The film industry has always had a boogie man, living in fear over something it feels will kill it or, at the very least, take away potential profits. At one time, it was television. Studios even banned their stars under contract from the small screen (which delayed Red Skelton’s move from radio to TV). Finally, they realised how short-sighted this was and how there was money and publicity to be made from television. In between those years, Jack Benny got caught in the stupidity.
Before it became, more or less, a sitcom in the late ‘40s, the Benny radio show used to parody movies. One of them was “Gaslight,” the 1944 Ingrid Bergman thriller. Bergman re-enacted her role in Benny’s send-up a year later. When television rolled around, Benny’s writers handily lifted material from old radio scripts and re-worked it for the small screen. And that’s where Jack ran into trouble because of paranoia coupled with legal opinion.
Here’s a column from the National Enterprise Association dated December 27, 1958 about how a Benny TV broadcast was delayed almost six years. Can you picture such a thing happening today?
Jack Benny Finally Ready for TV Satire on ‘Gaslight’
By ERSKINE JOHNSON
HOLLYWOOD — TV comedians have taken their problems to psychiatrists, sponsors, network bosses, censors, joke writers, sympathetic wives and, on occasion, to bill and tax collectors.
But Jack Benny is the only comedian who can say he has had a problem presented to the United States Supreme Court. And, reflecting TV’s own confusion these days, the Supreme Court couldn’t even solve the problem.
There was a 4-4 split decision when only eight of the nine justices voted on the matter. But no one really cared any more.
Big Cause Celebre
So the Jack Benny CBS-TV program Jan. 11 should be viewed as television's first big cause celebre as well as a very funny, but very dead, corpus delicti, filmed in 1953.
After six years of standing by with a typical “Well —,” Expression on his face, Jack will unreel his controversial 15-minute satire of MGM’s 1944 movie “Gaslight.” Jack is the husband and Barbara Stanwyck is the wife he’s driving to insanity. Bob Crosby plays the Scotland Yard inspector. Just about everyone. I guess, knows the plot.
And just about everyone believes, wrongly, that the long battle between the MGM film studio and CBS-TV over Jack’s film was based on the right of a TV comedian to satirize a motion picture.
Well, it wasn’t.
The legal battle was over the invincibility of Hollywood and its film against TV competition. Hollywood was putting up quite a fight in 1953, you may remember, and caught in the middle was Jack Benny.
MGM really wasn’t concerned about Jack’s spoof of the movie. In 1952, Jack presented a “Gaslight” satire on his live show.
Before that, on his radio show, there was a Benny “Gaslight” satire. Grateful for the publicity
MGM even loaned Jack a print of the picture so his radio writers could study the scenes and the dialogue.
What MGM suddenly worried about in 1953 was something cherished passionately by Hollywood, motion picture studios and — MOVIE FILM.
So for reasons legally important to Hollywood in 1953 it became a big life or death struggle. Spoofing “Gaslight” on radio, even on live TV, was just dandy with MGM. But when Jack put it on film—WOW! Leo the MGM Lion, roared.
Film WAS Hollywood. Film WAS the movie theaters of the world. MGM film—all of Hollywood’s film — had been copyrighted long ago by a task force of lawyers who spent months on the project, leaving no loopholes, they thought. But then Benny filmed 15 minutes of “Gaslight” satire.
It was the loophole MGM’s lawyers didn't think about in the TV-less long ago. Left unchallenged, it could set a precedent.
Left unchallenged by MGM, the studio’s customers, the theatre men, would have a nice “you done us wrong” argument about aiding the TV “enemy.”
The Hollywood winds were blowing in a different direction in 1953 and Jack and his film were caught in the legal gust.
So a lawsuit put Jack’s satire on the shelf. Privately, Jack was told by an MGM executive
—“No matter what the decision may be. Jack, you can show the film on TV. Just ONCE, you understand, and only because of our friendship with you.”
To Prove Point
Hollywood wanted to prove a point in 1953.
No MGM movie in ANY FORM ever would be shown on TV, said the studio.
So with MGM winning all the way, and with CBS appealing all the way, the case went to the highest court in the land.
But when the court’s split decision came down, MGM films, leased to TV, were making millions; MGM was in TV production) MGM’s customers, the theatre owners, no longer had exclusive right to showing film. It was a whole new world. So the Hollywood cause celebre of ‘53 didn't mean a thing in ‘58.
After Jack unreels the “Gaslight” satire on Jan. 11, I’m sure people will be asking:
“What was all the fuss about?”
Well, now you know.
The show was broadcast January 11, 1959. William Ewald of the Associated Press reviewed it the next day and said it had several very funny moments, but much of the parody was lost because the movie was so old.
And, as it turned out, the delay was all for nothing.