Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Prefabricated Image in Rock 'n' Roll

"Image is everything." Andre Agassi

"So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star?
Then listen now to what I say.
Just get an electric guitar,
Then take some time
and learn how to play,
And with your hair swung right
And your pants too tight,
It's gonna be all right..."
(Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, "So You Want to be a Rock 'N' Roll Star")

Almost from the beginning, when their first album was released and the TV show debuted, critics railed against The Monkees for being four actors hired for a television series as opposed to a rock group that formed more organically. Their detractors labelled them "the Pre-Fab Four" and maintained they were not a "real" rock band. To this day there are many who will insist that The Monkees were not a "real" rock band, even though very early on in their career they wrested themselves from the control of music impresario Don Kirshner and started making their own music.

What The Monkees' critics ignore is the fact that throughout the history of rock 'n' roll, there have been managers and record producers who have shaped the image of various singers and rock groups, even when those rock groups had simply originated as four or five guys who played music together. In fact, the rock band whose image was never shaped by their manager, their record producer, or even their record company, may well be the exception rather than the rule in rock music.

Indeed, the practice of creating a specific image for a pop music performer by a manager or a record producer was very old before The Monkees debuted. This was standard operating procedure for Bob Marcucci in the early days of rock. It was Bob Marcucci who discovered Frankie Avalon and cultivated his teen idol image, even urging Mr. Avalon away from rock 'n' roll and into pop ballads. When Frankie Avalon grew too old for his teen idol image, Bob Marcucci discovered Fabian. Not only would Bob Marcucci and partner Peter de Angelis choose the songs Fabian would sing, but they even chose the clothing he would wear and how he would wear his hair. Both Frankie Avalon and Fabian would break free of Mr. Marcucci, but it was Mr. Marcucci who cultivated their early teen idol images and played some role in their early successes.

Of course, both Frankie Avalon and Fabian were discovered by a music impresario who insisted on controlling every aspect of their careers, even when they chafed at the idea. Even when a manager and a rock group have a less adversarial relationship, that manager can have a strong impact in shaping their image. Indeed, this is no less true of The Beatles, considered by many to be the greatest rock group of all time and definitely the most successful. With the exception of John Lennon (who actually had an upper middle class background), The Beatles all came from the Liverpudlian working class.  Aside from their mop top haircuts, all but the most devoted fans of the Fab Four probably would not recognise them in their early days in Hamburg and later The Cavern in Liverpool. They dressed in leather jackets. They even swore on stage. Their act was a much rawer one than it would be after they became famous.

It would be record store owner and music columnist Brian Epstein who would transform The Beatles from the rough and ready band they had been in the early days into the more clean cut, familiar Beatles of early Beatlemania. He first met The Beatles in November 1961 after seeing one of their performances at The Cavern. By December 1961 the band had signed him as their manager. It was Mr. Epstein who encouraged The Beatles to cease wearing leather jackets and blue jeans, and swearing smoking, drinking, and eating on stage, and to start wearing matching suits instead. He also suggested the synchronised bow with which The Beatles ended their performances (most famously on their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show). The one thing that remained of The Beatles' original, leather clad image were their famous mop top hair styles, designed by fifth Beatle Stu Sutcliffe's girlfriend Astrid Kirchher in Hamburg. Here it must be pointed out that, unlike Bob Marcucci, Brian Epstein did not demand The Beatles make these changes and received each of their agreement before proceeding with them, but the point is that it was Mr. Epstein who suggested that they stop wearing leather and behave more professionally on stage. Even with Brian Epstein as their manager, The Beatles would drift away from the mop top, matching suits image which they first presented themselves to the general public, but it seems quite possible that without Mr. Epstein advising them they might never have become the success they did

