What most people remember from Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow’s “Television and the Public Interest” speech given on May 9, 1961 is that he called television “a vast wasteland.” However, what is seldom recalled is he started his speech by saying, “When television is good, nothing – not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers – nothing is better.”
Proof of his statement is on display in The Criterion Collection’s release The Golden Age of Television, which, departing from their normal movie fare, presents the 1981 PBS anthology series that honored live dramas from the early days of the medium. Each episode is hosted by an actor of that time (Eva Marie Saint, Roddy McDowall, Jack Klugman, and Carl Reiner) or a performer (Keenan Wynn, Merv Griffin, Cliff Robertson, and Julie Harris) involved with the teleplays, though not necessarily the one they were in. Informative interviews with cast and crew reveal the creation of each and are wonderful stories of a bygone era.
Over three DVDs are black-and-white kinescopes, filmed recordings off video monitors, of amazing teleplays not seen since they first aired in the 1950s. The combination of their historical significance and the brilliant talent on display more than make up for their visual quality. Some include commentary tracks provided by the directors.
Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty starred Rod Steiger in a powerful performance as the woeful bachelor. Even today, it is rare to see the problems of a regular guy dealt with such insight. Two years later, the story would be adapted into an Academy Award Best Picture winner starring Ernest Borgnine. Commentary by Delbert Mann.
Writer Rod Serling won an Emmy for Patterns, a compelling look at the cutthroat nature of the business world. Starring Richard Kiley and directed by Fielder Cook, it is just as applicable half a century later.
Ira Levin adapted No Time for Sergeants from Mac Hyman’s novel about a good ol’ Southern boy drafted into the Army Air Corps. Although he had no acting experience, Andy Griffith shows he was perfect to play the lead role and would go on to appear in the Broadway and film adaptations. Comedies were rare on live television and to help engage the home viewer, Sergeants was performed in front of a live studio audience.
James Costigan’s A Wind from the South is a good but familiar tale as Julie Harris plays an Irish innkeeper torn between family obligations and learning what opportunities the world outside has to offer her.
Bang the Drum Slowly stars 21-year-old Paul Newman as a baseball pitcher helping his ailing catcher (Albert Salmi) make it through one more season. Commentary by Daniel Petrie.
The following teleplays aired on Playhouse 90, which expanded the format past an hour.
Multiple Emmy Awards were bestowed on Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight, which tells the story of boxer Harlan “Mountain” McClintock (Jack Palance) trying to make his way in life after the sport. When his manager (Keenan Wynn) reveals he bet against McClintock in a fight, it is more devastating than any punch taken in the ring. Commentary by Ralph Nelson.
John Frankenheimer directed the final two dramas in the collection. Serling adapted Ernest Lehman’s behind-the-scenes novella The Comedian, which starred Mickey Rooney in possibly his most intense performance as a maniacal television star whose only use for a person is their contribution to his career. Commentary by Frankenheimer.
While most will be more familiar with Blake Edwards’ film starring Jack Lemmon, JP Miller’s story of an alcoholic married couple in Days of Wine and Roses works better here. Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie are very good and Frankenheimer’s use of cameras expands on the standard fare for live television dramas. There is an extra of interview footage of Frankenheimer shot for the PBS series.
Almost 30 years after PBS honored television’s past, The Criterion Collection shines a deserving spotlight on it with this excellent release. The Golden Age of Television serves as an important historical document while simultaneously being timeless because these stories will forever enlighten the human condition.