Sunday, August 5, 2018

General Electric Theater: “The Dark, Dark Hours” (MCA, Revue Productions, CBS-TV, aired December 12, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, the next General Electric Theater from the James Dean TV box — originally aired December 12, 1954, a month or so after “I’m a Fool” — was considerably less interesting. It was called “The Dark, Dark Hours” and I suspect writers Henry Kane and Arthur Steuer deliberately gave it that title because Paramount was about to make a film of Joseph Hayes’ successful, and similarly plotted, novel The Desperate Hours, with Humphrey Bogart as an escaped convict who leads a home-invasion robbery and Fredric March as the father of the family whose home Bogart and his two fellow gangsters, one of whom is mortally ill from a shoot-out, invade. An “Trivia” contributor states that the same script had previously been done on another TV show, Suspense, called “I’m No Hero,” aired June 20, 1950 with Hume Cronyn, of all people, playing James Dean’s role as a gangster who crashes the home of a doctor demanding treatment for his sidekick, fatally injured in a shootout, and threatens both the doctor and his wife with a gun if the doc fulfills his legal obligation to report a gunshot wound to the police. The doctor, who in the 1950 version was someone named Mark Roberts, is played here by … Ronald Reagan, who not only hosted this version of General Electric Theater but also starred in it as Dr. Joe (his last name isn’t given on the credits), who’s awakened one night by a visit from Bud (James Dean) and his sidekick Peewee (Jack Simmons, a quite talented actor who holds his own with Dean — what happened to him? He got a part in Rebel Without a Cause but then nothing in the industry until he executive-produced an Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey movie called Madame Wang’s in 1981 and then got interviewed for the documentary James Dean: Forever Young in 2007 — and with all these connections one wonders if the homoerotic body language between him and Dean in The Dark, Dark Hours was purely coincidental). 

Peewee has just been shot by police after he and Bud broke into a store and then fled by car (all of this established by stock footage on film in what was otherwise pretty clearly a live show), and the two invade the doctor’s home. In vain Dr. Reagan protests that he really isn’t a surgeon, doesn’t have the expertise in removing bullets from bodies, and in any case Peewee really should be looked after in a hospital, especially once doc determines that he’s lost so much blood he really needs a transfusion. Dean, who had turned in such a sensitive, beautiful performance a month earlier on this same series in I’m a Fool, here seems on autopilot: “Oh, well, another punk kid gangster. I know what they want, and I’ll deliver it.” He shouts, he blusters, he waves his gun around and he wakes up not only Dr. Joe’s wife Betty (Constance Ford in a role that really needed someone more like Donna Reed) — Joe enlists Betty to help with the operation even though Betty faints at the sight of blood, and Betty wants to throw the pan of hot water in Bud’s or Peewee’s face but Joe insists that they stoically survive the invasion as best they can because … well, he’s no hero. The commotion wakes up Joe’s and Betty’s daughter, who wanders into the living room and wonders why these two strange young men are there and one of them is holding a gun on her dad — though she seems oddly nonplussed by the whole experience instead of freaking out and panicking the way one might expect a girl of her age (especially a TV character) to do — and the show moves to a close when Betty tries to grab Bud’s gun, only Bud is too fast for her; later Joe announces that Peewee is dead, and in a final sequence that’s supposed to represent Joe finding his courage at last he’s able to overpower Bud and get him to drop the gun, then chew him out for being a punk coward helpless in the face of a real man. 

