By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
It’s The Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television by Christine Becker
Chapter 3: The Star and the Story: Anthology Drama Hosts
Andy: So. Anthologies. I’ll be honest: I could not stop thinking of the Cryptkeeper, like, the entire time. Anthology shows—certainly the kind with a recurring host who stands apart from and comments on the main story—are something of a relic. Tales from the Crypt was my first experience with anything like them. And from the way the original format is described in this chapter, and the roles and personae of the hosts, I think Crypt really made an effort to be faithful to that genre.
Cory: Yeah, various networks and production companies have tried to make the anthology work over the last decade or so and mostly failed. Like the miniseries, the anthology had more or less gone by the wayside. But like HBO did with the mini, it’s trying to resurrect the anthology. At the Television Critics Association session Thursday, there was some good discussion about the upcoming True Detective anthology. I’m really excited to see that, both because it’s HBO trying to put (another) new spin on the cop show and because it’s an anthology.
Noel: I’m fascinated that both you and Andy went right to Tales of the Crypt. My mind immediately went to PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre (now just Masterpiece) and its many hosts.
Les: I went to Twilight Zone, personally. To me, Rod Serling is the personification of the anthology host—that incredibly distinctive voice is the thread connecting every story. Of course, he also had an advantage in that he was also the creative force behind that show.
Cory: Browsing through Wikipedia, I realize that Goosebumps was officially an anthology. So, THAT I actually remember watching. R.L. Stine was just about as creepy as any of those cheap productions.
Andy: But did he wear spats and a flower in his lapel, like Adolphe Menjou, host of Favorite Story and one of this chapter’s primary subjects?
Cory: He did not. he just spoke in a voice that made me uncomfortable. Wikipedia classifies MTV’s Undressed as an anthology. How do we feel about that, in light of this chapter’s focus on having a host?
Noel: Well, the host seems mobilized in a very particular way that a lot of the series we’re discussing don’t necessarily need, and are just trading on due to tradition at this point.
Les: I wish I knew if Menjou’s voice was uncomfortable or not. Like The Faye Emerson Show last week, this is another chapter where it’s kind of hard to get a sense of things because there’s none of it to sample. (At least through YouTube or any general video searches online.)
Andy: Though I felt fully immersed in the telling of the history. The strengths and weaknesses of his shows, the way the writing and the performances were sculpted to this particular format, were vivid and fascinating.
Noel: As the Menjou section makes clear—along with the discussion of Favorite Story producer and syndication pioneer Frederic W. Ziv (I want another chapter just about him)—stars were used to help legitimize the fare, make TV more than just the crass commercial box it was derided as. And, yes, to both Andy and Les, I think Chris does a nice job of navigating this history without the use of clips. You almost don’t need them, but she leaves you wanting them not out of frustration but out of a desire to watch what she’s watched.
Andy: It also reinforces the notion of the intimacy of TV, this idea that these stories couldn’t be conveyed without the pretense of a tonally fitting Virgil that the audience welcomed into their homes as a guide. That concept makes intrinsic sense to us when discussing talk shows, because that “inviting a guest” feeling remains. But here it underscores just how new it was to have a visual medium in one’s own living room. The host acted as a buffer, a maitre d’, a dinner party companion—whatever the mood of the series called for.
Les: That “tonally fitting” part is key to a lot of what’s been discussed so far in the book I think. A lot of stars looked down their nose at TV, but at the same time they couldn’t just walk across the street and pick up a project whenever they needed a few bucks. You had to be a certain kind of actor, or at least have a certain persona, to be on television for more than just a guest starring role. And clearly, a lot of actors couldn’t.
Noel: Poor James Mason.
Cory: Let me ask you guys something: The point that Les just made, it’s basically the same point the book and we have made throughout this discussion. Do we think this is getting repetitive at all?
