The more I reacquaint myself with the live television dramas of the 1950s the more I feel what a great opportunity the medium wasted. Well, perhaps wasted is the wrong word; it was killed. Murdered. This was not an example of declining ratings nor a changing culture. This was television coldly opting for videotape to do shows cheaper, without the ‘risks’ of live television. But, since risk, by definition connotes opportunities for failure AND success, television executives decided to cave in.
There were dozens of great teleplays aired in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, out of thousands of episodes aired. That meant there were failures and mostly mediocrities. But there WERE many great performances. In the years since, how many great television shows have there been? A few months back I ruminated on the number of great television sitcoms there had been in the 60+ years of the medium in America, and I barely hit ten. Perhaps there are as many great dramas in the same amount of time. So, let’s be generous, and say 25-30 great television shows in the history of commercial American television. Now, compare that to four or five times as many great teleplays in just a sixth the amount of time, and that might give you a numeric idea of the problem.
Rod Serling was probably the greatest advocate for television’s power, and championed it against the encroachments of commercialism’s stupidity, and not just stupidity, but creeping cupidity and pettiness. It’s no surprise that, despite being best known for his work on, and creation of, The Twilight Zone television series, and his penning the screenplay for the original The Planet Of The Apes film, Serling was, along with Paddy Chayefsky, one of the Twin Towers of the teleplay’s prestige in the 1950s.
While his Requiem For A Heavyweight is the most well known of the dozens of teleplays Serling penned, Patterns may be even better, as it is one of the most acidic portraits of corporate America ever presented to a mass audience.
Initially broadcast on January 12th, 1955, for NBC’s Kraft Television Theater, then ‘restaged,’ not merely repeated, a month later, it was the talk of the television season (and the 463rd teleplay in the series), and lifted Serling from the ranks of a writer with talent and potential to one of the most famous writers in America. And, like many of the Golden Age teleplays, it was later co-opted into an inferior film version. But the first broadcast, was captured on The Criterion Collection’s DVD set of eight dramas, called The Golden Age Of Television, culled from a 1981 PBS series that rebroadcast the original kinescopes (including Introductions by Golden Age actors – in this case by actor Keenan Wynn).
Unfortunately, the Patterns video has no audio commentary, so the introduction is the lone extra. The teleplay was directed by Fielder Cook, and the video is hit and miss, with darkness, muddiness, and lighting issues in certain scenes. In some scenes, also, the shadows of boom mikes are visible against walls or on the backs of actors.
The tale follows the arrival of a new company Vice President from Cincinnati, for the firm of Ramsie & Co. What the company does is never specified, but it seems to specialize in what would later be called corporate raiding. Its chief is the son of the company founder, Walter Ramsie (Everett Sloane), a misanthropic Social Darwinist if there ever was one. He is ill tempered, hard to please, ruthless, cruel, but has one redeeming virtue: he is wholly up front and honest about all his other flaws.
The VP he has hired away from another company is Fred Staples (Richard Kiley), a former All-American college football player from Ohio State. The third main character is 56 year old Andy Sloan (Ed Begley), a friend of Ramsie’s father, who founded the company, and also a VP, who realizes that Staples is his replacement. The two VPs become friends, over time, and share a similar belief that business is more than just about business, but ‘the human element.’ Ramsie belittles Sloane at meetings, while pushing Staples, even to the point of eventually denying that Sloane’s old ideas, which Ramsie has hated, are the foundations for ‘new’ ideas by Staples. The boss even crosses Sloane’s name off a proposal. This sends Sloane into an frenzy, and likely heart attack.
He dies offscreen, bullied and pressured to death by his boss, in an age when VPs were never fired, but forced to resign. Seeing how he will have to sell his soul to succeed, Staples intends on quitting the firm and heading back to Cincinnati. But, in the final showdown, Ramsie goads and belittles Staples, challenging his manhood with the fallacy that only a big corporation’s Darwinian excesses can challenge Staples enough (perhaps the lone false note in the entire production), whereas being the best mind in a little company would be dull.
In a lesser work of art, Staples would have told Ramsie to kiss his ass (as it is he radiates disgust with Ramsie, telling him while it’s bad to be like Sloane- forced to lick boots, it’s worse to be Ramsie- the man who forces his boots to be licked), and headed back to the simpler life as an ethical hero. But Serling and Cook take the tougher route; they make Staples accept Ramsie’s challenge, and even have him utter that he does so only so that he can live out Andy Sloane’s dream of breaking Ramsie’s jaw. Ramsie seems to be pleased, knowing he will be challenged, too- both ethically and intellectually. The play then ends with Staples staying late at work, as his wife smiles, happily knowing her future is secure.
The writing is, aside from the one minor solecism I noted, virtually note-perfect, and the acting, from the three main participants, is nothing less than outstanding. Kiley and Begley show a wonderful rapport, in just a few scenes, that believably establishes their growing friendship, whereas Sloane simply dominates the screen as the despotic tycoon. But, secondary characters also shine- especially the females in the cast, including Staples’ wife, Fran (June Dayton), and the company secretaries (Elizabeth Wilson, Joanna Roos, and Elizabeth Montgomery). There is some interesting camera work, early on in the play, and on the breaks in to and out of commercials, and in montages of small aspects of the corporate offices (especially empty and at night), but this play really shows how riveting great writing can be, and how superfluous many of the other elements of television and film can be. None of the characters is without flaws nor virtues. Andy Sloane is a decent man, but an alcoholic. Fred Staples is decent and principled, but willing to be used. Ramsie is a cold hearted bastard, but an honest bastard. Fran Staples is an inveterate social climber, but fiercely loyal to her man.
Patterns stands as a great and brilliantly insightful work of art, and it is heartening to realize it was recognized as such in its day. Serling won the first of his six Emmy Awards for writing for this teleplay, and it was well deserved. The same is not true today, however, and I doubt that such a damning indictment of the monied powers could even get looked at, much less produced, in these times. Too bad. Television, an the arts, need more Rod Serlings….in this or any other dimensions.?