TV on DVD 11/24/09 – Back to the Golden Age and a side trip to the seventies

The Golden Age Of Television (Criterion) – The title is no hyperbole: For a brief period in the 1950s, as television was coming of age, a handful of showcase anthology shows turned live television theater into the vibrant center of original American drama. It came from New York rather than Los Angeles, where ambitious producers pushed young writers to writer dynamic contemporary teleplays and drew casts from a new generation of hungry young actors (many of them trained in the Actor’s Studio) and New York stage veterans alike. And in the days before videotape and before filmed programs were the norm, these were all performed and broadcast live, partly because of the attitude that live TV was not just a program, it was an event). (The accompanying booklet, written by TV historian and Paley Center for Media curator Ron Simon, gives a much more complete background to the culture of live TV.) The production realities of live multi-camera shoots were both a restriction and an opportunity for creative solutions: an expressive visual language was born and evolved for a brief period, until film became the TV drama standard and brought a more conventional style with it. But it was only when the focus shifted from adaptations of classic novels and plays to original contemporary stories, written by a new generation of writers who watched the evolution of American society in the years after the war and wanted to get their observations into their stories, that everything came together: stories that viewers could relate to, scripts that inspired the best from the directors, drama that rose to the levels of the most gripping contemporary stage plays and actors who devoured the roles in a one-night-only performance.

Patterns: Ed Begley, Everett Sloane and Richard Kiley

This collection features eight landmark productions from that short-lived era, from the original Marty (1953), written by Paddy Chayefsky and starring Rod Steiger as the lonely working class butcher, to the original Days of Wine and Roses (1958), directed by John Frankenheimer (the most fluid, dense and dynamic of live TV directors) and starring Cliff Robertson. Both of these production were expanded into acclaimed feature films, as were many other productions featured in this set: Rod Serling’s dissection of corporate culture Patterns (1955) and his poignant Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956), the bumpkin comedy No Time for Sergeants (1955) that made Andy Griffith a star (in both versions), and Bang the Drum Slowly (1959), with a pre-stardom Paul Newman learning his craft in front of the camera. Because they were live and unseen since their original broadcast (at least until 1980s revival on PBS), these original were largely forgotten next the polish of the feature film adaptations, but live TV brought out something unique to these dramas: an intensity, an urgency, an intimacy, and an expressive storytelling language combining theater conventions and film technique with the intimacy of the small screen and the creative solutions to production limitations. “It was live,” explains Keenan Wynn in the introduction to one drama. “Not perfect, but live.” A Wind from the South (1955) starring Julie Harris and Rod Serling’s searing show-business drama The Comedian (1957) fill out of the collection. The Comedian is a perfect illustration of these limitations turned into strengths, with its feral performance by Mickey Rooney and the almost claustrophobic intensity created by director John Frankenheimer, who fills the screen with a density of background detail and a flurry of action while zeroing in on the dramatic center with laser-like precision. It couldn’t be more different from Marty only four years earlier, where Delbert Mann pulled the camera back to show characters almost isolated in their drab environments, rarely going in for the close-up, letting Steiger’s body language communicate not just his loneliness but his resignation to living out his life as “a fat, ugly little man.” You can see the evolution of language and technique in four short years, but also just how defining the director’s eye can be on live television.

There are eight live TV dramas on three discs, landmark productions all mastered from kinescope recordings filmed live directly from a TV monitor. It’s low-fidelity and good monitors will reveal the visual distortions of filming from a cathode-ray screen, but the dramas are so involving that you get past the surface weaknesses and into the intensity of the productions. The shows were unseen since their original broadcasts until the 1980s PBS showcase series The Golden Age of Television, which framed the shows with an introduction hosted by a major star who worked on live TV (Eva Marie Saint, Cliff Robertson, Carl Reiner and Julie Harris, among them) and interviews with many of the directors and stars of the original shows (including Rod Steiger, Andy Griffith, Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, Richard Kiley, Piper Laurie, Nancy Marchand, Jack Palance, Cliff Robertson, Mickey Rooney, Carol Serling, Rod Steiger, and Mel Torme). Criterion’s release includes all of these introductions, plus commentary by director John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, Ralph Nelson, and Daniel Petrie (originally recorded for the mid-1990s laserdisc release) and a fine booklet with essays and notes by TV historian Ron Simon.

