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                        Celebrating the Art of Cinema, ... and Cinema as Art


                                                                                         

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     In Superman’s early comic book world he did become involved in the nitty-gritty, down and dirty aspects of everyday life on earth, even of the political sort.  In one story he travels to Washington, D.C. to confront villainous dealings within the Senate.  Then in subsequent issues he battles arms dealers instigating war in South America.  In a February, 1940 issue of Look magazine he even captures Hitler and his then ally Josef Stalin and delivers them both before a Hauge-style trial at the League of Nations. 

     Around the same time across town Timely Comics (which would also go under the umbrella name “Atlas” before one day becoming Marvel) had revealed CAPTAIN AMERICA in a controversial (to some) issue displaying cover art with the title character slugging Adolf Hitler on his ass.  Controversial because in March 1941 the U.S. had not yet officially entered WWII and a portion of the populace was very interested in remaining “neutral”.  To many the cover smacked of jingoistic propaganda of the sort which could offend nations with whom the U.S. was not currently at war.
 

The front page of the first Captain America comic depicts Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw. A nazi soldiers bullet deflects from Captain Americas shield, while Adolf Hitler falls onto a map of the United States of America and a document reading Sabotage plans for U.S.A.
  
  After the war ended and during the same 1950s Cold War paranoia era which gave birth to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, the more insidiously internal threat of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s HUAC “witch hunt” hearings (were filmmakers with supposed communist leanings were given the ultimatum of “naming names” or doing time) rocked the film industry.  As this progressed a “mini” version hit the comics world.  Fueled by SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT - a 1954 book by German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham - wherein the purported harmful effects of mass media on children, with emphasis on television and comic books was examined - the U.S. Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was formed to investigate the industry.  Saved by the self-censoring “Comics Code” the comic book publishers would survive.  But like Captain America himself most of the super heroes would go into figurative hibernation until the more daring social-political 1960s and 70s.

 

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“THIS SHOW IS BROUGHT TO YOU BY …”:
 


     By the end of the 1950s those who’d survived WW2, the Korean conflict and HUAC had a lot to say.  Minorities who’d risked their lives in Europe and the Pacific were no longer content to “take a seat and shut up in the back of bus” because of color or “purchase a home elsewhere where you might be more comfortable” because of Jewish heritage.  Women who’d kept home together while the boys were off in battle were also no longer content to go back to the way things were.  These burgeoning sentiments found voice in the art of the day, in large part influenced by the philosophical/cultural esthetic of Dadaism - it‘s “art as political manifesto” belief influencing every realm.  The first public demonstration of the “television” was presented by inventor Philo Farnsworth at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in August of 1934.  But it wasn’t until the post-war economic upsurge that it became a viable commercial medium






     By the mid 50s and early 1960s New York became the center of the new television industry, and the breeding ground for a new artistic force - the TV Playwright and Director to whom “art as manifesto” was a way of life.  Cinematic legends who continue to influence the industry today began their careers during this the heyday of the 90 minute live televised drama.  Directors like John Frankenheimer (who’d go on to direct THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, BLACK SUNDAY, FRENCH CONNECTION II and RONIN) would have his first jobs helming episodes of Playhouse 90, Climax, Alcoa Playhouse, Kraft Television Theater and Studio One.  So would Arthur Hiller (THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, LOVE STORY, SILVER STREAK), Arhur Penn (BONNIE & CLYDE, LITTLE BIG MAN), Martin Ritt (THE LONG HOT SUMMER, HUD, SOUNDER, NUTS) and Sidney Lumet (12 ANGRY MEN, NETWORK, SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON).  Composers like Jerry Goldsmith (PATTON, ALIEN, THE OMEN, CHINATOWN) would also get their first assignments here as would writers like Paddy Chayefsky (MARTY, NETWORK, ALTERED STATES), Reginald Rose (12 ANGRY MEN, THE DEFENDERS, THE WILD GEESE), Abby Mann (JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, A CHILD IS WAITING, the KOJAK tv series) and Walter Bernstein (FAIL SAFE, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE FRONT).  In fact MARTY, 12 ANGRY MEN and JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG were originally 90 minute live TV dramas before they were adapted famously years later for the big screen.  With that list of talent milling about the water cooler every day it’s nothing short of amazing one of the first to rise to public notoriety was writer Rod Serling. 


