LIVE: The Golden Age of TV Drama (V)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and the conclusion of our series on notable episodes from live anthology dramas of the ’50s. Over the course of these five weeks, we’ve highlighted 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 Patterns, written by The Twilight Zone‘s Rod Serling, which originally aired as an episode of Kraft Television Theatre on January 12, 1955. The broadcast, which has been released on DVD, was so well received that the program decided to perform it again — same cast, same script, same blocking — a month later on February 09, 1955. As with Marty (1953) and Twelve Angry Men (1954), a motion picture followed the next year.

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Serling’s story concerns a young corporate climber, Fred Staples (Richard Kiley), who is brought into the company by Machiavellian President Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane) to replace aging old-timer Andy Sloane (Ed Begley), a Vice President who often disagrees with the boss’ less-than-humanitarian approach to business. Torn between his affection for Sloane and a desire to take his job (he also gets his secretary, Elizabeth Wilson), Staples wrestles with his conscience after his wife (June Dayton) shows Ramsey a report that the Staples and Sloane had been working on together, but only gives her husband credit. Staples attempts to set things right in a big meeting, but Sloane won’t let him and has a fatal heart attack after leaving the office. Ramsey and Staples have a showdown about what the former did to Sloane, and Staples has a choice to make: leave on principal or stay aboard and fight the boss, with more vigor than even Sloane did. He chooses the latter.

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Ultimately, Patterns is a psychological drama in which Darwinism reigns supreme, as Everett Sloane’s attempt to push out the old (Begley) and bring in the new (Kiley) by use of dehumanizing tactics (intimidation, antagonism, humiliation etc.), forces the aging VP into a hostile environment in which survival is unlikely. At the same, the story also asks questions about business and leadership, and whether the tough decisions, despite consequences for the individual, must be made for some sort of greater good. At the heart of all this conflict is Kiley’s Staples, who hungers for success but isn’t as ruthless as his ambition (and his wife’s ambition) requires. The success of Serling’s teleplay is its moral ambiguity. Although it would be easy to say that Begley’s guy is good and Sloane’s guy is bad because the story sets them up this way and unfolds accordingly, the nuances in the text shade the characters so as to avoid this black-and-white compartmentalizing. Sure, Begley puts people above the company, but his refusal to leave the situation reveals a dangerous pride that leads to his downfall. Meanwhile, Sloane, although dastardly in the way he treats Begley, strives for excellence; his idea of making an omelette is predicated on the cracking of a few eggs. Metaphors aside, he believes better things for others come from his brand of business, even if it’s not as touchy feely or emotionally predicated as the others would like. And both men play their roles brilliantly. Begley is always good, but Everett Sloane is a particular revelation.

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Yet, Kiley is the show’s jewel, because, as mentioned above, without his character, there really is no dramatic tension. He’s young and optimistic, but not a goody-goody who doesn’t at least consider the possibility of throwing others under the metaphorical bus for his own gain. (The scene with his wife after the boss leaves is among the play’s best.) Kiley’s moments with Begley are warm, and his scenes with Sloane are meaty tennis matches, especially the final, in which he decides to stay on and assume Begley’s role, which is exactly what he wanted all the time. But will he be more like Begley or more like the boss? After all, although he agrees with Begley’s techniques, if his principles were of a higher order, he wouldn’t stay to play ball with the enemy. But he does, and the cycle of psychological and emotional torment continues. Serling is brilliant, and the production — the casting (which includes a young Elizabeth Montgomery as a secretary), the cinematography (grippingly close), and the performances (sheer perfection: raw and believable) is the best of this entire blog series.

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The 1956 film is a different story. Many of the cast members, including Sloane and Begley are retained, (with a name change for the latter’s character), but Van Heflin takes on Kiley’s role. He’s much too old for the part, and although the script makes some changes to accommodate this difference, the juxtaposition of new and old isn’t hit as hard. That’s the only thing weakened, for everything else in United Artists’ film adaptation is much harsher. Every beat is more pronounced; Sloane plays his role with more venom, Begley with more frailty. The expanded story doesn’t add as much as Marty‘s did, and the tightness of the television play is lost. More importantly, the bigger screen necessitates bigger playing and writing, and this seems to take out a lot of the simplicity that made the work so special in the first place. While I’ve read reviews from a few contemporary critics who prefer the picture to the play, most believe that the play is superior.

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In every way, I agree. A psychological drama works best in our living rooms, not on a giant screen. Patterns is live TV drama at its best. If you seek out only one presentation from these last five weeks, make it this one.

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Come back next Wednesday another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Hercules on another Xena Thursday!

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