Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Plan for Escape (CBS-TV “Studio One,” November 17, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The program was an episode of the CBS-TV anthology series Studio One — actually called Westinghouse Studio One in honor of its sponsor (this was during the early days of TV, when — in a carry-over from the standard practice on radio — a sponsor would own a show outright and only their commercials would appear; later changes in FCC regulations would require networks to offer advertising to all comers and prevent sponsors from owning shows, and still later deregulation and the rise of cable would allow the single-sponsor program to return) — from November 17, 1952 called “Plan for Escape” (a bit of a misnomer because, though the central character actually does escape a bad situation, she seems to be doing it ad hoc with no particular “plan” at all).

I had thought from the title and the bits I’d seen of it while cueing the disc I burned it to that it was a spy story; instead it was a damsel-in-distress gangster story similar to the plots Warner Bros. was filming regularly in the 1930’s. Peggy Ann Garner — who’d played Jane Eyre as a child in the 1943 film version (she grew up to be Joan Fontaine after witnessing the death of a fellow Lowood School inmate from tuberculosis — the TB victim was played by a young but already recognizable Elizabeth Taylor) — starred as Honey Weber, whose gangster husband David (Bruce Gordon) was killed by rivals Skeets (Robert Webber) and Timashin (Victor Thorley). At the start of the teleplay, Skeets is hiding her out in a room while playing a Westinghouse radio (though the show doesn’t indulge in the blatant integration of commercials with content of Martin Kane, Private Eye, the camera gets close enough to the radio so we see what brand it is and the sponsor gets the built-in plug) and the song we hear is a rather silly instrumental called “Mr. Carruthers.”

Later we hear better music on the soundtrack — cocktail-lounge versions of “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” “I Get a Kick out of You” (did CBS or Westinghouse have a bulk deal with Cole Porter’s publisher?) and “Again” — but the point is that Honey is feeling claustrophobic being held in the tiny room (this was live TV, after all) by Skeets, whose manner is alternately slimy and ingratiating, with Timashin as his omnipresent muscle man. At the end of act one she elbows her way out of the little room (absurdly easily) and makes it onto a train to a tiny town in Ohio, where the first person she meets is Alan Wall (Frank Overton), the clerk who sorts mail at the train station. Alan takes her under his wing and finds her a room in the boarding house of Mrs. Bailey (Anne Seymour), and she settles in, gets ministered to by Alan’s uncle, Dr. Wall (Joseph Sweeney) and seems to be recovering a moral sense when, three days into her stay, Alan freaks her out by saying he’s intercepted a letter to her and therefore knows who she is and why she’s hiding out. He, of course, strongly recommends that she turn herself in to the local sheriff (Peter Gumeney), but she’s scared shitless of being killed if she goes anywhere near anyone from law enforcement with her information.

Eventually, thanks to Mary Warren (Jean Carson), the blondined chorus girl who sent the letter that exposed Honey in the first place (she’d been using an alias records as “Frances Westing” — as in “Westinghouse”? — though on the soundtrack it sounded like “Weston,” a more normal name, to me), Skeets and Timashin trace her and there’s a final shoot-out in the train station in which the gangsters hold a gun on Alan and try to get him to reveal her whereabouts (she’s hiding in the train station making sniffling noises which Alan tries to convince the baddies are actually coming from a dog), whereupon she gets the gun away from Skeets, turns the tables and holds the bad guys until the sheriff and his men arrive to take them into custody. This wasn’t exactly the freshest or most original plot line even in 1952 — one could readily imagine it a Warners movie c. 1934 with James Cagney as Skeets and Joan Blondell as Honey — but it’s surprisingly well done here, partly due to a well-written script by Sam Elkin and Raphael Hayes from a story by Violet Wolfson, and partly due to the excellent acting of Peggy Ann Garner, who really communicates the feeling of a woman totally discombobulated by a bad romantic choice that left her in mortal danger.

The script subtly engineers her achieving some kind of equilibrium — and it does so through visuals, not dialogue; especially moving is the scene in which she hears “What Is This Thing Called Love?” on the radio and starts dancing to it (in a way that suggests she was a chorus girl when she met David Weber in the first place), and later on Alan brings her a phonograph and a record of “Mr. Carruthers,” and instead of the song freaking her out (which one would have expected) it seems to comfort her. Garner’s superb acting — especially in limning the tumbled state of Honey’s psyche — is matched by the marvelous Robert Webber as Skeets, affectedly smoking a cigarette in a holder (which itself dates this movie — it was startling enough to see Sigourney Weaver smoke like a chimney in Avatar, a modern movie set 144 years in the future, and to note that the cigarettes, like Sam Worthington’s wheelchair, looked like the models in use today; it was even weirder to see a 1950’s show with a cigarette holder at a time when they were already becoming déclassé) which he uses as an effective prop for his apparently undifferentiated libido (at times he seems to be trying to get into Honey’s pants, at other times he and Timashin seem to have one of those barely hinted at but still fairly obvious homoerotic ties that occasionally turned up in movies and TV shows from the Code era).

Even the direction by Paul Nickell seems better than average, cutting from camera to camera with the fluidity of a film director — and there’s a remarkable scene in the Elkin/Hayes script in which Honey a.k.a. Frances challenges Alan over the fact that he hasn’t become “somebody” — that he hasn’t sought a better job than sorting mail at a train station — and he makes a speech, reminiscent of Otto Kruger’s dialogue in Magnificent Obsession, to the effect that he has no interest in material rewards and he feels he is “somebody” even if he’s living in a teeny-weeny town and working a low-paying nothing job: yet another 1950’s entertainment that’s a good deal more cynical about “success” and its trappings than one would think from the way the Right of today idealizes the 1950’s as the perfect decade (the one in which Blacks were still on the back of the bus, women were still in the kitchens, Queers were still in the closet … and a larger percentage of America’s work force was in trade unions than at any time before or since, which gave enough people the purchasing power to sustain an economy based on a high level of domestic manufacturing and afford the sorts of consumer goods Westinghouse was advertising on this program).