Friday, July 28, 2017

In the early 1950s, a struggling TV writer named Reginald Rose got stuck with jury duty. He later recalled:

"It was such an impressive, solemn setting in a great big wood-paneled courtroom, with a silver haired judge, it knocked me out. I was overwhelmed. I was on a jury for a manslaughter case, and we got into this terrific, furious, eight-hour argument in the jury room. I was writing one-hour dramas for Studio One then, and I thought, wow, what a setting for a drama."

The drama Rose got out of his jury duty turned out to be 12 Angry Men.

While everybody has seen the 1957 film version, not everyone knows the piece got its start on live TV. On September 20, 1954, Studio One presented the world premiere of 12 Angry Men.

Directed by Franklin Schaffner (Patton) -- he, Rose, and leading man Robert Cummings would all win Emmies for their work.

This broadcast was lost for almost half a century, until a complete copy was unearthed in 2003.

There are some technical glitches here (at one point a CBS camera moves into shot) and it runs less than an hour minus commercials, but there are some aspects of the production that are interesting and even superior to the famous film. Let's compare the casts and see how they stack up:

Foreman Norman Fell vs Martin Balsam --  Fell doesn't have a whole lot to do, so I'm tempted to go with Balsam almost by default. But I'm going to call it EVEN

Juror #2: John Beal vs John Fiedler -- Beal, the onetime Hollywood leading man (The Little Minister w/Katharine Hepburn) isn't bad, but Fiedler is perfectly cast as the mouse who becomes a lion ("You said we could throw out all the other evidence!"). Here, at least, on-the-nose casting works. FIEDLER

Juror #3: Franchot Tone vs Lee J. Cobb -- I generally like Tone, but he overplays his villain role so much he threatens to jump out of the TV screen. Cobb hams a bit himself, but nothing compared to Tone. COBB

Juror #4: Walter Abel vs E.G. Marshall -- Marshall is the cliched old-line intellectual: aloof, curt, and (sexually?) repressed. This on-the-nose playing seemed unimaginative to me. Mild-voiced Abel would at first seem like perfect casting as the crusading #8. Even as the leader of the fry-the-kid side, he still seems relatively open-minded and
understanding. This interpretation was probably not what Reginald Rose intended, but it makes for a more interesting character. His performance may not be "better" than Marshall's, but for me it enhances the material in a way Marshall's does not. Edge, ABEL

Juror #5: Lee Philips vs Jack Klugman -- Philips was the male lead in Peyton Place, but somehow that blockbuster gave him no career boost. Within a few years he would give up acting and move into TV direction. As for 12AM, his Ivy League manner would have better suited the adman. He's never really believable as a product of the slums. Klugman, a better actor and more comfortably cast, easily owns the role.

Juror #6: Bart Burns vs Ed Binns -- I don't know much about Burns (he would go on to play the cop sidekick on Darren McGavin's Mike Hammer TV series). He isn't all that physically imposing, and he seems curiously mild mannered. I'm not totally crazy about Binns here -- he sometimes overdoes the dumb ox shtick -- but he sort of wins by default. The most interesting thing about this character in either version is that on TV he, NOT the old man, is given the showstopping bit of coming up with the evidence. This was a mistake Rose fixed in the film.

Juror #7: Paul Hartman vs Jack Warden -- like Beal against Fiedler, it isn't so much that Hartman is bad, it's just that Warden so completely nails the part it's pointless to compete. Warden makes the role so much his own that the differing details of the earlier version (his tickets are for the Broadway production of The Seven Year Itch!) somehow seem "wrong". What would be fascinating is if through some magical spell we could somehow see Warden and Klugman switch roles. Warden's one-of-the-boys and Klugman's Garfieldish chip-on-the-shoulder make them perfect for the parts they did play, but how would they have done with different characters?

Juror #8: Robert Cummings vs Henry Fonda -- And here we go... I like Fonda, but here he's his usual crusading everyman right from the beginning, an intrepid warrior struggling against injustice. Robert Cummings -- a talented light comedian who usually came across as bland or smarmy in drama -- actually
seems like a guy who is sincere but confused, and not quite sure how he should go about doing the right thing, whatever that is. This may be due to Cummings' acting  ability, or it could be Bob's trouble remembering his lines gives his performance an extra if unintended dimension. And he DID win an Emmy. Edge... Wait for it... CUMMINGS

Juror #9: Joseph Sweeney vs Joseph Sweeney -- Man's eternal struggle against himself... I'm glad Sweeney got to repeat his TV role, achieving a bit of immortality in the twilight of his career and his life. There may have been other actors who could have been as good in the part, but few if any would have been better.

Juror #10: Edward Arnold vs Ed Begley -- Arnold usually played smooth characters (whether good or evil). He doesn't seem comfortable cast against type here as a working class lout, sometimes straining for a Noo Yawk vibe ("Whatzat gotta do widda price o' kawfee?"). Begley easily inhabits the character, smiling (and quite amiably too -- ironic, given Arnold's earlier interpretation) at the start, but quickly turning when Fonda points out his bigotry. He has the film's phoniest moment (when all the backs are turned on him), but even so, BEGLEY

Juror #11: George Voskovec vs George Vos-- er, I did that bit already. Voskovec is okay. But there were probably dozens of actors who could have done it better. Comparing him to Sweeney, the other holdover from TV, he seems easily replaceable.

Juror #12: Will West (aka Larkin Ford) vs Robert Webber -- this is the easiest decision. West makes so little impact it's difficult to even remember what he looked like. In fairness, it must be said that Rose gave his character almost nothing to do, but even so West makes virtually nothing of his (admittedly few) opportunities (as I wrote, Philips would have been more comfortable here than in the role he ended up playing). Webber is at least given a few moments, though IMHO it's not enough -- I wish Rose could have given him some more dialogue (I could have lived with a shorter Balsam-Fonda scene at the window). Still Webber manages to at least register, even if he comes across as a bit too mature for the Mad Ave yuppie. WEBBER

If you have never seen the original, live TV version of 12 Angry Men, watch it and see what you think.


If you're interested in film noir check out my book Dark Movies, available at Amazon.

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