Sunday, August 21, 2016

You Are There (TV)

You are there(1953-57)
Created by
Goodman Ace
Presented by Walter Cronkite
IMDB Entry

In the early days of TV, the networks took their obligation to inform very seriously.  It wasn’t just news – it also included an obligation to teach history in an entertaining form.  You Are There was how CBS managed to meld history and entertainment, using a conceit that was brilliant.

The show covered historical events in what was (at that time) a modern manner.  It was set up as a news report from the event.  Walter Cronkite – not yet the CBS anchorman – would start the report by setting the scene.  Then, he’d go to reporters “at the scene.”

The entire thing was done as a straight news report without a hint of irony.  The reporters would give their report as if they actually were on the scene, speculating on what might happen and being surprised by events. 

The shows were a mixture of actors playing the roles, as well as stock footage.  The various reporters might show up on the scene – in modern clothes – and introduce it.  It would show the action, then return to Cronkite in the studio for a wrap-up.

Topics covered included the Hindenberg disaster, the Boston Tea Party, The Hamilton-Burr duel, the death of Socrates, they Dreyfuss Case, Benedict Arnold’s treason, and Napoleon’s abdication.  As the titles indicate, the show ranged throughout history to bring a sense of being an eyewitness to history.

Like many shows of the time, some of the actors and directors went on to have long careers.  Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer did a handful of shows, and actors who appeared included E. G. Marshall, DeForest Kelley, Whit Bissell,* Claude Akins, Dabbs Greet, Richard Kiley, Lorne Greene, Ray Walston, Jerry Paris, Tor Johnson, Fred Gwynne, Beatrice Straight, James Gregory, Charles Durning, David Jannsen, John Banner, John Cassavetes, Robert Culp, Peter Cushing, James Dean, Eartha Kitt, Burt Mustin,** Patrick McGoohan, Mildred Natwick, Rod Steiger, Joanne Woodward, Barbara Billingsly, Ray Collins, Simon Oakland, Frank Cady, Russell “The Professor” Johnson, William Schallert, Robert Vaughn, and Richard Dreyfuss***

I remember watching it at some point – either in the final season or in reruns.  I became interested in American history when my parents took me to Gettysburg, so this was right up my alley.

The show was created by radio legend Goodman Ace for the radio, though he had little to do with it on the air.

In 1971, it was decided to do a new version, in color.  Once again, Cronkite was the host, but it only lasted one year.

It was one of the joys of early TV and especially memorable is Walter Cronkite intoning “You are there” each episode.

*A very familiar face in 50s monster movies.

**Playing, unsurprisingly, “An Old Man.”

***I wasn’t going to list so many, but damn, that’s a lot of familiar names.  The show was the Law and Order of its time in giving actors employment.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait(1943)
Directed by
Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Samson Raphaelson, from a play by Lazlo Bus-Fekete
Starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Laird Cregar, Spring Byington, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, Allyn Joslin, Louis Calhern
IMDB Entry

The 1940s were a time when a particular type of fantasy showed up in films:  movies about ghosts and the afterlife.  Presumably, this was a reaction to a time when friends and family were dying in the war, and they often showed people moving on to a happier place.  Heaven Can Wait is one example of the genre, and one with the famous light touch of Ernst Lubitsch.

It starts out with Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) showing in the office of His Excellency (Laird Cregar) after his death.  His Excellency is the urbane master of Hell, and asks Van Cleve – who is fully expecting his fate – to explain why he expects to go to eternal suffering.  And so we see Van Cleve’s life.

From the beginning, he was a flirt, chasing and kissing girls as he got older in a way that was scandalous in the 1880s, where the film is taking place.*  As he came of age, he created consternation with his staid family (except for his grandfather Hugo (Charles Coburn)).  That’s when he found the love of his life, Martha (Gene Tierney), attracted to her immediately when he heard her lying to her mother.  But he never was able to tame his wandering eye.**

The movie is a delight, filled with gentle humor based on its characters. Charles Coburn, as usual, is delightfully funny, and the cast of Hollywood actors include such dependable delights as Eugene Pallette, Spring Byington, and Majorie Main.

Laird CregarLaird Cregar  is especially good as His Excellency, the type of urbane devil figure you see often but rarely surpassed.  Cregar was one of the great losses of 40s film, an actor who always impressed (usually as a villain). Alas, he died at age 31.  Cregar was self-conscious about his weight (he was well over 300 pounds) and his attempt to diet (including amphetamines) led to complications and death by heart attack at age 31.

The movie was a success when it first came out, but, like most films of the era, it was slowly forgotten.  It didn’t help that Warren Beatty used the title for a different film.***  But the film remains as delightful today as it was when it was released.

*Another small trend of the era was a slightly more openness toward nonmarital sex. While the Hayes code prohibited it, directors found ways to hint at it or find ways to rationalize it (see Miracle of Morgan’s Creek)

**Of course, even with the looser morals of the 40s, they look quaintly innocent today.

***A remake of a film from the 40s, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was based on a play called  . . . yup, Heaven Can Wait.