Classic Early Television

Nov. 24, 2008
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A fly landed on the brow of Julius Caesar in the “Studio One” production of Shakespeare’s play. And then it flew away before Caesar could blink.

At least I think that’s what happened in the 1955 program for CBS, preserved in shadowy black and white on a fascinating DVD set, the “Studio One Anthology.” Like most every play in the series, Julius Caesar was performed live in the studio with no take-twos, no chance to correct a flubbed line or misstep, and recorded on a murky underwater-looking kinescope in the era before video tape. The high caliber of the casts insured there would be few mistakes. A fly on the set? If that dark speck really was a fly, its unscheduled appearance only enhanced the high wire tension of live television in the medium’s young years.

“Westinghouse Presents Studio One” was among several similar programs launched in the late 1940s and running through the Eisenhower era. Sponsored by a single corporate giant, whether Kraft, Ford or Philco, these shows were dedicated to the proposition that challenging drama could be at home with the small screens and flickering images of early television. Aside from the presence of bulky cables and cumbersome cameras, the technical challenges were no different than those facing any theater company. The acting had to be spot on, the directing astute and the sets evocative yet simple.

As with its many competitors, “Studio One” involved names then and soon to be famous. The starkly expressionistic adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 starred Eddie Albert as Winston Smith and Lorne Greene, far from the range of “Bonanza,” as the Minister of Truth. A year after his supporting role in the epochal Rebel Without a Cause, Sal Mineo starred in a teleplay on juvenile delinquency, Dino. Gore Vidal wrote his first play, Dark Possession, for Studio One. Its star was an unknown Canadian, Leslie Nielsen. Twelve Angry Men was produced by Studio One three years before it became the classic film starring Henry Fonda.

Despite the era’s repressive politics, the technical limitations of a nascent medium and a sponsor whose commercials displayed products ranging from electric stoves to nuclear submarines, “Westinghouse Presents Studio One” cautiously tackled many provocative themes and maintained a high standard of artistry.


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