Wednesday, 20 March 2013

None of the Acting is Real

Two groups loved the Quiz Show scandals. Politicians were ecstatic. It gave them something to denounce and talk about high-road stuff like “the good of the American people.” Never mind the Cold War, something had to be done about “The $64,000 Question” (which had already been cancelled). And newspaper writers were happy, too, as it gave them a shot to bark about the shallowness of television, in between their paper’s horoscopes and Broadway gossip columns.

CBS president Frank Stanton announced on October 16, 1959 that the network would take “a fresh, hard look” at all its programming, and that viewers would get assurances that everything they saw would be “exactly what it purports to be.” Stanton told the New York Times in a story published four days later the crackdown would include canned laughter and applause.

The TV columnist for the National Enterprise Association couldn’t resist having a little fun with Stanton’s proclamation. He wrote a column where he extended Stanton’s new guidelines to the nth degree. It appeared in papers starting November 2nd.

This Honest John Thing Could Become An Absurdity
NEA Staff Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD (NEA)—The TV reform wave had brought requiem for the last of the quiz shows and had sent all the laugh machines to the sea bottom. Taped shows no longer were hailed as “live” and not one typewriter was turning out clever ad libs.
All cue cards had been burned and announcers no longer signaled audiences to applaud commercials.
The TV network’s firm words were still in force: “We are going to ban anything that purports to be what it isn’t.”
TV was still in the spasms of “Operation Honest John,” which had spread to all networks. Vice presidents had become private eyes for a TV Central Intelligence Agency and the flow of telegraphed reports and “Top Secret” pouch deliveries was keeping the TV central intelligence staff working round the clock.
THE “HONEST JOHN” crusade had brought many changes to TV, and more were to come. The top staffer at C.I. issued his first order of the day: “Producers of ‘Lassie’ are hereby ordered to make public announcement that Lassie is a he, not a she. Refusal will result in immediate cancellation.”
Then the C.I. topper leaned back in his chair and reviewed the reform progress to date.
One western, about to be cancelled, had used real bullets on its final show. There was talk that the hero, who had been outdrawn, would be awarded a special Emmy, posthumously, for his contribution to “honesty.”
Jack Benny had agreed to stop saying he was only 39.
Contestants on the Groucho Marx show no longer were screened and given gags tailored to them before they were brought before the cameras.
“Gunsmoke” now carried a “special note” for viewers.
“Chester’s limp is simulated as a dramatic device.”
Walter Brennan’s limp as Grandpa in “The Real McCoys” likewise was explained.
ONE CONTESTANT on the Arthur Murray Party had been exposed as a student of a Fred Astaire Dancing School.
Whenever “Maverick” or “Riverboat” used studio stock shots these words flashed on the screen:
“This scene first appeared in a 1938 movie.”
Stunt men were now being given screen credits as doubles in all the-fight scenes.
“You Asked for It” was demanding open hearings on two charges.
One viewer had accused the show of giving its audience something no one had asked for. Another viewer had charged he asked for something and didn’t get it.
Marilyn Monroe had been cancelled as a “Person To Person” guest because she insisted on wearing make-up. “No make-up,” TV ordered. When she insisted, Marilyn had been replaced by Perry Como.
Faced with being himself, Perry came on like the bull in the china shop, revealing he is a nervous wreck and not one bit relaxed.
"This is the real me," Perry said, and it was like the night the dam broke.
IN HOLLYWOOD, Fredric March had discarded his bald wig and five inches of padding for his William Jennings Bryan role just before the start of filming on “Inherit The Wind.” The make-up trickery, the TV boys had ruled, would keep the movie off the late, late show in 1980.
At public confessionals, this had happened:
John "Lawman" Russell admitted the gray streak in his hair was for a “dramatic” reason—housewife appeal. George Jcssel explained his toupee, “You wouldn't recognize me without it.” Oscar Levant laughed about his ailments — “I’m just sick, folks, not sick-sick.”
But TV C.I.’s work was going on. The C.I. staff topper looked at the day’s schedule. It lead off with: “Check possibility of checks bouncing on ‘The Millionaire’ and investigate network quizlings now writing dialog for crooked sheriffs.”
It was a real mess, folks.

The mention of “Person To Person” may have been intended as a joke, but it mirrored a comment made by Stanton in his Times interview that the show wasn’t what it appeared to be. A disclaimer was actually put on it one evening telling viewers the questions were rehearsed. All this enranged host Edward R. Murrow, who felt Stanton was telling the American people he was dishonest. But that’s a story for another time.

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