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Having just seen "The Laughmaker" on a fascinating DVD, I feel compelled to correct some curious information in the previous review. First, the character that Gleason "plays" on his TV show is "The Poor Soul", not "Fenwick Babbitt". The two are similar, but the "soul" is a pantomime character. Second, and most bewildering in the review, Marian Seldes (who remains "stick thin" to this day) is in EVERY scene with Gleason. Except for one final scene towards the end, she doesn't appear WITHOUT him. Gleason, playing Gleason, is quite good; Carney can't help but be likewise. But it is Sally Gracie, as the girl singer who truly loves the Gleason character, who steals the show.
I am astounded by the entire concept of this series. From the very
early days of television, before videotaping, these were broadcast LIVE
(including commercials). I find them to be a very intriguing look at
our past, both as a broadcasting technology and as a national
time-capsule. The commercials are *informative* as well as marketing.
And they are all LIVE.
That puts these into the category of an hour-log "Play". The stories are top-notch, and the production is great (considering the technology available at the time). Only some of the later broadcasts are available on video because most were lost since there was no adequate recording medium at the time.
I recently purchased a "50 Movie Pack : Historic Classics" at Best Buy. Included was "The Night America Trembled", a 50 minute episode of Studio One. (Episode 10.1 - aired on Sept. 9th, 1957 ). It was the story about the CBS broadcast of the War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells in 1938. This episode was fast paced and very well done. It had an all-star cast with Edward R. Murrow as the smoking narrator, and several unknowns at the time, including James Coburn as Sam (credited as Jim Coburn, and his very first TV appearance), Warren Beatty and Warren Oates as the young poker players, and Ed Asner as a radio character. Even John Astin (of the Addams Family) had a small part as the newspaper typist and does not appear in the ending credits. Thanks to IMDb, I noticed that there was a made for TV remake in the 1970's. I would love to see this version so that I could compare the two.
"Studio One" was one of the many excellent anthology series from the golden age of television. It usually featured original hour-long dramas, occasionally adapting famous works or biographical material. Many big-name actors of the period guested on this prestigious series.
This posting relates specifically to Jackie Gleason's appearances on "Studio One". Gleason guest-starred in four episodes, three of which I have seen. "The Show-Off" (1954) is an abridged version of the comedy play by George Kelly (Grace Kelly's uncle). Gleason stars as Aubrey Piper, a blowhard who marries his way into the respectable Fisher family, brings the family to the brink of ruin, and then makes good at the end. Gleason's performance here is a bit too similar to Ralph Kramden, but less sympathetic. It's unfortunate that the ingenue role in "The Show-Off" is named Amy Fisher, as this name now provokes laughs for the wrong reason. (Remember the Long Island Lolita case?)
"Short Cut" (1954) is a stolid drama, starring Gleason in a dead-serious role as a crusading attorney-general who grimly learns that there's no short cut to justice. Gleason's dramatic performance is excellent, but the material is weak. He's abetted by a dull actor named Lin McCarthy and by Priscilla Gillette, a repertory actress who appeared in many episodes of "Studio One".
"The Laugh Maker" (1953) is an intriguing drama about a comedian, starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney. Gleason plays Jerry Giles (note the same initials), a popular TV comedian who is apparently based on Gleason himself. We never see Giles doing his act, but at one point he appears in costume ... and he's wearing the same outfit Gleason wore on his Admiral TV series as Fenwick Babbitt, one of his early recurring characters who got phased out in favour of the more popular Ralph Kramden. Carney plays a reporter who is assigned to get "the real story" on the beloved comedian Giles. No big surprise: Carney interviews the people who know Giles, and he discovers that the funny man isn't so jolly in private life.
The best performance in "The Laugh Maker" is given by Marian Seldes as Giles's (Gleason's) sister. This is strange casting, as Seldes was broomstick-thin in those days and Gleason was already quite hefty. Seldes and Gleason have no scenes together, which makes the casting a bit more plausible.
Viewers who have seen "The Hustler" or "Gigot" already know that Jackie Gleason was a gifted dramatic actor, but these episodes are a revelation. Gleason's performance in "The Laugh Maker" is superb, but he's let down by a trite script.
Back in the late 1940s and through much of the 1950s, television was a new medium and quite different from today. While this may sound very obvious, how different might surprise you. Instead of the made for TV movies we came to expect in the 60s and 70s, TV brought us actual live productions--hour-long teleplays that were often written just for television. A few of these were amazingly good and were later remade into brilliant films (such as "Studio One" and its production of "12 Angry Men"). Regardless, the shows were rarely dull and are well worth seeing today. Some are on archive.org's website for free download, some have been released by Criterion and a few by Alpha Video. Sadly, most sit in vaults--waiting to be discovered. My advice is try to see as many as you can--I've seen just about every one now available. Great acting, great scripts--of the many shows like this, "Studio One" is probably the best.
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