A Ticket for Thaddeus & It’s a Most Unusual Day

Ring a Ding Ding

It has been some time since I enjoyed the half-hour “Screen Directors Playhouse” movies created for television airwaves in 1955 and 1956. The shows used big-time directors and often big-name actors to create the mini movies and many have proven to be quite good.

Among the great ones is Director Frank Borzage‘s “A Ticket for Thaddeus”, a drama about a Polish immigrant and his fear of law enforcement. It is evident from the first few minutes that this Thaddeus (Edmond O’Brien) connects all uniformed men with the Nazi soldiers who took him to a concentration camp when he lived in Poland. His wife (Narda Onyx), who was not sent to a camp, assures him America is different, but his fear persists.

After picking up an old dresser for repair, the carpenter collides with an oncoming car that has swerved into the wrong lane of traffic. The other driver, Bowen (Alan Hale Jr.), sees his convertible considerably damaged and accuses Thaddeus of trying to run from the scene because he did not initially stop. Thaddeus is terrified when Bowen says he will call the police and insists the accident was his fault and that he will pay for the damage. When the police arrive, the Polish man is handed a request to appear in court.

Thaddeus assumes the worst –that he will be sent to a concentration camp. He finishes his work on the dresser and packs his suitcase, leaving a note for his wife expressing his expectations. When he appears in court, Thaddeus tells the judge he is guilty, but a police officer provides evidence from the scene of the accident that proves Bowen was driving well over the speed limit and had crossed the center line. Thaddeus is sent home.

The extent and absurdity of Thaddeus’ fear of uniformed men and what he believed his fate to be are comical on paper, but the way O’Brien plays the part gives and entirely different mood to the episode. His performance is stellar and we feel his fear and sympathize with his past and the resulting phobia. The ending is somewhat touching in his exchange with the judge and the spilling of his suitcase of clothes he brought to accompany him to a concentration camp. It is easy to laugh and say, how ridiculous that he would think such things happen in the U.S., but it’s very sad at the same time.

Half-hour TV movies directed by Hollywood's best.

On a much lighter note is Director Claude Binyon‘s story of a romance as recalled through the songs of Jimmy McHugh –“It’s a Most Unusual Day”. The story is told in a manner reminiscent of Penny Serenade with the couple listening to the songs at a night club and recalling in flashback certain parts of their relationship. Fred MacMurray plays husband to Marilyn Erskine. The songs recall their early relationship in college when MacMurray’s Peter confesses a desire to marry Margie.

Next we see the effect of the Great Depression on the couple after two years of engagement. Peter wants to transition from being an auto mechanic to something bigger, and in the next flashback we see him running a trucking company and being seduced by another woman. The story goes on in this fashion until the couple’s son arrives to join them for dinner. We learn he intends to propose to the girl he as brought and the parents initially object to the lack of financial stability their boy can offer. He then reminds them –as the flashbacks have also done– that they also started their life together on the down and out.

The biggest hindrance to “It’s a Most Unusual Day” is MacMurray’s age. He was 48 when the episode aired, and so the flashbacks to his days as a college football player and young mechanic are difficult to see as anything other than a skit put on by the older versions of the characters. Erskine make the transition a bit easier with sometime age-appropriate attire and changing hairdos, but she comes off as not liking her husband all too much.

The best part of the episode are the songs. McHugh –who appears in the episode behind the piano and introducing the songs– was responsible for a number of well-known ditties including “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer”, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”, and the title song.

Apples on the Lilac Tree & Bitter Waters

Gasser

     Do you know what 1956 television audiences apparently found funny? A man who is skilled at putting together an organized breakfast. I concede that in the Screen Directors Playhouse episode Apples on the Lilac Tree that a group of wives greeting each other in the hallway of their apartment building while grabbing the morning milk is funny when you add a one husband to the equation. I was a bit surprised, however, when the studio audience supplied laughter to a scene of this man flipping eggs, grabbing toast and pouring coffee in an organized rhythm. Nevertheless, the episode teaches us the hazards of moving into new roles after 10 years of marriage.

