Friday, January 9, 2015

Screen Directors’ Playhouse: “One Against Many” (Hal Roach TV, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I just watched an interesting little half-hour show on Turner Classic Movies: “One Against Many,” an episode of the woefully short-lived (only 35 episodes during the 1955=1956 season) TV series Screen Directors’ Playhouse. This was a Hal Roach production during the time in which Roach had suffered business reversals — notably from the failure of his idea of producing 45-minute “streamliner” films to bridge the gap between the old two-reelers his studio had specialized in during its glory days and full-length features. He was trying to reinvent himself as a TV producer,  notably with The Gale Storm Show, and this was an effort to launch a prestige project: the gimmick was that each episode would be shot on film by a major movie director, and the scripts would also be by “name” feature writers. This one was aired March 7, 1956 and seems almost bizarre in its typecasting: Lew Ayres, famous both for playing Dr. Kildare in MGM’s “B” series in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s and for serving as a medic in World War II after asking for (and, controversially, receiving) conscientious objector status regarding actual combat, gets cast as real-life veterinarian Dr. John Mohler, who in California in 1924-25 demanded extermination and destruction of whole herds of cattle, sheep and other cloven-hoofed animals to stop an epidemic of hoof and mouth disease (called “foot and mouth disease” in the script by Malvin Wald, John Jacobs and Donald F. Sanford).

The Wikipedia page on foot-and-mouth disease reports, “Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) has severe implications for animal farming, since it is highly infectious and can be spread by infected animals through aerosols, through contact with contaminated farming equipment, vehicles, clothing, or feed, and by domestic and wild predators. Its containment demands considerable efforts in vaccination, strict monitoring, trade restrictions, and quarantines, and occasionally the killing of animals.” The Wikipedia page states that the disease is caused by a virus — as does the script of this program, something I wanted to check on given how many things these days are blamed on viruses (I’m still reeling from the reference I read recently to syphilis being a “sexually transmitted virus” — it’s sexually transmitted, all right, but it’s a bacterium) — and the plot of this show deals with an epidemic that threatened the entire livestock industry in California. The famous director who was assigned to this was William Dieterle — the actor who played Dr. Kildare working for the director of the biopic of Louis Pasteur (who gets mentioned at least three times in the dialogue), though oddly the announcer who introduces and narrates the show didn’t mention The Story of Louis Pasteur in his intro and instead hailed Dieterle as “the director of great films like The Life of Émile Zola and Elephant Walk.” (Well, great films like The Life of Émile Zola, anyway.)

The show depicts Dr. Mohler first treating a dog named “Taffy,” the pet of a young girl he’s befriended (these days we’d be asking, “What’s that dirty old man doing with that young girl and her dog?,” but the 1950’s were more innocent times), just so we know he’s generally compassionate towards animals and therefore he wouldn’t make the recommendation he does make that whole herds of cattle, sheep and pigs consisting of over 100,000 animals must be destroyed to contain and ultimately eliminate the foot-and-mouth epidemic if it weren’t absolutely necessary for health reasons. Dr. Mohler — who’s being played by an actor whose conscientious-objector status during “The Good War” had truly made him “one against many” in real life! — appears before a Congressional committee and convinces them that his genocidal war against California’s farm animals is necessary. Then he has to go convince the farmers themselves to consent to the destruction of their herds, and though the federal government is compensating them that’s still small beans compared to the years — sometimes decades — the farmers have put into breeding their herds, work which will die with the animals themselves. Mohler’s first target is his old friend, farmer Ed Rawlings (Wallace Ford) — who, unlike his fellows in central California, always prided himself on using scientific methods — only this time he goes ballistic and, in words similar to those used by Cliven Bundy and other defiant ranchers who have become Right-wing culture heroes for threatening to shoot federal agents who dare suggest they pay grazing fees to feed their cattle on public land, he threatens to shoot Dr. Mohler if the doc dares set foot on his ranch. Only Rawlings’ cute, tow-headed son (Rudy Lee) — there had to be a cute, tow-headed kid in it somewhere! — agrees to hand over his own pet calf for destruction and that softens dad’s heart.

The Rawlingses (he’s also got a long-suffering wife, played by Emlen Davies with the sort of hang-dog expression that’s standard for all Hollywood depictions of farmers’ wives) are ultimately mollified that they’ll only be out of business for three months; after that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which gets a special-thanks credit at the end) will introduce test animals, and if they survive the Rawlingses and their fellow ranchers will be able to use the government compensation money to restock. Only the test animals end up catching the disease, and Dr. Mohler traces it to mountain deer, who are carrying the disease and, fleeing the winter snows, are coming down to the farms and infecting the farm animals. This requires another confrontation with a whole bunch of men with guns, following which Mohler sends out teams of hunters to wipe out the deer population so they can’t keep reinfecting the farms. (“Oh, great,” I thought. “As if wiping out the cattle isn’t bad enough, he’s going to have to kill Bambi.”) In a marvelous scene he has the deer hunters served a dinner in enclosed plates which, when the covers are lifted, contain oranges — he persuades them to go along by pointing out that Nevada and other neighboring states are refusing to allow any California agricultural products in even though foot-and-mouth disease doesn’t affect plants. “One Against Many” is a pretty standard tale, and the writers were good enough Hollywood pros they hit virtually all the accepted cliché points for their type of story, but it’s still an oddly moving piece even though the “herds” are obviously stock clips and the burial of the infected cattle and the shooting of the deer are kept off-screen, which actually makes the scenes more powerful and heart-rending since they’re indicated Val Lewton-style by sound alone.