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Susti Heaven

Brand Perfect

Closet Nomad


(The Criterion Collection)
Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1953-58
Cast: Paul Newman, Mickey Rooney, Rod Steiger, Julie Harris, Piper Laurie, Nancy Marchand, Richard Kiley, Everett Sloane, Ed Begley, Elizabeth Montgomery, Andy Griffith, Keenan Wynn, Ed Wynn, Jack Palance, George Peppard, Cliff Robertson
Director: John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, Ralph Nelson, Daniel Petrie, Fielder Cook, Alex Segal
Release Date: January 8, 2010, 7:28 am
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 07h:05m:56s

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Three discs that demonstrate that on the little box, they still don't make 'em like they used to.

Movie Grade: A

DVD Grade: B

One of the most romanticized of all show biz eras is the time of live TV dramas of the 1950sˇyou can't help but think that you could skim the best off of any period and make a persuasive case for it being a golden age. This set doesn't exactly help us separate the wheat from the chaff, or nostalgia from reality; but it is kind of a great romp through some of the very best of the days of Playhouse 90 and its ilk. These eight dramas ran on public television in the early 1980s, so Criterion had its winnowing done for it; a bunch of these stories will be familiar from later feature film versions, and even if the technical elements are a bit compromised, there's nothing in this set that isn't worth a look.

The opening act is tough to top: it's Marty, with its famous, restrained teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky, a master of the form, and before he let fly with the opera in movies like Network. The premise is so simple as to be almost laughable or pitied: a butcher, 36, lives at home with his mother, as his siblings get married and he can't get a date. Marty has a fair amount of self-pityˇ"I'm a fat, ugly little man"ˇbut he still has hope, and goes to a dance hall, where he meets a young woman held in similarly low esteem. What could be a parody of kitchen-sink realism is elevated by extraordinarily empathic writing and some tremendous acting, especially by Rod Steiger in the title role. It's an amazingly controlled performanceˇSteiger's Marty never gives in to tears, and yet he's completely heartbreaking. And Nancy Marchand here is decades away from grand dame statusˇher vulnerability as Marty's girl is painful.

Considerably more boring is the principal subplot, in which Marty's mother convinces her battle axe of a sister to move in with her, rather than sleeping on her daughter-in-law's couch. We're so far afield from Hollywood glamor that even more than half a century later it's hard to know what to make of this, or what audiences would haveˇit's incredibly poignant, even more so for being the opposite of what we expect from television, mindless hours of other people, usually beautiful people, and their stupid problems.

The kinescopes weren't made for the ages, and the video quality can be poor; as does each of these dramas, Marty comes with an introduction produced for its 1981 airing on public television, and a commentary track from director Delbert Mann, who has plenty of shopworn but still warm stories about the highlight of his professional life.

Submitted for your consideration, next is Patterns, with a teleplay by a young buck named Rod Serlingˇit's without any paranormal activity, though, and is instead sort of Richard II on the 40th floor. Welcome to Ramsie & Company, Manhattan, where everybody is very busy and very corporate, and the stakes are very high. (You get the sense that Serling doesn't really know much about actual corporations, nor does he care; what Ramsie & Co. produces is decidedly beside the point.) The old man, Walter Ramsie, likes to gin up some drama and is a keen believer in thinning the herd via social Darwinism, so new on board is Staples (Richard Kiley), the up-and-comer brought in as a new VP. It's clear to everyone but him that he's there to take the place of Sloan (Ed Begley), the Willy Loman or Shelly Levine of the piece.

The drama is ferocious, and the dialogue snaps, even if it's clearly sort of a put on; there are lots of meetings and memos and telexes, and the actors rip into their roles, especially Everett Sloan as Ramsie. (He's probably best known as Charles Foster Kane's amiable yes man, Mr. Bernsteinˇhe's got fangs here instead.) Especially notable too is a fetching young Elizabeth Montgomery, as a particularly gossipy member of the steno pool.

Just how much cornpone can you handle? That's the unarticulated question that's at the heart of the third title on the first disc, No Time for Sargeants, in which we witness the public persona of Andy Griffith get born. He plays Will Stockdale, whose aw shucks manner runs right into the Army way when he gets drafted; hijinks ensue. He's got the obligatory little buddy, and the comedy comes from Will's obliviousness and good heartˇit's the Şr-text for Forrest Gump, with no shortage of corny jokes ("How was your childhood?" "Well, I was kinda young"). It's modestly amusing and of some historical value, but really it's only for when the Nick at Nite Andy Griffith Show marathon has wound down, and you need a little bit of the hair of the dog.

The blarney is a might thick in the first selection on the second disc, A Wind from the South, in which Julie Harris plays Shevawn, teetering on becoming an old maid, who with her bitter brother Liam has converted the family manse into a bed and breakfast for American tourists after some authenticity and roots. Among the current guests is Robert (Donald Woods), with both the soul and the thirst of a poetˇhe loves a drink and to recite Robert Frost, both convenient ways to avoid his shrew of a wife.

The inevitable handsome young Yank shows up, with the equally inevitable invitation to the local dance. James Costigan's script is like small-screen Terence Ratiganˇthere's not much to it, really, but it is deeply felt. The 1981 introduction is especially notable for its host, also the singer on the teleplay's soundtrack: Mr. Merv Griffin.