Les: I don’t think repetitive is the right term per se, it’s just another example being used to support the book’s thesis. It might just seem that way because we’re taking it a chapter at a time, as opposed to discussing the whole.
Cory: On one hand, I would say “sort of.” There’s an obvious throughline here that Chris keeps pointing out: stars had to have certain personas to fit certain formats. That’s clear. On the other hand, however, I think that she points this out so well, with such quality examples, that I can easily move past any issues I might have.
Noel: I can see how you could feel that the book is repetitive, but Chris is making an argument here, and each chapter serves to illustrate the different ways in which stars interacted with television in ways that run counter to the perceived history.
Andy: Right. There’s a robust thesis here which is supported from a lot of different angles. But narratively, the stories and artifacts used to illustrate it at are multifaceted, and still entertaining for anyone enamored of this subject matter.
Les: And each chapter has something of a different focus on the star. Emerson was a star who couldn’t be typecast in films, but found a way to be successful on TV by playing herself. Menjou’s an actor who was very much typecast, but TV found a particular way to use that type in marketable fashion.
Cory: Those are all good points. I don’t want it to seem like I think the book is boring or particularly repetitive. I’ve certainly read my fair share of books that lost the thread halfway through, so it’s nice to tackle one that does not. And we all agree that each case study is compelling enough to wash away any real concerns. Each chapter succeeds in three things: Reinforcing the thesis, providing a quality case study to back up that thesis and supporting those first two things with historical contexts.
What stood out to people about this case study in particular and the kinds of things Menjou had to face/do to shift his image to fit within the boundaries of that era’s television?
Noel: “Tell him ‘Anybody except Lassie and Buddy Ebsen.’”
Les: I’d say what stood out to me here was just how in-depth the discussion was of how the sausage was made in putting Favorite Story together. Chris spends a lot of time on both what Frederic Ziv wanted to do with the TV show, and the circumstances by which Menjou—nobody’s first choice—wound up with the gig.
Andy: He was on the outs in Hollywood professionally, due to age, typecasting, and politics, so for him TV was the proverbial port in the storm.
Noel: Yeah, I feel like this ended up being more Ziv’s story than Menjou’s in a way. As a rough-and-tumble syndicator, Ziv was looking for that hook that Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan, and others gave to his broadcast competitors, and Menjou ended up fitting there. Despite his claims otherwise.
But Menjou fit with Ziv’s radio-carryover format of global high literature. Vaguely European. Stylish. Learned. And his star image easily slipped into those things.
Les: The politics were an interesting angle, and I like how that’s creeping into the conversation. We saw it last week when Emerson tried to voice her opinions and got shot down because of her gender, and now we’ve got Menjou being shot down because he was kind of crazy.
Noel: The rest, mainly the clever set dressing of maps and compasses and globes, kind of finished that impression.
Les: And of course, the chapter spends time on Ronald Reagan, who threw a lot of names to House Un-American Activities Committee.
Cory: This chapter was more wide-ranging in its focus than the last one. Menjou isn’t discussed as much as Faye Emerson, but he’s a great entry point to a handful of different topics – the development of the show and Ziv, image transition, industrial matters and political goings-on.
Les: And between Shirley Maclaine and Ronald Reagan, there’s also a lot more figures that are recognizable to the general audience.
Noel: But I think it’s it’s instructive that the focus is on Menjou rather than Reagan or Fonda or Young. Similar to the treatment that Groucho received in Chapter 2, these examples illustrate how the more top-tier names handled TV, but I think there’s something valuable about focusing on the lesser-recognized names, Menjou and Emerson so far. It points to the open field that was TV at the time, and how the collapse of the studio system really freed up folks who may not have otherwise thrived.
Cory: Agreed. Honing in on performers like this allows for less obvious anecdotes and analysis that gets closer to the heart of what was going on with television at the time, and also what kinds of star image changes had to be made to fit into that context.
Noel: Right. Established stars wouldn’t have been willing to change their images, or would’ve looked for projects to solidify an image (e.g., Reagan). But others could be, and were, more flexible.
