By Cory Barker, Andrew Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
It’s The Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television by Christine Becker
Introduction – Chapter 1
Disclaimer #1: The four of us all know Christine, the author of the book we’ll be discussing for the next month. We’ve interacted with her on Twitter, Noel and Cory have met and presented with her at academic conferences, and Andy and Les have met her at GoodTVeets Con 2012. We selected her book of own volition, and just because we know Christine doesn’t mean we won’t needle her book like we did with Top of the Rock. In fact, we think Christine would be disappointed if we didn’t.
Disclaimer #2: Les is battling technical difficulties and couldn’t join us for this chat. He’ll be back, though.
Andy: Oh, absolutely. To me this book ready smoothly and quickly. There’s solid argumentation, but it’s buoyed by a lot of clearly realized stories from the period. Some are anecdotes and others are longer examinations, but it’s all generally enjoyable to read while supporting the underlying theories. I finished it in about a week.
Noel: I’m pretty happy to hear that. I was worried about it, especially this first chapter, being a bit dry, and even more so since I was the one who recommended the book in the first place. At least the first half of the chapter, which is a lot of history and context.
Andy: The introduction definitely has that academic feel to it, and I confess I skimmed that, expecting it would mostly be an overview of the ideas which would be expanded upon more entertainingly in the book proper. The first chapter also has some dry spots, but they weren’t an obstacle for me. Maybe I’m not a fair proxy for a true lay audience, either. I’m a history nerd and a TV nerd I too have a postgraduate education, so I’m a quasi-layman at best. Still, anyone who’s picking up this book probably has enough curiosity about the entertainment industry in some capacity to handle 20 or 30 pages of background. Now that I’ve made myself sound about as punchably pretentious as you can get, maybe Cory wants to jump in here.
Noel: Any more punchably pretentious than a guy writing about anime through a melodramatic lens? Puh-leeze.
Cory: Daglas, I’m happy to hear that you just skimmed the introduction with hopes of finding better details later. That’s like the exact opposite of some academics I know who just read the introduction for the three-sentence thesis descriptions of each chapter and then call it a day.
Noel: And the conclusion. We also read the conclusion.
Cory: Where all the great authors say, “eh, it’s complicated guys.”
Andy: Pointy-headed slackers. All right then, let me turn it back on you two: How did this introduction and table-setting work from an academic argumentation standpoint?
Noel: I wasn’t grooving on the intro much, but then I never really do. The first 10 to 20 pages of chapter 1 are very film history boilerplate, so I skimmed bits of that, too. Paramount Decree, studio system collapse, etc. But I think it’s done in a way that is actually very accessible and does a really solid job of setting up this context for TV’s rise in influence.
Cory: I think you’re both correct about the introduction, or at least the first few pages of it. There’s a great deal of groundwork being laid (duh) and a solid amount of literature reviewing going on as well. It’s a bit of a slog but far from as difficult as many other works I’ve read. And this book—or at least my enjoyment of it—is helped by the compelling subject matter. Although I would never write about it, I’m really interested in star studies, the construction of Hollywood images, etc., and for whatever reason, I never get too tired of reading about the collapse of the studio system.
Noel: Ha! Likewise.
Andy: It quickly drew me back into that era, so even when the going was slower I was in the right mindset. I think I watched two or three 1940s movies over the same time span I read the book.
Cory: Great way to supplement the reading.
Noel: Yeah, it was a really chaotic time for Hollywood, and it represents a good opportunity for TV to become a force in the media landscape, and I really liked how Christine structures this as a big event that affected stars, producers, exhibitors, and agents (a really under-discussed area of film history that is getting some attention now).
Cory: For sure. Even though much of these opening pages are moderate review, I do like how sprawling Chris’s anecdotes and facts are. She gives us a little bit of everything in a way that sets the stage nicely for more specific case studies that personify larger points and trends.
Andy: Sprinkled throughout the groundwork in the first chapter are bits and pieces of prologue to the stories that come later.
Noel: It’s really good foreshadowing, for lack of a better word!
Cory: Yes, though I’m not entirely finished with the book yet, I’ll say that it is very cohesive. From time to time, I’ll read an academic-y book that sprung to life from a dissertation and it will feel like a series of chapters only loosely connected by a few umbrella themes. This book, however, starts with some of the big picture stuff that might be review for academics but is still useful and informative nonetheless, and then nicely transitions to those case studies, while keeping some semblance of chronology in mind.
Andy: And the first chapter does find room for plenty of examples which form mini-case studies, like explaining how even John Wayne’s cursory endorsement of Gunsmoke set that series apart and helped redefine an entire genre.
Noel: That was a nice bit, which segues to my big love of that first chapter: I like how Chris paints a really complicated picture of where TV fit in this era. So much of the history gets focused on TV as a “bad object” for stars, but through her research, Chris shows how it wasn’t always that for some people. I especially liked the bits about how some sources pointed to TV as a way to become a truer actor.
Andy: Like everything else in Hollywood, that cocktail is two parts truth to one part spin. Or maybe the reverse.
Noel: Some of it is likely spin, to be sure, but she does at least acknowledge that account.
Andy: Oh of course. Spin on the primary sources’ part, not the author’s. I imagine that must make this particular field both frustrating and entertaining to research.
Noel: I would imagine. I haven’t done much primary research, though I imagine Cory has given his thesis topic. Have you run into that sort of thing, Cory?
Cory: You know, I didn’t actually do any either, which is probably a flaw in the work and something I’m strongly hoping to address with future work on the subject. I’ve been in touch with people after. Of course they’re willing to talk after they know you’ve written about them.
