At the beginning of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy declares that all happy families are alike. This certainly seemed true of the happy families who populated American TV in the ’50s and ’60s, especially the sitcoms full of pleasantly competent housewives, bread-winning husbands, and cute if slightly mischievous offspring whose problems were easily resolved within half an hour.
There was a flipside, however, or rather, a flippant side. A few oases on the prime time schedules seemed dedicated to the proposition that middle-class suburban marriage was hell on earth. The most prominent example of this was Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where stories regularly featured spouses at each other’s throats, literally. Hitchcock himself hosted these tales with droll little soliloquies to the effect that all this marital murder was jolly good fun.
This was a dominant theme of the show, though not the only one. Episodes explored plenty of other modern anxieties, generally within a solidly American middle-class framework. Still, viewers vividly recall certain marital murders, the most famous probably being the Hitchcock-directed “Lamb to the Slaughter”, in which a devoted housewife (Barbara Bel Geddes) reacts to her husband’s intention to file for divorce by bludgeoning him to death with a frozen leg of lamb and feeding the evidence to the police.
That celebrated 1958 episode was written by Roald Dahl from his own short story. In 1961, Dahl was tapped to host a new anthology that preceded Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone on Friday nights. Dahl’s series, which ran for only 14 episodes, feels like a merging of Serling’s horror and sci-fi with Hitchcock’s obsession with unhappy marriages. Almost every episode features an oppressive relationship, either with a domineering husband and mousy wife or a nagging shrew and her henpecked hubby.
Dahl’s show was called Way Out, although for some reason the opening titles have an apostrophe before “way”. What’s being omitted? Is “way” short for “away”? In any event, this show has been invisibile for decades, although executive producer David Susskind reportedly donated the tapes to the Paley Center for Media, where they can be seen — if you live in New York or Los Angeles.
It turns out that 11 of the 14 episodes are currently on YouTube in lousy if watchable shape. I’m not one of those who believe that such exposure of obscure shows will impede a legitimate, cleaned-up release. Rather, people who become exposed to the show in this way will be the first to get excited by the prospect of any official DVD, if someone should make the effort to put one out.
These are kinescopes (recorded off TV monitors during broadcast) with commercials for L&M cigarettes and other CBS shows. These episodes have the staging and direction of live TV, cutting between cameras on adjacent sets where all the action occurs. It was late in the day for live anthologies, but these shows were videotaped in New York “as live”, which is why announcer Paul Tremayne says they’re “pre-recorded”. This can be proven by the episode “20/20”, which employs jump cuts where the actor goes from one scene to another by removing his glasses — so it’s clearly not a live broadcast. But the others might as well be, because these are polished late examples of live video technique.
Any “regular” music is by Robert Cobert, later of the gothic soap Dark Shadows, and there’s much electronic music by three important pioneers in the field identified by their surnames only: Otto Luening, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Tod Dockstader. Their contributions are paramount elements in most episodes.
David Susskind is executive producer, and the producer is a woman, Jacqueline Babbin, who worked with him often and later did soaps and prestigious TV movies. You can check Wikipedia and IMDB for her impressive credentials as one of the most prominent women TV producers of the era. What you won’t find on Wiki is that Babbin is the subject of Double Life: Portrait of a Gay Marriage from Broadway to Hollywood (Open Road, 2013) by Alan Shayne and Norman Sunshine. According to Shayne, who became a Warner TV exec, the lesbian Babbin proposed a beard marriage when he was a struggling gay actor. Susskind, not gay, is widely credited with hosting the first national talk show that regularly featured “gay rights” guests, including the head of the very mainstream-respectable Mattachine Society.
I find it interesting that two anthologies based on middle-class marriage as nightmare were produced by successful career women and that one of them was a lesbian. Hitchcock’s show was produced by Joan Harrison, one of the few female producers in Hollywood as far back as the ’40s. She was married to suspense novelist Eric Ambler.
On Way Out, Dahl does his own droll Hitch-like intros, whispering and gasping a little as if drugged or about to have a breakdown, usually against a monitor that features a receding series of his own image to modestly hallucinatory effect. On three episodes, he opens with recipes for wives for killing their husbands.
Dahl scripted only one episode, the premiere, “William and Mary“. It’s based on one of his own stories, and he later re-adapted it for his own syndicated anthology, Tales of the Unexpected. IMDB informs me that it was also turned into an episode of a 1968 BBC series called Late Night Horror.
In this Way Out version, Henry Jones plays the harshly domineering hubby, supposedly a brilliant philosopher on his deathbed, who browbeats his drab doormat of a better half, played by Mildred Dunnock. Fritz Weaver plays the excited doctor who wants to put the husband’s brain in an aquarium and keep it alive after death. Barnard Hughes plays another doctor, and he’d still be playing one in the ’70s sitcom, Doc.
The story goes nowhere slowly, and its effect depends on the heightened performances. As with many episodes, The Limelighters sing for L&M, and really the whole story feels like a kind of a commercial for smoking.
Prolific TV director Marc Daniels, who did everything from I Love Lucy to Hogan’s Heroes to Alice, with lots of Star Trek and Marcus Welby along the way, handled this episode and the next one, “The Down Car”, which is currently unavailable. Neither are the next two, “The Sisters” and “Button Button”.
The fifth episode is “I Heard You Calling Me“, whose surprise ending is that it’s no surprise. Like the others, it’s pretty much a chamber piece, and Constance Ford (The Naked Kiss ) is very good as a mistress on the phone in a hotel room, losing her marbles. Anthony Dawson, who plays her married lover, specialized in villains, for example in Dial M for Murder and Dr. No.