     MacDonald Carey plays William Tyler who acts as housewife as his spouse works as an executive assistant at a bathing suit company. He knows all the ins and outs of maintaining the household, but when his schooling is finally complete and he is accepted for an assistant professorship, the couple consider swapping roles. The wife Maggie (Joan Caulfield) is out of her element as cook and housekeeper, however, making life unpleasant for them both. Her boss has additionally begged her to return to work and to assume a more prestigious position. It looks as though neither party will be happy in the new set up, but a pregnancy will apparently solve all ills.

     Apples on the Lilac Tree sets up a great premise and conflict, but the resolution is not a sufficient one. Although William is very happy to become breadwinner and make use of his advanced degrees, albeit at a lower household income than his wife hauls in, Maggie is miserable at home. She cannot get a grasp on cooking or cleaning and misses the importance her position at the bathing suit company had. She was “unhappy” in that job because she was taken for granted and often required to work late, but the new position offered her would have meant an even greater salary and a title of prestige. Her having a baby does not resolve her issues in being stuck at home but does give her a better purpose in life.

     Another Screen Director’s Playhouse with an unsatisfactory conclusion involves romance around the turn of the 20th century, entitled The Bitter Waters. George Sanders plays middle-aged man Charles who never married because he was scorned by the woman he loved who sought riches instead. He is vacationing with his nephew Archie (Robert Vaughn), who is attracted to a young woman across the casino. She is Linda (Cynthia Baxter), who happens to be the daughter of that heart-breaker Louise (Constance Cummings) who dumped Charles ages ago.

     The young people want to get married, and Archie has money, but Louise is inexplicably opposed to the possibility. The women leave town to avoid progressing the romance, but the men find them and are as intent as ever to have the man and woman engaged. Louise finally reveals to Charles that her aversion to the courtship is that Linda has become a woman colder and harder than she who seeks only money and will make the young man miserable. The families move on, but at the episode’s close we see Linda moving in on another wealthy suitor.

     The Bitter Waters‘ conclusion caught me off guard and seemed rather abrupt as I perhaps thought I was watching a movie and that we would see Linda’s further efforts to land a mate. The secret about Louise’ opposition to the marriage was a surprise, although I was expecting something more scandalous, such as that Linda was in fact Charles’ daughter conceived out of wedlock. The Bitter Waters was certainly a dark story bereft of any real romance, but I was dissatisfied in the end.

Final Tribute & Brush Roper

Gasser

     My latest foray into the 1955-56 television series Screen Directors Playhouse involved a rather pointless drama and decent, if not annoying, comedy. In The Final Tribute Larraine Day as small-town nurse Joyce Carter narrates the story of the new doctor in town. This Dr. Kent (Dan O’Herlihy) is young, cold and unsympathetic with his patients, yet they flock to his professional ways. In doing so they somewhat abandon the town mainstay, Dr. Walton (Thomas Mitchell) whom Joyce describes as being as taken for granted as the post office.

     Joyce gets a job as a nurse alongside Dr. Kent, and we find minor romantic tension between them. At one point getting flustered, Joyce attempts to speed away in her car but the vehicle lets her down and she is stuck accepting a ride home from Dr. Kent, along with dinner. Dr. Walton arranges with Dr. Kent to take the house calls he receives at night because the young man refuses to help people in an unnecessary panic.

     When an accident involving a dump truck and a school bus sends loads of injured kids to the doctor’s office, everyone pitches in –including Joyce who had recently quit in a huff– and Dr. Kent refuses to rest. The town later names him their person of the year, but, in revealing Dr. Walton has been making all those house calls for free, he passes the award to the old man. This again warms Joyce’s heart.

     For me Andrew Stone‘s The Final Tribute felt rather pointless. If it is meant to be a romantic plot, it fails to give the necessary exigence to Joyce’s occasional hatred for the man and gives us little to believe she should be attracted to him. If it is meant to show us that a cold-hearted man like Dr. Kent can do a kind thing like giving his award away, it fails because he seems to be rejecting the town’s affection as he begins his speech about why his colleague better deserves the tribute. The plot contains neither a clear villain or hero. The bus accident would have made a better climax than the doctor’s rejection of the award.

     A western comedy, Director Stuart Heisler‘s The Brush Roper offered some relative humor and one amazing feat of chance. Western standby Walter Brennan plays Grandpa Atkins, a former cow roper who is relegated to the position of family farmer in his old age. When a couple of young cowboys (Chuck Connors and Edgar Buchanan) come along and say a prize bull has escaped, Atkins’ grandson Cowhide (Lee Aaker) volunteers the old man to beat the young ones to the reward money.