The Beatles were hardly  the only British Invasion band whose image was largely shaped by their manager. Indeed, the process by which Andrew Loog Oldham shaped  The Rolling Stones' image could be described as "The Beatles in reverse." Indeed, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Charlie Watts all came from middle class backgrounds--only Keith Richards and Billy Wyman had any real working class credentials. It was in 1962 that Brian Jones formed his own blues band, initially called "The Rollin' Stones" but eventually renamed "The Rolling Stones." It was in April 1963 that The Rolling Stones signed a management deal with young, rock 'n' roll press agent Andrew Loog Oldham. Initially Mr. Oldham outfitted The Rolling Stones in matching suits, not unlike The Beatles and other British bands of the era. In fact, they wore suits in their first television appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars. The suits would soon fall by the wayside. The Rolling Stones disliked wearing suits and actually "lost" bits and pieces of them--a pair of trousers here, a waistcoat there. At the same time, many in the press took a dislike to The Rolling Stones. Andrew Loog Oldham soon noticed this and decided to exploit the bad boy image which the press seemed intent on forcing on The Rolling Stones.

To this end, Mr. Oldham set out to make The Rolling Stones "the anti-Beatles." While The Beatles had their relatively neat, mop top hair styles, The Stones' hair would be long for the era and even unkempt. While The Beatles wore matching suits on stage, The Rolling Stones would wear pants that were a bit too tight with nary a jacket in sight. He led the pubic to believe The Rolling Stones were the ugliest band in Britain. When in February 1964 Melody Maker ran the famous headline, "Would you let your daughter date a Rolling Stone," Andrew Loog Oldham ran with it as one of the band's slogans. While The Rolling Stones went along with Mr. Oldham in exploiting a working class, bad boy image, even they were not always comfortable with it. When The Rolling Stones made their debut on American television in June 1964 on Hollywood Palace, it was to the derision of guest host Dean Martin. The Stones were not amused.

The Beatles would eventually lose their mop top, matching suits image, even as Brian Epstein remained their manager. The Rolling Stones stuck to their bad boy image all through the Sixties with Andrew Loog Oldham as their manager. There would be one major British band that would maintain the image created for them by their manager even after they had parted ways with him. The origins of The Who go back to two bands formed in England in the early Sixties. The Confederates were a trad jazz band formed by Peter Townshend and John Entwistle. The Detours were a rock 'n' roll  and rhythm and blues band formed by Roger Daltrey. Eventually Messrs. Townshend and Entwistle joined The Detours, which evolved into The Who. Largely products of the middle class, Peter Townsend was one of the many young English musicians to emerge from art school. The band's image would forever be changed after they hired Peter Meaden.

Peter Meaden was an ace face, one of the most fashionable and coolest of the fashion obsessed Mods. He observed that the Mods generally hated the music that made the charts  in Britain and that the Mods did not have their own band. To this end he set about transforming The Who into the Mod band, never letting the fact that The Who themselves were not Mods hinder him. Mr. Meaden would have a difficult time convincing The Who to develop a Mod image, but he would be supported by Pete Townshend, who as a former art school student was familiar with the pop imagery associated with the Mod subculture. At last the band came around to Mr. Meaden's way of thinking. To this end, Mr. Meaden had The Who's hair cut, took them to shops to buy the latest Mod fashions, and had the band change their name, yet again, to The High Numbers. He even planted a story in the press that Pete Townshend spent  £100 a week on clothes. Mr. Meaden also shifted the band's musical style more towards the rhythm and blues sounds of American labels like Motown and Tambla favoured with the Mods. For their first single, Peter Meaden re-wrote Slim Harpo's "Got Love If You Want It" as "I'm the Face," with "Zoot Suit" being a rewrite of The Dynamics' "Misery." The single would go nowhere, but the Mod image Peter Meaden created for The High Numbers would get the band noticed.

Peter Meaden's time with The Who/The High Numbers would not be long. By July 1964 Mr. Meaden found himself being replaced by the team of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. To soothe any hurt feelings, Mr. Lambert would pay £250 to Peter Meaden in the way of a buy out. While Peter Meaden was no longer The High Numbers' manager and they would soon revert to the name by which they became famous, The Who, they continued to capitalise on the Mod image he formulated for them. The Who created the slogan "Maximum R&B" not only to describe their music, but to capitalise on the Mods' love of that genre of music. For much of the Sixties they utilised imagery associated with the Mod subculture, from the bullseye motif to turtlenecks. All the while, The Who were not in fact Mods themselves.

