September 28, 2013

This week in TV Guide: September 30, 1961

From the beginning of time – or at least the introduction of television – there’s been much handwringing about the content of programming and its effect on viewers specifically, and culture in general. Over the last few weeks I’ve pointed out several discussions surrounding violence on television, and what can (and should) be done about it. In this week’s issue, mystery writer Mickey Spillane has a novel idea - improve it!

Spillane is author of the hard-boiled Mike Hammer detective series, perhaps one of the most violent of a violent breed of pulp thrillers, so it’s no surprise that he believes there’s a place for it on television. However, he points out, “Fiction writers don’t incite to riot; they simply dramatize what is already there, and long before TV and Mike Hammer there was a World War, the Roaring Twenties, the living Untouchables, and dead Dutch Schultz, Pretty Boy Floyd, Little Augie, Dillinger and Mad Dog Coll with their Bonnie Parker-type broads.” (Any doubts that Spillane wrote this article himself should have been dispelled by that sentence.” Yes, Spillane says, his books are filled with “highly explosive scenes, but in reality they were only fictionalized facts and any day you can see these things in existence in your local papers.”

The problem, according to Spillane, is what might be thought of as “lazy” violence, the kind that permeates today’s television. It’s cliché-driven, “fake judo chops or wild punches that can belt a villain 10 feet without knocking his hat off,” or “a hero with a chopper dropping a half dozen actors with blank bullets.” Such overt violence "is not necessary.  It uses up valuable storytelling time, brings on the screams of critics who threaten Governmental control and mighty often annoys the sophisticated audiences it is trying to entertain.” Such violence “goads toymakers into selling snub-nosed guns so authentic-looking that they were outlawed in New York City unless altered in color.”

Interestingly enough, Spillane offers a suggestion that would likely have won approval from the writers roundtable I discussed last week. Audiences “still want violence, but it needs to be based on the suspense of“impending action” rather than the gratuitous use of fists and guns of today’s shows. "A war of nerves can be so deadly between fictional characters as well as actual nations that when climactic action does finally come it is almost a relief."  This kind of violence, “portrayed at the proper time and portrayed believably is rarely castigated. You can expect a wild explosion from dynamite, but not from a firecracker, and it’s trying to build firecracker scenes into dynamite ones when they don’t belong that causes the explosion to fire in producers’ faces.” The result, says Spillane, is that “Rather than a frenzied, overt violence continually erupting in fist fights and shootouts, the violence is held in check, a grenade with the pin out but the handle still held down.”

Spillane points out that two of television’s greatest authority figures – Joe Friday and Matt Dillon – rarely resort to “the stilted, pseudo-bloody action seen in one of some current shows.” The violence was there; “It was about to happen every second and you knew it and wondered how it was going to come about. But in between a story got told and an audience got entertained believably, no critics screamed and if kids wanted to emulate a hero they got good ones in Friday and Dillon. And brother, you still don’t mess around with Old Matt.”

And it’s the need to tell a cohesive story that Spillane keeps coming back to. Audiences are more sophisticated now than they were years ago, a fact that movies have begun to understand, and they’re “far more selective in their choice of entertainment,” which requires television violence to be “refined to a higher degree to satisfy story-conscious audiences who have developed as objective viewers as the trade itself has developed technically.” Violence can’t and shouldn’t be eliminated from television, Spillane implores, but it needs to make sense in the context of a well-written and well-told story. “If I’m right,” he concludes, “I’ll be on the wave of a new trend. If I’m wrong the public will bury me as quickly as it did many others.”

***

One of the things I particularly like about this era of TV Guide is how live events are frequently described with a mix of up-to-the-date and to-be-announced information. Case in point is the start of the World Series on Wednesday morning (10:45am CT). There are no divisions in 1961, no playoffs except in case of ties, so the American and National League champions go straight to the Series. There were more than a few years when this meant the two participants were known well before the end of the season, because they’d either already clinched the pennant or were far enough ahead that their victory was taken for granted.*

*For another example of TV Guide’s timeliness, see Sunday afternoon’s episode of G-E College Bowl, pitting TCU – winner of last week’s match – against Buffalo University. College Bowl was a life broadcast, which meant that this issue couldn’t have been published until Monday at the earliest.