     Riding his old cow-roping horse Liver Pill, grandpa initially finds and ropes the bull but loses him when his saddle flies of the horse and he and it slide on the ground until the rope breaks. Next, using a stronger rope, Grandpa and Liver Pill follow the roped bull off a cliff. Although the secured bull lands on the ground, Grandpa and the horse are stuck in the branches of a tree. Grandma and the young cowboys arrive to cut the man down and hear his gloating.

     Brennan was the slightly annoying yet funny aspect of The Brush Roper. His predicaments and complaining are worthy of enjoyment as are the trick his horse seems to play on him. Cowhide tells the story in addressing the camera, which felt a bit unnecessary and showed off the boy’s acting weaknesses. Overall it was a well-constructed short story and had its humorous moments but is nothing to write home about.

Hot Cargo & The Titanic Incident

Dullsville

Sex and contraband. That’s the way to get ahead in “the Orient”, according to a January 1956 episode of the Screen Directors Playhouse, Hot Cargo. Yvonne De Carlo is Pearl, a bar waitress who deals with the advances of drunken men when her ship captain husband is away transporting cargo. When her good looks result in a brawl, Pearl becomes close with federal agent Joe Mahoney (Rory Calhoun) who shoots a man in self defense during the fight. Joe is in this foreign land rooting out ships carrying contraband, but he has an idea about making money off doing just that and convinces Pearl to offer the job to her husband.

When Pearl brings the subject up, however, the husband (Alan Reed) weeps and beats her silly. Nevertheless, the lovers push on with their scheme and have illegal goods loaded onto the husband’s vessel without him knowing it. When he finds out and lunges at his wife, Pearl shoots him dead but Joe takes the fall and gets off free and clear by being a cop. Their romance is not to have a happy ending, however.

The story for Hot Cargo was a bit weak. The story rushes along and when it nearly climaxes with the shooting of the husband, the audience is left questioning Pearl’s motives. The woman seems to genuinely care for her spouse, but instead of fleeing from the angry man through the door directly behind her, she shoots him before he is anywhere close enough to hurt her. This Tay Garnett-directed tale lacks all the sensuality and driving power of the man’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, although it reflects some of the nonsense of his A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court. The moral of the story seems to be: Teach a woman to shoot at your own risk. 

When The Titanic Incident came to a close my first thought was: That was an awful story. The trouble is not that it was poorly written or terribly acted just that it reverted to a rather evil conclusion. A married couple are aboard the mis-named SS Titanic (the actual vessel went by RMS Titanic) and are residing in separate state rooms because they are masquerading as acquaintances as part of a con. Susan (May Wynn) will attract the attention of a wealthy yet poor gambler Sir Hubert Cornwall (Phillip Reed) in order to introduce him to a poker game with her husband Paul (Leo Genn).

As Susan spends time with Sir Cornwall the man falls ever more in love with her, although his advances at times seem creepy. It is difficult to read the woman’s emotions as she reacts to his feelings but after the man seeks her hand in marriage she goes to her husband to declare she loves the mark. Susan informs us that theirs has been a marriage of convenience and she assumes the man will not stand in her way for true love. Unfortunately, Paul does love his wife and has been thinking about getting out of the scam racket, but even hearing that does not persuade Susan away from her new interest.

When the steamship hits the iceberg and the passengers are ordered to their life boats, Sir Cornwall gets socked out by another passenger but seeing Susan’s expression, her husband hauls the man onto the boat. As he climbs in, however, Paul and Susan spot a device attached to Sir Cornwall’s arm that allows him to cheat at poker. The two men start throwing fists as the lifeboat plummets into the water and they fly overboard, continuing the brawl in the ocean. The husband wins out and the discreet smile on Susan’s face as he climbs back on board is enough to think they are both monsters.

The Titanic Incident actually felt like quite a long story despite its actual run time. Director Ted Tetzlaff was perhaps misguided in making a picture about dishonest people aboard a vessel where the lives of more than a thousand people are already doomed. Although Susan might be mildly likeable, the men are not and the salvation of one over the lives of hundreds more is foul and insensitive. The action almost suggests that everyone was able to climb aboard a lifeboat. A more appropriate ending would be for one of the suitors to sacrifice himself by staying on the Titanic to allow the woman to have a happy ending.

