Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Where The Sharks Laugh

Kinescope remains the most intimate time machine. Its ghosts perform in tight corners, emotion, action filling limited space. Old films and radio shows are vast in comparison. Early video flat but dense. Filming from monitors captured live productions that would otherwise be lost. Kinescope may seem quaint, even ridiculous to modern eyes. But its tiny package packs a distinctive punch.

Of the Kinescope classics, my favorite is The Comedian which aired live on Playhouse 90, February 14, 1957. Rod Serling's script, based on an Ernest Lehman story, exposes the backstage ugliness of network comedy in the age of Gleason, Caesar, and Berle, all of whom Serling mentions. These broadcasting giants oversaw mini-empires -- actors, writers, dancers, directors and floor crews dependent on their celebrity and comedic power. That they weren't pussycats to their staffs is well established. But they also showed generosity, seducing the battered back into the fold.

Such passive-aggressive behavior is shown early in The Comedian. Sammy Hogarth, played by Mickey Rooney, hammers his cast for a lousy rehearsal, his writers for terrible sketches. Sammy's the smallest person onstage, but his voice and shadow dominate. As cast and crew break for the night, a cameraman thanks Sammy for helping with his child's medical bills. Sammy responds warmly, but as we soon see, this is a rarity. To pretty much everyone else, Sammy Hogarth is a monster. Manipulative, overbearing, cruel, most especially to his brother Lester, who appears catatonic when not on the verge of tears.

Mel Tormé's Lester is a pre-beaten man. Whatever happiness he may have enjoyed before we meet him has vanished. He flinches, mutters, sobs, asks for Sammy's permission to have dinner with his wife, which Sammy angrily denies. Lester is Sammy's punching bag onstage and off. His public persona is that of an useless idiot who deserves to be ripped apart. Lester's wife Julie, played by Kim Hunter, is tired of watching her husband be humiliated and gives him an ultimatum: either quit Sammy's show or she'll leave him. This added pressure is too much for Lester. Julie is the only good thing left to him, but Sammy pays for their comfortable life. Caught between love and financial security, Lester rapidly breaks down.

Lester's not the only one hanging by a thread. Sammy's head writer Al Preston (Edmond O'Brien) has run dry of jokes. He tries to squeeze what comedy is left in him, but nothing comes. His junior writers are no help, tossing around dated gags that make Al's block seem inspired. After Sammy threatens to fire him if the material doesn't improve, Al thumbs through old scripts written by a comedy whiz he knew who later died at the Battle of the Bulge. Al kept the scripts, either out of loyalty, for good luck, or as a reminder of creative days. As the deadline looms, Al surrenders and steals a couple of sketches, the theft known only by the show's secretary Connie (Constance Ford), whom Al is dating and hopes to marry.

Rod Serling's dialogue runs from rat-tat-tat exchanges to sullen confessions of failure. At times his love of language and varied rhythms seem too clever for the characters, yet nothing feels false. A hell of a balancing act. Serling would become best known for The Twilight Zone, but his Golden Age work (which included Patterns and Requiem For A Heavyweight) puts Serling in the same company as Paddy Chayevsky and Gore Vidal.

John Frankenheimer's direction is simply awe-inspiring. I don't know how many cameras he used for The Comedian, but there seem to be dozens at the oddest angles. Remember, this was a live, 90 minute show. I can only imagine the frenzy in Frankenheimer's control booth. Given the number of cuts, swift close-ups (cameras roll right up to the actors' faces which seem pressed against ours), and long dolly shots where characters walk casually in and out of frame, Frankenheimer's effort becomes more impressive with each viewing.

But it's the cast that truly shines. This is easily Mickey Rooney's best performance. He gives Sammy Hogarth every awful showbiz trait while hitting his marks and sailing through crowd scenes with a light, brutal touch. Rooney saves the real brutality for the one-on-one scenes. You're sickened by his sadism as you marvel at his timing.

Mel Tormé and Kim Hunter remind us of what live TV acting was once like: raw emotion, intensity, commitment. No cue cards or teleprompters: memorization and direct eye contact. Their arguments are hard to watch, but you do, however awful you feel witnessing a crumbling marriage. Edmond O'Brien acts as if he's on death row, which essentially he is. If a sadder comedy writer ever existed on American television, I'd be hard pressed to name him or her. The Sammy Hogarth Show is a literal meat grinder. Alan Brady's writers wouldn't survive the first commercial break.

If you live in the States, you can watch The Comedian on Hulu. For those outside our envied shores, you can order The Comedian from the good people at The Criterion Collection. I avoided revealing spoilers so that you may enjoy this time capsule personally. Absorb some brilliant energy from over a half century ago.