Saturday, October 8, 2016

Danger: “Death Is My Neighbor” (CBS-TV, August 25, 1953)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I broke out the James Dean Lost Television Legacy boxed set and watched the next two episodes in sequence from it: a CBS-TV Danger episode from August 25, 1953 called “Death Is My Neighbor,” starring veteran character actor Walter Hampden and about the earliest evidence of how studying at Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio was transforming Dean’s acting and remodeling him from the nice young man he’d been in his early Hollywood days to a refraction of Marlon Brando; and an episode of an NBC show called The Big Story in which real-life reporters who had broken big crime-related scoops were honored by having their stories dramatized in a half-hour crime-show segment. Danger was an oddball show because it was essentially the dumping ground for all the people who were about to wash out of the industry altogether. As John Frankenheimer, a TV producer and director in the early 1950’s, recalled to Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for their book The Celluloid Muse, “Danger — very aptly titled — was the show they would put all the directors on that they were going to can. Just to give a final test of their ability — if they failed there, they were out. I was put on the show to try and help these bums, to try and help get these damned things on the air. And of course they would know they were on the verge of being fired, and they’d be very tense before the rehearsal even started, and they would give me these ridiculous sums of money to help them keep their jobs. I didn’t want their money, but they insisted on it. And no matter what I did, I couldn’t help them keep their jobs, because they were just terrible.”

Actually, one Danger director Frankenheimer’s screed did not apply to was John Peyser, director of “Death Is My Neighbor,” who had begun as a TV director in 1950 on the show Suspense and not only wasn’t fired, but worked steadily on TV until he retired in 1985 (his last two credits on are on the 1980’s version of Ripley’s Believe It or Not) and lived in retirement in L.A. until he died in 2002. The brief opening commentary by Marcus Winslow, James Dean’s cousin (though they were probably emotionally more like brothers than cousins because after Dean lost his parents early Winslow’s parents, Dean’s uncle and aunt, raised him on their farm) said that Dean and actress Betty Phillips were unhappy with each other but that Walter Hampden, the aging character actor who was the original star of the show, stuck up for Dean and told the producers to keep him on because Hampden could see his potential. Aside from the Campbell Soundstage episode “Something from an Empty Briefcase,” an “inspirational” faith-based drama we’d watched previously from an download (the titular something James Dean’s character puts in the empty briefcase is a Bible, and it inspires the ex-con he’s playing to turn straight — in the legal as well as the sexual meaning of the term — and refuse his former associates’ demand that he join their latest caper, even though it also means they beat him up in the process), this was the first show in the box that actually featured James Dean, and by this time the mannerisms the world would know from his three starring films were already in place: the hyperactive, almost balletic movements; the scratchy Brando-esque mumbling voice; and the burning intensity with which he broke the usual rules of screen acting and achieved his strongest results by simply staring at the camera as if he were trying to face it down. He’s playing ex-con (again!) “J. B.” — neither the actors in the show nor the credits list his character as having any other name than that — whose uncle has landed him a job as assistant to the live-in manager of a small, rather dowdy New York apartment building. The live-in manager is Mr. Clemens (Walter Hampden), who points out the similarity of his name to Mark Twain’s original one and who proclaims that he’s also a writer, albeit far from Twain’s level; he’s working on a compilation of stories he’s clipped from newspapers for the last 50 years and intends to weave into a social and cultural history of New York during that period. Only what he doesn’t know is that his days in that job are numbered: J. B.’s uncle, who just bought the building, wants to install J. B. as the live-in manager and evict Clemens from the rent-free manager’s apartment so Netta (Betsy Palmer) and her boyfriend Walter (Frank Marth) can move in together as soon as they get married.

J. B. sees Netta and instantly has the hots for her; he steals into her room while she’s playing a record of Irving Caesar’s song “Unforgettable” on her phonograph (though the turntable isn’t moving and the tone arm is clearly just sitting there and not actually tracking a record). He wants to dance with her in the middle of the room, and she’s O.K. with that; then he wants more than that, and she’s decidedly not O.K., warning him that her boyfriend is on his way up and he won’t take too kindly to another man trying to have his way with her. Bobby sneaks into her room later, accidentally breaks the phonograph, picks it up and takes it to the office to see if Clemens can replace it, and ends up so upset with Netta for spurning her advances that he works out a way to kill her. He’s supposed to be fixing the gas stove in her apartment, and instead he rigs it up so it will fill her place with gas, which he can let in through a valve in another room in the building, and she’ll asphyxiate. Fortunately her boyfriend calls her on the phone before she loses consciousness, and she comes to long enough for Clemens to figure out what’s happening, break into her apartment, smash the windows to ventilate the place, and thus save her life. In the end the mysterious, unseen uncle decides to let Clemens stay on as manager after all, and Netta’s boyfriend gets a raise that enables him to find them a nicer apartment elsewhere in the city. “Death Is My Neighbor” is actually a quite well done show, marvelously acted by Dean — showing the first indication of how the Actors’ Studio was remodeling his approach to his craft and how he was turning from the nice young man he’d been playing in previous bits to the moody Method star we know from his big films — and by the other two principals. Hampden is a bit schticky in the usual mold of veteran character actors like he, but he’s perfectly credible in the role (and of course I couldn’t help but respond to the whole idea of him being such a pack rat he’s filled a normal-sized room with a lot of bizarre stuff anyone else would just consider junk!), and so is Palmer even though one can’t help but wonder why she’d want someone as homely as Frank Marth when James Dean is out there flashing his jeans-clad basket all over the small screen! One does get a properly world-weary aspect from Palmer when Netta is fighting off J. B.’s advances and we get the impression she’s thinking, “I’ve been in New York a long time. I’ve had to deal with your kind before.”