Cry Justice & Affair in Sumatra

Dullsville

     The two Screen Directors Playhouse episodes I watched this week were the first disappointing ones among those I have seen, one moreso than the other. One of the greatest compliments I have given to these half-hour TV movies are that they somehow fit a whole film plot into a short timeframe and do it without feeling rushed. That was not the case for Affair in Sumatra.

     You might have also noticed me questioning whether Ralph Bellamy is capable of playing a romantic lead. To that I got my answer: no. The older Bellamy in Affair in Sumatra is a doctor who travels to a jungle land to act as physician/surgeon and also conduct research on jungle diseases. When driving into the village where he will be stationed, the man’s Jeep splashes mud onto a native-looking woman who refuses to answer him as he tries to apologize. Not long after he re-meets this Lotti (Rita Gam) who is the owner/director of the hospital. Bellamy’s Dr. Kelog convinces the woman to invest more money into the dreadful supply and sanitation conditions of the hospital –it seems the hospital director played by Basil Rathbone has been siphoning off excess money– but does not give her enough romantic attention.

     The romance between Bellamy and Gam feels abrupt and rushed if not utterly unnatural. The woman lures him into kissing her the first time and follows up with a slap before allowing the second kiss to proceed. When their relationship hits the rocks, Bellamy’s expressionless face and eyes show how uncommitted he is to the role’s romantic requirements. Also, being half white, half Sumatran, Lotti for some reason opted to return to Sumatra to start the hospital but is utterly unhappy because the natives do not like her, which raises the question of why she remains there. Affair in Sumatra Director Byron Haskins fails to connect the audience with both the love affair and the moral obligations of the story.

     Director George Sherman‘s Cry Justice is mildly better but clearly would have been improved if offered as a full-length feature. Gil Foster (Macdonald Carey) and Jim Wheeler (Dick Haymes) are attorneys in a western town who have a brief spat at the open of the movie over Jim being jealous of his colleague. Later the sheriff (James Dunn) approaches Gil to say Jim is afraid of him because of an alleged threat on his life Gil made during their fight. The next day, Gil visits his friend’s house to find it torn apart with pools of blood evident, some of which gets on his jacket. Bringing this matter to the sheriff, Gil is eventually put to trial for Jim’s murder when officials find bones and boots burned up in the victim’s fireplace.

     Newlywed Gil goes to jail for 10 years on the circumstantial evidence and spends that time petitioning the Supreme Court to rule on whether the “double jeopardy” constitutional amendment applies to all crimes. Gil suspects that Jim faked his death, so after his release from prison, the convict goes looking for the man who wronged him, eventually finding him.

     Cry Justice was not bad but could have been better if more time was put into the plot and if it were not so obvious that the victim was still alive. The portion pertaining to the young fiancée, played by June Vincent, who loses her husband first to prison then to the man hunt could also have been finessed to heighten the emotional pull of the story.

Silent Partner & Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog

Gasser

Buster Keaton

     You might recall I wrote several reviews on short subjects coming from Hal Roach Studios a few months back when TCM was playing tribute to the influential production company. Among those were some Screen Directors Playhouse episodes. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to clearing the final two from my DVR, so here they are:

     George Marshall was the director behind The Silent Partner, a comedy about a silent movie star long forgotten. When told that the silent actor would be played by a great from those days of film, my first thought went to Buster Keaton, and I was correct. Unlike many of his silent-era counterparts, Keaton continued his career into talkies, although he can usually be spotted in supporting or cameo roles.

     The story for this episode is a bit haphazard. Keaton, as ex-actor Kelsey Dutton, is seated at the counter in a mostly empty bar where a handful of characters are either very interested in watching on TV the Academy Award ceremony taking place across the street, or not at all. Being honored during that night’s ceremony, hosted by Bob Hope as himself, is director Arthur Vale (Joe E. Brown), who cannot help but give credit for his career to Dutton. We are entreated to a flashback when Dutton unknowingly barges onto the set of Vale’s film to rescue a woman in a smoking building. The action proceeds in typical silent comedy style and Vale hires the man as a star. Returning to present day, the Oscar broadcast next features a short film the team made. Dutton is a janitor at a saloon and is in love with the singer atop a piano who inherits a large sack of money. Cowboy robbers show up however, and wrestle with the woman and Dutton, who is continually kicked in the rear by a horse.

