Posted by Susan Doll on March 10, 2014
My 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Art in Movies Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Film Composers Film Criticism film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes movie flops Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller TCM Classic Film Festival TCM Underground Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies