The Comedian, Days of Wine and Roses, A Wind from the South – A Review

This post concludes my reviews of The Golden Age of Television (The Criterion Collection).

The Comedian

The Comedian is the most dynamic of all the plays in the collection and Mickey Rooney is impressive as a manic and selfish comedian who uses anyone he comes in contact with. The story follows a comedian as he works to put together his next show for television, and his head writer who is struggling to come up with new material and is quickly realizing that he no longer can write comedy. The characters offer two sides to the conflict between the relentless machine that is entertainment and the individual who is caught in the machine. Rooney’s comedian demands everything from those around him, at times manic, at others desperate and scared, but always demanding that everyone recognize him as the only thing anyone should be paying attention to. On the other hand, O’Brien’s character knows the comedian is the worst kind of human being, one he shouldn’t even be near. Each actor captures the essence of these positions, Rooney with his fast talking, and O’Brien with his noir like voice that suggests a world weary wisdom. In the middle of the two is Mel Torme who plays Rooney’s slavish brother that Rooney uses at ever chance he can. One wants to feel sorry for Torme, but to break free of the Comedian like O’Brien does, takes a will power he does not have. While O’Brien escapes the beast and regains his soul as happens in so many of these dramas, the conclusion, as Rooney leads Torme back to his dressing room, is anything but pleasing. While Requiem for a Heavyweight is the most well know of Serling’s works, the Comedian is probably his best and still feels fresh even though it was shot in 1957.

Days of Wine and Roses

While Days of Wine and Roses is obviously a problem story, a story designed to explain a problem, it is well produced and still interesting. While the framing device, a lecture at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting works to give an over arching thread to the story, it also lends the show an air propaganda, as if the writer wanted to tell everyone how good AA is. While that is not true, addiction narratives so often have a triumphalest endings that celebrate the road to recovery. Days of Wine and Roses charts the well worn path to addiction: at first alcohol is fun; then it begins to interfere; then one looses a job and goes broke; finally, one hits rock bottom and after a few tries, recovers. What makes the story interesting more than the moments of alcoholic madness is the how the use of alcohol is presented. First, the couple is described as a couple who likes to drink. 50 years later and decades into the recognition that of addiction as an illness, to describe yourself as someone who likes to drink is awkward at best. Sure for many people it is socially acceptable to binge drink, but it is really only acceptable to say that you enjoy beer, wine or whatever. It isn’t the act you enjoy, but the beverage, and hopefully understand you should do it in moderation. Alcohol is everywhere. That one could be hired mostly to go out drinking with a client isn’t really acceptable, either. Days of Wine and Roses reflects well the two martini lunches you see in Mad Men or read about in the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The other thing that makes the story palatable, is the stark ending. Cliff Robertson, whose character battles addiction, finally is sober, but realizes he must give up his wife if she is going to continue to drink. The ending is not soft and though Robertson’s character has refused to be what we would call an enabler, the starkness of it, for its time, is startling and refreshing. Days of Wine and Roses doesn’t tread new ground, but it does show a bleakness that is even now can be difficult to get into a TV program.

A Wind from the South

A Wind from the South covers the 48 period when a young Irish woman in a tourist town realizes that she can be more than a little town lets her. At the same time a middle aged man in a loveless marriage realizes it is over. In an era of separate beds for married couples on TV this was probably ahead of the times. Yet it is also a little silly when the two characters declare their love for each other after a few days. Nevertheless, it does have some nice touches. For example, the young woman goes to the town dance and an old couple see her and report back to her brother how scandalous it was. When her lover asks how long the old couple has been married, she says, oh no, they are brother and sister, which makes her situation with her own brother just as perilous. Over all, A Wind from the South is a melodrama about finding yourself that is certainly enjoyable to watch, but wraps itself in ethereal poetry, such as, a wind from the south carries the scent of freedom,  but in the end feels route.