We then move into the sports section of the set, with a couple of titles familiar from later incarnations as feature films. Made just before his supernova burst, Paul Newman is the narrator and star of Bang the Drum Slowly, in which he plays Henry, star southpaw for a New York baseball club, whose best friend on the team, Bruce, a lovable moron, is diagnosed with an unnamed, incurable illness. (This is sort of Pride of the Yankees Lite.) It's a story about the bond between pitcher and catcher, and it's got the sappy trappings of a disease movieˇit's not helped by the fact that Bruce, the patient, seems borderline retarded, and is supposed to be ennobled by his disease. Unsurprisingly, it's Newman who is deceptively good here, and saves it from becoming irretrievably maudlin, even if the bond between the men seems inexplicable. (On his commentary track, director Daniel Petrie ruminates more generally on the glory days of live TV.)

We have Rod Serling to thank again for the next story, Requiem for a Heavyweight, with Jack Palance in the title roleˇhis Mountain McClintock is a punch-drunk fighter who can no longer get clearance from the doctor to get in the ring, so all he's got left is is dignity. His best friend and trainer, Maish, wants to strip that from him, tooˇMaish is in deep to the Mob for betting against his own man, and now wants the Mountain to sell his wares as a professional wrestler, until Maish can find himself a new boy. There are a quartet of terrific performances here, starting with Palance as the haunted fighter who knows his limits and fears his future; Kim Hunter as the employment agency employee who recognizes his gentle soul; and then a father and son combo: it's Col. Bat Guano himself, Keenan Wynn, as Maish, equal parts bravado and self-loathing, and his father, Ed Wynn, as the Mountain's trainer and the conscience of the piece. Director Ralph Nelson's commentary track focuses on the older Wynn, a comedian of an earlier era who had to fight the instinct to yuk it up constantly, and who nearly got fired days before the broadcast. Even if you don't know about Ed Wynn's earlier, goofy work, you've got to respect his performance here. The introduction features some remarks from Carol Serling, Rod's widow, and is hosted by Jack Klugman, in his Gilligan hat and sipping a Tab. Nice.

Disc Three is devoted to two John Frankenheimer-directed dramas, the first of which comes with a stellar literary pedigreeˇThe Comedian is based on a story by Ernest Lehman, with a teleplay by Rod Serling. It stars Mickey Rooney as a tyrannical star of live television, in the mode of Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar, and recounts the lives on whom he wreaks havoc: his waterboy of a brother, played by Mel Torm╚; his head writer (Edmund O'Brien), out of ideas reduced to stealing sketches from a talented writer killed in the war; and really, pretty much everyone in his path.

Rooney is a fearsome little fireplug as Sammy Hogarth, who is very much of a piece with his namesake, Sammy Glickˇwe never quite figure just what makes this Sammy run, but you sure don't want to get in his path. The extras here lavish a lot of praise on Serling's script, which is certainly excellent, but this may give short shrift to Lehmanˇthis is very much of a piece with Sweet Smell of Success, traveling in similar circles; one of the characters from Sweet Smell even puts in an appearance here. (That would be Otis Elwell, J. J. Hunsecker's columnist rival.) It's hard hitting, but usually in the same way—it's emotional, but really, there's just WAY TOO MUCH YELLING GOING ON HERE, and it's clear that neither Serling nor Lehman have a clue as to how to write roles for women. (Kim Hunter is game as Torm╚'s wife, but there's only so much she can do without words.)

Carl Reiner hosts the intro for this one, and Frankenheimer appears there, and in supplementary interview material, and on a commentary track, making some of the same points, many of which are about the genius of Mickey Rooney.

And finally, and perhaps most harrowingly, is Days of Wine and Roses, more familiar in its feature incarnation with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, but equally powerful here, with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie under Frankenheimer's direction. It's a pretty straight-up tale of a pair of alcoholicsˇJoe meets Kirsten, they both enjoy a nip, and they find that their problems cannot be solved by draining the bottle, as hard as they try. If you've seen the film, it's hard not to compareˇone of the most disturbing things about it is watching Lemmon pull Remick over to the dark side with real little ladylike drinkies like Brandy Alexanders, but here, perhaps in the interests of time, Kirsten is a full-boat drunk when Joe meets her. You can see just how full of self-loathing they are, and we're in some of the same territory as Mad Menˇthings interfere with their drinking, like kids, like work, and Joe works in public relations, at a time when being a PR man meant being a pimp.

The power of the piece is undercut somewhat by the framing story, which shows Joe relating his tale at an AA meeting, and in the second half, things get very twelve steppy. Laurie is an especially terrifying drunk, and just when you think they hit bottom, they get even lowerˇat one point, out of legitimate booze, they raid the kitchen cabinet and swill vanilla extract, for its high alcohol content. Bottoms up.

Julie Harris hosts the introduction, which discusses the feature and emphasizes the contributions of writer J. P. Miller; and from the same interview session conducted for The Comedian, Frankenheimer offers some additional reflections. The set is accompanied by a booklet with brief, informative notes on each of the eight selections.

Jon Danziger January 8, 2010, 7:28 am