December 22, 2018

This week in TV Guide: December 21, 1957

Isn't this a great cover? Colorful and joyful and just a bit goofy. That's how Christmas seems when you're a kid, and even though I won't be born for another 2½ years, things won't be a whole lot different then, or for a few years afterward.

As Merrill Panitt notes in this week's editorial, it is a paradox of the human species that peace on earth, good will to men—a sentiment as joyous as any that humans can desire—is, by those same humans, relegated to "one small fraction of the year." And though Christmastime is always welcome, it seems even more welcome in 1957, in a world that is "tense, suspicious, strife-torn"—in other words, a time not unlike our own today.

The way in which man has symbolized this message through the ages, Panitt points out, is through the giving of gifts. And in that spirit he offers the following gifts which TV Guide wishes for all. For the sponsors of today's hits, that gift would be responsibility in the way they recognize their "tremendous influence over the American mind," and patience "to give the aspiring new show an honest chance to find its audience." For producers and writers, it's the courage to put on new, imaginative programming. For inventors and technicians, a thanks for having made the last ten years of entertainment and information possible. And for viewers—the indispensable factor—a lifetime of "peaceful viewing in a peaceful world."

The question is whether or not today's television is capable of fulfilling Panitt's wish. The history of violence on television is no secret, and the programming of 1957 is unremarkable in that respect. But there seems, at least to me, a different kind of violence today; call it psychic, emotional, spiritual, even though there there is seldom anything actually spiritual on television today. The so-called new Golden Age is praised as edgy, gritty, realistic, and to the extent that it reflects today's world, it probably is.* Is it peaceful, though? I know I'm not saying anything I haven't said countless times in the past, but it is the kind of thing one tends to dwell on at this time of the year. It's hard to even imagine someone seeing television as an instrument of peace today, although the programs are there if you look hard enough for them. Indeed, the programs most likely to bring about such peace are the ones that have been most certainly banished from the airwaves. We can't bring them back by living in the past, but by taking an occasional vacation there, we can rediscover the color and joy of this joyful season. Well, what does the song say, just like the ones we used to know? At least when we were kids, right?

*It is, after all, an electronic mirror.

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One of the things I've noticed particularly in this issue, and I don't know if I've mentioned this before, is that the holidays were not always a time for television reruns. It makes some sense; people are travelling and families and friends are getting together, and nowadays television doesn't fit into those plans. And while many series do have holiday episodes, they're usually aired a week or so before the big day, for just that reason.

That's not the case here, however, and TV Guide has three pages documenting the special fare for Christmas. There's a Scrooge-like cattle baron on Have Gun—Will Travel, a boy being reunited with his family at Christmas on Tales of Wells Fargo, a man led away from a life of crime at Christmas on The Lone Ranger, and a rerun of "Angel's Sweater" on Father Knows Best. Perry Como reads the Christmas story to his children on his show, and Christmas carols and songs are on The Gisele MacKenzie Show, Your Hit Parade, Voice of Firestone, Lawrence Welk, and The Pat Boone Show. The Seven Lively Arts presents a performance of "The Nutcracker" with Maria Tallchief, one of the most famous ballet dancers of the time, as the Sugar Plum Fairy;  Dinah Shore's Christmas show (with John Raitt and Esther Williams) is in color; and Bing Crosby is Frank Sinatra's guest on a show that was aired in black-and-white but filmed in color. Virtually every show on Christmas Eve has a Christmas theme; Charles Laughton and the Lennon Sisters are guests on The Eddie Fisher Show, Bob hosts the office party on The Bob Cummings Show, Freddie the Freeloader wants to throw a party for the poor kids on The Red Skelton Show, Eve invites a neighbor to her family's Christmas Eve celebration on The Eve Arden Show, and Telephone Times tells of "how a child's belief in Christmas helps a family escape from Hungary," while Mr. and Mrs. Dave Garroway and their children welcome the television audience to Christmas Eve with the Dave Garroways. On Christmas night itself, "The Other Wise Man" plays on Kraft Television Theatre, the great Marion Anderson sings Christmas music on The Big Record, and Santa is the centerpiece of the party on American Bandstand. Additionally, church services, both local and national, abound on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. (More on the Christmas Day programming on Monday.)

Fittingly for the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, it's a wonderful week of programming, and as I say, it evokes a time that simply doesn't exist anymore. It makes it that much harder to believe that you're engaged in a common experience—but then, we've discussed that before, and often.

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As is the wont at this point in TV Guide's history, we have an unbylined article, this one about two young starsone a singer, the other a comedianwho are "betting their futures" on dramatic roles. The show in question is NBC's mystery-drama series A Turn of Fate, in which these two will rotate with the show's other three stars: David Niven, Charles Boyer and Robert Ryan. Pretty heady company, don't you think? Someone must see promise in these youngsters.

The singer is Jane Powell, and while she's no stranger to movies, having danced with Fred Astaire and stared in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, television is "practically a brand-new venture." She wants to grow and stretch her acting chops, she explains; "In films, you spend so much of your time just sitting around, waiting." Television, on the other hand, forces you to "keep on your toes. The budget won't permit constant retakes," so you'd better not wait for the 50th take to deliver.

The comedian is Jack Lemmon, who's done plenty of TV—Suspense, Studio One, Zane Grey—but to him, all that is "inconsequential." By appearing on a regular series, even if he's not seen every week, "I still can keep myself before the public." In a moment that sounds as if it could have come straight from a Jack Lemmon film, he expresses confidence—"the sponsors are very happy with us"—and then adds, his face showing concern, "I only hope they feel the same way at the end of the year."

