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DVD: Studio One: Sentence of Death (1953) / Night America Trembled, The (1957)
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1 (NTSC)

November 1, 2002



Genre: Live Television / Drama  
A socialite stakes out a bar to identify the real killer of a shop keeper / America panics during Orson Welles' infamous 1938 "War of the Worlds" broadcast.  



Directed by:

Matt Harlib / Tom Donovan
Screenplay by: Adrian Spies, Thomas Walsh / Nelson Bond
Music by: n/a
Produced by: John Haggott / Gordon Duff

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Film Length: 130 mins
Process/Ratio: 1.33:1
Black & White
Anamorphic DVD: No
Languages:  English Mono
Special Features :  

2002 Studio One Documentary (10:46) / Cast Bios: James Dean, Betsy Palmer, Warren Beatty, Warren Oates

Comments :

Studio One was among the most prestigious live dramatic series on TV during the fifties (the series actually ran from 1948-1958) and proved to be a valuable training ground for burgeoning actors wanting experience and the terror of a live performance, writers hungry to get their work ‘published’ on TV, and directors fueled by the exciting mix of using new technology to mount a live play in front of millions.

Who wouldn’t be riveted by such a panic-inducing environment?

Audiences may not have gotten the same vibe from watching a teleplay, but they were undoubtedly moved to classically laugh, get weepy, or become irked by the social dramas that tended to dominate the roster of yearly productions.

The sad part of the live era is that nothing was recorded, save for kinescopes – broadcasts filmed off a special TV monitor – which were kept either for archival purposes, or used for rebroadcasts. And then the horror story: most of the taped and filmed copies were later junked due to cost-cutting measures of saving studio storage space, and a good chunk of TV history is no longer extant.

What largely remains are kinescopes – a problem that also plagued later productions such as ABC Stage 67, which broadcast in colour, but whose episodes, like Evening Primrose, exist as kinescopes.

In the first of VSC’s 3-disc Studio One series, we get a double-bill of Sentence of Death (1953) and The Night America Panicked (1957), plus a short featurette on the series and the era of live television.


Sentence of Death (1953)

Based on a story by mystery writer Thomas Walsh (Union Station), Sentence of Death
Revolve around a scandalous, motor-mouth socialite named Ellen Morrison (Betsy Palmer) who spots the real killer of a drugstore manager in a pub one night, and tries to convince blue collar cops the convicted man, ethnic dude Joe Palica (James Dean) is innocent, and his execution must be stayed.

The story doesn’t offer anything new in twists and turns, the blue collar and working class dialogue is clichéd, and the performances tend to hover around genre caricatures. The dumbbell elderly couple who support the widow’s identifying Joe as the killer are grating in their mannerisms, and widow Mrs. Sawyer does a lot of crying, but more surprising is how Dean – billed only in the end credits – is, well, awful. He’s still fascinating to watch, but it’s obvious the Method actor brought a whole bag of ticks and mannerisms to a new role, and without a director willing to help the actor edit his bits of business down to a sparse few, you get grimacing, squinty-eyed Dean who doesn’t restrict specific behavior to moments rather than whole scenes.

Dean’s scenes amount to just a handful, but the reason he succeeded in film may be due in large part to directors George Stevens (Giant), Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), and Elia Kazan (East of Eden) knowing how to shape and refine a dynamic talent; Dean’s TV work (which is considerable at roughly 37 roles in episodic and anthology dramas) was just a training ground, where he could be eye-catching, or horribly hammy.

That said, it’s still worth examining a familiar mystery drama where the focus isn’t really on catching the real killer and saving an innocent life, but the class issues: blue collar folks struggling to earn a keep against lousy odds in lousy jobs, and cops settling for the most likely criminal candidate because a rich girl was too flakey to take a murder seriously, and had more fun teasing the street detectives than performing her civic (if not humanitarian) duty. To maintain the class strife commentary, writer Adrian Spies sets up a possible attraction between Ellen and Sgt. Paul Cochran (Gene Lyons), which blossoms once the two band together and wait in the bar where Ellen last saw the real killer.

In addition to Dean’s wonky performance, other amusing moments include a pair of quick flubs – Palmer getting through a pronunciation hurdle, and Det. Mac Reynolds grabbing a cup from a clearly empty water tank, and pretending to drink air like water.

