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Harvest (1953, James Sheldon)

Dorothy Gish isn’t just top-billed in Harvest, host (and narrator) Robert Montgomery introduces the episode hyping her presence. So it’s a tad disappointing when it turns out Gish gets less and less to do throughout the hour-long television play. When she does get things to do, they happen off-screen. Instead of giving her an arc, writer Sandra Michael actually takes away from Gish in the third act, giving time to a newly introduced character.

It might be okay if there were something more interesting going on, but there’s really not. Most of Harvest has to do with nonagenarian Vaughn Taylor preparing for his one hundredth birthday. Mentally preparing, not party-planning. Taylor’s in a bunch of makeup and sort of dodders around, talking too loud about how grandson James Dean isn’t going to take over the family farm.

Dean gets a lot to do. He’s in love with city girl Rebecca Welles, who just can’t understand why he’d want to stay on that smelly old farm anyway. Dad Ed Begley doesn’t know Dean doesn’t want to be a farmer–writer Michael knows Begley and Dean ought to have some scenes together because the characters have things to talk about, but Harvest skips every single one of those conversations. Instead, Begley either tells Gish or Taylor he’s talked to Dean.

The action takes place around the house, specifically the kitchen, occasionally the front porch. Harvest takes some side trips–into the city, out into the field, 1,000 miles away to check in on Gish and Begley’s other sons–but it’s mostly just the kitchen. Where Gish prepares coffee, Begley sits silently, Dean sits jittery, and Taylor dodders.

Harvest doesn’t take any of its characters seriously enough. If it’s going to be about homesteader turned farmer Taylor turning one hundred and watching his family farm collapse, the writing needs to be better and a better actor needs to be playing the part. Director Sheldon doesn’t do much with his actors, but no one’s anywhere near as problematic as Taylor. While Begley is mostly scenery (which is almost better than when he gets lines because Michael writes them so poorly), he’s better than Taylor’s “best” scenes.

Dean’s okay. Harvest cuts away from his character development just as it gets interesting. Gish is okay. She really doesn’t have anything to do but make coffee in a percolator but she does it with a level of engagement far beyond anyone else. Begley looks lost.

Welles is pretty bad.

Montgomery’s narration is obnoxious, but no worse than the frequent choir singing reminding the viewer how blessed are the starving farmers and aren’t they quaint. Keep hope alive for tomorrow is Harvest’s motto (or some such thing). Instead, it seems like the television play just wants to avoid responsibility for its content.

Sheldon’s direction–outside his lack of interest in the performances–is fine. Harvest never feels cramped, one primary set or not.

1/3Not Recommended


Directed by James Sheldon; written by Sandra Michael; produced by Robert Montgomery; aired by the National Broadcast Company.

Starring Dorothy Gish (Ellen Zalinka), Ed Begley (Karl Zalinka), Vaughn Taylor (Gramps), James Dean (Paul Zalinka), Rebecca Welles (Arlene), John Connell (Chuck), John Dennis (Joe), Joseph Foley (Herb), Nancy Sheridan (Louise), Mary Lou Taylor (Fran), and Frank Tweddell (Mr. Franklin); narrated by Robert Montgomery.



V (1983, Kenneth Johnson)

About half of V is quite good. Unfortunately, V was a two-night mini-series and the first half is good part. The second half, not so much. The first half has human-like alien visitors arriving on Earth, in hopes of making a chemical compound to take back home to save their planet. Turns out they’re lying about pretty much everything and they’re actually bad aliens. It’s just they’ve taken over the planet by the time anyone notices. Traditional good guys like American presidents or the military are taken completely unawares and it’s up to the little people. Actually, specifically, it’s up to the scientists. Because the aliens hate scientists. Because they science things and find out the truth. It’s actually never explained.

Writer and director Johnson sets most of the action in Los Angeles. There are the doctors at a hospital and their supporting cast, then these families in one neighborhood. Everyone is interconnected. Richard Lawson is a doctor at the hospital, his dad (Jason Bernard) works at a chemical plant, that chemical plant is run by Hansford Rowe, who is married to Neva Patterson, whose son from a previous marriage is lead Marc Singer.

In the first half, Singer’s only the lead because he’s the cocky white guy. In the second half, he’s the lead because he’s the cocky white guy who does dangerous things and makes the hard decisions. Second lead technically is Faye Grant. She’s a med student who ends up running a resistance cell. She works with Lawson. Remember him? He started this particular interconnected character web.

Grant starts V kind of second-fiddle to Ron Hajak. They’re a couple, living together, she’s the med student, he’s the stockbroker. Yuppie love. Or, as my wife put it, Ken and Barbie in the Malibu Beach House. It’s only significant because eventually Hajak disappears. And it turns out without the Ken and Barbie bicker thing, there’s not much to Grant. Johnson gets her about halfway through the first episode without having anything just for her.

Second half, she’s the resistance leader.

Grant is not good. She’s sympathetic. But the performance isn’t good. The part isn’t well-written. Johnson has a problem with the female parts here. Though it’s cool how V passes Bechdel; Grant is unsure in her newfound command, sweet older woman Camila Ashland reassures her. Unfortunately, Ashland’s not good either. She’s sympathetic. And Blair Tefkin’s feckless teenage girl is a whole other problem.