In a way Reagan’s worm-turning weirdly anticipates what happened to him in his political career, in which he was at first dismissed as a lightweight but turned out to be an effective leader who succeeded in pushing American politics dramatically to the Right. It’s also worth noting that on these General Electric Theater shows Reagan pronounces his last name “RAY-gun,” the way it was pronounced in his political career; there was a brief mini-controversy since in his actor days a lot of people had called him “REE-gun,” and Reagan himself got a mild amount of public criticism when he insisted that the name had always been “RAY-gun” and the other pronunciation was a mistake. What was most disappointing about The Dark, Dark Hours is not only that it was a far more prosaic story than I’m a Fool — its derivations not only from The Desperate Hours but the 1935 Warners programmer Dr. Socrates (starring Paul Muni as a doctor who gets awakened in the middle of the night to treat gangster Ward Bond; his wife/assistant/nurse gets shot and killed but he goes on to a career as doctor to the gangsters until he finally regains his conscience and gets them captured or killed) and its 1939 remake King of the Underworld (with the doctor sex-changed into a woman, played by Kay Francis, with Humphrey Bogart as the gangster — thereby making the 1941 Maltese Falcon a “doubles” movie since Bogart starred and Bond played the small role of a cop) —but it’s told in a far more ordinary way. Though it had the same director (Don Melford) and production designer (John Robert Lloyd) as “I’m a Fool,” it’s staged on simple, relatively realistic but cheap-looking sets — just about the whole story, after the filmed introduction, takes place in Dr. Joe’s living room and it’s clear the writers yielded to the convention of live TV of having everything take place in cramped, enclosed spaces instead of the artful way of doing a live TV show with a variety of locations Melford and Lloyd had worked out for “I’m a Fool.” 

About the only distinction of “The Dark, Dark Hours” is that writers Kane and Steuer made the Dean and Simmons characters essentially beatniks — though the beatnik craze didn’t really start until the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957, two years after Dean’s death (and On the Road would have made a great film vehicle for Dean if he’d still been alive!), one can hear both men spitting a lot of jazz slang at each other, including “crazy,” “man” (as a particle) and “cool,” and Peewee demands to hear music on the radio while he’s being operated on and even tells Bud to find a jazz station — which, amazingly, he does, playing quite advanced music for a TV show in 1955, including a Jackie-and-Roy style bop vocal duet and a quite moving version of the Don Raye-Gene de Paul song “You Don’t Know What Love Is” featuring a Parker-esque alto sax (my guess would be Phil Woods) that’s also heard over the closing credits. It’s interesting that the two forms of music Dean is known to have liked are progressive jazz and Black R&B — one of Dean’s friends interviewed by David Dalton recalled Dean’s joy when Black singer Lavern Baker’s recording of “Tweedle Dee” started moving up the charts, followed by his frustration when the white cover by Georgia Gibbs caught up with and overtook Baker’s — and the use of jazz in this show only underscores the bizarre and totally unwitting irony of Dean and Reagan working together: Dean the avatar of the 1960’s who didn’t lived to see them but was one of the people who set the model for youth alienation and rebellion (one of the most fascinating aspects of Rebel Without a Cause is that after the chickie-run his parents want him to lie about it and cover it up, and it’s Dean’s character who wants to ’fess up and admit the truth of what happened, the way young people in the 1960’s confronted the social evils of racism, sexism and warmongering their parents either accepted or covered up) and Reagan who built his political career on upholding the values of the 1950’s against the rebels of the 1960’s. 

To add irony on top of irony, the General Electric Theater shows were produced by MCA, whose logo here is their initials over a map of the world and the proclamation that the initials stood for “Management Corporation of America.” MCA originally began in the 1930’s as a talent agency that handled big bands — the initials back then stood for Music Corporation of America — and in the 1940’s they expanded to represent Hollywood actors and soon pioneered the so-called “package deals,” in which an agency would put together a writer, director and cast from their talent list, have them develop a story and then sell the package to a studio on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. MCA also started Revue Productions, a TV subsidiary that went beyond managing and packaging and actually produced shows (the most famous was Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and in 1959 in order to do that better they bought the physical plant of Universal Studios. Within a few years they had absorbed all of Universal and were therefore both a major studio and a talent agency — until 1962, when President John Kennedy’s Justice Department brought an antitrust suit against them and forced MCA and its principal shareholders, Lew Wasserman and Jules Stein, to give up the agency. Reagan had such a close business association with MCA, first via their representing him as a film actor and then hiring him to do this show, that when he became president of the Screen Actors’ Guild he made a deal with the studios that was widely considered a sweetheart contract: it specified that from 1959 on actors would get residual payments for reuse of their work, but to cover the years before that the studios would make a lump-sum payment to the Guild. It was a controversy that dogged Reagan through much of his political career as a lot of labor people suggested it showed Reagan had always been anti-union — even though he answered by accurately pointing out that he was the only labor-union president in history who had ever become President of the U.S. and saying that meant he couldn’t possibly be anti-labor in his policies.