Rod Serling
    Best known as the creator of the THE TWILIGHT ZONE, native upstate New Yorker Serling’s moral compass and predilection with the unpredictability of death were both forged by WWII Pacific combat.  Born Jewish (but later converting to Unitarianism) he’d also experienced prejudice first hand.  In the 1997 PBS AMERICAN MASTERS documentary “ROD SERLING: SUBMITTED FOR YOUR APPROVAL” his brother Robert J. Serling recounts “He didn’t just have war stories.  They were branded on his hide … and produced some of the finest writing I’d ever seen”.  His wife Carol would relate in an April 1987 issue of “Twilight Zone” Magazine how Rod felt, "the ultimate obscenity is not caring, not doing something about what you feel, not feeling! Just drawing back and drawing in; becoming narcissistic." All of this would converge and become staples of his writing.  After years entering writing competitions, collecting  rejection slips and working in radio he’d moved to New York “were the action is”, eventually finding his first big success with the 1955 live 90 minute broadcast of his play PATTERNS.  Concerning (as Serling himself would put it) “morality’s shady side of the street”, it dealt with the ethical quandary a young up and coming business exec faces upon learning he’s being groomed to ousts the aging supervisor whom he respects. 
The show struck a cord in the “MAD MEN”-ish days of Madison Ave. up-and-comers, and the New York Times heralded it as “one of the high points in the TV medium’s evolution”.  The show was so popular it was recreated live only one month later and became the first “re-run” in prime time TV history.  Serling himself would became a first - television’s first multi-Emmy winner for the subsequent dramas THE COMEDIAN and (arguably his most famous) REQUIUM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT.  


          Ed Begley & Richard Kiley - PATTERNS (1955)  
  
  He’d also become TV’s first “Angry Young Man” because of constant battles with show sponsors and network censors.  The conceptual fisticuffs ranged from being forced to remove the line “Got a match?” from REQUIUM (because the sponsor was Ronson Lighters) to deleting political references, ethnic identities and even a mention of “the Chrysler Building” in a show sponsored by Ford.  The greatest conflict was over A TOWN HAS TURNED TO DUST.
 


               Emmitt Till - Christmas, 1954

Emmitt Till  




   Directed by John Frankenheimer (who years later reflected upon the experience none too proudly), he and Serling had originally wanted to do a play about the murder of Emmitt Till.
  Till was a 14 year old African-American from Chicago who, while visiting family in Mississippi, supposedly whistled at a white woman and was then beaten, had an eye gouged out, was
shot through the head and dumped in a river by two white men … who were eventually acquitted of the crime!  The incident sparked national outrage and is cited as being one of the galvanizing catalysts which launched the Civil Rights Movement in earnest. 

      Of A TOWN HAS TURNED TO DUST Serling said, “By the time the censors got hold of it my script had turned to dust”.  It would only go before the cameras if the time and location was changed from the present day South to a Tex/Mex bordertown circa the late 1800s.  The black youth was changed to a young adult Mexican, and phrases such “men in hoods” would have to be “men in homemade masks”.  The final version which aired June 19, 1958 (with Rod Steiger, William Shatner and James Gregory) still packed a whallop, but the final opinion of Serling was that the network censors had “gone to work on it like butchers going to work on a steer”.  And Frankenheimer would call their end result “a comporomise, a terrible compromise”.  In a televised interview with Mike Wallace, Serling admitted he was tired. “I don’t want to fight“ he said, “I don’t want to compromise anymore”.  As children he and his brother Robert regularly devoured and loved pulp magazines like AMAZING STORIES and WEIRD TALES and he wanted to do something in that vein.  Little did the networks realize it, but the WWII winner of the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Philippine Liberation Medal had not yet given up his fight to “say something pertinent” in TV. 

    It started with “The Time Element” a pilot script Serling originally wrote for a proposed weekly anthology series he wanted to call “THE TWILIGHT ZONE”.  It was purchased outright however by CBS for the new Lucille Ball / Desi Arnez produced show “The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse”.  “Time Element” (1958) dealt with a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor having recurring nightmares and going to see a psychiatrist.  In the climactic twist ending (which would become a Serling hallmark) we discover the patient is actually dead and that the psychiatrist is having the recurring terrifying dreams.  If you’ve ever wondered if M. Night Shyamalan was influenced by Serling there’s your proof as THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) is a dead ringer updated version of this story.  “Time Element” received so much positive fan mail, CBS gave Serling the go-ahead on “TZ” (as fans call it) and the social activist / writer / producer was once again up to his old tricks … only with a few new twists as well as twist endings up his sleeve.
 


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To Be Continued ...


Pg. 1, 2, 3

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