Saturday, October 29, 2016

Kraft Theatre: “Keep Our Honor Bright” (J. Walter Thompson/NBC-TV, aired October 14, 1953)

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

The “feature” I picked last night was a 54-minute (one-hour time slot less commercials — and it’s indicative of the descent of commercial TV that in the 1950’s an hour-long show contained six minutes of commercials and now it contains 18 minutes of commercials) show that was the next in sequence in the James Dean Lost Television Legacy boxed set. It was a Kraft Television Theatre show called “Keep Our Honor Bright” and was surprisingly deep and rich as drama, thanks largely to its writer, George Roy Hill. You’ve probably heard of him mostly as a director — his most famous credits are the two Paul Newman-Robert Redford teamings, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting — but in his early days he worked in the TV salt mines (he’d get the chance to make his directorial debut in 1956 on another Kraft episode, “A Night to Remember,” which he both wrote and directed based on Walter Lord’s famous nonfiction book about the sinking of the Titanic (though for some reason listed it as a “novel”). The show begins with a giant “K” — “It’s sponsored by potassium!” Charles joked (the chemical symbol for potassium is “K”), though to me it looked like the bastard love-child of the “K” atop the front gate to Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu and the Superman logo — and at the time the Kraft company was running two separate drama series each week on two different networks (this one is from NBC). Charles was surprised at the level of control sponsors had that they could get away with that (and the page for this show indicates the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency as the producing studio!).

“Keep Our Honor Bright” was a marvelous drama about college cheating, though it was clear writer Hill and producer/director Maury Holland were using cheating as a metaphor for a lot of other evils TV creators dared not name in 1953 (this show was aired live October 14, 1953). Matt Matthewson (Michael Higgins) is a college senior who’s about to graduate and takes the opportunity to propose to his girlfriend, Sally (Joan Potter), who’s being congratulated that she passed all her finals, even in her weakest subject, biology. Only Matt is also the chair of the college’s “honor committee,” a group of students who are supposed to investigate allegations of cheating and report them to the school administration, which will decide what to do about them. A student named Jim Cooper (James Dean, looking as usual like he beamed in from another planet — though he’s dressed in the same preppie shirts, slacks and tie as everyone else in school, his halting speech patterns and dancer-like movements emphasize his alienation from his fellow students; as I’ve argued elsewhere, though Dean didn’t live to see the 1960’s he seems to have anticipated them, and many of his films and TV shows, including Rebel Without a Cause, present him as a sort of prototypical 1960’s figure stuck in the 1950’s and forced to deal with its ethical compromises) comes to the honor committee and confesses that he cheated on the biology final. He says he was in the professor’s office and just happened to see the first draft of the exam in the trash can; he started reading it, realized what it was, and took it to his dorm room. Jim pleads with the committee to be allowed to take another test so he can still graduate without being expelled — he says his parents are coming in to watch his commencement within a week and they’ll be crushed if they learn he’s been expelled and will not be graduating — but they’re unmoved as long as he says that he was the only one who looked at the test in advance and thereby got an unfair advantage. At the last minute he says he showed the test papers to other students, hoping that if he names them the honor committee will let him take a retest instead of recommending to the school dean (Addison Richards) that he be thrown out. In a humiliating ritual I’m sure George Roy Hill meant to be seen as a metaphor for what the victims of the Hollywood blacklist were forced to go through — be blackballed from the industry altogether or be forced to feed the inquisition the names of other victims to be allowed to work again themselves — Jim writes down the names on a pad and gives it to Matt.

The honor committee votes 4-1 to recommend Jim’s expulsion anyway — the only dissenter is Ed (Don Dubbins) — and the case next goes to the dean and his own committee of administrators. The dean is at first inclined to let the cheating students take a retest, and in a scene that really reveals Hill’s agenda of showing how routine various forms of cheating have become, the dean exposes the other people on his staff as having cheated themselves, sneaking collectibles into the country to avoid taxation or being less than totally honest and above-board in their business dealings. Then the last member of the committee comes in with a petition signed by 1,000 students urging the administration to expel the miscreants and show them no mercy — and, faced with the prospect of a student strike at the graduation ceremony if they don’t do what the students want, the administrators cave. Needless to say, one of the cheaters was Matt’s girlfriend Sally — and Matt tries to protect her by erasing her name from Jim’s list — but at the end, and much to the discomfiture of his local businessman father (Larry Fletcher) who was hoping Matt would continue in the proud tradition of himself and his own father and graduate with honors before taking their place as local businesspeople, Matt has a public display of conscience. He breaks off his commencement speech to confess that he tried to protect Sally from expulsion by erasing her name from the list of cheaters, and therefore he’s just as culpable as she, Jim and the other people who actually cheated are. At the end Matt and Sally decide to stay together and remain in the small town where all this happened rather than relocate to a big city where they could start over and no one would know about their shame. Ironically, one of the college deans is played by David White, who as Larry Tate on the TV show Bewitched (he was Darrin Stephens’ boss) showed an infuriating and thoroughly disgusting lack of integrity in sucking up to whatever his ad agency’s clients wanted!

“Keep Our Honor Bright” is one of those interesting souvenirs of what people who actually lived in the 1950’s thought of the cult of “success” that surrounded it, and which is usually cited uncritically by Right-wingers and others who regard the 1950’s as America’s ideal decade before those pesky Blacks, women and Queers started demanding their rights (though most Right-wingers of today want to take the country even farther back — either to the 1880’s, the age of the “robber barons” in which corporations literally ran the country and politicians were just their well-paid stooges — or in some cases all the way back to the 1820’s, when only white males who owned land were allowed to vote). Nonfiction books like The Lonely Crowd, novels like The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and movies like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (a brilliantly funny and mordant satire not only of “success” but also celebrity culture that rings true today!) showed that authors and filmmakers in the 1950’s held a far more measured and cynical view of “success” and what people were willing to do to achieve it — and “Keep Our Honor Bright” is a shining example of how thoughtful people in the 1950’s really felt about the win-at-all-costs mentality and the hypocrisy of telling young people they had to maintain an “honor code” and avoid cheating when their parents were “cheating” in various ways all the time! The show is also quite well acted — James Dean stands out but not as much as you’d think, and Don Dubbins as the one student who refuses to join the kangaroo-court mentality demanding that the errant students be expelled is also quite effective — and well staged, within the inevitable limits of live TV, by producer-director Maury Holland. (At one point there’s even a TV-show-within-the-TV-show, a newscast hosted by a reporter played by George Roy Hill himself, interviewing various students all of whom are demanding the expulsion of the cheaters.)

Though it really doesn’t deserve a separate comment, Charles and I watched the next episode in sequence in the James Dean Lost Television Legacy box, the seven surviving minutes of a Campbell’s Summer Soundstage [sic — it was really aired October 16, 1953, just two days after “Keep Our Honor Bright”] episode called “Life Sentence” in which Dean plays Hank Bradon, a convict who is about to be released in two weeks. He accosts a woman (played, I presume, by Georgann Johnson — at least that’s the only name on the page for this episode that looks female) who’s living on the prison grounds and is married to someone else. He pushes his way into her face and grabs her arm, pleading with her to leave with him as soon as he’s released, and while it’s not that original a concept it’s remarkable what Dean does with it. Once again, he’s considerably more limber in his body and more mobile than most actors of the time, and his overall approach shows what Dean was talking about when he told a friend, “There’s Montgomery Clift saying, ‘Help me! Help me!,” and there’s Marlon Brando saying, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you!,’ and somewhere in the middle there is James Dean.”