February 9, 2013

This week in TV Guide: February 13, 1965

This week's cover profile of Andy Williams was written by John Gregory Dunne before he became a successful novelist.  I don't have anything against Dunne, although I do prefer the work of his brother, Dominick, to either John Gregory or his wife, Joan Didion, but it bears saying that Dunne's story on Williams displays, I think, the worst aspects of TV Guide writing of the era.

There is, for starters, the annoying habit of the author injecting himself into the article.  Dunne notes in the first page that "I had no particular desire to meet the boy next door, and the first two paragraphs concern Dunne's reactions to the comments of Williams' publicist, his thoughts on the decor of the dressing room, his impressions of the books on the shelf.

Once the focus of the story turns to the putative subject, Williams, there are more TV Guide trademarks; the anonymous criticisms, for instance.  "One executive who has had dealings with [Williams] refers to him in extremely unflattering terms.  Another says, 'He's not a very nice young man.'"  We are, of course, never told who the unnamed critics are, nor are the criticisms put in any context.  Is Williams an unpleasant person?  A hard negotiator?  A driven, hands-on micromanager of his own show?  Your guess is as good as mine.

I'm not a fan of this kind of faceless, nameless attack, but one reads it week after week in the TV Guides of the 60s. A story about insecure Gene Barry, a score-evening profile of David Susskind, a hatchet job on Patty Duke - it's almost as if the magazine. desperate to distinguish itself from the fan magazines of the era, bends over backwards to tear down every star it profiles.  Now, these comments could be from someone with a score to settle: a jealous co-worker, a disgruntled former employee, a frustrated publicist.  They might be completely true, or a bushel of lies, or something in-between.  We could be seeing one side of the story with two sides, or we could learn what everyone in Hollywood already knows.

The point is, I don't much like writers who repeat anonymous comments without providing context.  I don't think it's good journalism.  I'm not suggesting all TV Guide profiles should be puff pieces; that's just as bad, and it's terrible to read.  But a journalist should demand more of his sources - he should challenge them just as much as he does his subject.  If what they have to say is reliable, if he's satisfied himself that their comments have merit, if he can give a positive answer to the question "Do my readers need to know this?" then by all means go ahead.  But if that's the case, then give your readers that same satisfaction.  Otherwise, I'm going to think your source is just nursing a grudge - and you're just a lazy writer.

***

During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Ed Sullivan: Scheduled guests: Victor Borge; Steve Allen; comedian Jackie Vernon; the Israeli Ballet; the Dave Clark Five, British rock 'n' rollers; comedians Rowan and Martin; the Mattison dance trio; and John's balancing act.

Palace: Host George Burns welcomes Connie Stevens, his co-star on "Wendy and Me"; singer Wayne Newton; the Greenwood County Singers; impressionist Rich Little; the Zacchinis, human cannonballs; illusionist Prassana Rao; and the Ganoas, Mexican trampolinists.

Following up on that point from last week's Dean Martin piece: if it is true that 1965 is the representative year of the 60s, one can see it right here in this week's Sullivan show.  Victor Borge had been around (and very funny) for years; Steve Allen was also a TV veteran, but one who'd shown an ability to adapt to the times.  Jackie Vernon was a classic nightclub comedian (as well as the future voice of Frosty the Snowman); Rowan and Martin would in a few short years be part of the progressive TV future with Laugh In, and the Dave Clark Five were a prime example of the state of rock music, as the breeziness of The Beatles transitions to the harder sound of the Stones.*  I can't speak for the success of John's balancing act.  (And who is John, by the way?)

*A website that lists the Dave Clark Five's appearances on the Sullivan show says that Steve Lawrence was also on this show, and does not mention Steve Allen.  Either TV Guide got the wrong Steve, or the website did (although the songs they list for Lawrence aren't the kind you'd expect to hear from Allen), or both were on the show but Allen didn't sing any numbers.

You see this to a lesser extent in Palace - Burns the old-time star trying to recapture the magic with the new generation, Connie Stevens taking the place of Gracie Allen; Wayne Newton, the youngster singing the old-time songs, and Rich Little, part of the new breed with the politically sharp humor.   But unless Little can impersonate two or three more big-name guests, this one goes to Sullivan.

***

These United Nations dramas just seem to keep popping up.  You'll recall my article from a few years ago on the series of four dramas designed to educate the public on the activities of the United Nations; the first drama in the series, Carol for Another Christmas, broadcast in December 1964, was reviewed here.

Well, now, in February 1965, ABC airs the second installment: Who Has Seen the Wind?  Like Carol, it boasts an all-star cast, including Edward G. Robinson, Maria Schell, and Theodore Bikel; an original story, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tad Mosel, adapted by Oscar and Emmy nominee Don Mankiewicz (nephew of Joseph L.); costumes by Oscar-winner Edith Head; and produced and directed by George Sidney, who had cut his teeth on Our Gang comedies before going on to such classic musicals as Anchors Aweigh, Show Boat and Bye Bye Birdie.  Like Carol, it's presented without commercial interruption and sponsored by Xerox.

Who Has Seen the Wind? was more successful, or at least not as heavy-handed a mess, compared to Carol.  The Los Angeles Times called it “better than [the] first,” and the Lima (OH) News named it the night’s “Best Bet” and pronounced it “an extraordinary television film.” On the other hand, to The New York Times it was a “soap opera at sea,” a “waste of [the actors’] artistry.” Oh well, you can't please everyone.

