Salute to the Small Screen: ‘Screen Directors Playhouse’

sdpopenerMy generation grew up watching Hollywood classics on television, expanded our tastes through the provocative movies of the Film School Generation, and then witnessed the return to genre–based filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s. I am eternally grateful for this extensive knowledge of movies from different eras, which seems like a shared experience for baby boomers. The down side of this informal education in film studies is that many of us struggle to accept the narrow, limited, and often dumbed-down contemporary fare that the studios now pump out for their beloved demographic of young male viewers. If it weren’t for indie films, or even pseudo-indie films, American filmmaking would be little more than CGI-driven eye candy. In recent months, discussions about the primacy of television over the movies have increased on the Internet, with claims that the small screen has easily out-matched the big screen for meaningful drama, intelligent genre work, and juicy roles for former film stars and character actors. I can’t disagree that television—especially cable—is experiencing a new “golden age,” especially considering the defection of film directors and actors to the small screen.

JOAN CRAWFORD IN 'THE DAMNED DON'T CRY' ON THE RADIO VERSION OF 'SCREEN DIRECTORS PLAYHOUSE.'

JOAN CRAWFORD IN ‘THE DAMNED DON’T CRY’ ON THE RADIO VERSION OF ‘SCREEN DIRECTORS PLAYHOUSE.’

The recent respect for television drama and genre storytelling reminds me of the first Golden Age of Television—the one referred to in capital letters in the tv history books. The Golden Age of Television spanned the years 1949 to 1960, when prime time was famous for its stellar anthology dramas. In anthology series, each episode is a stand-alone story with no continuity between episodes. During the early 1950s, several anthology series were produced live. Some of the more famous series include Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre, Studio One, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Lesser known is Screen Directors Playhouse, a short-lived series that began on NBC in the fall of 1955 and ended on ABC during the fall of 1956. Tomorrow, TCM airs seven episodes from Screen Directors Playhouse, which offers 30-minute programs directed by some of Hollywood’s most prominent directors and featuring an array of well-known stars and character actors. Pop culture mythology has manufactured a vendetta between the big screen and small screen during the 1950s, but this feud has been exaggerated by documentaries and coffee-table books. The feud lasted only a few short years and was best represented by Jack Warner, who seemed to take the rising popularity of the new medium as a personal attack. In truth, the film studios climbed into bed with the television industry early on, which helped them remain solvent during a period of upheaval. Screen Directors Playhouse is an example of the cooperation between the small and big screens.

JOHN FORD DIRECTED 'ROOKIE OF THE YEAR.'

JOHN FORD DIRECTED ‘ROOKIE OF THE YEAR.’

The series originated on radio as NBC Theater before it was renamed Screen Directors Guild Assignment, then Screen Directors Assignment, and finally Screen Directors Playhouse. As a radio program, it consisted of a series of 60-minute adaptations of major films, generally featuring the original stars. Taking advantage of the intimacy of radio, the episodes offered a more personal interpretation of the stories, exploiting the dialogue and star power of the cast. After each episode, the director and cast offered informal commentary about the story and characters. The adaptations were truly an exercise in good writing, as they depended on translating stories from a predominantly visual medium into a completely aural one. For television, the series featured mostly original screenplays, with the occasional adaptation of a well-known short story. As a television series, the episodes were dependent on the talents of the directors and cast members, who turned simply written, low-budget productions into charming stories with sentiment and appeal.

WAYNE IN 'ROOKIE OF THE YEAR'

WAYNE IN ‘ROOKIE OF THE YEAR’

Of the seven episodes airing tomorrow on TCM, “Rookie of the Year” has the best pedigree as a piece of joint film-tv history. Directed by John Ford during the making of The Searchers, the episode stars members of his stock company—John Wayne, Patrick Wayne, Ward Bond, and Vera Miles. The script is by Searchers scriptwriter Frank Nugent from a story by W.R. Burnett (High Sierra; Asphalt Jungle). Wayne stars as an old-school sportswriter whose chances for moving from a small-town newspaper to a big-city daily are dwindling with each year. He finds his ticket to big-time journalism when he discovers that a rookie baseball phenomenon is the son of a former player banned from the sport for throwing games. “Rookie of the Year” represented both Ford and Wayne’s first foray into television.

