By Cory Barker, Les Chappell Andrew Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
It’s The Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television by Christine Becker
Chapter 2: Faye Emerson and the Early Television Personality
Les: Sorry to miss the opening chat on technical grounds, but glad to be back in the conversation. Like the three of you, I’m definitely enjoying this book, even though I agree that it was a bit dry in the early goings. There’s a lot of very interesting stories here and it’s good to see this study of a period of change—where film was on the decline and television was on the rise—and seeing how the confluence wound up shaping the industry.
Out of the first chapter, I particularly enjoyed reading how Dick Powell and David Niven, after so much time as stars, used television to essentially reinvent their careers. And it was a two-way street, in that television wound up getting a boost for their involvement as well. It’s interesting to see that basically, television was viewed as a step down, until people started to see it as a step up—or more pragmatically, a step sideways, where they could at least get some promotional material for their film projects.
Noel: I think “a step sideways” is pretty spot on, both for those who only occasionally appeared and those who were seeing film careers decline.
Les: And also for those actors and actresses who knew that if they couldn’t be as big stars on television, they could at least have more fun. Mary Astor called her experience on various anthologies “experimental, crazy and wonderful,” and Niven talked about getting a dozen good roles in a year where films only gave him one every few years. Television really comes across as being the tool actors, tired of being so firmly yoked to the studios, used to either get steady paying work or take further control of their careers.
Noel: Right, but a risky tool to use, too, since it wasn’t A) a guarantee to work and B) could’ve prevented them from never getting back into film. And, as this chapter makes clear, could break you as quickly as it makes you.
Les: Exactly—the dangers of being such a nascent form of business and technology. It had advantages, but it was still figuring itself out to a large degree, so being in the “right place, right time” was even more important than being smart and talented. Though in the case of the people this chapter studies—Groucho Marx, Dinah Shore, Arlene Francis and of course First Lady of Television Faye Emerson—smarts and talent were very necessary.
Noel: Exactly. I don’t want to dig into Faye Emerson too much just yet, but it’s kind of crazy that the way TV was this time that she managed to get to get not one but TWO shows after a few brief appearances. And Arlene Francis seemed to be the Ryan Seacrest of her day, doing way too many shows all the time.
Andy: It shows how much TV was still a form figuring itself out—the normal rules, templates, career progressions, whatever—they didn’t exist yet. Someone could drop right into a career because, well, what were you going to do? Wait for someone with 10 years on their CV? They couldn’t yet define a TV star, but they knew one when they saw it. Like porn.
Noel: Well, you weren’t going to wait 10 years for a TV personality, but a movie star of some sort was what folks wanted, figuring it would help sell the show. But you needed to be a certain type of movie star. Not too glamorous, but not too aggressive either.
Les: And as Christine gives many examples of, movie stars in their existing forms were more difficult to translate into the television format. Television sold itself on bringing these people into your homes regularly, and the way the studio sold its stars, they were too intimidating for that access. Movie stars were larger than life, which was exactly what the studios wanted.
Cory: That line of discussion is my favorite part of the book. The idea that film stars were too powerful, almost too bright, or in the case of women, too beautiful, for television is very compelling. It’s one of those things that when you initially think about you scoff, or if you’re not well-versed in media/celeb/culture studies you don’t quite “get,” but it makes total sense. And I liked how the book provided examples that went both ways. Some actresses were too pretty for television. Others were too dumb. The assumption that television performers had to be dynamic but also welcoming is somewhat patronizing, but it works.
Noel: And it still fits in today, too, when we think about folks who have tried their hands at talk shows, regardless of the industry they’re coming out of to go into a TV talk show. Think about the failed talk shows from like Chevy Chase, Tony Danza, Bonnie Hunt, Megan Mullally, Sharon Osbourne, Roseanne Barr, and Wayne Brady. Why didn’t they click? Some of them made their start on TV, albeit not necessarily being themselves, which—as this chapter makes clear—seems to be key to a successful TV presence, at least in the TV chat show format. Whereas the three big talk show titans of our age (Oprah, Rosie, and Ellen), figured it out.
Cory: What’s great about reading a book about past industrial conventions is that we can really see how those things were codified and established, which helps us further recognize how they fit today, and how they might not.
Andy: And also what might’ve been. Christine mentions how Faye Emerson was offered the chances to replace Jack Paar on one of his shows, and to co-host Tonight with Steve Allen. Had she established herself for any period of years in such a role, might late night—the one corner of the TV universe that’s remained persistently male—evolved differently?
Les: The cynic in me says no. As we saw in the amount of beating Emerson took in the press for things like her weight and her revealing outfits, I just don’t think society was quite ready for that level of groundbreaking.
Noel: That’s a really interesting point. I mean, what women are on late night? Chelsea Handler…
Les: Whitney Cummings.
Andy: Joan Rivers’ guest-hosting stints during the Carson era might be the most entrenched network late night presence by a female… ever?
Noel: She was to Carson what Regis is to Letterman.
Cory: Yeah, great point Andy. Not only are certain mediums codified based on what supposedly works and what doesn’t, but certain timeslots or periods are as well. Even today, most of the women “talk show” hosts make their home in the middle of the day. And Handler, because she has to stick out at night, arguably goes too far into nasty territory to do so.
Les: Which makes Emerson a very interesting case—she was ahead of her time in many ways, but also still not in the right time period where she could have been a serious star. She was late night’s Joan Holloway.
Noel: So since we’re drawing her in more, what do we think about Emerson’s role as laid out in Chris’s book? What does she tell us about TV then, and now?