     The present-day patrons at the bar soon realize they are in the company of the man on the screen and one woman (Zasu Pitts) calls Vale to notify him of his silent partner’s whereabouts. Vale arrives at the bar and takes his pal to the Oscar stage.

     Less interesting was Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog, directed by H.C. Potter. The story was crafted based on a mantra of publishers at the time (and maybe still today). Publishers knew that any story about medicine, animals or Abraham Lincoln were surefire best sellers, so naturally, a story called “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog” would be the epitome of a hot story. Unfortunately, I struggled to stay awake.

     Charles Bickford plays Dr. Stone to Robert Ryan‘s President Lincoln. The doctor attends to the political leader who is low of spirits and perhaps ailing in other ways. He is ordered strict rest, but cannot seem to keep away from the various documents he insists on reading. On his way home one night, Dr. Stone obtains a golden retriever puppy and delivers it to Lincoln as a birthday present. The pup, while having the president chasing it all over his bed, has a grand effect on the man’s health and attitude. Later the dog subdues an entire room of politicians and the doctor declares that the dog has done a service to the United States.

Claire & Markheim

Ring a Ding Ding

     Another duo of Screen Directors Playhouse episodes have again impressed me, and both offered “twist” endings. Claire conveyed quite the familiar plot as it largely reflects the story Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier that hit the big screen in 1940 under Hitchcock’s direction. Both stories deal with a deceased wife and the new wife that has joined the household. Unlike Rebecca, however, Claire uses a cat by that name to intimidate the new woman of the house instead of a devoted housekeeper.

     Angela Lansbury plays the new woman whose husband was married to her school friend before drowning in the lake outside their home. As Vera, Lansbury conveys the agitation of a woman living in the home of the friend whom she was unable to save from her fate because of the inability to swim. Add to that a Siamese cat that clearly does not like her, and Vera has all the makings of the “new Mrs. DeWinter.” The surprise ending comes in the revelation of what actually happened during the drowning incident.

     I am a huge fan of Rebecca so Claire was particularly enjoyable for me. The great back and forth the viewer endures of “is there or isn’t there something wrong here” makes for great suspense. Lansbury does a great job of convincing the viewer she is the victim. George Montgomery plays the husband, and the episode was directed by Frank Tuttle.

     Next up is Markheim based on a Robert Louis Stephenson story that predated Jekyll and Hyde yet had traces of the good-vs-evil struggle in every man. Ray Milland continues to impress me with this short work in which he plays a man who kills for money.

     Markheim begs entrance to a pawn shop late Christmas day where the unpleasant owner is surprised to find his regular customer is not there to sell, but “to buy”. After chatting a while with the shop owner and asking him to suggest a gift for his fiance, Markheim finally plunges a knife into the businessman’s back. The ticking of the clocks becomes overpowering and fade into the pounding beat of a heart. Markheim snatches a key from the shop owner’s belt and begins his search for the store safe. Upstairs he find the key fits a dresser drawer that contains naught but a giant key rink holding a hundred keys. Markheim’s anxiety convinces him he hears feet climbing the stairs outside the room and eventually he is joined by someone, the devil to be precise.

     Rod Steiger plays the “mysterious stranger”, as he is billed, and knows all about Markheim’s crime and his past. The man addicted to playing the stock exchange has worked his way up to the crime of murder. His past dealings in the pawn shop have been to hock stolen items. The devil offers to reveal where the safe is hidden, but the duo is interrupted by the return of the shop owner’s maid. The stranger tells Markheim if he kills just this once more he can return to a life of good and can even make a death-bed repentance if he wants to. The surprise comes in what Markheim actually does at the film’s close.

     This great story was directed by Fred Zinneman. The shop is littered with antiques and an excessive number of ticking clocks that help to heighten the viewer’s experience with Markheim’s anxiety leading up to and after the murder. Milland gives a great performance as a desperate, nervous man making his first foray into killing another. Again he has me singing his praises.

     As I’ve mentioned before about Screen Directors Playhouse, these half-hour films do a tremendous job of cramming what feels like a full-length feature into the allotted time without making the story feel rushed or cut short. Truly a fabulous series.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 509 other followers

%d bloggers like this: