Salute Your Shorts: The Golden Age of Television

Movies Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

The title of the Criterion Collection’s The Golden Age of Television can seem like quite a misnomer. For my money, the greatest age for television is right now, and to anyone who’d dispute this, I’d just send a link to Paste's list of the top 20 shows of the decade. We could’ve easily continued the list to 50 without breaking a sweat. Hell, if you include some more idiosyncratic favorites, there are more than 100 shows that have been worthwhile in some capacity. This, as far as I’m concerned, is pretty astounding. The '90s may have had a truly ridiculous number of new, important voices in cinema, but the '00s’ TV easily trumps what’s come before it.

But the argument that TV’s been increasingly turning into film has some issues: namely, 1950s television. It’s unfortunately a period of time that’s largely lost to us today because the shows were not pre-recorded, thus leaving no taped documents of what occurred. It’s still referred to as the Golden Age, but not many people have seen it because, well, you can’t. Much of what was made is lost for good, and much else exists only in archives and the Paley Center for Media. If you’re interested in it, there’s little more to go by than some old reviews and assurances that it was, in fact, really good.

What does still exist from the pre-tape era of television are kinescopes, which are almost literally filming a TV screen while a program airs. This method compounds the issues of old, 16 mm film with the issues of old television transmission and looks worse than you’d even expect. Even Criterion’s transfers, which are likely some of the best available, look like absolute crap. The shows’ ability to be both grainy and have scanlines makes for a somewhat depressing experience, and the sound is even worse. If you’re going to take a look at these, I recommend getting a nice set of speakers and turning them way up.

Still, it’s worth the rough viewing experience because it turns out that television of the 1950s was, in fact, really, really good. Sometimes, anyway. As noted in the set, the decade produced an awful lot of truly terrible works, quite a few passable ones, and a smattering of great ones. Criterion’s set reproduces only the cream of the crop, which gives a skewed perspective toward what the decade was putting out, but is hard to complain too much about. Watching terribly performed shows in a barely tolerable format is something only for the diehards, with the collection instead attempting to show both the best and the most important shows of the era, regardless of how much is by necessity left out (and that amount is innumerable).

The key differentiation between early television and what we do today is that before the advent of tape at the end of the 1950s, television was performed live. It’s a fact that’s both easily conceivable and impossibly difficult. Plays can obviously be filmed live, and this is what television originally consisted of. Instead of relying on rebroadcasts of movies, TV stations differentiated themselves by putting on their own productions and broadcasting them live. It wasn’t too long before they ran out of royalty-free productions, though, and the public’s taste for new programming was insatiable.

So the studios needed new material, but the audience they were broadcasting to was relatively affluent, cultured and wealthy due to how much of an extravagance televisions were at the time. They were also predominately white, but we won’t go too deeply into that here. The result of these factors meant that the studios didn’t have to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. This meant they were able to circumvent what I like to call the “Jay Leno factor,” which is the main reason for broadcast programming as it stands today, not to mention Leno’s increasingly watered-down career. Instead, they catered to the cultured crowd and put on prestigious works that derived largely from the New York theater scene.

One of the best examples of this is in the early success “Marty,” which television curator Ron Simon describes as “a turning point in the development of live television.” “Marty” was one of the first successful original television plays, not adapted from any source of literature but just from the mind of one of the brilliant young playwrights who made the medium their home. Paddy Chayefsky turned in a dark look at postwar America and a certain inability to go on and socialize that crept into the whitewashed, suburban lanscape. There’s an allegory at play with America unable to procreate and continue naturally, straining to move forward when returning from the war has sapped out all of its strength. Underlying this is the simpler story of a 36-year-old learning to settle in his middle age in the hope of any companionship before dying. Chayefsky put the story together in less than a week, and it was the beginning of a long and successful career he had as one of the medium’s greatest writers.

But while its foundation was impressively solid, “Marty” had life breathed into it by the nature of its live performance. A young Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night, On the Waterfront, Doctor Zhivago) took the role and absolutely nailed it in one of the finest performances ever done in the Actor’s Studio’s well-known method style. Steiger was a ball of emotions who drew power from the pressure of his performance and transmitted something absolutely magnetic. The rest of the teleplay’s cast seemed to grow because of this and put forth great performances as well, and when combined with Delbert Mann’s impressive directing, turned out a performance that hasn’t just aged well, it’s one of the best films of the '50s. “Marty” went on to become a feature film, also with Mann and Chayefsky behind the scenes, which won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Academy Award for best picture, but the live version is undoubtedly superior. What the cast and crew was able to accomplish in an hour is simply astonishing.

So while Hollywood at the time was turning towards epics, truly intimate character-driven pieces were being put on television in a sort of recreation of 1950s Broadway. The set’s second teleplay is just as accomplished as “Marty,” but takes on social issues more than personal ones. Although the Red Scare ravaged television in many of the same ways it did Hollywood, this didn’t stop some people from putting forth remarkable pieces of social commentary regardless of the threats on both their careers and their reputations. One such person was Rod Serling, who’s more familiar today as the creator and primary writer of The Twilight Zone. Serling began in live television, though, where his mind-boggling writing speed was a boon. Like Chayefsky, he became one of the superstar writers of the time and, well, there’s good reason for it.

Serling first earned his spurs for “Patterns,” a 1955 teleplay that took on corporate greed and politics. Focusing on a new hire being groomed as a future vice-president, “Patterns” pointed out the inherent conflicts between personal and economic gains in a corporation and the evils this fosters. Much of the story ends up being Death of a Salesman for a much higher income bracket, showing how, in a corporation, it doesn’t really matter how high up you are; when you’re no longer of use, you’re still thrown out on the streets in favor of the bottom line. Most impressive about the short is Serling’s ending, which flips the traditional “idealistic man leaving to start his own company” cliche completely on its head. Serling loved this sort of ending for the rest of his career, but having it take place in the real world rather than a horror-fantasy is just as refreshing today as it was in 1955.

While some of the most impressive of these teleplays were the dark dramas, live television wasn’t entirely limited to these sorts of deeply serious, surprisingly literary works. “No Time for Sergeants,” the first acting appearance of Andy Griffith on television, is a riotous army comedy that holds up way better than would be expected. His comedic timing was already honed and, while there isn’t too much to it, it’s still a predecessor of the traditional sitcom--just with far more elaborate staging. On the other hand, there’s the melodramatic “A Wind from the South,” which should appeal to any Douglas Sirk fans with its tale of impossible love, ridiculous coincidence and the inexplicable singing of Merv Griffin.