Is the fatal concept of two women going away together a gay subtext? Maybe, maybe not, though writer Sumner Locke Elliott happened to be homosexual. He did lots of TV plays and is best known for his autobiographical novel Careful, He Might Hear You, which was turned into an excellent Australian movie.
Illustrious TV director Daniel Petrie, who worked often with Susskind, helmed this episode in the same year as his Susskind-produced feature film of A Raisin in the Sun, based on Lorraine Hansberry’s play. Petrie was prolific on TV, while his spotty feature career includes the well-made dramas Buster and Billie and Resurrection.
The following episode, “The Croaker“, is a bizarre tale marked by harsh and witty dialogue. “This was nature’s zenith, her apotheosis. All things beyond the frog are just mutations of the frog,” declares the nutty neighbor (the eternally patrician John McGiver) to a self-possessed boy played, astoundingly, by Richard Thomas, future star of The Waltons. Who knew he was this good a child actor? The inevitable bickering couple, played by Madeleine Sherwood and Rex Everhart, also snarl some good ones.
“I don’t mean to suggest what we call domestic infelicity,” says the cop, inadvertently naming the theme of the series. He also tells the tyke, “I can hardly wait till you’re 18. Sometimes you can hit ’em when they’re 15.”
It’s too bad that writer Philip Reisman Jr.’s other two episodes, “The Down Car” and “Soft Focus”, aren’t available. Director Paul Bogart was a very prolific TV guy most famous for All in the Family.
Bogart also directed the next episode, “False Face“, and for the first time I understand why the announcer makes a point of mentioning that Dick Smith is in charge of makeup. That future Oscar winner became one of the great makeup artists, a pioneer in prosthetic effects, and his early work is indeed excellent in this story of an actor (Alfred Ryder) who “borrows” a man’s hideous face to play Quasimodo. For a change, there’s no unhappy marriage, but the protagonist treats his girlfriend shabbily.
The simple concept — inner ugliness comes to the surface — is from writer Larry Cohen, who contributed to many fine shows and became a fascinating low-budget auteur specializing in mystery and horror. He would create the series Branded, Coronet Blue and The Invaders.
The eighth episode is possibly the masterpiece: “Dissolve to Black“, with more good Dick Smith makeup. This concept is especially ingenious because it simply uses the TV studio as a set–like the Tales of Tomorrow episode “The Window”, one of the great examples of live TV. The subtext is something about the acting life, as in “False Face”. Kathleen Widdoes, best known for the daytime soap As the World Turns, plays the confused heroine. Young Michael Conrad and Leonardo Cimino are in the night crew, while the day crew includes Mark Lenard, who would play Spock’s father on Star Trek.
Director William Corrigan was an early TV anthology guy who did the radio transplant Lights Out. Writer Irving Gaynor Neiman also wrote the next episode, “Death Wish”, and the unavailable “The Sisters”.
A minor masterpiece second only to “Dissolve to Black” is “The Overnight Case” (very good title) with Barbara Baxley, Kevin McCarthy and Martin Balsam. The two episodes are similar in that they drop viewers into the middle of the uncanny without explanation. You could say that this one also goes nowhere, but it does so deliriously in a manner that would fit The Twilight Zone. Kudos to writer Nicholas Pryor and director Bogart. Pryor has only one other IMDB credit for this same year: “Summer Rental” on Great Ghost Tales. I’ve checked; it’s not on YouTube.
Neiman’s script for “Death Wish” offers a similarly surreal ending, while Boris Sagal handles that ending in an interesting manner. As is par for the show, this is a talky episode about spouse murder, but Charlotte Rae’s characterization of the TV addict is funny “and true to life, don’t you think so?” Especially when she talks about that show with that actress who was in the other one.
Her unhappy spouse is played by Don Keefer, who played another miserable husband in the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life”. He certainly didn’t have good luck. The undertaker is played by Heywood Hale Broun a few years before his long career as a TV sportscaster.
Then comes “Hush Hush“, in which the wife (Rosemary Murphy) is domineering until her scientific husband (Philip Coolidge) makes her a psycho for silence. It’s more of a flimsy anecdote. Writer Robert Van Scoyk is best known for mysteries and later did Murder She Wrote. Director Mel Ferber was another busy TV guy, especially in sitcoms.
Murray Hamilton and Doris Roberts are the unhappy couple in “Side Show“, a horror outing with an unnerving situation, very well done visually. The character of Cassandra (played by Margaret Phillips) is a brilliant creation. Unfortunately, closing credits cut off the director, but IMDB tells us it’s Seymour Robbie. Writer Elliott Baker, who also scripted the unavailable “Button Button”, is most famous for his novel A Fine Madness, which he adapted into the film of the same name.
Next comes the unavailable “Soft Focus”, for which Dick Smith created a “half-face” mask seen in the Wikipedia entry for this series.
The series wrapped with “20/20” (video embed below). Writer Jerome Ross provides the wittiest dialogue (“They’re thick as thieves, my wife and Mahatma”) and the series’ only happy couple–not the salesman (comic actor Milton Selzer) and his bickering wife (Ruth White) but the beatnik-ish taxidermists played by Sudie Bond and Frederick Rolf. The last shot of this one adds one twist too many, so the backstory doesn’t quite make sense to me. More significant is the fact that this one makes editorial transitions impossible on live TV, thus proving the series was videotaped in the “live” style. This is Paul Bosner’s only director credit.