BORZAGE DIRECTS RORY CALHOUN AND ROBERT ARTHUR IN 'DAY IS DONE.'

BORZAGE DIRECTS RORY CALHOUN AND ROBERT ARTHUR IN ‘DAY IS DONE.’

Frank Borzage directed “Day Is Done,” the episode scheduled for 10:00am tomorrow. It’s a war drama set during the Korean Conflict in which American troops are discouraged after being forced into retreat. Borzage, who had directed some edgy pre-Code movies (A Man’s Castle) was near the end of his career when he made “Day Is Done.” He would make only three more films before dying in 1962. The very first episode of Screen Directors Playhouse, “Meet the Governor,” also airs tomorrow. Leo McCarey, best known for The Awful Truth and Going My Way, directed this story of a country-bumpkin lawyer who runs for governor. After “Meet the Governor,” McCarey took on An Affair to Remember, the Cary Grant/ Deborah Kerr weepie, but he, too, was near the end of the line.

The other episodes airing tomorrow are “A Midsummer Daydream” directed by John Brahm from a story by William Saroyan.  It stars Kim Hunter and Keenan Wynn in a boy-meets-girl fairy tale in which the perfect couple is threatened by a handsome, smooth-talking gambler. “The Life of Vernon Hathaway” by Norman McLeod stars Alan Young and Cloris Leachman in a Walter Mitty-type tale, while “The Final Tribute” by Andrew L. Stone features Laraine Day as a nurse who butts head with a new doctor. Finally, “The Brush Roper” by Stuart Heisler finds cowpoke Walter Brennan bragging about the Wild West days, which lands him into a jam with a ferocious bull in the brush.

OLIVE CAREY AND WALTER BRENNAN IN 'THE BRUSH '

OLIVE CAREY AND WALTER BRENNAN IN ‘THE BRUSH ROPER’

I have seen several episodes of Screen Directors Playhouse that are not part of tomorrow’s group, though they have aired on TCM in the past. The episodes were shot on film in Hollywood in a cinematic style, making full use of a variety of shots, camera movement, and exterior settings. This is in contrast to the anthology dramas that were shot live on simple sets in television studios back East.  The Playhouse episodes lack the immediacy of a live series, such as Studio One, and perhaps their depth of drama. The Playhouse episodes not only look like Hollywood films, but they also have the same tendency toward happy endings, sentiment, and dependence on star charisma. However, there is universality to that type of storytelling that I find irresistible.

My favorite episode of Screen Directors Playhouse reflects on the nature of that universal appeal, albeit in a highly sentimental fashion. Unfortunately, it does not air tomorrow, but perhaps it will in the future. Directed by Claude Binyon, “It’s a Most Unusual Day” is a musical reminiscence by songwriter Jimmy McHugh. The episode is structured like a nightclub performance by McHugh and a group of singers (including former Little Rascal Darla Hood) who go through the songwriter’s catalogue chronologically, as McHugh connects his songs to America’s history—the Roaring ‘20s, the Depression, WWII, and the postwar era. Watching McHugh onstage at the famous Mocambo is a couple played by Fred MacMurray and Marilyn Erskine. The couple recall each song as it relates to key moments in their lives—their engagement, the birth of their son, the husband’s injury during the war, and their son’s bout with polio. The songs not only trigger these important memories but also provided comfort and meaning during the couple’s ups and downs. And, is that not the appeal and importance of all popular culture—whether it be music, television, or film?  Small wonder we get so upset when it does not meet our expectations and needs.

11 Responses Salute to the Small Screen: ‘Screen Directors Playhouse’
Posted By LD : March 10, 2014 5:07 pm

In the past TCM aired an episode of Screen Directors Playhouse which stuck in my memory. It was titled “Claire” and starred Angela Lansbury and George Montgomery. Perhaps I remember it because the title referred to a Siamese cat. Anyway, after reading your post I decided to find out who directed it. His name, Frank Tuttle, was not familiar to me. It seems he started out directing in silent films, eventually directing THIS GUN FOR HIRE in 1942 and A CRY IN THE NIGHT in 1956, the same year as “Claire.”