***

Want some more politics?  Earlier that week (Monday, to be precise) on the same network, Dinah Shore hosts a musical salute to the Peace Corps, with Harry Belafonte and Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver. You think I'm kidding, right? Well, here's proof:


According to newspaper accounts, there were about 100 Peace Corps volunteers in the audience along with Shriver, preparing to head for Uganda and Kenya.  However, aside from a cringe-worthy opening in which Shore sang "Getting to Know You" while shaking hands with members of the audience, the show was apparently pretty good.  UPI correspondent Rick Du Brow called it a "so-easy, so-relaxed, so-expert" evening, and that the stars were able to concentrate on the job at hand "without too many pitches for the corps."  Significantly, the show was featured "a minimum of heavy-handed idealistic talk (thank heaven no one thought of calling Abby Mann to write the script)."  That, of course, might have been even worse than Carol for Another Christmas.  

Which just goes to show that Samuel Goldwyn was on to something when he famously said, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." "Message" shows like this one and the UN series go a lot farther if you take it easy on the message and emphasize the entertainment.  Nobody likes to be preached to, but everyone likes to be entertained.*

*Well, almost everyone.  I'm sure I have to put that disclaimer in somewhere.  By the way, some of you youngsters might be too young to remember what Western Union was.  They sent something called "telegrams."  Think of them as emails printed on paper, sent by an intermediary who'd charge you for them by the word, which could result in some pretty fragmented speech, generally without conjunctions or articles.


***

Had enough politics?  How about we through Pope Pius XII into the mix?  Though he died in 1958, Pius remains a controversial historical figure.  Did he do enough to save the Jews during the Holocaust?  Was he, as one author referred to him, "Hitler's Pope"?  Or was he a man of heroic virtue, arch foe of the Nazis, who in fact did everything he could to save the lives of the Jews?

The controversy about Pius was largely absent during his lifetime, largely gaining traction following the staging of Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play The Deputy, which suggested that Pius was too timid to speak out publicly against the Nazis.  Evidence suggests* that Hochhuth's play was financed and promoted by the KGB as part of a Kremlin disinformation plot against the Vatican.  I myself hold to this position, and believe Pius to be the victim of a wholesale character assassination.  However, this is neither the time nor the place to debate the issue, nor do I bring it up for this reason.

*Full disclosure: the author of the piece, Fr. Welzbacher, is my former pastor.

Regardless, in 1965 the public perception of Pius was still largely positive, as witnessed by Tuesday night's episode of Biography on KCMT Channel 7narrated by Mike Wallace, in which Pius is presented as a man who "dedicated his life to peace and denounced tyranny and religious persecution."

This early Biography series was produced by master documentarian David L. Wolper and ran for three seasons in the early 60s before going into a seemingly endless series of syndicated reruns.  It was a popular film in schools (I sat through more than one in my days), and eventually wound up on A&E, where many additional episodes were produced (though without Wallace; the most popular narrator was Peter Graves), and was eventually spun off into the Biography channel, which may or may not still show biographies.

***

A few weeks ago I'd noted in passing how there were so many more soap operas on TV in the 60s than there are today.  (I don't think that's giving away any state secrets.)  But it's interesting how some of them even have episode write-ups, which I'd think would be very unusual for a soap since they always tried to keep you tuned in to see what happens next.

Moment of Truth (NBC): Nancy's sister and niece arrive unexpectedly.
Flame in the Wind (ABC): Jason's maneuvering brings unusual results. (Live)
The Doctors (NBC): Matt's actions have a surprising effect on Maggie and Kurt. (Live)
Day in Court (ABC): A five-part story begins today when a woman seeks to have her husband committed.

Granted, with the possible exception of The Doctors, none of these are the biggest soapers, so this could have represented an effort to drum up an audience.  But, looking through the entire week's listings, there's nothing in any of these write-ups that would seem to give anything away or tip off viewers as to what happens next, so I guess the key element of surprise is retained.*

*In other words, we don't learn that "Joan has shocking news for Martin" on Monday, and "After telling Martin she's pregnant, Joan runs away with Jeff" on Friday.

Of course, we know that soap operas used to be done live; after all, it's because As the World Turns was being taped for rebroadcast in the Pacific time zone that we have CBS' first bulletin on JFK's assassination.  But as late as 1965, we still have at least two being shot live.  I wonder how long it was before they all went to video tape?  I'm sure there's someone out there who knows.  And, aside from some variety shows, were these the last regularly scheduled series to be done live?

***

On Saturday evening ABC has a David L. Wolper documentary entitled "The Way-Out Men."  Sounds vaguely psychedelic, doesn't it?  In fact, it has to do with "[t]oday's scientific theorists, researchers and other inquiring men [who] are testing theories and ideas that are 'way out'."  Probably the best-known featured was the famed heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, who'd recently operated on the Duke of Windsor. However, for my money, the most interesting was probably Dr. James V. McConnell.  Here he's profiled for his work on "the chemistry of memory," but that doesn't begin to scratch the surface.

His original research involved memory transfer among flatworms that had been trained to respond to external stimulus - bright lights and electric shocks.  The flatworms were subsequently cut up and fed to other flatworms; the second group of flatworms, McConnell contended, responded to the same stimuli more quickly than flatworms not part of the experiment.  McConnell called this memory RNA, but when subsequent experiments by other researchers failed to duplicate his results, buzz on the theory faded away.

It may well have been his research on human behavioral modification that attracted the attention in 1985 of Ted Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber.  Kaczynski sent a bomb, disguised as a manuscript, to McConnell's office; the resulting explosion caused hearing loss.

But on a more pleasant note, McConnell was also known for his quirky sense of humor, beginning a magazine called The Worm-Runner's Digest featuring flatworm-themed satirical articles - because, supposedly, readers couldn't tell the difference between the serious and satirical articles that appeared in his other journal, The Journal of Biological Psychology.  And you know how much of a sucker I am for flatworm humor.  I wonder if Wolper covered any of that in his documentary?

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