Friday, August 29, 2008

You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse

This item over at TVShowsOnDVD.com about the upcoming release of 6-DVD box set of Studio One kinescopes almost slipped past me…but since it didn’t, I thought I’d pass it on to some of the more “highbrow” visitors to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. (I am, of course, referring to the gentleman and gentlewoman eating the sandwiches over the sink.) Koch Vision will release this set on November 11th, and it will contain seventeen classic dramas like “Confessions of a Nervous Man,” “Dark Possession,” “The Arena” and “The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners.” The Emmy Award-winning “Twelve Angry Men” is also included; this landmark 1954 production written by Reginald Rose garnered three statuettes for writing (Rose), direction (Franklin J. Schaffner) and performance by an actor in a drama (Bob Cummings…Bob Cummings?)

Studio One began life as a short-lived CBS radio series first broadcast on April 29, 1947…but its brief run had nothing to do with its quality (it was critically lauded as “the most ambitious new series in radio”) insomuch as it was scheduled opposite Fibber McGee & Molly and The Bob Hope Show. (Not a particularly good sign.) Also, Studio wasn’t heard on the West Coast for at least six months after its premiere—which also put a small crimp in whatever ratings aspirations the series had. The program was placed in the custody of a twenty-six-year-old wunderkind named Fletcher Markle, who had earned a reputation at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as another Orson Welles.

Markle’s plan for the show in the beginning was to shape the series into a sort of showcase for the top radio actors in New York—names like Everett Sloane, Robert Dryden, Paul McGrath, Mercedes McCambridge, etc. Fletch wasn’t enamored of the big “star system” in radio (“Americans have been educated to think that a program is not a major program without stars; in Canadian and British radio, there are no stars, yet every performer is a star”) and supported his “repertory company” policy with a novel system in which his actors and actresses would step up to the mike and announce the name of their characters at the conclusion of that evening’s production. (Markle would follow up by identifying each performer with his/her real name.) But by 1948, under pressure from the network to lift Studio’s ratings out of the cellar, Markle compromised by including high-wattage names like Charles Laughton, Robert Young and Marlene Dietrich, among many others.

Markle was also insistent that the productions on Studio One be culled from lesser-known works of prestigious authors, illustrated by the fact that the program’s debut show was an adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Fletch insisted that each work be presented as close to the author’s original intent as possible—taking liberties with books or short stories was verboten. In later years, Markle looked back and marveled at how cheaply material for the show could be obtained. “We even got Hemingway,” he recalled in an interview, “I believe, for a hundred dollars.”

Studio One left the radio airwaves on July 27, 1948—only to turn up on CBS’ fledgling television network months later (November 7, 1948) with an adaptation of the mystery play “The Storm,” starring stage and screen star Margaret Sullavan (quite a coup in those days, since movie stars who agreed to appear on television were often dismissed as “slumming”). Markle had departed the show by then (though he did return to the series briefly as a producer in 1953); expressing a desire to direct films (Night Into Morning, The Man With a Cloak) and the producer’s reins were turned over to Worthington Miner. Under Miner’s stewardship, Studio One became one of the longest-running—and critically acclaimed—anthology series of its era, finally closing its television doors on September 29, 1958.

7 comments:

Daniel said...

I'm not sure why it is a surprise that Bob Cummings won an Emmy for a straight acting role. Though he is best remembered these days as a light actor from several television comedies, Cummings enjoyed a long movie and television career that included many dramas.
Serious critics seem to ignore Cummings, but frankly his career lasted far longer than most other actors of his time.
Cummings was one of the first stars to come to television, yet he continued to appear in a number of major studio theatrical releases.

Toby said...

Who bothers eating over the sink? Slouch down in the chair in front of the TV and use your gut as a table works for me!

This news about 'Studio One' is fantastic, Ivan! I've got a few in my collection - "The Defender", "The Laugh-Maker", and I've seen a few more at the Paley Center. But I've always read about the series in tele-history books or online episode guides and was curious to see so many of them. This collection will be a big help towards that.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I'm not sure why it is a surprise that Bob Cummings won an Emmy for a straight acting role. Though he is best remembered these days as a light actor from several television comedies, Cummings enjoyed a long movie and television career that included many dramas.

