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"Screen Directors Playhouse", produced by (and filmed at) the Hal Roach
Studio, was one of the very best of the 1950s anthology TV series. It
featured an "A"-list of the best directors and actors working in films
at that time.
SPOILERS COMING. The best episode is probably "Rookie of the Year" (7 Dec '55), starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford: both making their TV debuts. Wayne plays an unemployed sportswriter who scouts a talented baseball pitcher (played by his own son, Patrick Wayne). The sportswriter discovers a secret in the pitcher's past: a "scoop" which the sportswriter can parlay into a job for himself at any sports desk in the country ... but only by ruining the pitcher's career. The script is marred by some hokey gimmicks designed to generate false suspense. Just before the commercial break, a woman we've never seen before (Vera Miles) runs in and points a revolver at John Wayne's head. This is meant to keep us glued to our seats until after the commercial ... when Wayne calmly takes the gun away and asks her what this is all about. The ending is implausible, with James Gleason as a hardboiled newspaper editor who passes up a good story for the sake of sentiment. (Not likely!)
Another excellent episode is "High Air" (12 Sept '56), directed by Frank Borzage, starring William Bendix and a young Dennis Hopper as father-and-son sandhogs. Bendix and Hopper don't look like father and son until they face off in profile ... and then we suddenly notice they've got identical noses! Based on a 1934 short story by Borden Chase, "High Air" is about an estranged father and son who work on the same crew digging a tunnel under the East River, constantly risking the hideous crippling condition known as "the bends". (Obscure actor Hal Baylor gives an astonishing performance as a caisson labourer in the throes of this agonising condition.) When a "blow" punctures a hole in the tunnel wall, Bendix plugs it with his own body to give Hopper a chance to escape. In the original story, Bendix's character died: here, he implausibly survives ... with "the worst case of bends I've ever seen". Having seen how bad the bends can be, I'd rather die.
The best-known episode (because it's available on video) is "The Silent Partner" (21 Dec '55), directed by comedy veteran George Marshall, starring Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, ZaSu Pitts and Jack Elam. I'm a Keaton fan, but this isn't one of his finest hours: "The Silent Partner" plays out the old cliché of the incompetent dimwit who becomes a star comedian through his own ineptitude. In real life, Keaton and Joe E. Brown had parallel lives: both suffered downturns due to alcoholism, both men were athletes who played baseball whenever possible, and both men got tricked into marrying the same woman! Here, Brown plays a showman who gets successful at Keaton's expense, then makes up for it when Keaton is a forgotten failure. The story is a bit too close to Keaton's real life to be funny. At the beginning of this episode, we see a staged scene of Marshall discussing the script with an actor in costume as a Keystone Cop ... but we never see this actor (or anyone dressed like him) in the story itself. "The Silent Partner" is one of the lesser episodes of this series, but the entire run of "Screen Directors Playhouse" had such high quality (and featured so many big names) that even a clinker is worth viewing.
Overall, I'll rate this series 8 out of 10.
Thanks TMC for reviving this long neglected anthology series. I think
I've seen enough representative entries to pick out some notable series
By and large, the episodes are very well produced, especially for early TV. Outdoor locations are generally used instead of exterior sets; costuming is movie-grade quality; and casting is of name performers (e.g. John Wayne, Jeanette Mac Donald) or up-and-comers (e.g. Dennis Hopper, Rod Steiger). Also, for this old-movie fan, it's fun seeing the real people behind the well-known director nameseach entry being directed by a well-known movie director (e.g. John Ford, Leo McCarey, Frank Borzage) making a cameo appearance. The formats run the gamut from melodramas to musicals, and though the story quality can varyas it does for any seriesthe standards appear pretty high for the time. This is also a period when the snobbish barrier between doing movies and doing TV is beginning to break down. All in all, however, I'm curious why the program was cancelled after only one season. I suspect there's a bigger story to this than just the ratings. Anyway, I hope TMC runs more episodes. The appeal here is entertainment as well as historical.
Stan Laurel was still alive when this aired in 1955. I bet he saw it.
The director, George Marshall, was the cameraman on a number of Laurel
and Hardy films, and Bert Jordan, who was Stan's favorite editor edited
this made-for-TV episode of Screen Director's Playhouse. And of course
all the episodes of the series including this one were filmed at The
Hal Roach studios. So it must have been a homecoming of sorts for
George Marshall and Bert Jordan.
After his problems with MGM in the early 30s Keaton was almost hired by Hal Roach to star in his own series of short comedies. Too bad. Buster Keaton's life might have been different had he worked for a studio that understood comedy. MGM sure did not. Keaton's MGM films were just awful. I am sure that if Keaton were still alive he would agree!
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