Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Flowers from a Stranger (CBS-TV “Studio One,” 1949)

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

The show was one of those interesting episodes from the CBS series Studio One, “Flowers from a Stranger,” aired during the show’s first season on May 25, 1949, directed by Paul Nickell from a script by Worthington Miner (the old-time Broadway director who was in overall charge of the show) based on a story by Dorothée Carousso, and featuring Felicia Montealegre (who a year after this aired would become Mrs. Leonard Bernstein, thereby establishing his heterosexual bona fides and ultimately helping him get the appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic — it scotched all the rumors about his sexual orientation that had held back his career to that point) as Lorna Wilson, née Trotter, née Deschamps (the last was a pseudonym she adopted during a brief attempt to make a career as a concert pianist over the objections of her parents), wife of Dr. Kim Wilson (Robert Duke), who runs a mental institution with a particularly obnoxious female patient who can be managed only by another staff member, the sinister Dr. Nestri (Yul Brynner, early enough in his career that he still had hair — he’d already made his film debut a year before in Port of New York but his star-making stage role in The King and I would come a year later, in 1950).

Through much of the show Lorna’s character seems so demented herself — she freaks when she receives the titular flowers and they turn out to be white carnations, which for reasons only explained later she has an intense phobia towards — I was expecting a twist in which it would turn out that she was the demented mental patient, she had only hallucinated her marriage to Dr. Wilson and everything we had seen in the program was merely her delusional system. Instead it turns out that Dr. Nestri — who’s described somewhat elliptically as a Holocaust survivor — had had an adulterous affair with Lorna’s mother, who like Lorna herself had pursued an artistic career over the objections of her family, and Dr. Nestri had killed Lorna’s mom and faked it to look like a suicide, only Lorna as a girl had witnessed the murder and then repressed the memory, only to regain it from the trauma of seeing the white carnation and dreaming of a song her mom had played.

The earlier events were represented by a series of filmed flashbacks that were by far the most visually interesting parts of this presentation — and make one wonder why TV clung so long to live presentation when film was already a mature technology and it would have seemed that the Hollywood studios, which had routinely made shorts and “B” films, should have been able to tap the TV market by making shows of similar length (a half-hour sitcom is basically the length of a two-reeler and an hour-long drama is a bit shorter than the average “B” feature) and using the far more flexible medium of film. Live TV seems to have been a hangover from the days of radio, which in the 1920’s and 1930’s had been built around live performance rather than recordings because the records of the early period, with their limited frequency range and nasty surface noise, sounded definitely inferior to live broadcasts. That wasn’t the case by the 1950’s — in which records proved the salvation of radio as a medium — but nonetheless many of the radio people who ran early TV steadfastly insisted on live broadcasting even after Desi Arnaz had proven the artistic and commercial effectiveness of filming with a studio audience (not only did the shows look better on film than they did live, but they could be rerun), and it was only the advent of videotape that finally killed off live TV.

Flowers from a Stranger is one of the better Studio Ones we’ve seen, a bit derivative of Gaslight but still genuinely thrilling despite the relentless overacting of Felicia Montealegre — one doesn’t expect to see a show with Yul Brynner in which he’s the more understated of the two principals! I’d encountered Montealegre only once before, on the infamous Columbia LP (reissued on CD by Sony) of Leonard Bernstein’s Third Symphony, “Kaddish,” a memorial to John F. Kennedy in which Mr. Bernstein wrote a ridiculous narration basically yelling at God for allowing JFK’s assassination to happen — and Mrs. Bernstein hurled her husband’s text at the microphones with a violent anger that was supposed to be moving and instead just came off as silly. I had made allowances for her performances on the basis that she was reading the narration the way her husband wanted — but in Flowers from a Stranger she’s screaming her lines out in just about the same way, which suggests that maybe that was the only way she knew how to act.