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who were hardly the only rock bands whose images were shaped by a manager. From KISS to The Sex Pistols, many other groups over the years have had an image which originated with a manager. It is notable that for the most part these groups have never had their credentials as rock musicians questioned. That having been said, it would seem to be a very thin line between a manager taking an existing rock group and re-creating them in his own image and simply hiring people who would fit that image. Ultimately, it would seem that although most rock critics and historians would be loathe to admit it, the line between bands that grew organically such as The Rolling Stones and groups that were simply  "fabricated" like The Monkees is a very thin one.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The 10th Anniversary of My Mother's Death

I realise that A Shroud of Thoughts is usually devoted to pop culture, but today is a rather sad anniversary for me. You see, it was ten years ago today that my mother died. She was not young at the time. In fact, she was 84 years old. And she remained in good health until nearly the end. Still, it is never easy to lose a a parent, no matter how old she is.

My mother was forty six years old when she had my brother and me. She had also lost an infant daughter, my sister Cindy, three years before we were born. I suppose that was much of the reason my mother tended to worry and fret over my brother and me much of the time. She tended to be a compulsive worrier as it was, almost always agonising over money, even though we were never poor. My mother's neuroses at times put a strain on our relationship, both when I was growing up and as a young adult. While my mother did tend to worry needlessly, I still think she was in many respects a remarkable woman. She was very intelligent and could even do maths in her head, which I find amazing given I need a calculator to add and subtract. She knew a good deal about history, and it is from her that my brother and I inherited our love of history and genealogy. She also enjoyed classic movies (although she was old enough to remember when they first came out), especially comedies. I had long known that she had seen Frankenstein (1930) in the theatre and hated it (she said it scared her). I never let her live down the fact that she saw a classic film in the theatre and never appreciated it!

Just as I had helped care for my father when he was dying of cancer, I was the sibling who took care of my mother as she grew older. It was during this period that we grew the closest we had ever been and I finally got to know her quite well. For instance, I had always known Maureen O'Hara was her favourite actress, but I learned that Marilyn Monroe was also her favourite. I also learned that she had been an amateur artist when she was younger. While I am probably biased as her son, I must admit I thought she was pretty good. My mother and I actually had a good deal in common. We shared a love of classic films and even a few musical artists in common. Like most members of the Towles family, we both enjoyed a good card game. Here I must say that even when I was younger and did not understand why my mother worried so needlessly at times, I always loved her dearly.

Indeed, my mother even liked the softer material of some power pop bands, such as The Beatles and Cheap Trick, as well as artists like Roy Orbison. I very seriously doubt she would have cared too much for My Chemical Romance, but I feel this particular song is fitting given today. It is "Welcome to the Black Parade" from their album, The Black Parade. The album is centred upon a young man in the early Twentieth Century who is dying of cancer. Among its central concepts is that death comes to us in the form of our strongest memories, which in the case of the album's protagonist was a parade to which his father had taken him when he was a child. For that reason, death comes to him in the form of The Black Parade. My family had always enjoyed parades and we attended many when I was a child. While I do not know in what form death came for my mother, I would like to think that it was possibly in the form of a Black Parade. Believing in an afterlife as I do, I like to think that death, though it might bring sorrow to those left behind, can be a cause for celebration.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Details' 11 Sexiest Women of Mad Men

Details recently compiled their "11 Sexiest Women of Mad Men." As red blooded male and an avid fan of the show, quite naturally I was interested to see their choices. And as a red blooded male and an avid fan of the show, quite naturally I have my own opinions.

Some of the women who made the list should come as no surprise. I think it was a safe bet that January Jones (Betty Draper/Francis), Christina Hendricks (Joan Holloway), and Elizabeth Moss (Peggy Olson) would make the list. Not only are these three women the female leads of the show, but they are also generally counted as being among the most attractive by the show's fans. As for myself, I must say the only one I find incredibly attractive is January Jones as Betty Draper/Francis. I have always had a weakness for blondes and Betty always had this allure that is somewhere between Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe. That having been said, there are some things I don't find attractive about Betty, namely her temper and her tendency towards self absorption. In the earlier seasons this was forgiveable. After all, she had often had good reason to be angry with Don and the very nature of their relationship would led itself to Betty having to concentrate somewhat on herself. But it seems that Betty has actually gotten worse after divorcing Don and marry Henry Francis. She gets angry at Henry (who, unlike Don, seems to be a very good husband) for no reason at all and her treatment of her children, particularly Sally, is pretty much abusive. Betty was a bit neurotic early in the show's run--understandable given her marriage to Don--but now she seems downright psychotic!

Of course, Christine Hendricks seems to be the sex symbol of the show, so that many may be astounded to learn I do not find Joan Holloway shockingly sexy. It is true, like any man, I do admire Joan's curves, but ultimately she is ginger and, with few exceptions (Ann-Margret is one) I never have found redheads that attractive. I must also say that much of this may be due to Joan's personality as well--she has always rubbed me the wrong way, especially the way she treated the other women at Sterling Cooper and later Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. As to Elizabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, Peggy is my favourite female character. She is intelligent, strong willed, and open minded, yet she still seems like the girl next door. And I love the relationship she has with Don--that of the sorcerer and his apprentice--she could be the only woman he respects. But as much I like Peggy, I never have found her physically attractive. I might go out for drinks with her, but it would not go beyond that.

Here I must say that, although not one of the leads, I think it was no surprise that Peyton List, as Jane Sterling nee Siegel, would make the list. In her time as Don's secretary she gave Joan a run for her money as Sterling Cooper's local sex symbol. And I have no doubt male fans found her as enticing as the men of Sterling Cooper. As for myself, until recently Jane was the woman on Mad Men I found most attractive. With dark hair, big eyes, and an incredible figure, I found her very sexy. Indeed, I am mystified as to why Roger would still be drawn to Joan when he has Jane waiting at home for him!

Of course, there were some surprises on the list as well. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Allison Brie as Trudy Campbell (who also plays Annie on Community) made the list. I always thought Trudy was absolutely adorable and could never understand why Pete cheated on her with Peggy. I would think Trudy was all a man would need! I was also surprised to see Maggie Siff, as Rachel Katz nee Menken, made the list. Rachel was among those women I found most attractive on the show, and I could fully understand why Don would suggest they run way together.

One woman I was very surprised to see make the list was Melinda McGraw as Bobbie Barrett. Now in real life Melinda McGraw is not unattractive, but for some reason she lost something in the translation as Bobbie Barrett. I have to wonder that the make up artists of Mad Men did not put a lot of work into making Miss McGraw less attractive! Of course, much of the reason I think I never found Bobbie Barrett attractive is simply her personality. Not only does she cheat on her husband (who is admittedly no prize either), but she seems totally self absorbed and intent on furthering herself regardless of what it does to others (usually through her husband).

As to the women who did not make the list, I must say that I am a bit surprised that Jessica Pare as Megan, one time receptionist at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and currently Don's secretary, did not make the list. Of course, she is a fairly new character just introduced this season and may not have been part of the cast when Details went to press. The same probably holds true for Cara Buono as Dr. Faye Miller. Faye is my favourite female character on Mad Men of all time. She is intelligent, strong willed, reasonable, caring, and even sweet. She also possesses the sort of blonde good looks one might expect of Grace Kelly if she was a psychologist. Her combination of personality and good looks makes her the sexiest woman on Mad Men to me by far. Indeed, I cannot help but think I would treat her better than Don has (at least I minored in psychology)!

