The Great American Playwrights on The Screen
A Critical Guide to Film, Video and DVD
Jerry Roberts 2003
Some of the greatest plays in the history of the American theatre have also made some of the most provocative and rewarding movies and television shows of all time, from A Streetcar Named Desire to The Front Page to The Miracle Worker; Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, Picnic, The Iceman Cometh, The Little Foxes, A Raisin in the Sun… These productions on film and tape represent a treasure trove of great drama, much of it available to the public for home viewing, some of it languishing in vaults. Some titles also represent Oscar and Emmy award-winning history. Some are great teaching tools for theatre and film and television production courses. Some are pinnacles of success for the greatest star actors of their generations—Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Robert Duvall, Kevin Spacey. This book is the collation of these time-honored works by playwrights—from Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, to Beth Henley and David Rabe, to Wendy Wasserstein and A.R. Gurney—with historical perspective and contemporary and retrospective criticism. Playwrights reach their widest audiences whenever their plays are filmed or made for television, sometimes as letter-faithful productions literally filmed on the stage, oftentimes as severely altered visions earning the ire of the authors. The book solely concerns plays written by American playwrights, produced on film or tape in the English language. It covers only productions that were adapted from plays that were seen first on the stage. TV dramas that began their performance life as TV shows, and are invariably called “plays” by their authors and others, are not included here. For instances, two of Horton Foote’s dramas, The Trip to Bountiful, an original, and Tomorrow, based on a William Faulkner story, began their performance lives as TV presentations, the former with Lillian Gish in 1953 on Philco Television Playhouse, the latter with Richard Boone on Playhouse 90 in 1960. Both then became plays, then movies. The movies are detailed with break-out studies here, but the TV shows are not. Had the works begun as plays, then became movies and TV presentations, any and all movies or TV productions would be considered with individual studies.
The Star Wagon, about a poor and eccentric inventor who escapes his wife’s crankiness via his titular time machine, first played on Broadway in 1937 with Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish. The inventor escapes to his youth, at a time when he feels he should have married a pretty rich girl rather than his wife. The evergreen theme is that if you could live your life over again, would you have made a better choice?
The Joyous Season aired in 1951 on ABC’s Celanese Theatre with Alex Segal directing Lillian Gish and Wesley Addy. The 1934 play, starring Gish and featuring Jane Wyatt and Alan Campbell, concerns a Catholic nun who is asked to consult on her recently deceased father’s will after the family leaves the farm for Boston’s fashionable Beacon Street.
The Late Christopher Bean (1949, NBC, 60m/bw) Philco Television Playhouse ☆☆☆1/2 D/P: Fred Coe. Cast: Lillian Gish, Bert Lytell, Helen Carew, Clarence Derwent, Philip Coolidge, Louis Sorin, Ellen Cobb Hill, Perry Wilson. “A gifted young man, Fred Coe…sent me a script…” Gish wrote in her autobiography. “I have always been eager to try some¬ thing new so I agreed to meet him, and soon I was playing in a vital new medium very much like the early movies. The main difference was that the performance was ‘live’; you had only one chance and no one could prompt or help you.”
• “Lillian Gish made her television debut Sunday night with an excellent portrayal of the harassed housemaid, Abby…an entertaining hour.. .Sidney Howard’s amicable little play engendered the same charm the original Broadway production had.. .Miss Gish was extremely appealing…” (Variety)
All the Way Home was based by Mosel on James Agee’s 1958 posthumously Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, which explored early century coming’o Tage and family crisis issues in Knoxville, Tennessee. Producer Fred Coe planned to have it adapted for airing on CBS’s Playhouse 90, then approached Mosel, who couldn’t imagine Agee’s poetic prose being broken up by commercials. They then decided to adapt it into a play instead. It had an out-of-town run in New Haven and Boston, then opened on Broadway in 1960 at the Belasco Theatre to great reviews and no business. Coe was going to close the play after a few nights when Ed Sullivan raved about the play in his New York Daily News column, then brought the cast onto an installment of TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show. The move captured the public’s attention in a huge way; the play ran for 334 performances and the story won its second Pulitzer Prize, this time for Drama. Arthur Penn directed the stage version starring Arthur Hill, Colleen Dewhurst, and Lillian Gish.
