Friday, July 1, 2016

Kate Smith Hour: "The Hound of Heaven" (NBC, 1/15/53) & Westinghouse Studio One Summer Theatre: "Sentence of Death" (CBS, 8/17/53)

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

I ran a couple of excerpts from the James Dean TV boxed set. One was a 12-minute “dramatic” segment from something called the Kate Smith Hour, “The Hound of Heaven,” written by Earl Hamner, Jr., who’s best known today as the creator of The Waltons. It featured John Carradine, looking even older and more grizzled than nature had made him by 1953 (the show’s original air date was January 15), playing a sort-of Southern ethnic character called “Hyder Simpson.” He’s wearing a scraggly growth of beard on his cheeks and affecting a ludicrous mishmash of an accent, and it’s one of those Outward Bound-style stories in which the central character goes to sleep one night and wakes up the next morning only to learn that he is dead. For some reason he’s been able to bring his dog with him to the afterworld (or are we supposed to believe the dog died during the night, too?), and he ends up in front of the gates of heaven with a white-haired gatekeeper (Edgar Staley) saying that he’s welcome to come in but his dog Rusty is not. The gatekeeper tells him that heaven is only for humans but there’s another heaven for dogs just down the eternal road a few blocks, and instead of going through the gate he decides to keep walking until he meets up with an angel (James Dean, wearing a crude set of wings on his back that would have embarrassed a 10-year-old trick-or-treater) who, in Earl Hamner, Jr.’s big switcheroo, explains that the gatekeeper is keeping the gates not of heaven but of hell (though they still couldn’t say “hell” on TV in the early 1950’s!) because, after all, what sort of heaven would it be if people weren’t allowed to bring their dogs? Ironically, Charles and I had been mentioning a few of James Dean’s even earlier credits, including his tiny supporting role as a sailor in the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis film Sailor Beware, and it seemed to me like Dean had learned something from Jerry Lewis, because in playing what was basically a comedy role he sure seemed to be copying a lot of Lewis’s moves, notably the fluttery hand gestures and the high-pitched, almost infantile whiny voice.

Then we bypassed the next item on the disc — the Campbell’s SoundStage broadcast from July 17, 1953 called Something for an Empty Briefcase, which Charles and I had screened from a download (and which I commented on at and which was the first entry in the Dean box that actually featured him instead of having him just in the background — and instead screened the next show in sequence: an episode of the Westinghouse Studio One Summer Theatre (a mouthful of a show title!) called “Sentence of Death.” It’s basically one of the attempts by live TV anthology show producers to do film noir in the unforgiving environs of live TV — including cameras so primitive you were lucky to get an image at all, let alone one with the deep chiaroscuro blacks and whites of classic noir. Written by Adrian Spies based on a story by Thomas Walsh (though the credits don’t say whether Walsh wrote the story especially for the show or it was a previously published magazine story Spies adapted), it begins with a woman named Ellen Morrison (Betsy Palmer), dressed in a nice gown and a fur jacket (the company that provided the fur, Frederika, is even credited, and the whole idea of a fur jacket as a symbol of affluent glamour instead of animal abuse dates this show — as does the fact that Ellen smokes at the food counter), slumming at a downtown pharmacy that also has a sandwich counter.

The place is run by Harry Sawyer (Fred Scollay) and his wife (Virginia Vincent, delivering a strongly etched performance that “preps” us for the surprise at the end of the show), and when Ellen announces that she wants a turkey sandwich on special bread the wife makes a sneering remark and tells her husband to go serve her ham or liverwurst on white. Then a robber comes into the store and holds it up, in the process shooting Harry Sawyer dead. A young man named Joe Palica (James Dean), an ex-convict recently released after serving two years for joy-riding in a stolen car, is seen in the drugstore and is immediately arrested as the robber. He’s identified as such by Mrs. Sawyer and an old Jewish couple, Eugene (Henry Sharpe) and Sylvia (Eda Heineman) Krantz, who weren’t in the drugstore when the robbery went down but were standing outside of it. They hear Mrs. Sawyer identify Joe as the man who shot her husband and go along with it — while Ellen Morrison has her doubts and refuses to say Joe was the man she saw commit the crime. Her doubts intensify when she’s out with one of her many boyfriends and sees a man she recognizes as the actual criminal. She asks her boyfriend to “keep an eye” on him — she wants him to follow the guy when he leaves, but her boyfriend couldn’t be less interested and lets the guy go — but in the meantime Joe Palica has been convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. The two cops assigned to the case are divided; the older one, Sgt. MacReynolds (Ralph Dunn), is convinced Joe is guilty, but his younger partner, Sgt. Paul Cochran (Gene Lyons, top-billed), has his doubts and wonders if maybe, just maybe, Ellen Morrison is on to something. MacReynolds outright accuses Ellen of waffling on the ID just to play games with the police and do something that will impress her shallow society “friends.” Eventually the big switcheroo turns out to be that the crime wasn’t random at all: the real killer was having an affair with Mrs. Sawyer and concocted this scheme to kill him, make it look like a robbery and frame whoever was the next person who walked into the drugstore, which luckily for him turned out to be a young guy with a criminal record whom the cops would readily believe would commit an armed robbery.

“Sentence of Death” is a remarkable story but one the exigencies (and budgets) of live TV couldn’t do justice to, and it’s particularly weakly cast in the female lead. Betsy Palmer is a decent actress but she’s unable to capture the character’s superficial exterior or the change she goes through as proving Joe Palica’s innocence and bringing the real killer to justice becomes a cause with her — and while the all-time mistress of this sort of part, Barbara Stanwyck, was still too big a movie star to be available to TV, there are plenty of other lesser femmes fatales from 1940’s noirs — Mary Beth Hughes from The Great Flamarion, Ann Savage from Detour, Martha Vickers from The Big Sleep and The Big Bluff — who could have done it better. Not surprisingly, James Dean steals the show — even though we only see him in two scenes and we don’t get the wrap-up we’re expecting of someone actually telling him he’s been exonerated. By this time he’d been studying at Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio long enough he was beginning to put some of its lessons to work, and while the other actors in the piece pretty much stand still while delivering their lines and move only when the blocking tells them they have to, Dean’s body is in almost quivering motion. When Charles and I watched “Something for an Empty Briefcase” I noted that “though it’s Susan Douglas that’s supposed to be playing a dancer, it’s Dean, with his extraordinarily fluid movements (his body language gives more of his performance than either his voice or his gestures), that looks more like one.” It’s through his body, and especially his arms, that he registers his horror that, even though he once made a mistake and paid for it, anyone would think him capable of killing somebody in cold blood. His voice is pitched midway between the straightforward one he used in his earlier roles and the Brando-esque mumble with which he’d speak in East of Eden (and, albeit less extremely, in his two later films), but it’s his whole quivering intensity that makes him leap out from the background. He’d be the actor you’d notice from this show even if he hadn’t become first a major movie star and then, at least partly through the tragedy of his way-too-early death, a legend.