At press time, “it looks like the Cincinnati Reds vs. the N.Y. Yankees this year,” and so it was, with the powerful Yanks topping the Detroit Tigers by eight games, while the Redlegs managed to hold off the Los Angeles Dodgers* by four. New York had appeared in nine of the previous 11 Series, including 1960, when they’d lost a breathtaking Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cincinnati, meanwhile, was making only their fourth appearance in the World Series, and their first since 1940, when they’d defeated Detroit (the only non-tainted Series they’d won to that point, the other being the year of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal). The undermanned Reds were led by future Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson, while the Yankees countered with a Murderer’s Row that included Roger Maris (fresh off breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record with 61), Mickey Mantle (who’d hit 55 of his own), and 25-game winner Whitey Ford. The Reds surprised New York by winning Game 2 and headed back to Cincinnati with the Series knotted at a game apiece, before the Yankees reasserted control and swept the next three, winning the Series 4-1.

*And how strange that still must have sounded in 1961, only four years after the Dodgers had moved from Brooklyn.

A note about that starting time – we often hear it said that the World Series can’t be played in the afternoon anymore because people wouldn’t be able to see or hear it, and yet a starting time of noon Eastern couldn’t have been an accident. It would have afforded anyone in the Eastern and Central time zones a chance to catch a sizable part of the game during what was undoubtedly an extended lunch hour (with a few liquid libations on hand, no doubt), and stories abound of schoolchildren smuggling transistor radios into classrooms under their shirts, listening to the games through earphones. As is the case with so many things in life, half the fun of a daytime World Series was the effort required to follow the game. An accompanying article mentions that 300 million people worldwide are expected to watch the Series. Nowadays, games are seldom done before midnight – and they wonder why the game’s having so much trouble attracting younger fans.*

*Another mark of changing times – a notation that if the game “is concluded before 2pm the regularly scheduled programs will be seen.” If today’s Yankees were in that Series, they’d probably be reaching the 7th inning just about then.

The rest of the sporting landscape pales in comparison. For NFL football, the Vikings take on the Baltimore Colts on CBS, while ABC’s AFL Game of the Week features the Houston Oilers and the Dallas Texans. Saturday’s college football spotlights one of the game’s great matchups, between Oklahoma and Notre Dame. It was Notre Dame that ended Oklahoma’s staggering 47-game winning streak four years previously, and while this season finds both teams far from their glory days, it’s still worth a 15-minute pregame show spotlighting the tradition of the rivalry (despite the fact the two have only played four times). By the way, if you’re reading this article on Saturday morning, it’s not too late to catch the two doing battle again this afternoon, on NBC.

***

The new season is here, and this issue is full of new and returning series making their debuts this week. There’s the aforementioned Gunsmoke, for example, making its inaugural appearance as an hour-long drama after six seasons at 30 minutes.* According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, thirty television Westerns came and went during Gunsmoke’s run.

*The half-hour dramas would appear in syndication as Marshal Dillon; in the UK, the series would be known as Gun Law. I kind of like that one.

On Monday a new medical drama premieres on ABC - Ben Casey, starring Vince Edwards and Sam Jaffe.  It runs for five seasons, and you might remember it from the famous opening titles:


Another successful series makes its debut Tuesday night, on CBS.  You might have heard of it - The Dick Van Dyke Show, "starring comedian and musical-comedy performer Dick Van Dyke as comedy writer Rob Petrie."  That had some pretty famous opening titles as well:



Other successful shows have already had their coming-out party: NBC had Ben Casey's archrival Dr. Kildare, along with Car 54, Where Are You, International Showtime (hosted by Don Ameche, presenting a different international circus each week), and Hazel, with Oscar winner Shirley Booth, as well as the debut of the popular Saturday Night at the Movies; CBS added The Defenders to its stable of hit series such as The Andy Griffith Show (starting its second season), Perry Mason (season number five) and The Danny Thomas Show (also fifth season), and welcomed Mr. Ed, which had previously run in syndication.  A pair of new and much-loved cartoons appeared on Tuesday nights - Top Cat on ABC, and The Alvin Show on CBS; both would go on to greater fame and glory on Saturday mornings, while The Bullwinkle Show made the move from ABC to NBC, where it would air early on Sunday evenings.

