Thursday, January 8, 2009

Small Screen to Big Screen

In the film “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962), after the punch-drunk, down and out fighter Mountain Rivera, played by Anthony Quinn, is rejected for a job as a movie usher, his pal Army, played by Mickey Rooney, retorts to the movie manager, “I like TV better anyway!”

From radio this week, we move to television. Three episodes of the truly heavyweight champ of 1950s television drama, “Playhouse 90”, were later adapted into award-winning films. “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” and “The Miracle Worker,” and “Judgment at Nuremberg” have wildly different subject matter, but running between them is a common thread of telling a story through character and dialogue. Even in “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, a story of the boxing world, there is very little action.

Live television in those days, though not all “Playhouse 90” shows were live, did not allow for a lot physical space. The sets might not have been minimalist, but the action was. It was a theater of the mind, not exactly in the same way radio was, but in that it was up to the audience to decipher the relationships of the characters to each other and the flow of the story through subtle movements and powerful dialogue. Consequences were weighed in the balance, not just by the characters in the story, but the audience at home. Sometimes in today’s movies, with a heavier reliance on action, the consequences are less clear, and obstacles are easily removed with another shooting or explosion, or car crash. On a small, almost claustrophobic television studio set, problems had to be faced because they could not be run away from so easily.

“Playhouse 90” had that title because it was a 90-minute show that featured a new script with new characters each week. One may observe that the scripts were so strong that not only did they appeal to Hollywood as material, but when they were eventually transferred to the big screen, there were few changes in the appearances of the shows.

“Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) probably changed the most, and that is due to film’s ability to open up views of a post-war Germany and allow us to travel to more locations than just a courtroom. Maximillian Schell appeared in both the TV and film versions, but most of the rest of cast were new. Werner Klemperer, who became known in the 1960s for playing Colonel Klink in the TV sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes” played Emil Hahn in the 1956 TV version, replaced by Burt Lancaster for the film.

“The Miracle Worker” (1962) I think changed the least of all three stories in its transference to film. Its 1957 TV version featured Teresa Wright as Annie Sullivan. She was nominated for an Emmy for this role, and all these three “Playhouse 90” productions won a slew of Emmy awards, and several Oscars among them for the film versions.

There is an interesting difference story twist when it comes to “Requiem for a Heavyweight”. The 1956 live TV show which featured Jack Palance as Mountain, Keenan Wynn as the conniving manager Maish, and Keenan’s father, Ed Wynn, as the soft-hearted cut man Army, gave us a more hopeful ending for the fighter. His boxing career brought to an end with one too many punches, the gentle giant gets a job teaching athletics at a children’s summer camp. Maish picks up another young boxer to exploit.

In the film, Maish, played by Jackie Gleason, does the only gallant thing he ever does by rejecting becoming the new young boxer’s manager and refusing to ruin another person’s life by getting him half killed. The ending is more tragic for Mountain, who agrees to become a clownish professional wrestler to pay off Maish’s debts to gangsters.

It is a more pessimistic ending, and the understated performance of Mickey Rooney deserves special notice, especially as his cries watching the once proud boxer humiliate himself. The shot above the ring, as we look down below on the forced antics of Mountain as a wrestler, is something that could not have been done on TV at the time, but it is an effective shot, making him look like a performing circus animal in a cage. It is one of those times when a film technique enhances the story in a way TV could not.

In all these stories, the transference to film is done with sensitivity to the intimacy created by their original presentations on TV. There seems to be no “bigger is better” attitude in the film versions, and this is rare and fortunate.

In the case of “The Miracle Worker”, what might have kept the film so close to the original TV presentation is the fact that the writer, William Gibson, and director Arthur Penn, were teamed in both the TV and film versions, as well as on the unusual in-between project of the successful Broadway play in 1959. Broadway brought actresses Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke on board, both of whom went along when the story was carried one further step to feature film.

There were other dramas in the 1950s from programs other than “Playhouse 90” which eventually were made into films, such as the Academy Award winning “Marty” (1955). For the first time movies had a new source other than adaptations from books and original screenplays for scripts. TV, which in the 1950s was seen as a competitor to films, supplied Hollywood with a few of its finest films of the early 1960s.

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