Of course, beauty and sex appeal are in the eye of the beholder, and I suspect others might have their own opinions. And, to be honest, I have no real objections to Details' "Eleven Sexiest Women of Mad Men, given the list was probably made before the fourth season had ever begun so that Megan and Faye could not make the list. That is, I have no objections beyond Bobbie Barrett. I still can't see how she made the list!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

There's Something About Mary Astor

Beyond films that were made and shown on television and in theatres when I was a child (yes, I am that old now), among the first classic films I ever saw was The Maltese Falcon (1941). This would also lead to my first film crush. In the film Mary Astor played dark hearted femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Never mind that she was a temptress who was never into anything for love, I fell in love with her anyway. And it made curious to see Mary Astor in other roles.

There should be little wonder that I should be fascinated by Mary Astor. She was obviously a beautiful and alluring women. But beyond her obvious good looks, Miss Astor was also an actress of exceeding talent. While she is best known as Brigid in The Maltese Falcon, she played a wide array of roles throughout her career, from virginal characters to outright strumpets to loving mothers. As  I learned more about Miss Astor, I also found another reason to be interested in her. Like Steve McQueen, Walt Disney, Lester Dent, and Cliff Edwards, Miss Astor was a celebrity from my area. She was born Lucile Langhanke in Quincy, Illinois, a city a little more than an hour's drive from my home town and one I had visited for the first time while very young.

Even if she had not been a local girl, I would have found Miss Astor's career interesting regardless. She started acting when she was very young, at age 14 in silent movies. Her career having started in 1920, by 1924 she was playing opposite John Barrymore in Beau Brummel. In the film she played Lady Margery Alvanley, the unsullied love interest of the title character. Lady Margery was as different from Brigid as day from night. She was pure, sweet, loving, and perhaps a bit innocent. That Miss Astor was as convincing in the role as she was playing Brigid O'Shaughnessy was a mark of her talent even at such a young age.

Beau Brummel would seem to have been a star making movie if ever there was one, but in many of her silent films Mary Astor was simply window dressing. Of course, there were films in which she was able to do more than simply look beautiful. In Dressed to Kill (1928) she played an intelligent, young woman who becomes the mistress of the leader of a crew of burglars and who has a few secrets of her own. In the comedy Dry Martini (1928), Miss Astor played the untamed daughter intent on a romance that hardly meets her father's approval. While Miss Astor often played rather bland love interests, even before the Silent Era was over, she played some interesting roles where she could display her acting skills.

Surprisingly enough, Mary Astor almost did not make the transition into talkies. Under contract to Fox, she failed a sound test the studio gave her as Fox thought her voice was too deep. This must seem incredulous to anyone who has heard Miss Astor in her talkies, in which her voice is mellifluous. According to most sources it was the early, primitive sound equipment that was to blame and not Miss Astor herself. Released from her contract with Fox, Mary Astor took voice lessons and singing lessons during that time she was not making movies. Playing opposite her friend Florence Eldridge in the play Among the Married, Miss Astor began her comeback. She returned to making movies again with the Paramount film Ladies Love Brutes (1930).

For an actress who very nearly did not make it into talkies, the Thirties would be a very good time for Mary Astor. It would be in 1932 that Miss Astor would play one of her best known roles, that of Barbara Willis in Red Dust opposite Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.  At the start of the movie Barbara is the demure, lady like wife of an engineer, but there is more going on beneath the surface of this woman than meets the eye. Indeed, after being seduced by rubber plantation and owner Dennis Carson (Clark Gable), Barbara burns with a heat that even makes Miss Harlow seem cool by comparison. It would be a tricky role for any actress, but Miss Astor accomplished it quite well, making Barbara a woman of some strong desires without ever losing her lady like composure.

Sadly, Mary Astor's star turn in Red Dust would not lead to more impressive roles. Much of this was Miss Astor's own doing. She would turn down offers which would give her star billing, as she did not want the responsibility of being the lead for a motion picture. This naturally limited the sorts of roles in which she was cast. After Red Dust, it would not be until Dodsworth (1936) that Mary Astor would find a role worthy of her talent. In Dodsworth, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis and the play (also based upon the novel) by Sidney Howard. In the film Miss Astor played divorcee Edith Cortright, an American living in Italy whom Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) encounters there. Edith seems a bit world weary and sad, but at the same time she is sensible and sophisticated. She is a woman who genuinely cares about other people. Indeed, she has no designs on Sam Dodsworth and even warns Dodsworth's wife against having an affair. Miss Astor did a wonderful job of bringing Edith to life, a complex, reasonable woman who ultimately helps Dodsworth reassess his world view.

Fortunately, Mary Astor would have more interesting roles following Dodsworth than she had following Red Dust, appearing in a key role in the film The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). In 1939 Mary Astor would give another impressive performance as Helen Flammarion, an ageing woman anxious for the romance of her youth and furious that she seems unable to re-attain it. Of course, it would be in 1941 that Miss Astor would play what may be her signature role, that of Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941). In some ways, Brigid was the cumulation of Miss Astor's best roles. Like Edith Cortright, Brigid is sophisticated and wise to the world. Like Barbara Willis she has a sexuality that is hidden none too well. Combined with a willingness to use her allure to get Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), do what she wants him to, Brigid O'Shaughnessy was the archetypal femme fatale, the one that all film noir seductresses aspired to be. That same year Miss Astor would appear as Sandra Kovak, the self indulgent but overtly sexual pianist, in The Great Lie. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role, but there can be little doubt that The Maltese Falcon featured her best performance.

Having played a number of overtly sexual women who are wise to the world, Preston Sturges' The Palm Beach Story, released in 1942, the year after The Maltese Falcon, proves that Mary Astor was a bit of a chameleon. Astor's Princess Centimillia is hypersexual in the same way some of the other women she had played, but she lacks none of those characters' sense. Given to excessive, and often hyperkinetic, speech, Centimillia gave new meaning to the word "madcap." Surprisingly, Miss Astor did not particularly care for the role, nor did she care much for Preston Sturges, whom she thought was hard to please.

It was in 1943 that Mary Astor signed a contract with MGM. It may well have been one of the biggest missteps of her career. MGM cast her in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) as the mother of the family, Mrs. Anna Smith. While Miss Astor did not care for the role, she does quite well in it, giving Mrs. Smith a bit more steel than another actress would have. Unfortunately, perhaps because of Miss Astor's success in the role, MGM would see fit to do the unthinkable--to cast an actress known for playing seductresses and femmes fatales consistently in maternal parts. She played a mother in Cynthia (1947), and Fiesta (1947), and others. There would be only a few bright spots of Miss Astor at MGM. In Desert Fury (1947) she at least played a tough mama who owns a saloon. For the most part, however, Mary Astor's only remarkable role would come in Act of Violence (1948). Once more in a film noir, Miss Astor played Pat, an ageing prostitute obviously tired of life but at the same with some rather tender emotions beneath the harsh exterior.

Surprisingly, after Mary Astor's turn in Act of Violence, MGM cast her as Marmee, the matriarch in the 1949 remake of Little Women. The film would prove to be the last straw for Miss Astor. While MGM wanted to renew her contract and even promised her better parts, she would have nothing of it. After reaching a breaking point in 1951, Miss Astor returned to acting. She would appear mostly on television, giving impressive performances in such series as The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, Robert Montgomery Presents, Climax, Studio One, Playhouse 90, The United States Steel Hour, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Thriller. She would also appear in such films as A Kiss Before Dying (1956), The Power and the Prize (1956), and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte would be her final role, as she retired after the film.

Sadly, except for her role as Brigid in The Maltese Falcon, Miss Astor may be best known for her personal life. In 1936 she went through a brutal divorce with her then husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, who threatened to make her diary public. Reportedly her diary contained details of Miss Astor's affairs with many celebrities. Surprisingly, the resultant scandal had no adverse impact on her career. Having drank for years, in 1949 Miss Astor admitted herself into a sanatorium for recovering alcoholics.  In 1951 she nearly overdosed on sleeping pills for the third time in two years. It was reported as a suicide attempt and treated as such by the press. It was afterwards that she joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

Mary Astor published her autobiography, My Story, in 1959. She followed it up with Life on Film, her reminiscences about working in movies, in 1969 She also wrote five novels: The Incredible Charlie Carewe (1963), The O'Conners (1964); Goodbye Darling, Be Happy (1965), The Image of Kate (1966), and A Place Called Saturday (1968).

