LIVE: The Golden Age of TV Drama (III)

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 Studio One‘s September 20, 1954 production of Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, among the industry’s most unforgettable of television plays due to its later adaptation into a critically acclaimed 1957 motion picture. The premise is well known even to those who have never actually seen a production (and if you’ve been following our Sitcom Tuesday posts, you’ll know it’s been spoofed on everything from That Girl to All In The Family), but for those who need a refresher . . .

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Almost the entire play occurs in the deliberation room as a jury of 12 men debate the guilt of a young man accused of killing his father. At first, there’s one sole holdout, Juror #8, who votes “not guilty,” but through his presentation of the facts and emphasis on denying any “reasonable doubt,” he’s able to convince most of his peers — including wise old Juror #9, a man who grew up in poverty like the defendant, Juror #5, and Juror #11, a patriotic immigrant. Juror #4, an analytical man who finds it difficult to reject an eyewitness testimony, the ready-to-leave Juror #7, and the bigoted Juror #10 are harder to convince, but they all come around. The lone holdout at the end is impassioned Juror #3, whose strained relationship with his own son manifests in him a desire for vengeance.

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As one can imagine, the action is confined to a small space, and the text therefore has to rely on the characters and their interactions with each other for the bulk of the drama. This design, coupled with its courtroom drama premise, infuses the play with electricity, allowing the strength of the piece to exist in Rose’s combination of personalities. Thus, both the strengths and weakness (yes, there are a few) of Twelve Angry Men are also dependent on the characters. For instance, the drama of #3’s conviction to find the boy guilty elicits the play’s most powerful moments (especially in contrast to #8’s conviction to the opposite), but the other characters who never get proper development, like #6 and #12,  leave the audience wanting. Yet in this case, one can imagine that Rose’s formula is maybe more realistic — in any jury, some are going to be more talkative than others, and perhaps its foolish to want every character to get equal exposure. If they did, I would likely complain that the writer went overboard trying to flesh them out. So, in this vein, most of the critiques of the piece can be dismissed, for what we have here is potent enough to render any fault inconsequential.

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However, in production, the play will only work if cast well. And both the 1954 TV production and 1957 film are exceptionally star-studded. Check out the graphic above to see the cast lists (and note that “Norman Feld” is actually Norman Fell), which also includes the line-up of the 1997 film; you’ll see it’s littered with stars as well, but because I don’t think the production adds much to the work, I am excluding it from today’s discussion. I do recommend seeing it, however, for the performances. Meanwhile, I am going to assume that most people reading today’s entry have screened the 1957 film, although if you haven’t, I suggest you do so right away, for its reputation as a classic is well earned. I don’t have a lot to say about the motion picture, besides the fact that with 40+ extra minutes, the pace of the dialogue is slower, the not guilty verdict is 100% assured, there is more evidence presented (and not so straightforwardly), and the script attempts to make some of the thinly rendered characters, like Juror #2, played by John Fiedler (whom we’ve seen often on this site), more multi-dimensional.

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But although most will disagree with me, the 1954 television production is actually my preference, for its tighter construction means that only what’s necessary is included. Additionally, the piece’s theatricality is allowed to exist on television, while the film, with all its close-ups and mood lighting, attempts to make the story cinematic. But 12 men in one room — that’s a play, so it runs best when treated as such. (In fact, Twelve Angry Men was adapted for the stage in 1955, but not by Rose. He did, however, make his own adaptation for the London stage in 1964. This version has been revived and toured around quite often since.) What also makes the television play more valuable than the motion picture is that the performances are less thoughtful. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a thoughtful performance — but too much introspection kills the authenticity. I find this exemplified in the performance of Henry Fonda, who, though smart and perfectly believable, lacks the sharp realistic edge of Bob Cummings in Studio One’s Production. Yes, our “romantic guy, I” is brilliant as Juror #8, for he is as steadfast as his opponents, but without some of the moral superiority plaguing the character’s depiction in the pedagogical film. I know most will prefer Fonda, but I’ve grown to appreciate Cumming’s less soft-spoken take. Even those who did make the transition in mediums, Joseph Sweeney and George Voskovec, give better performances while live, lacking that Hollywood polish.

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But not all portrayals are better in the television play; Ed Begley commands more power as the racist Juror #10 than the otherwise great Edward Arnold, and John Fiedler is infinitely more memorable as Juror #2 than John Beal. (Of course, Fiedler was working with a more interesting character.) In other cases, the performances are mostly comparable. The one that’s the most different, however, is Franchot Tone (yes, one of Joan Crawford’s hubbies) and Lee J. Cobb’s varying portrayals of the primary antagonist, Juror #3, who can’t separate emotion from logic. Cobb is disheveled, angry, and iconically villainous, while Tone is businesslike, angry, and piercingly dangerous. While Cobb could be described as red hot, acting up a storm (and doing so believably), Tone plays only what is there. As far as this viewer is concerned, that’s all an actor needs to do. And while I believe Cobb more as the character based on his physical type, Tone gives a more layered performance. I don’t know if I prefer it, but it’s the type that you want to see several times.

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Now, I don’t mean to come down too harsh on the motion picture, as I know its fans may accuse me of doing. On the contrary, it’s fantastic — filled with great performances by a host of marvelous actors — and if you haven’t seen it in a while, you owe yourself a re-watch. But after you do that, check out the 1954 production, for the staging allows the text to play with less flash and the performances with less calculation. You may miss some of the film actor’s quirks and the parts of the story not included, but you could indeed find yourself liking the realism-driven television play better than the brooding film. I never thought I’d like something better than the 1957 production, but I do.

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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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