Friday, April 21, 2017

The Bells of Cockaigne (Armstrong Floor Company, NBC-TV, November 17, 1953)

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

I brought out the James Dean TV boxed set — a compilation of most (though, frustratingly, not all — it’s missing his episode of the ABC-TV science-fiction series Tales of Tomorrow and Dean’s very last TV appearance, The Unlighted Road, a fugitive tale he did between Rebel Without a Cause and Giant) of Dean’s surviving work on television from 1951 through 1955 — and screened The Bells of Cockaigne, an episode of the Armstrong Circle Theatre (a show sponsored by the Armstrong flooring company which aired from 1950 through 1963, a long run for a series like this). Originally aired November 17, 1953, The Bells of Cockaigne, an original TV script by George Lowther, is an outrageously sentimental soap opera about some sort of unloading operation (though it’s not clear from the tacky painted sets typical of live TV whether it’s at a dock or a train station’s freight yard) in which the star, Gene Lockhart, plays Gus, a janitor (at least we think he’s a janitor because the one piece of actual work we see him do is sweep a floor) who regularly plays a newspaper sweepstakes in which they publish the serial number of 10 $1 bills, and if you have the bill with that serial number you can go to the newspaper’s office and claim a $500 prize. Joey Frazier (James Dean) is one of the workers on the dock or freight yard or whatever, and we get to see him shirtless throughout virtually the whole program (and we get quite a few shots of equally hunky young men equally semi-clad).

He’s got a wife (Donalee Marans) who on payday tries to show up at the dock (or whatever) to collect his money before he can blow it on his co-workers’ poker game — they need money desperately not only for themselves but also their nine-year-old child (who’s referred to as their son in some scenes and their daughter in others — apparently George Lowther wasn’t big on plot consistency), who has such a severe case of chronic asthma the kid’s doctors have urged the Fraziers to get the hell out of New York and relocate to a warmer, drier climate that will be better for their child’s health. The grim business between Mr. and Mrs. Frazier about a drug their doctor has just prescribed for the kid that will make him considerably better, at least in the short term, but which they can’t afford because it costs $9 rings all too true today, in which thanks to America’s wonderful free-market for-profit health-care system all too many people have to choose between putting food on their table, paying their rent, paying their bills and buying the prescription medications they need. Anyway, Joey ends up at the poker game and actually wins, but another worker, Rivnock (John Dennis), threatens to beat him up if Joey doesn’t continue playing until Rivnock gets his money back. You can pretty much write the rest of it yourself: Gus (ya remember Gus?) finds he’s actually got the winning bill for the newspaper sweepstakes, which he’s been playing for years in hopes he could get the $500 to visit his native Ireland one more time before he dies (and Gene Lockhart seems to have got his whole idea of how to play an Irishman by having watched Thomas Mitchell’s performances in John Ford movies), only he gives it to the Fraziers (he’s actually smart enough to give it to Mrs. Frazier) so they’ll have the grubstake they need to get themselves and their kid out of New York. The Bells of Cockaigne is an O.K. mini-drama, indicative of the economy of storytelling that allowed TV producers, directors and writers in the early 1950’s to do half-hour drama shows, and while it’s not exactly fresh storytelling it is moving in most of the ways the creators clearly intended — and Dean, who didn’t usually get to play parts this sympathetic in his TV shows (most of the time he was cast as an ex-convict or a thug), turns in a performance well balanced between toughness and vulnerability and illustrating his own comment about himself: “There’s Montgomery Clift going, ‘Help me! Help me!,’ and there’s Marlon Brando going, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you!,” and somewhere in the middle there is James Dean.”