Monday, November 22, 2010

The Scrounger's Cheapjack Christmas! #9: The Lux Video Theatre

Lux presents...a consolation prize!

Just Enough Information: Lux Video Theatre was a TV continuation of Lux Radio Theatre, one of radio’s all-star warhorses which ran from 1934 to 1955, beginning in 1936 from Hollywood. For the bulk of its run, Lux Radio Theatre was dedicated to radio adaptations of current films with as much of the main cast as could be rounded up in one place by airtime backed up by Hollywood radio’s finest in supporting roles. The studios were more than happy to play ball because it was great publicity, and it’s not like radio would ever replace movies, right?

That was radio. Television was something else again. Lux Video Theatre, which ran as a live production between 1950 and 1959, eventually found its way to movie adaptations (and Hollywood), but it couldn’t have been an easy slog. Radio made film studios a bit jumpy, but in the 1950s, TV freaked them out something crazy…to the point where some actors were forbidden (in their legally-binding contracts) from even owning a television. The big-time movie studios were in roughly the same position with video as they were a few years ago with the Internet in that a big, shiny secondary market was staring them right in the face, and it took them years to do anything sensible with it. So for a time, the “Lux presents Hollywood” approach was still necessary, and that’s how we got another live anthology presenting film and theater stories, except this time with the technical straitjacket of a cramped “golden age” television studio. We’ll talk a little more about that later, but first…

The Christmas Episode: “Holiday Affair” Original Broadcast: December 22, 1955.

Before we get started, what kind of jerk letterboxes an old TV show?

But hey, another train set!

Anyway, we meet Steve Mason, intrepid young toy clerk, (played by Scott Brady) who encounters a young woman who wants to buy a very specific train set, and she isn’t dissuaded by Mason’s attempt at a sales pitch. Just let me pay, bub, and zoom, off she goes.

That sets off enough of a warning bell that Mason’s supervisor warns him to keep an eye out for her returning the merchandise, since she looks like a comparison shopper. For the purposes of our story, that means she takes the rival store’s merchandise back to her store, the gang in the back room give everything the critical eye, then she returns it for a refund. All of this was before everybody started carrying the same branded crap made in the same Asian factories, but back when there really was a difference between stores, it was a cozy little bit of retail espionage. Unless, of course, she gets caught, which is exactly what happens.

As it turns out, Connie Ennis (Phyllis Thaxter) is a widow…and a mother…and likely to lose her job if the return doesn’t go through. So instead of taking her picture and blackballing her from the store, he gives her the refund and tells her to move along. Then he turns in his nametag and joins the ranks of the unemployed again. In return, he guilts her into buying him lunch.

What Steve doesn’t know is that Connie already has another guy on the hook: Carl Davis (Elliot Reid), a lawyer who seems like a nice enough guy, even though she’s refused every one of his marriage proposals. Complicating things further is Connie’s son, who comes off as a petulant little punk.

I DON’T WANT HIS PRESENTS! AND I’M NOT YOUR SON!

Steve shows up at Connie’s house to thank her, and once the lawyer leaves, he talks some plain truth to her, that she’s afraid to move on from the past. She flatly tells him he’s out of his mind. And to prove it, she says going to marry Carl, and she’s going to tell him tonight.

Being a good sport, he shakes her hand…

…and then goes in for the extra point!

So, just like that, we have our love triangle. Will she go with the bland lawyer who offers her security, or the slightly less bland, slight more straight-talking drifter? And will somebody shut that kid up about the freakin’ train?

Our Holiday Lesson For Today: If you have a choice, pop for the actual movie.

“Holiday Affair” is based on a 1949 film of the same name, a romantic comedy starring Robert Mitchum(!!!) and Janet Leigh (full disclosure: haven’t seen it yet). Do you know who starred in the Lux radio version? Robert Mitchum and Laraine Day. Scott Brady is pleasant enough, but no way in hell is he Bob Mitchum.

But it's not just Brady...the whole thing feels kind of flat. Part of the problem is that Lux Video Theatre basically had to sand off the edges and pare back the story to the bare essentials in order to fit 90 minutes of a film story into 45 minutes of available airtime (once you take away commercials and introduction/intermission spots), and squeeze it into the confines of what live television (and a three camera setup) was capable of on a tight budget. You could definitely criticize Lux Radio Theatre on point #1, but the radio people had a big pile of money to throw around to make each week's show an event. I just wasn't feeling "event" here.

And that brings us back to the core of the whole situation. When Lux Video Theatre was new, the show was a substitute for something the viewer couldn’t have: seeing the actual film on television. Sixty years later, you can see the original film on TV (three times in the next month on TCM alone) and DVD, so this hobbled version, while probably interesting in comparison, isn’t exactly a necessity anymore.

Now if somebody would dig up Bogart redoing The Painted Desert for Lux Video, we might have something else again...

(11/26 edit: ...except it was Producer's Showcase, and somebody already did. That's the type of due diligence a guy uses when he doesn't get paid for these things.)

Next: Family Theater!

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