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
Nirajan: I apologize for missing the initial technical discussion, but I’m delighted to rejoin the conversation. Similar to the three of you, I’m thoroughly enjoying this book, although I concur that it had a somewhat dry start.
The text is brimming with intriguing stories, and it’s fascinating to witness this examination of a transformative period, where film was in decline and television was on the ascent, and how their intersection played a pivotal role in shaping the industry.
Within the first chapter, I found the accounts of Dick Powell and David Niven particularly captivating.
After enjoying considerable stardom, they leveraged television to reinvent their careers essentially, and it was a mutually beneficial arrangement, as television also gained from their involvement.
It’s interesting to note that television was initially perceived as a step-down, but perceptions shifted over time, with many viewing it as a lateral move.
More pragmatically, it became a platform where they could obtain promotional material for their film projects.
Muskan: I believe “a step sideways” is a rather apt description, applicable to both those who made occasional television appearances and those whose film careers were waning.
Nirajan: It was also a path for actors and actresses who recognized that even if they couldn’t attain the same level of stardom on television, they could at least enjoy themselves more.
Mary Astor described her involvement in various anthologies as “experimental, crazy, and wonderful,” while Niven discussed how he secured a dozen substantial roles in a year when films offered him only one every few years.
Television truly emerges as a tool that actors, weary of being tightly bound to the studios, utilize to either secure steady employment or exert greater control over their careers.
Muskan: Indeed, it was a risky tool, too, given that it wasn’t a guaranteed path to success and could potentially hinder their return to the world of film.
As this chapter highlights, it could elevate your career as swiftly as it could dismantle it.
Nirajan: Absolutely, the uncertainties that came with being such a fledgling business and technology were palpable. While television had its advantages, it was still in the process of defining itself to a significant extent.
During this time, being in the “right place at the right time” held even more significance than being smart and talented.
However, for the individuals explored in this chapter – Groucho Marx, Dinah Shore, Arlene Francis, and, of course, the First Lady of Television, Faye Emerson – intelligence and talent were essential attributes.
Muskan: Precisely. I won’t delve too deeply into Faye Emerson just yet, but it’s rather remarkable that, given the nature of television during this period, she managed to secure not one but two shows after only a few brief appearances.
Arlene Francis seemed to be the Ryan Seacrest of her era, juggling numerous shows simultaneously.
Astha: It reflects how television was still a medium in the process of finding itself. The conventional rules, templates, and established career trajectories simply didn’t exist yet.
Individuals could launch their careers almost out of necessity because there wasn’t a pool of experienced candidates with extensive CVs.
They couldn’t define a TV star by the book, but they could recognize one when they saw it, akin to the famous phrase about pornography.
Muskan: You weren’t going to wait a decade for a TV personality to emerge, but having some level of recognition as a movie star was what audiences desired, with the expectation that it would help draw viewers to the show.
However, there was a particular balance to be struck – not overly glamorous, but also not excessively assertive.
Nirajan: As Christine aptly demonstrates, movie stars, in their traditional forms, posed challenges when it came to transitioning into the television format.
Television’s selling point was the idea of bringing these stars into people’s homes on a regular basis, but the way studios marketed their stars made them appear too imposing for such intimate access.
Movie stars were perceived as larger-than-life figures, a quality that studios actively promoted.
Simran: That line of discussion is my favorite aspect of the book. The notion that film stars were too dominant, almost too radiant, or, in the case of female stars, too beautiful for television is highly compelling.
Initially, this idea might be dismissed, or for those not well-versed in media, celebrity, or cultural studies, it might not immediately make sense. Nevertheless, it aligns perfectly with reality.
I appreciated how the book offered examples that cut both ways. Some actresses were considered too attractive for television, while others were deemed too unintelligent.
The assumption that television performers needed to be dynamic yet approachable might come across as somewhat condescending, but it holds true.
Muskan: Furthermore, this concept remains applicable today, particularly when we contemplate individuals who have ventured into hosting talk shows, regardless of their original industry.
Consider the unsuccessful attempts of celebrities like Chevy Chase, Tony Danza, Bonnie Hunt, Megan Mullally, Sharon Osbourne, Roseanne Barr, and Wayne Brady.
