STUDIO ONE

U.S. Anthology Drama

Studio One was one of the most significant U.S. anthology drama series during the 1950s. Like other anthology series of the time--Robert Montgomery Presents, Goodyear Television Playhouse, Philco Theatre, Kraft Television Theatre--the format was organised around the weekly presentation of a one hour, live, television play. Several hours of live drama were provided by the networks per week, each play different: such risk and diversity is hard to come by today.

Writing about television, Stanley Cavell has argued, "What is memorable, treasurable, criticiseable, is not primarily the individual work, but the program, the format, not this or that day of I Love Lucy, but the program as such." While this admonition might admirably apply to the telefilm series that came later, the 1950s drama anthologies were premised on the fact that they were different every week. Yet the one hour live format was one they had in common with each other, and because of that very fact they had to distinguish themselves from each other. They worked to develop a "house style," a distinctive reputation for a certain kind of difference and diversity, whether based on quality writing, attention to character over theme or, more typically, technical and artistic innovation which developed the form. A full assessment would necessarily consider each distinctive anthology series (and assess its "distinctiveness" from others) as a whole, and the failures and achievements of individual productions.

Studio One provides an emblematic continuity for the 1950s drama: it was the longest running drama anthology series, lasting ten years from 1948-58, from the "big freeze" through the "golden age" to the made-in-Hollywood 90-minute film format: in all over 500 plays were produced. From the beginning Studio One's "house style" was foregrounded not only by the quality of its writers, but primarily by its production innovations, professionalism and experimentation within the limits of live production.

Studio One began as a CBS radio drama anthology show in the mid-1940s until CBS drama supervisor, Worthington Miner translated it to television. Its first production was an adaptation by Miner of "The Storm" (7 November 1948). Miner's control emphasised certain "quality" characteristics: adaptation (usually of classical works, e.g. Julius Caesar, 1948) and innovation ("Battleship Bismarck," 1949). Studio One adopted a serious tone under Miner, but also a pioneering spirit. For example, "Battleship Bismarck" made advanced use of telecine inserts, three-camera live editing within a confined and waterlogged set. Miner left to join NBC in 1952, but the show regained an even clearer sense of identity and purpose when Felix Jackson became the producer in 1953. Jackson used two directors, Paul Nickell and Franklin Schaffner, each with his own technical staff, who would alternate according to the material. Nickell would be given the more "sensitive" scripts, Schaffner the epics, the action. Both directors were committed to pushing the live studio drama to the limits. Nickell in particular has to stand as one of the greatest--and unsung--television directors: he never made the mistake of thinking a good TV drama has to look like a film.

By the mid-1950s the emphasis of production material had turned from adaptation to new works written for television, often giving attention to contemporary issues. Studio One followed this trend. Often the same writers, such as Reginald Rose, who had adapted for Studio One now wrote originals. Rose, who worked as an adapter until 1954 when he wrote "12 Angry Men" (1954) and the controversial "Thunder on Sycamore Street"(1954). This story, about racial hatred, was modified to satisfy southern television station owners, replacing a black protagonist with a convict. By 1955 Studio One was receiving over 500 unsolicited manuscripts per week.

However, it was Studio One's technical innovation, rather than its coterie of writers, which made the series distinctive. Its chief rival in the ratings, Fred Coe's Philco-Goodyear Theatre, although it had a superior stable of writers, (Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Horton Foote, Robert Alan Aurthur, Tad Mosel--most of who later worked for Studio One), could not match Studio One's technical daring. Philco-Goodyear Theatre developed a reputation for plays which explored the psychological realism of character, using many close-ups, but this was influenced by other factors. As Tad Mosel has said: "I think that began because the sets were so cheap, if you pulled back you'd photograph those awful sets. Directors began moving in to faces so you wouldn't see the sets. Studio One had much more lavish productions, they had more money."

After 1955 Studio One joined the general decline of the other New York based dramas. The formats began to favour 90- minute slots (such as CBS Playhouse 90), and drama shot on film, often in Hollywood. Eventually Studio One joined the drift to Hollywood and film. By 1957 the anthology was renamed Studio One in Hollywood--and the sponsors, Westinghouse, withdrew from the series.

