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'Playhouse 90' was an exceptionally good anthology series, which
consistently offered the most prestigious actors, directors and
scriptwriters available in America at the time, combining their talents
to create 90-minute dramas. (Hence the title of the series.) This
posting is specifically about 'A Town Has Turned to Dust', an original
drama by Rod Serling which aired as the 'Playhouse 90' episode for 19
In August 1955, a 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till, from a black working-class neighbourhood in Chicago, went to visit relatives in a deeply segregated small town in Mississippi. He made the mistake of speaking disrespectfully to a white townswoman. Two days later, Till was abducted by white men. His mutilated corpse was later found in the Tallahatchie River. This lynching attracted national attention. Two men were arrested and charged with Till's murder, but were acquitted at trial after the defence attorney explicitly urged the all-white jury to be faithful to their Anglo-Saxon heritage.
'A Town Has Turned to Dust', written by Rod Serling, was intended to be an indictment of the entire Emmett Till affair. Serling's original script followed the facts closely, only changing the name of the town in the Deep South, and the names of key individuals. A few fictional details were added. In the real-life case, Emmett Till's abductors made no attempt to conceal their identities; in Serling's script, the men are described as wearing hoods over their heads. Unfortunately, the TV network's censors had conniption fits when they read this script. The network became afraid of 'offending' their sponsors or viewers. One after another, all the most salient details of Serling's script were changed in order to make the material 'safe' and inoffensive.
To avoid offending Southerners, the town in Serling's script was relocated to New England. (So it's all right to offend New Englanders, then.) The reference to 'hooded' abductors was taken out of the script, for fear of offending the Ku Klux Klan. (Heaven forbid we should offend the Klan.) Serling was required to alter the dialogue so that references to 'hoods' became 'homemade masks'. (How many grown men wear homemade masks?) Worst of all, the victim of the abduction -- originally a black teenage boy -- was changed to a white boy with a speech impediment. The script that had been an indictment of racism and lynch law was now a character study about bigots who killed a boy merely because he stammered! These changes sound laughable, but Serling was (understandably) outraged. At very nearly the last minute, the script was altered even more ... relocating the action to a southwestern border town, and changing the victim and a few other characters to stereotypical Mexicans.
'A Town Has Turned to Dust' does feature an excellent cast, including Rod Steiger in the lead role, and a supporting performance by William Shatner: this at a time when Shatner was still considered a respected actor rather than an outrageous ham. Shatner gives a reasonably restrained performance here, although he does seem to spend rather much time flexing his immense biceps in a short-sleeved shirt. Less impressive is the shrill Fay Spain as the wife of the lynch mob's leader.
In later years, Rod Serling gave many interviews in which he spoke bitterly about network censorship of his scripts. Although he never (to my knowledge) specifically cited 'A Town Has Turned to Dust', nevertheless this script received more corporate interference than any of Serling's other projects. Serling's ordeal on this project was directly responsible for his decision to create a TV series devoted to science fiction and fantasy: Serling believed that teleplays which took place in the far future, on distant planets, would be less likely to incur interference than scripts which took place in the here and now. Although we might resent the decisions of the censors who bowdlerised Serling's script about the Emmett Till incident, the fact remains that -- were it not for the interference of those censors -- Serling might never have been provoked into creating his wonderful series 'The Twilight Zone'.
