Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Living Colour, Dying Show

NBC gave birth to a peacock in 1956 to advertise its colour broadcasts. By then, NBC had won a lengthy governmental battle with CBS over which network’s colour system would be the industry standard.

NBC had been broadcasting in colour on rare occasion prior to 1956. One of those rare occasions was in November 1953 when Bob Hope’s variety show was shot by colour cameras. I can’t imagine many people actually saw it in colour. New York Herald Tribune critic John Crosby was one of them but he played down the colour and played up the fact that Hope died on camera.

It probably isn’t surprising Crosby dismissed Hope’s broadcast. And, no, it has nothing to do with his name being “Crosby” (as in Bing). Hope sued Crosby for $2,010,000 in November 1950 for claiming in Life magazine that Hope’s writers had stolen material from Fred Allen. Hope dropped the suit the following May, but Crosby continued with his skewering of Hope’s shows. He called one telecast from London in 1954 “mediocre” and sally-forthed from there. And he’s equally uncomplimentary in this column a year earlier.

NEW YORK, Nov. 21. — The Bob Hope show on Monday night (which you probably didn't see because you haven't got a color set) was, according to an announcement at the beginning, "the first full hour commercial show on color television." A notable first. And, from beginning to end, an almost unqualified disaster.
For one thing, Miss Arlene Dahl, a luscious red-headed lollipop from Hollywood, had been imported to New York to play opposite Hope's wolf whistles.
Miss Dahl had also, rather absently, contracted to play Roxanne opposite Jose Ferrer's "Cyrano de Bergerac" at the City Center. The two assignments were too taxing for her voice (it says here) and Miss Dahl withdrew from the Hope show. In the nick of time.
Another Red-Head
Thrashing about for a replacement, the people in charge over there came up with another red-headed lollipop, Miss Janis Paige, who was precipitated in front of the color cameras with almost no rehearsals and only the dimmest idea of what she was expected to do. Naturally, she blew lines in all directions. It didn't matter much. The lines in that show were, if anything, improved by being massacred. Still, I think it's a bad idea to throw people in front of color cameras, unrehearsed.
About a week before the show, it was decided to demonstrate what color TV did for the feminine face and form and a call went out for beautiful women to show up at the Colonial Theater. A spy I have around here for occasions of this nature was dispatched to the Colonial to oversee this operation "About 100 lovelies showed up," he reported. "Lovelies—that's what everyone up there called them. They were accompanied by 100 agents, all unlovely." That's all I could get out of him.
Spectacular Gowns
A selection of these lovelies was presented on the show, done up like anything in evening gowns. The gowns were spectacular. The lovelies came off second best.
Considering what you can find on Fifth Avenue around high noon of any shopping day, this was not anything like the best New York can produce in the line of lovelies.
When color TV is really upon us, though, I bet we're going to see a lot of lovelies. The temptation to dress up a pretty girl in as little as the law allows and parade her across the stage in four colors is going to be irresistible.
As for the show, we were warned in advance that it was a dress rehearsal—it was broadcast in black and white the following night—and that it was several rehearsals away from the finished product. Even allowing for its unfinished state, it was pedestrian. Hope told some jokes about color TV and Bing Crosby. "You'll see the blue of the night meet the gold of his pot."
Hope, his guest Fred MacMurray, and Miss Paige then perpetrated a dreary sketch about the making of filmed TV commercials which should have been funny but wasn't. (I'm impressed, though, that they'd even allow such a thing on the air.) There was another fairly clubfooted sketch with Hope as a college football player which should have been funny but wasn't. And Hope and Paige sang a duet, tripping prettily all over, the lyrics which were pretty dull anyhow.
Clean As Whistle
Incidentally, the black and white show, for which this was a rehearsal, was the monthly replacement for the Milton Berle show, and Mr. Hope delivered himself of some jokes about the new, revised, expurgated Berle. In this connection, it seemed to me that Hope had undergone some revision, too.
Hope's last show got an awful lambasting from the critics on the grounds of poor taste. Mr. Hope, I guess, decided to scrub up a little himself and this show was clean as a whistle.
The color transmission, with all its imperfections and fumbling technique, was lovely to look at. Some dramatic shows will probably profit not at all from color but for every variety show, color is going to be a tremendous asset.


  1. I'm just hoping someday someone turns up the color print of "Carnival Story" from the 1954 season of "The Jack Benny Program". Only the B&W copy has ever been in syndication, and the only version on YouTube right now follows MGM's tactic with the old Captain and the Kids cartoons and is in sepiatone.

  2. I'm sure it's squirreled away in some vault somewhere.

    Maybe it's sitting next to a color copy of the Puppetoon sequence from "Variety Girl" :)