Director Matt Harlib directed just a handful of teleplays before disappearing from TV, whereas prolific TV Spies authored a bevy of live and taped teleplays straight into the late eighties. Character actor Lyons appeared in countless TV series (including The Twilight Zone and The Invaders), whereas co-star Palmer worked in live TV, theatre, as a TV news reporter, and appeared in sporadic films, most notably as Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th (1980).   


The Night America Trembled (1957)

In 1994, Robert Iscove directed a TV movie (Without Warning) that transposed the transmission of a live news radio report of a Martian invasion into a CNN-type setting, and a more recent effort to capture a fly-on-the-wall feel during the 1938 performance was dramatized in Andrew Burashko’s 2011 play version of Welles’ War of the Worlds, using Howard Koch’s original script.

The original ’38 recording has been available for decades on LP, cassette, CD, and online, but lesser-known are the mini-dramas of the roughly 25% of listeners who believed America was either being invaded by Martians, or Nazis.


Although Joseph Sargent’s 1975 TV movie, The Night That Panicked America, is the best-known version of the mass-hysteria of that night, this 1957 Studio One production, The Night America Trembled, is the first time someone attempted to dramatize the effect Orson Welles’ October 30, 1938 broadcast of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds had on the roughly

The sociological effect Welles’ broadcast had on listeners was documented by The Radio Project, and Nelson Bond seemed to have drawn from their stats to create a surprisingly vivid, compact play that mixes film footage, dramatic recreations of the CBS broadcast studio where Welles and his Mercury Theatre gang performed their play, fictionalized vignettes of audiences who went into utter panic mode, and host Edward R. Murrow and his ridiculously grave delivery of an intro, outro, and periodic narration.

Bond’s play flips back and forth between the Mercury Theatre crew arriving and setting up before the broadcast, and five specific vignettes: parents greeting the babysitter before they head out for dinner, working class bar patrons bickering about what’s true blue patriotism, a teen couple heading out while the boy’s parents stay home to listen to Charlie McCarthy, college guys playing poker, and the state police station whose night of standard nothingness is soon interrupted by a freakish tsunami of calls from paranoid citizens convinced Martians have landed. There’s also film footage of a car driven frantically down a dusty road and wiping out after losing grip around a steep turn.

Perhaps the most striking moments come from the dramatized radio performers, who beautifully coordinate the dialogue, sound effects, and cutaways from music to ‘live’ newscasts at Grover’s Mill where the first Martian ship has crashed.

The dramatic vignettes are typically melodramatic – the lovey-dovey teens are saccharine sweet, the boy’s parents docile and bland, and the blue collar men seemingly extrapolated from a Paddy Chayefsky play – but little by little modern viewers will be astonished by the cast of then-unknowns.

Veteran voice actor Alexander Scourby plays Welles, Frank Marth and Ed Asner (with hair!) are Mercury actors, Vincent Gardenia (in his second billed role) plays one of the blue collar bar patrons (and still looks like a 50 year-old man), James (Jim) Coburn makes his acting debut as the father who leaves his infant in the care of the babysitter, John Astin (The Addams Family) makes his own (unbilled) acting debut, and both Warren Oates and Warren Beatty (!) appear in their second credited roles as college aged poker players.

Beatty is amusingly terrible as a panic-stricken youth, Oates is generally photographed from the side, but every one else is easy to spot and pretty damn good. Not a bad cast, and an easy sampling of the kind of talent live TV showcased during the fifties. The bonus featurette includes interviews with Jack Klugman (who describes the energy and opportunities the format presented for twenty- and thirtysomething actors hungry for experience, and director John Frankenheimer (Seconds), who characterizes his eventual move towards film more necessary than natural because he was effectively out of a job when legendary hatchet man Jim Aubrey cancelled the show and further live dramatic efforts in 1958.



VSC’s DVD offers decent transfers from kinescope sources, and both teleplays can be viewed with and without the original ad breaks with June Graham Betty Furness introducing the last products from Westinghouse – the series’ sponsor.

Volumes in this series include Studio One: Sentence of Death (1953) / Night America Trembled, The (1957), The Laughmaker (1953) / The Square Peg (1952), and the two-part drama The Defender (1957). Other Studio One episodes on DVD via Koch / E1 include What Makes Sammy Run? (1959), and the Studio One Anthology.


© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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