Mary Astor never joined the top tier of stars, largely because she did not want the responsibility of playing the lead in a movie. Despite this, she remains remembered today because of her great talent. Miss Astor played a large of array of characters. Miss Astor's characters were often sophisticated and sometimes sexually provocative, but they were almost always complex, intelligent women with deep seated feelings which they barely concealed. With a gift for subtlety, Miss Astor never had to resort to the sort of histrionics other actresses often utilised. Although she may not be as well known as some of the movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, she was definitely among the most talented.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Golden Age of Television?

There seems to be a general agreement among television historians that the Golden Age of Television took place sometime starting in the late Forties and continuing through the Fifties. Beyond this admittedly broad time frame, there have been various time periods offered as when the Golden Age of Television took place. The Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopaedia puts what it calls "the 'Golden Age' of Television Drama" as being from 1949 to 1960. Some would extend the Golden Age of Television to 1961, when legendary anthology series Playhouse 90 went off the air. Others have given other dates for the beginning and end of the Golden Age of Television.

While there is some disagreement as to exactly when the Golden Age of Television took place, it is generally agreed it did take place and that it was largely due to the proliferation of dramatic anthology series which often featured critically acclaimed teleplays, as well as various other television events. While there have been naysayers, it is difficult to argue the Golden Age of Television did not take place. Live dramatic anthology series proliferated on television in the early Fifties, such series as The Philco Television Playhouse, Goodyear Television Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre, and, the most critically acclaimed of the early anthology shows, Studio One. Many of the teleplays which appeared on these shows went onto be adapted for Broadway, movies, and often both: "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "No Time for Sergeants," "Marty," and others. The anthology series introduced a whole new crop of talented, intelligent writers, including Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Rod Serling, and several others. It was a period when teleplays were often critically acclaimed.

Of course, if there had only been the dramatic anthology series at the time, we might not be speaking of a Golden Age of Television. It must be kept in mind that it was in the late Forties and early Fifties that many classic variety shows debuted, including Toast of the Town (later renamed The Ed Sullivan Show), The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Red Skelton Show, and Your Show of Shows. Classic sitcoms emerged on television, many imported from radio: The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and The Jack Benny Programme chief among them. Of course, there were original sitcoms as well, chief among them I Love Lucy, but also Make Room for Daddy, Father Knows Best, Topper, Mr. Peepers, and others. While there some of what we would today call "junk," there seemed to be a good deal more quality TV shows on American television at this period than most.

While there can be little argument that a Golden Age of Television took place, there is some argument as to when it precisely took place. Some would begin it as early as 1946, others as late as 1949 (television personality David Susskind among them). Personally, I think the year the Golden Age of Television began could actually be said to be 1948. My reasoning is simple. The Kraft Television Theatre debuted in 1947, ushering in the highbrow, dramatic anthology series. It was followed in 1948 by several similar series: The Ford Theatre, Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, Actors Studio, and he legendary Studio One. There would be other legendary anthology shows which debuted throughout the next many years, some rather late (Playhouse 90 would not debut until 1956), but 1948 seems to be the year when the dramatic anthology series really began to take hold.

As to when the Golden Age of Television ended that is a bit trickier.  The Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopaedia places it at 1960. Others have placed it at 1961, when Playhouse 90 was cancelled. In a television roundtable in the Sixties, David Susskind placed the Golden Age from 1949 to a terribly early 1954! I disagree with all of these ideas as to when the Golden Age of Television ended, I think most television historians will agree with me that 1954 is much too early for the Golden Age to have ended. On the other hand, I think 1961 is much too late. I know there are those who will point out that was the year that Playhouse 90 went off the air, but I do not think that can be used as it ignores other important events in television. To use it an example from another medium, All-Star Comics, one of the most important titles of the Golden Age of Comic books, persisted until 1951. Most comic book historians do not take this into account for obvious reasons (there were other factors, such as most Golden Age titles having been cancelled well before then), and end the Golden Age of Comic Books anywhere from 1945 to more generally 1948 or 1949. That Playhouse 90 lasted until 1961 really makes no difference. Most other other classic, dramatic anthology series were well gone by then.

