Saturday, April 9, 2016

Westinghouse Studio One: “Ten Thousand Horses Singing” (CBS-TV, aired March 3, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched the next show in sequence in the Turner Classic Movies boxed set James Dean: The Television Legacy — “Ten Thousand Horses Singing,” an episode of the anthology series Westinghouse Studio One on CBS first aired March 3, 1952 and the first show in the box after Dean moved to New York after his first (and spectacularly unsuccessful) attempt to make it in Hollywood (where he got to do the TV shows Hill Number One and a guest shot on an episode of the sitcom Trouble with Father as well as two movies, Sailor Beware with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Douglas Sirk’s Has Anybody Seen My Gal? with Rock Hudson, with whom Dean would cross paths later). He was in New York to attend Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio and learn the techniques of Method acting, but to support himself he made himself available to do live TV. The show was originally called Studio One in Hollywood but by 1952 it was firmly housed in New York, like most TV production then, and the TV business had slavishly copied the usual operation of the radio industry that had given it birth: they telecast their shows “live,” which usually meant a very simple production, a few cheap-looking sets that often shook when the characters had to open a door to make an entrance (that happens a couple of times here), a script that could take place in a minimum of interior locations, and seat-of-the-pants performances by the harried actors who were all too aware that if they made a mistake it would be broadcast all over the country — or at least all over the East Coast. In order to air the programs on the West Coast the networks would make something called a “kinescope,” which simply meant mounting a movie camera in front of a TV monitor and filming the result. The film was developed and flown across the country so the show could be seen on the West Coast three hours later — which also meant that West Coast viewers got a wretched-looking version of what East Coast viewers had seen. This continued to be the way virtually all scripted TV was done until Desi Arnaz insisted on doing I Love Lucy on film so the show would look good no matter where in the country you watched it — and also so he and Lucille Ball could keep their home in Hollywood instead of having to move to New York — and when the bigwigs at CBS told him, “But we want you to do it live because we think Lucy does best in front of a live audience,” Desi said, “Fine. We’ll film it in front of a live audience.”

“Ten Thousand Horses Singing” isn’t much of a James Dean item — he’s listed on as playing a bellboy in the hotel in which the early scenes occur, but our only glimpse of him is inside a hotel elevator and he doesn’t have any lines — but it’s an oddly compelling show anyway. The show began as a story by Robert Carson that was adapted into a film by future Ben-Hur writer Karl Tunberg for a Universal-International film called You Gotta Stay Happy, made in 1948 and starring Joan Fontaine and James Stewart in a tale of a spoiled heiress who’s walked out on five previous fiancés but finally marries one, only to realize within a few hours of her wedding that she’s made a mistake. Stewart plays an independent airline pilot who helps her to escape and, of course, falls in love with her at the end. Apparently the producers of Studio One had a contract with Universal to rework some of their old movies as TV shows, because the week before “Ten Thousand Horses Singing” aired they’d done an adaptation of Max Ophuls’ 1948 classic Letter From an Unknown Woman, also originally starring Joan Fontaine. (The week after they would do a show based on Henry James’ novel The Wings of the Dove, starring Charlton Heston.) In the TV version a surprisingly good actress named Catherine McLeod plays the heiress, D. D. Dillward, and John Forsythe plays the pilot, Merv Payne, whose air transport service is licensed to carry only freight, not passengers. That doesn’t stop D. D. from bulling her way onto the plane after a nasty confrontation with her husband of several hours, Dick Hebert (George Ives) — who seems to be a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of Merv’s, since they greet each other by name before Dick learns that when D. D. walked out on him (after a surprisingly violent confrontation for an early TV show in which she tries to escape his room and he literally grabs her and throws her back in, a scene which looked like it was done with a life-size but lightweight dummy) she ended up with Merv and they look altar-bound themselves by the end.

Along the way the plane picks up another passenger, Mr. Caslon (Grady Sutton), who at first tries to get on with his wife, is told they’re not taking anybody, but eventually bullies his way on without his wife and turns out to be an embezzler who’s stolen $50,000 but is now having guilt feelings and decides to turn himself in. (So for the second night in a row Charles and I were not only watching a film with Grady Sutton, but one in which he played an embezzler!) It all ends more or less happily, with the plane getting stranded on a farm in Oklahoma and the farmer agreeing to pull it out again with a tractor, and at the end D. D. buys out the other pilots in Merv’s operation, pays off all the losses from the cargo that got ruined (a llama that was supposed to go to a circus got sick, some frozen salmon got spoiled when the ice protecting it melted, and a corpse they were transporting in a coffin didn’t get there on time so the funeral was canceled) and buys Merv a new Lockheed Constellation plane, instantly recognizable to anyone who was around then by its three, count ’em, three tail fins. (Given that a decade after this film was made the Federal Aviation Administration ordered the Lockheed Constellation grounded permanently because of the high number of accidents it was involved in, this was a pretty nasty gift horse, but no one knew that’s how it would turn out in 1952.) Though marred by the usual limitations of live TV — whenever the characters had to go outside they had to be filmed in advance, and the cut-ins of these sequences as well as stock footage of New York City, where the story begins, and other needed locales are obvious and even tackier in quality than the main footage — “Ten Thousand Horses Singing” (a title unexplained until the very end — it’s the combined horsepower of the Constellation’s four engines) is an appealing, if rather quirky, entertainment … though it’s also impossible to watch this in a boxed set dedicated to James Dean and not wonder what it might have been like with Dean playing Forsythe’s role!