During my early teens, I watched Studio One fairly often, but Playhouse 90 went on too late for me to be able to watch it more than occasionally. So about two weeks prior to my 14th birthday, I missed The Comedian (1957), which I’ve just seen for the first time on a DVD compilation called The Golden Age of TV Drama — starring Michael Rooney in the title role as an abrasive, tyrannical TV star, Mel Tormé as his weak-willed brother, Kim Hunter as the latter’s despairing wife, and Edmond O’Brien as the comedian’s harried scriptwriter, and powerfully directed by John Frankenheimer. (I initially thought that was Frankenheimer on the left in the publicity photo below, but a friend suggests that it’s more likely Edmond O’Brien.)
Frankenheimer was probably the only TV director in that period whom I recognized by name, and it was a name that I valued highly. (He shot his first film feature the same year, and by the time The Manchurian Candidate came out five years later, his auteurist stamp was already unmistakable—especially in his volatile way of doubling one’s view of the action via TV monitors, already apparent at the very beginning of The Comedian.) Even though it must have been very carefully blocked in advance, this overheated drama has a mise en scène that feels improvised, giving it a kind of headlong excitement (both in spite of and because of its excess) that would be unobtainable on film, at least in the same fashion. The style of acting is unusually broad, even hectoring in its declamatory punch—the sort of overplaying that could also likely work on the stage, emphasized further here by the lunging close-ups and the rapid changes of scale and angle. Every character without exception seems desperate at every moment, which seems oddly natural to the small screen; I doubt even Kazan could have made this work with the same sort of volatility in the theater. (I was lucky enough to see three of his productions on trips to New York during the same era— The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, J.B., and, best of all, Sweet Bird of Youth, in three successive years.)
The story reminded me of both A Face in the Crowd (albeit with a very different ending) and Sweet Smell of Success, so I wasn’t too surprised when I discovered afterwards that Rod Serling’s script is an adaptation of an Ernest Lehman novella. There’s even a Winchellesque gossip columnist in the plot, played by Whit Bissell.
Rooney is amazing here, with the nervous energy of a Cagney and a fearless determination to make his character as unpleasant as possible. Just think of what an impressive Fool he would have made to Orson Welles’ Lear, if Welles had managed to make his King Lear film and use Rooney in that part, as he originally intended. [4/11/09]