Thursday, September 6, 2012

Climax: Jacob and the Angels (CBS-TV, 10/3/57)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I looked for something relatively short Charles and I could watch last night, and found it in one of the eight episodes of the 1950’s TV anthology series Climax! I had recently downloaded from Alas, the download sounded O.K. during the first half of the program but then the sound got muddy, soft and badly distorted — it was almost impossible to hear what the actors were saying — a real pity because the episode itself was quite good, a compelling if not exactly original drama. It was called “Jacob and the Angel” and starred Gig Young as Edgar Holt, an unscrupulous defense attorney whose guilty conscience over using tricky trial tactics to get the guilty acquitted has led him to a heavy-duty drinking problem (he’s got a way of sneaking out of the courtroom for brief hits from his omnipresent flask). He’s been dating Irene Mitchell (June Lockhart), daughter of a judge (Otto Kruger), but he also drifts into an affair with his most recent client, Elissa Carlton (Eva Gabor), and his key crisis of conscience comes when he has to defend a young man named Ricardo Andrada, son of his cleaning woman.

His drinking and mental state results in him screwing up the case big-time, antagonizing Judge Mitchell (who retaliates by overruling virtually all his objections; in the real world a judge whose daughter was dating one of the attorneys would recuse himself) and ending up so sloshed the night before he has to deliver his closing statement that he winds up quoting the Sermon on the Mount twice until the judge stops him. The jury convicts Andrada (the irony is that he’s the first defendant Holt has had in years who he genuinely thought was innocent) and the judge holds Holt in contempt, and his subsequent receipt of a letter from the Bar announcing that they’re going to try to disbar him sends him streaking down to the gutter big-time: faithful Irene Mitchell and Holt’s Chinese houseboy Chen (Keye Luke, 20 years older than when he played Charlie Chan’s Number One Son and visibly that much older but still good looking and the voice of reason among all the crazy, self-destructive and/or co-dependent white characters) try to stop him from drinking himself to death. They trace him to a flophouse and bring him back to his law office, where Mrs. Andrada confronts him and compares him to the Biblical character of Jacob wrestling with the angels; he agrees not to fight his disbarment in hopes that his confession that he was so under the weather during the trial that he couldn’t give Andrada adequate counsel will help him get a new trial.

This isn’t exactly the freshest premise for a drama in the world, and the original story was co-written by Rowland Brown — who wrote, and in some cases directed, some of the toughest gangster stories of the 1930’s (Quick Millions, Blood Money, The Devil Is a Sissy and Angels with Dirty Faces, which he wrote for James Cagney at Grand National in 1937, only when Warner Bros. won back Cagney’s contract on appeal they bought the script but assigned one of their own contractees, Michael Curtiz, to direct) — and has some of his toughness and resistance to sentiment. It’s also surprisingly well acted by Young, who had played an alcoholic six years earlier in the movie Come Fill the Cup (a vehicle for James Cagney, who plays a recovering alcoholic trying to keep Young’s character sober) and won an Academy Award nomination, though perhaps because it was only a one-hour TV show and not a feature film Holt’s descent down the primrose path seems to be rocket-propelled. Still, it’s a tough show (directed by Don Melford from a script by Oliver Crawford based on the original story by Brown and someone named Clemmie Galloway), unoriginal but well done and indicative of the seriousness with which a lot of TV dramas, especially on anthology shows like Climax!, were done in the early days — and the slice-of-history commercials by the show’s sponsor, Plymouth (particularly the elaborately ornate “Space-Age Design” that was one of their principal selling points) add to the appeal.