 in 1960s Shows

 

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