Les: And given how flexible television itself was at that particular time, there were a lot of different ways they could wind up associated with these projects. One suggestion, one recommendation, and they could find themselves on a whole new career path.
Cory: Or be without work anywhere.
Let’s talk a little bit more about contemporary anthology. Noel, you hinted at this a little earlier, but are hosts necessary today? And if so, who would we like to see host a theoretical anthology?
Noel: I think it depends on your aims. I think yours and Andy’s examples—Stine and Cryptkeeper—feel driven by that tradition, or even represented a gentle poking at the format.
Les: American Horror Story is probably the most famous “anthology” currently airing, and it doesn’t have a host. And I shudder to think of who Ryan Murphy would cast in that role if it had one.
Noel: But Masterpiece has used a host since Alistair Cooke in 1971 to signify its difference from other programs on TV, to denote its quality, in a way that anthologies in the 1950s were doing. Plus, there’s that aspect of needing a guide through British television, someone to help navigate it, that circles around Masterpiece as well. Like having Laura Linney explain the entail in Downton Abbey. Or whatever that thing was.
Andy: Louie‘s carrying the anthology torch as strongly as any show around. But again, it doesn’t have a host introducing the stories, and it’s anchored around a recurring main character.
Les: I agree with you Andy that Louie actually is a fantastic example of one. Technically, you could interpret the comedy routines as some parallel universe versions host segments. I think the term “anthology” has become rather loose over the years—now it’s pretty much used to refer to any regular yet non-serialized type of programming.
Andy: I think in recent decades they’ve existed largely on the margins. Tales from the Crypt certainly was one. So was its contemporary Red Shoe Diaries. Horror and erotica, respectively, on cable at a time when cable didn’t have the prestige it does today.
Of course, my favorite example will always be Are You Afraid of The Dark. Though that show’s host segments were fictionalized and constituted something of an independent, lightly serialized story all their own.
Cory: Undressed, Goosebumps fit that margin designation as well.
Noel: So, horror, erotica, children’s programming, and then Quality British series on American public broadcasting. All somewhat marginal, depending on your approach the word. Either culturally, or ratings-wise.
Andy: Which gives me a great idea for a British horror-erotica for kids…
Noel: Alan Cumming is already hosting Masterpiece Mystery. He’d be perfect that series, too.
Les: But I don’t think there’s any reason why an HBO or Showtime couldn’t bring the anthology format back in a more substantial way – and the success of Louie and AHS might spur them to do so. As Cory mentioned, HBO has that True Detective show in the pipeline, and I could see them trying out a more traditional type if they thought it was worth their while.
Andy: Even so, I believe the host concept has had its day. I don’t think it’d work any longer, it seems like a product of a different era. I don’t think we watch TV the same way households in the 1950s did. We’ve grown up with it in our homes. We don’t feel as though we’re “welcoming” every program in like a guest.
Noel: Well, PBS, as I’ve said, is keeping it thus far. And I feel like they’re leveraging star images to help them maintain their sense of quality.
But you are correct, Andy, our sense of TV is different than it was in the ’50s, which is related to my point that the presence of a host is more of a nod to history than a necessity. That said, a little bit of me kind of wants Ryan Murphy doing intros for AHS, a la Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone.
Les: I want to see him send Mr. Schue out with his whiteboard for that.
Andy: Although some of the figures we’ve discussed from Chapters 2 and 3, like Faye Emerson and Adolphe Menjou, are remembered today marginally if at all, they were among the top of their professions in their time, no less than Lucille Ball or Jackie Gleason were. It reminds us how TV stardom in that early era was even more ephemeral and mercurial than celebrity typically is. Parts of that early legacy were destined to fade away within a generation or so. Other parts have endured in the popular memory, though. Next week we’ll look at a format that’s stuck around for half a century and counting: the sitcom.
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