For the past few decades, I’ve been writing a column for Dramatics, a magazine published by the Educational Theatre Association for thousands of theater-mad high school kids around the country. Mostly I’ve covered topics related to the theater scene in New York, though occasionally I’ve posted from Chicago and Stratford, ONT. It’s been a happy gig and I will continue there as long as I am welcome and can do the job to my standards.
But the magazine’s publishing schedule is such that I only have space to cover a fraction of what I see. So I’m launching this blog. In it I hope to discuss more of the plays I see, but also to deal with other forms — movies, TV shows, audio productions, and books. Since I am not obligated here to meet specific deadlines, the posts will happen when the spirit moves me.
The other night, for the first time since it was released, I watched The Americanization of Emily, a 1964 film directed by Arthur Hiller, written by Paddy Chayefsky, apparently vaguely based on a novel by William Bradford Huie. James Garner plays a man who procures the good things for an admiral he serves in London during WWII. Having nearly gotten himself killed during action in the South Pacific, he is happy to have his dubious talents secure him a relatively safe place. He falls in love with a woman assigned to be his driver, played by Julie Andrews. One of the reasons she’s attracted to him is because he is tired of seeing the men she’s given her heart to leave her bed to die. A complication arises when the admiral (played by Melvyn Douglas) assigns Garner a P.R. project to glorify the navy — a cooked-up documentary that will glorify the first naval man to die on D-Day. He’s assigned this before D-Day, so Garner is supposed to ship out to witness this death, which, of course would put him in harm’s way. After all, if he’s close enough to film the first casualty, he’ll be close enough to be the first casualty. The thing is — the admiral has gone bonkers. The whole project is the dream of a man who has slipped into lunacy, but, because he has the authority of rank, nobody dares to tell him how nuts the idea is so Garner finds himself on a French beach dodging German bullets. Reportedy both Garner and Andrews thought this was some of their best work, and you can see them relishing the big slabs of word sandwiches Chayefsky has cooked up.
What particularly interests me is the resemblance to Chayefsky’s Network (1976). As you may recall, it deals with a news broadcaster named Howard Beale who flips out during a broadcast and starts spouting nonsense. The nonsense begins to get terrific ratings, though, so the network decides to keep him on so it can keep cashing advertisers’ checks. I wonder how conscious Chayefsky was that he was recycling the story element of the lunatic whose ravings go without contradiction.
Speaking of Chayefsky, in the recesses of its library, Amazon Prime offers the original 1953 TV version of The Bachelor Party, one of the plays Chayefsky wrote about the frustrations in the lives of ordinary people. Among his other successes in this form were Marty and The Catered Affair. Like Marty and Catered, The Bachelor Party was adapted into a movie. Expanding a work that originally ran less than an hour into a feature-length story, of course, meant coming up with new material. Marty was so successful that it won an Oscar for best picture, with Chayefsky writing the screenplay and the original TV director, Delbert Mann, also directing the film. Chayefsky and Mann teamed again on Bachelor Party, and it’s instructive to compare the TV and film versions. The changes aren’t mere Hamburger Helper; new characters and incidents appear and the desperation that bubbles under the TV version has more explicit expression in the film. One of the new characters is a would-be bohemian woman encountered in a Greenwich Village bar (which an American audience at the time would peg as a capital of licentiousness). The character is not named but referred to as “The Existentialist.” It’s a brief role, but Carolyn Jones made such an impression in it, she was nominated for an Oscar.