Les: I think from a readability standpoint, I definitely enjoyed this chapter more than the last one, being a bit more focused on Emerson (and her contemporaries) as opposed to the full spectrum of stars. And I think she’s a good illustration of, as we mentioned before, the way television was a serious advantage to some stars. Emerson was an actress who could play most any role, but drove Warner Brothers slightly crazy because they couldn’t make her an archetype. When she went to TV, she didn’t have to play a part other than herself, or at least variations on the format.
Cory: Again, I think Emerson’s success (as short as it was) shows us what kind of persona worked the best on television. Chris provides a great number of examples that discuss the qualities that made Emerson a viable, relatable but also admirable TV presence. And what was particularly intriguing to me is how once Emerson started to get a tiny bit more political and her waist started to swell, there wasn’t necessarily a spot for her. Not that she wanted it, but still.
From my interpretation of the chapter, it seems like Emerson worked so well because she appealed to everyone. She was beautiful enough that women wanted to be her, yet not so much so that they were too intimidated by her. And clearly, men enjoyed her visual presence quite a bit. The book didn’t talk a lot about the children constituency, but she was sort of like a four-quadrant hit, or whatever buzzy industry lingo you want to use.
Les: And not just because of the V-neck dresses.
Andy: Not that she didn’t face plenty of backlash—not just for any hints at sexuality or assertiveness, but for daring to speak her mind on intellectual or political topics. I’d say it beggars belief, except… well, I have the Internet.
Les: Precisely. She was a perfect quantity for a medium that was trying to figure itself out.
Cory: It’s sort of no surprise then that she floundered once she tried to do something new. The medium was still in flux, but people already had certain expectations for who she was.
Les: And even in the controversies she inspired—her body, her political views—she was a smart woman who could debate the points as necessary. Not that she ever could win those debates, but I blame the times more than I blame her.
Noel: I think those expectations are what caused her to burn out, as it were. I mean, fleeing the country is a pretty serious reaction to things.
Les: And then fleeing once again after a brief visit where one person recognizes you. Then again, she certainly didn’t need to work anymore. I got the impression while she may have only lasted a short time, she was shrewd enough with her finances there was little reason not to relocate to Spain. I’d really like to read a full biography of Emerson, if one exists—this chapter has me wanting to know more.
Andy: The concept of celebrity, how it has changed and how it hasn’t, is one of the book’s main motifs. What stands out about Emerson is how she seemed to view celebrity as a means rather than an end. Once she found herself with this platform and a little bit of power—far more than most Americans would ever have, let alone most women—she determined to use it. She didn’t just rest on her laurels, go along to get along and cash her checks and rack up her TV Guide covers.
Les: While I got the impression Shore and Francis were more willing to do so. (Marx of course is a different thing: he’d had his career, with You Bet Your Life he was just having fun.)
Andy: Granted, she did so delicately, working within the existing power structures as needed, because what good is a platform if you can’t keep it. But she was testing the boundaries where she could. And, going back to my original arguments, she was able to test those boundaries, because at the time they hadn’t been drawn for the industry yet.
Noel: Do we feel those boundaries have been drawn now?
Cory: I think they are still pretty rigid. The flow is different, but still similar. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert both toiled around with random TV show and film gigs (and in Stewart’s case, even other hosting jobs), but they’ve found success on television for very specific reasons. And they’ve found that success on cable, where it’s easier to be “controversial.” Someone like Jimmy Fallon is one of those performers who is just tailor-made for television. He can’t really act, like at all, but he’s very likable, can be funny in short bursts and gets along with better celebrities.
It all goes back to the ‘scale’ of persona or image, if you will. Jimmy Fallon is a “TV personality.” He fills the TV screen well. But on the film screen? Holy hell, I SAW Taxi.
Les: Wow. I didn’t think anyone saw that.
Andy: That decision is between you and your god.
Noel: Okay, so, I’m kind of seeing this, but I’m not convinced about boundaries here. I mean, I’m thinking about both sensational stuff, like Oprah holding up a big bag of fat, but less sensational stuff like Ellen talking about her home life with Portia de Rossi on her show. I mean, there’s a political bent to both those actions that may not have been accepted without the societal changes that helped them along. Would Faye Emerson have thrived in today’s talk show environment (ratings issues aside)? I freely admit, by the way, that both Oprah and Ellen’s rise to TV talk show stardom differ very heavily from Emerson’s, so this comparison is unfair. But, for the sake of discussion.
Les: Unfortunately, since I haven’t seen any of Emerson’s show, I can’t answer that question as well as I’d like. I think she was obviously smart enough to do so—she covered guests of every topic and spectrum, wrote a syndicated column, and debated William F. Buckley himself on multiple occasions. And I think in today’s more liberated media scope, she’d have probably reveled in the chance to make more open jokes. Her good-natured humor about Pepsi probably would have evolved into Colbert-esque digs at the sponsors, and I’m sure her necklines would have turned into a recurring gag.
One last thing I do want to add that discouraged me a little about reading this chapter, in the comments on Emerson’s weight that dogged her and probably helped push her out of the business. It’s depressing that in our current media landscape, she’d get the exact same flak, and it’d probably be ten times more caustic. So while TV has evolved considerably since The Faye Emerson Show, some things haven’t changed.
Noel: That was really discouraging. I doubt anyone talked about Groucho’s age on You Bet Your Life, or how frail he might’ve looked. And while image is important on TV, it’s not going to hurt you as much if you’re manage that image correctly, as we’ll see next week when we talk about anthology hosts, male and female. And, sadly, Emerson’s image, both mentally and physically, just wasn’t right for that format in the 1950s.
Les: Sad indeed—but considering she still collected enough money to retire to Spain, and became known as “the first television star created by television” as Cleveland Amory put it, it’s hard to think her story ended too badly. She may not have gotten it all, but she found the right approach to sell herself, as herself, and turn that into being a television personality. We’ll have to see next week if it was any easier for hosts to sell themselves when they had to sell a narrative as well.