Advertisements

Mardy, Patterns, No Time For Sargents (Golden Age of TV) – A Review

In watching the programs in The Golden Age of Television (The Criterion Collection) you are quickly reminded how much has changed since these stories were first written and produced. Not only have styles, tastes changed, and concerns of TV viewers, but the cultural context in which these stories were first written. In general terms, they reflect a pre-suburban vision of America based in the great urban cities such as NY. They are time capsules of a time that only seems to exist now in mythic memories of the old ethnic neighborhoods of the European emigrants, something that has long passed into history.

Mardy

Is one of the most famous programs from the so called Golden Age of TV and even today the writing with its minute realism is still interesting. Chayefsky truly had a way with dialog and the scene where Mardy is on the phone calling a woman up for a date on Saturday night is as good as it gets when trying to write nervousness. He also knew how to write about people doing nothing quite well. As a story Mardy is also still interesting, but it also feels at this distance (almost 60 years) unreal.

Briefly, Mardy is the last unmarried son of an Italian American widow. He is a butcher and spends his time in the neighborhood bar with his friends worrying about when he’s going t get married. He thinks he’s a looser and so is set to give up on happiness, until he meets a less than attractive woman at a dance and decides, despite the ribbing of his friends, he is going to go out on a date with her again.

What makes the story so distant is the interaction with the mother, who worries that he is going to leave her to marry the young woman and she’ll die all alone. These days that doesn’t even seem like an issue, since it is common for children to leave home after school. It is a sign of failure among many that you are still at home after school. Moreover, this is New York of the neighborhood and everyone is constantly after him to say when he is going to get married. One could be forgiven for asking what’s the big deal? Just get married, of course nothing is ever that easy and Chayefsky is quite good and portraying that and it is in that the story still has its power. The working class world Mardy inhabits may have changed and like Last Exit to Brooklyn is a working class New York that is now part of a distant history, but the character of Mardy can still be found. If one is sympathetic to his struggle just to get along, then the show is worth watching.

Patterns

Patterns is Rod Serling’s take on corporate culture. The story is simple: a young executive is brought in to replace and old and worn out executive and in the ensuing power change the executive finds that he has a broader social conscience than the CEO. While this kind of corporate evil vs the young insider with a consciousness is a common theme (Wall Street for example), Serling’s climax is a little different than even a contemporary work like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. In the Gray Flannel the only option for the good is to leave the corporate world. For Serling the option is to continue to work, but try to not only work for change with in, but to oust the boss when you can. While that man work as a secret plot, Serling’s young executive tells the CEO this and the CEO is of the opinion that that is fine as long as the corporation continues on, since all that matters is the longevity of the corporation. The feed the beast argument is different and while it is satisfying to believe the young executive is going to change things in his titanic struggle with the CEO, his conclusion rings a little hollow. Perhaps it reflects some of the post war labor-management that existed in the 50’s, but the notion that one is going to bring change just for the sake of being nice to workers doesn’t usually happen. The problem with that kind of ending in a social work is that it doesn’t show the way forward, just makes everyone feel happy. That said, it is well acted and well written.

No Time For Sargents

No Time for Sargents is part of that long list of stories about yokels coming into the modern world and showing it as silly and easily to disturb. Andy Griffith plays a southern boy filled with back country wisdom who has no idea what the modern Army is like. Put the two of them together and hilarity ensues. The southern yokel jokes seem a little stereotypical now and lead right into that long line of silliness that finds is apex with the Beverly Hill Billies. Fortunately, No Time for Sargents still has some funny jokes and its take on the army as a kind of a place where average young men can over turn bureaucratic ineptitude and help make the Army the true reflection of America, a just meritocracy with a can do spirit.

Requiem for a Heavyweight (Golden Age of TV) – A Review

Requiem for a Heavyweight has always been one of those mythic moments in TV history that has been almost impossible for all but those outside of film specialist to see. Now with Criterion’s release of the The Golden Age of Television you can finally see if the show was as good as has been said.