In case you're not familiar with A Turn of Fate, it's better-known as Alcoa Theatre, and it appears that the rotating-star format existed only for the 1957-58 season (the series itself aired through the end of 1959). Worry not about the fate of our two young stars, though; Jane Powell remains known mostly for musical comedy, although she's had her share of straight dramatic roles on television. As for Jack Lemmon, he would return to television later in his career, mostly in quality made-for-TV movies. In the meantime, he built up a pretty fair resume in movies, and while he never lost that touch for light comedy, he also proved himself a great dramatic actor, receiving eight Academy Award nominations and winning two. Fittingly, his Oscars were for Mister Roberts, a comedy, and Save the Tiger, a drama. I'd say their gambles paid off.

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Let's face it—when Christmas falls in the middle of the middle of the broadcasting week, that pretty much dictates what kind of content you're going to get. And that's just fine with me; in fact, I could have written a lot more about this week's Christmas programming, but after a while it starts to read more like a catalog or a spreadsheet than an article. It gets a little monotonous to write, and I imagine to read as well. We do have other things to look at, though.

There's a saying in college football that the closer a bowl game is to Christmas, the less prestigious it is. That's certainly the case in 1957, when you've only got seven big-time games, and the earliest (the Gator Bowl) is December 28. Amidst Saturday's college and pro basketball and NHL hockey, though, we do have a game, the Holiday Bowl, to look forward to. It's not the same Holiday Bowl that fans know today; this one is played in St. Petersburg, Florida, rather than San Diego, and instead of college football powerhouses, we have a game between Hillsdale College and Pittsburg State*. Not to ridicule either of them; they're both undefeated, and the winner will be the NAIA (small school) national champion. Pittsburg State wins a thriller, 27-26, and CBS thought the game was important enough to televise, with football icon and longtime announcer Red Grange behind the mic.

*TV Guide spells it "Pittsburgh State," but I've taken the liberty of correcting the spelling.

I'm a bit confused by Sunday's note regarding the NFL, although longtime readers will suggest that my being confused is not unusual. At any rate, if the Western Conference ends in a tie and requires a playoff, CBS will carry this game at 4:00 p.m. ET. If there is no tiebreaker, CBS will instead show a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Cardinals at 2:00 p.m.. In fact, there is a tiebreaker game, which the Detroit Lions win by beating the San Francisco 49ers 31-27 (imagine the Lions winning a playoff game!), but why would Pittsburgh and Chicago be playing if the season is ostensibly over, since everyone else wrapped up their season last week? In fact, this game appears to have been rescheduled from November 17, when neither team played, but with my limited resources (i.e., someone please gift me a subscription to, I'm not able to confirm why this was the case. Perhaps it was the weather—who knows? What I do know is that I've probably exhausted your interest in this subject.

Intriguing program on Goodyear Theater Monday night (9:30 p.m., NBC). David Niven stars in "The Tinhorn," the story of a man whose wife and children are dead, and now "lives recklessly in the hope that he will be killed." I don't usually think of Niven in a heavy role like this, although I know he's played them. I think of him more as, say, Jack Lemmon—and not coincidentally, Goodyear Theater is the title of A Turn of Fate on the weeks when Goodyear, and not Alcoa, is the sponsor. How about that! At 10:00 p.m. on CBS, Lowell Thomas goes exploring in the "Arctic" on High Adventure. One of his compatriots, 82-year-old Rear Admiral Donald MacMillan, was a member of Admiral Peary's expedition to the North Pole in 1909. He also fought in World War II and died in 1970 at the age of 95, which must say something about this kind of lifestyle.

Science fiction fans will recognize William Russell as Ian Chesterton, the schoolteacher who was part of the first group of companions to travel through time and space in Doctor Who, but before that he was the legendary Sir Lancelot, and on Tuesday (5:00 p.m., ABC) he gets enmeshed in a royal family dispute, proving that there's nothing new in Game of Thrones. Wednesday, Mike Connors stars in an episode of The Walter Winchell File (9:30 p.m., ABC), as a businessman who meets his old high school flame, thinking that she's "still the same sweet girl he once knew." I don't need to tell you how that's going to turn out. Nor do I need to go into detail about Jackie Cooper's mistake on The People's Choice (Thursday 9:00 p.m., NBC): "Sock receives a phone call from an old girl friend of his who wants to buy a house from him. He decides not to tell Mandy about the call, much less the proposed meeting." Gentlemen, take it from someone who's been married for 26 happy years: this is something that you never, ever do. It will not end well. Especially if you're a character in a TV series, when you're apt to either witness a murder or wind up meeting your wife's best friend. Finally, on Friday, Jerry Lewis is "between the holidays" on his color special (8:00 p.m., NBC), with a stellar guest cast including Sammy Davis Jr., Count Basie, Ronnie Deauville, and Hope Emerson.

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There's also an article this week about John Crosby, one of the foremost television critics of the time, who's now practicing what he preaches as host of CBS's Sunday show The Seven Lively Arts. Crosby once wrote of television sitcoms that "There has been a whole raft of situation comedies on TV and it is one of the unpleasant duties of this line of work that you have to look at them," an opinion that I think holds true for the most part to this day. It's a fascinating show'; one episode entitled "The Sound of Jazz" features Billie Holliday, Count Basie, Pee Wee Russell and Coleman Hawkins, and on Sunday of this week it had that adaptation of "The Nutcracker." Which leads me to ask: why is it that with all the stations to choose from, there's apparently no room for a show like this, not even on PBS? I wish this wasn't a rhetorical question, but by this time I know better.

If you're performing your internet due diligence, you should be back here on Monday to take a look at the week's "What's on TV?" but in the event you're too caught up in the Yule, let me take the chance to wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas, and we'll catch up before the end of the year! TV  

1 comment:

  1. Seems we’re about the same age. I’m June ‘60. Keep up the good work!


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