Art and Escapism

Art and Escapism

“The movie is the art of the millions of American citizens,” an English writer in the Adelphi discovered, “who are picturesquely called Hicks-the mighty stream of standardized humanity that flows through Main Street. The cinema is, through and through, a democratic art; the only one.” Nor would this commentator have had it otherwise. The attempt to educate the public to higher standards of taste except through the movies’ natural evolution in response to a gradually maturing public sentiment was pious humbug. Europe had failed to realize the possibilities of the moving picture and was hiding behind that “singularly putrescent hypocrisy that masquerades as ‘artistic culture.'”

The reigning stars during the thirties also revealed how diverse moving-picture entertainment had become. Micky Mouse rivaled Greta Garbo, and the Dionne quintuplets competed with Clark Gable. Lawrence Tibbett and Zazu Pitts, Will Rogers and Jean Harlow, Adolphe Menjou and Shirley Temple, Bette Davis and James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Vivien Leigh, each had an enthusiastic following.

The movies’ success in reaching such a broad public had long since had a most far-reaching effect on other forms of entertainment. From nickelodeon days they had been gradually drawing off the patrons of the popular melodrama, the devotees of variety and burlesque. They now dominated more completely than ever the whole field of commercial amusement. The people’s theatres were either closed or made over into movie palaces, variety shows were so reduced in number that the old two-a-day vaudeville circuit was completely disrupted, and the doors of the local opera houses (unless they too were wired for sound) were everywhere boarded up. The triumph of the movies over the popular theatre was complete.

The legitimate stage which was primarily centered in New York — the theatre of classical drama, sophisticated comedy, problem play, and also musical revue — remained a vital force. It was perhaps more important in some ways than in the nineteenth century. If vaudeville had left it free — or forced it — to go its own way without considering entertainment that would appeal to the urban workers, it was now more than ever the arbiter of its own fashions. It could encourage playwrights — Eugene O’Neill was the country’s leading dramatist — who really had something to say. It could present plays dealing with social problems, and musical comedy that deftly satirized the current scene.

The 1930’s saw a revival of stock companies, especially summer stock; other cities followed the lead of New York with its Theatre Guild and Group Theatre; the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union staged a musical skit which played on Broadway and toured the country; and the Federal Theatre Project became for a time an active force in the theatrical world. Under such stimulating influences there also sprang up a mushroom growth of community theatres with some five hundred thousand amateurs playing before an estimated annual audience of fifteen million.

Escapism that is not an escape from or to anywhere, but an escape of our utopian selves, has always been present in the idea of Camival, where the inhibitions which bind us to conventional roles are loosened. It is our Camival selves that we take on holiday, and the holiday resort – from Atlantic City to Blackpool to Pattaya – has always been a place of loosened inhibitions. If it is the crime of popular culture that it has taken our dreams and packaged them and sold them back to us, it is also the achievement of popular cultýne that it has brought us more and more varied dreams than we could otherwise ever have known.

Popular amusements had more generally evolved from diversions that were originally available only to the wealthy. The theatre in America had at first been primarily class entertainment, the democratic audiences in the large playhouses of the mid-nineteenth century, as we have seen, offering a marked contrast to the more exclusive theatre patronage of the colonial period. And from this gradually democratized theatre had developed the even more popular minstrel shows, burlesque, and vaudeville. But the first appeal of moving pictures was to the masses rather than the classes. They were cheap and popular from the very beginning. The support which in time enabled them to raise their standard of entertainment came entirely from their nickel-paying customers.

Their early development along such unashamedly popular lines was not by any means inevitable. It was in part due to the class of people who happened to take them over. The outstanding figures were Jewish garment-workers or fur-traders who bought up the penny arcades, and then the nickelodeons, to merchandise films as they would any other commodity. And their dependence on a mass market led to their continuing to place emphasis on quantity rather than quality. They were not troubled by an artistic conscience, not concerned with culture, in promoting this profitable business. But at the same time what might superficially be dismissed as merely shrewd commercial tactics represented an approach to the development of this new amusement which would not have been possible in any other country. It reflected a democratic concept of the general availability of popular entertainment which was thoroughly American.

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TV Dramas and Variety Shows in the 1950s

TV Dramas and Variety Shows in the 1950s

On September 23, 1961, NBC introduced its new series, “Saturday Night at the Movies,” featuring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable in “How to Marry a Millionaire.” This broadcast was an astounding success and pointed to Hollywood’s growing inclination to release its post-1948 movies to television. Seven more series representing all three networks and every night of the week appeared over the next five years. The culmination of this trend was an ABC Sunday telecast of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” in September 1966.

“An estimated 60 million viewers in 25 million homes sat down to watch one movie” for which ABC had “paid Columbia Pictures $2,000,000.” Even at the price, the American Broadcasting Network was understandably delighted, as the television viewing public clamored to consume big-budget, star-studded, color extravaganzas from Hollywood in the privacy of well over 95 percent of the homes in the United States.

The only drawbacks, of course, were that these feature pictures were still over four years old on the average; and more critically, Hollywood’s supply was quickly being depleted by prime-time TV. Consequently, ABC’s video stage was appropriately set for the successful nurturing of the American made-for-TV movie.

The precise birth date of the telefilm is arguable, although only a handful of contenders exist prior to 1961. Claims range from Ron Amateau’s 60-minute Western, “The Bushwackers, ” which appeared on CBS in 1951, to Disney’s “Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,” which was broadcast as three separate segments during the 1954-55 debut season of “The Wonderful World of Disney.”

TV Dramas and Variety Shows in the 1950s

Also, it was not uncommon during the late 1950s for TV’s dramatic anthologies to present some of their teleplays on either film or videotape. Three shows especially, “Desilu Playhouse,” “Kraft Theatre,” and “The Bob Hope Show,” filmed a number of their one-hour offerings, while a few of these presentations were even expanded into a second hour airing the following week as a finale of a two-parter. Still, these haphazard examples have really more to do with trivia than historical precedent, as the man primarily responsible for pioneering the formal properties of the telefeature is Jennings Lang, a New York lawyer who became programming chief for MCA’s Revue in the late 1950s.

Sitcoms presented the domestic aspect of patriarchy in their patterning of family life with Father as the stoic centre of a world constantly disrupted by the zany behavior of women and children. The homogenized suburban middle America of Father Knows Best and Leave it To Beaver may never have actually existed outside the world of television, but television brought it into the living rooms of a suburban middleAmerica which instantly recognized the scenarios it enacted. Television’s favourite characters were either children or, like Lucille Ball’s Lucy or Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners, childlike; a sirnple device to permit a level of exaggeration and unpredictability in the essentially settled domestic world their shows presented.

Unpredictability was a commodity television rationed carefully, as became apparent in 1959 when contestants confessed that, in competing for the big money prizes on quiz shows such as The $64,000 Question, they had frequently been given the answers by the shows’ producers to engineer exciting results. The quiz show scandals revealed the extraordinary level of audience manipulation regarded as normal television behavior by the networks.

The subsequent public outcry obliged them to polish their tarnished image by abandoning direct sponsoring of programs and improving their current-affairs coverage. From then on, game shows concentrated on trivia rather than the taxing questions asked on The $64,000 Question, but high-value prizes, and the fantasy they presented of easily acquired wealth, remained central components of television’s creation of its own version of the American dream.

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