Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Man Who Had Influence (CBS-TV “Studio One,” 1950)

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

I dug out the “50 Dark Crimes” box again and ran The Man Who Had Influence, an intriguing if somewhat predictable episode of the CBS TV series Studio One from its second season (the show premiered May 29, 1950). It was interesting largely because of the cast, including former movie semi-names like Stanley Ridges and Robert Sterling as well as stars to come on both sides of the camera: the director was Franklin J. Schaffner, who later made highly regarded feature films like The Best Man and Patton, and small roles were played by Anne Bancroft (as “Anne Marno”) and Eva Marie Saint — two and four years, respectively, before they set foot in front of a feature-film camera. The central character is J. C. Grant (Stanley Ridges), who has spent 20 years building his influence to the point where he can elect people to office (or ensure their defeat) and use his clout to make just about any problem either go away or get bigger. When the show opens he’s boasting to his friend Paul Scott (Frank McNellis) that he can get him elected to the U.S. Senate, and when Scott asks Grant why, if he’s so powerful, he doesn’t run for office himself, Grant explains that his power depends on his anonymity and therefore he takes great pains to make sure he never appears in the paper.

Grant’s biggest challenge as a fixer is to clean up after his scapegrace son David (Robert Sterling, who like Jon Hall in the film The Invisible Man’s Revenge proves unexpectedly good as a villain given that he never made more than a serviceable impression as a hero), an alcoholic party boy who’s nominally engaged to Scott’s daughter Jane (Sally Hester) but that doesn’t stop him from tearing off after any other woman who seems to be accessible to him. Along with another man, David and Jane go out one night to David’s Café, where David (the person, not the place) takes a shine to cigarette girl Maria Cassini (Anne Bancroft). David persuades the café’s owner, Luigi (Silvio Minciotti), to let him leave with Maria as long as he’s personally driving her home (though he’s already so many sheets to the wind what Luigi should be doing for him is calling a cab and insisting he use it), and the two have an accident that is an eerie premonition of the Chappaquiddick incident involving Senator Edward Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969. While driving his car roaring drunk, David crashes it into a culvert (instead of off a bridge) and Maria is killed by the impact (instead of drowning), but otherwise this story anticipates the real-life incident (an alcoholic from a prestigious political family causes the death of a young woman by getting into an accident while driving drunk with her in the car) by 19 years — and what makes the resemblance even more macabre is that the show’s script was written by Don Mankiewicz, son of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and nephew of writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and the Mankiewiczes were Kennedy family friends; Don’s brother Frank Mankiewicz worked on a number of the Kennedy Presidential campaigns.

Anyway, J. C. looks on his son’s latest peccadillo as yet another scrape he’s determined to buy him out of; when he’s unable to get him off scot-free and it’s clear he’s going to be tried for manslaughter, J. C. digs up some dirt on the otherwise honest judge (Julian Noa) and gets him to agree to a suspended sentence. Meanwhile, a disgusted Jane has returned David’s engagement ring and made the rather obvious point that dad’s help has meant that David has avoided having to grow up, act like a man and take responsibility for his own actions — and by the end of the story, David has come to agree; after he’s convicted he pleads with the judge for the maximum 10-year sentence, and the judge says he’s not going to let himself be influenced in either direction and gives him two years, while Jane comes back to him and agrees to get back together with him when he’s released. Despite that rather pat ending, The Man Who Had Influence is actually quite good; true, it’s tracing a pretty well-worn dramatic path but it’s tracing it quite well, and it’s amazing that this early in the history of American television it was still possible to deal relatively honestly with the reality of America's class system and the way the powers of people like J. C. Grant mock our pretensions of being a “democracy” and a society in which people are judged by merit. It’s a well done program and it’s nice to have it available even though Mill Creek Entertainment’s print, while O.K. from a picture standpoint (it’s about as watchable as anything that was preserved originally on kinescope), has a badly distorted soundtrack in patches towards the end so we have to strain to make out the dialogue just when the confrontations are getting most intense and we really want to be able to hear what’s going on.