LIVE: The Golden Age of TV Drama (II)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and the continuation of our series on notable episodes of live anthology dramas of the ’50s. Over the course of these five weeks, we’ll be highlighting seven original teleplays written by some of the medium’s most talented writers. A handful of these are available on DVD, and some of them have even been adapted for feature films. Today we’re looking at two miraculous offerings, each by one of the medium’s most prolific auteurs. One is Gore Vidal’s Summer Pavilion, which aired on Westinghouse Studio One on May 2, 1955, and the other, which we’ll discuss first, is Ernie Barger Is 50, which was written by Tad Mosel and aired on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse on August 9, 1953. Ernie Barger has never been released on home video, but the text of the play (which was also performed in a 1959 episode of Armchair Theatre) has been published, and the production, as of this writing can be viewed on YouTube.

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Ed Begley stars as the titular Ernie Barger, who comes to the realization that he is middle aged. It’s a classic premise, and Mosel’s ethereal teleplay is a bit like variations on this theme, as Barger’s son (John Connell) graduates from college and doesn’t have time to allow his father the vicarious pleasure of his youthful possibilities, Barger’s business partner (Howard St. John) tells him that his hard work has not been for the good of the company because he has failed to adjust to the times, and Barger’s widowed father (John Sweeney) rebukes his attempts to become more of a caretaker, thus rejecting his son’s hope to develop with him a stronger bond and restore in his life a sense of purpose. It’s something to which all humans can relate; we all want to be needed, and the older we get, the ones who once needed us learn how to become self-sufficient on their own. It’s the circle of life. The story’s climax is reached when Barger’s son comes home with a new bride and insults the faith in which his father has placed within him, decrying the old man as useless and unimportant. At the end of the day, Ernie realizes that needing is just as good as being needed, as he embraces his sickly and neglected wife (Carmen Mathews), ready to find a new source of meaning.

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Inspired by his hometown in Steubenville, Ohio (where my own mother was raised), Ernie Barger Is 50 reminds of a William Inge play, as we probe the psychological depths of dissatisfied folks in small-town life. Like Inge, Mosel’s prose is a delicate combination of truth and poetry, which makes the proceedings feel both intimate and intellectual. It’s perfect for live television, and that’s no surprise. In fact, Mosel and I share similar views on what makes this medium so special. Here’s a quote from the anthology in which this text was published: “Never before has there been a medium so suited to what I call the ‘personal drama’ — that is, a play wherein the writer explores one simple happening, a day, or even an hour, and tries to suggest a complete life. The happening may not be a peak, but it is on the way to a peak or from it. The day may be only Tuesday, but it comes from Monday and leads to Wednesday . . . [These stories] would be lost in Technicolor on a big wide screen, and the aesthetic distance of the theater would flatten them out to nothingness. They are meant for reflective evenings in an easy chair. They are meant for television.”

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Ernie Barger Is 50 is the living embodiment of this principle, and it’s to our benefit that the performers recognize their duty to the material. Begley is a warm figure who we can see was once cold, his psyche ready for exploration — but it’s not given to us on a silver platter. And Matthews comes alive in the final scene, giving Ernie a reason to continue, without any of the strident melodrama that would alienate the moment. The production, like the script, is divine. And fortunately, I can say the same thing about Studio One’s production of Gore Vidal’s Summer Pavilion, which stars Miriam Hopkins (yes, a former spotlighted star on a Pre-Code Film Friday series) and Elizabeth Montgomery (before she was twitching her nose in our Sitcom Tuesday covered series, Bewitched) is an admitted amalgam of themes first presented by both Anton Chekov and Tennessee Williams. The latter in tone, the former in premise.

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The story, which has been published in several anthologies of Vidal’s work, has Miriam Hopkins as a widowed Southern matriarch in a campaign to stop a construction company from tearing down the quaint gazebo, or eponymous summer pavilion, that stands adjacent to her house and is expected to be burned down in their new project. Adding insult to this New Orleans’ lady’s injury is that her daughter (Elizabeth Montgomery), who is lovelessly affianced to a clean cut suitor (Wyatt Cooper), falls for the builder (Charles Drake) who plans to extinguish the prized gazebo. When the lovebirds spend an evening out at a not-so-respectable hangout, Hopkins has a fit, especially when Montgomery announces her intentions to trade her pre-approved fiancé for the “enemy.” With her daughter planning to wed a Northerner and move to Chicago, where Hopkins’ old maid sister (Ruth White) enjoyed a brief elopement with a prizefighter who jilted her, Hopkins decides that, “Heaven helps those who help themselves,” and convinces her future son-in-law to leave the gazebo alone and move in with them after the wedding. This doesn’t sit well with Montgomery, who, on her wedding day, burns down the beloved summer pavilion, rejecting the old life into which her clinging mother would trap her.

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As you can see from the story, ghosts of The Cherry Orchard are invoked, but Hopkins is far from reaching the comical negligence of those characters, for she schemes, needles, and guilts to keep that which reminds her of her youth and of the world in which she tries hardest to remain. Yet with Vidal’s comparisons (that he even makes himself) to Tennessee Williams, it is a relief that Hopkins does not go into her version of Blanche DuBois, which one almost anticipates. Rather, she gives a shockingly measured performance, even allowing the camera to go close in and reveal the many wrinkles that tarnish her otherwise luminous face. She reportedly did not get on with Montgomery, whom she found too understated. In a reverse of expectations, I find that Montgomery pushes too hard occasionally. It’s never bad or distracting, for it probably has to do with the intention of the author, who states in his anthology that the work is designed to show the cycle of people who cling to their old existences. But the comparisons between the two women, though hinted at in the story, are not explicit in the production or the text (save for maybe the climax), and Vidal’s objective is not as clear as Mosel’s.

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Yet the story stands on its own, and because the performances themselves are fascinating, we can appreciate the opportunity to take from the text whatever we choose to find. Like Ernie BargerSummer Pavilion is about the clash between old and new. Television was the new, and from the glimpses of the two television dramas discussed above, something worthy of being embraced. These are character pieces, bringing you right into the thoughts and feelings of complex individuals. It’s wonderful. Preserved theatre, allowing for the nuances that only a camera can capture. I recommend both highly.

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Come back next Wednesday for more live TV drama! And tune in tomorrow for another Xena Thursday!

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