Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Actors: Jack Lemmon, Eva Marie Saint, Charlton Heston, Eddie Albert, Laurence Olivier, Art Carney

Directors: Paul Nickell, Franklin Schaffner
Distributor: KOCH Vision
DVD release: 11 November 2008 Runtime: 982 minutes(6 discs)
Format: Box set, Black & White, Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, NTSC

What better way to bring back the yesteryear than black and white and sepia. Especially if these happen to be teleplays of a bygone era. And lest we forget the era, commercials for Westinghouse refrigerators and washing machines (ancient mammoth looking appliances) are inserted between the plays.

The Studio One Anthology showcases television dramas that are more than 50 years old. Seventeen of these plays, telecast between 1948-1958, are now available in this set of 6 DVDs. Several of these - Wuthering Heights, Julius Caesar, 1984, etc. - are literary classics; others, like The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners and An Almanac of Liberty, are vignettes of happennings in ordinary life. Some, including Arena, are political plays. Still others (notable among them Twelve Angry Men) are plays that became inspiration for Hollywood.

The first offering of the collection is Medium, which originally aired in December 1948. Marie Powers' role as Madame Flora, who cheats her grieving clients by fake seances and her nemesis as she is driven to madness by a seemingly real presence, is beautifully portrayed. However, the technical limitations of the camera prevent many a powerful performance from reaching its zenith. Julius Caesar on the same disc suffers from the same problem. Theodore Bikel is Julius Caesar who, despite Calpurnia's (Maria Britneva) entreaties, arrives at the Senate on the Ides of March. Absent from the play are the huge canvas, theatrics and fluorish that a Shakespearean production of Caesar requires. Philip Bourneuf as Brutus does a reasonably good job, though I didn't care much for Alfred Ryder's Mark Antony. His piece de resistance - "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears" - is far too weak and stilted. Almost a damp squib.

The war plays fare much better. Notable is The Strike of the doomed patrol in Korea. The commanding officer realizes that he must give the go-ahead for an Air Force strike with the knowledge that his own men, sent there earlier, will face certain death. The poignant portrayal of his stoic stance despite his inner conflict is the highlight of the play. Another well-staged Korea-themed play, The Death of Life of Larry Benson, centers on homecoming after war.

There are several Reginald Rose and Gore Vidal plays in this collection. Perhaps most famous among them is Rose's Twelve Angry Men, which shows how after a murder trial, the conflicting opinions of the jury members can be dramatically reversed. The other Rose play, The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners, is also the story of a trial. Here the accused is a caretaker on trial for having murdered a child. The play ends with the father saying, "I forgive you. Please, someone forgive me." No other words could better capture the tragedy.

Gore Vidal's complex Dark Possession, the story of a woman's multiple personalities and the scene of a murder, is interesting, but Geraldine Fitzerald as Charlotte doesn't come across as convincing in the role. The other characters, too, lack depth. In contrast is Vidal's Summer Pavilion. That a daughter's struggle to extricate her life from her mother's (superbly played by Miriam Hopkins) hold can unleash such devastation is gripping to watch.

Charlton Heston makes a good impression in Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's famous romantic novel. My personal favorite of the collection is Pontius Pilate. His one word may have changed the course of history, but in this play his own life portrays the fate of those who sacrifice their principles for smaller goals. Geraldine Fitzgerald gives a memorable performance as Procula, Pilate's wife, who joins the Christian order. As the play concludes, the narrator voices takes over the screen.
"For the crucifixion still goes on. Every hour of every day the agony is reenacted. This is the season of reminder to look to ourselves. The guilt or innocence is in our hearts. For anyone today, as then, who lives in fear. Anyone who could secure his own well-being by sacrificing his principles."
It is then that one realizes that the passage of time does not really change everything, and this collection bears further testimony to that.

The teleplays in the collection are:
The Medium
Julius Caesar
June Moon
Wuthering Heights
Pontius Pilate
The Storm
Confessions of a Nervous Man
The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners
Dark Possession
The Death and Life of Larry Benson
The Strike
Twelve Angry Men
An Almanac of Liberty
Summer Pavilion
The Arena