Studio One was a prestigious one-hour live TV series during America’s early television era. For a decade until the early 1950s it showcased the talents of many young and soon to be famous stars such as Natalie Wood, Dennis Hopper, James Dean and Charlton Heston. They were able to exploit the distrust more established actors had for the new medium, thereby gaining valuable experience and exposure. These two DVD releases feature three varied shows from the run.
The first disc includes The Laugh Maker (1953) a production starring Jackie Gleason and, as a bonus feature, The Square Peg (1952) starring seasoned character actor Thomas Mitchell. Perhaps Gleason’s finest TV hour, and certainly the one best remembered today, was when he starred in the hit series The Honeymooners (1955-56). He appeared in Studio One four times in different roles, of which the one on this disc is interesting because of its setting and biographical implications. In The Laugh Maker he plays Jerry Giles, a TV comedian who is as self-centred as he is ruthless. “If you’re good you last. If you’re not you’re dead,” opines the unfunny jokester, whose view of himself is marked throughout by an undercurrent of self-loathing and doubt. Giles is the subject of a magazine profile by reporter Art Carney, who at the same time discovers an old love of his, now an assistant television director, working with Giles. While ultimately the plot proves trite (Giles makes a play for the reporter’s newly rediscovered love, while his sister Val begs him to “do comedy with a heart”), it’s no surprise that at the end the reporter considers the funny man “devious, vain and sometimes downright vicious” and writes an article to that effect. Gleason/Giles, of course, is indestructible.
While the limitations and stresses of live TV drama were considerable – camera setups could be rough and ready, the staging cheap, while actors melted visibly under the harsh lighting then required – there were some gains. Unlike the homogenised and taped small screen drama of today, the acting in the Westinghouse-sponsored Studio One is consistently taut, benefiting from the adrenaline rush of performing without the safety net of re takes. The only breaks possible were during the sponsor’s now primitive-looking commercial breaks (which, incidentally, the lucky DVD buyer can elect to include, or not, as part of playback options). Even the most jaded material grows in urgency in such an environment, and Giles’ story is reasonably absorbing throughout. Gleason is outstanding, aptly larger-than-life; fleshing out a conceited lothario with such aplomb that one regrets he was not given more of chance to do serious work elsewhere. One is reminded faintly of Archie Rice in Osborne’s The Entertainer (filmed 1960) or Kenneth Moore’s battered Chick Byrd in The Comedy Man (1963). Jerry Giles is ultimately more successful than either of these two, but shares a common sense of disillusionment, here covered over with a layer of ego and conceit alienating friends and lovers alike.
While The Laugh Maker is distinguished by a strong central performance, and is made intriguing by commenting implicitly on the media institutions that commissioned it, the companion show on this disc, The Square Peg, is less interesting. The star name here is Thomas Mitchell who, over a long period in films, frequently gave solid support. Here he does his best in the central role, playing gangster Jack Guzzow, but the result if entertaining, is at best slight. Mitchell, in a part best suited for the genial malevolence of an Edward G. Robinson, seems uncomfortable – perhaps not surprisingly given the humdrum script. Orson Bean (still active, in such films as Being John Malkovich, 1999) plays Harvey Hines, a naīve ‘personnel psychologist’, who is unconvincingly employed by Guzzow to apply modern management techniques to the mob, testing his hoodlums for “aptitude and ability.” He soon discovers his mistake and works to bring his employer to justice. It’s an idea that must have seemed funnier on paper than it does in performance, and in any case needed a lighter touch than here.
The second disc in this Studio One re-issue series consists of a single two-part programme, The Defender. Originally broadcast in 1957, this courtroom drama benefits from a strong central cast: Martin Balsam, Ralph Bellamy, as well as the fresh faces of William Shatner and, as billed, one Steven McQueen. McQueen plays Joseph Gordon, a headache-prone delivery boy who is accused of strangling a woman. Bellamy and Shatner play the father and son team charged with his defence, while the excellent Balsam is their legal opponent, an ambitious Assistant DA charged with getting a conviction.
It’s a familiar enough tale of justice on a knife-edge, given its main dramatic interest by a conflict of conscience in the defence team. Elder lawyer Preston (Bellamy) is convinced of his client’s guilt. His case is “next to hopeless” from the start, and he feels a personal disgust for the young man on trial for his life: “I can’t stand him. He is a gross human being.” It’s Preston’s contemplation of his own ethics, and those of the defence he must ultimately use, which gives the drama interest over two hours. His son Kenny (a relatively unmannered performance by the future Captain Kirk) is sure that no legal avenues should be left unexplored: “Clean, dirty, as long as there is a lawyer fighting on each side – what does it matter?” For the most part this moral tussle is engrossing, as are the various testimonies in court, although McQueen has little to do but contemplate the infighting of his team and bitterly protest his innocence. The sleight of hand used by the defence team at the end of proceedings may be suitably dramatic, but leaves matters naggingly unresolved, notably whether or not Gordon is actually guilty. But, given the ongoing debate over adequately defending the criminous, this may be the point.
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The Defender has a large cast of extras, who pack the TV courtroom to provide a real sense of atmosphere and drama. With the obvious constraints of live television this must have taken some organisation, and part of the pleasure comes from watching a professional presentation of a complicated staging.
Taken as a pair, these two Studio One discs provide a good introduction to the series, of the up and coming talent of yesteryear, and of what we have gained – and lost – through technological advance since. One looks forward to seeing more archive treasures being released. The DVDs also include a short documentary on the series, and star profiles.