"Playhouse 90" came as the grand finale of that elusive TV genre which precedes even my 44 years on this earth: the dramatic anthology. Prior to this one, anthology programs had existed on the infant medium for almost a decade. The networks had KRAFT TELEVISION THEATRE, FORD THEATRE, GOODYEAR PLAYHOUSE, and STUDIO ONE as early as 1948. They all had the same common goal: presentation of self-contained, live, dramatic stories, their quality rivaled only by the best of the Broadway stage. (It was no coincidence that many of these dramas were produced in New York.) While all previous series were only 30 and 60 minute episodes, P90 introduced something new: its show was done in the "Television City" studio in Hollywood, and it was a lavish, unheard of, *90* minutes. In those days a live play could exist on a sound-stage without a studio audience with intimate, claustrophobic, camera set-ups, and present over a span of 90 minutes, "The Plot To Kill Stalin;" "Bomber's Moon;" "Bitter Heritage;" "Requiem For A Heavyweight;" "No Time At All," "The Comedian," "The Helen Morgan Story," "Judgment At Nuremberg," and "The Miracle Worker" straight through, without second takes, and on a week-by-week basis!! Stories were adaptations by Hemingway and Faulkner, as well as originals by Reginald Rose, J.P. Miller, and Rod Serling- all with stellar actors and directors. Eventually some productions were filmed in kinescope or on location as TV-movies, but the productions I'd kill to see are the ones which initiated the first ever videotape. Because videotape was not up and running until late 1957, the P90 archive of plays is uneven. Most of the museum archive is still on kinescope (which you can see at one of the two MT&R television museums on the coast of your choice), but the good news is that many plays from the last two years of the series were captured on glorious black-and-white videotape- the medium which comes closest to simulating the original live broadcast. A CBS special in 2002 dusted off some of these tapes and aired- probably only for the second time ever- clips of 1958's "The Old Man" and "Days of Wine And Roses," 1959's "Judgment at Nuremberg," and the final P90 from 1960, "In The Prescence of Mine Enemies." I suspect, sadly, that these show quality tapes are probably tied up in copyright laws and cannot be shown publicly. The series was a short, brilliant blaze of Emmy-winning glory, and came to a crashing halt in 1961- one year before I was born. I miss it.
This was the jewel in the crown of the golden age of television, the fifties and early sixties. This show had the best actors, the best directors, and the best writers. Many of these were on kinescope and are available somewhere, in a vault somewhere, or happily for the rest of us, at the Museum of television and radio. Some of the shows I have seen are The Comedian, with Mickey Rooney as a beloved comedian, who is a vulture in real life (kind of a similar story to A Face in the Crowd). It is one of Rooney's best performances. There is also the beautiful Requiem for a Heavyweight, with wonderful performances by Jack Palance, Ed and Keenan Wynn, and Kim Hunter. It is probably the best known of these shows. Also there is Days of Wine and Roses, with shattering, brilliant work by Piper Laurie, Cliff Robertson, and especially Charles Bickford. It equally comparable to the film. And recently I have been able to see A Sound of Different Drummers with Diana Lynn and Sterling Hayden. It is a story about a future society where books are banned; book owners are killed. It is sort of similar to Farenheit 451; it is very good, with touching performances by both stars. The best one of all that I have seen is The Miracle Worker. I was so excited that a copy exists. It is equally comparable to the film and features an outstanding, Emmy nominated performance by Teresa Wright as Annie Sullavan. She should have gotten the Emmy, and been able to continue her role in the stage and film versions, all respects to the wonderful Anne Bancroft though! It is the best of her many fine fifties televsion performances and right up there with A Shadow of a Doubt and The Little Foxes in terms of her best performances of all time. Several of these shows are available on VHS, too bad they all aren't!
On Oct. 11, 1956, the second episode of Playhouse 90 was aired. It was Requiem for a Heavyweight by Rod Serling, starring Jack Palance. It was another masterpiece from the golden age of television. Luckily, Requiem was recorded as kinescope. The recording quality is poor, but the play was and is drama at its best. If you can find Requiem at your local video store and you like great drama, please watch it. You will not be disappointed.