Frank Tuttle was also a former communist who named names before HUAC, one which was Jules Dassin. A little research and I went from a Siamese cat to HUAC. Maybe I will remember his name now.

Posted By Mark Mayerson : March 10, 2014 5:12 pm

It’s a great frustration to me that TCM does not show these in Canada and I can’t imagine why. It’s likely that parts of the Hal Roach library have been licensed in Canada, such as the Laurel and Hardy films, but in more than 30 years in Canada I have never seen anyone broadcast Screen Director’s Playhouse.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 10, 2014 5:41 pm

LD: I came across a reference to the episode called “Claire” but I, too, was not familiar with Tuttle. Another casualty to HUAC. How sad for all involved.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 10, 2014 5:44 pm

Mark: That is odd about Screen Directors Playhouse. I wonder if it has to do with the DGA? Just speculating. In the past, I used to work in DVD publishing. Issues of rights and copyrights never ceased to vex me.

Posted By Mike D : March 10, 2014 8:25 pm

I think that’s Bobby Driscoll with Rory Calhoun. Isn’t Robert Arthur a blonde?

Posted By Susan Doll : March 10, 2014 8:37 pm

Mike D: You could be right. I have not seen this episode, and I did not recognize the actor. The photo was captioned as Robert Arthur on the site that I grabbed it from, so I went with Arthur, too.

Posted By Mike Doran : March 11, 2014 4:49 pm

I remember when TCM ran a bunch of these Screen Directors Playhouses a year or so back.

This sent me to my TV Guide collection to try and track down the original showings (and since my collection is far from complete, that was frustrating as all get-out).

A couple of points of possible interest:

“A Midsummer Daydream” is introduced on-camera not by John Brahm, but by William Saroyan himself. This was some time before he cultivated the walrus mustache that became his trademark, but I’ve read that Saroyan was a performer at heart, and this shows in his intro.

The star of “Meet The Governor” is Herb Shriner, who was midway through a middling-successful run as a comedian-quizmaster at the time; you’ll note that the billboard calls attention to his “dramatic debut” here.
Herb Shriner’s career was cut short by his death in a plane crash, circa 1970. Sadly, he’s best known now (if at all) for the fact that his son, Kin Shriner, has been a soap-opera star (mainly General Hospital) for thirty-some years.

What I’m hoping for is that somebody (perhaps TCM itself?) puts this whole series out as a DVD set – even as an MOD.
I think there’s enough of us out there to justify the attempt.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 11, 2014 5:09 pm

Mike Doran: Thank you so much for this info, esp. on Shriner I had heard of Herb Shriner, but I did not realize that Kin was his son. I am a life-long fan of General Hospital, and sort of grew up watching Kin Shriner on the show.

I love my readers. I always learn something from them.

Posted By Doug : March 11, 2014 8:17 pm

Mike Doran-It’s great that you have a “TV Guide” collection-I have two old issues, March 30-April 5th 1957 and September 14-20 1957.
I picked them up at some rummage sale a few years ago; they are like thumbnail pictures of a time when TV was black and white and people actually thought that Milton Berle was funny.
I would offer them to you, but unless you need them to fill spaces in your collection, I’d like to keep them for their historical significance. Julie Andrews is on the cover of the March issue for “Cinderella”.

Posted By Jenni : March 12, 2014 5:11 pm

I’ve tivoed all of the Director’s Playhouse when they’ve aired on TCM and I am glad to view them. TV from the 1950s and 1960s are fascinating to me as I was a kid in the 1970s, and I like to view the older programs when I get the chance, to see what my husband’s parents and mine enjoyed in their younger days. Thanks for writing about this topic, Susan!

Posted By robbushblog : March 19, 2014 4:44 pm

One television genre I miss is the anthology program. Anthologies are among my all-time favorite shows. Some science fiction, suspense and horror anthologies have been recycled throughout the decades, with other ones being born in the 80′s and 90′s, but the drama anthology, specifically the live drama, is one I would like to see on TV again.

I saw “Rookie of the Year” when it was on a couple of years ago. I really enjoyed it (Duh, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, how could I not?).

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