Studio One's achievements have to be measured in terms of technical and stylistic superiority over their rival anthologies. With plays such as "Dry Run" and "Shakedown Cruise" (1955) (both set on a flooded submarine, built in the studio) and "Twelve Angry Men", they were the first to use four-walled sets, hiding the cameras behind flying walls, or using portholes to conceal cameras between shots. The freedom to innovate was in part due to CBS' policy of giving directors relative autonomy from network interference and the stability of the Schaffner-Nickell partnership, but it is also a pioneering quality which can be traced back to Worthington Miner and the late 1940s. Miner was quite clear that he wanted Studio One to advance the medium via its experimental storytelling techniques: "I was fascinated by the new medium and convinced that television was somewhere between drama and film ... a live performance staged for multiple cameras."

However, with the mature Studio One productions of the early and mid-1950s, one has the sense that the movements of the cameras were not subordinate to the requirements of the performance: quite the opposite. For example, "The Hospital" was an adaptation produced during the 1952 season, and directed by Schaffner. This play seems to achieve the impossible: it literally denies the existence of live studio time. Flashbacks and other interruptions could be achieved with some narrative jigging to allow for costume and scene changes. Still, unlike film, live studio time was real time, and the ineluctable rule of live drama was that the length of a performance was as long as it took to see it. But Schaffner had a reputation for thinking that nothing was impossible for live television. Most other anthologies of the period used a static three camera live studio set up, where two cameras were used for close-ups and the other for the two-shots. In such an arrangement the television camera acted as a simple, efficient, relay. Schaffner favoured instead a mobile mise-en-scene; his cameras were constantly on the move, with actors and props positioned and choreographed for the cameras.

This play concerns the drama of a local hospital, following the various staff and patients through typical medical crises. Although the transmitted play lasts 50 minutes, the story-time takes up only 18 minutes. Some scenes are therefore repeated during the three acts, using a different viewpoint, and requiring the actors to re-stage precisely their initial scenes. As some scenes are lengthened, or modified in the light of what we have seen before we gain a greater understanding of the events from each character's viewpoint. Whilst this would be relatively simple to achieve on film, for live drama it involved complex methods of panning and camera movement to capture and expand the chronicity of events and repeat them exactly as it had gone before. Schaffner achieves this by using several cranes to snake through the various sets as the scenes are played and repeated, often in a different order. Doing what seems technically impossible is therefore foregrounded in this drama, and the complexity of this achievement is emphasised by the ironic commentary of one of the hospital patients who, with head bandaged, is able to explain at the end, as the sponsors shout for their adverts, "Time? There is no time. Time is only an illusion." And Studio One could prove it.

-Jason Jacobs

SPOKESPERSON (1949-1958)
Betty Furness

PRODUCERS Herbert Brodkin, Worthington Miner, Fletcher Markle, Felix Jackson, Norman Felton, Gordon Duff, William Brown, Paul Nickell, Franklin Shaffner, Charles H. Schultz

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 466 Episodes

CBS
November 1948-March 1949                  Sunday 7:30-8:30
March 1949-May 1949                          Sunday 7:00-8:00
May 1949-September 1949         Wednesday 10:00-11:00
September 1949-September 1958     Monday 10:00-11:00

FURTHER READING

Averson, Richard, and David Manning White, editors. Electronic Drama: Television Plays of the Sixties. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon, 1971.

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh, editors. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946-Present. New York: Ballentine, 1992.

Gianakos, Larry James. Television Drama Series Programming: A Comprehensive Chronicle, 1947-1959. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1980.

Hawes, William. The American Television Drama: The Experimental Years. University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1986.

Kindem, Gorham, editor. The Live Television Generation of Hollywood Film Directors: Interviews with Seven Directors. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.

MacDonald, J. Fred. One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Miner, Worthington. Worthington Miner, Interviewed by Franklin Schaffner. Hollywood, California: Directors Guild of America; Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1985.

Skutch, Ira. Ira Skutch: I Remember Television: A Memoir. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1989.

Stemple, Tom. Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. New York: Continuum, 1992.

Sturcken, Frank. Live Television: The Golden Age of 1946-1958 in New York. Jefferson, North Carolina : McFarland, 1990.

Wicking, Christopher, and Tise Vahimagi. The American Vein: Directors and Directions in Television. New York: Dutton, 1979.

Wilk, Max. The Golden Age of Television: Notes From the Survivors. New York: Dell, 1977.

 

See also Anthology Drama; "Golden Age" of Television; Miner, Worthington; Schaffner, Franklin