Well, part of my italicized surprise is that, at best, I consider Cummings to be a bit of a lightweight in the acting department—particularly in dramatic situations…which is why I remained convinced that’s why he tends to be remembered for his television and movie comedies. It’s no secret that Alfred Hitchcock would have preferred, for example, someone other than Cummings to play the role of the protagonist in Saboteur (1942). He’s out-acted by Ronald Reagan in King’s Row (1941), if such a thing is possible. In his defense, he is tolerable in The Black Book (1949; also known as Reign of Terror) and his finest moment onscreen might be in Hitch’s Dial M for Murder (1954)—a role that’s tailor-made for him because his character is supposed to be shallow.

Serious critics seem to ignore Cummings, but frankly his career lasted far longer than most other actors of his time.

Yeah, but there’s a good deal of difference between longevity and excelling at your profession. You could argue that Cumming’s lengthy career was due more to the studio system than anything else; Paramount kept him around because he was eye candy to the ladies, not because of any critically-overlooked thespic talent. As long as he said his lines clearly and managed not to bump into the furniture, he was assured of getting a paycheck.

Daniel said...

Mr. Shreve:
I love your blog and don't want to argue with you on your own domain.

"Paramount kept him around because he was eye candy to the ladies, not because of any critically-overlooked thespic talent. As long as he said his lines clearly and managed not to bump into the furniture, he was assured of getting a paycheck."

Cummings worked for years at Paramount and Universal. He also was loaned out to Fox, Warners, RKO and others.
On TV Rod Serling wrote two teleplays for him, one for the Twilight Zone and the other for Playhouse 90. Pretty impressive in my book.

I've also read that Hitchock would have rather used someone other than Cummings, yet some of the same sources note that Cummings was one of the few actors that "Hitch" socialized with.

Many stars to whom virtual shrines have been built would have loved to continue their careers for the length of time that Cummings did.

I was able to attend one of Cummings rare public appearances late in his life (1988 actually) and the number of people who came out to see him, years after his retirement, was very impressive.

Anyway, thanks for your blog. I enjoy it nearly everyday.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Mr. Shreve:
I love your blog and don't want to argue with you on your own domain.


First off, I don't mind the arguing--whether it be on my domain or anyone else's. Your opinions are every bit as valid as mine, and I'll be the first individual to rise from my chair and demand that your say be heard. That's one of the reasons why I encourage comments and refuse to "monitor" them with those annoying passwords that I have to squint at to make out on other blogs.

Second, please don't call me Mr. Shreve...that's my father.

Many stars to whom virtual shrines have been built would have loved to continue their careers for the length of time that Cummings did.

Your defense of Bob Cummings is well-reasoned and well-written, and you are to be commended for your command of the facts concerning his career. But as one of my old college professors used to say, "We're just two ships passing in the night" so I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. (And I'll do my part by cutting back on the snark.)

Anyway, thanks for your blog. I enjoy it nearly everyday.

Well, thanks for encouraging my behavior, Daniel. You're good people.

Brent McKee said...

Like a lot of Canadians my age, I remember Fletcher Markle not as a writer or director but as the host and narrator of a documentary series on the CBC which was called Telescope. Each week he'd interview someone of importance in the arts or cultural community. Although his subjects were most often Canadians he would also talk with and highlight the career of international personalities. I clearly remember an interview with Hitchcock, and another with Buster Keaton, the latter at Keaton's home. It was usually rather over the head of the nine year-old me I must confess.

Andrew Leal said...

I blame it on the TV show, but Bob Cummings makes me squirm. He just seems inherently oily and unpleasant (the fact that he was a lecher on his sitcom surrounded by sex objects didn't help).

Cummings may have been a very nice man, but his persona is off-putting and keeps me from watching That Bob in anything without other compensations (he's no great shakes in One Night in the Tropics, but Allan Jones is much smarmier).