Why didn’t they resonate with viewers? Some of them had their starts on television, even though they weren’t necessarily playing themselves.
As this chapter underscores, appearing genuine seems to be a crucial factor for a successful TV presence, especially in the format of TV talk shows.
In contrast, the three prominent talk show figures of our time – Oprah, Rosie, and Ellen – managed to figure it out.
Simran: One of the fascinating aspects of reading a book about past industry conventions is that it allows us to observe how those conventions were established and institutionalized clearly.
This, in turn, aids us in understanding how they continue to fit into the present and where they might fall short.
Astha: It also raises questions about what might have been. Christine mentions that Faye Emerson had opportunities to replace Jack Paar on one of his shows and co-host Tonight with Steve Allen.
If she had solidified her presence in such roles for an extended period, could the late-night genre, which has remained predominantly male, have evolved differently?
Nirajan: I’m somewhat skeptical. Given the backlash Faye Emerson faced in the media for aspects like her weight and revealing attire, I’m not sure society was truly prepared for such groundbreaking change.
Muskan: That’s a compelling point. When we consider women in late-night television, the list is relatively short. There’s Chelsea Handler…
Nirajan: Whitney Cummings.
Astha: Joan Rivers’ guest-hosting gigs during the Carson era might represent one of the most enduring network late-night female presences… ever.
Muskan: She was to Carson what Regis was to Letterman.
Simran: Absolutely, Astha, It’s not only certain mediums that are governed by what’s believed to work or not, but also specific time slots and eras.
Even today, most female talk show hosts tend to find their niche in the middle of the day. Handler, who has to stand out at night, arguably ventures into more controversial territory to do so.
Nirajan: Emerson’s case is truly fascinating. She was ahead of her time in many respects, yet she didn’t quite align with the era where she could have become a major star. In some ways, she was like late-nights Joan Holloway.
Muskan: Now that we’re delving deeper into her story, what are our thoughts on Emerson’s role as presented in Chris’s book? What insights does she offer about television back then, and how does that apply to the present?
Nirajan: From a readability perspective, I found this chapter more engaging than the previous one. It’s more centred on Emerson and her contemporaries, as opposed to a broad spectrum of stars.
She serves as a compelling example of how television provided a significant advantage to certain stars. Emerson was an actress capable of embodying various roles, but she somewhat confounded Warner Brothers because they couldn’t pigeonhole her into an archetype.
When she transitioned to television, she didn’t have to portray a character other than herself, or at least variations of her own persona.
Simran: Once again, I believe Emerson’s brief success offers valuable insights into the kind of persona that worked best on television.
Chris provides numerous examples that highlight the qualities that made Emerson a viable, relatable, and admirable TV presence.
What intrigued me particularly was how, as Emerson became slightly more politically engaged and her appearance changed, she found herself in a less secure position. Not that she necessarily sought it, but it’s worth noting.
From my understanding of the chapter, it appears that Emerson’s appeal was rooted in her ability to resonate with a broad audience.
She possessed a level of beauty that made women admire her without feeling intimidated, and her visual presence was clearly appreciated by men.
Although the book didn’t extensively touch on her appeal to children, she could be considered a four-quadrant hit, using industry terminology.
Nirajan: And it wasn’t solely due to her V-neck dresses.
Astha: Despite her widespread appeal, she faced substantial backlash, not only for any hints of sexuality or assertiveness but also for daring to express her opinions on intellectual or political matters.
It’s almost unbelievable, but then again, the Internet has shown us such reactions.
Nirajan: Indeed, she was a perfect fit for a medium that was still finding its identity.
Simran: It’s not surprising that she struggled when she attempted something new. The medium was evolving, but people had already formed certain expectations about who she was.
Nirajan: Even in the controversies she generated – whether related to her appearance or political beliefs – she was an intelligent woman who could engage in debates when necessary.
Not that she ever won those debates, but I attribute that more to the era’s mindset than to her.
Muskan: I believe those expectations played a significant role in her eventual burnout. Fleeing the country is a rather drastic response to the situation.
Nirajan: And then leaving once again after a brief visit where one person recognizes you. Nonetheless, it’s evident that she didn’t need to work any longer.