Life On Mars: Series 2 (Acorn) – “My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?” The great British time-warp cop drama (not to be confused with the frustrating American TV remake of the same name) finally answers that question when it comes to the end of the second and final series. John Simm is the 21st century Manchester DCI (that’s Detective Chief Inspector to us yanks) trying to fins his place in a rough and tumble 1973 detective squad. He still hears voices and still tangles with his brawling, hard-drinking boss (Philip Glenister), but when he thinks he’s found a way to get back home, he’s ready to risk everything. The writing is superb, the setting perfect working-class industrial grunge, the characters are right out of badass seventies cop shows and the performances refreshingly free of self-conscious affectation or cliché (unlike the American incarnation). The strong, satisfying conclusion ties up the mysteries with a most unexpected journey that leaves the show with enough enigma to reverberate long after it ends. Eight episodes on four discs in a box set of four thinpak cases, plus behind the scenes footage of select episodes and two featurettes: “The Return of Life on Mars” and “The End of Life on Mars.” I reviewed the first series here.

Hogan’s Heroes: The Komplete Series, Kommandant’s Kollection (Paramount) – Bob Crane is the smart-talking, fun-loving American officer running a local branch of American Intelligence built inside a German POW camp in this strange yet very funny sitcom. The series is inspired by Stalag 17 but played for pure sitcom farce, turning the sadistic guard of Billy Wilder’s film into the bumbling buffoon Sgt. Schultz (John Banner) and the camp commandant into the strutting, insecure Col. Klink (Werner Klemperer). The original pilot is a direct parody of Wilder’s film, but in this incarnation Hogan and his men lead the planted spy on a merry trip through their absurdly engineered underground operations (they include a money minting plant, a steam room, a barbershop and manicurist—who happens to be Klink’s secretary, Helga—and an assembly line producing Lugar-shaped lighters) while leading him astray on the details. Like where the entrance is. The series ran in color but the pilot is in B&W and features a longer, different credits sequence and Leonid Kinskey as Vladimir Minsk, a Russian tailor who is replaced in the regular series with camp chemist Carter (Larry Hovis), a character featured in the pilot as a guest star passing through. The rest of Hogan’s crew—French chef LeBeau (Robert Clary), British con man and pickpocket Newkirk (Richard Dawson) and radio man Kinchloe (Ivan Dixon)—are there from the beginning. The series proper tones down the scale of absurdity but it’s still quite the farce, with Hogan launching elaborate plans right under the nose of Klink (and often in front of the bug-eyed Schultz, who bellows “I know nuuuu-ting!”) and humiliating the Nazi war machine, but keeping Klink in good standing by keeping his record spotless: no one ever escapes from Stalag 13. Why would they when they’re having so much fun? It might be offensive to some see this sitcom make light of real life nightmares, but these cast has terrific chemistry and they know how to spring a gag. The show ran for six hit seasons, earning Emmy nominations for “Outstanding Comedy Series” three times and two Emmy wins for Werner Klemperer as “Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy.” 168 episodes on 27 discs plus a bonus disc of exclusive supplements, including an extended version of the pilot, archival clips with the cast (including footage from the Emmy Awards), an episode with a German-dubbed soundtrack and new interviews with co-star Richard Dawson and producer Albert S. Ruddy.

Superman: The Complete Animated Series (Warner) was the logical follow-up to the successful revival of Batman as a stylized cartoon noir series in the nineties. Tim Daly voices both Superman and Clark Kent (the mild-mannered reporter and his secret identity), Dana Delany is Lois Lane and Clancy Brown is his arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, who first rears his supervillain head in the three-part origin story “The Last Son of Krypton” (originally presented as a 90 minute special) that opens the series. The show, which lasted three seasons and 54 episodes, was produced with the same fluid style and visual energy but with an altogether sunnier, brighter look and a old-fashioned flair, befitting the all-American hero from Krypton: the ultimate immigrant patriot. He’s an icon, to be sure, and the series is nicely crafted and far more engaging than the old sixties and seventies cartoon incarnations. But the red and blue Boy Scout is a lot less conflicted and far less vulnerable than the more interesting (and very human) Batman and the stories lack the dynamism and character drama of the “Justice League” series and its supercharged personality conflicts. The seven-disc set is collected in a double-wide case with hinged trays and includes all the commentary tracks and featurettes from the previous releases, plus a bonus disc with the exclusive documentary “The Despot Darkseid: A Villain Worthy of Superman.”

For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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