Playhouse 90 (1956–1961)
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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'.
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".
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.
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.