Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Hollywood Television Theater: The Scarecrow (1972)

Network: PBS
Original Airdate: January 10th, 1972

When Percy MacKaye wrote his play The Scarecrow in 1908, he only meant for his audience to make the loosest connections to its obvious inspiration, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Feathertop. Admittedly, even MacKaye would have a hard time denying the liberal doses he borrowed from Hawthorne’s story about a witch who creates a man out of a scarecrow, sending him off to woo a wealthy, impressionable young woman. But, it is in the metaphor itself that MacKaye drew on something distinct, softening Hawthorne’s condemnation of the class system and of humanity in general.

 Hawthorne’s work was often heavily tinged in the surreal, and Feathertop is no exception, mixing supernatural mischief and morality in a way that made the story unique and still oh-so-Hawthorne in the commentary. Feathertop sought to expose people for what they were, and to recognize the irony with which they live their own life, as well as how they choose to judge others (Hawthorne uses the word “trash” to compare the makeup of the scarecrow and that of the human race). Ending the tale with Feathertop returning to its original scarecrow form, Hawthorne surmised that an inanimate object was better off in effigy than had it continued to live as a man. However, MacKaye went down a far more sentimental route, making our scarecrow (named Lord Ravensbane in human form) a sympathetic and sad character whose happiness is only derived when he dies a mortal man. The 1972 Hollywood Television Theater production of The Scarecrow upholds the poignancy of MacKaye’s tale. Although, it also highlights some of the whimsical satire Hawthorne embraced and which MacKaye slyly inserted. It is most noted in a party scene where the upper echelon are eager to welcome Lord Ravensbane’s eccentric character into their wealthy fold, but then are just as quick to disown him, even when the truth of his original form leaves him heartbroken and humiliated.

Hollywood Television Theater was a series that aired on local PBS affiliates throughout the United States from 1970-1978. It was conceived by KCET in Los Angeles and that channel capitalized on its location and accessibility to recognizable faces, casting several high profile actors to appear in their productions. Their debut adaptation of The Anderson Trial starred William Shatner, and Martin Sheen (and was directed by George C. Scott!). Other productions featured Earl Holliman (Montserrat, 1972), Joseph Bottoms (Winesburg, Ohio, 1973) and David Hedison (For the Use of the Hall, 1975). According to Adapting Nathaniel Hawthorne to the Screen: Forging New Worlds, this series sought to give audiences an alternative to the cookie cutter world of television of this era. They brought all kinds of heavy hitting playwrights to the show, including Anton Chekhov (Two By Chekov, 1972) and Arthur Miller (Incident at Vichy, 1973). The directors were often well known journeymen such as Boris Sagal, who directed this entry, but actors, like the aforementioned Scott came into the role too, and prominent performers such as Lee Grant (For the Use of the Hall), and Rip Torn (Two By Chekov) took on the heady productions.

Sagal was a Russian born filmmaker who moved from theatricals to telefilms to episodics on a regular basis. With this production, he keeps things simple, while adding shades of flair along the way. Since it wasn’t shot in front of a live audience, the director threw in a few simple effects that, along with its muted shot-on-video pallor, give the play a substantial measure of filmic surrealism that keeps the viewer a little off-kilter as the play progresses.

At this stage in the history of PBS, the network found itself under fire by certain politicians who thought too much government money went into producing television (sound familiar?). So, PBS sought out a mawkish and mainstream title, and The Scarecrow is now considered one of the lesser adaptations to come out of the series. However, it was also a sorely needed entry, balancing out the edgier fare to appease the mostly upper middle class audience’s more conservative ideologies. It’s a bit ironic that this play sometimes lampoons the types of people most associated the PBS viewership, and also most known for condemning it.

The critics at the time were mixed on their thoughts. Henry Mitchell of the Washington Post wrote, “Nothing in the play is very far developed or very carefully worked out, and the sad result was a shiny-wrapped but none too meaty TV dinner, half-baked.” Conversely, Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times quite enjoyed it, calling The Scarecrow a “stunning production” that stepped out of “academic mustiness.” However, Smith also criticized the plush production as maybe a little too expensive for what is intended to be a modest television series, thereby giving greedy politicians a decent arguing point.

Certainly some good money went into the absolutely magnificent cast, which features Blythe Danner, Will Geer, Norman Lloyd, Nina Foch, Elisha Cook, Sian Barbara Allen and an electrifying Gene Wilder as Lord Ravensbane. Wilder’s physical take on manifesting from his original scarecrow state to that of a man, and learning to grow emotionally in that capacity is spellbinding. The scene where he attempts to call out to his mother is both disturbing and sympathetic. And although Ravensbane is definitely the oddest ball in the house, it’s easy to see how the vulnerable and sensitive Rachel (Danner) could fall for his quirky charms.

Pete Duel plays Ravensbane’s nemesis Richard Talbot, the man who has already claimed beautiful Rachel’s hand. Duel is the most under-the-radar actor in the cast, and his delivery feels more tailored for television, as compared to the bigger performances. But it is exhilarating in its own way, anchoring some of the play’s more outlandish moments. There’s also a touch of relatable humanity there. Talbot is jealous but logical and thoughtful, and by the conclusion, empathetic towards his enemy, and ultimately there for him at the end. It’s an interesting yin-yang relationship that could have been explored on a deeper level.

Nevertheless, the end product is both intriguing and delightful. At times a little posh and chaotic perhaps, but also earnestly produced, and extremely well acted. It might lack the morality lesson of a Hawthorne classic, but in an era of unrest and during the Vietnam War, The Scarecrow offers audiences a chance to realize that humanity is a virtue and yes, the scarecrow doesn’t just have a brain, he also has a heart.

This blog post was inspired by an upcoming Australian film journal from Lee Gambin and his film collective CineManiacs. The first issue is dedicated to scarecrows and I wrote about Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and interviewed Jeff Burr about his direct-to-video slasher Night of the Scarecrow. Keep an eye on my social media channels for updates on the release of the journal! 


Lacey said...

Oddly enough our family television back then did not have a UHF dial and a lot of PBS stations were UHF. It was well into the 1970s that I even knew PBS existed. I first saw Electric COmpany in school.

Thank you for this piece. Is this series available anywhere?

Amanda By Night said...

Hi Lacey,

Sorry for the delayed response. Thanks for reading! Hope you are well!

Yes, Scarecrow is on DVD! :) Here's a link: https://www.amazon.com/Scarecrow-Broadway-Theatre-Archive-Nina/dp/B0000BV1YZ

Interesting what you said about PBS. I am not sure I knew that!

Lacey said...

Yes, from 1964 on into the early 70s we had a large console B&W TV that did not have a UHF dial. I never even knew about UHF stations until middle school (LOL).
Now it seems odd that any company would even sell a TV like that, but maybe its price is what attracted my father.

Lacey said...

Wow, $78 for a one disk, 100-minute program these days?
That is like Gone With the Wind on VHS.
Thanks for the link.