Written by Rod Sterling and staring Jack Plance as Mountain McClintock, Requiem for a Heavyweight is usually considered the high point in early TV dramas. It tells the story of a Heavyweight boxer at the end of his career. He has been knocked out one too many times and now risks blindness if he goes into the ring again. He’s a simple fellow who is trusting and not particularly smart. He is also a little punch drunk and seems, along with his cauliflower ears, to be suffering the affects of 14 years in the ring. His manager, Keenan Wynn, needs him to keep earning money because he’s in debt to bookies. His trainer, Ed Wynn, wants the best for Mountain, but can’t say know to the manager, either. Mountain spends his time in a bar near the arena where old boxers go to spend the rest of their lives telling stores about the ring. It is not a pretty place and the old champ that is always telling the same stories is a pitiful man. In trying to get a job, Mountain meets an employment agent who tries to help him find something working with children. As Mountain begins to realize he can do something outside of boxing, his manager tries to turn him into a wrestler. For Mountain, wrestling is beneath a man who was almost the champ and was number 5 in 1945. But the Mountain is loyal to his manager until he finds out the manager bet against him in his last fight. Knowing this, he is finally able to break free and though on his own for the first time in 14 years, he now has some sort of future.

When watching these shows one has to approach them as one might a silent movie. Each genre has its own style. Whereas a silent uses over emphasized gestures to convey the story,  Requiem uses tight close ups to convey emotion. Moreover, because these were originally shot with video cameras there is a slight feeling that one is watching a soap opera, something I find uninteresting. However, those things aside, on a technical level Requiem for a Heavyweight is an amazing piece of work. The camera work is impressive and the range close ups, cutting between actors, camera movement in a scene, and the number of different sets is almost film like. This is certainly not a filmed play. They were able to capture a whole range of emotions with the camera. Although the use more close ups that you might expect, they are not tiresome. The sense of atmospherics they created in the bar and all the other dingy places the show takes place are well done, too. The show is at its best evoking a world of cruelty and theft. Only when the show moves to the employment office does the atmosphere weaken, but obviously that was intentional. Finally, the use of extras is quite effective. The strange men who inhabit the halls of the arena give the place a threatening air, and the champ who tells the stories in the bar is effective counter point to the Mountain, showing what he could become if he doesn’t leave the boxing world.

The acting, too, is stellar and Jack Plance is great as the punch drunk boxer. It truly has made Mountain his own. Comparing him to his role in Shane, Plance has created a character that is compelling , sympathetic and completely different. Both of the Wynns are effective, too, Ed especially. He has perfected the good hearted coward who wants to do the right thing, but is too afraid.

The story itself is effective, if having a few oddities. As an indictment of boxing it works perfectly. It is hard to remember 60 years latter how important boxing was and how corrupt it was. The picture Serling paints of the dark side of sports is powerful. Exchanging boxing for football with its broken players would be a good comparison. Still, modern sports has so much more money flowing into it that the dark arenas seem so distant and a little hard to connect with. At its most fundamental, though, Requiem is about exploitation and in that sense it succeeds. Serling, as one can see in the Twilight Zone, was a social writer and wanted to show society’s problems and Requiem is saturated with that concern. However, it also leads him to create the character of the social worker, in other words, the enlightened society, who will lead the boxer from the dark into the light.  While the drama between the Wynns and Plance seem natural and move out of their history, the social worker just seems to take to Mountain suddenly and wants to help him succeed. Perhaps in a longer work her role could be teased out, but here it seems forced, like it is the answer that needs saying. Moreover, the social worker says Mountain should work with children and he takes to the idea. Where does this come from? The desire to offer a social critique and a solution weakens an otherwise strong show.

Taken together, all the elements of Requiem for a Heavyweight make for an impressive show. While a few elements are a little dated, the acting and camera work make this a moment worth returning to.