The fact is that by the early Fifties television began to give rise to such filmed series as I Love Lucy. Many of these filmed series would prove very popular, gradually edging out the live anthology series. A sure sign of the triumph of the filmed television series would arrive in 1955 when the debut of three different Westerns would signal the beginning of a cycle towards Westerns (those shows were Cheyenne. Gunsmoke, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp). Westerns would prove so popular that they overwhelmed American airwaves, with as many as eight such shows airing during some seasons. Of course, the dramatic anthology series were in trouble before the Western cycle began, as 1955 is also the year they began dying off.

Both The Kraft Television Theatre (the show that had started it all) and Philco Television Playhouse went off the air in 1955. Goodyar Television Playhouse, The Alcoa Hour, Armstrong Circle Theatre, and Robert Montgomery Presents went off the air in 1957. Studio One lasted until 1958. Lux Video Theatre  until 1959. The United States Steel Hour outlasted them all, surviving until 1963. Given the number of anthology shows that went off the air in 1957, I think it might be a good idea to end the Golden Age of television then. My reasoning is simple. Many of the great anthology shows were already gone. Filmed television series already dominated the network schedules, not just Westerns, but shows like The Phil Silvers Show, The Bob Cummings Show, Medic, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and others. Worse yet, in the summer of 1955 the quiz show The $64,000 Question debuted. By the 1956-1957 season it had produced a spin off in the form of The $64,0000 Challenge, as well inspired such similar quiz shows as Twenty One, The Big Surprise, and Dotto. While many of the filmed shows of the era are justifiably called classics, the quiz shows are one of the low points in television history. Indeed, in 1958 it would become public that most of them had been rigged, igniting the infamous quiz show scandals. Between the live dramatic anthology shows beginning to die off in droves, the domination of filmed series, and the rise of the quiz shows, I think the 1956-1957 season is when the Golden Age of Television ended.

Of course, there would be classic anthology shows which survived the end of the Golden Age and others which debuted after it ended, most of them filmed series. Playhouse 90 debuted the very season the Golden Age ended and lasted until 1961. The United States Steel Hour ended its run in 1963 after ten years on the air. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the classic filmed suspense anthology show, debuted in 1955 and lasted until 1965. The Twilight Zone, possibly the most famous anthology show of them all, debuted in 1959 and lasted until 1964. The classic horror anthology show Thriller debuted in 1960 and ran two seasons. Anthology series did not die with the end of the Golden Age of Television, although they ceased being produced live for being filmed instead, with but a few exceptions. Regardless, they no longer dominated the television landscape after 1955 and became rare after 1957. By the late Sixties they would be gone.

The Golden Age of Television, 1948 to 1957, was an incredible time for television, when the medium was dominated by writers and there was quality material produced every week. It was brought to an end by filmed series, a cycle towards Westerns which only accelerated the dominance of filmed series, and the birth of the big money quiz show. As television moved into the Sixties, many of the classic filmed series would even end and television would go thought a bleak period from about 1960 to 1963. Oh, there were classic which debuted in this era--The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Untouchables, and others, but shows such as The Phil Silvers Show, Have Gun--Will Travel, and Peter Gunn were replaced by with insipid sitcoms such as The Hathaways, the often poorly made clones of 77 Sunset Strip (Surfside Six and others), and rather bland adventure shows such as Follow the Sun. Fortunately for television, a new Golden Age was dawning, one I call the Golden Age of Series Television, when several classic shows with continuing character would air (a short list--The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, The Monkees, and others). Of course, this is a story for another time.