I got the impression that although her career was relatively brief, she was financially savvy enough to have little reason not to relocate to Spain. I’d love to read a full biography of Emerson if one exists – this chapter has left me eager to learn more.
Astha: The book prominently explores the concept of celebrity and how it has both evolved and remained consistent. What’s particularly striking about Emerson is her perspective on celebrity as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
Once she found herself with this platform and a modicum of power – considerably more than most Americans, especially women, would ever have – she made the deliberate choice to utilize it.
She didn’t simply rest on her laurels, conform to the norm, and collect her paychecks while accumulating TV Guide covers.
Nirajan: I had the impression that Shore and Francis might have been more inclined to take that path. (Marx, of course, is a different case; he had already had his career, and with You Bet Your Life, he was simply having fun.)
Astha: Granted, she navigated these challenges delicately, operating within the existing power structures as required because having a platform is only valuable if you can maintain it. However, she was pushing the boundaries where possible.
Returning to my initial points, she could test those boundaries because, at the time, the industry hadn’t firmly established them yet.
Muskan: Do we believe these boundaries have since been firmly established?
Simran: I think they are still quite rigid. The dynamics have evolved, but they remain somewhat similar.
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert both dabbled in various TV show and film roles (and, in Stewart’s case, even other hosting positions), but they found success on television for very specific reasons.
They achieved that success on cable, where it’s more acceptable to be “controversial.” Someone like Jimmy Fallon is a perfect fit for television.
He may not be much of an actor, but he’s immensely likable, can deliver humor in short bursts, and has good chemistry with celebrities.
It all comes down to the ‘scale’ of one’s persona or image. Jimmy Fallon is a “TV personality.” He fills the television screen effectively. However, on the film screen? Well, I took a Taxi.
Nirajan: Wow, I didn’t think anyone actually watched that.
Astha: That’s a decision between you and a higher power.
Nirajan: Did it also feature a charming foreign mechanic of uncertain origins, an irritable dispatcher, and a denim-clad relic from the Sixties?
Muskan: I understand your perspective, but I’m not entirely convinced about the concept of boundaries here. I’m considering both sensational actions, like Oprah displaying a large bag of fat, and less sensational moments like Ellen discussing her home life with Portia de Rossi on her show.
There’s a political dimension to both of these actions that might not have been accepted without the societal changes that supported them. Could Faye Emerson have thrived in today’s talk show environment (setting aside ratings issues)?
I must admit that the rise to TV talk show stardom for both Oprah and Ellen was significantly different from Emerson’s experience, making this comparison somewhat unfair. Nonetheless, it’s worth discussing.
Nirajan: Regrettably, I can’t provide a comprehensive response to that question, as I haven’t seen any of Emerson’s shows.
She was undeniably intelligent enough to succeed – she featured guests from a wide range of topics and perspectives, wrote a syndicated column, and engaged in debates with William F. Buckley himself on multiple occasions.
In today’s more liberated media landscape, I believe she would have relished the opportunity to make more open jokes.
Her good-natured humor about Pepsi would probably have evolved into Colbert-style jabs at sponsors, and I’m certain her fashion choices would have become a recurring source of humor.
One aspect that left me disheartened while reading this chapter is the comments about Emerson’s weight that plagued her and likely contributed to her exit from the industry.
It’s disheartening to think that in our current media environment, she would face the exact same criticism, likely intensified tenfold. While television has evolved significantly since The Faye Emerson Show, some things have remained unchanged.
Muskan: That was truly disheartening. I doubt anyone discussed Groucho’s age on You Bet Your Life or how frail he may have appeared.
While one’s image is important on TV, it’s less likely to harm you if you manage that image correctly, as we’ll explore next week when we discuss anthology hosts, both male and female.
Sadly, Emerson’s image, both mentally and physically, just didn’t align with the expectations of that era in the 1950s.
Nirajan: It’s certainly a sad story. However, considering that she amassed enough wealth to retire to Spain and became known as “the first television star created by television,” as Cleveland Amory aptly described, it’s difficult to argue that her journey ended in complete tragedy.
While she may not have achieved everything, she discovered the right approach to market herself as herself and transition into a television personality. We’ll have to wait until next week to see if hosts found it any easier to promote themselves while also selling a narrative.