When most people think of the live television shows from the 1950s, that produced such shows as Playhouse 90, The U.S. Steel Hour, etc, almost universally what comes to mind is drama, usually penned by the likes of a Paddy Chayefsky or Rod Serling. But the third entry in The Criterion Collection’s boxed set of DVDs, titled The Golden Age Of Television, is a comedy called No Time For Sergeants, adapted from a novel by Mac Hyman, and directed by Alex Segal. Most interestingly, though, the novel was adapted by Ira Levin, the man who would later pen his own novels, most famously Rosemary’s Baby. This teleplay debuted on The U.S. Steel Hour on March 15th, 1955.
The production was also famous for making a star out of Andy Griffith, who parlayed this role into a long running role on Broadway, a film version of the play, then an acclaimed dramatic film turn in Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd, and finally reaching superstar status with his 1960s television mega-hit, The Andy Griffith Show, and his 1980s hit, Matlock. The teleplay is also considered the blueprint for another hit television show, the spinoff to The Andy Griffith Show called Gomer Pyle, USMC, which starred Jim Nabors as a dumb Marine recruit.
In No Time For Sergeants, Griffith plays a smarter than he looks Southerner, named Will Stockdale, from Georgia, who is drafted into the Army, then ends up in the Air Force, with his pal Ben Whitledge (Eddie LeRoy). The two get in and out of trouble, in a series of blackout sketches, on a spare stage that evokes both Samuel Beckett’s best work, as well as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, with Griffith doubling as Stockdale the narrator, wandering in and out of scenes, and endowed with the power to change time frames merely by mentioning time’s passage. The sketches are genuinely funny, at times, and quite dated, at other times. But the 53 minutes of run time pass quickly enough, as Will ends up annoying and aggravating his fellow recruits, as well as his barracks leader, Sergeant King (Harry Clark), who ends up getting demoted, and sent back to gunnery school, along with Will, Ben, and two other recruits, Irvin (Arthur Storch) and Lucky (Bob Hastings, who later starred in the sitcom McHale’s Navy and on the daytime soap opera General Hospital).
Overall, it is a good entertainment, and a nice breather from some of the more gravid drams in the DVD set, like the first two entries, Chayefsky’s Marty and Serling’s Patterns. But, is it really a Golden entertainment? I don’t think so, and I suspect the reason the show was chosen for both the PBS series that rebroadcast all eight entries in the series (which all appear in the boxed set) is less for its comic ‘genius’ and more for its historical import to the television medium as the vehicle that first made Andy Griffith a star. And, the truth is, this show is all Griffith all the time. For those who thought he was a one-note straight man, from his role as the iconic Sheriff Andy Taylor, think again. Griffith is a great raconteur and has a comic timing that is excellent. One wonders why so little was made of this talent in his own titular television series? Whereas most good ol’ boy humor is sexist, racist, and often predictable, Griffith plays against those very stereotypes and is actually quite subversive, slipping in scatological and sexual humor into Eisenhower era television only because he could so undermine it by appearing rubish in the areas of sex, religion, and politics.
The black and white show is in a bit better shape than the two kinescopes that precede it in the boxed set, and the audio is quite good. The camera work is not quite as important as in the other dramas, due to the more abstract and minimalist set, but the lighting is very effectively used. There is no audio commentary for this entry, and that’s a shame, because, given the short running time for each entry, a good historical perspective is needed. Unfortunately, Criterion’s growing cheapness and disregard for its public strike again. On the positive side there is a nice Introduction to the show, culled from the PBS series that ran in 1981. It is hosted by Roddy McDowell, who played Ben Whitledge in the Broadway version of the show, opposite Griffith. He reminisces of the show, but mostly the Introduction has a nice reminiscence from Griffith, who tells how he initially got the part of Stockdale by lobbying the producer with a ten minute long monologue, told in a Southern way, about Shakespeare’s Hamlet. From just the brief reminiscence it makes one want to hear the whole thing.
No Time For Sergeants is a superior entertainment, especially when compared to the brain-dead crap that passes for such in these deliterate times; but it is not Golden. Argue with me, though, and I may concede it is worthy of a Bronze designation. Really twist my arm, and I may plead Silver. But not Gold. Sorry. Nonetheless, it is worth viewing, and, if it does not make you laugh or smile, at least you can honestly state you didn’t even have to waste a full hour on it. Well, unless you watch the Introduction; then you’re cutting it a bit close. Go ahead, live dangerously!?