[5 December 2007]
This is the third collection of seemingly random episodes (all that exist?) of Tales of Tomorrow, a live anthology series that ran on ABC from 1951 to 1953. Its seriousness can be seen by its attempt to involve professional science fiction writers (such as Theodore Sturgeon) and adapt contemporary SF stories, as well as reaching back to works of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Its chief limitation is an obviously non-existent budget that usually sabotages its ambitions.
Most episodes are only mildly engaging and some must have seemed dull and clumsy even at the time. At its best, the writing and acting came together in provocative little morality plays that are forerunners of The Twilight Zone. One of the best and most chilling of these, “A Child Is Crying”, is so far unavailable on DVD, though it was on the second volume of an old VHS collection.
However, the best episode, and what may well be one of the best uses of live TV, is on this set: a genuinely great piece called “The Window”. It’s one of several stories penned by the young Frank DeFelitta, whose writing career includes horror novels like Audrey Rose. At the end of “The Window”, the announcer says he hopes we found it an exciting and different kind of television experience; they understood how special it was.
DeFelitta’s conceit is similar to Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radion broadcast of The War of the Worlds. It begins like all the others, with the announcer booming out the title and acting credits we can see on screen. This is one of the conventions of live TV held over from radio, as is the single-sponsor method whereby a regular pitchman interrupts the story to give a spiel. The commercials are here; as in other network shows of this vintage, they were part of the program. This series alternates Kreisler watchbands and Masland carpets; a few later episodes don’t have a sponsor and use ABC programming promos.
So, after the first pitch, the announcer again gives us the title and actors, again printed on screen. That title, by the way, is “The Lost Planet”, not “The Window”. Then the drama begins, complete with brooding music and emphatic acting as a professor explains to his daughter that he’s made all the calculations, and by this time tomorrow the Earth will be a blazing—abruptly the signal is jumbled, and now we’re looking at three drunks framed by a window, two men and a frowsy woman acting out some literal kitchen-sink drama. One of these is Rod Steiger, a regular face in New York TV of the period, already in full naturalistic Method, stepping on others’ lines and jarring the viewer with his contrasting style just as the window drama jars with the aborted sci-fi plot.
We hear studio voices asking where this signal is coming from, and when the studio signal is regained, the actors are standing around in a fluster while the director, producer, and other personnel, all playing themselves, try to figure out what’s happening. An announcer is brought forward to apologize about “circumstances beyond our”—but is interrupted by the strange signal again. The whole episode fluctuates like this, with the sponsor managing to get in his next commercial just in time—whew!
The best explanation the studio folks can offer is some kind of mumbo-jumbo about a freakish weather phenomenon that’s bouncing signals from a real-life situation off an “ionised cloud” or something. What matters is that during the glimpses from the triangle going on in the kitchen, it becomes clear that two of the characters are plotting to murder the third. The rest of the episode cross-cuts between the intermittent signal and the TV folks’ frantic attempts to identify the location of the apartment. They appeal to the viewers for information and try to call the police.
This brilliantly conceived and executed playlet reminds us of something important, something most people may not even believe today. We think of the conventions of live TV as limitations, and perhaps overall, in the end, the people who made it thought so too, as everyone switched to film or tape for the convenience. These conventions include a limited number of sets grouped around the studio set, switching among several cameras, bits of visual business contrived to give actors time to move to the next set and change costume if necessary. In this hurry, boom-shadows are frequently visible, sometimes even a glimpse of camera.
Yet the form imposed on live TV was unique and could be exploited in its own right, for its potential was as different from filmed TV as live concerts are different from studio albums, or silent film from talkies. Live TV was its own art form and could be used to create dramatic experiences not possible on stage or film.
Another great example is the General Electric Theatre production of Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” starring James Dean and Natalie Wood in their first pairing. This circulates in the public domain in various Dean collections, shining like a beacon amid Dean’s mediocre TV projects. And guess what, it’s directed by the same Don Medford who did all these Tales of Tomorrow episodes—a subject for further research?
By the way, Dean fans, this DVD set includes a minor turn by Dean as a blond, bespectacled scientist in “The Evil Within”, with Steiger chewing more scenery. His wife accidentally ingests a serum that turns her evil, meaning wanton and uppity. As with many of these episodes, the performances are the whole show.
Leslie Nielsen, another ubiquitous presence on live dramas, appeared in several episodes and two of them are here. These are among the best episodes, although they tell more or less the same story of a desperate man who meets a mysterious older gentleman who promises to change his life and winds up exploiting him. In “Another Chance”, another clever DeFelitta tale presented with some style, it’s the chance to relive several years as a new man. In the even more sinister “Ghost Writer”, it’s a struggling writer’s chance to be creative for money, with unfortunate consequences. This Twilight-Zonish story by Mann Rubin isn’t even science fiction, but it’s good.
Many stories have deus ex-machina doctors or scientists who magically show up with a gadget that helps or hurts the protagonist, like the magic glasses in “Seeing Eye Surgeon” that allow miracle surgery or the vampiric device in “Youth on Tap”. “Past Tense” takes of the point of view of a doctor (Boris Karloff) who wants to be such a miracle person by taking penicillin into the past for profit, but he comes a cropper. In “The Horn”, Franchot Tone invents a horn that communicates emotions, but again the world isn’t ready. A scientist in the one-set play “The Bitter Storm”, with Joanne Woodward, invents a device that can broadcast the sounds of past events, leading to a conclusion that reveals this to be a very special Christmas episode.
“Many Happy Returns” and “The Great Silence” are pure slices of Cold War paranoia, respectively about a moon monster who brainwashes the town’s children and a very effective dwarf-alien in a ridiculous model ship who makes everyone lose their voice. Both are about heroes who use dynamite to avert invasion. The latter stars Burgess Meredith.
One of the more physically ridiculous yet philosophical tales, “Read to Me Herr Doktor”, stars a strident Mercedes McCambridge as the daughter of scientist Everett Sloane. They are terrorized by a boxy robot who’s read too much literature. The other episodes are set in the jungle: “The Fury of the Cocoon”, about invisible giant mosquitoes from a meteorite, and “The Fatal Flower” with two bickering botanists and a man-eating plant.
A voice at the end of each episode announces that this was a “special videorecording” of a live ABC broadcast, meaning these are kinetoscopes filmed off a TV monitor. Of course they look lousy, at best not sharp and at worst with visual artifacts such as stripes and the like.
The episode guide included seems to have been compiled without reference to watching the shows. It gives some info that doesn’t appear onscreen, especially extras in the cast of a few episodes, but for “Youth on Tap” fails to list two actors who are credited. It makes the interesting claim that Frederick Pohl scripted “Many Happy Returns”, but the credits don’t mention him and other writers are listed. It twice gives a wrong first name for director Don Medford. Finally, the one-line summaries don’t always match the action. Aside from all that and a couple of typos, it’s reliable!