I have gotten to see a few more of these shows and they are very versatile. I have seen some less known ones than Requiem for a Heavyweight, Days of Wine and Roses, and Miracle Worker. One of these is the very first in this series, Forbidden Area, a cold war drama starring Charlton Heston, in a tv role when he was a huge movie star. It also features Tab Hunter, Vincent Price, Victor Jory, and acting wonderfully as always, CHarles Bickford and Diana Lynn. It is an interesting look at the Joint Chiefs of staff in the government, while also being an interesting cold war spy story. Highly recommended!! Also there is the tv version, 20 years before the movie, of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, with Jack Palance in another great Playhouse 90 role. Also in small roles, Peter Lorre at the end of his career and the beautiful Lee Remick at the beginning of hers. Also I got to see (at the Museum of tv and radio in NY)a live video tape version of The Great Gatsby, with Robert Ryan, a little old for the role but very good,also Rod Taylor in a good performance, and Jeanne Crain cast completely against type as Daisy, an interesting performance of hers. To top it off, there is the delightful Claudette Colbert and Paul Henreid comedy, One Coat of White, which is a spoof of aging in America, in laws, America in the 1950's, and modern art. Colbert is sooo good, it makes one regret that, then as always, films cut actresses careers too short as they get over 50. Fortunately, Colbert was in a lot of great tv productions in the 1950's (The Guardian, The Royal Family, Blithe Spirit, and Bells of St. Marys) and several of these still exist. It is really amazing how many of the great stars continued their work in great tv roles, which are less known today, but if you get to see them are highly impressive.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Written by Rod Serling, and originally aired on May 18, 1960, it was
perhaps the first television play, with the possible exception of Abby
Mann's "Judgment At Nuremburg", to deal meaningfully with the Nazi
holocaust. Serling said he researched it eight months before writing
it. Charles Laughton was memorable in it as Rabbi Adam Heller, as was a
young Robert Redford as Sergeant Lutz, a sympathetic Nazi soldier, and
George Macready as his superior, who explains to him the
nation-unifying "morality of hating Jews."
The character of the sympathetic Nazi soldier aroused the ire of Leon Uris, author of "Exodus", who called the play "the most disgusting dramatic presentation in the history of live television", and demanded that CBS publicly apologize for it, then burn the negative of it. Hopefully, CBS did not do this. Charles Beaumont, one of Serling's fellow Twilight Zone mainstays, remarked drily in response to Uris' demand, that "book burning was a favorite hobby of the late Herr Goebbels [Hitler's minister of propaganda ?]."
I discussed this play with a good Jewish friend of mine, whose late mother was a holocaust survivor, and she said that her mother had said that there were both kind and cruel Nazi soldiers in the camps she was in.
The PBS biography of Rod Serling, "Submitted For Your Approval", in the American Masters series, used "In The Presence ..." to epitomize and dramatize the death of live television drama.
"In The Presence Of Mine Enemies" was re-done in 1997, with Armin Mueller-Stahl in the role of rabbi Adam Heller, and aired, I think, on HBO on Sunday April 20, 1997.
I think "Noon On Doomsday", on the U.S. Steel Hour, may have been Rod Serling's first attempt to dramatize the tragic Emmett Till case. Next, of course, as noted elsewhere, he wrote "A Town Has Turned To Dust", then his script promptly turned to dust. As Serling himself said of the network sponsors and censors, "They chopped it up like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer." He discussed this at length with Mike Wallace on "The Mike Wallace Interview" in 1959 shortly before undertaking "The Twilight Zone", admitting that he went along with the censorship, "all the way", albeit fighting, thinking, in some strange, oblique, philosophical way, that it was better to say something, than nothing at all, yet admitting that his original powerful script had become a "weak, lukewarm, emasculated, eviscerated" play.
It is quite true, as previously commented by F Gwynplaine MacIntyre, of Wales, that it was precisely this type of sponsor interference that led Serling to undertake "The Twilight Zone" : make it Martians and robots, instead of Republicans and Democrats, put it in the future, it'll get by the sponsors, but the viewing public will still get the moral point of the story. Thus, "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" was a covert indictment of the McCarthy-led Communist witch hunt in the USA of the early 1950's.
There was a remake of "A Town Has Turned To Dust" on the Sci Fi Channel on June 27 1998, starring Ron Perlman of "Beauty And The Beast", but it came nowhere near the raw power Serling's original script must have had, and which, to my knowledge, has never been filmed in its original form.
