Friday, August 5, 2016

Maybe screenwriters wrote a bunch of self-centered screenplays in the '30s and 40s about screenwriters. Maybe. But if they did, they weren't produced. Sure screenwriters might show up in madcap farces like Boy Meets Girl, but apparently studios felt -- probably correctly -- that moviegoers weren't too interested in the problems of those who wrote the scripts for the films they enjoyed. Fiction about them got written -- What Makes Sammy Run and The Last Tycoon -- but neither of these was adapted by Hollywood until the live TV era of the '50s; even at this point they were still too dangerous for the screen.

Playwrights were occasionally acceptable, as they dealt with the sophisticated (code word for racy) world of the Broadway theatre. But for the most part screenwriters who wanted to explore their situation on screen had to use other artistic professions stand-ins. Composers and painters were the most popular, though there were others, my particular favorite being Blood and Sand, where matador Tyrone Power has to deal with a waspish bullfighting critic.

After WWII many things in American life began to change, and one of them was Hollywood's public attitude about itself. No longer the carefree world of Mickey and Judy putting on a show musicals, films about the film industry began to resemble the things Raymond Chandler was writing about it.

1949 saw In A Lonely Place, a film noir with a screenwriter anti-hero. But the film business is mostly peripheral to the action, which really could just as well been set in any big industry.

The true watershed of course was Sunset Boulevard, obsessed with Hollywood's history and its dirty laundry. Dealing with an egomaniacal star who eventually kills the poor sucker ghostwriting her blockbuster colossal extravaganza and finally goes insane, the film might as well have been titled The Scriptwriter's Revenge.

Coinciding with this change in attitude was the rise of Television, and what might be called the Second Age of Heroic Comedy (the First, according to the great comedy historian Joe Adamson -- who coined the phrase -- was the '20s and '30s, with larger than life personalities like the great silent clowns and anarchist like W.C. Fields and The Marx Brothers). This second age produced the live TV comedian, starting with Milton Berle and lasting until the '60s, by which time these stars had mostly been replaced by the filmed TV sitcom. But in their time Berle, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Red Skelton and a few others ruled the roost in TV comedy. They were just as self-centered as the movie idols of Norma Desmond's time, but got a whole more press about it, perhaps in part because of a loosening of self-censorship in the industry, and perhaps the very nature of TV, in the home like a member of the family, made viewers demand to know more about the stars.

TV showed this as early as 1953, when CBS' Studio One produced a drama called "The Laugh Maker", about a Jackie-Gleason-like comedian. The kicker is that this Jackie Gleason-like character is actually played by Jackie Gleason.


The script is credited to A.J. "Andy" Russell, who'd started writing for Gleason a few months earlier. One must assume Gleason commissioned the project himself -- but why? Surely if he wanted to show he was a competent dramatic actor -- which any viewer of his show could have seen anyway -- there were other stories he could have chosen. Here Gleason plays Jerry Giles -- note the initials -- a conceited, obnoxious, ruthless loudmouth who will let nothing stand in his way to success.  His only redeeming feature is his J.J. Hunsecker-like devotion to his younger sister. Even if you grant that the character could be based on Berle, Gleason seems to be inviting us to confuse the character with him. This was a very curious attitude.

If you been paying attention, you'll note that the journalist from Manhattan magazine (i.e. The New Yorker), played by Gleason's usual sidekick Art Carney, represents the writer himself, in the Blood and Sand bullfighter tradition. Aside from showing Gleason's and Carney's dramatic talents "The Laugh Maker" doesn't really add up to much; it's more footnote/curiosity in Gleason's career than anything else.

About six months after "The Laugh Maker" Carney did another Studio One, called "Confessions of a Nervous Man".

Written by George Axelrod (future screenwriter of Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Manchurian Candidate), it's the story of his play The Seven Year Itch from the previous year and how he dealt with its enormous success. Axelrod himself appears in a brief prologue:

In the main action Axelrod is played by Carney, shown waiting for the reviews from Broadway critics Brooks Atkinson, Walter Kerr (later to write the classic book on early film comedy The Silent Clowns, which I'm sure we'll discuss one of these days), and John Chapman, all identified by name.

George Axelrod waits for the reviews of his new play:

"Confessions" comes from an age of Manhattan literati now as dead as La Belle Epoque, an age of The Algonquin Hotel and The New Yorker, of publication cocktail parties and waiting for the reviews at Sardi's restaurant. This era was already on its last legs by time of Truman Capote's infamous Black & White Ball of 1966 (to celebrate the publication of In Cold Blood -- somehow that seems appropriate), but memories of it were kept alive for years by TV panel shows like What's My Line, and through the '70s Dick Cavett's talk shows were a reminder of it. Until the end of his life Gore Vidal was something of a walking flashback to this more literary era.

A notable aspect of "Confessions" is Axelrod's use of fantasy sequences, a device he'd also employed in The Seven Year Itch. We see Carney fantasize about the aforementioned Atkinson, Kerr, and Chapman as Satanic villains gleefully writing their pans in a fiery Hell -- presumably CBS' lawyers got clearances from them; the very fact they agreed to be so depicted in the first place shows the insular nature of the New York literary world at the time.