But you guys are right about the challenges there, and I think what really impressed me about these opening pages (and really the whole book thus far) is the breadth of research. I know Chris noted in our interview that as a dissertation, this work was mostly just a string of facts, and though I think it works really well with the argument laid over the top, that string of facts is extremely impressive. The way the book jumps from fact to fact and note to note, and how they build over time to create this clear picture of so many different things going on in the industry is just awesome, and really admirable. I can only imagine how much it took to look through all those newspapers, trade pubs, clips, etc.
I felt like my thesis work was tough and I had YouTube, Google and Ebsco. I don’t even want to imagine what Chris (and others) had to do before that. TECHNOLOGY.
Andy: By all means, Cory, keep inviting charges of whippersnapperhood.
Noel: Next he’ll wonder if Chris wrote this dissertation on a typewriter.
Cory: WORST PERIOD GENERATION PERIOD EVER PERIOD.
Noel: So what did you guys think about the resistance that gets outlined? The entire time I’m reading about how stars were worried that they were too old for film and going to TV would mean that their career was over or that it would dilute their image, and I’m thinking about how things are now, which we asked Chris about in the interview.
Andy: It’s interesting how that stigma has been lessened but never really goes away. I wonder if it has to do with the simple seniority of the medium? A lot of TV actors are involved in web series these days, and while you might not call it a step down for them, there’s also a certain tier of stars that you wouldn’t expect to traffic in that medium either.
Noel: Oh. That’s a really good connection that I totally didn’t think about. Do you have an example at your fingertips that you think kind of parallels the examples in the chapter? Because I can see how that might work out. “Well, the web series gives me a bit more freedom to explore different things in different ways,” which in turn mirrors David Niven’s discussions of all the roles he got to play on Four Star Playhouse.
Andy: Well, I don’t think the parallel’s exact. But think of folks like David Wain and Ken Marino and company doing something like Children’s Hospital. They have the clout to make that more notable than just some dude with a YouTube account would, but part of why they have that is from their existing TV and movie fan bases, going back to The State. That’s not the kind of production you could do on a lot of TV channels, but shifting to a younger outlet opens up a lot of possibilities, in the same way Niven—or someone like Faye Emerson, or even Groucho Marx, to jump ahead a chapter—had that opportunity on TV in the 1950s.
Cory: And what’s great about that parallel is both Nevins and Wain/Marino used those “secondary” options to get back into the so-called bigger market. Niven moved back to films and won an Oscar; Wain and Marino brought CH to actual television.
Noel: Right, exactly, Cory. And with real critical (albeit not industrial) love it seems, too.
Cory: This is a great discussion, and one that I imagine we’ll probably see a book about in 20-plus years. Someone will surely discuss how the Internet gave struggling film and TV actors a place of refuge.
Noel: And they damn well better cite this blog post.
Cory: I think there are tons of current examples that you mentioned Andy. Even someone like Joshua Malina fits. His career lost a little momentum in the aftermath of West Wing‘s conclusion, but he’s done a lot of oddball Internet stuff in recent years, which, combined with his Twitter account, has allowed his profile to re-grow, or change.
Andy: And then he parlayed that into some sweet Shonda Rhimes money. Or maybe he just auditioned like a normal person. I have no idea. I’m spitballing now.
Noel: Well, he’s done a lot of guest work as well, after having steady employment for a while between Sports Night and The West Wing. In a kind of odd way, he was on a big TV series, couldn’t find work after that, almost like a star kicked out of a the studios in the 1940s, and then used guest work on other shows, playing different types of characters (read: non-Sorkin surrogates), and rebuilding his resume.
Cory: Yeah, I don’t mean to demean his career. It’s not like he fell off the face of the Earth. But there’s definitely something to be said for what the Internet has done for struggling performers, and I think it definitely mirrors what TV did way back when.
Noel: In the similar fashion that some stars used TV teleplays to make ends meet, keep a career arrive.
Cory: Just for discussion’s sake, because I want to talk about the book’s discussion of image a bit: What do you guys think would be the correct “image” for today’s film/TV vets transitioning to some Internet work? If TV was all about being amiable, comforting and almost neighborly, what are our Internet adjectives?
Andy: Pwn. Meh. Epic. Fail. Epic fail.
Noel: Well, I think it kinds of depends on the web venue. If you’re on Funny Or Die, it’s not an issue, I think, since EVERYONE does Funny Or Die. And why? Because two guys who were on TV and then got into movies made Funny Or Die a safe place for celebs. It has that cultural safety that Chris outlines that certain anthology dramas had because of the stars that got there first.
Andy: Cultural safety, precisely. One of the most interesting themes of this book is how this new form of expression, and new form of commerce, was being rapidly locked into a comfort zone, where cultural mores and commercial concerns were gung-ho to cement a certain standard for TV in place—but the artists still had the chance to bend the mold around in subtle ways before the concrete set.
Cory: To close us out here, I wanted to gauge your guys’ thoughts on the book’s main argument, what Chris apparently added in after the dissertation. It’s a big part of the later chapters, so it makes sense to talk about it a little. I really like the way the book discusses not only the construction of star images and how certain images did or did not translate from film to television, but also how those images jibed with personal lives of these performers. Chris nicely lays out how our obsession with stars stems from this weird desire to know everything about them but also picture them in a certain light and is particularly adept in describing how television undercut that framework, at least at first.
Andy: And as the next chapter shows, some of the performers who had the greatest latitude to do that undercutting were those at the edges of their careers—on their way in or out the door of Hollywood, but not exactly fresh off the bus or ready for the retirement home either.
Cory: Most definitely. And we will talk more about that next week, and in the weeks ahead.
Join us next week for Chapter 2. And don’t forget to check out our interview with this book’s author, Chris Becker.