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Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Who on Earth Would Want To Work for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce?

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a video clip from Mad Men.

No one is denying that Mad Men is an excellent television show — I watch it faithfully, though not without apprehension given its increasingly downbeat plotlines — but who on earth would want to return to those times, or work at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? It’s not really an authentic vision of the ’60s anyway; take it from me — I was alive then, working at Life Magazine as a writer, and immersed in the whole ad/print culture of the era — but rather stresses the down side of everything, as though no one is having any fun at all.

Which they’re really not; Don Draper (Jon Hamm) seems tortured on all sides by regrets, conflicting loyalties, and his enigmatic past, while Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) has recently departed the agency for greener fields (and who can blame her?), and poor Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) has just committed suicide over a forged check, for which Don fired him. Great! Just the sort of television one wants to relax with on a Sunday night, right before the start of the work week. As Don Draper explodes in a meeting with a prospective client, “you’re not happy! You’re not happy with anything!” And with the absolutely unprincipled Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) as a rising star in the agency, well, look out. Things are going to get even uglier, I have no doubt.

Still, I DVR it, watch it while zipping through the commercials, and think it’s far and away the best thing on television right now — there’s just one more episode this “season” as I write this, and then — apparently — only two seasons more after that. But with a definite end date in mind for the series, I can’t help but think that Elisabeth Moss is happy to escape her role as the much-put-upon Peggy for the lead in a Jane Campion miniseries, Top of the Lake. And we’ll be seeing Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant in Steven Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln; that footage is already in the can, as his death in Mad Men was shot last summer, but amazingly, everyone managed to keep quiet about it.

But the question remains; given the utterly hostile and desperate workplace of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce so effectively depicted in each episode of the show, who on earth would want to work there?

1950s Children’s Television

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

I have an essay forthcoming in this volume, edited by Cynthia Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper from Palgrave/Macmillan.

The fourteen essays featured here focus on series such as Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, and Captain Z-Ro, exploring their roles in the day-to-day lives of their fans through topics such as mentoring, promotion of the real-world space program, merchandising, gender issues, and ranger clubs – all the while promoting the fledgling medium of television. The distinguished group of authors involved includes Henry Jenkins, J.P. Telotte, Roy Kinnard, Patrick Lucanio and many others. Should be out in late August, early September 2012.

You can read more by clicking here, or on the image above.

Media History Digital Library

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to access the Media History Digital Library.

I have blogged on this site before, but it just keeps growing and getting better. The archive features extensive runs of several important trade papers and fan magazines, including Business Screen (1938-1973); The Film Daily (1918-1936); International Photographer (1929-1941); Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (1930-1949); Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (1950-1954); The Educational Screen (1922-1962); Moving Picture World (1912-1918); Photoplay (1917-1940); Radio Age: Research, Manufacturing, Communications, Broadcasting, Television (1942-1957); Radio Broadcast (1922-1930) and other publications.

As the site notes, “the periodicals in this collection chart the studio system during its rise, the transition to sound, and Great Depression years. The periodicals present a variety of points of view within the industry, from the production-oriented Hollywood Reporter to the exhibitor-oriented publication Harrison’s Reports, a ‘reviewing service free from the influence of film advertising.’ The cornerstone of this collection is a two decade run of The Film Daily, a leading motion picture trade paper published out of New York that reached participants involved in all aspects of the movie business. The Film Daily includes innumerable reviews of features and shorts, news reports from throughout the industry, occasional features stories, and hundreds of full-page ads.”

Worth checking out as an extremely valuable research source.

Joan Crawford on Stardom, George Cukor and More

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Here’s an interesting clip of an interview from British television with Joan Crawford, mid 1960s . . .

in which she discusses working with director George Cukor, her sometimes antagonistic relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, and argues that films have now — even in the mid 1960s — become committee projects, which either “make a lot of money or lose a lot of money,” in the words of the interviewer. One of the last of the MGM stars, Crawford here seems somewhat old-fashioned, and deeply judgmental, clearly longing for the past, but at the same time realizing that the studio system she grew up in — “I was born at Metro” — is now a thing of the past.

Jean-Luc Godard on Film Criticism, 1963

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Here’s a remarkable interview with director Jean-Luc Godard shot for French television in 1963, just after the release of his masterpiece Le Mépris (Contempt).

It’s both fascinating and a bit sad that Godard describes film criticism of his era as essentially an “honest” field, noting that critics are always “sincere,” whether he agrees with them or not, compared to today, when film criticism has become primarily a fan-based enterprise, and the daily critics are more under pressure than ever before to conform to commercial demands. Godard, of course, started out as a critic before he became a filmmaker, and as he admits in this clip, some of his early reviews were often “cruel” towards certain filmmakers and their works.

