Actress Jennifer Howard and Writer Bill Templeton on the set of 'Checkmate' (1961) by Chris Templeton
Can you imagine shooting a film live?
That you are placed in the position of making a feature that you painstakingly develop, but only as one-off experience? A film that is transmitted and not effectively recorded? Imagine further, a production that is to be viewed by a single, scheduled audience. A production that after all the efforts of its authors is then lemming-like thrown into a metaphysical void, never to be seen again, existing as a kind of kinetic excitement in the memories of its first and only audience?
The "Golden Age of Television' (1950s -1960) was at the same time a golden age for film. Risks taken by early television dramatists were recouped as successes by the more established film producers. Taking newly minted creative concepts and producing new film coinage. The dawn of US television in the early 1950s. A primordial moment when the potential for every kind of creature was possible. Where if you were a writer, you became master of your own universe. You could write anything. Play with time, mix genres, invent new characters, new fictions, new unimagined dramatic scenarios. As experimental as you could get without the police coming to knock on your front door. Your only guiding remit? To create a mise en scÃ¨ne fascinating enough, to keep an audience long enough, to maybe buy a washing machine at the end of the show .
Early American television drama was driven by volume. Crudely put, entertainment produced on an industrial level. Programmes shot out of the blocks at speed, with enough of them to prove that the new fangled TV medium was working and that these magical " wires and lights in a box' would keep you coming back for more. We're not talking about formulaic dramas here with established characters and dilemmas. Every feature offering had to give a fizz in the brain. Every offering had to delight in a way that the previous offering had delighted, but more so. It was expected. The only way was up.
This imperative stretched the minds of the writers super-humanly. It hyper-concentrated the minds of the actors who had to deliver the drama live . The danger that the idea of a live offering implies is only matched by the unimaginable creative rewards that came from embracing it. The experience, for writers and actors who had the confidence to work in this way, was often described autobiographically, as a career highpoint. They knew that the gods had a special place for those who take such risks and succeed. The gods reward all earthly bravery as the fullest expression of the human experience. After all, it makes for the best kind of entertainment.
Thanks to the kinescope process some of these early, live dramatic productions were salvaged. They have lived too long in the cinematic shadow, waiting to be brought out of the moonlight as a contributing parent to the modern film experience. To understand the power of this declaration, indulge me a little by watching, back to back, the live Studio One version of "Twelve Angry Men' (1954) and the cross-fertilized version of the film of the same name, produced in 1957. See how Sidney Lumet, the director of film version goes out of his way to recreate the visual grammar of the original by Franklin Shaffner, where the urgency of the performances generate a "nowness' and a new kind of "visual reality'. Some of the power is of course lost in the migration, but it's still clearly there to be enjoyed. Here, the producers of the film have analyzed the live version granularly and in an attempt to find patterns, have tried to distil the visual reality from it. Effectively mining a creative seam.
For the actors, the live Studio One experience made men out of boys. The list of actors who passed through the live, one-off drama experience into cinematic glory, is astonishing: Yul Brenner ("Flowers from a Stranger', 1949), Charlton Heston ("Smoke', 1949), Eva Marie Saint ("June Moon', 1949), Jack Lemmon ("June Moon' 1949), Grace Kelley ("The Rockingham Tea Set', 1950), Anne Bancroft ("Torrents of Spring', 1950), Burgess Meredith ("The Horses Mouth', 1950) to name just a few (to see the full list of early Studio One actors see: http://uk.imdb.com/title/tt0040051/epcast ).
As the medium grew grew, Producers like Desi Arnaz went out of their way to tackle the classics, many of which were then immediately cross-wired into film features, often (like "Twelve Angry Men') taking the animus of the original with it. William Templeton's adaptation of George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984' proved the impossible: that you could take a great novel, reproduce it with respect and engineer it's essential qualities into a one hour live performance. In this way, the live Studio One version, produced in 1953 with Eddie Albert in the title role as Winston Smith, gave its heart and soul to the film version produced in 1956 with Edmond O'Brien in the title role. It was at this point in time, that both the television and film medium had in effect, become one.
There is no doubt that Studio One Playhouse was the well-spring for a newly inspired American Movie industry and helped to re-ignite its powerhouse presence globally. The distinctive hallmarks of the live drama experience are stamped across feature films produced throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe it was because it was live and disposable to the heavens that filmmakers went out of their way to salvage even the smallest fraction of the live experience. It was second generation content, but then again, the original had shone so brightly.
The creative goldmine that was live television has served the film industry well to this day. After watching Daniel Day Lewis in Spielberg's "Lincoln' , you may want to reach back and watch the 1952 Studio One version with an impossibly young, Jimmy Dean. And it won't surprise you then to reveal that the bud of a drama titled, "Mary Poppins' was first originally produced in 1950 as a live, Studio One Westinghouse production.