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Friday, May 24, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: TV Movie [Stars] - Part 1

Olivia De Havilland contributed to Bette Davis's surprise when the latter lady
 was a special guest on the popular television program "This Is Your Life." 
Laurel and Hardy, Johnny Cash, and Jayne Mansfield were 
also participants, although not always gladly!

The transition of dull civilian life to devoted cinema spectatorship was not an overnight process. It started as a tingle and grew into an earthquake that left many a movie theater but nary a vaudeville circuit in its wake. In 40 years, we went from ogling the naughty motion photography of hopping, bathing, and leapfrogging male and female nudes (oh, Eadweard Muybridge, you rapscallion you!) to staring in thunderstruck admiration at the Oberammergau Passion Play of 1898, which was the first commercially produced motion picture, (thank you German Cinema professor of 2003), to being hysterically enraptured by the intricate comic wizardry of Charlie Chaplin in The Circus. The year 1928 would be another big one in film, for this year proved that our artistic and technological innovation was growing at just as rapid a speed as our increasing appetite for entertainment. Fittingly, sound brought the boom that turned the industry on its head. Talkies made Silents a thing of the past in less than two years. As in the first "box office" crash with the advent of film-- does Digby Bell ring any bells today?-- it was only the members of the entertainment community that suffered. Some evolved and some didn't, wouldn't, or couldn't. 

Eadweard Muybridge's studies in motion photography did much to further the process of
 turning still photographs to motion pictures. He later used his expertise to do popular
"motion studies" regarding the naked form. There doesn't seem to be any record
of male audiences reacting negatively to bounding breasts in motion. 
To be fair, Eadweard featured  men too, including himself-- 
naked as a jay bird.

Following Hollywood's golden age, history would repeat itself yet again with the next great innovation, the birth of the television set, which-- like film itself-- started slowly in the late forties and found itself in half of all households by the mid-fifties. The celebrity reaction was the same as ever. Some denied; some jumped on the gravy train. Some bowed out of the biz gracefully; others fell on their faces. Some disappeared; others found a new generation of viewers and a second run at fame. We are arguably going through another cycle of media reconstruction as the computer increasingly takes the place of both film and television by offering a new medium for both options-- often for free. As per usual, the stars are suffering, in that there aren't really any left-- at least none who rule with as much magnitude as their predecessors (see old article here). When a God becomes too accessible, He transforms from a golden idol into last year's fad-- what once was as exciting as the invention of the light bulb thus becomes as ridiculous in retrospect as the slap bracelet.

In any case, the following Movie Gods and Goddesses were able to make the transition from big-screen to small-screen-- some with dignity, others with... humdingery, but fortunately for all, their great cinematic reputations were big enough to maintain their lost luster, and history has mostly forgotten their fruitless televised efforts. Gable perhaps remains untouched, if only because he never sold in his "King" stature to become a Prince of Pabst Blue Ribbon or the Baron of Brylcreem, but as you will see, the following pack of experimental pals did all right for themselves too, even if the big gamble of the small screen wasn't always worth it.

Son, switch the dial!

Sadly, of the many who made the jump to Television, the majority were duds. Character actors often had a better shot of maintaining their careers as their sinister, comical, or otherwise malleable characterizations could easily be plugged into various series, occasional episodes, or even a permanent supporting role on TV. In some cases, smaller names were able to transcend their former B-status to become huge stars of the boob tube, some playing the lead in their own series, as in Clayton Moore aka "The Lone Ranger" (left) and George Reeves aka "Superman." Conversely, some film stars who had enjoyed a glorious hey day in the cinematic stratosphere found themselves floating into oblivion after their attempts at broadcast success. Some dipped in a toe only to gracefully retire from show-business; others made a bold attempt to board the gravy train only to be left behind. There too was a stigma attached to some stars who wandered over to TV town, for just as Television became both a welcoming place of refuge for aging movie icons-- where studios would gladly profit off their notoriety-- TV debuts could also be seen as their fall from grace: "This guy, he used to be big! Now look at him..."

One of the biggest celebs to give television a go was Judy Garland. Judy, whom Fred Astaire once dubbed "the greatest entertainer who ever lived," endured a very public series of ups and downs in her career. Overworked and doped at MGM, everyone's favorite little girl matured into a very nervous and high-strung woman. Her addictions to drugs and alcohol would remain a constant throughout her life, and it was only her love of singing that could at times propel her through her personal haze of confusion, lethargy, and man-handling, to the place where she truly shined brightest--the stage! While her (occasionally canceled) live performances kept her busy for the majority of her adulthood, she also was an always welcome surprise as a guest on various television programs. With her witty humor and hammy storytelling, Judy's reminiscences on her many interviews with TV personalities like Jack Paar (right) were consistently and thoroughly entertaining, especially to nostalgic viewers who still remembered her trip down the yellow brick road. Judy was also a notorious bull-sh*tter, and one could never be certain whether she was being honest, embellishing, or completely fabricating a grand story on the spot, but that was part of her charm-- as was her sharp but slightly naughty repartee.

Soon enough, CBS offered Judy her own show, during which she would, of course, perform songs and chat it up, as only she could, with random guests. This could have been a huge turning point in Judy's life. Looking for a chance to rebuild herself, she was ecstatic at the opportunity and, after getting healthy, was looking better than ever by the time shooting began. Fueled by optimism, she was also more cooperative than she had been in years and collaborated well with the entire production team. Fittingly, her first guest was Mickey Rooney (left)! Unfortunately, the show bit the dust when the network changed management, and suddenly Judy's natural style was not considered "suitable." To her dismay, her team was dissembled, the format was altered, and instead of being devious, genius, glamorous Judy, she was supposed to play the fallen idol who was the butt of America's joke. Her stalled career, her weight fluctuation, and her failed marriages, were regularly used to mock her on the air, to which she always brilliantly played along, but the ploy didn't work. Judy was expected to be Judy, and audiences didn't like her being brought down to earth with the mortals. As such, they stopped tuning in. As for Judy, she became severely depressed and fell back on her old patterns. It was a huge opportunity lost purely from bad business.

