Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Kraft Television Theatre: “A Dark Night Till Dawn” (Kraft Foods, J. Walter Thompson, NBC-TV, November 11, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched an intriguing episode of the Kraft Television Theatre from November 11, 1953 called “A Long Night Till Dawn,” the next in sequence from the James Dean TV box and just about the first item in the box that really shows the familiar James Dean characterization from his three starring films. It opens in New York City, where Joe Harris (James Dean) has just been released from prison, where he served six months for assault — his second rap. He goes to the coffee shop owned by his friend Poppa Golden (Rudolph Weiss) and insists that he’s going to stay out of trouble with the law from then on — only his jittery affect and the ability of both Dean and scriptwriter Rod Serling (a more prestigious name than we expect to find on the credits of an early-TV vehicle for Dean) to show just how tumbled his psyche is and how barely in control he is of himself lead us to think, “Yeah, right.” Joe’s main priority is to get back in touch with Barbie (Naomi Riordan), only Poppa Golden tells Joe that Barbie has left him — and when Poppa Golden adds that he was the one who told her that for her own good she should break up with Joe and return to her small-town home, Joe gets explosively angry and beats up the coffee-shop owner he’d previously proclaimed his one and only friend. Joe flees the city and heads for the small New Jersey town where both he and Barbie grew up and first met, and he returns to the home he grew up in — only his father, Fred Harris (Ted Osborn), is less than glad to see him. By coincidence he’s arrived home on the same day another young man is getting back from a tour of duty in the Korean War and returning to his family — and though we never see this person, he’s referred to throughout the dialogue as the good boy counterpointed to Joe the bad boy. (In the 1930’s he would not only have been an on-screen character, he’d end up with Barbie after Joe was taken out in the inevitable shoot-out with police.) Barbie is staying in the home of Joe’s dad Fred, and naturally Joe meets her there and starts taking her out for long walks through the small town’s streets and doing so much reminiscing it occurred to me that if Marcel Proust had ever written a gangster story, this would have been it.

But Joe’s Javert-like nemesis, Lieutenant Case of the New York Police Department (Robert Simon), shows up in town to investigate Joe as a suspect in the assault on Poppa Golden. Lt. Case had been in Golden’s coffee shop just before Joe hit the guy, and while he didn’t witness the assault he did express his opinion that it was only a matter of time before Joe reverted to some sort of criminal behavior, and so therefore he was going to “keep an eye” on him. As Joe and Barbie reconnect in the small-town environment we get to see some of the gentler, nicer sides of his character — and Dean superbly modulates his acting so we believe in both the nice and the nasty sides of Joe, the romantic, dreamy, sentimental poet and the hard-ass tough kid with a hair-trigger temper. Alas, Lt. Case not only traces Joe to the small town but receives word that Poppa Golden has died from the injuries he sustained when Joe hit him, so Joe is now facing a murder rap and in an over-the-top scene that doesn’t quite harmonize with what we’ve seen before (we’re really more expecting Joe to tell Barbie ’tis a far, far better thing I do and turn himself in), Joe grabs a gun from somewhere (presumably his dad’s collection — they are rural people, after all, and movie rural people at that) and holes up in his old room, where he clutches a football he used in games as a kid to symbolize his lost innocence and waves his gun at the cops outside, who shoot through the window and mow him down. One reviewer on imdb.com noted the similarities between this show and two of the previous entries in the James Dean TV boxed set, “Something for an Empty Briefcase” (Campbell Soundstage, July 17, 1953) and “Life Sentence” (Campbell Soundstage, October 16, 1953, of which only an eight-minute fragment is known to exist) — those two previous shows also cast Dean as an ex-con named Joe and “Life Sentence,” judging from the excerpt that survives, also shows his character returning to his small-town home and family (something James Dean from Fairmount, Indiana could probably relate to personally!) — but to me “A Dark Night Till Dawn” looks both backwards and forwards.

Backwards: it seems to me a plot line one could readily imagine Warner Bros. making in the early 1930’s with James Cagney, who isn’t usually thought of as an influence on James Dean, but certainly Dean’s performance here seems Cagney-esque. He was already studying at Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio when he made this show, but it seems that at this point in his career Dean was simply overlaying the Method mannerisms he was learning there on a basically Cagney-esque approach to playing a good-bad guy, using similarly fluid mannerisms (Cagney had started out as a dancer in vaudeville — indeed, Cagney wrote in his autobiography that his one career regret was he had made so few musicals — and though Dean was never a professional dancer he certainly moved like one: one of the most interesting aspects of his work in general is that he expressed the alienation of his characters in part by seeming much more in control of his body and more fluid in his movements than the other people he acted with) and grabbing every opportunity in Serling’s script for glare-ice switches in his mood and affect. Dean himself said of his acting style, “There’s Montgomery Clift going, ‘Help me, help me,’ and there’s Marlon Brando going, ‘Fuck you, fuck you!,’ and somewhere in the middle is James Dean” — and what’s amazing about Dean is how quickly he could veer between those extremes, looking both vulnerable and “tough” at the same time, but with the toughness just a thin veneer to mask the vulnerability. Indeed, the “forward” part of “A Dark Night Till Dawn” is how it sometimes seems like a pencil sketch for Dean’s first starring film, East of Eden; though he’s not literally a criminal when he returns to his small home town in Eden, he’s similarly alienated from the townspeople in general and his father in particular — even though his mom is alive, and her whereabouts known, in Eden where the fate of his mother in “A Dark Night Till Dawn” is a total mystery. (Given that mentioning divorce was a bozo no-no in TV in the 1950’s — and even well after that; the original premise of the Mary Tyler Moore Show was that she retreated from New York to Indianapolis after a divorce, but CBS’s censors said they couldn’t do that, so she merely went through a pre-marital breakup instead — we were probably supposed to assume that Joe’s mother is dead.)

“A Dark Night Till Dawn” has its problems — Ted Osborn’s performance as Joe’s dad is downright terrible (a far cry from Raymond Massey!) and Serling’s script, though generally taut and powerful, gets awfully didactic, especially in the perorations he gives to Osborn’s character (the worst actor in the piece has to declaim the worst writing) — but for the most part it’s a chillingly effective drama, by far the best piece in the Dean TV box up to this point and much closer to the Dean we know from his three starring film roles than anything he’d done on the small screen previously. There’s even a Biblical reference — dad says, “You think I’m going to feed you the fatted calf?,” when Joe returns — following the elaborate Biblical plot line of “Something for an Empty Briefcase” (in which a woman talks Dean’s character out of a life of crime by sharing the Good Book with him) and anticipating East of Eden, whose author, John Steinbeck, literally intended it as a modern-day version of the Book of Genesis. (Steinbeck had his own penchant for faith-based metaphors; his most famous book, The Grapes of Wrath, is as much a religious commentary as a political one, and if you read The Grapes of Wrath it won’t take you long before you realize that the reason Steinbeck named his central characters “Joad” is it sounds like “Job.”) “A Dark Night Till Dawn” works despite its flaws (not only a bad performance from Osborn but merely serviceable acting from the other principals — Naomi Riordan isn’t bad, exactly, but one could readily imagine a more powerful reading of Barbie that more vividly brought to life her contradictory feelings towards Joe) and is utterly haunting and the first time in this box you really feel like you’re seeing James Dean and not just some young New York actor who happens to look and sound like him.