- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

There’s a pictorially striking extended image in the teleplay “Dino,” one of the selections in the recent DVD set “Studio One Anthology,” that isolates Sal Mineo behind a partially opened door.

Cast as a belligerent, crazy, mixed-up teenage delinquent of cliche-ridden mid-1950s vintage, Mr. Mineo manipulates the door deftly; it bisects his troubled baby face, disclosing a hide-and-seek portrait of half-guarded and maybe salvageable personality formation.

This glimpse is arguably more eloquent than any of the dialogue encounters contrived by author Reginald Rose, who seems to believe that Dino will come around as long as he can blow up and break down confidentially to an unflappable caseworker, embodied with droll patience and confidence by Ralph Meeker.

The anthology itself opens a door commendably, if also inconclusively, on a large body of programming that was never systematically documented during the Beta and VHS years. A few famous shows were available: Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” from “The Philco-Goodyear Playhouse,” Rod Serling’s “Patterns” from “Kraft Television Theatre,” Mr. Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (an obvious forerunner of Darren Aronofsky’s recent “The Wrestler”) from “Playhouse 90.” Those available were never a bloc that drew on numerous examples from one of the prominent live dramatic series. At one time, the television industry supported 14 weekly shows of the kind.

This backlog, although largely recorded on black-and-white kinescopes that are less than ideal (and sometimes less than adequate) as copying intermediaries, remains a promising subject for appreciation and evaluation on DVD — and whatever home video formats lie ahead.

The live dramas that flourished as a vivid and prestigious branch of programming in the first decade of commercial television have been fondly recalled as a “writers’ medium.” From the evidence of “Studio One Anthology,” which collects 17 of the 466 programs telecast during a predominantly Monday night tenure on CBS, extending from fall 1948 through summer 1958, live drama was more likely to flatter the resourcefulness of actors and directors on the lookout for professional breakthroughs and showcases. On a good night, they could make the most of fleeting opportunities with an attentive home audience.

Reginald Rose (1920-2002) is the best represented of the “Studio One” writers with five scripts, including “Dino” and “Twelve Angry Men,” both expanded into theatrical features in 1957. “Angry Men” is the most famous of all “Studio One” originals, but Mr. Rose’s zest for group dynamics was dependent on a heavy hand with lessons in civics and ethics.

He was prone to misfires as a crackpot polemicist, and this weakness is deliriously preserved in two selections, “The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners” and “An Almanac of Liberty.” The former, telecast in January 1954, is an equivocal monstrosity that turns a classroom into an impromptu jury room. The latter, ostensibly inspired by a book from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas published on the day of the telecast (Nov. 8, 1954), is a sputtering brainstorm that seems to need Mr. Serling’s “Twilight Zone” to begin making a little sense. It argues a one-sided case for liberal piety over bigotry — in yet another defenseless classroom.

Mr. Serling is also represented by two scripts. So is Gore Vidal. None of them yields an hour-long gem, although three were directed by Franklin Schaffner, whose desire for pictorial depth and variety is always a promising enhancement. He was, of course, destined for a major Hollywood career after reuniting with Mr. Vidal on “The Best Man” and Mr. Serling on “Planet of the Apes.”

Mr. Schaffner, who also directed the Emmy-winning “Studio One” production of “Twelve Angry Men” (Sidney Lumet got the opportunity to turn it into a movie), alternated with Paul Nickell (the director of “Dino”) during the outset of the series. That potentially ruinous workload was later relieved somewhat by a third unit.

All but three of the shows in the DVD set were directed by Mr. Schaffner or Mr. Nickell. One of the exceptions, “The Storm,” perhaps the most absurd and inexplicable mystery melodrama ever contrived, was supervised by Yul Brynner during his pre-“King and I” career as an aspiring TV director.

Curiously, it was a 1949 restaging of the first “Studio One” production a year earlier. The prototype boasted a more intriguing cast — Margaret Sullavan, Dean Jagger and Ross Martin — so one hopes it has not vanished. In fact, the anthology begs the question of how many sequels could follow by alluding to several shows that haven’t made the first cut, for one reason or another.

Seeing Charlton Heston as a statuesque Heathcliff, Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint as romantic leads in a 1949 digest of “June Moon” or Lee Remick as an adorable kid sister in yet another untenable Rose polemic (“The Death and Life of Larry Benson”) proves very satisfying.

These mementos also whet the appetite for installments that revive, say, James Dean and Natalie Wood in an adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” or Warren Beatty, Warren Oates and James Coburn in “The Night America Trembled,” a docudrama about Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Evidently, there was a “Studio One” version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” with Keefe Brasselle. I wouldn’t expect it to measure up to Anthony Minghella’s movie, but I’d like to see how the TV caper worked out.

Unsponsored during its first season, 1948-49, “Studio One” became “Westinghouse Studio One” when renewed, and that association persisted until the series morphed into a filmed anthology, “Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse,” in fall 1958.

A sound case can be made that the Westinghouse commercials, which soon became identified with hostess Betty Furness (also persuaded to do a dramatic role about once a season), were the most consistent and evocative feature of the show. Now they’re also an invaluable record of American advertising and appliance manufacture during the 1950s.

Fortunately, “Studio One Anthology” incorporates the commercials more often than not. Sometimes they were deliberately reduced or omitted when the subject matter was grave: “Pontius Pilate” with Cyril Ritchard and Geraldine Fitzgerald or “1984” with Eddie Albert, Norma Crane and Lorne Greene, for example. When the plays hit a snag, Miss Furness’ interludes are like oases of sanity and proficiency.

She still cuts a memorable telegenic figure, especially in one dress with a black midriff that seems to pinch her waist into an impossibly narrow hourglass. Wow! There’s a still of it on page 31 of the set’s reference guide. The live version adorns Rod Serling’s play about hapless Washington solons, “The Arena.” I think any sensible person would prefer to spend the hour with Miss Furness on her kitchen set, talking about wardrobe and ironing.

TITLE: “Studio One Anthology”

CONTENTS: Six-disc DVD set with 17 episodes from the live dramatic series produced by CBS Television from 1948 to 1958

RUNNING TIME: About 16 hours, plus supplementary interviews and discussions with veterans of the series and a 52-page reference guide with detailed information about the series and each selection

DVD EDITION: Koch Vision

WEB SITE: www.kochvision.com

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