Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Big Story: Rex Newman, Joplin Globe and News-Herald (Pyramid Productions/NBC-TV, September 11, 1953)

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

After that we watched the next show in the sequence, the episode of The Big Story featuring reporter Rex Newman from the Globe and News-Herald (one wonders how many mergers they’d gone through to get a name like that) in Joplin, Missouri, and how he had been in a camera store years before when a group of three juvenile delinquents — Howie Madden (Bobby Nick), Todd Ingalls (Ken Walken) and Julie (Susan Harris) — stole a camera and threw acid into the store owner’s face when he tried to stop them. We see the three kids get away with the camera and swear a pact that they will always be together, no matter what — and then we flash-forward a few years. Todd Ingalls has grown up to be played by James Dean (effectively if without quite so much dash and élan as he showed in “Death Is My Neighbor”) and Howie Madden by John Kerr, best known today as the young boarding-school man confused about his sexual orientation (“questioning,” we’d call it now) when his favorite teacher is busted for being Gay in Robert Anderson’s play Tea and Sympathy. Julie is now played by Wendy Drew, and she and Todd are engaged to be married even though the three of them are also engaged in a heavy-duty crime spree and the police in Joplin have been after them for months. It seems that Howie, who’s supposed to be the best man in this odd wedding, forgot to pick up the rings. No problem: the Terrible Trio figure they can just pick them up on the way, and since they’re master crooks they do that by holding up a jewelry store. Only the jeweler running the place sets off the alarm that calls the police, and the crooks shoot him and he dies. Todd and Julie get away but Howie is busted, though he’s loyal enough to his brother and sister in crime that he doesn’t give them away and he’s sentenced to 25 years in prison. Eventually the cops track down Todd and Julie after discovering their real identities, and a postlude (hosted by the real Rex Newman, who looks dramatically different from Carl Frank, who played him in the show) tells us that Todd, who actually shot the jeweler, got 50 years and Julie got 10.

There are some interesting peculiarities about this episode, including the fact that though it was a live TV show, almost half of it was shot in film — and according to the final credits the filmed inserts were shot on location in Joplin (did the young James Dean really go on a location shoot in Joplin, Missouri, of all places?) while the live stuff was broadcast from a New York studio. The credits even list two separate directors, David Rich for the filmed inserts and Leonard Valenta for the studio scenes. The credited writer is Alvin Boretz, who had begun on the Martin Kane, Private Eye TV series (the one which was sponsored by a tobacco company, which featured a character called “The Tobacconist” whom Kane would talk to, thereby working the commercials into the actual script of the show) and who co-wrote the play Room Service, filmed by the Marx Brothers in 1938 (so James Dean and the Marx Brothers: one degree of separation!). It’s an odd show in that, though I suspect it was totally unintentional, it’s virtually hard to see it today and not read it as a Bisexual love triangle with the real-life Bisexual (not Gay!!!!!) James Dean at its apex, John Kerr (best remembered for a role in which he was confused about his sexual orientation) as his boyfriend and Wendy Drew as his girlfriend. Drew’s character gets reams of dialogue about how jealous she is of Kerr’s and how she can’t understand why her fiancé spends so much time with this other guy and is so concerned about him she feels neglected and abandoned. Probably the original 1953 audience felt sorry for her, whereas now we just think, “C’mon, typical naïve Fifties bimbo, can’t you see what’s really going on?” The parallels between this and the similar triangle between Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause are obvious (though in Rebel Mineo’s character is so relatively immature he seems to relate to Dean’s as much as a father than as a potential lover).

The other fascinating thing about The Big Story as it’s presented in the Dean Lost Television Legacy boxed set is that it’s actually from a rerun in 1957, with a new announcer (Ben Grauer, who’d been the MC of the NBC Symphony broadcasts with Arturo Toscanini as conductor) replacing the original (Ernest Chappell) and interviewing the real Rex Newman not only on the story he was dramatizing but also on James Dean’s death and the significance of young people’s continuing interest in him. What was interesting about that was I’d always assumed that TV was considered such a disposable medium in the 1950’s that everything was thrown out — given the ubiquity of reruns in the 1960’s and later, one would have thought that after Dean’s untimely death the networks and producers would have scoured the vaults for every scrap of footage of him they could find and offered it to the public as an indication of all the work he had left behind besides East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Instead virtually all these old kinescopes (films made by sticking a camera in front of a TV monitor and recording the result, then developing the films and flying them out to the West Coast so viewers could see the live shows from New York at the same time slot in Pacific time, three hours later) were left to molder or rot in the vaults, and it’s a wonder as much of the Dean TV legacy survived as it did. But this show, at least, was plucked from obscurity and rerun by NBC as an example of Dean’s surviving work two years after he died, and presented much the way the early work of a major star who died young would be today: in context as a memorial.