“Inevitably, some of the poetry and unduplicatable intimacy of Mr. Agee’s particular expression was lost in this radical switch [to the stage]…in moving the play of Mr. Mosel into the medium of the screen. And this [refraction] is the one that}s all but done for the quality of Mr. Agee’s book and twisted it into a moist-eyed ogle that has a standard cinematic character…. in completing the transfer of some very special sentiments to the screen, Philip Reisman Jr., the film’s playwright, and Alex Segal, the director, have drained them completely of specialness. Their film.. .has no sharp cinematic characteristic, no inside-looking-out point of view (which is one of the most important and distinctive things the Agee novel has).” (Bosley Crowther, The New York Times)
Another four-part cycle of Foote’s Southern family mood plays became jewels of the live-TV era, even though their connections weren’t apparent to viewers: The Trip to Bountiful with Lillian Gish and The Midnight Caller with Catherine Doucet, both in 1953 on Kraft Television Playhouse, and two with Kim Stanley, Tears of My Sister in 1953 on First Person Playhouse and Flight three years later on Playwrights ‘56.
Morning’s at Seven was a popular and much revived comedy of Midwestern family manners and mores originally staged on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre in 1939 by Joshua Logan, starring Jean Adair, Dorothy Gish, and Thomas Chalmers. It was produced on TV on Celanese Theatre in 1952 with Aline MacMahon and Patricia Collinge; on The Alcoa Hour in 1956 with Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Evelyn Varden, David Wayne, June Lockhart, and Dorothy Stickney; and was restaged—using the same Alcoa teleplay by Robert Wallsten—in 1960 on public television’s The Play of the Week with a cast featuring Beulah Bondi, Chester Morris, Dorothy Gish, and Eileen Heckhart.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1969, ABC Special, 120m/c) ☆☆☆ Tp: Luther Davis. D: Robert Scheerer. P: Hubbell Robinson. Cast: Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Fred Gwynn, David Wayne, Bob Crane, Jack Gilford, Sue Lyon, Billy De Wolfe, Frank Campanella, Bob Dishy, Victor Killian, Bernard West. The play was filmed before a live audience, which is seen at the outset and at the curtain call. Theatrical connoisseurs relished the chance to see Gish and Hayes together.
• “…still almost as good for laughs as it was 28 years ago when Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse brought it to the Fulton Theatre back in 1941. Changes in the original script were limited to the necessary updating of a few topical gags to jive with the times plus turning the lead (Bob Crane) into a television critic and his fiancée into a TV actress. Acting was good and professional.” (Variety)
The Whales of August (1987, Circle, 90m/c, VHS) ☆☆☆1/2 Sc: David Berry. D: Lindsay Anderson. P: Carolyn Pfeiffer, Mike Kaplan. Cam: Mike Fash. Cast: Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Ann Sothern, Vincent Price, Harry Carey, Jr., Mary Steenburgen, Tisha Sterling, Margaret Ladd, Frank Grimes, Frank Pitkin, Mike Bush. Elderly widowed sisters Libby and Sarah reconvene for the summer at a seaside Maine cottage, the same one they have been coming to for generations.
• “With its two beautiful, very different, very characteristic performances by Miss Gish and Miss Davis, who, together, exemplify American films from 1914 to the present, Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August is a cinema event.. .It’s as moving for all of the history it recalls as for anything that happens on the screen.. .In its way, The Whales of August is tough, but it has a major flaw that David Berry’s adaptation of his stage play isn’t strong enough for the treatment it receives from the director and his extraordinary actors…Mr. Berry is no American Chekhov. Though minutely observed, the lives of Libby and Sarah evoke no landscape larger than this tiny Maine island to which they’ve been returning every summer.. .There are references to lost childhoods, dead husbands, wars survived and estranged children, but the references are more obligatory than enriching. There’s nothing really at stake in the course of the day.” (Vincent Canby, The New York Times)