Nor has "Color Scheme", the second novella in Serling's 1967 book, "The Season To Be Wary", which, to quote the jacket copy, "recounts the life and times of King Connacher, who makes his living on the stump circuit, preaching the lynching gospel, only to find himself one night the victim of an extraordinary case of mistaken identity." Connacher finds he has become black, after a near fatal car crash, and falls prey to the white lynch mob he had incited to violence earlier with one of his speeches. The nadir of that violence was the burning of a black pastor's home, and the resulting death by fire of his four-year-old daughter. While Connacher has become black, this black pastor has also, inexplicably, become white.
Understandably, Serling wrote of "Color Scheme", by way of introduction : "TV wouldn't touch it." Duh !
I have owned "The Comedian", also written by Rod Serling, and his third Emmy, and starring Mickey Rooney, from CBS "Playhouse 90", since mid-June 1996. It is in the "Golden Age Of Television" series on Rhino / Fantasy home video. "Requiem For A Heavyweight", also from Playhouse 90 (Serling's second Emmy)is also apparently in this series, which seems to date from as far back as the early 80's. WNET-13 Newark NJ aired the original kinescope of "Requiem" the night of Wednesday November 29, 1995, right after its initial airing of the PBS Serling bio, "Submitted For Your Approval". The videos have an opening segment in which the actors and directors involved in the play give their thoughts and perspectives on it, decades after it was produced live. Jack Klugman introduces "Requiem", and Carl Reiner introduces "The Comedian".
Needless to say, given the above, and what others have posted about this series, CBS Playhouse 90 cannot, I think, ever be praised too highly, or too much, or perhaps even enough. To quote another poster, it "was and is drama at its best".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After having once again watched both the 1959 "Mike Wallace Interview" with
Rod Serling, and the PBS bio of Serling, "Submitted For Your Approval", I
now see that it was "Noon On Doomsday", Serling's first attempt to dramatize
the tragic 1955 Emmett Till case, from the U.S. Steel Hour, that Serling was
referring to in the "Mike Wallace Interview", as a "weak, lukewarm,
emasculated, vitiated (not eviscerated, although that would, arguably, be
appropriate) kind of play." It was "Noon On Doomsday" that was moved to New
England, and "A Town Has Turned To Dust" that was moved to the American
Southwest, with Emmett Till becoming "a romantic Mexican, who loved the
sheriff's wife, but only with his eyes". It was still a story about a
lynching, and about a sheriff who did nothing to prevent it, but it was so
far removed from the true story of Emmett Till so as to be almost
It was Serling's battle with the sponsors over "A Town Has Turned To Dust" that was mentioned and dramatized on the PBS bio of Serling, showing closeups of key words from executive memos, "eliminate", "modify" etc. with Serling, dramatized, saying, "They chopped it up like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer" along with a short clip from the play itself.
I am not sure to what extent "A Town Has Turned To Dust" led to the later Twilight Zone episode, "Dust", if at all. Both are set in the American Southwest and include Mexicans as characters.
The exception to Playhouse 90's being exclusively a Hollywood production was "The TIME Of YOUR LIFE", which came out of CBS TV's New York Studio. It starred JACKIE GLEASON in his finest, dramatic TV performance. The production's "humble" Casting Director/Assoc.Producer is proud to point out that it introduced, revealingly that the Eastern seaboard's socialite DINA MERRILL was and is a remarkably talented Actress.
Playhouse 90 featured some of the best that Television has ever
presented. The dialogue, the acting, and of-course the writing are
Rod Sterling being one of the most accomplished and notable writers who worked on the series, won an Emmy for Requiem for a Heavyweight in the series first season in 1956. This episode was a testament to the quality and creativity that Playhouse 90 was committed to.
Unfortunately, we can only hope with extreme futility, for quality on par with Playhouse 90 from todays Hollywood. However, there is reminisce of this type of excellent writing from Independent filmmakers. Unfortunately, the independent filmmakers receive little fanfare and far less hype compared to their Hollywood counterparts.
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