But at the same time, he doesn’t seem to mind the same slings and arrows when they’re directed at him, just so long as the critics really mean what they say. Godard also speaks frankly of the commercial pressures brought to bear on him by producer Joseph E. Levine during the making of the film, and demonstrates enormous grace under pressure in the process. It’s a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the world’s most innovative and often controversial directors; absolutely essential viewing.

Robert Bresson on Pickpocket (1959)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

This 1959 French television interview with Robert Bresson on his then-just-released masterpiece  Pickpocket is interesting for a number of reasons.

Compare this to his interview on L’Argent, made in 1983, roughly a quarter of a century later. Here, Bresson is relaxed, basking in the glow of admiration his film has justifiably received, but also in the fact that the new critics of the period at the influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma have singled out Bresson as one of the few “old school” directors worthy of continued critical attention, along with Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Pierre Melville and a few others.

Bresson here is at the top of his game, and he knows it; the questions are cold, hard, almost prosecutorial, but Bresson is more than up to the task of responding. He is beyond attacks now, consecrated by the New Wave as one of the few filmmakers that matter. The interviewers take his work seriously, and their roles as critics seriously, in sharp contrast to the “happy talk” interviews that predominate today, when someone comes on television to “plug” their latest film.

Bresson here has nothing to prove, and he knows that no one will contradict him; his reputation and his work speak for themselves, but more — the surrounding culture also respects his work, and he is entirely in tune with the cinema of his era. By 1983, cinema has changed so much that it’s mostly escapist genre fare, something that Bresson deplores; in 1984, François Truffaut, the leader of the Cahiers critics, and later a brilliant filmmaker in his own right, will die, and the world of cinema he championed will begin to expire with him.

But for now, all is in order, and the right priorities are being addressed; listen to what Bresson has to say about film, his work, and his guiding precepts.

MeTV — Classic Television Programming

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Would you like to see some real television programming? You know, with actors, scripts, solid production values, as opposed to something like American Idol, 1,000 Ways to Die or Hoarders? Well, you may be in luck. A new cable television channel, MeTV (short for Memorable Entertainment Television) may be able to help you, assuming it’s available in your area. What do they run?

How about 12 O’Clock High, Batman, The Big Valley, The Bob Newhart Show, Bonanza, Cannon, Car 54 Where Are You?, Cheers, Columbo, Combat, Daniel Boone, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Dobie Gillis, Family Affair, The Fugitive, Get Smart, The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Hawaii Five-O, Honey West, I Love Lucy, Kojak, Laurel and Hardy shorts from the 1930s, the British teleseries The Invisible Man,The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple, The Phil Silvers Show, The Rockford Files, The Rogues, The Untouchables, The Wild Wild West, Thriller and a whole lot more?

Tempting?

The best way to use MeTV is to simply set it up to record any of the series above that you wish on your DVR, and then save them up for a night when you can’t sleep, and can thus fast forward through the commercials, which are not, by the way, excessive. I flip on the television, and voila, there are about twenty or so programs saved up for me, and I can skip around as I choose, and enjoy the best of it.

The quality of these programs just leaps out at you, both in the dedication of actors and directors, but also the scripts, and the care of production. They’re television from the Golden Era of the late 50s through the late 1970s, and my only suggestion is that they add Topper and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to the mix. So, if this is an option for you, by all means take advantage of it; the series above might remind older viewers of the excellence of these programs; younger viewers may be surprised at just how thoughtful and intelligent television once was.

Marc Cherry of “Desperate Housewives” on Hollywood, The Biz and Life

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Click on the bucolic image above to see the promo for Season 8 of DH.

As I’m sure you know, the long-running nighttime soap Desperate Housewives is running its final lap right now, with the conclusion coming up shortly. Series creator Marc Cherry, above, will make a brief guest appearance on the final episode of the series, and offered these thoughts, as reported by Nellie Andreeva in Deadline Hollywood, on the end of the show, and his future within the industry. They’re worth reprinting here, as an example of how things change, how to cope with that change, and how to deal with what life hands you.

“People keep asking me if it’s bittersweet, and I go, ‘No.  It’s completely sweet,’ because I’m smart enough to know, when I started this ‑‑ this is my 23rd year as a professional writer ‑‑ there’s no such thing as a job that goes on forever.  All good things come to an end.  And I was SO [screwed]. I was in ‑‑ like a $100,000 in debt to my mother.  I went through years without an interview for a job.  No one thought I was anything.  I had friends that didn’t even call for a while.  And then, like, I write this script because it was my attempt to show people that I was a better writer than maybe they thought, and all hell broke loose.  And right from the start, I knew it was going to be a roller coaster, but I’m smart enough, and the way my mom brought me up, I was humane enough to go, ‘It’s all good.  Even the bad stuff is good.  Even those days when I’m exhausted’ ‑‑ and for those of you who saw me, I’m, like, 50 pounds thinner than I was the first season because I was stuffing carbs into my face constantly to write because I was writing so much of that first season.  That’s why I was so thankful when folks like (exec producer) Bob (Daily) came along to take some of the burden off me ‑‑ that even during the bad times, it was fantastic.  Even, like, when some other show comes along and it’s the hot new show, I’m like, ‘Good for you.  Go with it, babe.’  This is how this industry works.  It’s like life.  To everything there is a season.  Our seasons are coming to an end.  And so I just ‑‑ for all of us, we’re just so grateful for the ride we’ve had because not many people in this business get to experience what we have all collectively experienced.  So that’s how I feel, is just grateful and looking forward to the next chapter.”

