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Introduction to The Screen Directors Playhouse

Television's Screen Directors Playhouse had its roots in a popular radio anthology series of the same name. The program featured movie adaptations voiced by leading film stars of the day, along with appearances by the movies' original directors. Sometimes the filmmakers were involved directly in the radio production and at other times merely introduced the show and took a "curtain call" with the cast at program's end. The radio show, which began in 1949 and ended in 1951, ran for 122 episodes and was also variously known as NBC Theater, Screen Director's Guild Assignment and Screen Director's Assignment. Actors on the radio series included Barbara Stanwyck, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Ronald Colman, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Claudette Colbert and countless other top names.

The television version of Screen Directors Playhouse, filmed at Hal Roach Studios, made its debut on NBC-TV on October 5, 1955, and ran for one season of 35 half-hour episodes, ending on September 12, 1956. The TV episodes were original dramas and comedies actually directed by top filmmakers of the time and again starring well-known movie actors. In the spirit of the radio show, the directors made brief onscreen appearances. TCM presents a collection of 10 of these episodes, which have not been seen on television since their original screenings on NBC-TV. The Grade A talent and high production qualities make the episodes, photographed in atmospheric black and white, seem very much like mini-movies of their period.

Tom and Jerry (1955) (Episode 9)
Double Oscar®-winner Leo McCarey (1937's The Awful Truth, 1944's Going My Way) directed this comedy-drama written by his daughter, Mary McCarey, about a priest (Frank Fay of Harvey fame on Broadway) who tries to save the marriage of a troubled couple (Peter Lawford and Nancy Gates) in time for Christmas. Marie Windsor costars. Director McCarey, who had a special fondness for stories about priests, had worked for Hal Roach early in his career.

Rookie of the Year (1955) (Episode 10)
This baseball drama is the highlight of the TCM screenings of Playhouse episodes since it marked the television debuts of top director John Ford and superstar John Wayne. They were working on their classic Western The Searchers (1956) at the time and are joined by three other cast members from that film: Vera Miles, Ward Bond and Wayne's son Patrick. The elder Wayne plays an unemployed, past-his-prime sports writer who uncovers a secret in the past of a hot young pitcher (Patrick Wayne) that could revive his career but ruin the pitcher's. Miles plays the pitcher's sister, Bond is his father and James Gleason is a hardboiled newspaper editor. The taut screenplay is by Frank S. Nugent from a story by W.R. Burnett, and the excellent cinematography is by Oscar® winner Hal Mohr (Phantom of the Opera, 1943).

Lincoln's Doctor's Dog (1955) (Episode 11)
Robert Ryan is a believable Abraham Lincoln in this drama in which Lincoln's doctor, Robert K. Stone (Charles Bickford), gives the ailing President a puppy on his 54th birthday to improve his health and lift his spirits during the dark days of the Civil War. H.C. Potter (Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, 1948) directed, and the cinematography is by the brilliant James Wong Howe, an Oscar® winner for The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Hud (1963). The story goes that publisher Bennett Cerf had once made the tongue-in-cheek remark that a story called Lincoln's Doctor's Dog would have to be a success because it included three elements that the public couldn't resist. Christopher Morley (author of the 1939 novel Kitty Foyle) tested Cerf's theory with a short story of that title that became the basis for William R. Cox's screenplay.

The Silent Partner (1955) (Episode 12)
George Marshall, a director of comedy dating to the silent period and a veteran of the Hal Roach Studios, guided silent-screen legends Buster Keaton and Zasu Pitts, along with celebrated comic Joe E. Brown, through this drama for which Marshall also wrote the screenplay. The setting is a greasy-spoon diner in Hollywood near the Pantages Theater, where the Academy Awards ceremonies are taking place. Echoing his own life and career, Keaton plays a once-famous comic named Kelsey Dutton who has fallen into oblivion. As the Oscar® show unfolds on television, a film director (Brown) is being given a lifetime achievement award and the diner's regulars (including Pitts as an eccentric oldster) recognize a stranger at the bar as the comic in the clips on television highlighting the director's career. The implication is that the TV exposure could mean a new career for Dutton, just as it had for Keaton in real life a few years earlier. The supporting cast includes Jack Elam as a self-important actor and Evelyn Ankers as Dutton's leading lady in the flashbacks to the old comedies, which were newly filmed for the episode. Bob Hope makes a surprise appearance as himself, hosting the Oscars®. A happy update to this story: Keaton would receive his own honorary Oscar® five years later. Among the comedy shorts George Marshall had directed for Roach were a series costarring Pitts and Thelma Todd.