And then there are those shows that are probably best forgotten, since viewers didn't really remember them to begin with.  It seems as if you were particularly in for it if you'd experienced previous success.  Robert Young had had a big hit with Father Knows Best (still in reruns on Wednesday nights), not so much with Window on Main Street, which remained open for only 13 weeks. Similarly, Gertrude Berg had been a TV pioneer with the early hit The Goldbergs (not to be confused with this year's new sitcom), but couldn't duplicate the success with Mrs. G. Goes to College, later retitled The Gertrude Berg Show.  It didn't help; no matter which title you preferred, you only had 26 shows to watch it.  Bob Cummings, whom audiences had loved for five seasons on Love That Bob, fared less well with The New Bob Cummings Show, which audiences only loved 22 times. Calvin and the Colonel, an animated gloss on Amos 'n' Andy, was  26 and out.  Leslie Nielsen starred in The New Breed, playing a member of the Metropolitan Squad, an elite corps of the Los Angeles Police Department.  He'd have better luck 20 years later playing a member of Police Squad, a special branch of the Police Department.

***

That goofy face on the cover belongs to Carol Burnett, years before she has her own variety show. Right now she’s entering her third season as part of the cast of The Garry Moore Show on CBS, but there’s already reason to suspect stardom is not that far away. Earlier in the year she was voted Favorite Female Performer at the TV Guide Awards, defeating Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Dinah Shore and Donna Reed, and Moore says her talent “is so powerful you almost have to protect her from it.” She’s had a hit novelty song, “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” and received a Tony nomination for the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress.

She tells a story of the time she went to a fashionable restaurant in slacks, because she had once seen a slacks-wearing Marlene Dietrich dining there. Told by the captain that this wasn’t permitted, she apologized, saying “I’
(L-R) Garry Moore, Carol Burnett, Durward Kirby
ve just been fitted for a new wooden leg and I’m still not used to being out in dresses.” It’s that ability to spin any situation into one that will draw laughs, combined with her modesty and all-around likeability, that bodes well for the future.

As a matter of fact, the person most skeptical of Burnett’s future success is Carol herself. Moore says she won’t believe in her own feminine charms, and others point out that when she’s complimented for a particular piece of work, she almost always insists it could have been done better. When she won the TV Guide award she was so unprepared, so sure that one of the others would win, she burst into tears and for a moment forgot everything as she tried to accept the award.

But Garry Moore is indeed right when he says that Carol “has got to be a star.” She’ll remain with the Moore show for one more season, but as Moore says, she’d “be foolish to continue with our show after next season.” Series offers are already coming in, and sooner or later the right one will appear. It’s not The Entertainers, a failed variety show that ran for one season in 1964. But Moore says it’s only a matter of time – “She’s got a glimmering, but no real idea how important she’s become.”

***

Channel 11 wraps up its coverage of Billy Graham's Philadelphia crusade with a Friday night broadcast.  The night's topic: "Will God Spare America?"  The crusade is broadcast from Municipal Stadium, which in three years will be renamed John F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.  Over the next few years, there would be many things from which God would not spare America.

Finally, the Editors despair at the low ratings for last season's more educational television fare.  People are always complaining that there's nothing "for the mind" on television,  but when they're given the chance they still tune out.  Last season's highbrow shows, such as Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years and Eyewitness to History were routed by such series as The Untouchables and Gunsmoke.  The Editors weren't surprised by this, but "we had hoped that the informational shows would gain more attention, more audience, than they did.  It seemed most of those who campaigned for serious programming instead of violence kept watching violent shows instead of the serious ones."

NBC has a new strategy, though.  They've taken Sing Along With Mitch and moved it to Thursday nights, directly opposite The Untouchables.  Stanley Frank wonders if NBC's "measuring Miller for the Distinguished Service Medal or a truckload of Purple Hearts."  Somewhat surprisingly - or maybe not - Sing Along bloodies the veteran cop show, which moves to Tuesday nights the next season before moving off the schedule completely.  Now, I'm not ashamed to admit that I love watching The Untouchables - but you ought to know by now never to bet against anyone named Mitch.

1 comment

  1. The correct 1961 HR total for Mantle is 54....Interesting info about how TV Guide handled the World Series participants.

    ReplyDelete

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