Sunday, 25 November 2012

Ban Gaslight!

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’

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.
Issue Clarified
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.
Legally Important
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.
Critical Situation
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.


  1. On his next episode, Jack said;
    Jack: MGM released a statement that they were unhappy with my parody of their movie Gaslight being shown on TV last week.
    Well that seems very fair, considering that they released me twenty years ago and left me in a basket on Warner Bros doorstep.

  2. MGM's observance by 1958 really was odd, because Warner Bros. had let the dam burst in 1957, when they went against the studios' combined attempted to pretend television didn't exist, when Warners signed their deal to produce original programing for ABC (Columbia had been sneaking their efforts in through the back door via their Screen Gems subsidiary for a few years prior to that, and once J.L. went in the other studios followed suit). This seems more like a case of throwing good lawsuit money after bad, in winning an argument after the viewing public already has decided they'd rather stay at home in front of the telly six nights out of the week.

  3. J.L., I suspect MGM's management troubles at the time played some kind of role.

  4. The Warner Bros. deal with ABC (to produce "WARNER BROS. PRESENTS" as their first weekly TV series) began in 1955. By 1957, they started producing a lot of Westerns for the network [including "MAVERICK", "SUGARFOOT" and "COLT .45", in addition to "CHEYENNE", which began as a segment of "WBP"]. In MGM's case, it took them a while to begin production of weekly filmed series after the failure of "MGM PARADE' in the 1955-'56 season {in which they discovered you can't offer off a bunch of old film clips, recycle old Pete Smith/John Nesbitt/Robert Benchley/Carey Wilson and Tex Avery shorts, and throw in "interviews" with current MGM stars- with "plugs" for their current movies- and expect the audience to tune in every week; most didn't}. When they started producing weekly versions of some of their classic films in 1957, including "THE THIN MAN" and "NORTHWEST PASSAGE", that's when they began to be a "player" in filmed TV productions for the networks. Still, they just didn't want Jack's parody of "Gaslight" to be repeated.

  5. And HERE'S the episode, as telecast on January 11, 1959:

  6. Link has been taken down FYI, but I have a copy of the show, it’s daily funny but not the best ones, so Much fuss over nothing it turns out!