James Mason for Thunderbird Wine

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Click on the image above to view this “unusual” commercial.

“I like the unusual flavor of Thunderbird wine. It’s an exceptionally good drink for every occasion. Thunderbird has an unusual flavor, all its own. Not quite like anything I’ve ever tasted. I suggest that you try Thunderbird. It’s really delightful.” — James Mason

James Mason made this brief, 30 second spot for Thunderbird Wine in 1964 — but why? The reason is simple; he needed the cash. As Siobhan Staples notes, “after an acrimonious and expensive divorce from Pamela [Kellino] in 1962, Mason realized he would need to keep the money coming in to support himself as well as his ex-wife and two children. He worked almost constantly over the next twenty-two years – not always in the best films, but always giving a faultless performance.”

This commercial has become something of a legend, and pops up in various places on the web. As others have commented, the sight of the urbane, distinguished actor pitching Thunderbird is hopelessly incongruous; Orson Welles acting as a spokesperson for Paul Masson is one thing, but after this, what’s next? Sir Laurence Olivier for Ripple?

In his autobiography, Before I Forget, Mason notes that he was paid a paltry $10,000 for the spot – “I could use it,” he noted – which Mason accepted only on the condition that he be allowed to actually write the script. Then, as he admitted, he took great delight in coming up with a decidedly “unusual” text. Yet as always, Mason carries off his role with aplomb and more than a little irony, which is certainly more than understandable under the circumstances.

A toast to 2012, then, from James Mason and Thunderbird!

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

They’re in black and white, which was once an economical production medium. They’re shot on 35mm film. Most were made on a strict six-day schedule. They were shot almost entirely at Universal City. The series started out as a half hour show in 1955, and then switched to an hour format in 1962, ending its run in 1965. Each episode was shot like a feature film, in “single camera” format, rather than in sitcom format, and production values — especially story lines and guest stars — to say nothing of the physical execution of each segment were exceptionally high.

As an anthology series, there were no continuing characters; it was an entirely new show every week. Hitchcock’s own input into the series was minimal, but he directed a few episodes of the series, and watching the Universal TV crew work, he was inspired by their speed and efficiency to shoot his groundbreaking film Psycho there, breaking away from the slower crews at Paramount, where he had spent the 1950s. All in all, 363 episodes were shot over a ten year period.

An enormous number of exceptionally talented actors, writers and directors contributed to the series, including actors Ed Asner, Mary Astor, Roscoe Ates, Gene Barry, Ed Begley, Charles Bronson, Edgar Buchanan, John Cassavetes, Jack Cassidy, Dabney Coleman, Joseph Cotten, Bob Crane, Hume Cronyn, Robert Culp, Bette Davis, Francis De Sales, Bruce Dern, Brandon De Wilde, Angie Dickinson, Diana Dors, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, John Forsythe, Anne Francis, Edmund Gwenn, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Herbert, Lou Jacobi, Joyce Jameson, Carolyn Jones, Don Keefer, Brian Keith, Jack Klugman, Peter Lawford, Christopher Lee, Cloris Leachman, Peter Lorre, Dayton Lummis, E. G. Marshall, Walter Matthau, Darren McGavin, John McGiver, Lee Majors, Steve McQueen, Tyler McVey, Joyce Meadows, Vera Miles, Vic Morrow, Robert Newton, George Peppard, James Philbrook, Sydney Pollack, Judson Pratt, Vincent Price, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, William Shatner, Henry Silva, Barbara Steele, Jan Sterling, Dean Stockwell, Jessica Tandy, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Waring, Dennis Weaver, Joanne Woodward, Fay Wray, and Keenan Wynn.

It’s an elegant, intelligent, well designed series, the like of which we will never see on television again. Black and white has vanished as a production medium, along with the artistic values that went with it. Film has also vanished, leaving everything to be shot with a slick, artificial digital sheen. The violence quotient has been upped so that gruesome rapes and murders are now commonplace on shows such as Law and Order SVU and the CSI series; it seems that plot, acting, and nuance have been left behind. Let’s raise a glass, then, to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, one of the most innovative and artistically ambitious television series ever produced — on a budget, on a schedule, on an assembly line, even — but with style, elegance, and wit, down to Hitchcock’s droll introductions and commercial break announcements, which the director performed himself.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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