Oh, and Joanna Kerns as Singer’s ex-wife. Her part’s crap.

Anyway. Those parts are problems. Penelope Windust’s part is better for half of V–she disappears in the second half because… well, because her husband–Michael Durrell–gets to have a huge character arc out of nowhere. Not a particularly good arc either, in terms of writing or plotting. It drags, actually; Johnson makes a movie with flying saucers and somehow makes more requests for disbelief suspension when the sci-fi visual part is done. Sure, it comes back for the grand finale, but it’s way too action-oriented. Johnson is not good at the action. He’s good at the gee whiz factor, which isn’t appropriate in V after twenty or thirty minutes and he knows it. So then there’s no more gee whiz.

The finale features a starfighter battle. But the starfighters are spacious minivan-type starfighters. Johnson tries for sci-fi action in the sequence and fails miserably. It’s also way too long a sequence. It’s okay compost shots of the starfighter minivans, but then there are these terrible one or two-shots of the starfighter pilots. It looks like they’re sitting at tables. There’s even a rear gun in the minivan. Because Johnson needs another Star Wars nod. Besides some production design stuff, there’s also a sequence where the aliens arrive and a high school band plays The Imperial March from Empire.

That arrival sequence? It’s at Patterson’s husband’s plant, which Singer is covering, and Tefkin is playing in the band. It’s so unfortunate the second half of V doesn’t bring the cast together better. Johnson spends a lot of time being pragmatic about how to transition between characters and how to build subplots. Even when the writing is thin (Tefkin) or the acting isn’t great, there’s always something going on.

And then the beginning of the second half brings in a bunch of stray threads. Only Johnson doesn’t want to do melodrama so he goes for surprise. Melodrama probably would’ve worked better.

The second half also throws in good guy alien Frank Ashmore and his sexy sidekick, Jenny Neumann.

Johnson has an intricate thoughtful script for the first half. He builds his subplots, he cultivates them. Second half, he either tears them up or ignores them. He doesn’t build anything new for half of V. He just stops. The second night is a premature victory lap.

And gives Durrell way too much to do.

The first half just has the better writing, both of events and characters. Leonardo Cimino lives in the same neighborhood as Durrell. Cimino’s grandson is a collaborator. There are a lot of collaborators. Johnson’s a realist. David Packer plays the grandson. He’s crushing on Tefkin, incidentally. Packer’s good, though he gets a lot better writing and direction than Tefkin.

So you watch the first half and it’s all these interesting characters and how they’re experiencing an alien invasion. The second-half is totally different. At least, except when–especially at the end–Johnson wants to do callbacks to the first half.

The biggest and most immediate callback is Michael Wright. He’s Lawson’s thieving baby brother. But then he gets a great monologue and Johnson directs the heck out of it. So is it a problematic callback?


Wright’s fine. Singer’s fine. Jason Bernard, Cimino, Evan C. Kim, Rafael Campos. They’re all fine. Bonnie Bartlett gives the best performance, even with a small, thin role. Overall, adequate acting, lot of charm; the TV movie way.

With caveats–V is a successful TV miniseries. Johnson keeps it together for over three hours and over a hundred speaking roles.

He should’ve just done the first half. Written the women’s parts better too, but the second half is superfluous. The narrative ambition is gone. The special effects ambition is present, but distorted. Bad finish. Especially when people are reconnecting and the scenes are all weak.

Good special effects overall. Some great makeup effects. Johnson does do one great action sequence. It’s right at the beginning. Again, he had a lot more ambition at minute four versus minute 105.

V doesn’t have a good ending. Johnson doesn’t even try to find one. It’s infuriating.



Written and directed by Kenneth Johnson; director of photography, John McPherson; edited by Paul Dixon, Alan C. Marks, Robert K. Richard, and Jack W. Schoengarth; music by Joseph Harnell; production designer, Charles R. Davis; produced by Chuck Bowman; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Marc Singer (Mike Donovan), Faye Grant (Juliet Parrish), Jane Badler (Diana), Michael Durrell (Robert Maxwell), Michael Wright (Elias Taylor), David Packer (Daniel Bernstein), Leonardo Cimino (Abraham Bernstein), Evan C. Kim (Tony Wah Chong Leonetti), Jenny Sullivan (Kristine Walsh), Blair Tefkin (Robin Maxwell), Penelope Windust (Kathleen Maxwell), Richard Lawson (Dr. Ben Taylor), Peter Nelson (Brian), George Morfogen (Stanley Bernstein), Bonnie Bartlett (Lynn Bernstein), Frank Ashmore (Martin), Jason Bernard (Caleb Taylor), Rafael Campos (Sancho Gomez), Diane Cary (Harmony Moore), Robert Englund (Willie), Ron Hajak (Dennis Lowell), Joanna Kerns (Marjorie Donovan), Camila Ashland (Ruby Engels), Viveka Davis (Polly Maxwell), William Russ (Brad), Neva Patterson (Eleanor Dupres), Andrew Prine (Steven), Tommy Petersen (Josh Brooks), Jenny Neumann (Barbara), and Richard Herd (John).


