Below I've posted the full ninety-minute live television broadcast of "The Comedian", written by Rod Serling (based on a 'novelette' by Ernest Lehman), directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Mickey Rooney. The show was originally broadcast as part of the "Playhouse 90" anthology series on February 14th, 1957. In it, Rooney plays a wildly egomaniacal star TV comic who rants, rages and browbeats everyone around him. The show, which also features Mel Torme as Rooney's brother (!) as well as Edmond O'Brien and Kim Hunter, is a fascinating period piece rich with views of how early television worked and looked. Frankenheimer's staging and direction is wildly elaborate--even if the show hadn't been 'live' a lot of his set-ups, dollies and crane moves would have been hard to achieve. That the whole thing was accomplished in what amounts to a single ninety minute take is truly impressive.

But I would be lying if I said that Rooney's performance is anything more than okay. He's so shrill, so over-the-top and so one-note awful that it's hard to make it through the entire thing. Still it's interesting watching him 'stretch'--there's nothing left of Andy Hardy in this portrait of a show-biz maniac. Indeed, this may have been closer to the real Rooney than any of his other roles--except, perhaps, for "Baby Face Nelson".

And I have another confession to make. These so-called 'golden age of television' live shows? They don't hold up well at all, in my view. Part of the problem is inherent in the very nature of their transmission. The 'live' aspect creates a palpable tension in the acting, direction and overall timing of the shows that feels uncertain--they play like a ship constantly about to capsize. I find it hard not to be watching for the floor managers scurrying out of the way, the cameras bumping into each other, the actors on the verge of going up on their lines etc. In that sense, the surviving live TV shows are more interesting to me for the 'meta-film' they present; you are in the studio with them, chewing your nails raw and hoping they make it to the finish line in relatively decent shape.

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1 comment:

  1. As you might remember from a conversation we once had on this period, the era of anthology series like Playhouse 90 and specifically Frankenheimer's work always held a fascination for me.

    In interviews years later, Frankenheimer shared your view of the 'beauty of live television.' He insisted that if the technology was better for recording at the time, they should have (and soon did) used it, and that many of the fixes were logistical necessities and not always the way he would have staged it.

    This particular episode - which I've watched more than once - I think is one of Frankenheimer's best of the era - if only because of the choreography of the "show within a show." As for Rooney's performance, I could not agree more, though so many of the "classic" performances from that era (the live "Days of Wine and Roses" comes to mind) now look soap-opera-ish. For performers, it was, in some ways, the worst of both worlds - theatrical staging but with cameras too close for their theatrical performances.