Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE

When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, WOR-TV Channel 9 played a movie every day throughout the 1960s under the impressive banner of something they called Million Dollar Movie. Forget the fact that most films were butchered to fit the 90-minute slot (including commercials). Forget that some of these classics were often missing the key scenes which made them classics. No, the thing that was most memorable was that Million Dollar Movie played one movie a week, Monday-Friday — twice a day! This meant that long before the VCR or streaming allowed you to watch a movie over and over again, anyone who loved Gunga Din or King Kong, could see them for a solid week, even in these bastardized forms. For a film buff, it was a piece of heaven — although “pieces” is the more apt term.

Logo for Channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie.

I loved how I could tune in at 5:14 p.m. on Thursday to the same scene I saw at 5:14 on Monday! I mean, to a seven or eight-year-old, this sort of thing was amazing. It also allowed me to memorize passages from some of my favorites, among them the 1960 Stanley Kramer film version of the hit Broadway play, Inherit the Wind, which starred Spencer Tracy and Frederic March.

In fact, Inherit the Wind, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, opened on Broadway sixty-two years ago tonight, in a production that is now considered legendary. The performances of Paul Muni and Ed Begley won Tony Awards for each of them, and in a supporting role, a young Tony Randall became a star after being singled out opposite two such heavyweights. The play’s large cast employed forty-eight actors, and would prove popular as a regional theatre mainstay for decades to come. It has also been revived on Broadway twice and shot for television three separate times, all after its finely rendered 1960 film (the one I watched ad nauseam — and to this day — never tire of viewing).

Full company of the 1955 Broadway production of Inherit the Wind.

Inherit the Wind tells the story of the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial,” which was one of most widely covered media events in all of the 20th century. John T. Scopes was a schoolteacher in Dayton, Tennessee who was arrested for teaching Charles Darwin to elementary school students. An affront to the religiously pious members of the community, Scopes was brought to trial for violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. Even though he hadn’t tired a case in thirty-six years, the prosecution sought out the most well-known politician of the day, William Jennings Bryan, thrice a candidate of the Republican party for President of the United States, to shine a spotlight on their case. In retaliation, Clarence Darrow, the most famous lawyer in America, was recruited to defend Scopes. This created the first true media circus — the whole thing broadcast throughout the nation over the radio.

The fundamentalists who to this day believe the word of God as revealed in the Bible takes precedent over “so-called” scientific facts, is one of the reasons the play remains timely. Surely this debate should have been over a hundred years ago, but rages on today with “knowledge” both elitist and a dirty word. At tomorrow’s “March for Science,” thousands of scientists and supporters are expected to converge in Washington, D.C., as well as in hundreds of cities across the U.S. That it is even necessary to march for science is a travesty — but that’s the world we live in in 2017.

Perhaps that’s why the need to produce Inherit the Wind has remained strong for over sixty years. Of course, the attraction of its leading role of Henry Drummond (a.k.a. Clarence Darrow) has led to many beyond Paul Muni and Spencer Tracy, as seen below (clockwise from top right): George C. Scott, Melvyn Douglas, Jason Robards, Christopher Plummer and Jack Lemmon.

The many faces of Henry Drummond (ne: Clarence Darrow).

I have no doubt that one day in the not-so-distant future, an elderly Leonardo DiCaprio will don a pair of suspenders and give it a go.

One of my favorite stories connected to the original Inherit the Wind, was when five months after its opening, and while still playing to sold-out houses, Paul Muni had to leave the show due to an eye ailment. They found a name actor in Melvyn Douglas, who was unafraid of following in the great man’s footsteps, as Muni was no easy act to follow. But in stepped Douglas who acquitted himself well, with no appreciable fall off at the box office. Three months later, an unsuspecting audience was waiting for the curtain to rise on Inherit the Wind one evening, when Melvyn Douglas stepped out in front of the curtain. The audience dutifully applauded him, but Douglas’s unlikely appearance made them aware some sort of announcement was forthcoming — and probably not a welcome one. Once he had their full attention, Douglas told the crowd “According to the rules of Actors Equity, an announcement must be made if an actor is to be replaced.” This was met with the customary groans, which Douglas played off superbly, topping it with, “So it is my great honor to announce that tonight … the part of Henry Drummond will be played by Paul Muni.” And with that the audience roared! Muni was well enough to return to the part he abandoned (he had actually lost his eye to cancer) and without any pre-advertising, was back in the show from that day forth. Can you imagine the performance he gave that night? Well, you have to. That’s why theatre is one-night-only whenever you take a seat.

The Fireside Theatre book collection issue of Inherit the Wind.

To close, I return once again to Million Dollar Movie, as there are many I’ve spoken to over that years who may not recall the specific films it showcased, but have never forgotten its opening credits, with sweeping views of the New York City skyline accompanied by Max Steiner’s majestical “Theme from Gone With the Wind.” Naturally, the first time I ever saw Gone With the Wind (when it was re-released in movie theatres for its 30th anniversary in 1969), I recall thinking at the age of twelve, “Hey! They stole that theme from Million Dollar Movie.”

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing:

https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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