A Long Time Till Dawn (1953, Richard Dunlap)

A Long Time Till Dawn is usually able to keep disbelief completely suspended. It’s a television play and Rod Serling’s teleplay is more ambitious than the budget or the constraints of the medium. Most of the sets are interiors and fine–a diner, a living room, a bedroom. They can even get away with a front porch, though it is where Dawn stretches its visible credulity the most.

The porch scenes are also a stretch due to Ted Osborne’s performance. Osborne is just a small town man. His daughter-in-law (Naomi Riordan) has suddenly come to live with him, running away from New York City, back to small town New Jersey. It just happens she leaves New York the day before her husband (James Dean) gets out of a six-month stint in prison.

Riordan’s timing never gets discussed. It’s apparently just narrative efficency, not her trying to hide from Dean. Though when Rudolf Weiss, playing Dean and Riordan’s kindly New York neighbor (a delicatessan owner), tells Dean about Riordan leaving it’s like a) she doesn’t want Dean to know where she went and b) she’s been gone a while.

Weiss tells Dean about Riordan’s departure just after copper Robert F. Simon has stopped by the diner to warn Dean not to become a repeat offender.

So of course Dean has to beat up Weiss to find out where Riordan has gone. Then he heads home to Osborne and Riordan’s dread and hope. Simon follows soon after to investigate Weiss’s assault. Because even though everyone can just drop everything and go to small town New Jersey, Dean and Riordan never did it before Dean’s small time crook phase.

From the dialogue, it seems like that phase was about a sixth of the three years Dean and Riordan spent in New York. Serling’s teleplay has very, very little logic going for it. Ditto Dunlap’s direction (the finale has Osborne talking about some character who was just onscreen but Dawn forgot to take notice).

At its best, Dunlap’s direction is utterly mediocre. More often it’s a problem. Dean’s excellent, Simon’s excellent, Weiss is excellent. Riordan is okay. Osborne is not. He gets these lengthy monologues and he clutches the melodrama heartstrings so tightly their effectiveness withers.

Up until the third act, though, it really seems like Dawn is going to make it. But it doesn’t. The third act set pieces are poorly executed–thanks to Dunlap and the budget–and Serling’s denouement, largely thanks to Osborne, is a fail.

It’s a shame. Dean’s phenomenal, even when the writing is a little weak. When it’s more than a little weak, not even he can do anything with it (not with Dunlap’s direction “aiding” him), but his performance is mostly great. Simon also makes a lot out of his part. Serling gives the characters a lot of texture–except Osborne, which is bad–and Simon takes advantage.

A Long Time Till Dawn needs a better director, a better performance in the Osborne part, and a few rewrites.

1/3Not Recommended


Directed by Richard Dunlap; written by Rod Serling; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Dean (Joe Harris), Ted Osborne (Fred Harris), Naomi Riordan (Barbie), Robert F. Simon (Lt. Case), and Rudolf Weiss (Poppa Golden).


Something for an Empty Briefcase (1953, Don Medford)

For a while, it seems like Something for an Empty Briefcase is going to have some grit. It’s set in a rough New York neighborhood, albeit constructed out of cardboard (Briefcase is a “TV play”). Lead James Dean is a recently released ex-con who’s looking for one big score to get him into a new life. So it’s strange when it turns out that big score is mugging Ohioan immigrant Susan Douglas Rubes. She’s willing to risk her well-being to pursue her ballet dreams. Dean’s just looking for a score. And a Briefcase. He really wants a briefcase.

It later turns out Dean’s a great pool hustler so there’s no reason he’d have to mug Rubes or anyone else. But S. Lee Pogostin’s teleplay is pretty weak. Dean’s got some great scenes in the first half and Rubes seems like she’s going to have some good material, but it all goes in the second half.

Instead of being about Dean and Rubes, it’s about Dean and local crime lord Robert Middleton. Dean wants out. Middleton won’t let him out. And previously mildly annoying didactic themes increase until they’re drowning out everything else. Dean’s performance suffers, though nowhere near as bad as Rubes’s.

Dean’s supposed to be a numbskull punk, Rubes is the one smart enough to make her dreams happen. But she gives him a dictionary (for his Briefcase) and it changes his life. Well, not as much as the next book he gets. No spoilers but it’s real obvious.

The writing for Dean and Rubes is uneven the first half, but not bad. Both actors do well with it, though Dean gets a little erratic at times. Director Medford follows Dean through his performance, not really directing him. Well, hopefully he’s not directing him because the histronics are way too loud. Also because Pogostin’s writing isn’t there.

Something for an Empty Briefcase is almost half good, which isn’t bad all things considered.

1/3Not Recommended


Directed by Don Medford; television play by S. Lee Pogostin; “Campbell Summer Soundstage” produced by Martin Horrell; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Dean (Joe), Susan Douglas Rubes (Noli), Don Hanmer (Mickey), Robert Middleton (Sloane), Frank Maxwell (Lou), and Peter Gumeny (The Policeman).