The critics lovingly pen their slings and arrows against Axelrod's play:

We also see Axelrod's fantasies of success: Being interviewed by a charming TV hostess (played by no less than Jacqueline Susann, future author of Valley Of The Dolls), and a brief bit where Axelrod signs in as a mystery guest on What's My Line:

Axelrod would later appear as a celebrity panelist on What's My Line, which I'm sure says something significant about something.

My favorite fantasy was a joke concerning Studio One's sponsor, Westinghouse refrigerators, though at this late date probably few will get the reference.

"Confessions of A Nervous Man" is a neglected classic of the period. I'm surprised Axelrod never tried to rework it as a screenplay. The film version of Axelrod play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter bears some resemblance to it, but Axelrod himself insisted nothing in that film was his work and that his play was completely rewritten.

George Axelrod finally hears the New York Times review of his new play:

In 1957 Rod Serling, probably second only to Paddy Chayefsky as a celebrity TV playwright, wrote "The Comedian" for CBS' Playhouse 90:

Directed by John Frankenheimer, "The Comedian" starred Mickey Rooney as the title character, who makes Gleason's Jerry Giles look like Francis of Assisi.

Unfortunately, Rooney decided to play the role as if determined to leave for future generations the ultimate definition of the word "bombastic". While Gleason was able to modulate his performance playing basically the same character, Rooney is 95% outbursts with only occasional quiet. Frankenheimer either could not or would not tone him down.

More reasonable performances come from Edmond O'Brien (as Rooney's head writer -- needless to say he is the moral conscience of the piece) and crooner Mel Torme, acquitting himself quite well as Rooney's used-up brother (possibly based on Berle's relationship with his brother).

Mel Torme looks on while Mickey Rooney reflects on the man in the mirror.

Even this early on, the age of the great TV comedians was starting to wane: Berle had left the air the year before. and Caesar that same year. One reason was the rise of the filmed western (Bob Hope that same year: "Last night I saw a TV show where some cowboys killed an Indian and buried him. I thought cowboys only buried comedians"). The whole exercise seems rather pointless, as Serling has little to say about Berle-like stars, except that they can be unpleasant. He does however provides some interesting detail on rehearsals and writers meetings, and aside from Rooney Frankenheimer's direction is impressive. The rehearsals come across as memorably chaotic and slapdash, with some presumably complex logistics in the blocking. I especially noticed two moving shots where we see one character in close-up while action takes place in the background. That sort of shot was rare in live TV.

"The Comedian" was based on a story by former Broadway press agent Ernest Lehman, future screenwriter of North by Northwest but for our present purposes more significant as the author of Sweet Smell of Success. Like Success "The Comedian" features a sleazy columnist, and the climax is curiously reminiscent of another work about a TV star from the same year, A Face In The Crowd.

Writer Edmond O'Brien takes everything comedian Mickey Rooney dishes out.

Two years later Serling would explore the world of television again, in Playhouse 90's "The Velvet Alley" (the title evokes Serling's description of Beverly Hills as "the land of mink-covered swimming pools"). Sort of a dead-serious "Confessions of a Nervous Man" this also stars Art Carney, here as Ernie Pandish, a writer dealing with newfound success -- but this time in the world of television.

Unfortunately the entire "Velvet Alley" has not been uploaded to YouTube, but several sequences are there. In this first one a drunken producer (Leslie Nielsen) tells Pandish the Hollywood facts of life in a short speech that has become a minor cult piece, due to being included in the American Masters documentary on Serling (FF to 4:36):

The big dramatic moment comes when Pandish stabs his loyal agent (Jack Klugman) in the back. Klugman's exit line is a classic, with both Serling and Klugman deserving credit:

The age of live TV, like the age of the live TV comedian, was coming to an end. Serling would move into filmed production with The Twilight Zone, though the new era was perhaps best symbolized by The Dick Van Dyke Show: a filmed sitcom, about a writer, who works for an egomaniac TV comedian.

But an even more fitting coda came in 1960, when Ralph Nelson wrote and directed  a TV film called "The Man In The Funny Suit" for Desilu Playhouse.

"Funny Suit" deals with the production of Serling's "Requiem For a Heavyweight" on Playhouse 90 in 1956. Specifically, with the problems Serling and others had with the casting of elderly comedian Ed Wynn in a serious dramatic role as a boxing trainer. Wynn's son Keenan played the boxing manager; both Wynns play themselves here. Serling also appears as himself, as does director Nelson. Red Skelton even pops up for a cameo.

For all its technical improvements it lacks the spark of the original live TV production it depicts. It feels like nothing so much as a problem picture, a spiritual ancestor of the disease-of-the-week TV movie. Something was indeed lost when the live TV plays disappeared, but whether the era was really the "Golden Age of Television" is up to each individual viewer.

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