The Golden Age of Television, Special Edition (1953-58/2009)

by | Jan 2, 2010 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Golden Age of Television, Special Edition (1953-58/2009)

Kinescopes of nine live TV plays of the 1950s on 3 DVDs
Program: Marty, Patterns, No Time for Sargeants, A Wind from the South, Bang the Drum Slowly, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Comedian, Days of Wind and Roses
Studio: Sonny Fox Productions/The Criterion Collection 495 (11/24/09)

Video: 1.33:1 B&W (but some of the extras are 16:9 color and the shows look better displayed that way)
Audio: Dolby mono
Extras: Introductions to most of the plays from Roddy McDowell, Carl Reiner & others; Commentaries (prior to the plays) by directors John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, Ralph Nelson and Daniel Petrie; Interviews with cast & crew – incl. Andy Griffith, Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, Piper Laurie, Paul Newman, Jack Palance, Cliff Robertson, Mickey Rooney, Rod Steiger & Mel Tormé; Illustrated booklet with essay by curator Ron Simon and notes on each program
Length: 485 minutes
Rating: ****

The live television plays of the 50s are now part of legend. Such presentations as Playhouse 90 and Studio One often achieved a very high level of Broadway-style drama but designed for the small screen and for the constrictions of being produced live with the limited technical capabilities of television at that time. Great writing and very professional acting made socially progressive, serious dramas easily available to postwar suburban families.  Many TV critics of today point to the best of these TV dramas as the highest achievements television has ever made.

The nine plays are offered three to a DVD in this set, which was originally curated for telecast on PBS in the early 1980s.  Most of the intro comments and interview discussions center on the tremendous pressures and urgency caused by producing these shows for live network television, where anything could go wrong, and sometimes did. The studios were cramped and the lights were hot. One actress talks about rushing from one stage to another to make another entrance, and hoping the camera (they were few and very bulky then) made it to the same set by the time she did! Frankenheimer talks about the serious back ailments which nearly all the directors contracted due to the unbelievable pressures they worked under, as well as rushing from air-conditioned office to hot studio, and so on. Other facts about the productions are of great interest, such as No Time for Sargeants being Andy Griffith’s first time on TV, and Rod Sterling demeaning himself all his life for not being a good enough writer.

The acting in all of the productions is first rate, and it’s fascinating to view the original TV productions such as Marty and Days of Wine and Roses that were later made into feature films. One realizes why a performance such as Steiger’s in Marty has become a true classic. Mickey Rooney’s amazing performance in The Comedian, as a self-centered, invective-spouting sociopath, is totally different from his movie persona and most disturbing. These scripts were not afraid to handle controversial subjects, and they didn’t succumb to the Hollywood happy ending syndrome either. The only really humorous one is No Time for Sargeants, with Griffith’s dumb-but-positive take on life sending the rest of the Air Force into conniptions.

Kinescopes – for the uninformed youth out there – were a primitive way of recording live TV shows before videotape.  They were (realistically) felt to be too poor even at that time to play back in order to have a repeat telecast. One of the these shows – which had tremendous acclaim after the initial broadcast – was actually produced again live with all the same actors. But it was felt the second time around lacked the spark of the first production. A special movie camera was trained on a TV monitor screen carrying a live telecast.  It was modified to translate the 30-times-per-second TV images to the 24-times-per-second images of film. Sometimes the video tube was not perfectly adjusted and the recorded images were distorted, and other times dirt stuck on the screen is annoyingly visible thruout the kinescope.

These last problems afflict some of the kinescopes in this set.  I was frankly surprised at the squeezed image on the sides of the screen compared to the proper size in the center, as seen on many of these. The sets on some were also very primitive, like a no-budget local theater group. A couple had pieces of dirt in the camera gate that had not been cleaned up in remastering.  It’s a shame this set doesn’t match the high quality of restoration work for which The Criterion Collection is well known. I understand this set was issued on laserdisc back in the 90s and this is basically just a transfer from those masters. A new process called LiveFeed Video Imaging can restore a live-broadcast look to old kinescope films (it may possibly have been used on some of the Jazz Icons kinescopes).  Perhaps the thinking was that original kinescopes were so poor it wasn’t worth enhancing them in any way. Also, although Criterion has moved to PCM mono on most of their Blu-ray reissues, this set uses Dolby Digital mono, which is sonically inferior to uncompressed PCM. Some of the soundtrack dialog is very muffled and might have benefitted by even slightly cleaner reproduction.

 – John Sunier

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