Monday, October 4, 2010

The Death Arthur Penn and the definition of the Golden Age of Television

(Thought I'd take a break and do some arts and culture blogging. Hell, it's a Sunday.)
Arthur Penn, the stage, television and motion picture director whose revolutionary treatment of sex and violence in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” transformed the American film industry, died on Tuesday night at his home in Manhattan, the day after he turned 88.
When I saw this obituary in the New York Times a few days ago, it got me to thinking about the Golden Age of Television. Penn made his bones as a director of live dramas and had his big breakthrough with the Miracle Worker which he directed first for television in 1957, then on Broadway and finally on film.

The Miracle Worker was not the only live drama to follow that path. Trip to Bountiful, Visit to a Small Planet and No Time for Sergeants (adapted from the novel by Ira Levin -- yeah, that Ira Levin) also went from television to successful Broadway runs (click here to see a kinescope of Griffith's debut) and were followed by movie adaptations. Others, like Marty and Requiem for a Heavyweight went directly from the small to the big screens.

The reputation of the Golden Age rest largely on a dozen or so of these productions. All of them were remarkable achievements, but if you watch a lot of television from that era you'll probably come away decidedly under-impressed. There were other notable achievements (Caesar and Kovacs stand up well), but on the whole the medium has gotten better.

What has never and will never be matched (though HBO has occasionally come close) was the respect that these these live dramas commanded. These shows were treated like major cultural events, top tier Broadway reviews that opened to an entire nation. The jump to the Tony winning plays and Oscar winning films seemed perfectly natural.

Of course, stage adaptations of TV shows are still with us but now they play to the opposite end of the respectability spectrum.

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