The good news, at least in Judy's case, though she certainly had trouble seeing it at the time, was that it wasn't her that was rejected by viewers but the show's style. A few other sufferers fell into this category, including Robert Mitchum. Bob had performed on television in various miniseries, such as "North and South," as well as in a fairly successful 1990 TV movie called "A Family for Joe" (right). The latter plot involved the coalition of four orphans who, in fear of being separated, elected a crotchety homeless man to pose as their "grandfather." Chaos, as expected, ensued. The network decided to adapt the film into a show, but as it turned out, people weren't interested in seeing Bob every week, particularly when playing an old buffoon with a heart of gold. Audiences liked his edgy versatility and reacted negatively and confusedly to his turn as a diluted, family-friendly archetype. As such, "Joe" was again rendered homeless after nine episodes. However, the show did spark the career of one Juliette Lewis. Bob and Juliette would re-team in a mere year for the Cape Fear re-make.

Errol Flynn (right) enjoyed a little more success in 1956 when he started "The Errol Flynn Theatre" anthology series-- a popular format of the time that produced weekly, unrelated stories and rotating performers. Filmed in London but aired in the United States, Errol hosted the series casually with the same, utter lack of pretension that made his small screen personality as charming as his big screen characters. He would perform in several of the episodes himself, which he also produced, and various other stars made appearances, including Christopher Lee, Paulette Goddard, Mrs. Flynn- Patrice Wymore- and even Errol's son, Sean. Always uncertain of his talents but eager to explore his range, the diverse plotlines and character roles allowed Errol to do some of his most interesting acting, which was more fitting to his years. However, Flynn was getting older, and it was perhaps for this reason that audiences didn't respond to the series. They preferred him in tights, forever young, and swashbuckling to victory. The show only lasted one season.

Jean Arthur, the Class Frown, also took a stab at the tube. After retiring from film and spending the majority of her later life on the stage-- that is, when she could muster up the courage and keep it together enough to perform-- Jean had only performed on one episode of "Gunsmoke" when she decided to go for it with her own series in 1966: "The Jean Arthur Show" (left). Always an intensely anxious and temperamental woman, Jean's inferiority complex caused problems from the very beginning. However, working against her even more was the show itself. The plot revolved around a female lawyer and her battle with a weekly case. She would always win the verdict, of course, but the style was that of heavy-handed comedy, and a little too much so. Jean's true brand of humor never derived from slap-stick nor from her being the butt of the joke. In her classic films, the laughs were much more situational wherein her wide-eyed reactions, dry humor, and iconic voice filled in the charm. As such, the context of the show and its jokes, which were far too on the nose and ridiculous, didn't work. (I said class frown, not clown, remember)? After the apparently always dependable Mickey Rooney made an appearance and upstaged Jean, she totally lost confidence, and a slew of other guest stars couldn't save her nor her show. She abandoned ship and left TV for good!

Hey, look who it is!

Changing stations, the next crew of TV trespassers were actually able to find mild success. More career-conscious entertainers and business-minded actors/actresses saw television as an opportunity as opposed to a death knell. As such, a lot of former and current stars broadened their fan base and bulked up their resumes by making the lucrative decision to join the realm of the telly. The reasons for this were both tactical and professional, examples of which can be seen in the cases of divas Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan. Neither woman opted to insult the "idiot box" with diversion, as clearly said 'box' was smart enough to get people across the nation to stare at it transfixed for hours on end. Babs was drawn to the TV-experiment more for her passionate need to work-- the all consuming drive in her life-- while Ann was just a practical and easy-going lady who was up for anything. Both of their gambles were relatively successful. Ann participated quite a bit in various shows, like "Wagon Train," or "The Lux (as in Soap) Theatre," which showcased abbreviated movies with guest stars and introduced such up and comers as Grace Kelly and James Dean to the world. An open fan of television, Ann also proudly proclaimed her love of soap operas, which she found absolutely addictive. This eventually led to her one season participation on "Another World." Her greatest success was appearing on her own series, "Pistols 'n' Petticoats" (right), though cancer would sadly claim her before the first season finished. Reviews weren't particularly friendly, unfortunately, so it is questionable whether it would have continued had she survived.

For her part, Babs-- as per usual-- hit one out of the park when she appeared on the hit television show "The Big Valley" (left) in the latter part of the sixties. Lasting four years, this show gave her a comfortable income, provided her with her favorite brand of storytelling-- the Western-- and earned her a place in broadcast history. While the show wasn't a huge sensation, it had a good run, and generations not familiar with her film work got to know her through this program. Babs continued seeking out opportunities, taking jobs here and there in the rare TV movie, but she hit her stride again with some coups in the '80s, including a guest spot on "Charlie's Angels." There was even talk of doing a male version of "Angels" with Barbara taking the role of their female Bosley! No dice (fortunately), but Babs had success with her powerful performance in the controversial mini-series "The Thorn Birds" and her participation in everyone's favorite guilty pleasure: "Dynasty." In fact, Aaron Spelling gave her her own spin-off, "The Colbys," but pro though she was, Babs found the material so ridiculous that she bailed out early. As she was aging and in poor health, she sadly would not make any more contributions. This was a painful thing for the always feisty Barbara, who became quite despondent in her last years. Her need to build and craft was denied her by her frail condition. She would confide to a friend that she had always hoped to "go out" in some wild or heroic fashion. Thus, ending her days helpless in bed was, to her, the ultimate of life's cruelties.


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