Number Five Checked Out (1956) (Episode 16)
Ida Lupino, while still enjoying an illustrious career as an actress, became perhaps the only notable and important female filmmaker of her era in Hollywood. After directing seven theatrical features beginning in 1949, she made her television directing debut with this episode, for which she also created the story. Teresa Wright stars as a deaf woman who must outwit bank robbers who are using one of her father's remote resort cabins as a hideout. Peter Lorre, once a fellow contract player with Lupino at Warner Bros., costars as one of the crooks.

Prima Donna (1956) (Episode 17)
Musical comedy legend Jeanette MacDonald, in a story written especially for her by her husband, Gene Raymond, stars as a concert artist who takes an interest in a 13-year-old newsboy (Alfred Caiazza) with an outstanding vocal talent -- only to discover that he prefers playing baseball to singing. David Butler, a popular director since early talkies who helmed many Warner Bros. films including several Doris Day musicals, directs. The cast also includes Leo Durocher, the celebrated baseball player and manager, and Laraine Day, his actress wife, as themselves, along with outstanding character actress Jane Darwell. The episode was considered to be a pilot for MacDonald's own television series, which failed to materialize.

The Sword of Villon (1956) (Episode 22)
Errol Flynn made his television debut at the age of 47 in this swashbuckling adventure directed by George Waggner, a prolific director of television episodes and feature films including the John Wayne vehicles The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) and Operation Pacific (1951). Flynn plays Francois Villon, the dashing vagabond poet of 15th century France. (Flynn's cohort John Barrymore had played the same role in the 1927 film The Beloved Rogue.) Hal Roach himself introduced the episode thusly: "This is a tale of derring-doo, of lords and ladies and scoundrels, too..." The story by Wilbur S. Peacock has Villon foiling a plot to assassinate the King of France, with Flynn dressed in tunic, breeches and feathered cap reminiscent of his famous role as Robin Hood. Costars include Hillary Brooke and Murvyn Vye.

Markheim (1956) (Episode 23)
The brilliant Fred Zinnemann (From Here To Eternity [1953], The Nun's Story [1959]) directed this episode just after his big-screen version of Oklahoma! (1955) was released in theaters. Paul Osborn, who adapted The Yearling and East of Eden as films, contributed to the Markheim screenplay, based on an 1885 short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. Ray Milland stars as Roy Markheim, a degraded and prideless man who is attempting to rob the corpse of a man he has killed on Christmas Day when he is offered a tempting proposition by a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger). As befits its literary source, Markheim has the flavor of a good short story. The episode was re-broadcast on another NBC anthology series, Decision, in September 1958.

Claire (1956) (Episode 24)
Angela Lansbury, still in character-actress mode and a decade away from the superstardom she would achieve in Broadway's Mame, stars in this drama as Vera Wayne, the second wife of a doctor (George Montgomery). The bane of Vera's existence in her husband's lakeside home is his pet cat, which serves as a constant reminder of her role in the drowning death of the doctor's first wife. The director was Frank Tuttle, who began as a screenwriter in the early 1920s and continued as a film director through 1959, counting among his career highlights the film noir This Gun for Hire (1942). Also in the cast of Claire are Jean Willes and Bill Erwin.

High Air (1956) (Episode 35)
Allan Dwan, whose career as a movie director spanned 50 years (1911-1961), began in silents and reached a peak with the John Wayne WWII adventure Sands of Iowa Jima (1949). He directed this episode, based on a 1934 short story by Borden Chase, in which William Bendix and a young Dennis Hopper play father and son "sandhogs." The two are working on the same crew digging a tunnel under the East River, and have been estranged until the tunnel wall is accidentally punctured and the father makes a painful sacrifice to save his son's life. This episode also was re-broadcast on Decision in September 1958.

by Roger Fristoe



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